The Unforgivable


Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil [. . .].

—Primo Levi, The Truce (pages 188-189 of 1987 Abacus dual edition with If This Is a Man)


Neither Primo Levi nor Jean Améry, both of whom survived Auschwitz, ever forgave those responsible for Auschwitz, and all that that name has come to represent. Améry clung to his “resentments,” as he called them himself. He repeatedly insisted upon them publicly, including in an essay in At the Mind’s Limits bearing that title. Being of a different temperament and having a different writing style, Levi did not speak of “resenting” what had been done to him. Nevertheless, he was no more willing to forgive than was Améry.

Yet both Levi and Améry expressed a conditional willingness to come to a sort of peace with those responsible for the crime of the Holocaust, the very crime to the finally unforgiveable nature of which both always insisted on bearing witness. Améry and Levi each stipulated conditions under which he would be able to offer such peace to those responsible for that unforgiveable crime.

Levi even spoke of “forgiving” the perpetrators if the conditions he articulated were ever met, but only then. In the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series on “Making Room for Community,” I already cited a passage from Levi’s “Afterword” to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce—his chronicles of his days in the Nazi death camps and his odyssey of eventual return to Italy after being liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops—in which he lays all that out. The passage is worth citing again here (from page 382 of that Abacus dual edition):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

As for Améry, early in his essay “Resentments” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 70):

Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but also more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.

SS man Wajs from Antwerp, a repeated murderer and an especially adroit torturer, paid with his life. What more can my foul thirst for revenge demand? But if I have searched my mind [or “spirit”: in German, Geist] properly, it is not a matter of revenge, nor one of atonement. The experience of persecution was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness [the collapse of all trust, all sense of security, a collapse that comes with “the first blow” of the fist of coercive power against which one can offer no effective defense, as Améry discusses in “Torture,” an earlier essay in the same volume]. At stake for me is the release from the abandonment that has persisted from that time until today.


What Améry’s resentment demands is not revenge. The resentment to which he insists on clinging is not a desire to strike back at those who struck him, causing them harm in return for the harm they caused him. The justice he seeks is not that of “an eye for an eye.” His resentment is not the harboring of “bad memories,” that is, of the desire to make “bad use” of the memory of what was done to him by doing the same back to his persecutors.* Indeed, if such harboring of bad memories is what one means by “resentments” (as is not uncommon), then Améry is actually free of resentments. To understand what he is saying, in fact, we must put out of play that common way of taking the term. What is at issue for him is something very different from resentment understood as the harboring of such “bad memories.”

“The moral person,” such as Améry himself, does not demand revenge for wrongs he has suffered. Rather, as Améry writes two pages later (page 72): “The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being.”

It is important to note the similarity between what Améry says here about how the criminal who has been “nailed to his deed” can then rejoin the human race, and what Levi says above, when he remarks that the enemy who, not just in words but above all in deeds, has become conscious of his crimes thereby ceases to be an enemy. Far from seeking revenge, harboring bad memories, or desiring retribution, it turns out that what both Levi and Améry want is something very different. In truth, they want full reconciliation. Neither will settle for anything less than that the enemy cease to be an enemy and become a neighbor (as Levi puts it), or that the criminal be cleansed of his crime and thereby rejoined to the community (Améry). What both want, lies “beyond guilt and atonement,” to use Améry’s original German title of At the Mind’s Limits. It lies, therefore, beyond all possibility of “forgiving and forgetting,” at least in any usual understanding of those terms. It belongs to what is finally unforgiveable, and can never be forgotten.


The world, which forgives and forgets, has sentenced me, not those who murdered or allowed the murder to occur.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 75)


Not long after making that remark about the world and its ways, Améry repeats what he has already said about wanting something beyond guilt and atonement. “It can be a matter,” he writes (page 77), “neither of revenge on the one side nor of a problematic atonement, which has only theological meaning and therefore is not relevant for me, on the other.” On the reader’s behalf, he then asks: “What then is it a matter of—since I have spoken expressly of a settlement in the field of historical practice?”

Améry tells us he is not seeking revenge through abusing in turn those who have first abused him. What is more, he tells us that he came out of Auschwitz no more of a “believer” than he was when he went in—which is to say that throughout it all he remained void of any religious faith—and therefore has no concern with such purely religious questions as atonement is typically taken to be, namely, a question of somehow “getting right with God” after one has “sinned.” Yet he still speaks of seeking a “settlement,” as one might speak about a legal issue, a matter in which one seeks “justice”—justice not as meted out by some Father in some Heaven, but as can be sought and found at the level of concrete “historical practice.” Accordingly, the question to be asked is just what would constitute the grounds for such a “settlement” at the level of such “historical practice” itself.

“Well then,” writes Améry in answer, “the problem could be settled” by conjoining two things, one on the side of the plaintiff, as it were, the accusing party, and the other on the side of the defendant, the accused. Settlement at the level of historical practice could be found “by permitting resentment to remain alive in the one camp,” the camp of the aggrieved, accusing plaintiff, while simultaneously keeping alive the “self-distrust in the other camp,” the camp of the accused—the very self-distrust that is itself “aroused by” awareness and acceptance of the plaintiff’s resentment.

Thus, the settlement of the case of such an unforgiveable wrong as the Holocaust would be neither a forgiving nor a forgetting of what had been done. It would be no such thing. Rather, it would be an honoring of the living memory of what had been done—a memorializing of it—in and as the honoring of the very resentment the survivors continued to feel, on the one hand, and the self-mistrust, the continuing self-suspicion, that full acceptance of such resentment would awaken and keep awake in those responsible, on the other. Only then would peace prevail and reconciliation occur —beyond all questions of guilt and atonement, forgiving and forgetting.


Just what might such a reconciliation actually look like, a reconciliation in which the resentment of one party is honored by the other, in whom the resentment of the first has at last awakened a self-distrust that must equally be honored? A reconciliation effected by allowing the wound of resentment to remain open in those who had been wounded, while opening and keeping open an answering wound of self-mistrust in those who had done the wounding? Granted that honoring the resentment of the wounded—rather than compounding their wounds in the rush to “forgive and forget,” so that everything can “get back to normal” for everybody else—requires opening in turn, and keeping open, a wound of self-distrust in those who wounded them. But just what would it actually be, to do that: to open and keep open such a wound of lack of self-trust in the perpetrators of the initial offense?

With regard to the particular offense at issue for Améry, that of Auschwitz and all that went with it, here is the answer he gives right after raising the question (At the Mind’s Limits, pages 77-79), an answer worth quoting at length:

Goaded solely by the spurs of our [that is, the survivors’] resentment—and not in the least by [any supposed] conciliatoriness [on the part of the perpetrators] that, subjectively, is almost always dubious and, objectively, hostile to history—the German people would remain sensitive to the fact that they cannot allow a piece of their national history [namely, their shameful Nazi past] to be neutralized by time [or by monetary reparations paid to Israel or others, we might add]. If I remember rightly, it was Hans Magnus Enzenberger [an important German author and cultural figure who was born in 1929 and grew up in Nazi Germany] who once wrote that Auschwitz is Germany’s past, present, and future. But unfortunately he is not what counts, for he and his moral peers are not the people. But if, in the midst of the world’s silence, our resentment holds its finger raised, then Germany, as a whole and also in its future generations, would retain the knowledge that it was not Germans who did away with the dominion of baseness. It [the German people] would then, as I sometimes hope, learn to comprehend its past acquiescence in the Third Reich as the total negation not only of the world that it plagued with war and death but also of its own better origins; it would no longer repress or hush up the twelve years [of Nazi rule] that for us others really were a thousand [which is how long Hitler promised the Third Reich would last], but claim them as its realized negation of the world and its self, as its own negative possession. On the field of history there would occur what I hypothetically described earlier for the limited, individual circle: two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral. If this demand were raised by the German people, who as a matter of fact have been victorious and already rehabilitated by time, it would have tremendous weight, enough so that by this alone it would already be fulfilled. The German revolution would be made good, Hitler disowned. And in the end Germans would really achieve what the people once did not have the might or the will to do, and what later, in the political power game [of the “Cold War”], no longer appeared to be a vital necessity: the eradication of the ignominy.

How this shall come about in actual practice, every German may picture for himself. This writer is not a German and it is not for him to give advice to this people. At best, he is able to imagine vaguely a national [German] community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation, and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns. Remaining within his exclusively literary frame of reference, Thomas Mann once expressed this in a letter: “It may be superstition,” he wrote to Walter von Molo, “but in my eyes the books that could be printed in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless and one ought not to touch them. An odor of blood and disgrace clings to them; they should all be reduced to pulp.” The spiritual reduction to pulp by the German people, not only of the books, but of everything that was carried out in those twelve years, would be the negation of the negation: a highly positive, a redeeming act. Only through it would our resentment be subjectively pacified and have become objectively unnecessary.


In responding to what Améry says in that passage, we want to be cautious. We need always to remember that those are the words of a bitterly resentful man, one who clung to his resentment throughout his entire life after Auschwitz. We would be remiss ever to forget that.


            I travel through the thriving land, and I feel less and less comfortable as I do. I cannot say that I am not received everywhere in a friendly and understanding manner. What more can people like me ask than that German newspapers and radio stations grant us the possibility to address grossly tactless remarks to German men and women, and on top of this be remunerated for it? I know: even the most benevolent will finally have to become as impatient with us as that young correspondent cited earlier who is “sick and tired of it.” There I am with my resentments, in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Cologne, and Munich. If you wish, I bear my grudge for reasons of personal salvation. Certainly. On the other hand, however, it is also for the good of the German people. But no one wants to relieve me of it, except the organs of public opinion-making, which buy it. What dehumanized me has become a commodity, which I offer for sale.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, page 80)


Primo Levi did not speak of “resentments” the way Jean Améry did. Nor did the former tend toward such expressions of bitterness as the latter shows in passages such as the one above. Yet when we put aside differences of temperament and expression, it is often the case that what the two have to say really comes down to the same thing. So it is with what the two of them set out as the conditions that would have to be met, if they were to be reconciled with those who committed, or by failing to act permitted to be committed, what Levi calls “the offense,” and Améry calls “the ignominy”—namely, the unforgiveable crime of “Auschwitz,” in all that that name has come to represent.

As a condition for such reconciliation, Améry proposes that the German people—past, present, and still to come—embrace the equivalent of a self-imposed Morgenthau Plan. That was the plan for postwar Germany named for Henry Morgenthau, the United States Secretary of the Treasury who first proposed it in a memorandum entitled “Suggested Post-Surrender Program for Germany,” written sometime during 1944, the last full year of World War II. The Morgenthau Plan called for Germany to be reduced to the status of a “pastoral state,” one no longer able to wage any sort of serious modern warfare, by destroying entirely the German armaments industry and the whole industrial might of the nation, most especially the industrial plants and equipment in the Ruhr, the very heart of Germany’s industrial power. Once the Cold War heated up, which happened within a few months after the Allied victory and the end of WW II, political expediency quickly induced the Western Powers—now locked in a new enmity, this time with their recent ally, the Soviet Union—to abandon any such plan as Morgenthau’s. Motivated by the pursuit of their own security in the face of the newly discovered threat of what Ronald Reagan would eventually label “that evil empire,” those to whom fell the victory in the west at the end of World War II were quick to abandon the project of reducing to pastureland the now vanquished German nation, and in the process were just as quick to cease giving any real priority to continuing the “de-Nazification” of Germany.

What Améry proposes, if he is to be reconciled with the Germans, the very people who brutalized him and so many others, is not that a new Morgenthau Plan be developed and imposed upon Germany from the outside. That would not satisfy him. It would not pacify his resentment. Rather, only if the German people imposed such a plan upon themselves, as an act of contrition and penance for their ignominious offense, would the resentment of Améry and the others whom the Germans overpowered be stilled.


That, of course, is not in the least likely to happen. Améry himself was perfectly well aware of that. “Nothing of the sort will ever happen, I know,” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 79), just after articulating his conditions for reconciliation in the passage above.

But what about Levi? What about Levi’s requirements for forgiveness, laid down in his “Afterword” to the dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce, where he says he will not forgive “any of the culprits”—which includes, he argues elsewhere in the same source, the entire Germans people as a whole, who, if they did not know about “the offense,” were accomplices anyway, since their very ignorance was willful, a not wanting to know—until those culprits themselves first show, not only with their words, but above all in their deeds, that they have “become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and [are] determined to condemn them, uproot them, from [their] conscience and from that of others”? Are those conditions really any less stringent than Améry’s? Are they any more likely ever to be met?

Most surely, the answer is no. As Améry says, “Nothing of the sort will happen.” Nothing of the sort happened in the past. Nothing of the sort is happening now. Nothing of the sort will happen in the future.

Accordingly, whoever aspires to be what Améry calls a “moral person” must honor both Améry’s resentment and Levi’s refusal to forgive. To honor them, on one’s own one must actively resist the whole world’s silence, while simultaneously maintaining suspicion toward one’s self for possible complicity, intentional or not, in keeping that silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

* See the discussion of amnesty—especially with regard to Gorgio Agamben’s treatment of it in his recent book Stasis—in my post, “Making Room for Community (2).”

Making Room for Community (5)

This is the final post in a consecutive series under the same general title.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Choosing Community

I have twenty-seven years of exile behind me, and my spiritual compatriots are Proust, Sartre, Beckett. Only I am still convinced that one must have compatriots in village and city streets if the spiritual ones are to be fully enjoyed, and that a cultural internationalism thrives well only in the soil of national security. [. . .] One must have a home in order not to need it [. . .].

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (At the Mind’s Limits: Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 46)


We are all members of communities prior to and apart from any choices of our own. Each of us is native to at least one community—born into it—by no choice on our part. In my own personal case, I did not choose to be a white, straight, American male, but nevertheless am all those things anyway. I was born into membership in all four communities: the communities of whites, straights, Americans, and males. As born into membership in those four communities, I was also born and into yet a fifth one, namely, the community of the privileged.

In turn, born into privilege, I was born as well into prejudice. I have always resented that fact. Many times during the course of my life, I have been startled to realize how prejudiced I really still was, despite all my efforts to ferret out and rid myself of my prejudices. I never signed on to be a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe. I never wanted to be any of those things, and I have even tried consciously to rid myself of such inclinations, as well as act against them when concrete opportunities to do so arose in my own ongoing life. Nevertheless, as I already said, I’ve often been startled to have to realize that—not just without any prior choice on my part, but even in spite of my own choices—I did indeed have racist, sexist, and homophobic tendencies. Above all, I found that to be so, in my own non-voluntary affective reactions to events in my life. What I’m referring to are such things as feeling anxiety, mild as it might have been and contrary to my own ideational and intellectual commitments (my own “ideas” and “opinions”: what I was willing to give what John Henry Newman long ago called “notional” assent, the sort of assent one gives to statements on an opinion poll), when walking through predominantly African American neighborhoods. Or feeling awkward around gays or lesbians. Or more critical of women than men for what and how they thought and, especially, looked.

Thus, being born into the privilege that goes with being born white, male, and straight, I was also born racist, sexist, and homophobic. After all, we who are privileged naturally defend our privileges, don’t we? As Primo Levi said in a passage cited in an earlier post of this current series, that just goes with privilege—unfortunately so, for such as me.

Even more unfortunately, it is not only prejudice that goes with privilege. So does guilt.


I was a person who could no longer say “we” and who therefore said “I” merely out of habit, but not with the feeling of full possession of my self. [. . .] I was no longer an I and did not live within a We.

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 44)

It has often been observed that it is easy to love “humanity” in the abstract, while despising the actual instances of humanity I happen to know. I can loudly proclaim my principled commitment to “universal human rights,” while equally vociferously supporting politicians who want to build walls to keep out all the “illegal aliens” who want to enter my country in search of a human life. I can applaud Primo Levi’s insistence, discussed in my preceding post, that all decent people have a duty to go to war against undeserved privilege, but gladly hide behind “make my day” laws to blow away any of the undeservedly de-privileged who happen to tramp on my turf. As a good, upstanding Christian, I may grow teary-eyed at the thought of loving my neighbor, yet feel nothing but contempt for the people who actually live next door. Love for humanity in the abstract thus proves to be no more than an abstraction itself: A love for everyone in general that is fully compatible with love for no one in particular. However, a love for no one in particular is no love at all.

Something similar applies to having a home, in the sense of a homeland, a “native” land or country—that is, belonging to some “nation,” in the original sense of that term. Such a homeland or native land is what is meant by the German term Heimat, the term Jean Améry uses in the original version of the citation at the beginning of this post, from a book originally entitled (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts of this series already) Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, which means “beyond guilt and atonement” (or “redemption”). In the passage cited at the beginning of this post, before its first section, Améry suggests—a suggestion that, taken in the full context of his essay, has the force of a strong assertion—that one can take full part in world culture, and find one’s true homeland or native land there, only if one first has a firmly rooted homeland already in the nation of one’s birth. That is what he means when he says that “cultural internationalism” can really only grow well in the solid soil of “national security.”

By that Améry does not mean that we must first protect our own country’s borders (maybe by building walls along them) and secure the country against attack by outsiders (such as today’s “terrorists,” who may even be home-grown: outsiders in our very midst). What he means is that only those already solidly anchored in their own “national” culture, already thoroughly “at home” in it, can then grow “beyond” it in the sense of opening up to, and coming to feel at home in, other cultures. Only an already solidly anchored Roman could really find nothing human foreign to him, as the Roman poet Terrence once famously said. Nor is that because of anything special about Romans and Roman culture. Rather, it is common to all. That is what Améry is pointing to in the lines cited above.


While no one is guaranteed absolute safety, and everyone knows suffering, there are dangers members of certain populations will never know. There is a degree of safety members of certain populations will never know. White people will never know the dangers of being black in America, systemic, unequal opportunity, racial profiling, the constant threat of police violence. Men will never know the dangers of being a woman in America, harassment, sexual violence, legislated bodies. Heterosexuals will never know what it means to experience homophobia.

—Roxane Gay, “The Seduction of Safety” (NY Times op-ed section 11/15/15)

            But it is time to explain what I actually mean by this home that seems so essential to me. [. . .] Reduced to the positive psychological basic content of the idea, home is security.

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 46)

Améry did not just lose his native land, his native culture, and even his native language; he was robbed of them. He was robbed of all three, which were German, and made to be a Jew instead—forced out of his home and into exile by the very Germans with whom he had always culturally identified himself and whose language had been his mothertongue. He was in effect defined into being a Jew despite never having identified himself as one. He was thereby robbed of his very identity, as he always insisted on putting it himself— that very identity he was born with and into.

In that process he was also robbed of his very name. “Hans Mayer,” the name he was given at birth—his native name, as it were—was inseparable from the identity that was taken from him when he was forcibly, “legally” alienated from his native land, culture, and language. Stripped of his original identity, the name that went with that identity no longer fit him either. He no longer knew who he was, but he knew that he was no longer that one who had borne, and been born to, that very German name.

Eventually, he chose to be known as “Jean Améry,” from the French equivalent for the German Hans plus an anagram of the German Mayer (Frenched up a bit over the e). However, that never became a true name for him, in the full and proper sense. Rather, by its very distortion of what used to be his name, the pseudonym—literally the “false name”—“Jean Améry” served to mark the very theft of his name from him, along with the theft of the identity that name suited. The pseudonym effectively marked the very trauma to which he had been subjected, memorializing it.

Robbed of all that he had been born into, all that from which he had later been involuntarily and brutally exiled, the radically destitute man who remained after being thus robbed of everything proper to him was reduced to utter homelessness. That condition was soon brought fully to his own explicit attention when he was struck by what he accurately describes as “the first blow,” a literal, physical blow delivered by the Belgian police officer who arrested him, in service to the Germans who had by then occupied Belgium, where the man who had once been known as Hans Mayer had fled after the Anschluss of Austria with Nazi Germany in 1938. With that first blow, all false sense of trust, of security, that he may still have clung to up till then was completely shattered. It collapsed, demonstrating irrefutably to him that he no longer had any home left—since home, after all, is really nothing but security, once we boil the concept down to its basic psychological content.

How much home does a person need? In his essay of that name (in a book the English edition of which robs of its own original name, in what can be seen as an all too compulsive repetition of the original robbery of that book’s author’s very identity), “Jean Améry”—that is, the anonymous, utterly homeless writer who once had been Hans Mayer—replies to that question. His reply is that how much home a person needs varies inversely with how much home the person has in the first place: the more home one has, the less home one needs; and the less home one has, the more home one needs. Thus, it is the most homeless, those most without a home, who need a home the most.

That, once written, should come as no surprise to anyone who reads it: Of course it is the homeless who most need a home. What is more, although the man who used to be known as Hans Mayer never explicitly says so, we can surely extend his insight—that insight that becomes obvious as soon as it is once seen (no easy thing, since once seen it is also obvious that the more obvious something is, the harder it is to see it)—to cover names as well as homes. In answer to the question of who most needs a name we can answer with confidence that it is the most a-nonymous people, those most “without-name,” who have the most need for one.


Kierkegaard says that the very deepest, most despairing form of despair is precisely that despair in which one no longer even knows one is in despair. In fact, those who are lost that utterly in despair may even think themselves happy. Never having tasted any true happiness, they can easily confuse being happy with the dull and deadened lack of affect that goes with despair. In contrast, the knowledge that one is in despair is the indispensible first glimmering of a possibility of journeying out of despair, into hope.

In the same way, the uttermost form of homelessness is that in which the homeless no longer even recognize their homelessness, and even confuse it with being at home. Such absolutely homeless ones may tell themselves as well as others—and tell it in full honesty—that they are equally at home wherever they go. They may say, and even truly believe, that they are equally at home everywhere, when in reality they have no home at all anywhere.

In a strange way, they are telling the truth, since it is indeed true that, having no home anywhere, everywhere they find themselves they will always have the same amount of home—namely, none at all. Zero still equals zero, however many times one multiplies it, or wherever one performs the calculation.

As homeless as he was after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made him a Jew, and thereby robbed him of the German culture, language, name and identity with and into which he had been born, even Jean Améry was never that utterly homeless. His very longing for home, a longing he knew could never be fulfilled, still left him at least some home, in that very recognition of his own homelessness. It still left him enough home to avoid such absolute homelessness as to think one is equally at home everywhere, even though one has no home at all anywhere in particular. It left him secure enough to diagnose the reality of just such utter lack of home, the total lack of home that thinks itself at home everywhere, in the world of his day.

What about us today, however? That is, what about us customers of the global market economy, us consumers of all the education and information and opportunities to learn that our ever more global culture has to offer, including all the holidays in all the exotic places among all the exotic peoples just waiting for us “explore in comfort,” as the slogan for Viking Cruises has it? How much home do we still have, and how much do we therefore need?

“Modern man exchanges his home for the world,” writes Améry (on page 56) in At the Mind’s Limits, the English translation of Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. In the original German, there is no “his” in Améry’s sentence. It just reads: “Modern man [the German is Mensch, which can also be translated by a non-gendering English term such as “people,” or the more cumbrous “human beings”] exchanges home [Heimat, “homeland or native land”] for the world.” What need have we modern people any longer for any special place to be at home, when we are equally at home anywhere we go in the whole wide world?

We have exchanged home for the world, as Améry says. “What a brilliant transaction!” he immediately adds. “Superficial knowledge of the world and languages, gained through tourism and business trips,” he writes a few lines later, “is no compensation for home. The barter proves to be a dubious one.”

Just a few more lines after that (on pages 56-57), he asks just how, “in such a world” as is acquired through such a brilliantly dubious transaction, one will

still be able to form the concept of home at all? The cities, highways, service stations, the furniture, the electric household appliances, the plates, and the spoons will be the same everywhere. It is conceivable that the language of the future world will also be the purely functional means of communication that for the natural scientist it already is today. The physicists communicate in the language of mathematics; for the cocktail party in the evening Basic English suffices. The developing world of tomorrow will certainly expel the homeland and possibly the mother tongue and will let them exist peripherally as a subject of specialized historical research only.

To dispel some of the gloom of such a globally illuminated picture, Améry gives us a glimmer of hope in his next line, where he writes: “However, we have not reached that point yet.” But then that hope dims, when we remember that the book containing that remark was first published way back in 1966.

A lot has changed since then.


In 2012, when the Arab Spring and other uprisings of popular resistance in Spain, Greece, the United States, and elsewhere were still fresh in public memory, seeming to open upon new possibilities for genuinely democratic changes of richly diverse sorts, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri brought out a short book called Declaration (distributed by Argo Novis Author Services). At one point in the book, they write of how, in our contemporary life as consumers in the global market system, we are increasingly subjected to what they call “mediatization,” one major aspect of which is putting all of us “on call” everywhere and an all times—“24/7,” as the expression has it. “With your smart phones and wireless connections, you can go anywhere and still be on the job,” they write (on page 16), “which you realize quickly means that anywhere you go you are still working! Mediatization is a major factor in the increasingly blurred division between work and life.”

Hardt and Negri then add:

            It thus seems more appropriate to think of such workers as not so much alienated [as Marx said of the workers of the world in the old days of heavy industrialization] as mediatized. Whereas the consciousness of the alienated worker is separated or divided, the consciousness of the mediatized is subsumed or absorbed in the web. The consciousness of the mediatized is not really split but fragmented and dispersed. The media, furthermore, don’t really make you passive. In fact, they constantly call on you to participate, to choose what you like, to contribute your opinions, to narrate your life. The media are constantly responsive to your likes and dislikes, and in return you are constantly attentive. The mediatized is thus a subjectivity that is paradoxically neither active nor passive bur rather constantly absorbed in attention.

By that analysis, the whole point of mediatization is to keep our attention fixed on the screens of our ubiquitous, ever more attention-demanding electronic devices— Tweating, Facebooking, streaming TV and movies, playing digital games, catching up on the breaking news, or whatever. The purpose is to keep our attention riveted on such things, and therefore diverted from doing anything that might opt us out of the 24/7 global consumerist work-a-day world. The point or purpose is to secure the global market system against any risk that we, the people, might join any such thing as the Occupy movement. It subverts in advance any chance we might have to join any community that might disrupt the ongoing uprooting from home of us all, an uprooting essential to the continued smooth operation of the global market system. The point is to keep us all literally preoccupied, that is, “seized in advance.” That way, we may never notice just how radically we are in need of a home—so much in need of one, that we don’t even know how utterly homeless we have become.

What hope, if any, remains, can only grow there, precisely where the greatest danger is, as Hölderlin said long ago. Appropriately, for their part Hardt and Negri find just such hope in the very media that so effectively “mediatize” us. They see hope in the potential that Facebook and Twitter and all the other twisted tweaks of contemporary digital technology offer to a populace, a people, who want to reclaim for themselves a place to stand—a place such as Tahrir Square in Cairo in the Arab Spring of 2011 became, to give one instance of where that digital potential for resistance and liberation has already been realized.

May Hardt and Negri be right!

At any rate, if there is any hope to be found at all anywhere any longer, whether in the media that preoccupy us or anywhere else, it can be realized only when we begin at last to feel how utterly in need of a home we have all become. Our only hope lies in becoming aware of our very homelessness—whoever “we” are, all of us anonymous ones, from the millions who are trying to broach Europe’s borders today, to the bloggers sitting comfortably in their overlarge houses, as I am while I type this blog-post. Only in the dawning awareness of our own universally shared homelessness can the hope of every finding our way home begin really to shine for us. The community of the homeless is the only community left for us, all us anonymous ones, to choose today.

“I don’t know my way home!” says David Warner’s mentally challenged character at the end of the bloodbath of Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah’s old movie. “It’s okay,” replies Dustin Hoffman’s character, speaking for us all, “I don’t either.”

Published in: on November 16, 2015 at 5:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Making Room for Community (4)

This is the fourth in a consecutive series of posts under the same general title.

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Lashing Out, Rising Up, Striking Back


Retaliation, Insurrection, Reclamation


The same anxiety is visible everywhere, the same deep panic, provoking the same upwellings of dignity, and not indignation.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, translated by Robert Hurley (Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 14)


. . . an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

[I]n spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to If This Is a Man and The Truce, dual edition (London: Abacus, 1987, pages 382, 386)

When one part of a community has harmed another part, reconciliation between the two parts is impossible without forgiveness, taken as the resolution on the part of those harmed not to make “bad use” of their memories of the harm done them—use of those memories for feeding the desire to harm in turn. Such forgiveness, neither forced nor feigned but freely given, is itself only possible for those who have managed to free themselves from the constraints against giving it.

Freedom from such constraints goes with victory.

In cases such as civil war, such victory belongs first to those who are on the winning side, as Arsinius and his fellow democrats were in the Athenian civil war against “the Thirty” in 403 BCE. The resolution of amnesty then declared by the victors for the vanquished was the “invention of amnesty,” according to Giorgio Agamben in Stasis, as discussed in my second post of this same series. That resolution on the part of those who won the war did not of itself effect full reconciliation between them and those they had just vanquished, but it made such reconciliation possible. Full actualization of that possibility had to wait for a response—perhaps never forthcoming—of genuine contrition on the part of the losing side. Some of the vanquished no doubt experienced such contrition, and were fully reconciled with the community of the city as a whole. However, some no doubt were not, and continued to plot for a return to power. At any rate, as Agamben observes, civil war remained as a permanent possibility within the reestablished peace, a possibility the leaving open of which was foundational for that very peace.

What about very different sorts of cases, however? How does victory come then?

To take one prime example, what about cases such as Primo Levi’s after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II? That liberation from the Nazi death camp system was not by itself sufficient to bring about Primo Levi’s liberation from his own constraints against offering forgiveness to his German tormentors. After the camp was liberated and Levi returned home to Turin, and continuing on until the time of his death (which many think was a suicide) in 1987, Levi remained unwilling and unable to forgive those who had brutalized him and his fellow survivors, and killed millions of others. To the end of his life, he refused—with entire, convincing justice—to forgive those who had brutalized and killed so many in the camps. He refused to forgive not only the individual Germans directly responsible, from Hitler to the lowliest Auschwitz guard subjecting inmates to routine degradation. He refused, as well, to forgive the German people as whole, that people who—as Levi writes in the afterword to the 1987 Abacus reissue of the joint publication of If This Is a Man and The Truce (his chronicles respectively of his internment at Auschwitz and of his eventual return trip home to Turin)—if they did not know what was happening in the camps, did not know because they did not want to know: they were willfully ignorant.

The first line cited above as an epigraph to this first section of today’s post comes at the very end of a paragraph that begins by remarking that, despite the absence throughout his writings of any judgments containing “expressions of hate for the Germans” or of a “desire for revenge” against them, Levi would not want his “abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” The full paragraph then continues (page 382):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive as single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

So what about Primo Levi? That is, what about cases such as the victims of the Holocaust, or those who bear witness for them, as Primo Levi did? Where does forgiveness, and with it the reconciliation for which it opens the way, belong in those cases?

Or what about cases such as that of Jimmy Santiago Baca?


            To this day, it still amazes me how taking myself out of the system and refusing to work had everybody in an upheaval, from my friends to the guards.

. . . as a kid I’d had no options except to take the hurt that came my way. As I grew a little older, I learned to strike back. It had been the quickest way to get rid of the pain, a way to show people I was alive. Until now. This time I didn’t lash out, which short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con was supposed to act. Despite the guilt of letting a lot of solid convicts down, not doing what everyone expected turned out to be the most powerful thing I ever did.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (Grove Press, 2001, pages 166, 169)

The forgiveness towards the whole world, himself included, that Jimmy Santiago Baca eventually experienced in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, as he describes it in the passage with which I ended my preceding post of this series, could only come to him once he had found a place to stand in order concretely and effectively to resist his oppression, and thereby emerge victorious over it. Forgiveness issues only from dignity, not from abjectness; and before one can forgive offenses against one’s dignity—truly forgive them, and not just be forced to feign forgiveness—one must reclaim that dignity itself, reclaim it from those who have tried to take it away and claim it solely for themselves.

In a system such as that within which Jimmy Santiago Baca had always been forced to live, it took a truly unusual combination of circumstances for him ever to recover his own dignity, and with it the power to forgive. Initially subjected to such deprivation by the facts of his birth, and then abandoned by his parents when he was ten, he lived first with his grandmother, then in an orphanage, before ending living on the streets. When he was only twenty-one he was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to prison, where he spent six and one-half years, three of them in isolation.

It was not until he finally found his way to a place to stand where he could refuse any longer to take part in the system that brutalized him, that he was at last able to reclaim what was always rightfully his to begin with: his own dignity. In turn, it was only then that he was able to begin the journey in freedom that eventually led to his experience of forgiveness—toward his parents, himself, the whole world—in the cathedral in Santa Fe.

To carve out for himself that place to stand, the most crucial lesson he had to learn was how not to keep giving power to his own oppressors, continually enabling them, precisely by lashing out reactively against their blows. He says in the passage cited above that “as a kid” he at first responded to strikes against him as all kids do at first, when they do not yet have any option beyond “taking the hurt that [comes their] way.” But after a time he learned, as all kids given time do, another option, one that appeared better than just “taking” whatever harm comes one’s way. That was the option, as he puts it, “to strike back.”

The next sentence—and, even more, the entire context of the story of his life up to that point, as he has been telling it in A Place to Stand—makes it clear that what he means here by “striking back” is lashing out, as a cornered animal might. However, far from such lashing out allowing him to reclaim his dignity from those who have claimed it all for themselves, it merely gave them what they expected—and needed, to cement their dominance. Prison guards and administrators, most especially including prison wardens, expect exactly that. In fact, whether deliberately or not (since many such things are a matter of just drifting in the direction of the institution within which one works, rather than of deliberate, individual planning and decision), those who exercise authority over the likes of Jimmy Santiago Baca and other actual or potential “criminals” and convicts actually encourage such reactions, since it plays right into their hands. By lashing out, the oppressed do not opt out of the system of oppression, effectively resisting it. Instead, they reinforce it. Just ask all the “repeat offenders” who are kept constantly moving in and out through the swinging doors of our prison system, a system which if not deliberately designed for the very purpose of engendering repeat offenses may as well be.

Jimmy Santiago Baca soon learned just the lesson that the repressive system into which he was born wanted him to learn: He learned, “as [he] grew a little older,” to lash out whenever he was struck by the blows that continued to be delivered against him. After all, that seemed to be “the quickest way to get rid of the pain.” Given his circumstances, that was the only option he was allowed to become aware of, so it was the only one he really had, to avoid his own hurt: by diverting himself from it, to focus instead on hurting back in turn. Intelligent and quick to learn as he was, he learned that lesson well. That is precisely how and why he ended up in prison in the first place, then was kept there for so many years.

“Until now”: until one time when he finally found a place to stand. That one time at last he stopped giving power to those by whom he had so long been overpowered. “This time [he] didn’t lash out,” as everyone—everyone: those being conditioned no less than those doing the conditioning—expected. By not lashing out reactively “this time,” he “short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con in supposed to act.” Instead of lashing out again, “this time” Jimmy Santiago Baca just opted out of the whole system, simply by staying in his cell and refusing to go out and do the work assigned him.

Sometimes, the most powerful act of resistance is the refusal to act. Sometimes, it is precisely by not striking back that we in fact strike back most effectively.


Whilst I was obeying his order to feed and get the horses ready for the field, and when in the act of going up the stable loft for the purpose of throwing down some blades, Covey sneaked into the stable, in his peculiar snake-like way, and seizing me suddenly by the leg, he brought me to the stable floor, giving my newly mended body a fearful jar. I now forgot my roots, and remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense. [. . .] Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at any rate, I was resolved to fight [. . .].

All was fair, thus far, and the contest was about equal. My resistance was entirely unexpected, and Covey was taken all aback by it, for he trembled in every limb. “Are you going to resist, you scoundrel?” said he. To which, I returned a polite “Yes sir”.

—Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855, pages 186-187)


I finally relearned what I and my kind often had forgotten and what was more crucial than the moral power to resist: to hit back.

Before me I see the prisoner foreman Juszek, a Polish professional criminal of horrifying vigor. In Auschwitz he once hit me in the face because of a trifle; that is how he was used to dealing with all the Jews under his command. At his moment—I felt it with piercing clarity—it was up to me to go a step further in my prolonged appeals case against society. In open revolt I struck Juszek in the face in turn. My human dignity lay in this punch to his jaw—and that in the end it was I, the physically much weaker man, who succumbed and was woefully thrashed, meant nothing to me. Painfully beaten, I was satisfied with myself. [. . .] I gave concrete social form to my dignity by punching a human face. [. . .] I became a person not by subjectively appealing to my abstract humanity but by discovering myself within the given social reality as a rebelling Jew and by realizing myself as one.

—Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, translated by Stuart Rosenthal (University of Indiana Press, 1977), pp. 90-91

The “roots” which Frederick Douglass “forgot,” precisely in order to remember something even more fundamental and important—the pledge he’d made himself while ill, not long before the confrontation he describes above, with the doltish and brutal slave overseer Covey—were his Christian roots. Specifically, at issue are the same roots as those to which Primo Levi refers, in the epigraph to the first section of this post, when he writes of a certain “Jewish and Christian precept,” namely that of “forgiving my enemy.” Douglass says that he had to “forget” that precept, which was part of his own rich heritage as a member of the African American slave-community, in order to honor his pledge to himself to resist the next time he was actively abused. He had to “forget,” which here means to suspend, to put out of play, one part of his inheritance, precisely in order to remember another part of that same inheritance—an older, even more deeply rooted part, one that actually made the other, newer part possible in the first place: his own human dignity, that very dignity he had now resolved to defend.

It is that very same dignity that will not permit Primo Levy to forgive the Germans, either as individuals or collectively, for what they did to him and millions of others in the Nazi concentration camp system. The inner logic of that system itself drove inexorably toward the elimination all possibility of resistance, and in the process drove that system and all who were responsible for it “beyond guilt and atonement” (as Jean Améry puts it, to translate the original German title of what appears in English as At the Mind’s Limits), and therefore beyond all possibility of being forgiven—at least by any human judge to borrow a way of speaking from Levi himself.

The point of resistance, in the sense at issue for Douglass, for Levi, and for Améry—and most certainly for Jimmy Santiago Baca as well—is not to succeed in overpowering in turn those who have once overpowered us. The point of resisting oppression is not to get a chance to oppress others in turn, either those who have oppressed us or innocent bystanders. The point is, rather, to reclaim one’s dignity.*


     Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.

Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”

Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”

The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground.  “I will not.”

—Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribners,2014, p. 264)

Jimmy Santiago Baca had to learn to refrain from “lashing out” against his oppression in order to find a place to stand and truly resist. Frederick Douglass found his own place to stand and resist only in striking back against his immediate oppressor. The fictional Frederick of All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s novel of guilt and redemption in World War II Germany, finds it in refusing an order to strike out against a defenseless prisoner in a German military prep-school run by an good Nazi headmaster, Bastian. The commandant has ordered each boy in turn to throw a bucket of freezing water on an already frozen and dying prisoner who has been chained to a stake on the school’s parade-ground. When his turn comes, Frederick refuses to follow the commandant’s orders. He resists by refusing to be an accomplice to the brutality.

What matters in all these and similar cases is to find the way no longer just to react but rather truly to resist. To resist is what counts, regardless of whether that resistance takes the form of striking or of refusing to strike, as circumstances require. Either way, in resistance oppression itself is struck, and subordination is refused.

Frederick’s fictional resistance took the same form Jimmy Santiago Baca’s real one did: a refusal to follow coercive authority’s orders. Both refusals led to painful consequences, however. Never does that invalidate the resistance, however. To repeat something already said above, the point of resistance is not to overpower what has overpowered one, but to find one’s way to the reclamation of one’s own freedom and dignity. The free can still be made to suffer and die as the price for that reclamation. Indeed, it is always in the interests of coercive power to make them do so. That helps to maintain order.

Jimmy Santiago Baca, for example, is made to suffer isolation and repeated postponements of release from prison even despite his having “rehabilitated” himself completely—not only with no help from the prison system, but with that system actively working against him—teaching himself to read and write and becoming a regionally and nationally recognized poet while still incarcerated. If the warden of the prison where he was entombed had had his way, Jimmy Santiago Baca would still be there. From all the evidence, that warden still resents it that his erstwhile prisoner is no longer imprisoned. It is indeed hard to overestimate the resentment of the privileged toward the unprivileged.

Frederick, the character in Doerr’s novel, suffers even more severe consequences for his refusal. He is subjected to the prep-school equivalent of what the Nazis came to call “special treatment” in the camps. In swift reaction against Frederick for his refusal to obey orders, Bastian, the school commandant, singles him out and makes an example of him by repeatedly unleashing all the other, “good” German students to chase him for invented offenses against school discipline. Finally, at the end of one such chase Frederick is no longer able to outrun them, and they manage to catch him. They then beat him so severely that he becomes permanently cognitively impaired, reduced to little more than a vegetable.

Primo Levi tells yet another story of another resister, another real one to go with Jimmy Santiago Baca, who is simply killed for resisting. The story, which occurs at one point in The Drowned and the Saved (Indiana University Press, 1980, pages 41-42), is that of a “newcomer” to Auschwitz, that is, a newly arrived inmate who has not yet learned the lessons that one must learn very quickly at Auschwitz to have any chance for surviving even for a while. The newcomer at issue had arrived at the camp “when he still had his full strength,” and with it the power to assert his own dignity. He soon did just that, in an act of resistance. “He had been beaten when the soup was being distributed,” such beatings being everyday occurrences at Auschwitz. But they were not everyday yet for the newcomer, who “dared to shove the distributor-functionary” in turn. In reaction to such hauteur, “the latter’s colleagues rushed to his aid, and the culprit was made an example of by being drowned, his head held down in the soup tub.”

As Levi himself observes here and in a number of other places in his writings, it is hardly any wonder that, under such circumstances as existed in the Nazi camps, the telos of which was to eliminate the very possibility of resistance, there was so little rebellion in the Nazi camps. The wonder is rather that there was any at all, which there was.

Just before telling the story of the newcomer drowned in the soup tub, Levi observes (page 41) that in the camps it was “an unwritten and iron law” that Zurückschlagen, which literally means “striking back,” will not be tolerated: “answering blows with blows is an intolerable transgression, and anyone who commits it must be made an example. Other functionaries rush to the aid of the threatened order, and the culprit is beaten with rage and method until he’s tamed or dead. Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.”

Picking up the same thread again after telling the story of the soup-drowned newcomer, Levi goes on a bit later to write (page 42): “ It is a duty of righteous men to make war on all underserved privilege.” That duty is owed by all, to all, but most especially to those who have been deprived of the very possibility of participating in such a “war”—deprived of the very possibility of affirming their own dignity by striking back at all. Ernst Bloch said, famously, that it is for the sake of the hopeless that hope is given to us. So, too, is it for the sake those who have been stripped of their dignity and denied all power to resist oppression that we must affirm our own dignity by striking back against oppression.

Of course, the easier, softer way is just not to let oneself know about the oppression in the first place, remaining willfully ignorant. Then one can avoid all responsibility—at least, as Levi would put it, before any human tribunal.

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This series on “Making Room for Community” will continue with my next post.

* On the other hand, power that goes beyond all possibility of resistance, and thus beyond all possibility of those subjected to it ever reclaiming their own dignity, goes beyond all guilt open to forgiveness and redemption, and becomes truly unforgiveable—a topic to which I plan to return eventually, in a subsequent post.

Making Room for Community (3)

Making Room for Community (3)

This is the third in a consecutive series of posts under the same title.

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Forgiveness: Forced, Feigned, and Free


[E]ven though some of the slain churchgoers’ relatives famously forgave Mr. Roof during his bond hearing two days after the shooting, the sentiment is not universal.

“If I have to forgive him to get to heaven,” said [church member] Willi Glee, 75, “I’m going to end up in hell with him.”

—“Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed” (New York Times 10/19/15, byline Robert Faust)

I ended my preceding post by discussing what the Times article cited above had to say about the doors that still remained open at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, four months after the shootings that took nine lives there—as pertains to the first part of the article’s headline. The quotation above belongs to what the same article goes on eventually to say about the “lingering pain” still felt in the same church—the second part of its headline. In regard to that second topic, the article addressed the diverse ways in which diverse church members responded to the deep pain caused by the recent shootings.

In fact, the two parts of the article—the first about the church doors remaining open after the shootings, and the second about the diversity of church-members’ responses to those same shootings—go seamlessly together: A door that opens up to what is outside also opens upon what is inside, exposing each to the other. At Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, the same doors that remain open outward, to admit all who may wish to enter, especially including strangers, also remain open inward, upon a diverse community in which the pain of the shootings is not handled the same by all the community’s member.

As I already noted in my preceding post, it is precisely by not trying to avoid the trauma of the shootings, and all the pain it brought along with it, that Mother Emanuel was able to keep its doors open, and thereby—indeed, above all—to keep true to itself as an eschatologically open community of faith. For Mother Emanuel to remain Mother Emanuel, she had to keep her doors open in both those directions at once, in fact: outward to admit all who came to those doors for admittance, and inward upon all who were already inside, and who had been wounded by the attack. Furthermore, just as she had no pat-downs, metal detectors, or other testing equipment for screening before admittance into the church, so she had no surveillance mechanisms overseeing those who were inside once they had entered.

Nor did she position interrogators at the door to be sure that those who entered were, in effect, “right minded.” That is, there were no credos or other professions of faith that those seeking entry into the space of the community had to make, in order to gain admittance. Once again, the same applied to those already inside—regardless of how long they’d been there. Neither new members nor those who had already been members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church before the shootings, no matter how long they had been members, were required to declare their faith in any particular way in order to retain membership in good standing. At least—and what is most important for my purposes in this post—none of them had been required to profess forgiveness toward Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist who had shot nine church members to death so recently. Thus, to cite the prime example from the Times article, Willi Glee remains a full member of the Mother Emanuel Church community, even though he would prefer to go to hell before he would forgive Roof.

Given their witness at Roof’s hearing, I believe that those church members who, unlike Willi Glee, did forgive Roof would also be willing to go to hell along with Willi, if his refusal to forgive were to bar him from entering heaven.


In two decades of contemplating what happened to me, I believe to have recognized that a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral.

—Jean Améry, At the Minds Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities*

Any community membership made contingent upon forgiving any or all harms done to one is, by the fact of that membership requirement alone, a proper community in the sense I discussed at the end of my first post in this present series on “Making Room for Community.” In that sense, a “proper” community is one defined by the fact that all its members—all those who belong to that community, which is to say are proper to it—have a certain property or certain properties. As I pointed out in that first post of the series, all such proper communities are necessarily delimited by those very properties that thus define them. They are, therefore, communities with borders, which must be defended against intruders from outside. All such proper, bordered communities build walls around themselves, to protect their own property, at the cost of those who are locked out. All such communities are thus closed communities—in reality, no better than “clubs.”**

In contrast, an open community is one that defines itself by no property or properties that every member of the community must own or possess. In that sense, it is a community that does not bother to “define” itself at all. It has no need to “delimit” its “boundaries,” and therefore no need to defend its limits or lock anyone out. Its doors are always open.

The doors of a truly open community must always remain open in both directions at once, outward and inward. That is, there can be no requirements that those who are already inside must meet in order to remain there, any more than there can be such requirements that must be met before those seeking entry are admitted. Otherwise, the community ceases to be an open one. It closes itself off, becoming a mere club.


It also invites deception.

If membership in the given club, or closed community, is at all generally desirable—for example, because of entitlements to expensive medical procedures, adequate general health care, ample housing, abundant income, freedom from random harassment, or other privileges that come with club membership (or, for that matter, not even for such special entitlements, but just to fulfill the common human need to be accepted by others: the need simply “to belong”)—then those who do not happen to meet the membership standards for that club will have an incentive to pretend that they meet them anyway. They will be tempted to feign having the characteristics or properties required for membership, in hopes of being granted admission to the club, and access to all the entitlements that go with membership. If necessary, they may lie about it. They may even lie about it first and foremost to themselves: Driven by their desire for membership and its entitlements, they may actually come to “believe” that they do possess the property that is required for membership, even when they don’t. Such self-deception goes far deeper than any effort on their part to deceive others. Those who suffer from it may honestly believe that they are being completely honest even when they are running a con.

Pretending or feigning even to the point of such self-deception becomes especially likely when the goods or properties required for membership in the club at issue are emotional, dispositional, or propositional in nature, rather than just material. That is, it becomes more likely that such deep self-deception will occur, the more the requirements for club membership involve such matters as how one “feels,” is “inclined,” or “thinks” (“believes”), as opposed to such matters as how much money one has in the bank, what real estate one owns on the beach, or what genes one has in one’s DNA. Successfully feigning that one owns, say, acres of land or millions of dollars is much harder than successfully feigning that one holds certain beliefs, has certain inclinations, or feels certain ways about certain things. What is more, it is much, much harder to deceive oneself about such matters as one’s real estate or bank holdings than it is about such matters as what one holds for true, feels positively or negatively about, or is inclined or disinclined toward.

The greater the desirability of membership in a club, the greater the temptation for those who do not meet the club’s membership requirements to feign meeting them, and, in turn, the stronger the tendency toward self-deception about the matter. When desirability of membership is combined with what we might call the de-materialization of membership requirements—the shifting of such requirements away from possessing certain material goods toward possessing certain beliefs, feelings, or dispositions—the risks of conning oneself by one’s own con rise sharply. Under such conditions, it therefore becomes increasingly difficult, often to the point of impossibility, to tell whether one really does believe, feel, or like and dislike, what one says and even thinks one does, as either an applicant for club membership or an already admitted club member.

The more subtly our feigning is forced upon us, the more subtly our feigning gains force over us. Eventually, honesty itself becomes impossible. One can no longer tell the truth, because one can no longer tell what the truth is. Lies and truth become indistinguishable.


Information obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable. In courtrooms in the United States and elsewhere, demonstrably forced confessions are legally inadmissible; only voluntary confessions are to be accepted in court proceedings. Whatever is said under duress is subject to doubt.

Similarly, even sworn court testimony from prosecutorial witnesses who have in one way or another been bribed for their testimony—bribed by offers of immunity from prosecution for their own offenses, or shortening of already imposed sentences, for example—is rightly treated with suspicion. So are expressions of contrition by those convicted of crimes and facing harsh sentences, as are professions of gratitude by those in position to expect further rewards for uttering such professions.

What matters in all such cases is that force of one sort or another is exerted to elicit the confession, testimony, expression of sorrow or gratitude, or the like. The force may take a form such as torture or the threat of a death sentence, or it may take such forms as the promise of immunity for one’s own offenses if one will testifies against one’s neighbors. In any form, it remains coercive.

The coercion may also be overt or covert, open or hidden. And as a general rule the more insidious the coercion, the more effective.


And suddenly I began to forgive them for what they had done or had not done. I forgave myself for all my mistakes and for all I had done to hurt others. I forgave the world for how it had treated us.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet***


Forced forgiveness is as unworthy of trust as is forced confession. It does not bring genuine freedom, either for the forgiving or for the forgiven. For the former, forced forgiveness brings no liberation from the bondage of resentment, rancor, and the desire for revenge—a desire that by its own nature can never be fulfilled. For the latter, forced forgiveness can at most occasion an equally forced expression of contrition—contrition that itself remains no more than feigned. Accordingly, it can never bring the freedom from compulsively repeating one’s crimes or other offenses—the freedom to “go and sin no more” that Jesus grants to the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John.

Only a fully free and freely offered forgiveness is to be trusted. It alone can bring freedom, either to the forgiver or the forgiven.

However, the freedom to forgive, freedom to offer the free forgiveness that is freeing in turn, does not simply come for the asking. One cannot just wake up one morning and decide on one’s own that it’s time fully and freely to forgive harms one has suffered. Rather, it takes deliberation, and effort. Above all, it takes time. One may truly want to forgive, but find, when one is honest with oneself, that one cannot, at least not until one goes through a painful process.

One major obstacle to granting the deliberation, effort, and time forgiveness must have in order truly to develop, is simply the fear of pain. The natural reaction to the beginnings of pain is to tense up and draw away from it, endeavoring to escape and avoid it. Often, that is exactly what stands behind the rush to forgive prematurely. The fear of pain drives one to profess forgiveness, before one has done the work necessary to allow the possibility for genuine—which is to say, free—forgiveness to form. If the proffered forgiveness is to be freely and genuinely offered, that can only be after one has opened to the full depth of the pain the very infliction of which is what is being forgiven.

There is what is deserving of being called a temptation to forgive, that is, to profess a false forgiveness, one feigned, forced, or both. That temptation is based on the fear of the pain that one would have to feel if one did not forgive as quickly as possible, the pain of fully feeling how deeply one has really been hurt. If one can con oneself into thinking that one has already forgiven, then one can avoid having to keep the wound open, which one would rather not do.

The forgiveness that Jimmy Santiago Baca experienced after finally being freed from many years confinement in a prison system designed to strip him of all his human dignity, an experience he had in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and describes in the citation given above, was no such cheap grace. It was won at the end of a long and difficult and extremely painful struggle, born of a gift of understanding, of insight, into the behavior of all those, including himself, who had harmed him. With that understanding, that insight, came the possibility of freely forgiving himself and everybody else who had brought him such pain—forgiving “the [whole] world” for all the harm it had brought him.

Free forgiveness never comes cheap.

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Much more remains to be said, including in response to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s book. I will try to say some of it in my next post, which will continue this present series on “Making Room for Community.”

* Translated by Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press, 1980), p.72. The main title of the original German publication in 1966 was Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, which can be translated as “Beyond Guilt and Atonement.” For some reason (I assume it is the time-honored one of attempting to maximize potential sales and therefore profits, but I may be wrong), as the main title of the whole book the publishers of the English edition have chosen to use a translation—itself not entirely satisfying, since the German word Geist, correctly translated by “mind,” is just as correctly translated by “spirit,” though neither English word as currently used fits perfectly as a translation for Geist—of the title of Améry’s first essay. The subtitle of the original German book is Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten, which is more difficult to capture in English than is the book’s main title, at least without losing something in the process. The subtitle given to the English edition of the work, however, does not even make any effort to translate the original subtitle. It just drops it, and substitutes what is meant as a descriptive subtitle of its own—one that I find misleading, even offensive to Améry’s underlying moral and social purpose in writing and publishing the book in the first place. A paraphrase translation that tries to keep the sense of the original subtitle, though admittedly at the price of its verbal elegance, might be “Attempts To Reclaim Power by One Overpowered.” At any rate, the book is indispensable reading for pondering forgiveness, forgetfulness, atonement, and reconciliation. It ought to be required reading in high schools across the United States.

** Groucho Marx used to like to tell the joke that he never wanted to belong to any club with membership standards so low that it would accept someone like him. At one level, that joke can be taken as an amusing self-put-down. But given who Groucho was, and the nature of his humor, so rich in satire, at a deeper level it makes a comment on the nature of “clubs,” and the exclusions on which all clubs—which is to say all closed communities—are based.

*** New York: Grove Press, 2001, page 264.

Published in: on November 2, 2015 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Making Room for Community (2)

This is the second in a series of consecutive posts under the same general title.

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Forgiving, Forgetting, and Amnesty


One way never to forget is always to repeat. What is compulsively repeated again and again, over and over one way or another come what may, is never forgotten. It eternally recurs.

As Jean-Louis Chrétien notes in The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For (Fordham University Press, 2002), it is only what can never be remembered that is truly unforgettable. What is truly never to be forgotten is never to be remembered either. Whatever can be remembered can also be forgotten. Moreover, sooner or later what can be forgotten will be forgotten. If something can be actively remembered, then it is something the keeping in mind of which requires effort. Any effort eventually must tire and flag, including the effort that is required actively to hold something in memory. When that effort does eventually falter, what one until then had been successfully struggling to remember is, despite all one’s efforts, forgotten.

Given such an understanding of what constitutes the genuinely unforgettable, the call of “never forget” applied to some traumatic event such as the Holocaust is always redundant. Trauma cannot be held in memory, not because it is so easy to forget, but because it can never be put there, in memory, in the first place, such that it ever could be forgotten. It will not let itself be forgotten. Instead, the harder we try to forget it, the more compulsively it just keeps on repeating itself over and over and over again in one form or another, as Freud saw and called to our explicit attention a century ago, and as many (including myself) have repeated over and over again after him since then.


There is another way never to forget, however—a way besides compulsively repeating. As paradoxical as it may sound to say so, that other way never to forget is ever to forgive, which at the political-juridical level means to grant amnesty.

To grant amnesty is to let bygones be bygones, as an old cliché has it. To reply with another cliché: That is easy to say, but not so easy to do. It takes resolution—in more than one sense. First, the granting of amnesty takes “resolution” in the sense that it requires being formally announced and committed to.

The resolution of amnesty in that first sense itself requires formally acknowledging the offense for which amnesty is being granted: an amnesty granted for nothing in particular is no amnesty granted for anything at all. One does not let bygones be bygones by pretending nothing ever happened. In fact, pretending that nothing ever really happened is a formula for nursing resentment, rather than granting forgiveness: I may present a friendly face to your face, but really just be waiting for an opportunity to put the proverbial knife in your back when your face is turned. Truly to let a conflict that occurred yesterday go by today requires not only that the conflict be acknowledged, but also that it be honored. That is, truly to grant amnesty or forgiveness requires that the fact of discord not be denied, but recorded and marked, “memorialized.”


At one point in Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, a short book published just this year both in its Italian original and in an English translation by Nicholas Heron (Stanford University Press, 2015), but which contains revised versions of two lectures first given in 2001, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discusses a definitive historical case of the granting of amnesty. Relying on the work of French scholar Nicole Loraux, Agamben writes of how, in Greece in 403 BCE, “following the civil war in Athens which concluded with the defeat of the oligarchy of the Thirty, the victorious democrats, led by Archinus, solemnly pledged ‘not in any instance to remember the past events’ (Ath. Const. 39.6), that is, not to prosecute crimes committed during the civil war.” This, Agamben goes on to say, is “the invention of amnesty.”

According to Agamben, the relevant portion of the Athenian “amnestic oath is usually translated with ‘do not remember’ or even ‘do not be resentful, do not have bad memories (Loraux translates it as je ne rappellerai pas les malheures, I will not recall the misfortunes).” Agamben says that the Greek adjective at issue “thus means ‘rancorous, resentful’ and refers to someone who harbours bad memories.” However, he immediately adds that “it is doubtful” that the Greek verb from which the adjective at issue comes should be taken simply to mean not to cling to one’s unpleasant or painful memories of being harmed. He suggests instead that it “means less ‘to have bad memories’ than ‘to do harm with memory, to make bad use of memories,” then adds: “The Athenian amnestia is not simply a forgetting of a repression of the past; it is an exhortation not to make bad use of memory.”

The issue of amnesty, so framed, is not whether those who grant amnesty retain painful memories of past harms, as though by granting amnesty they have somehow wiped such memories, and the pain that goes with them, away. Rather, it is an issue of the use to be made of those memories: Those granting amnesty are vowing not to use their memories of past harms against the amnestied, that is, against those who perpetrated the harm.

What I take Agamben to be saying is that a vow not to use memories of some harm someone has done me against the individual who did that harm is indeed a vow not to “harbor” (to use the American rather than the British spelling) whatever “bad” memories I may have of what that individual did. It is precisely the vow, to put the same point just a bit differently by using another of Agamben’s own terms, not to nurture any resentment toward that offender, but instead truly to “let bygones be bygones.”   The bad memories involved here, however, are not “bad” in the sense of being unpleasant or painful to the one who has those memories, as memories of a toothache might well be said to be “bad memories.” Rather, they are bad in intention: They intend, at least at the level of wishes, harm to the one who did harm to the one who has the memories.

Whereas resentment is the harboring of such wishes or intentions to harm back those who have done harm, the granting of amnesty or forgiveness is the decision, which when resolved has the status of a vow or promise, not to harbor any such harmful wishes or intentions, but instead to let them go. “To let bygones be bygones” is just that “letting go” of the past, not some erasure of painful memories.

Indeed, in order for the vow or promise of amnesty to be honored, so must the pain of that for involvement in which the amnesty is granted. Thus, in the case of the ancient Athenian granting of amnesty in 403 BCE, Agamben first writes that the Greek amnesty entailed neither “simply” forgetting nor repressing the civil war that had just occurred, as which could be taken to mean that it did involve such forgetting or repressing, just not only that, but also more as well. But against such misunderstanding, Agamben as it were explains himself by adding immediately that, in fact, civil war cannot be forgotten or repressed, and is instead unforgettable. He writes that stasis or civil war “is not something that can ever be forgotten or repressed,” but is, rather, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city, yet which nonetheless must not be remembered through trials and resentments,” that is, through deeds or intentions to use the memories of the harm to punish the perpetrators. The painful memories which are an aftershock of the wound for the inflicting of which amnesty is granted serve, in fact, as reminders of the ever present possibility of further wounding, a possibility which must be acknowledged and to which the city must remain open, if it truly to return to itself as a reunited city.

Such an understanding of civil war as a trauma from which the city can never free itself, but which must always be kept open as a possibility in any genuine community reconciliation, is very different from how civil war—and trauma as such, for that matter—is typically understood today. What civil war was for the ancient Athenians, writes Agamben, continuing the same passage cited above, was “[j]ust the opposite [. . .] of what civil war seems to be for the moderns: namely, something that one must seek to render impossible at every cost, yet that must always be remembered through trials and legal persecutions” (thereby perpetuating the very divisions and conflicts that broke out in civil war in the fist place: politics as the continued pursuit of civil war by other means—a point to which I will eventually return below).

The politics of resentment never forgets precisely because it keeps on compulsively repeating the very thing it is “seek[ing] to render impossible,” that is, seeking to guarantee will “never happen again,” as it is often put. It seeks to close the wound and keep it closed forever. In contrast, the politics of amnesty never forgets because knowing that the possibility of “it” happening again always remains, and that the wound must always, in that sense, be kept open.


Making a vow is one thing, keeping that vow is another. That is the another way in which the granting of amnesty takes resolution. In the sense already explored, the vow must be “resolved” in the sense that it must actually be announced or proclaimed. That is, in one fashion or another it must be performatively uttered. That can take place publicly, as it does when marriage vows are exchanges in a wedding ceremony, for example. Or it can take the private form in which one makes some vow “to oneself,” as a smoker fed up with his habit might vow to himself never to smoke again, without telling anyone else he has done so, or an aspiring musician might silently vow to herself to practice for six hours daily. As those two examples clearly suggest, however, keeping such a resolution takes far greater resolution than just making it. Common experience with “New Year’s resolutions” abundantly confirms that. In truth, the proof of a decision is in the honoring.

Just so must forgiveness, once decided upon and offered, then be maintained. It takes ongoing effort not to lapse back into resentment. In a well-known passage of the Christian Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:21-22), Peter comes to Jesus and asks how often he should forgive another member of the church who sins against him, wondering aloud if he should do so “as many as seven times.” Jesus replies that rather he should forgive, at least in one common rendition, “seventy times seven times.”

Surely, the point of that saying is not that one should count the number of times the other person gives offense, and only strike back if that number eventually exceeds 490. Nor does one have to take Jesus’ response to mean solely that one should not put a limit to the number of times one is willing to forgive multiple offenses committed by the same person. That can reasonably be taken to be part of what Jesus means, to be sure. However, there is at least one other possible interpretation, which includes that first one but is more expansive, keeping more open. Jesus’s response can also be taken as pointing to the need to keep one’s forgiveness, once extended, going—to maintain one’s offer once made, keeping it open moment by moment. By either reading, at any rate, forgiveness is not a matter to be counted.

Truly forgiving someone for some offense, even for a single harmful act never repeated, is not just a momentary act. It is a decision that, once made, must then be carried out and kept operative. A vow or promise is not just over and done with once made, requiring nothing further from the one making it after that. Once made, the vow or promise must then be kept. If it is not, the one who once made the vow or promise has committed an offense that itself calls for forgiveness.


At least on the basis of the definitive ancient Athenian amnesty Agamben discusses, the reason for the granting of amnesty was nothing such as trying to be good winners or to look magnanimous in the eyes of the vanquished. Nor was it a matter of trying to follow any such moral precepts as doing to others as you would have them to do unto you. Not that there is anything wrong with such notions of right—or, for that matter, with wanting to appear magnanimous or to be a good winner. It is just that none of that is what is really at stake in the Athenian amnesty. Rather, as Agamben himself emphasizes, it is the very life of the polis itself. At issue was the very establishment—or reestablishment, to be precise, since it had been riven in two by the civil war—of the polis or “city” itself. The issue was to renew and preserve the very “civilization” of the civis, we might say, to use the Latin from which our English word city comes.

Thus, the victorious party to the civil war in Athens in 403 BCE granted amnesty to their defeated opponents in order to preserve Athens itself as a true city, civis, or polis: a true “civic community.” Failure to grant such amnesty would in effect have perpetuated the civil war in another form, as I have already remarked above. Not to grant amnesty would have threatened the very continuation of Athens as such a city. Their overriding motivation was to preserve the city as such.

In the very same way, by their own testimony the victims of the recent shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who extended forgiveness to the shooter without even being asked, did so in order to preserve “Mother Emanuel” as the very church, the very “faith community,” that it was. That was central to their motivation.

Thus, in both cases, that of the ancient city of Athens and that of the contemporary church in Charleston, the motivation of those granting forgiveness was grounded at the level of the community as such. In each case, it was a matter of preserving the community itself, as the very community it was. Forgiveness was not granted just for the sake of those being forgiven. Nor was it granted just for the sake of those extending forgiveness. It was done for everybody’s sake.


By chance, on the very day (October 19, 2015) I put up my immediately preceding post, the first in this series on “Making Room for Community,” a follow-up article about the Charleston shootings, which had occurred four months earlier, appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The article bore the headline of “Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed,” and appeared under the byline of Robert Fausset. It opened this way:

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff Sr. was standing on a Wednesday evening in the room where the massacre occurred an Emanuel A.M.E. Church, readying himself to lead Bible study.

A police officer was at the door. But for those who arrived, even the strangers, there were no pat-downs, no metal detectors. They were all as welcome as Dylann Roof had been when he arrived on a Wednesday night in June, concealing his pistol and his intentions.

If the visitors had come looking for a grand statement on racial reconciliation, the open door was it. . . .

Indeed it was. It was also a grand statement on how Emanuel A.M.E. Church had managed to remain a true church, despite the shootings. Mother Emanuel Church did not react to those shootings by closing up, battening down, and doing whatever else she could to secure herself against any such a horrible thing ever happening again. She resisted the temptation to try to protect herself by shutting out the strangers who came to her doors, a temptation the yielding to which would have been at the price of ceasing truly to be a church, that is, a community of faith, in the fullest sense. Yielding to that temptation would have turned Mother Emanuel instead into a community of distrust, fear, and suspicion, not faith. By closing her doors, Mother Emanuel Church would have closed her doors not only on strangers, but also on herself.

By keeping them open, she kept the faith.

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This series of posts will be continued.

Making Room for Community (1)

This is the first of a series of consecutive posts under the same title.

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Forgiveness, Contrition, and Reconciliation

One should never underestimate the resentment of the wealthy towards the insolence of the poor.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends*           


One morning toward the beginning of the summer just recently ended, I was especially struck by the juxtaposition of three different news articles on the front page of the New York Times. It was the morning of Thursday, June 25, 2015. The first of the three articles, in the order I read them, was about the formal sentencing to death, just the day before, of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. The second article was about the shooting just a week earlier, on June 17, of nine African American church members at “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The third article was about the far higher incidence in the United States of such homegrown right-wing terrorist attacks as the Charleston church shootings, on the one hand, compared to such Islamic-extremist ones as the Boston marathon bombings, on the other.

The second article I read that morning, addressing the recent shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, was actually about the responses to the nine shooting deaths, as voiced by the family members of the victims. The piece described how, in the arraignment hearing for Dylann Roof, the accused shooter, one after another various members of the families of those killed spontaneously, with no prior consultation among themselves, offered forgiveness to that shooter.

In contrast, in the first story I read, about the sentencing to death of Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon shooter, a very different situation was depicted. In that case, as the article presented it, almost all of the Boston victims and victims’ family members who were cited insisted that they did not and would not forgive the bomber. A small number of them, by that and earlier accounts I had read or seen broadcast, did say they were going to forgive, or at least try to. But even in those rare cases, the nature of the forgiveness they offered was very different in foundation and effect from that offered by those involved in the Charleston case—a point to which I will eventually return below.

The third article that caught my special attention that morning was focused on the contrast between the public perception of the source of the greatest “terrorist” threat to America and Americans, and what law-enforcement agents and statistics confirm really to be the case. By the opinion polls, by far the majority of United States citizens identify “Islamic extremism” or the equivalent—such as animated those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001—as being the potential source of “terrorism” most to be feared. However, as recounted in the article, the statistics on which law-enforcement agencies across the county themselves primarily rely demonstrate that, since September 11, 2001, almost twice as many “terrorist” attacks and deaths have been perpetrated by indigenous right-wing, anti-government extremists—such as were Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrators of the pre-9/11 Oklahoma City bombings that remain the second most deadly “terrorist” strike ever on U S soil—as by those claiming some sort of Islamic inspiration.

The juxtaposition of those three different news articles in that morning’s New York Times engendered the thoughts I will share in this post concerning the interplay of three factors: forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation.


In the article about the testimony of the Boston Marathon victims and their families at the Tsarnaev hearing, more than one person cited made remarks to the effect that any forgiveness for Tsarnaev (or his dead brother, the other bomber) would have to be preceded by some show of genuine contrition on his part. In effect, they said that they would not extend any forgiveness to Tsarnaev until after he had first confessed to what he had done, and shown signs of honest regret and desire to atone for it. For them, forgiveness would be extended only after the way had thus been cleared for it by such contrition. Forgiveness was not to be given before such display of honest regret and desire to make amends, but only after it—forgiveness as a sort of after-given, rather than a fore-given, of contrition, as it were.

In contrast, the responses from the victims of the Charleston shootings and their families at the arraignment of Roof, as depicted in the article devoted to them, was strikingly different on just that score. One after another, those who had been made to suffer by the shooter offered forgiveness before it had ever been requested. They made no mention of needing first to have Roof confess to his transgressions and display genuine contrition, before they would offer him forgiveness. They forgave him without him even asking them to.


Another difference between those two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston Emanuel A.M.E. Church shootings, that caught my attention as I read about them in that morning’s Times was a matter of ethnic or “racial” differences. The Charleston victims’ voices all came from African American, or “black,” Christians who were freely offering actual forgiveness to a “white” perpetrator, whereas the voices from Boston, the ones that spoke only of a possible forgiveness under certain conditions, came predominantly from “whites,” and were addressed to a Muslim immigrant from Chechnya.

That contrast brought more than one thought to my mind. The first was that a possible “advantage,” as it were, to being a member of the oppressed part of the population rather than the oppressing part—belonging, in a general sense, among the oppressed, rather than among the oppressors—might be that being one of the oppressed may bring with it a sort of freedom to forgive, whereas being one of the oppressors may tend to enchain one to the defense of one’s entitlements.

The second thought that came to me when I noticed the contrast at issue had to do with the generally overwhelmingly positive reaction of the mass media—and apparently of the public that consumes that media—to what the victims said in both cases, despite the obvious differences between the two sets of victims’ responses. Press and public all but unanimously praised the black victims of the Charleston shootings for spontaneously forgiving the perpetrator of those shootings, without him asking for their forgiveness first, or even admitting he’d done anything for which he might need to be forgiven. Yet the same press and public were equally united in voicing approval of the Boston Marathon bombing victims for refusing to forgive the bomber, at least until he had admitted his guilt and expressed sorrow for what he had done. The thought that came to me from the conjunction of those two equally positive public reactions to those two very different cases was a second possible explanation for that phenomenon, besides the one I just mentioned about the constraints of entitlement and the liberty of the oppressed.

What occurred to me was that the more or less institutionally encouraged view in a society such as ours—namely, one riddled by inequalities and inequities, especially along “racial” lines—is that not only is it a right or even a privilege of the oppressed to forgive their oppressors, but it is also what such a society expects or even demands of the oppressed. On the other hand, in such a society it is never a right of the oppressed to strike back against their oppressors—and it is often taken as nothing but do-gooder “political correctness” to talk about any need to forgive them if they dare to do just that.


It is also worth noting that the very few Boston victims who actually did say they forgave the bomber, made a point of explaining that they were doing so solely for their own sake, not for his. In contrast, none of the Charleston victims was reported as saying something similar (at least in the Times article I read that day, or any other accounts I read later, heard, or saw later, for that matter).

As a matter of fact, none of them said they were offering forgiveness either solely for their own sake, or solely for the shooter’s.   Rather, they emphasized that they felt called to offer forgiveness because of who they were as member of the community to which they belonged. They experienced a call to forgive for the sake of their community as such, in order that it might continue to be fostered.

By how it struck me, at least, they can be taken to have meant not only their own community of the faithful at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, but also—and precisely because of the very nature of their own limited Church community—the broader community beyond. What they said can and most probably should be taken to extend, ultimately, all the way out to that open-ended, all-inclusive, worldwide human community that, inspired by their example, we might call the community of universal reconciliation.

Such radical extension well beyond the limits of their own limited African American faith community is strongly suggested, for one thing, by the fact that the white shooter was himself warmly welcomed into the bible study meeting that was going on at the Church when he entered the building. Once inside, he was embraced by the congregation, until he eventually pulled out his gun and began firing. Such openness to others—to any “neighbor” who happened by, whether already known or a complete stranger—as accorded with their understanding of their own Christian faith, was central to the communal identity of the shooting victims themselves.


What interests me about the difference in victims’ responses in the two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston A.M.E. Church shootings, is not a matter of any differences in moral fiber or strength of character of the victims, either individually or collectively (taken one by one or group by group). No such differences were apparent to me from the reports, nor would they be of any special interest to me even if they were. Rather, what interests me in the contrast between the two cases of victims’ responses is that they suggest two very different understandings and models of how the interplay of forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation operates in relation to the emergence, institution, and maintenance of community. What interests me can be put most succinctly, perhaps, in the form of two different answers to the following question: Which comes first, forgiveness or contrition, with what effect upon reconciliation, to establish or reestablish community?

By one understanding, contrition must come first. Contrition, by that understanding, is the condition for the possibility of forgiveness: the sincere expression of regret and desire to atone make the offer of forgiveness possible—though never mandatory, it is important to add. Finally, it is the conjunction of those two, contrition and forgiveness, that then makes reconciliation possible—though again not mandatory: the extension of forgiveness always being voluntary, it may not be offered, which means that reconciliation will not be effected.   That, it seems to me, is the model suggested by the Boston response.

On the other hand, the Charleston response suggests a significantly different understanding and corresponding model. By that second understanding and model, what begins the whole process is forgiveness, rather than contrition. That forgiveness is what then effects, all on its own, reconciliation. That already effected reconciliation, in turn, is what makes genuine contrition possible.


As Augustine teaches, and using his terms, the very awareness of sin is of itself proof that God has already extended the grace of forgiveness for that same sin. It is only such grace that first allows one to become truly aware of the fact of one’s sin: finding oneself being freely and fully offered forgiveness for something one has done is what first of all lets one genuinely experience one’s guilt. Save for the prevenient grace of forgiveness already extended before it is even requested, the offender cannot plumb the depths of the offense, and hence cannot come fully and genuinely to regret his or her offending deed. Unless such unearned, gratuitously offered forgiveness first opens the way, contrition cannot come into its own.

Without such libratory anticipation allowing one to experience one’s real guilt, any expressions of sorrow one might make for what one has done are at best a routine conformity to social expectations, done to forestall any possible unpleasantness. So, for example, when I accidentally brush against someone on the subway or in the grocery-store aisle, I will typically say I’m sorry, just to maintain sociality.

In my judgment there is nothing at all to apologize for in making such purely conventional apologies. They are perfectly acceptable, and even to be respected. It would be boorish not to make them. Nevertheless, such apologies display no real contrition; and that, in turn, is primarily because no real offense has been committed in the first place.

Nor is there really any contrition in cases where I say I am sorry just to avoid being punished for something I’ve done. A child caught stealing cookies from a cookie jar who verbalizes sorrow only in order not to be disciplined—and maybe to protect the supply of cookies within reach, fully intending to steal some more as soon as the coast is once again clear. Or a murderer might tell a judge he is sorry to for his deed in hopes of escaping the death sentence, as many of the Boston Marathon victims thought was true of Tsarnaev’s eventual expressions of sorrow for what he had done.


Communities that define themselves through some property that all and only members of that community possess necessarily exclude everyone else, everyone who fails the qualifying test of ownership, of possession, of the property at issue. Unless one can prove such possession to the satisfaction of the group, one has not met the eligibility requirement for belonging to it. Such communities are built by entitlement, the right of title to the property that defines the group. Along their borders such groups always build walls to keep out the un-entitled—and they always make the excluded and un-entitled themselves pay for those walls, we might add. They are gated communities. Closed tightly in upon themselves, such communities remain unforgiving toward all breaches of their security. They can last only so long as such breaches are contained, and their walled borders remain secure.

All walls come crumbling down eventually, however. Therefore, no such communities—proper communities of property, as it were—last forever. Every empire ends sooner or later.


On the other hand, a community built by forgiveness—such a community as the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, given the witness of the victims of Roof’s white-supremacist attack—is guaranteed to last. Like love itself, such a community lasts forever, even after all the walls of the building in which it is housed come tumbling down. It is as eschatological–as much a matter of eternity now—as the freely offered, unconditional forgiveness that builds it. That is precisely because it is a community built upon openness and inclusion, and can only be maintained by continually erasing its own borders to admit ever again new members, with no end to that particular endless-ness.

Such an eschatological community, built by unconditional forgiveness, is just the sort of community Étienne Balibar, a contemporary French sociologist and political philosopher, describes at one point in Equaliberty (Duke University Press, 2014), a collection of his essays from over the last twenty years.   Balibar at that point (page 93) envisions “a community that itself has no ‘property,’ and thus no common good (no res publica or common-wealth) to preserve, appropriate, or identify with,” a community that “can only be approached in terms of an injunction to make a place for alterity,” and thus “a community without community that has nothing in common but non-property, the resistance of its own members to identifying with some ‘proper.’”

Communities built and maintained by the sort of forgiveness offered to the Charleston shooter by the members of Emanuel African American Church are just such altogether improper communities.

*    *     *     *     *     *

The next post will continue this series on “Making Room for Community.”

* Translated by Robert Hurley, South Pasadena: Semiotext(e) 2015, page 133.

“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.

*     *     *     *     *     *

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.

*    *     *     *     *     *

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 ( 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 ( 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.


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