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)

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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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