“Screen-Visions,” Prophecies, and My Mazatlan Weekend (3)

This is the last post of a series of three under the same title.  After this post, I am taking the summer off; but I will return to blogging sometime this fall.

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We’re not experiencing a crisis of capitalism but rather the triumph of crisis capitalism. . . . The present crisis, permanent and omni-lateral, is no longer the classic crisis, the decisive moment. On the contrary, it’s an endless end, a lasting apocalypse, an indefinite suspension, an effective postponement of actual collapse, and for that reason a permanent state of exception.

— The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends*


In what I have come to regard as the truly proper sense of the term, a “prophecy” is a telling, a speaking-forth and thereby letting-be-seen, of truth. Prophecy tells truth in a way that emphasizes what might be called the “futural” dimension of truth’s nature as sheer arrival. Truth as truth is always in arrival—which literally means “touching shore” (from Latin ad-, to or toward, and ripa, shore)—insofar as truth itself is the casting of light wherein what is shows itself.   When that light stops shining, truth stops being truth. It follows that only a literally “fore-casting” speaking of truth, one that casts truth forth, speaks truth truthfully, that is, truly accords with the always advent-al (from Latin ad-, plus venire, to come) nature of truth itself: Only prophecy truly tells the truth.

So understood, a prophecy is a sort of screen-vision, an “image” in and as which truth literally fore-casts itself. The term “screen-vision” should be taken in a sense parallel to that in which we speak of a “screen-memory,” in the sense I have discussed in this blog before—as well as in my book The Open Wound: Trauma, Identity, and Community (CreateSpace, 2013). In that sense, a screen-memory is a memory that simultaneously conceals and reveals—or more precisely reveals in its very concealing and conceals in its very revealing—thereby reflecting the very nature of the trauma of which it constitutes the “memory.” Insofar as a trauma is an event that, when it strikes, cannot be “processed” or “comprehended” by those it strikes, such an event cannot be retained in any simply representational image, as though in a snapshot. It is in that sense not available to be “remembered” at all, if remembering is taken to be no more than pulling up some sort of representation of an earlier, already comprehended or experientially processed event, its quasi-photographic reproduction in a “memory image.” What has never produced at the level of such an image in the first place cannot later be re-produced in one either.

Thus, as traumatic, an event is not an objectified externality that can simply be referenced by images or other signs that are supposed to represent it thanks to some iconic, indexical, or even just conventionally symbolic connection. In that sense, the relation of images to the traumatic is actually the same as that of “sacred languages” to the sacred, as Benedict Anderson describes that notion. “A sacred language,” as I wrote in recounting Anderson in my preceding post, the second of this series, “does not refer to some world from which it is separated off and set at a distance. Rather, a sacred language projects a world, opens a world in the first place, letting it first be as a place where people can build a dwelling for themselves.” In the same way, what we might call a traumatic image—whether in the form of a “memory,” or of a “vision”: that is, casting backward or forward respectively—would be an image that was not distanced from the traumatic event it imaged, distanced in such a way that we could speak of how closely the image “resembled” the traumatic event itself. Instead, the image would itself belong to the traumatic event as such, literally pro-jecting or retro-jecting rather than just “re-presenting” it.

So, for example, the “screen-memory” of a traumatic event itself belongs to that very event, being part of its event-ing, as we might put it. The screen-memory of a trauma is itself, we could say, one of the “after-shocks” set off by the initial shock of the trauma as such—thus belonging to the very process whereby the traumatic shock continues to “register” itself. In that way—serving in effect as what we might call “after-images” of trauma, to parallel talk of “after-shocks”—screen-memories of traumas would be images in which those traumas retrojected themselves, or made their mark backward into “memory” itself. They would thus serve as a sort of “screening” of trauma, in the sense of a sort of surface on which (more properly, “as” which) trauma could cast itself.

If taken as “representations” of “what actually happened,” such memories would indeed be “inaccurate,” often extremely so. They would therefore be “false” memories in the sense at issue in talk of “false memory syndrome” and the like: memories that, taken as subsequent, reproductive representations of a preceding event from which they stand away at a temporal distance, mis-represent something already presented at some preceding time. All treatment of traumatic screen-memories as such falsifying representations, however, is a falsifying treatment of memory itself, which is really never such a paltry thing as a mere recording device, an apparatus for taking snapshots, as it were.

In contrast to any such “snapshot” images, traumatic screen-memories stand to the trauma they remember as sacred languages stand to the sacred they bespeak. Sacred languages do not refer to the sacred but rather name it, speaking it forth. In the same way, screen-memories do not represent trauma but rather embody it, showing it forth. And since trauma as such “conceals” itself, in the sense of always in effect withdrawing itself away from what can be comprehended within experience, that self-concealment must be respected in any proper memory image of trauma. Traumatic memories must remember traumatically, as it were.

In parallel fashion, what I am calling “screen-visions” must envision traumatically. Just as screen-memories are not re-screenings of features already shown before, so are screen-visions not previews of coming attractions. Put differently, they are not predictions: saying what will be, before it has come (from Latin pre-, plus dicere, to say). Rather, they are prophecies: voicings forth of truth (from pro-, plus a derivative from Greek phanai, to speak). We might also say that screen-visions are truth-projections (from pro-, forward or forth, and Latin iacere, to throw or cast): truth casting itself concretely forth before us, in order then to cast its light back, upon what is and has been there all along—retro-jecting itself to manifest as and in screen-memories.

That double-stroke of retrojective projection, in turn, clears a space and time—e-jecting it, we might say: that is, casting it out and open. It is there, in that opening, that we have room to dwell.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I made the same mistake in Mazatlan in 1982 that I would say Günther Anders made in Japan in 1958 (see my preceding post): I confused prophecy with prediction. I interpreted what I was seeing as a vision of things yet to be, in the sense of things that had not happened yet, but would some day, after an interval (concerning the length of which I was able to form no definite conclusion). However, I eventually—but already long ago by now—came to a very different understanding, in accordance with which what I saw on the beach in Mazatlan back then was no prediction of what would someday be, but was instead a screen-vision, which is to say a truth-projection, of what is.

At any rate, whether taken to be a prediction or taken to be a prophecy, what I “saw” in Mazatlan in 1982 came to me in a sort of double vision, as it were. I saw at once two different but interrelated things. The first was what I can best express as the sheer vacuity and nullity of what passes for reality itself today at the level of surface appearances. By “surface appearances” I mean all the standard stuff–good, bad, and middling—of our modern commercial “civilization,” as epitomized by a middle-aged, relatively well-off American couple briefly escaping the dreary northern winter of Denver by flying away to spend the Valentine’s Day weekend at a touristy beach resort in a town that lives off such tourism along the warm, Gulf-coast of Mexico.   I saw the emptiness of “all that,” projected as its inevitably coming collapse.

The other thing I simultaneously saw—in effect seeing through all the glitter of the surface of the pretend reality, to what that surface disclosed in the very attempt to cover it over, seeing though to it as it were the lasting, underlying sense of the very sensory level through which I saw it—was the inexorable return and triumph of the very thing all the glitter and glitz of modern global market commerce is designed to mask and devoted to keeping away, or at least to perpetually postponing. I saw, through the irreal itself, the return of the real, as it were.

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In accord with my initial, mistaken understanding of the nature of my vision at the time, I took the “return” at issue to be something that was going to occur eventually, rather than as something already here. But as I eventually came more fully to understand it, my vision on the beach at Mazatlan was actually a sort of invitation to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, so to speak, that is, to stop sham-living in a sham reality, and instead simply to start really living now, today—just taking up residence in the reality of what I would years later, in The Open Wound, come to call “the irrelevance of power.” It was an invitation to live awake to the nullity and insignificance of the whole global commercial illusion I was seeing through: to stop granting that illusion any status, any authority over me any longer.

In one longstanding tradition, the devil himself is said to have no power except what we give him ourselves by our resistance to him. That’s one way of appreciating the Christian injunction against resisting evil. Then, too, there are vampires as they were depicted in the movies that gave me nightmares in my childhood: those vampires who come into our rooms to suck our blood, and turn us into vampires ourselves in the process, but who can come in at all only if we first let them in—which, of course, they use all their considerable wiles to tempt us to do.

Though I did not make use of the vampire metaphor at the time, what I both saw and already knew that I saw even back in 1982 when I first had my Mazatlan vision, was that our entire contemporary “civilization” is essentially vampiric in that old, Hollywood way. It sustains its own undead existence only by sucking the blood of the living, and in the process turns all the living into undead bloodsuckers too. However, the problem with bloodsucking, and in the process converting all whose blood is sucked into bloodsuckers themselves too, is that inevitably all the blood eventually gets sucked, so there’s no more blood left for the sucking, and then the whole bloody, sucking thing just collapses. On the beach during my 1982 Mazatlan weekend I saw and understood how true that was of our whole “civilization,” vampiric as it is in its very essence.

But what I basically forgot to apply back in 1982 was that other part of vampire lore I also always knew, that part about us having to let the bloodsuckers in, before they can even begin the whole business. Perhaps better put, I neglected back then to appreciate fully the application to our vampiric global system of the Christian wisdom—a wisdom, I should add, that can in fact also be found in other traditions, perhaps especially the Buddhist one—about resistance only giving power to what it tries to resist.

I thereby failed fully to appreciate that we don’t even have to wait for the devil’s reign to end, before we can come out of hiding and go about living our lives again, and living them “abundantly,” for that matter, just as Christ tells his followers he wants them to do. All we have to do is stop giving power to that old devil. If we do, then—poof! he’s gone! We then see, too, that he never really had any power of his own over us anyway, that it was all just an illusion we bought into, letting him get into us. We can just stop buying into that illusion.

When we do, we will see that the sun has been there shining brightly all along, the grass and other vegetation growing luxuriantly, and the whole world just waiting for building.

*     *     *     *     *     *

When the house in which we’ve been living since 1991 was itself being built, we had an “invisible fence” installed to keep the three dogs we had then confined to the part of the property we wanted to confine them to. To build such a “fence” it was only necessary to bury a small, insulated wire a few inches below ground, around the area we wanted to confine the dogs to. The wire was then hooked into a low-voltage source of electricity. Then some put electrode-equipped collars went around the dogs necks, so that when the dogs tried to cross over the line where the hidden wire was buried, they’d get a little jolt of electricity. They’d yelp and jump back. After a very short they were conditioned to stay properly within the area we wanted to confine them to.

Everything worked exactly as promised. Soon, we didn’t even need to make the dogs wear the special collars anymore. They just stayed put in their invisible pen.

Not long after that, however, the TV cable company came around and did its usual sort of thing. That is, it buried TV cable where it wanted, without really caring where other things might already have been buried. As a result, they cut the dog-jolting lines of our “invisible fence.” So no electricity flowed through the wire any longer. That meant, of course, that the dogs would no longer get jolted if they crossed the line enclosing the area where we wanted to keep them in bondage.

Nevertheless, the dogs never crossed that line anyway, such slaves to our will had they become. Their prior conditioning continued to bind them. Absolutely nothing was holding them in any longer, except their own ignorance of the fact that they nothing was holding them in.   They no longer saw that they had any option. Therefore, they no longer had any option, really.

The vision I had on the beach back in 1982, the vision of the grass growing back over the pathways of the Camino Real and the jungle reclaiming all the asphalted highways around Mazatlan, was not a vision of any distant future. It was a vision of a future already come—the only future there is, has been, or will be, really: the future that shows itself to have been there all along, just waiting for us to enter into it. After all, it’s really been ours all along, just waiting for us to see it, and understand that it’s ours for the entering. Only our ignorance stands in our way.

We just need to be effectively shown that we have an option, which we can then just begin exercising. We don’t even have to resist anything first.**

*Translated by Robert Hurley—Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 25.


**Here, resistance is to be understood in the ordinary way—namely, as a reaction against something that acts originally. As such reaction, resistance not only remains dependent upon what it reacts to, but even ends up being robbed of its own definitive intention, so that it actually strengthens the very power it tries to resist, as Christ was not alone in seeing. That there are other, no longer self-defeating forms of resistance, offering options to dependent reaction, is something about which I have already written in The Open Wound. I will write of the matter again on this blog in the future, probably in a post or post-series I’m currently thinking of calling “Striking Back, Standing Up, and Striking Out,” inspired by the story of the contemporary New Mexico poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, as told in his 2001 memoir A Place to Stand and the documentary film released under the same title earlier this year (2015).

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“Screen-Visions,” Prophecy, and My Mazatlan Weekend (2)

Real vision today is only possible with closed eyes; and today the only “realist” is someone who has enough “fantasy” to paint the fantastic morrow.

— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall

. . . nothing is ever past.

The actual value of memory lies in this insight that nothing is past.

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, two entries from 1971


Truth plays with us. Sometimes it trifles and toys with us as a cat might a mouse. Then its play with us becomes delusion, which comes from the Latin de-, used here as a negative intensifier, and luder, “to play.” We ordinarily understand delusion in a negative sense, as something that plays with us in such a way as to lead us astray. We think that delusion teases us, and appears to us to do so with malice. In the same way, a cat playing with a mouse capable of imagining such things as deliberation and malice might appear to that mouse to be deliberately malicious.

That appearance, however, would be an illusion, from the same root meaning “play,” plus the prefix il-, a form of in-, used here in the sense of “against.” How the cat’s play appeared to such an imagination-able imaginary mouse would be a distortion of the truth, a twisting or torturing of it. In the same way, even when truth plays with us, that is, deludes us, truth is not in truth malicious. As toying with a mouse before killing it is just in the nature of the cat, so is deluding us just in the nature of truth, when that’s how truth strikes us.

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At one point in “Cultural Roots,” the second chapter of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson observes that it was through such “sacred silent [because written, not vernacular] languages” as, to use his own examples, Latin during the European Middle Ages, Arabic in Islamic tradition, or the ideograms of classical Chinese writing, that “the great global communities of the past were imagined.” However, such set apart, non-spoken, written languages could serve as such media for imagination only because “the reality of such apparitions”—that is, of such visions of universal community—“depended on an idea largely foreign to the contemporary Western mind.” That idea, according to Anderson, was “the non-arbitrariness of the sign.” To understand just what he means by that, we need to look at the examples he then gives of “sacred” languages, which is to say languages consisting of such “non-arbitrary signs.”

His first example is “[t]he ideograms of Chinese,” which, he says, “were emanations of reality, not randomly fabricated representations of it.” In other words, they were not the results of convention, but rather of what we might well call projection—which I mean in just the sense that, for example, images in dreams work, by Freud’s analysis, as projections of repressed wishes.

“We are all familiar,” writes Anderson next, to give his second example, “with the long dispute over the appropriate language (Latin or vernacular) for the mass.” What is at issue for Anderson in that second example really only begins to clarify itself, in my judgment, when he progresses to his third one. To introduce that third example he writes—with emphasis added to highlight what is to me the truly salient point: “In the Islamic tradition, until quite recently, the Qur’an was literally untranslatable (and therefore untranslated), because Allah’s truth was accessible only through the unsubstitutable signs of written Arabic.” He then follows up with a remark that, by my reading, is the clincher. “There is no idea here,” he writes—that is, as I read him, no idea in any such “sacred language” as ideograms in Chinese tradition, Latin in Roman Catholic tradition, or Arabic in Islamic tradition—“of a world so separated from language that all languages are equidistant (and thus inter-changeable) signs for it.”  Once again I have added the emphasis in that line, to bring out what I consider to be the crucial operative notion at issue.

That is the notion of the substitutability or interchangeability—the equivalence—of all languages, insofar as languages are reduced to mere systems of signs that refer to a world from which they have all been equally separated, and hence in relation to which they are all “equidistant,” as Anderson says. That is, insofar as languages can be substituted or interchanged for one another, it is precisely because they have all been equally “separated” from the world, all placed at one and the same distance (“equidistant”) from the world—and become, in such equi-distance, equi-valent (equal in “value”) to one another. Accordingly, to the extent that all languages can be translated into one another, no one language has anything special to say, anything that cannot be said just as well in any other language. All languages become interchangeable with one another, and no language is set apart any longer as special—special as language, which opens a world, as opposed to being special in the sense of being reserved to the some elite, who have stolen it and set it aside as their special property.

*     *     *     *     *     *

A sacred language is an irreplaceable one. No other language can be substituted or interchanged for it. There are no equivalent languages, that is, other languages that could serve just as well as it for saying whatever it might be able to say. A sacred language does not refer to some world from which it is separated off and set at a distance. Rather, a sacred language projects a world, opens a world in the first place, letting it first be as a place where people can build a dwelling for themselves.

The untranslatability of one sacred language into any other is the untranslatability of worlds as such. Worlds are incommensurable with one another, and there can be no exchange or substitution of one for another, any more than one beloved person (or even guinea pig) can be exchanged or substituted for another. One may some day come to love another, after one’s beloved has died; but there is no substituting of one beloved for another. Each is unique. It’s the same with worlds, and the languages that, in speaking, open them.

When a language ceases to be capable of projecting a world, opening it for building and dwelling in—rather than just referred to as an already given world from which the language has been artificially separated and set at a distance—then the language dies.    The world the language once opened closes off. It dies, too. The world is not there at all any longer even just to be referred to, let alone lived in.

When Latin ceased to be a vernacular language and came to be reserved for the few, put to service to insure their special entitlement, sacrilege was committed against Latin as a sacred language. Even when blasphemed, what’s holy is still holy.   Otherwise, one could not blaspheme against it in the first place. Just so, even after having sacrilege committed against it by the Medieval elite, Latin remained a sacred language, which is to say a language that opened a world. Latin remained a living language even after it had been sold into bondage to the ruling elite, and no longer permitted to the people in common—permitted them so that, in speaking back in their commonplaces what they heard Latin say, they might build for themselves a common place.

Eventually, however, even the elite ceased to have access to the world of Latin. Then Latin truly did die, along with the world it once opened.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In a journal entry he includes in Hiroshima Is Everywhere (Hiroshima Ist Überall, pages 56-58), Günther Anders recounts a breakfast conversation he had one day in 1958, when he was in Japan to participate in an international conference for nuclear disarmament. The conversation was with an American professor of economics who also happened to be in Japan. After the American arrogantly dismisses Anders’s disarmament concerns as “utopian,” Anders turns the tables on his tablemate by saying that it is he, the American, who is the utopian. The economics professor has just pompously predicted that by, say, 1970 or 2000 (it is to be remembered that the conversation is taking place in 1958), the earth will still have human occupants on it, and won’t be reduced to a “dead cinder circling the sun.” Well, Anders, replies, all the odds are that that’s exactly what the earth will be reduced to by then, if nothing is done to stop the rampant nuclear proliferation and stockpiling of nuclear weapons by Cold War contestants. So the American is the one being “utopian,” says Anders, in denying what is there to be seen by anyone who has eyes to see, and the will to use them.

Of course, we who have all survived till 2015 can look back with condescension on both parties to that long-ago breakfast conversation. We can still find the American economics professor to have been an ass, but we can also look down on Anders himself, albeit with charity for his meaning well. However well-grounded Anders’s prediction may have been on the basis of the evidence available at that time, it is so clear as to hardly merit noting that subsequent history has obviously proven him to be the one who was wrong, and the ugly American right. After all, we are already 45 years past 1970, and even 15 past 2000, and, as the American predicted, the earth is indeed still not reduced to a dead cinder circling the sun. People in ever greater abundance still hop around all over its surface, apparently as ineradicable as cockroaches (to paraphrase one of Nietzsche’s lines).

Or do we just lack the eyes to see?

Anders himself falls prey, perhaps, to an all too common lapse of vision, when he takes his own concern for banning the bomb and encouraging disarmament to be founded on any such thing as a prediction—a “saying in advance,” from Latin prae-, “beforehand, prior to,” and dicere, “to say”. However, what struck me when, some four years ago, I first read the passages from his journal in which Anders recounts that now-old conversation, was that back then he was really not advancing any prediction at all, and that by taking himself to have been speaking at the level of predictions, he played unknowingly into the know-it-all American’s equally but differently unknowing hands.

Here is one way I might put the point: To take the whole issue to be one of competing predictions is to reduce it to a matter of the American being “optimistic” and Anders being “pessimistic,” and arguing about which of those two is the most “realistic.” However, what was really at issue—so it struck me strongly when I first read the passage—was not prediction at all, one way or another. Rather, it was a matter of prophecy, which the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) tells me ultimately derives from the Greek prophetes, meaning “ ‘an interpreter, spokesman,’ especially of the gods, ‘inspired preacher or teacher.’ ”

The same source also tells me that the Greek prophetes was used in the Setpuagint—the translation of Hebrew scripture done by and for Greek-speaking Jews in the 2nd to 3rd centuries BCE, then later also adopted by the early Christian church—to render the Hebrew word nabj, “soothsayer,” that is “one who speaks the truth.” That is what Anders was doing, speaking the truth, which is not at all a matter of making some sort of “prediction.” It is, rather, a matter of saying what is.

Thus, what struck me was that, though Anders himself may have thought he was speaking Latin, he was actually speaking Greek, a very different language indeed.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Latin is a language of power, whereas Greek is a language of thought. At least that is how things have gone since Latin became the (pseudo-)universal language of those who exercised power—that is, since Latin, withdrawn from common usage, was set aside for special use by the elite, as the language they used among themselves to protect their dominance, during the European Middle Ages.

Heidegger often said things to the same effect about Latin and Greek, though he arrives at that destination while walking along his own pathways, rather than the one I’ve been walking in this blog-series. That Latin is the language of power is also for me one level of resonance to be heard in Jacques Derrida’s insistence that what has commonly come to be called “globalization” is really a matter of “globalatinization,” as he puts it* (with my emphasis added).

Today, all of us—everybody everywhere around the whole globe—speaks Latin. It’s the only language any of us speaks any longer. The problem, however, is that none of us really knows any longer what we’re saying when we speak it. For the overwhelmingly vast majority of us, such knowledge was long, long ago reserved for the elite, to which so few of us ever belonged. On the other hand, the ever fewer and fewer among us who do belong to the truly privileged elite of our endless day of the going-global of the economy—the .1 or .01 of 1% (or whatever it currently is, since the number continues to dwindle drastically) who already own pretty much everything everywhere, and will continue to come into possession of more and more of it as the clock continues to tick—no longer understand Latin, either. That’s because it long ago (less long ago than when Latin was first made blasphemous, but still a long while back) ceased to be necessary for the elite to learn it, to use it among themselves in order to insure their privilege. And that, in turn, is because the only people who might ever have really questioned that privilege, long ago lost any language still left sacred enough even to be able to protest against such blasphemy.

So, today, everyone everywhere without exception speaks Latin, but nobody anywhere any longer knows what anyone is ever saying in that tongue. We all just keep on chattering away mindlessly.

No wonder Anders misunderstood himself in his long ago breakfast conversation with the American economics professor!**

*     *     *     *     *     *

What we need, then, is a new sacred language. We need it even—and above all—to name clearly just why we need it: the dimensions of the crisis at hand for us all, without exception, in the very loss of such language, and the catastrophe that threatens us all in that crisis.

At least that is one way that I would like what I said at the very beginning of this current series of blog posts on “ ‘Screen-visions,’ Prophecy, and My Mazatlan Weekend” to be taken, when I wrote: “The catastrophe may not be coming. It may already be here. The catastrophe may be that there is really no such thing as ‘the coming catastrophe.’ ”

There are other ways as well.

*     *     *    *     *     *

I will address those other ways in my next post, which I plan to be the last of this current series—and which will probably not go up for a couple of weeks, since I’ll be doing some travelling in the meantime.

* In ¶15 of “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone” (translated by Samuel Weber in Religion, edited by Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, Stanford University Press, 1998), Derrida defines the term this way, between parentheses: “. . . globalatinization (this strange alliance of Christianity, as the experience of the death of God, and tele-technoscientific capitalism) . . .”

** How appropriate on all three counts: “American,” “economics,” and “professor”!

“Screen-Visions,” Prophecy, And My Mazatlan Weekend (1)

After smoking, the body thinks. Catastrophe, riot, factories blowing up, armies in flight, flood—the ear can detect a whole apocalypse in the starry night of the human body.

— Jean Cocteau, Opium


Two possibilities remain for the age of the completion of modernity: either the violent and rash end (which looks like a catastrophe, but in its already determined triviality is too lowly to be able to be such a thing), or else the current situation of unconditional manipulation just going on endlessly decaying.

— Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII (GA 96)


What today is unjustly named “peace” is the continuation or the extension of war by other means. No, neighbors! The preparation for an event for which the expression “war” is no longer suited.

— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall


The catastrophe may not be coming. It may already be here. The catastrophe may be that there is really no such thing as “the coming catastrophe.” We may already be buried beyond hope under the catastrophe of an endless continuation of one equivalent catastrophe after another—for example, Hiroshima followed by Nagasaki, followed by Three Mile Island, followed by Chernobyl, followed by Fukushima, followed by whatever’s nuclear disaster happens to come next—ad infinitum.   That’s what Heidegger envisions, in the lines from him above, as the second of the two possibilities he mentions. And the first of those two possibilities is really not that different from the second, since an unending string of equivalent catastrophes just becomes “the new normal,” with nothing truly new under that sun, not even any truly new catastrophe. Catastrophe itself loses all its catastrophic quality. (Always, just one after another of the same old catastrophes, with no end to it! Bor-ing!)

At any rate, whether the catastrophe is still on the way, or already happened long ago and from now on just keeps on keeping on forever after, the catastrophe is, as Günther Anders suggests in his lines above, no longer one to which such terms as “war” and the like—including even the name “catastrophe”—are any longer suited. Really to succeed in saying what we are trying to say when we talk today, this never-ending day of the age of the completion of modernity, about “the catastrophe,” we would need an altogether new language, or at least a new relationship to our old one, as Heidegger used to like to say. We would need something like what Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (revised e-edition: Verso, 20006; original edition: Verso, 1983) calls a “sacred language,” which is to say a language that is no longer just another “vernacular” one, no longer just another language people somewhere actually speak to one another as they go about common transactions in their everyday lives.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Over the Valentine’s Day weekend of 1982 my wife and I left our son (our daughter’s birth was still a bit over a year away) with my parents and flew away from the cold of a Denver February, and into the warmth of Mazatlan–where we stayed at the Camino Real Hotel en la playa (“on the beach”) just to the north of the main city. One morning around 10:00 that weekend, as I was finishing my second Cerveza Pacifico (my version of doing what the Romans did when one was in Rome was to drink the local beer wherever I happened to be at the time), I had a vision–a “mystical experience,” one in which I “saw the very face of God,” as I thought and spoke of it even then, long before I had any real truck with God-talk or the like (which only happened after I stopped drinking cervezas—or Scotch, or gin, or whatever else you had handy).

I never forgot what I saw then. It was the truth.

*     *    *     *     *     *

In his discussion of “sacred languages” in Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson’s main example of a sacred language is Latin during the European Middle Ages. Latin had once been a vernacular language, a “native tongue” or “mother tongue” that children, with no need for special schooling or explicit instruction, just picked up naturally at home, as the everyday language of the nation, the “people,” into which the child was born. Such a language is a language of the hearth, not of the market place—or only of the latter insofar as when one goes out in public one continues to speak the same language that one speaks at home, which is exactly what occurs when markets and other common places for sharing with others remain local. The situation changes once markets and the like go trans-national, which is to say become polyglot places, places where a variety of regional, vernacular languages are all spoken, because trade and sharing is carried on between diverse communities, that is, “peoples” or “nations.” (I will consider what happens in such trans-national situations more fully later.)

Originally, Latin had been—to put it in Latin—just such a domestic matter, something belonging to the domus, the “household,” for those who spoke it. Only later did Latin become a res publica, a “public thing” (cosa nostra, “our thing,” to use what turns out to be an all too appropriate term from Italian, one of the vernacular languages that eventually evolved from Latin itself). By the time Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and all the other Romance languages had evolved from the Roman language of Latin, the latter had altogether ceased to be a native language, a mother tongue children just picked up naturally at home. It had ceased to be spoken everyday at home in any place in Europe (or elsewhere, for that matter), at least in the overwhelmingly vast majority of homes. Latin had instead become something that required explicit instruction to learn—a language in which one had to be literally schooled. Latin had ceased being a domestic language, and had instead become an academic one.

Latin became an academic matter, that is, a matter of explicit schooling, rather than a domestic one, just something one picked up naturally at home, because of the in-egalitarian social forms that Europe had inherited from Rome along with Latin. As long as the common people were to be kept subordinated to an elite, then Latin, as the “universal language” of the day, was also reserved to that elite, as the very language that communicated elitism the way contact with carriers communicates disease, to adapt the notion of “communication” to fit the case at hand. To protect the insecure ruling elite, Latin could not be allowed to become any mere lingua franca, which means literally “Frankish language” or “language of the Franks”—or “Bastard Spanish” as the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) tells me it was sometimes called in 17th century English sources. Whatever such lingos are called, at issue are the mixed, “pidgin” forms of speaking that common people naturally develop, with no need for schools and instruction from appointed and certified teachers held accountable for their teaching, in order to communicate with one another across all their vernacular linguistic borders.

For those denied access to the schools—or for those granted access to them as part of the ruling elite, but who, as St. Gregory says of St. Benedict in the former’s classic, brief biography of the latter, freely chose to remain “wisely uneducated,” when faced with such all too Roman things as schools—it was precisely the lingua franca or “Bastard Spanish” of their day that gave them a truly universal, which is to say trans-national, language for conducting all the common business of truly common life, that very ongoing, thronging life upon which the elites themselves constantly depended for their very own survival. In contrast, the language used in the courts, schools, tribunals, and other organs of force and enforcement for keeping the elite in power—in which institutions that language had the status of being the officially “universal” language of the day—was reserved to the elite. Throughout the European Middle Ages that officially universal language was Latin.

Such an officially universal language could be accurately characterized as “universal” only in the perfidious sense that it was the language used everywhere by the powerful to impose their power over others. Accordingly, it was anything but “universal” in the non-perfidious sense, namely, the language spoken everywhere by everyone everyday in community. In that latter sense of the term, it was not Latin that was the universal language of the European Middle Ages—at least “universal” across Europe, which is already an obvious tweaking of the notion of universality. Rather, the language that was truly universal in that non-perfidious sense was precisely the pidgin tongue that the nose-thumbing, Latin-literate, über-national, ruling elite of the age derisively referred to as “Frankish language,” or maybe “Bastard Spanish.”

As the “officially” universal language of that age, Latin was nothing that could just be picked up naturally at home, as a “national” language, a language belonging to some one “nation” in the original sense of the word, namely, a community of people indigenous to some limited area. Nor was it some simple, pidgin mix of divers national languages that one picked up naturally in one’s everyday dealings with polyglot others in trans-national markets or other places of trans-national sharing and exchange between diverse peoples from diverse regions. Instead, Latin was something the learning of which was confined to schools, which is to say institutions that were themselves among the most important elite-serving organs of force and enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the people who lived in that day could not speak, read, or write that supposedly “universal” language.  Only those who claimed and held power could speak, read, or write Latin; and the speaking, reading, and writing of Latin belonged itself to the claiming and holding of such power.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What I saw in Mazatlan in February of 1982, when I was staying there with my wife in the upscale Camino Real hotel over the Valentine’s Day weekend, was grass growing tall in the cracks between the cobblestones on the paths around the resort. I saw the Camino Real hotel in ruins, and the ruins already returning to the jungle that had come back to claim its proper place.

I looked to the rest of Mazatlan, the bulk of which lay south of the north beach area where we were staying. I saw the whole city in ruins, all vanishing back into the triumphantly, inexorably, but gently returning jungle.

To the west, away from the beach, I saw all the highways around and through the town abandoned, and already over-grown with vegetation reclaiming the land. The roads were void of traffic, and littered here and there with rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles—cars, busses, and trucks. Some rabbits hopped along the road at places.

I looked up. No contrails tracked across the sky. No planes flew there. No helicopters patrolled the beach, nor were there any motorboats pulling kites with swim-clad men and women strapped safely into them, to soar above the crowds of swimmers and sunbathers below—had there been any. But they were all gone, too. No bathers lolled in beach chairs on the sand, or swam in the warm ocean waters. Nor were there any local entrepreneurial traders walking up and down the beach, accosting the tourists, trying to sell them blankets, trinkets, or anything else they could muster up.

In sum, I saw what came after the collapse of the entire system of unending economic expansion and exploitation, and the ever-deepening impoverishment that inevitably accompanies it. I saw the return of what had been there all along, biding its time till it could return, patiently awaiting the inevitably coming catastrophe. I saw peace descended again over all the earth after that whole seemingly endless economic battle had actually ended, and I heard the silence that had come back over everything again once all the noise of our “civilization” had fallen away. And I saw all the sovereign nations everywhere drawn back into tribes, those nations before there were sovereigns.

In Mazatlan in February of 1982, I saw all that—and I saw that it was good. Void of anything I would have been willing to call “belief,” I nevertheless gave thanks to the God who had created all this.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What is sacred or holy is literally what has been set apart as special, freed from limits, which is to say made absolute, from Latin ab-, “from or away,” and solvere, “to loosen or free.” To be truly a sacred language, one holy and absolute, a language would have to be freed from all subservience, whether to everyday interests in the simple preservation or enjoyment of individual or communal life, or to the interests of a ruling elite in preserving and enjoying special privileges denied to the vast majority of people—hoi polloi, “the many” (in Greek, not Latin).

Accordingly, Latin in the European Middle Ages was no truly sacred language, however much it served the interests of the elite to have it pass as one. It was far from a language loosened from all ties that bound it, and thereby set free solely to speak, which is what a language as such does. Rather, Latin in the European Middle Ages was a language shanghaied into bondage to serve power— deprived of its own power, the power of speech, of saying what is, and made to tell lies instead. Latin in those ages was therefore the very opposite of sacred. It was sheer blasphemy. Any God of that day would have had to speak some other language than Latin—perhaps Bastard Spanish.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Shattering Silence of Peace (4)

      Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIII


A theory derived instead from Russia’s long history of communal social forms, and from an immediate experience of Russia’s land and natural history, with its sparse population and harsh environment, would foreground, not surprisingly, the struggle that pits organisms against a challenging, often brutal environment and the forms of cooperation they develop for their survival, over the gladiatorial combat of the survival of the fittest.

— Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, in reference to Peter Kropotkin’s theory of “mutual aid”


The shrieks ought to be over; but I still hear the silence of the executed.

—Elias Canetti, The Human Province, a note from 1947


When people find themselves in a harsh environment, perhaps competing with wolves and other animals over scarce resources, they come together in communities of mutual aid to meet the challenges with which surrounding nature, including all its wolves, confronts them. When men themselves—and my use here of the gendered term men is intentional, for reasons I have already indicated in my previous posts in this present series—become wolves to one another, they naturally draw apart, each suspicious and defensive toward all the others. The first vision, of human beings giving mutual aid to one another in the face of an always-threatening nature, is Kropotkin’s. The second vision, of a standing state of war between all men, is that of Hobbes.

As I put it in an early, short article of my own entitled “The Conversion of Nature and Technology,” published in 1976 (in Analecta Husserliana, Vol. V, pages 281-290), nature was once “the ambiguous dimension of the overwhelming, the inescapable, and the sustaining, all in one.” In such a time—no longer our own—nature, as I put it then,

is both that to which man [and my usage of that gendered term then was just ignorantly sexist] belongs and that which constantly jeopardizes man’s plans and even his very life. As the three-fold dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and inescapable, nature, even in its calmest moods, always maintains that tension from which, at any moment, chaos and destruction might suddenly erupt. Here, nature is the unity of that which surrounds, sustains, and yet threatens and endangers man. Nature is cosmos and chaos in one.

In all societies before the modern one, nature was such a “three-fold dimension,” which, “even in its calmest moods,” maintained exactly the sort of threatening “tension,” as I called it in that early discussion, with human communities—the very “disposition” toward “battle,” as Hobbes puts it in my opening epigraph for today’s post, that, as Hobbes saw it, defines the very “nature of war.” In such pre-modern societies, therefore, nature herself was the very place of war, and human communities were pockets of peace established and maintained, always precariously, through what Kropotkin accurately labels “mutual aid.”   In such a world, it was the time of nature that was the time of war, to speak again with Hobbes; and what he calls the “other time,” the time of “peace,” was the time, not of nature, but of human community, a peace built by the mutual aid that Kropotkin envisions.

In modern society, everything changes. War, that inner disposition toward violence or battle, toward disrupting human wishes, wants, plans, and enterprises, is taken away from nature, and put into the hands of “man himself,” as I’ve put it before in this series of posts. Whereas war had been the underlying disposition of nature toward the human being, in the face of which human beings had had to rely upon mutual aid, it now became the disposition of human beings—at least as dominated by men, that is, male human beings—toward one another.

As Hobbes saw and said with brutal clarity at the very start of modern political thought, it was precisely because of that war “of every man against every man,” as he puts it in the lines above, that men established sovereignty, that “Leviathan,” as he aptly named it. In such a condition, men were riddled with suspicion of all their fellows, who were in turn, and altogether properly, no less suspicious of them. In order to allay their radical sense of insecurity, men turned over their right to kill one another to one (or some, the numbers are not what counts) among them, to rule as sovereign over them all, and alone among them vested with the right of decision to kill. Thus arose the State. Thereafter, men no longer had to fear everybody else; they only had to fear the sovereign State, that Leviathan.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Mother bears defending their cubs from perceived threat have no interest in compromise or negotiation. As is typical of “combat in females,” as Walter J. Ong writes in the passage from Fighting for Life that I used for an epigraph to start my second post to this current series, the combativeness of a mother bear among her young “tends to be either perfunctory,” as it is when she huffs and puffs at a cub itself to set it straight when it gets out of line, “or furiously real,” aiming to kill any outsider she perceives as a genuine, non-perfunctory threat to those same cubs. Secure in her own power, the mother bear uses that power whenever necessary to protect her cubs from perceived threat. Otherwise, she rests in peace with her cubs in their nest.

By Ong’s analysis, conflict among males, who are driven by a constitutional feeling of in-security, always tends, in contrast, to become ceremonialized, creating and preserving a distance between the combatants that in fact minimizes the risk of the conflict turning lethal. It therefore is highly conducive to the very processes of avoiding the outbreak of what we call “actual hostilities” through negotiation and compromise, both of which tend themselves to become highly ceremonialized affairs. The price, however, that must be paid for such an outcome is the perpetuation of the condition of underlying, though latent, hostility between the male combatants—the perpetuation, that is, of the “known disposition” of hostility toward one another by which Hobbes defines the very notion of war (though Ong himself does not refer to Hobbes in this context).

Interestingly, in a later passage of Fighting for Life, in a chapter-section called “The New Setting”—namely, the setting of the time in which he was writing, which is still part of our own time—Ong addresses “the conflicts of the 1960s” that erupted on college campuses throughout the United States and beyond during that decade and into the next. What he has to say about those conflicts suggests to me, on that basis of the rest of Ong’s own broader analysis, that they actually involved a return from what he characterizes as predominantly masculine forms of conflict to what he characterizes as more typically feminine ones.

Ong cites six characteristics of the campus-centered conflicts of the 1960s. His remarks are interesting enough to deserve being cited in full. I have added all the emphases, to highlight special pointers to a sort of re-feminization of the conflicts at issue (the ellipses are all mine as well) :

First, the [campus] conflict of the 1960s tended to be between students and administration rather than between students and teachers: in effect, the principal arena for academic ceremonial combat had been vacated. . . .

Second, attacks on faculty members in the 1960s tended to be made because of their personal beliefs, not because of their behavior as teachers or disciplinarians: again, combat had moved from the ceremonial arena and had become an ad hominem attack, in which the attackers pursued their opponents anywhere and everywhere. (In male-with-male ceremonial combat, one male never pursues another beyond a given territorial limit; for infrahuman conspecific males, flight is normally an inhibiting mechanism for the victor—in human ludic terms, the football player who steps outside the gridiron cannot be tackled.)
Third, there was a feeling that if one argued with a teacher about the teacher’s own subject, one risked losing. . . .

Fourth, the academic world itself was often attacked not on academic grounds, but on grounds of social injustice as such: the academic arena was bypassed again.

Fifth, whereas agonistic educational methods had prepared for the subsequent extra-academic give-and-take of politics and diplomacy—here the classic example was the exquisitely agonistic British Latin public school—the new agonistic proposed in the
(by some, not by all) was revolutionary guerilla combat, a different sort of thing, perhaps highly intellectualized, but designedly lethal, not argumentative and ceremonial.

Sixth, the advancing of “nonnegotiable” demands was, superficially at least, an attack on formal negotiation, with its rules of give-and-take . . .

When what is at issue is truly worth fighting for, then fighting is not playing some game, regulated by rules of fair-play and confined to a clearly delimited playing field, and played for ceremonial prizes, honors, recognitions, and applause. It is deadly serious. However, for that very reason, fights truly worth fighting also come to definite ends. When they’re over, they’re over. All the noisy bluster, boasting, cheering, and back-slapping ceases, and silence is restored. Peace returns to the nest.

*     *     *     *     *     *

There are mutual aid societies, and then there are mutual aid societies. Sheep graze together in herds for protection, but wolves also hunt together in packs for predation. At least wolves in nature pack together. With human wolves it is different—at least with Hobbesian human wolves.

Among Hobbesian wolves, mutual aid is replaced by mutual hostility. Such non-natural, which is to say artificial, wolves no long naturally band together in packs to aid one another in the hunt, which is an active process. The “bands of brothers” that they form are instead always and only re-active, designed to protect one another from having to face up each one’s radical sense of weakness and insecurity. All the bluster and brio of such brotherly bands—of buddies all back-slapping and bad-mouthing one another in some “man cave,” for example—goes along with that reactive character, which belongs to all the artificial “packs” into which such artificial wolves enter.

So, too, does it belong to all the pacts into which they enter—“pacts” being always matters of artifice, not things that grow of themselves in nature. Above all, that same reactive character belongs to that pact of all pacts, the original pact whereby, out of terror of one another, their wolfish self-interest leads each man-wolf-man to agree to subject himself to some sovereign one of them, if only all the other man-wolves also so agree. Better to be terrified of only one sovereign man-wolf on his throne, or the equivalent, than to live in constant terror of all one’s brother man-wolves wherever they may be lurking!   So all the frightened man-wolves enter into a pact with one another to set up one of them—or three or three hundred, or maybe even just any available representative of “the people”: It’s not the number that matters, just the sovereignty—to lord it over all the rest of them, in order to buffer themselves against the fear of one another. The pattern here is still the same one of ceremonialization and distancing to which Ong calls attention. In principle, sovereignty is a purely ceremonial thing.

Any “peace” that such sovereignty may be able to establish is also no more than such a distancing, ceremonial sort of peace. It is at most the mere absence of “active” war—which is to say the breaking out above the surface of the always underlying hostile “disposition,” to use Hobbes’s term again, that sovereignty tries to bury beneath that surface: the becoming manifest of what was latent all along, defining the whole process. The peace established by sovereignty is merely the repression of the underlying reality of war.

The repressed, however, will return. Indeed, the more it is repressed the more compulsively it insists on returning. It keeps on returning, every more insistently, until and unless the resistance against it finally completely collapses, letting what has been so long repressed flood the entire system. Then everything changes at last.

After that, a different sort of peace, one which is no longer just the repression of war, may finally have a chance to settle over the ruins.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Peace between men comes with the establishment of the sovereign State, which is to say the nation, which takes from its subjects the right to make war, claiming for itself alone a monopoly over such violence. Infra-national peace, peace within the nation—which is to say inter-human peace (at least so long as the humans are men)—is thus accomplished by the self-subordination, to the nation, of those who henceforth count as that nation’s “subjects,” since they have indeed subjected themselves to the will of whoever or whatever gets counted as the the mouthpiece of the nation’s “sovereign,” “supreme,” or “ruling” power. That mouthpiece is a king or queen in a “monarchy,” for example. It is whatever is set up to count as expressive of the will of “the people” in a “democracy.” And so forth. The nation, exercising its sovereign power through its mouthpiece, thenceforth takes charge of enforcing infra-national, inter-human peace, detecting and punishing anyone whom it perceives as actually or potentially violating such peace—and thereby challenging the nation’s claim to a monopoly over acts of war.

Under such sovereignty, accordingly, war ceases to be between individual men—Hobbes’s “war of every man against every man”—and comes instead to be between nations. In contrast to the peace between men, or infra-national peace, which is imposed upon men by the nation in its sovereignty, peace between nations, or inter-national peace, can only be attained through a “balance of power” between those nations (which in the days of the “Cold War,” to give a good example, was a MAD matter, a matter of “Mutually Assured Destruction” between all the nations with nuclear capacity, should any one of them be tempted to push the button unleashing “the bomb”). Or else it must come through the establishing of some no longer national but international sovereign who can take war from the hands of the nations, just as they took it from the hands of individual men, and claim its own monopoly over war. So far, however, the nations have not been quick to ape men by ceding their individual war powers to any inter-national sovereign, whether in the form of one among them (the U.S. being the only plausibly available candidate today, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with China not yet positioned to provide a viable alternative), or in the form of some deliberative representative assembly of them all (such as the United Nations, that bug-a-boo of all right-minded nationalists today, at least in the U.S., the sole “superpower” left around today).

Both sorts of peace, infra– and inter-national, are really no more than illusions of peace. Both are built on, and can only be maintained by continuing, the repression of the underlying hostility, the “disposition” toward aggression whereby Hobbes defines the reality of war itself, whether that hostility be of each man toward every other man, or of each nation toward every other nation. Regardless of whether the peace is imposed between men or between nations, it remains just that—an imposed peace. The peace of sovereignty is always an imposed peace.

However, an imposed peace is really no peace at all. It is just the continuation of war by other means. The silence it imposes upon the clamor of war is a false silence: Those who do not speak because their mouths have been wired shut are not maintaining silence; they are merely being silenced.

The coming super-catastrophe of the collapse of global system of catastrophe-generating equivalence will shatter both sorts of illusory peace. It will shatter the silence that sovereignty has for so long imposed upon peace.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Nature may kill, but it never executes. Only men, or their equivalent, can do that. In turn, once any sort of sovereign State is established among men or their equivalent, that State is granted exclusive claim to all right to execute. Indeed, sovereignty has often enough been defined in terms of that very right—as the individual or group or institution vested with the right of decision over life and death, over who will be allowed to live, and who will be executed instead.

The peace of sovereignty is built over the graves of the executed, the shrieks of whom always soon die out, leaving only their silence. That silence, however, is deafening. It breaks to pieces that other silence, the one sovereignty imposes on those it executes—those countless ones.

Once the screaming stops, the silence of peace settles over the graves the executed. That silence alone is the shattering silence of peace itself.

Shattering Silence of Peace (3)

. . . aren’t the new dead everywhere, on all sides, in every nation? Should I harden myself against the Russians because there are Jews, against the Chinese because they are far away, against the Germans because they are possessed by the devil? Can’t I still belong to all of them, as before, and nevertheless be a Jew?

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, from a note written in 1944


Just this year of 2015 Fordham University Press brought out an English translation of a book by Jean-Luc Nancy that was first published in France three years earlier, in 2012, a book that addressed the disaster of the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant a year before that, in March 2011. The original French title of Nancy’s book was L’Equivalence des catastrophes (après Fukushima), which in the English translation by Charlotte Mandell reversed the two parts of Nancy’s title, eliminated the parentheses, and added a colon, becoming After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes.

I imagine that those changes to the book’s title were made for commercial reasons, but they seem to me to distort things. First of all, they make it look as though Nancy’s primary concern is the still recent disaster at the Fukushima power plant. In the title of the original French edition, however, not only does reference to Fukushima belong to the second part of the title, not the first, but it is also placed in parentheses to emphasize its subordination to the first part of the title—and with no colon between the two parts, a mark that is itself suggestive of an equivalence of the what precedes that with what follows after it.

The reversal of the two parts of the title in the English edition, coupled with the removal of the parentheses and the substitution of a colon, makes Fukushima occupy first place and center-stage. That may indeed sell more copies of the book, but it is likely also to add to the very confusion Nancy is struggling to dispel. For him, the Fukushima disaster is really just a lens through which he focuses his real concern in the book, which is on what’s named in the other part of his title—the first part in the French edition, but made to take second place, like an afterthought, in the English one.

After all, if the Fukushima disaster reveals something such as “the equivalence of catastrophes,” then part of what it reveals is that the disaster at Fukushima in 2011 is interchangeable with one or more other disasters. Thus, one could imagine Nancy writing the book using, perhaps, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl as his focusing example, if the “equivalence” at issue has something to do only with disasters at nuclear installations. Or he might have used just any old disaster—say the fire bombing of Dresden by Allied bombers during World War II, or the American massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war, or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE—if it doesn’t. At any rate, going by the remainder of the title (the part besides “after Fukushima,” whether that itself comes after or before the rest, in parentheses or out of them, and with or without a colon between), he could have used any disaster that does counts by his analysis as “equivalent” to the 2011 one at Fukushima.

What’s more—and more importantly—there is a rich ambiguity to Nancy’s title pertaining especially to how one takes the phrase, “the equivalence of catastrophes.” That phrase can be read in at least three different ways.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could mean, for one thing, that the catastrophes at issue are equivalent to one another, such that the disaster at Fukushima would count as “equivalent to” the earlier ones at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, for example, or to whatever other disasters are at issue.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could also be taken quite differently, however. It could be taken to mean the equivalence that catastrophes such as Fukushima themselves generate, as it were: How Fukushima and other disasters like it (so: “equivalent disasters,” in the first sense of the phrase at issue) make other things (maybe everything else) equivalent—as a nuclear disaster, for instance, reduces everything within its range to cinders, let’s say.

Finally, “the equivalence of catastrophes” could mean what might be called “catastrophic equivalence.” That is, the phrase could be read as what grammarians call a “subjective genitive,” so that it means “catastrophes’ equivalence.” By such a reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would be taken to mean the equivalence that belongs to catastrophes of the sort at issue, rather than meaning, say, “catastrophes, those equivalent things,” which would be the first reading again (just as “the house of John” could be taken to mean “John’s house,” rather than, say, “John, the house”).

Thus, by the third reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would mean an equivalence that itself generates catastrophes, by a sort of inversion of the first sense I just suggested. This third reading would point to some sort of catastrophe generating equivalence, some sort of equivalence that, as such, generates catastrophes (presumably including generating the one at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011).

In fact, Nancy is concerned with the intertwining of all three: the catastrophic equivalence that makes all catastrophes equal in destructive potential.   But it is above all toward the equivalence of catastrophes in the third sense that his analysis drives the reader—at least so did the reading of his book drive me, when I first read it just a couple of weeks ago, after it came out in English.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What history shows us of gender-based societies, that is, societies that operate “under the sign of gender,” as Ivan Illich puts it in the passage from Gender I used as the second epigraph to my immediately preceding post, are predominantly if not exclusively societies in which women are made “subordinate” to men, as Illich also puts it. That is, in the recorded human past—which is what we mean by history, in the sense that “historians” concern themselves with it—gender-based societies have institutionalized inequality between the genders, where that word gender means what Illich calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” the duality, namely, of the “feminine” and the “masculine.”

Inequality is not to be endured. It is to be eliminated.

However, to eliminate an inequality is not to erase all differences, or to pretend that there are none. Far from it! It is to acknowledge, recognize, honor, and celebrate differences. For straights to treat gays as equals, for example, is not for the former to treat the latter as just more members of some snot-slinging, belching, skirt-chasing, gun-toting band of macho brethren—incorporating gays into straight wolf packs, as it were. It is not to deny, overlook, or hide the differences between gays and straights, but rather to acknowledge and attend to them, letting them “come out of the closet.” It is, in short, to let them be, in an active sense: to say Amen! So be it! to all the differences, and not to subject any one any longer to subordination to any other.

Equivalence is interchangeability. If two things are equivalent, then they are interchangeable, which is to say freely substitutable one for the other. Each of two equivalents—for example, the quantity (20-18) and the quantity (1+1)—can be substituted for the other in any given structure to which both belong, without the substitution changing the structure as a whole.

If, for example, all guinea pigs are equivalent when it comes to being beloved pets, then if one’s beloved guinea pig—let’s call that dear one “Fluffy”—were to die, then all one would need to do is go out and buy any other guinea pig as a substitute. If Fluffy goes belly-up on you, no problem! Just go out and get yourself another Fluffy!   Just buy another guinea pig and give it that same name, and everything will once again be “copacetic,” as used to be said.

Thus, establishing equivalence between two things is allowing each to substitute for, to take the place of, the other. Right legs, however, cannot substituted for, or take the place of, left legs. Right legs and left legs are not equivalent. Modern prosthetics takes that very lack of interchangeability into account, producing prosthetic legs of both sorts, right and left, rather than just producing one product that will substitute equally well for either leg, as in the old days of peg-legs such as Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick.

In a situation already marked by institutionalized inequalities between two or more groups of people all of whom truly are equal in dignity and worth—as are men and women, or gays and straights, or Germans, Jews, Russians, and Chinese—confusing equality with equivalence can only result in a situation in which the already present in-equalities are entrenched ever more deeply and secured by ever more fully impregnable borders. The most truly impregnable of all borders, in fact, are precisely those that are no longer even visible as borders, but are simply accepted by everyone as defining the field of vision and movement—constituting the very world itself, such that it is no longer even possible so much as really to imagine anything different.   Kierkegaard said ago that the very deepest, most utterly, truly hopeless state of despair—the very etymological meaning of which is to be without hope, from Latin de-, “without,” and sperare, “to hope”—is that in which one does not even know any longer that one is in despair. When equality gets confused with equivalence, in a state where forms of subordination and dominance, the denial of equality, have already been institutionalized, then all real equality has truly been utterly despaired of. What looks like equality under such a desperate condition is really just the final closing of all borders against it.

Such equivalence is catastrophic.

*     *     *     *     *    *

Money is the general equivalent in terms of which everything can be assigned a value relative to all other things, so that interchange of those things can occur without bounds. All economies, whether cast in terms of production or consumption, are systems for the circulation of such unbounded interchange.

To be given a price, which is to say assigned a monetary value so that it can enter into such an economic system of circulation, is to be stripped of all worth. What has only a value, has no worth.* It can be replaced by anything else of equal value, with no resulting loss.

If people can be bought and sold, it is only insofar as they have been deprived of their own dignity, stripped of their own worth. Just to the extent that people are interchangeable one with another, each person is worthless. When all are without worth, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equivalent in their worthlessness, even as their value fluctuates with the market (after all, the price of slaves in the slave-market varies from slave to slave, as does the pay of the worker from worker to worker in the labor-market).

If, on the other hand, each and every single person (or, for that matter, beloved guinea pig) is irreplaceable, then each and every one has a worth that is strictly speaking incalculable: Worth is not a matter of calculation, only value is. Worth can only be esteemed, not estimated. In that sense, we could also say, correlatively, that value, which is just what can be counted and therefore estimated, is nevertheless—and precisely as being subject to estimation—in-esteem-able: Value is not a matter of esteem at all, but just of calculation. What has value has its price, but what has worth is “priceless,” as we rightly say. Thus, if each and every person has worth, which is to say each and every one of them is priceless, then none of them is any better or worse than any other, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equally priceless, available to no market (for example, though there can be a market for guinea pigs, there can be no market for Fluffys—or Janes or Jameses).

So whether it is a matter of equivalence or of equality, people are all the same. That sameness is incomparably different in the two cases, however.   Papering over that difference, making equality equivalent to equivalence, itself fosters sameness of the first sort, the sameness of equivalence. Yet it does so only at the cost of altogether undercutting sameness of the second sort, the sameness of equality.

That making equivalent of equivalence and equality is itself a catastrophic equivalence: an equivalence that engenders catastrophes.

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is in the nature of the economy, at least of the money-based modern economic system of commodity and service interchange, to go global. Exchange as such knows no limits within which it naturally confines itself. Of its nature, we might say, it has no natural limits, but rather just keeps on expanding, until and unless it runs up against some non-economic barrier it cannot overcome. Then it just collapses, since it belongs to its very nature always to expand, always just to keep the interchanges not only going but also always growing, and if it can no longer do that, it can no longer be.

Nietzsche said that life never attains any steady state. Always life is either growing, or else it is dying; it never just maintains itself at any given level. In that way, life, we could say today, is like the global market economy, which is always either growing or diminishing, and can never strike some balance point beyond which it just stays steady. The nature of life, however, is such that when life hits a limit in one of its forms, life can trans-from itself, then keep on growing in its new form—biting the head off any black snake of limits that may crawl into its mouth   The economy, however, is no living thing. It cannot transform itself. When it comes up against a limit to its continuing growth, all it can do is shatter.

In going global and then going on, the economy enmeshes all things ever more deeply with one another in and across global networks of exchange and interchange. All we need to do to confirm that is open any daily paper, online or in print, to the business section, and at a glace we can see how what happens anywhere on the globe has an impact on the worldwide economy, as expressed in global stock-market fluctuations. Accordingly, what used to be local catastrophes cease to be local at all any longer, but have globally catastrophic impact. The very boundary between local and global catastrophe gets washed out, as does the one between “natural” catastrophes and “man-made” ones—which latter boundary has always been somewhat porous anyway: for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE would not have been so catastrophic, had a bunch of Romans not chosen to live in such close-by places as Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In his reflections after the 2011 disaster at the Fukishima nuclear power station, Nancy tries to call our attention to all that.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What Jean-Luc Nancy tries to call to our attention in his book pertaining to Fukushima is really the same thing that Ivan Illich tries to call to our attention not only in Gender but also in most of his works. Both Illich and Nancy try to call to our attention how catastrophic our entire economic system” (as well as the entirety of our “politics,” which has become nothing more than the pursuit of the economy by other means, we might add), based as it is on what might well be called “the rule of equivalence” is. It has been catastrophic, that is, generative of catastrophes, from the very start, since to generate catastrophes is nothing less than the very mechanism of its growth—a growth that could belong to no living thing, but only to something man-made.

However, in this age of the equivalence of all things, including men and women, an age in which the typically masculine fear of fear itself at last comes out permanently on top, such calls upon our attention really accomplish no purpose. They are as useless as my daughter’s now long-dead childhood pet guinea pig, Fluffly. So far as it comes to effecting significant changes in the global system, such calls cannot but fall on deaf ears.

They do nothing but break the peace, shattering the silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Still more to come, in my next post.

* That’s how I will here use the terms value and worth, at any rate: to mark the difference at issue. Others may prefer other ways of marking that difference. In the end, how we choose to mark the difference at issue makes no difference, just so long as the difference itself gets clearly marked, and remembered—the difference between what I’m here calling value and what I’m here calling worth.

Shattering Silence of Peace (2)

The basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones, is matched by their phylogenetic insecurity. Males are expendable for the good of the species. Intraspecific male-with-male combat, however furious, is normally ceremonial rather than lethal and often effects territorial distancing. This distancing reduces intense individual interaction, thereby among human beings giving more play to the “objective” elements in conscious attention. The corresponding relatively nonceremonial character of combat in females tends to be either perfunctory or furiously real. Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio. Males feel a defensive need to advertise the female as the “weaker sex,” which basically means weaker in ceremonial combat and all that it entails, for in other arenas the female is probably the stronger. . .

— Walter J. Ong, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness


While under the sign of gender women might be subordinate, under any economic regime they are only the second sex. They are forever handicapped in games where you play for genderless stakes and either win or lose. Here, both genders are stripped and, neutered, the man ends up on top.

— Ivan Illich, Gender

Like the male ego and the capitalist economy, the modern state is founded on fear. All three are founded on the same fear, one fear in particular. In a famous line from a speech he gave in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state, that is more than enough. It is specifically that fear—the very fear of fear itself—that founds all three.

To say the same thing differently, and to carry it one step further, the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state are all three founded on the denial and repression of fear itself, specifically on the denial and repression of that fear that is literally root-fear itself, the very root of fear as such: the fear of death. The modern state, the capitalist economy, and the male ego are all three alike founded on the denial and repression of the fear of death.

*     *     *     *     *     *

“From death, from the fear of death, arises all knowledge of the All.”

That is the opening line of Franz Rosenzweig’s introduction to the first part of his great work, The Star of Redemption, first published in German in 1921. What he means by “knowledge of the all” (Erkennen des All) is the presumption to be able to know it, the claim that it is possible to have such knowledge, as the title he gives his introduction makes clear: “Über die Möglichkeit, das All zu erkennen,” “On the Possibility of Knowing the All.”

In a class once, one of my philosophy professors in graduate school defined philosophy itself as “the attempt to give a rational account of all things.” Even back then, that was not what I meant by that word, though I certainly acknowledged then, and still do, that such a definition captures well enough the sense of the term insofar as philosophy takes itself to be what gives birth to what we call “science,” which in the whole is just such an attempt, one “to give a rational account of all things.”

That is also the sense Rosenzweig gives the word in The Star of Redemption—“philosophy” in a sense that he contests in that work. That is philosophy insofar as it “takes it upon itself to throw off the anxiety of earthly existence, to take away from death its poison sting, from Hades its pestilential breath,” as he puts it in the third sentence of the book.

It is nothing but a delusion that such knowledge of the all is even possible, and a dream born of that delusion that through such knowledge “man” might eventually be able to establish “dominion and control” over nature, as Descartes states to be the aim of the “method” he recommends be adopted in his Discourse thereon. That is, to return to Rosenzweig’s terms, it is delusional to think that earthly life can ever be made impervious to anxiety, death deprived of its sting, or hell of it stench.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In my immediately preceding post, the first in this present series under the general title, “Shattering Silence of Peace,” I addressed the process of transition that Walter J. Ong, following Roger Callois, traces in The Presence of the Word: the transition from a society in which war is taken as the rule and peace as the exception, to one in which peace is taken as the rule and war as the exception. As I also already suggested in my preceding post, that process could well be called one of general “de-polemicization.”

What above all gets “de-polemicized” in the process at question is nature—understood as Aristotle understood physis, from which we get our English word “physics,” in opposition to techne, whence come such English words as “technique,” “technical,” and “technology.” War (Greek polemos) gets removed from nature as Aristotle defined that latter notion, namely, as that from which comes whatever emerges of itself and serves no purpose—whatever is an “end in itself,” to use a traditional but distorting way of putting it. War is torn out of nature so conceived and delivered over instead into the domain of the technical, in the broad sense of that which must be made, to serve a purpose.

When peace gets thus cast as the underlying rule and war as the interruptive exception, nature herself ceases to be defined by war any longer. Instead, nature comes to be cast as the place of a sort of original peace. In turn war, removed from nature, becomes itself something essentially “man-made.” War becomes something men wage against one another, instead of belonging to the very nature of nature herself.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Combining what Ong writes in The Presence of the Word with what he writes more than a decade later in Fighting for Life, from which my first epigraph for today’s post is taken, discloses that the process of de-polemicizing nature intersects with another process, that of the de-ceremonializing of war and combat—that is, the de-ceremonializing of the polemical as such. Thus, at the same time war undergoes a process whereby it ceases to belong to nature (physis) and instead becomes something artificial (a matter of techne), war also undergoes a process whereby it becomes less and less ceremonial.

Perhaps that intersection of the two processes of the de-polemicization of nature, on the one hand, and the de-cermonialization of war, on the other, can be at least partially accounted for in terms of what Ong sketches out in my epigraph passage about the thoroughly hostile character of the maternal womb for males of the species—about “[t]he basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones.” Talk of nature herself as a “womb”—as in “the womb of nature”—is an old commonplace.

Perhaps, then, the very ascription of polemos to nature in the first place derives from the predominately male experience of the natural, maternal womb. It would then be expressive not of anything itself “natural” to all premodern societies, but only to so called “patriarchal” ones. To the both ontogenetically and phylogenetically indispensable female of the species, the natural, maternal womb is not such an utterly anxiety-provoking place as it is to the ontogenetically and phylogenetically expendable male. (No wonder we men would want to develop the technology for making “test-tube babies”! We can control a test-tube womb!)

Precisely in becoming something man-made, rather than something belonging to nature herself (the pronoun is telling here, and I have been trying to be consistent in using it: “nature herself”), war ceases to be something against which man must be so driven to build a shelter for himself, a buffer against the hostile environment of nature, that womb. But such shelter and buffering is just what the ceremonialization of the polemical so typical of male combat provides for the genetically insecure male psyche, the psyche that so desperately feels itself in need of them. As Ong describes in such passages of Fighting for Life as the one I’ve used in my epigraph, the “ceremonial” nature of “infraspecific male to male combat”—which is to say man-made “polemics,” or “warfare” in the broadest sense— has precisely the effect of “distancing” the combatants to provide such accommodations.

*     *     *     *     *

As Ong remarks a bit later in the same passage, “Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio.” “Braggadocio,” it bears noting, is a way of posturing, of puffing oneself up like a cat upset by an intruder on its territory. It is only when fluffing up no longer works to keep the intruder at a distance that the catfight begins. In contrast to feline fur-fluffing, however, bragging is a distinctively linguistic activity. Thus, it is only when the boastful words stop flying that the fists start to do so—or the swords to start cutting, the guns to start shooting, the bombs to start dropping, or the like.

Thus, the ceremonialization of warfare guards against the very lethality of war between men. However, if in the very process of what we might well call being “de-natured”— that is, taken out of nature and turned over into men’s hands—war is also de-ceremonialized, then war is loosed from all the restrains with which either artificial ceremonies for distancing and posturing, or natural tendencies for keeping combat perfunctory and brief, guard against war automatically escalating into something lethal whenever it occurs. In being loosed from its ceremonial constraints, having already been loosed from any natural restraints, war is thus freed from all bounds. It is set free to become boundless.

All wars now threaten to become total war. At least in terms of their potential lethality, an equivalence of wars is established.

*     *     *     *     *    *

The process of taking polemos out of the womb of nature and putting it into the hands of man pacifies both nature and the feminine, turning the maternal womb from the scariest of all places for men into something they can handle—indeed, into something that now “nurtures” them, rather than subjecting them to wave after wave of lethal assault. As part of that, women in a man’s world get treated as delicate, requiring masculine “protection” in exchange for all their nurturing: Women become “the weaker sex,” as Ong notes.

Pushed to its limit, this pacification—what we might well call the literal dis-em-powerment—of nature and the feminine as such eventually results in just the sort of situation Ivan Illich describes in my second epigraph for today’s post. That is a situation in which the liberation of women from domination by men comes to present itself as though such liberation were a mater of establishing an equivalence between men and women, but in which that equivalence itself is defined in exclusively masculine terms that, however, can no longer even be acknowledged as such. What is characteristically masculine—in all its from-the-womb anxiety-ridden insecurity—comes to be universalized, which is to say counted as universally true for all human beings without exception. In that sense the masculine gets “neutered,” as Illich puts it. That is, what is really essentially masculine is no longer given as just one side of what Illich, as I’ve discussed in my earlier series of posts on “The Traumatic Word, calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” but is instead counted as the unquestioned, exclusively definitive ideal for all, to such a degree that it is no longer even visible as only one side of an irreducible duality.

Thus, equivalence between men and women is projected solely in terms that actually only ensconce the now “neutered” man in a position of dominance that can no longer even be acknowledged, since the very words of acknowledgement have been repressed beyond recall.   In every position that might be adopted after that, “the man ends up on top,” as Illich indecorously but accurately puts it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

We might put Illich’s general point this way: Establishing equivalence is anything but establishing genuine equality, since the very measure of equivalence is determined by only one side of an asymmetrically complementary duality.

Equivalence turns out to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution—to use a current commonplace of which I’m fond. Indeed, equivalence turns out to be a hardening of the problem itself, what we might well call a petrifaction of the problem, a literal turning of it into stone. Equivalence thus provides a rock-hard organ to penetrate all resistance and guarantee perpetual dominance. Now the man can always stay on top.

(Finally! A safe place at last for all of us who are so constitutionally insecure!)

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued again.

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 10:29 pm  Comments (2)  
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Shattering Silence of Peace (1)


Any student of earlier periods of Western culture from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance soon becomes aware that he is dealing with cultures in which overt personal hostilities are exhibited and even flaunted far more than in the ordinary technological style of existence. It may sound quaint to say this in a society so unfortunately given to wars as our technological society still is, but, despite the potential for mass destruction in an atomic age, the evidence is overpowering that earlier man commonly accepted hostility as part of the manifest fabric of life to a degree beyond that typical of technological man.

— Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word

Shortly after making the remarks above from The Presence of the Word (page 195), Walter J. Ong cites French scholar Roger Caillois’ L’Homme et le sacré—first published in French in 1930 eventually in English in 1959 as Man and the Sacred (translated by Meyer Barash, Glencoe: Free Press). As Ong recounts it, with obvious agreement, in that book Callois contrasts what both authors continue to call “primitive” society (even though they use that term to include even such highly advanced examples of society as classical Greece) with modern society. Callois contrasts the two in terms of how each stands with regard to war and peace.

In “primitive” society, as Ong recounts Callois, “war commonly (though of course not in every instance) constitutes ‘a permanent state that forms the fabric of basic existence.’” That is, in such society war is the underlying given and basic human condition, as it were. Thus, in such society:

even festivals are often defined by their relationship to war. They are allied to war in that both ‘inaugurate a period of vigorous socialization and share instruments, resources, and powers in common.’ The festival, however, interrupts the normal now of hostilities, temporarily reconciles the worst enemies, causing them to fraternize, but ‘in the same effervescence’ characterizing the state of war, as when the Olympic Games suspended Greek quarrels.

In contrast, modern society “takes peace to be the permanent or normally expected state, at least psychologically.”   Accordingly, in modern society it is no longer “festival” that interrupts and temporarily stops the regular flow and order of things (namely, “war”). Rather, it is now war that interrupts and temporarily stops that regular flow and order (namely, “peace”). Ong gives a definitive example: “The football game is not the interruption that the Olympic Games were; it is rather more of the regular cloth of life.”

As I observed before in a recent post (namely, the second of five on “The Traumatic Word), our word polemical derives from the Greek polemos, which means “war” or “strife.” Following Ong’s own analysis in more than one book, the process at work in what he and Callois describe as the transition from “primitive” to modern society is one we might accordingly call “the de-polemicizing of public life.” Both Callois and Ong seem to regard that transition from war itself being taken as the rule, to it being taken to be an exception to the rule, as a generally positive development. They seem to regard that change as something to be applauded overall, despite reservations about some of its particulars—such as the unfortunate temptation of us hyper-technologized moderns to “nuke” one another on occasion.

However, Ong’s himself immediately suggests at least one downside to the shift from war to festival as the “regular cloth of life”: In effect, with the shift from war to peace as the basic inter-human condition, festival looses much of its festivity.   Precisely because “modern man, even when he wars, does not regard war as being necessarily of the fabric of basic existence,” Ong writes in the very next sentence after the one about such things as modern football games becoming part of the fabric of everyday life, “[m]odern man’s festivals are less urgent than primitive man’s.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

What’s urgent carries weight, pressing upon us, impelling us, urging us on: Urge comes from Latin urgere, “to press hard, push forward, drive, stimulate.” The less urgent something becomes, the less it moves us, affects us, matters to us. Most modern “holidays” have lost anything holy about them—anything special, set apart, erupting into the everyday, “interrupting” it, as Ong says. For most of us most of the time today, a holiday is simply another day off, a sort of extra weekend-day. We are glad to have days off, of course, but they have no great “urgency” of their own. A holiday is finally “just another day,” no different in kind from any other. Nothing special.

For that very reason, we often find ourselves “at loose ends” on holidays or other days off work. We “don’t know what to do with ourselves.” So we do whatever we can just to fill all the dead time, from eating compulsively, to shopping, to Facebooking, to doing drugs, to addictively watching sports on TV.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Thus, too, do we keep the whole economic system going. Or, rather, so does that system keep itself going—and ever growing—by generating ever more need for the production of ever more products by simultaneously producing ever more consumers to consume them.

The Pax Romanum, the peace that reigned within the boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire, was purchased at the price of recurrent wars at those boundaries themselves, against all the “barbarians” who surrounded that Empire across those boundaries, which accordingly had to be tightly maintained and defended. Today, the peace that reigns within the borders of what Michael Hardt and Paulo Negri label “Empire”—that is, within the context of the global economic market system—may look quite different at first glance. However, a second, slightly more penetrating glance reveals that it, too, is purchased at the price of wars conducted at its own boundaries. It is just that those boundaries have, in effect, gone global along with the Empire they delimit.

As that Empire has globalized itself, it has not freed itself from all bounds, so much as it has driven those bounds inward, as it were. It has traced and trenched them into the very hearts of all its global “subjects,” which is to say all us good little obedient consumers, who have meanwhile been enticed to become thoroughly “cosmopolitan” in our tastes. That is, we have come to be equally at home anywhere, regardless of whether the MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, or Pizza Hut we go to is in Alabama or Zimbabwe, Tulsa or Timbuktu.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In my same earlier post referred to above, where I briefly discussed the meaning of our word polemical, I also cited Ong’s remark about what might well be called the underlying pacific—the “peaceful” or “peace-fostering”—tendency of the word as word, which is to say as spoken, sounding. The word as such, Ong says (as I cited from page 192 of The Presence of the Word), “moves toward peace,” no matter how polemical the given word may be, “because it mediates between person and person.”

The words we speak one to another, even said in the heat of anger and confrontation, even in the exchange or curses and obscenities delivered under the breath or at the top of one’s lungs, “mediate” between us. They manifest and build relationship between us, regardless of the specific nature of the given relationship, be it one of friendliness and love, or one of hostility and hatred (the word “mediating” between those opposites as well.)

As already cited in my earlier post, Ong goes on to remark (on page 193) that it is when “speech is simply broken off” altogether that “assaults” begin, or that people at least “cut” each other by just passing one another by “in total silence,” or else take one another “to court.” In fact, to add to Ong’s insight, even the latter two cases—ignoring and court-ing, to put it punningly—continue to move within linguistic space broadly conceived: Both involve displaying themselves as gestures, which is what all words finally remain, as Merleau-Ponty for one reminds us. Thus, for example, to “cut” someone is not the same as being indifferent toward them. Rather, it is to make a show of one’s refusal to address them, to let one’s taciturnity toward them itself “speak volumes,” as we say.

Taking someone to court also continues to testify to maintaining an underlying relationship with that person. That is attested by what Ong himself adds immediately after mentioning that third option: “Or one goes to court, where, significantly, the parties do not speak directly to each other but only to the judge, whose decision, if accepted as just by both parties, at least in theory and intent brings them to resume normal conversation with each other once more.” Thus, when we take one another to court, the speaking does not cease. It just shifts from addressing one another directly to addressing one another indirectly through a third, who serves as an institutionally sanctioned “mediator” to do our word-work for us. Instead of mediating with one another directly, we now do it indirectly through that officially designated mediator, whose job it is to mediate our mediation—and that, in turn, with the final goal of reestablishing direct mediation (that is, communication) between us. Thus, it is not at all by chance that courts issue “judgments” and pass “sentences,” both irrefragably linguistic operations.

In short, even “cutting” one another and “going to court” over disputes continue to be ways of relating to one another. They are just continuations of relationships “by other means”—other than the usual ones of face-to-face address, even if that address is carried on in a screaming exchange of obscenities and curses.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Von Clausewitz said the same thing, of course, about war in relation to politics. War, he said in the first chapter of On War, was nothing but “the continuation of politics by other means.” That very remark attests to the underlying transition that Ong and Callois call to our attention, the transition from a world in which war is taken as the given and basic condition, which peace “interrupts,” to one in which it is peace that is given and basic, and in which war accordingly becomes the interruption. Or as we might also put it, the transition is from a world in which war is taken as the “rule,” and peace as the “exception” to that rule, to one in which the reverse is the case, with peace being the rule and war the exception.

Where war is the rule and peace the exception, peace is no common thing, as the very notion of exception entails. It takes a lot of work to carve out a place of peace within the pervasive wilderness of war. The latter is the natural condition, whereas the former, the place of peace, can only be artificial, in the original sense of that word: Places of peace do not just spring up of themselves, but must be made. They are the products of “art,” not the produce of “nature,” to use an old distinction that goes back to the ancient Greeks. And once built, such places must be diligently maintained, lest they be reclaimed by that nature that always stands ready to overgrow them again.

What above all clears a space for, and then builds, such pockets of peace is the word. It is speech, the grand peace-maker that Ong describes.

*     *     *     *    *     *

Such a place of peace was just what the ancient Greeks called the polis, the “city,” wherein it was not by chance that discourse flowered. The “political” was, accordingly, that which pertained to the construction and maintenance of such an artificial, high-maintenance, talkative place. The political was what pertained to the polis—that safe place built as a shelter against the pervasively surrounding “war” or “strife,” the polemos, that was nature and the natural.

In such a world, to say that “politics” was just a continuation of “war” would thus have made no sense at all. It is only in a very different world, one where war gets made by men rather than gods, taken out of nature’s hands and made a product of human ones (at least male human hands: a point to which I will eventually return), that such a remark could even occur to someone as something to be said.

Rome and its Empire lie between those two worlds—or perhaps beyond the boundaries of both.

*     *     *     *     *     *

At any rate, in the transition to a world in which peace rather than war is given as the basic human condition, it is not only festival that is divested of much of its urgency. So, in its own way, is war itself, at least in the sense of polemos. As festival becomes less festive so does polemos become less polemical. “War” become less warlike.   It becomes itself a sort of game.

It is thus by no accident that we have come to call the training that prepares armies to do their own thing to other armies “war-games,” and at the same time use the language of war when describing such activities as football, with its “defenses” and “offenses,” “tactics” and “strategies,” “campaigns” and “battles.”

Nor is it at all merely by chance that today in both war and football (which is sort of like saying “animals and dogs”) winning, as Vince Lombardi famously said, is not “everything,” because it is the only thing. To borrow in turn from Malcolm X: Finally, all subterfuge aside, the goal of playing a game, whether it be a war-game or a football game or some other game altogether, such as “the game of life,” is simply and solely to win, “by any means necessary.” Nothing else counts.

At the same time, as the border between wars and games gets erased, both also become more and more the specialty of a few, rather than part of the fabric of the daily life of all. For most people, both battling and celebrating pass from being matters in which they participate directly, to being something they only experience vicariously, through those who come to serve in effect as their representatives at publicly sanctioned wars and festivals. The majority of us become spectators rooting for the special few of us who are delegated to do the actual struggling, whether that be on the battlefield or on the gridiron, and then celebrating victory or agonizing over defeat.   All the rest is just the same old same old. As Ong writes toward the end of the fourth chapter of Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981), published more than a decade after The Presence of the Word: “While the teams slug it out, the spectator sips beer.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Published in: on March 29, 2015 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Traumatic Word (5)

Though for the word’s own sake I could still say much more, this is the final post of my series on “The Traumatic Word.”

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It is human to see the world made up of three kinds of things: food, proscribed edibles, and non-food. For a Hindu pork is taboo, not so begonias. These he has never thought of eating. By eating pork, he loses caste. If, however, he joins an Indio from central Mexico eating begonia flowers not he, but the world around him has changed. Begonias have moved from non-food to food.

Issues as well can be thus divided. Some are considered legitimate. Others not to be raised in polite society. A third kind seems to make no sense at all. If you raise these, you risk being thought impossibly vain.


So far, every single attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular value has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernization of poverty.

— Ivan Illich


Both of the citations above are taken from Ivan Illich’s 1981 book Shadow Work—from which I already cited two lines in a note appended to my previous post, the fourth of this series of five on “The Traumatic Word.” With regard to what he says in the first of the two citations above, about there being some issues the very raising of which runs risks of being thought to be as impossibly vain as a begonia-eater, Illich offers as an example the issue he risks raising in Shadow Work itself. That is the issue of the distinction between what he therein calls “the vernacular domain,” on the one hand, and “the shadow economy,” on the other (the emphasis is Illich’s own in both cases).

Being far less of a risk-taker than Illich himself, I will not risk discussing both sides of that risky conceptual disjunction. I will leave it up to interested readers to read Illich’s book itself for enlightenment (or befuddlement, if Illich loses his wager with those readers) about what he means by “the shadow economy.” For my own risk-averse purposes in this post, I will simply focus on the first disjunct, the notion of “the vernacular domain.” In fact, to minimize my risk even further, I’ll confine my attention to what is named in just the first two words of that three-word phrase—“the vernacular.”

With regard to the vernacular, I will risk saying this: the vernacular is the parochial.

In saying that, just as it stands, I am not risking much. That’s because, just as it stands, it will sound bland and innocuous to most modern ears. Of course the vernacular is the parochial, those who hear with such ears might well remark. After all, both refer to what’s local, informal, and more or less uneducated or “backwoods”-ish—as when we speak of “parochial concerns” and of putting something “in the vernacular,” for example. Such ways of speaking and putting things contain within themselves what amounts (to use the vernacular) to “putting them down,” reducing them to the sorts of concerns and ways of speaking characteristics of “hicks,” more or less (of the mindless masses of “the great unwashed,” to use the educated way of saying it that, as I mentioned in my preceding post, one of my old DU colleagues used to like to use).   That is, having concerns that count as “parochial,” or a tendency toward putting things “in the vernacular,” is just not the sort of thing one wants to do if one is concerned to preserve one’s status as an educated, well-schooled person who would resort to the vernacular only by putting what one says within quotation marks, as I’ve been trying to be careful to do so far. To the well-trained, well-schooled understanding, both the vernacular and the parochial always carry a whiff of vulgarity with them—vulgar being a word derived eventually from Latin vulgus, meaning “the common people,” where that phrase in turn is already pressed into service to put down such people, reducing them to the status of “the multitude,” that is, “the crowd” or “the throng,” the mere and sheer human “swarm” of “the great unwashed.”

At least part of what Illich is trying to call to our attention in his own usage of vernacular is how uppity we are in our dismissal, as always being somewhat vulgar, of everything local, home-grown, and genuinely “convivial,” to use another word he likes to risk using in unusual ways, at least by today’s hoity-toity, “grammatically correct” standards. As I already noted in my immediately preceding post, the word vernacular derives from the Latin vernaculus, which means “domestic, native, indigenous.” What I left out in my preceding post what that vernaculus itself derives from verna, a Latin word of Etruscan origin that meant a “home-borne slave.” By my reading of him, Illich is in effect running the risk of trying to liberate the vernacular itself from its slavery, thereby restoring to it the full, fully ambiguous freedom that is the birth-right of all words as words, whose worth as such is taken violently away whenever they are pressed into service as mere signs or symbols (in the sense of those two words that Walter J. Ong, for one, helps us hear).

Since Illich has already run all the big risks of such a liberation of words with vernacular, I am free to run the much smaller risk of trying to do some of the same for parochial, a word the origins of which are not already tainted by such hierarchies of master and slave as are the origins of the word vernacular.

Parochial derives eventually from Latin parachoia, which means “of or pertaining to a parish.” In turn parachoia derives from the Greek paroikos. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) that last word was used by early Christian writers to mean “a sojourner”—after its classical Greek usage to mean “neighbor,” from para, “near, beside,” and oikos, “house.” Insofar as those origins can be heard back into what parochial says, the parochial is that which belongs to home, the place where we dwell, where we are “at home”—the same “home-grown” stuff, in short, as makes up the vernacular, at least in Illich’s liberation of that word from its bondage.   The parochial, the vernacular, is what is of or pertains to where we do indeed sojourn, from Latin sub-, “under, until,” plus diunare, “to last long,” from diurnum, “day.” Where we sojourn is literally where we “spend our day,” day after day throughout our human life from birth to death—“we” being all of us common people, in all the glorious, irremediably vernacular vulgarity of our utter parochialism, our great unwashed-ness.

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I claim no special expertise on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and most especially none on the proper scholarly interpretation of his poetry. However, one of his poems once delivered an especially resonant word to me—a word pertaining to trauma. That was during my own traumatic summer vacation of 1987, about which I have written on this blog before, without at that time discussing the contribution my reading of that one of Hopkins’ poems made to my experience then, back when I first read it in 1987. When I recently read Ong’s book on Hopkins, including Hopkins’ own letter to his friend Bridges about the word sake, I was reminded of that contribution.

Hopkins’ remarks in the letter On cites struck me as no surprise when I read them for the first time in my recent reading of Ong’s book, because they struck me as already familiar to me from my much earlier reading of the poem at issue. In the light of Hopkins’ letter I was able to see—or, more accurately put, perhaps, in the resonance of that letter I was able to hear—how that poem, as I first received it years ago, during my summer of 1987, really said the same thing already, at least to me, in a poetic rather than a prosaic way. Here is Hopkins’ poem, #34 in the standard numbering:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.


I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


When I first encountered that poem, during my summer vacation of 1987—when I underwent, in full public display (at least in a rather parochial sense of “public”), a traumatic reliving of a much earlier trauma from my childhood—I heard Hopkins’ two stanzas as constituting what Ivan Illich in Gender calls
a duality, characterized by the asymmetric complementarity of that duality’s own constitutive duo. That duality emerged, and was marked by, my hearing, at the start of Hopkins’ second stanza something that remained unsaid, but nevertheless determinative for my entire understanding of everything said in the poem as a whole, in both its stanzas taken together.

The unsaid I heard then, during my traumatic summer vacation—which was most especially traumatically healing, I will add, with regard to a much earlier trauma from my childhood—of 1987, when I first heard Hopkins’s poem, was but a single word. In fact, it was but that very word: “But.” Though it is not there in what Hopkins actually says, not written there in letters beside all the ones he did write in that poem, I heard (and still do) the second stanza sound a silent “but” at its very beginning, to set the tone not only of what was to follow as that second stanza itself, but also of what lay there already to be found in the first.

According to the first stanza of the poem, “each mortal thing” keeps on redundantly saying over and over again the same old thing. That same old thing is nothing but itself. Each thing says the same thing all the time: “Myself it speaks and spells/Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”

However, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza, does not just say that same, does not just “fling out broad its name,” crying out always only “Myself.” Rather, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza remains utterly anonymous, which is to say name-less. That nameless speaker does not cry out itself, and beyond that shut up, saying nothing else. Rather, that anonymous “I” says “more”—which Hopkins himself already doubly emphasizes by placing the diacritical mark over that word in the already wholly italicized stanza: “I say móre . . .”

The “I” who speaks the second stanza says “more” than what “each mortal thing” says, according to the first stanza. That is what I heard in hearing a silent “But” sounding to open, and thereby thoroughly to tune, the whole second stanza–and, with it, to attune the reader’s ears for properly hearing what the whole poem gave voice to.

What it gave voice to, when I first heard it during my own doubly traumatic summer vacation of 1987—“doubly traumatic,” because it was an itself-traumatic, asymmetrically complementary reliving of an earlier trauma—was itself dual, precisely in Illich’s sense of that. What I heard was the duality, in short, on the one hand of entrapment in hell—the pure hell of total self-absorption, in which the self, has become so wrapped up and entangled in asserting itself that it has lost itself entirely—and on the other hand of liberation from that entrapment—the very “harrowing of Hell” by Christ himself between his death on the cross and his resurrection on the first Easter Sunday, according to Christian tradition, which was of course the tradition to which Hopkins himself so crucially belonged.

According to another tradition, that of Mahayana Buddhism, samsara and nirvana are said to be “the same.” Well, in the same sense of “the same,” hell and the liberation from hell—which is to say hell and heaven—as Hopkins’ poem 34 long ago now gave me at least to hear, are “the same.” That is, coming to be liberated from hell is not like being taken from one location and transported, by magic or airplane or any other means, to some other, new, different location. It is, rather, being freed from the bondage of self, wherein the self loses itself entirely in the entanglements of claiming its own, into genuinely being oneself, which one can only be in what Ong—glossing Hopkins’ remarks about the sake of such expressions as “for one’s own sake,” in Hopkins’ letter to his friend Bridges—well names one’s “outreach to others.” Only when liberated from the bondage of having always only to be myself alone, am I given to know that I have all along been no one other than myself—but always already and only myself among others.

That’s what I heard when I first heard Hopkins’ poem 34, during my summer vacation of 1987. It’s what I hear still, when I listen through all the noise, rather than to it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is far from accidental that, as Walter J. Ong reminds us in the lines from The Presence of the Word with which I began this whole series of posts on “The Traumatic Word,” the word as word is not only not a “sign,” but also not a “symbol” either. To take each in turn:

The word is not a “sign,” properly speaking, since the word sign itself ultimately bespeaks something visible, something to be seen, whereas the word word bespeaks something audible, something itself spoken, to be heard rather than seen.

What is more, to repeat, the word is not only no such sign, says Ong, but also no “symbol.” That is because, as he tells us, originally “symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties.”

In the concentration upon the visible imposed upon him, regardless of his own will in the matter, by the already now long-standing tradition of treating language as nothing more than an elaborate system of “signs,” and the word itself as no more than a “symbol” of what it names, in the just re-cited passage Ong may himself have misheard some of what sounds in the word word itself.   It is not simply because the word belongs among what sounds, and so gives itself to be heard, rather than belonging among the visible, which gives itself to be seen, that the word as word is no “symbol.” It is also—and in my own judgment above all—because the word as word is no token of coercive power, that drives to make everything fit. The word as word is no sign, such as a torn ticket or a broken coin, the two sides of which fit perfectly together, thus signifying the official authorization of the messenger, who carries one half of the symbol with him, to carry some official message to the officially designated recipient of that message, who proves his own authorization to receive it by providing the matching other half of the symbol, to perfectly fit the messenger’s half. A word as word, as a breaker of the silence to which it gives voice, is no such torn ticket or broken coin or modern digitized equivalent that testifies to such polarized and polarizing authorization. The symbol as such is always a sign of claimed power, claimed “authority.” The word, as word, claims no authority. It just speaks.

That is why the word is no sign. As Ong so rightly observes in the next to last line from the epigraph with which I began this entire blog series: “The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be ‘broken’ and reassembled.” However, he misses, I’d say, the deepest, truest reason that the word cannot be broken, as is every “symbol.

That the word cannot be broken derives not from some timeless or indestructible durability of the stuff of which the word consists, certainly. After all, as Ong himself repeatedly emphasizes, there is nothing more passing, less enduring, more easily destroyed than sound, which is finally all the word consists of. The reason the word cannot be broken—and why it is therefore so unsuitable for being made to do service to coercive power, the sort of power that imposes itself on those it over-powers, as do all institutions that have passed beyond conviviality—has nothing to do with that.

The word cannot be broken because it is always already broken to begin with, and only so does it speak. The name and what it names—the same as glory and the glorious, or luster and the lustrous, or shine and the shining of that which shines of itself—are never two halves of some once presumably unitary totality that somehow got subsequently broken apart, such that the pieces could ever, even in the wildest fantasy of security and authority (beyond even “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” that couldn’t re-fit Humpty-Dumpty back together after he dumped from his wall), be fitted seamlessly back together again.

The name, the very being of what is named—its being “outside” itself, with and among others—on the one hand, and its being “in” itself, “indoors which it dwells,” on the other, constitute a duality, not a polarity. The two are strictly incommensurable: There is no common standard by which they can both be neatly operationalized, measured, ranked, and set to order within a hierarchy.

The name and what it names are really the same, but that is so only in the way that men and women are really the same, which does not in the least mean that the two are “one and the same thing.” If the name and the named were just one and the same thing, then the name could not be the named itself outside itself, given to others. Then neither God nor anything else could ever be honored for its own sake, and nothing would ever have any glory.

The word can never be broken, because it is, as word, the break itself. The word is the very breaking open of the cosmic egg, without which the egg can never attain its own glory, for its own sake. The word itself is traumatic. That’s why I have entitled this whole series “The Traumatic Word.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

There is no one, all-encompassing, all-comprehending uni-vision, uni-perspective, uni-conception that can reduce everything to one single all-inclusive, all “other” exclusive, totality of beings. As Heidegger already taught in “What Is Metaphysics?”—his inaugural address in 1929 when he took over his mentor Edmund Husserl’s chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg—we are never given “the whole of beings” (das Ganze des Seienden). We are only—but also always—given “beings in the whole” (das Seiende im Ganzen). Whatever gives itself at all has, as so self-giving and self-given, its own being “outside” itself, as Hopkins so well puts it, that is to say, its being open and given to all the other beings with and among which alone it can be.

To my ears, ever since they were first attuned to hear it during my traumatically healing summer vacation of 1987, Hopkins teaches the very same lesson in poem 34: “As kingfishers catch fire . . .” As I hear them, Heidegger and Hopkins say the same. It’s just that they say it, appropriately, in two radically different, asymmetrically complementary ways.

Such differences can only help us hear if we let them. And only a hearing attuned to such difference can hear at all. So we should let them.

What they help us to hear, among other things, is that, as for the universe, in opposition to the cosmos, at least in the original sense of that latter word—well, there simply is no such thing. There is no “uni-verse,” no one thing that is the whole of everything, and turns everything into just one thing. There is no such all encompassing, all other excluding, single thing. There is only and always what might well be called “the di-verse,” if I may risk putting it that way.

The universe, were it to be, would be nothing but a total, monotone horror, and a colossally monotonous bore, on top of that. The diverse, however, is richly chromatic—we might call it extra-chromatic—and ever entertaining.

Therefore let us thank God that there is no such thing as the universe, but that there is only the diverse. That is, let us give thanks that there is only the being together of each with all—in which all things act for the sake of each other, to the glory of each other’s name: the word by which each is called, the very being of each outside itself, with and among all us others.

Amen! Which is to say: So be it!

The Traumatic Word (4)

As plans have a way of doing, my plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with today’s post has fallen through. However, this series of posts of my words on the word will end with my next post, most of which is already composed.

*     *     *     *     *     *

            Sake is a word I find it convenient to use: I did not know when I did so first that it is common in German in the form sach. It is the sake of ‘for the sake of,’ forsake, namesake, keepsake. It mean by it the being of a thing outside itself, as a voice by its echo, a face by its reflection, a body by its shadow, a man by his name, fame, or memory and also that in the thing by virtue of which it has this being abroad, and that is something distinctive, marked, specifically or individually speaking, as for a voice and echo clearness; for a reflected image light, brightness; for a shadow-casting body, bulk; for a man, genius, great achievements, amiability, and so on.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins


Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between men and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

— Ivan Illich


The passage immediately above—that is, the second epigraph for today’s post—comes from Ivan Illich’s 1983 book Gender (Berkeley: Heyday Books, page 76, end of footnote 57). That book was no less controversial when it first appeared than were such earlier Illich publications as Deschooling Society, first printed in 1971, and Medical Nemesis, the first edition of which appeared in 1975 and which probably gained the most widespread attention, and engendered the most controversy, of all his works.

Born in Vienna in 1926, as a young man Illich became a Roman Catholic priest. He remained in the priesthood from then until his death in 2002, despite falling into conflict with the Vatican and—by mutual but non-official agreement, in effect, between him and the institutionalized hierarchy of the Catholic Church—ceasing to function publicly as a priest toward the end of the 1960s, though he even continued to say the Catholic Mass in private on occasion throughout the rest of his life.

Recurrently in his work, Illich argued and documented that the formal institutionalization of practices and processes pursued beyond a certain point becomes counterproductive. That is, pursued beyond that point institutionalization no longer facilitates the realization of that for the sake of which the institution was purportedly established. Instead, it begins to become an obstacle rather than an avenue for such realization, even beginning to generate specifically opposite results.

For example, in Medical Nemesis Illich argues that the institutionalization of medical care, carried beyond a certain point, starts making the society in which such institutionalization occurs less healthy overall, rather than more healthy. Put in different terms, pursued beyond that critical point, the institutionalization of medical care not only passes what economists call “the point of diminishing returns,” but actually sets off an inflationary spiral of ever-rising overall social costs for healthcare. As is true of all such inflation, although it massively benefits an ever more select few, it works to the growing disadvantage of the vast majority of society. In the case of medical care, that means medicine institutionalized past that tipping point starts making the society as a whole sicker, even and especially generating iatrogenic (“doctor- caused”) illnesses—a clear example of which is the disturbingly high rate of hospital-caused infections in the United States today.

In case after case, book after book, Illich advanced the same general argument about institutionalization becoming specifically counterproductive whenever it is pursued beyond such a certain, surprisingly minimal point—“surprising” at least for those of us today who long ago became used to living in a globally over-institutionalized society. Whereas in Medical Nemesis he addressed the counterproductivity of contemporary institutionalized medicine, a few years before that book appeared Illich addressed, in Deschooling Society, the institutionalization whereby education becomes “schooling,” which takes place only in specially designated places called “schools” at specially designated times (“school-time,” as we say) and ages of life (as reflected in talk about someone being “school-aged,” for example—though with the rampant commercialization of education and the emergence of the total horror of “life-long” schooling well under way today, that expression may be well on the way to losing its currency). Illich does a good job of showing how such over-institutionalization of education by enclosing it ever more tightly within schools and schooling ends up making the society as a whole less, rather than more, educated.*

In general, institutionalization becomes counterproductive once it passes the point of what Illich calls “conviviality.” He uses that term in the title of his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, and means by the “convivial”—which he will also connect with what in various works, including Gender, he calls the “vernacular”—what can be pursued within ongoing local community life as such, and is “expressive” of that community itself.   “Convivial” tools as well as institutions would be those that are established and maintained truly for the sake of those who establish and maintain them, as expressions of themselves.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The first epigraph for today’s post, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, about the sake of such expressions as “for the sake of,” comes from a letter Hopkins wrote his friend Robert Bridges dated 26 May 1879. Walter J. Ong cites it in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, page 38), and then glosses it by writing: “Doing something ‘for my sake’ is doing something for me in so far as I have an outreach to you. What is distinctive about ‘my sake’ is not that I am totally self-contained in a solipsistic, self-sufficient world but that the outreach to you is in this case the outreach that comes from me and only from me, that is distinctive of me, not found in any other.”

All the way back at least to Being and Time, Heidegger distinguished between, on the one hand, what we find or fabricate for use “in order to” (um zu) pursue some extrinsic end (a redundant expression, actually, since any end as such is necessarily extrinsic to the thing we find or fabricate for use to achieve that end) and, on the other hand, what we use all such means for pursuing all such ends “for the sake of” (um willen). His discussion helps make clear that what we do “for its own sake” is precisely what we no longer do “in order to” accomplish something else.

So, for example, what we do “for God’s sake” (in German: um Gottes willen) is nothing that we do for any “ulterior motive,” as we put it—some such motive as currying favor with “the Czar of the universe” (to borrow an apt phrase from AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s telling of his own tale in the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous), in order to keep the Big Bully from zapping us for not obeying his orders, or to get him to give us something we want, or the like. What we do “for God’s sake” is just what we do for no other end or reason at all, save adding to God’s own “glory.”

Hopkins is right in what he says in his letter to his friend Bridges about the English word sake, including his remark about the German cognate of that word, which by the conventions governing written modern German would be Sache, meaning “thing” or “matter.” So, for example, a work Heidegger published late in his life was a collection of essays all of which dealt with the same matter—what he called, in the title he gave the whole thing, Zur Sache des Denkens. That title for its own sake might be translated as “On the Thing of Thinking” (or “of Thought”), if we use that word thing the way Baby Boomers such as I still do when we speak on occasion of “doing our own thing.”  Or it might be translated as “On the Matter of Thinking.” At any rate, what Heidegger means by his title could perhaps best be captured by noting that all of the essays in the book address that for the sake of which thinking occurs, that for the sake of which thought takes place.   That is, to ask after die Sache des Denkens is to inquire into what thinking or thought adds to the glory of—what it adds to the luster of, as gold adds to the luster of those suited to wear it.

Hopkins himself is deeply thoughtful to note, for Bridges sake and for his own, that he, Hopkins, himself means by the word sake “the being a thing has outside itself.” That is why I have been speaking in my own turn of what is done “for the sake of” someone or something as done “for the glory” of that one or thing. I will continue to use the example of doing something solely “for God’s sake,” that is, doing it solely to add to God’s own luster, God’s own glory.

The “glory” of God is not something extrinsic to God. It is, rather, to use Hopkins’ own way of putting it, the very being of God as such, God Him-self/Her-self/God-self, “outside” Him-/Her-/God-self. How gloriously Hopkins puts it! The “sake” of a thing is the thing itself as outside itself—as itself there in its shine, its splendor, in short, its glory.

The glory of God’s—God’s very “sake” as such, in Hopkins’ glorious sense of that word—is not there for its own sake, however. The (Hopkinsian) “sake” of God is there to the glory of God, not to it own glory. It is God’s own luster–God’s “name, fame, or memory,” to borrow what Hopkins applies to what he names “man,” but which in his spirit we can happily apply just as aptly (if not even more so) to what we name “God.”

To do something solely “for God’s sake” is thus the same as doing it solely “in the name of God,” or as we also say “for His [sic] name’s sake.” In turn, to act solely “for God’s name’s sake” is not to act to the glory of something apart from God—since God’s “sake” is God’s “name” itself, and both the same are not different from God, but are God’s very being “outside” God Her-/Him-/God-self, that is, what we could aptly and happily call, borrowing from Ong, God’s “outreach” or “presence” to others. To act “in God’s name” or “for God’s name’s sake” is to act to the glory of God God-self. (I hope I have sufficiently indicated by now that I am using that expression God Godself to avoid talking of God Himself or Herself, while still avoiding turning God, that “who” of all “who’s” rather than “what’s,” into any “It”—Id in Latin, and Lat-anglicized Freud. In the name of God let us, to be sure, avoid drafting God’s name into service to sexism, but not at the price of letting that name degenerate to no more than the sign of an “it.”) To act solely for God’s name’s sake is to act in such as way as just to add glory God’s own glory, shine to God’s own shine, luster to God’s own luster. It is to polish the gold in which God always already comes decorously bejeweled. In short, it is to adore the divinely adorned.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Division by “gender,” as Illich analyses it in his 1983 book of that name, is a convivial duality, as opposed to the non-convivial, specifically counterproductive polarity of division by “sex.” He thereby reverses—or rather “transfigures,” to use a more convivial term, since he does not just turn it around—what still at that time at least (the early 1980s), passed as conventional feminist wisdom. The latter took sex to be less “socially constructed” than gender, and objected above all to distinguishing between two supposedly natural genders rather than the two sexes, of “masculine” and “feminine,” “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman.” Thus, “gender” was commonly taken by feminists to mean something “social” or “cultural,” whereas “sex” was taken to mean something “biological.” In sharp difference, Illich writes (pages 3-4):

I use gender, then, in a new way to designate a duality that in the past was too obvious even to be named, and is so far removed from us today that it is often confused with sex. By ‘sex’ I mean the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting in the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular [from Latin vernaculus, “native, domestic”—so what is “convivial,” in the sense Illich gives that term, which I explained above] gender, which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is ‘catholic’ [that is, claims “universality”—from the literal, etymological meaning of catholic]; it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character of intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, ‘discrimination’) of derivations from [what, under such a “diagnosis,” becomes] the abstract, genderless norm of ‘the human.’ Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous [a mark of its “catholicity,” since the “vernacular” is always and inescapably ambiguous] language of science [that most universal, or catholic, language of that purely, purified catholic “knowledge” that is science]. Gender [in sharp contrast to the exclusively uniform and uni-forming totality of “sex”] bespeaks a complementarity [What a glorious word for it!] that is enigmatic and asymmetrical.

As he sums that up nicely, much later in Gender (in footnote 101, bottom of page 138): “Gendered speech constantly breathes, whispers, and utters gendered duality, while sexed language imposes discrimination. Grammatical gender (genus), therefore, becomes in sexed language what it could not be in gendered speech: a constant device for a put-down.”

For my purposes in this post, what I will take from such fine passages, and from Illich’s Gender as a whole, will not be the issues of sex, gender, totalization, discrimination, globalism, and feminism, the disconnections and interconnections of which he deftly traces in that book. That discussion is most certainly worthy of careful reading and reflection upon for its own sake, to be sure. But for my purposes here all I want to extract from it is the distinction therein between what he calls “duality,” characterized by the “asymmetrical, ambiguous complementarity” of its two sides or halves, and what he calls “polarity,” characterized by how it “imposes discrimination.”

In a brief footnote discussion entitled “Complementarity and Social Science,” within a chapter called “Vernacular Gender” (footnote 52, to pages 68-69), Illich observes that light, in the sense of the Latin lumen, or “way of looking,” was once thought to “stream” from the eye out to the visible thing—in effect, “palpating” it, as Merleau-Ponty liked to put it in various texts, though Illich doesn’t mention him here. Applying that to the vernacular duality of gender, Illich writes that in the analysis he is attempting to present through using that duality, “each culture appears as a metaphor, a metaphoric complementarity relating two distinct sets of tools, two types of space-time, two domains,” which “find expression in different but related styles in which the world is understood or grasped”—two incommensurably different but related beams of light, streaming out from two incommensurably different but related sets of eyes to palpate the visible.

In contrast, he goes on, science “is a filter that screens from the observer’s eye the ambiguity of gendered [that is dual, asymmetrically complementary] light.” As a result of such filtering out of all such irreducible ambiguity within what is called “social science,” the “asymmetry that constitutes the social reality of each vernacular is effected by the central perspective of cultural anthropology,” which institutionalizes a “monochromatic, genderless [that is, utterly univocal and uni-sighted] lumen”—the single, glaring, contour-blanching light “of such concepts as rule, exchange, and structure.” Such concepts—which word comes from Latin con, “with,” and capare, “take, grasp, seize”—cease to conceptualize (to grasp in and for thought) anything of what Illich calls “the Eigen-value [from the German eigen, “own,’ in the sense of belonging or being “proper to” that which has, manifests, or in short shines forth with and in, it] of each and every vernacular reality,” that is, every local, native, domestic, home-grown and home-growing, concrete, really real reality.

Accordingly: “What the scientific observer sees through his diagnostic spectacles are not men and women who really act in a gendered subsistence society but sexual deviants from an abstract, genderless cultural norm who have to be operationalized, measured, ranked, and structured into hierarchies.” Thus, as Illich then concludes his discussion in this footnote by writing: “Cultural anthropology that operates with genderless concepts is inevitably sexist,” with a sexism that is “much more blinding than old-style ethnocentric arrogance.”

Later in the same chapter, in a footnote discussion entitled “Ambiguous Complementarity” (footnote 57, bottom of pages 75-76), Illich himself nicely grasps in his own thought just what such pseudo-concepts as exchange actually accomplish, which has nothing to do with vision, but everything to do with imposition. I have already given that passage above, as the second epigraph for this post, but it bears repeating here, to end today’s post:

Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between man and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

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My next post will finish the current series on “The Traumatic Word.” (I promise!)

* Of course, a select few are singled out by the schooling system to become hyper-educated (Ph.D.’s like me, for example), but just as the income gap between the monetarily rich and the monetarily poor keeps on widening, so does the education gap between us members of the hyper-educated elite and the common folk whom one of my colleagues at the University of Denver used to like to dismiss by calling them “the great unwashed.”   As to how schooling pursued beyond the tipping point at issue can create its own teacher-caused equivalent to doctor-caused illnesses, I am reminded of something I used to tell the students in my own classes, before I learned more skillful means of subverting the university: “Any idiot can get a Ph.D.—in fact, being an idiot helps.”   In Shadow Work, published in 1981 (Boston and London: Marion Boyars), two years before Gender, Illich himself writes (page 31): “Students ask if they are in school to learn or to collaborate in their own stupefaction. Increasingly, the toil of consumption overshadows the relief consumption promised.”


The Traumatic Word (3)

This is the third post in a series on “The Traumatic Word.”

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All that glitters is not gold.

— Old commonplace

Even for us, gold still glitters. However, we don’t any longer attend especially either to gold or to glittering . . . We have no sense for that “sense” any longer. Insofar as gold “is” gold for us, it is only as a metal that carries value.

— Martin Heidegger


The word gives voice to the silence it breaks.

Sometimes during the second half of my long university teaching career, I would bring a small Tibetan meditation gong to class, to give the students an opportunity to experience two different modalities of listening, as I myself had first experienced them once by fortuitous accident. I would ask the students to find a comfortable position in their chairs, close their eyes gently, and hold themselves relaxed but attentive. Then, before ringing the bell, I would telling them to focus their attention on the sound of the ringing itself, and to hold onto the sound for as long as they could continue to hear it, however dimly, then just to stay quiet and attentive, eyes closed. After giving the ringing sound ample time to die away, I would ring the bell again. This time, however, I would first direct the students not to focus on the ringing of the bell as such, trying to hear it as long as they could, but rather to listen for the silence to return to the bell.

Afterwards, the class and I would talk about the difference between the two experiences of listening. Some of the students reported that they really hadn’t been able to tell any difference. However, others—usually a smaller number, which is to be expected, for reasons I need not discuss here—would report surprise at just how different in quality the two experiences were.

I would then end by encouraging all of the students, whichever of those two reporting groups they belonged to, to practice the two different ways of listening on their own. I know from subsequent feedback that some did, but I also have good grounds for suspecting that most did not—for reasons similar to those I think account for the disparity in size between the two reporting groups, but that, once again, I do not need to discuss here.

As I already remarked above, when I first experienced the difference at issue myself it was not under any special guidance or direction, but just by serendipity. It happened twenty or so years ago. I was quietly meditating one fall morning, with my eyes gently closed, outside the chapel of the secluded Benedictine Monastery where I’ve retreated for a few days from time to time for the last quarter-century. As I was calmly and quietly sitting there, thinking nothing, the bell in the chapel tower began to ring, calling the monks to come together for one of their daily session of common prayer. Calm and comfortable yet attentive as I found myself at that moment to be, I just continued to sit there, eyes closed, thinking nothing, and just let the ringing of the bell continue to sound. I was so calm and comfortable that I didn’t even find myself listening to the ringing itself. Rather, as I said, I just let it go on, giving it no special attention, but still fully aware of it in my open, attentive frame of mind.   To my surprise, as the sound of the rung bell died away, I heard the silence return to the bell, and with it to the world of the monastery as a whole.

Through the slow dying away of the bell’s ringing, I heard the silence itself began to ring.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Decorations, ornaments and adornments are there to call attention to what they decorate, ornament, or adorn. So they glitter, like gold.

In Der Spruch des Anximanders, a manuscript that Heidegger wrote apparently in the 1940s for a never-delivered lecture course, but that was not published until 2010, when it came out as volume 78 of his Gesamtausgabe (GA: the “Complete Edition” of Heidegger’s Works published by Vittorio Klostermann in Frankfurt). The title means “the saying (or ‘dictum,’ to use a common Latin-derived term) of Anaximander.” Anaximander was the second of the three “Milesians” (the first being Thales, and the third Anaximenes), so called because all lived in Miletus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor. The three have gone down in tradition as the first three philosophers. Only one saying or dictum has survived from Anaximander, and that is what is at issue for Heidegger in his manuscript.

At one point in the text, Heidegger has a lengthy discussion about gold, and what gold was for the ancient Greeks. I have taken my second epigraph for this post, above, from that discussion (from a passage to be found on page 70 of GA 78). In addition, a bit earlier in the same discussion (on page 67) Heidegger himself cites the German version of the old commonplace I used for my first epigraph for this post, “All that glitters is not gold,” which in the German Heidegger uses is, “Es ist nicht alles Gold, was glänzt.”

That commonplace, Heidegger goes on to add, contains implicitly the recognition that “gold is what authentically glitters, such that on occasion what also glitters can appear to be gold, even though that appearance is a sheer semblance.” The German glänzen means to glitter, that is, to sparkle, glisten, or shine. That last word, shine, can be used as a verb, as I just used in the preceding sentence, but also as a noun, as when we speak about the shine of a pair of polished shoes, or of gold itself. The noun shine is indistinguishable in sound from the German equivalent, Schein. To form the infinitive of the corresponding verb, “to shine,” however, German adds the suffix –en to form scheinen, which in turn can become again a noun when given a capital first letter, Scheinen. The German phrase “das Scheinen” would need to be translated in some contexts as “the shining” (as in the title of the famous Steven King novel or Stanley Kubrick’s movie version thereof). In other contexts, however, it would need to be translated differently, as I have done in quoting Heidegger in saying that what isn’t gold can sometimes appear to be gold although that appearance is “a sheer semblance,” which I could also have rendered as “a mere seeming”: “ein blosses Scheinen.”

To be sure, not everything that glitters is gold. However, whatever is gold does glitter. Glittering, sparkling, glistening, shining, belongs essentially to gold, constituting its very being-gold, its very golden-ness. So says Heidegger at any rate. Glittering or shining as such (page 68) “belongs to being-gold itself, so truly that it is in the glittering [or shining: das Glänzen] of gold that its very being(-gold) resides.” Glittering resides essentially in gold regardless, Heidegger says, of whether the gold has been polished up already, or is still dull from being newly mined, or has had its shine go flat through neglect.

Gold glitters. It shines. That is the very purpose of gold, what it is for: to shine. In other words, gold as such, the golden, has no “purpose,” is not “for” anything. It just shines. Gold is simply lustrous, that is, “filled with luster,” from Latin lustrare, “spread light over, brighten, illumine,” related to lucere, “shine.” As essentially shining in itself, gold adds shine to that on which it shines, as it were: as lustrous, filled with luster, it is suited in turn to add luster to what is suited to wear or bear it.

Hence the role that gold has always had as decoration, ornament, and adornment. Decorate derives from Latin decoris, as does decorous. Latin decoris is the genitive form of decus, from the presumed Indo-European root *dek-, “be suitable.” What is decent, from the same root, is what is becoming, comely, befitting, proper; what is decent is what is suitable.

Ornament comes from Latin ornare, which means to equip, to fix up or deck out, to adorn—which last ends up saying the same thing twice, since adorn also comes from ornare, plus the prefix ad-, “to.”

Worn decorously, gold adorns those it ornaments: When it fits, it adds luster to what it decks out.

*     *     *     *     *     *

W. G. Sebald devotes one of his essays in A Place in the Country (New York: Random House, 2013) to Gottfried Keller, the great nineteenth century Swiss poet, novelist, and story-teller. “One might say,” writes Sebald in the essay, “that even as high capitalism was spreading like wildfire in the second hall of the nineteenth century, Keller in his work presents a counter-image of an earlier age in which the relationships between human beings were not yet regulated by money.”

A bit latter in the same essay Sebald writes: “It is, too, a particularly attractive trait in Keller’s work that he should afford the Jews—whom Christianity has for centuries reproached with the invention of moneylending—pride of place in a story intending to evoke the memory of a precapitalist era.” Sebald then recounts how, in that story, Jews who are welcomed into a shop built not on capital but on barter—thus, a shop that serves as an example of just such a pre-capitalist era. The non-Jewish proprietress welcomes itinerant Jewish traders among those who regularly frequent her shop, to come inside to sit and talk.

When the talk in the shop turns to tales of how the Jews abduct children, poison wells, and the like, those Jewish traders, writes Sebald:

merely listen to these scaremongering tales, smile good-humoredly and politely, and refuse to be provoked. This good-natured smile on the part of the Jewish traders at the credulity and foolishness of the unenlightened Christian folk, which Keller captures here, is the epitome of true tolerance: the tolerance of the oppressed, barely endured minority toward those who control the vagaries of their fate. The idea of tolerance, much vaunted in the wake of the Enlightenment but in practice always diluted, pales into insignificance beside the forbearance of the Jewish people. Nor do the Jews in Keller’s works have any dealings with the evils of capitalism. What money they earn in their arduous passage from village to village is not immediately returned to circulation but is for the time being set to one side, thus becoming like the treasure hoarded by Frau Margaret [the non-Jewish proprietress of the shop herself], as insubstantial as gold in a fairy tale.

Sebald then concludes the passage: “True gold, for Keller, is always that which is spun with great effort from next to nothing, or which glistens as a reflection above the shimmering landscape. False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.”

In their remarks on gold, Sebald and Heidegger are two fingers pointing to the same thing.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The English word order derives from the same roots as do the English words ornament and adorn. All three come from the Latin ornare, which, as I’ve already noted, means to equip, to fix up or deck out. That is fitting, which is to say decorous, since proper order—well-ordered order, we well might say, as opposed to disordered order (or “dysfunctional” order, to use some currently commonplace jargon, even though it has already lost much of its shine, having been in circulation for quite a while by now)—is there for the sake of what it sets to order, rather than the other way around.

Proper order is an ornament to be worn by what it orders, in order to let the latter come fully into its own radiance, its own shine. Such proper order is rare, so rare as to be genuinely golden.

What is genuinely golden—what shines of itself, and needs no trafficking in the market to give it monetary value—does not really call attention to itself, properly speaking. Rather, like the sun in Plato’s Divided Line at the end of Book VI and Myth of the Cave at the start of Book VII in the Republic, which calls attention to that on which it shines, but, as shining itself, vanishes in its own blinding brilliance, the genuinely golden calls attention to that which it adorns.

Soon after the lines I have used as this post’s second epigraph, in which Heidegger says that we of today have lost all sense for the genuine sense of gold and the golden, he observes that ornaments, decorations, and adornments do not as such call attention to themselves for their own sake, but rather to that which they ornament, decorate, or adorn, for its sake. As he writes (on page 73), “decoration and ornament [der Schmuck und die Zier] are in their proper essence nothing that shines for itself and draws the glance away from others to itself. Decoration and ornament are far rather such wherein [that is, in the “shine” of which, we might say] the decorated is first made ‘decorous’ [“schmuck”: “bejeweled,” that is, “decked out, as with jewels”—so “neat,” “natty,” “smart,” in effect], that is, stately [stattlich, “imposing,” from a root meaning “place”—so: having “status”], something that, upright in itself, has a look [hat ein Aussehen, a word that also suggests “splendor”: “good looks,” in effect, to go with its imposing status] and stands out [hervorragt], that is, itself comes to appearance [zum Scheinen].”

Thus, for instance, jewelry, does not distract attention from the one who decorously wears it, the one to whom it is fitting or suited. Rather, decorously worn, jewelry calls attention to the splendor already there in the wearer, adding luster to that luster. It lets the wearer shine forth in all her own glory, shining brilliantly with all her own splendor, radiant.

So adorned, the radiant one is there to be adored.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The two words, adorn and adore, have distinct etymologies. The former, as I’ve already noted, comes from ad-, “to,” plus ornare, “to deck out, add luster to.” On the other hand, adore comes from ad- plus orare—with no ‘n,’ just as English adore is bare of the sound of ‘n’ that gets added to adorn. Orare means “to speak,” most especially in the decorous, stately sense of “praying” or “pleading,” as in delivering an “oration,” a formal speech before a court or other august assembly, a speaking that honors and thereby “praises” the high standing of the assembly being addressed.

Despite the disparate etymologies of the two terms, my own hearing discerns a deeper, semantic resonance between adorning and adoring. To add luster to what is already lustrous, as adornments add shine to those who already shine of themselves, polishing that shine to its own full radiance, and to speak to and of what already speaks for itself, addressing it in such a way as to honor its stature, attesting to its renown, fit together. Each, adorning and adoring, adds luster to the other in my eyes. Each praises the other—as creation, in Christian tradition, is said to praise its Creator.

Adornments speak well of those they decorously adorn. When decorous, adornments fit the adorned, fitting them in such a way as to defer to them, letting the adorned come forth in their own glory, bespeaking the radiance of the adorned, rather than boasting of their own adorning sparkle.

So do I like to think, at any rate. It fits for me. Most especially it fits my experience, years ago, of sitting outside the monastery as the bell rang, calling the community together to pray, and calling my own attention not to itself but to the silence it decorously broke, giving it voice—calling: “Oh come, let us adore!”

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I plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with my next post.


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