Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs–Final Fragment

After a long interruption, I am resuming work on this blog. The post below is the last of three in a series under the same general title—the last of three “Fragments” of “Shattering Wholes.”

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            Every critique of the present has its right only as a mediated illumination of the knowledge of future necessities. All fixation on grievances clouds vision into the essential; it lacks what alone supports critiques: the capacity to differentiate that arises from dedication to something not yet real—that is, present at hand—but therefore all the more originally having the rank of what already is.

— Heidegger, Überlegungen VI, §113 (GA 94)

Only one who has once overcome contempt for others has no further need to feel superior in order to be great—which is to say to be, and let others fall where and how they may.

— Heidegger, Überlegungen VI, §140 (GA 94)

Last fall, on Saturday, November 29, 2014, memorial services in Colorado commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. On that date in 1864 a large body of Colorado Territory militia under the command of Col. John Chivington, who was also a Methodist preacher, slaughtered around 160 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, mostly women and children, and then mutilated their corpses for fleshly souvenirs–including vulvas, breasts, and penises to be flown atop flags and pennants as the butchers rode away celebrating their glorious victory.

In addition, on the same day as the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, another event also took place. That day, November 29, 2014, was the day on which an Egyptian court formally dismissed all charges against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring.

The two events of the Sand Creek Massacre, on the one hand, and the official exoneration of Mubarak, on the other, are separated in time by a century and one-half. Nevertheless, those two events are connected in telling ways, ways much more important than the trivial fact that they both took place on the same day of the same month, though 150 years apart. Above all, the two events, the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 and the exoneration of Mubarak 150 years later, both embody efforts by powers that be to secure their power.   Both are examples of power “circling the wagons,” as it were, to protect itself.

That image of “circling the wagons” derives, of course, more from the time of the Sand Creek Massacre than from the much more recent times of Mubarak. It comes from what is in effect dominant US culture’s sanctioned narrative of the westward expansion of the United States in fulfillment of its supposed “Manifest Destiny.” That is the narrative in accordance with which the United States was divinely destined to spread itself from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the whole expanse of North America between Mexico and Canada–or at least what the United States left of them, especially Mexico, after that expansion.

The story of the Sand Creek Massacre is granted a place within that larger narrative. It is usually a small place, as befits what is presented in the meta-narrative as an unfortunately regrettable exception to the generally glorious story of US exceptionalism.

In that broader story, waves of fabled wagon trains carried intrepid settler-families west during the 19th century, across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, to the western edge of California and the Pacific Northwest, fulfilling the United States’ self-proclaimed destiny. As those wagons rolled west, they were subject to attacks by Indians presumptuous enough to resist the fulfillment of that very destiny, no matter how manifest it might have been to those who proclaimed and enacted it. To repel such attacks and overcome such resistance, the westward tending settler-trekkers would “circle the wagons,” as the story goes. They would thereby create a wall of protection for themselves, a wall behind which they could stand to use their massively superior killing technology to mow down the unfriendly “savages” who dared to attack them as invaders.

The 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre was marked not only by various memorial services—especially but not exclusively in Colorado, where the massacre occurred—but also by various official apologies pertaining to the atrocities performed at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. To start with the most publicized example, on Wednesday, December 3, four days after the anniversary of the massacre itself, during a memorial ceremony at the State Capital, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper became, according to his own office, the first Colorado governor to issue an official public apology for the butchery that had occurred at Sand Creek a century and a half before.

Just the other day as I am writing this, a court in South Carolina voided the conviction of the “Friendship 9,” who publicly broke South Carolina’s Jim Crow laws back in 1961 by daring to sit at a lunch-counter designated “Whites only,” and the prosecutor officially apologized for what had been officially done to them back then. Carolina thereby apologized for a wrong it had committed only forty-four years before, which compares favorably with the one-hundred-and-fifty years it took Colorado to apologize for the butchery it inflicted on 160 or so innocent American Indians at Sand Creek in 1864, which took place only a little less than one hundred years before the butchery of justice in the case of the Friendship 9. If those figures are any indication of general human progress, and if the rate of such improvement can be presumed to remain steady across time and countries, then perhaps we can hope that it will take only about 24 years for Egypt to apologize for its whitewashing last November 29 of Mubarak’s various butcheries.

At any rate, no official Egyptian apology for the wrong whereby Egypt officially dismissed all charges against Mubarak can be expected until the officiating power in Egypt feels safe and secure enough to issue it. That, in turn, will only come once the conditions that triggered the commission of the original wrong in the first place have ceased to exist. That is, only once everything that was in play in the Arab spring in 2011 that threatened to subvert Egyptian officialdom has withered away in one fashion or another, will it then be safe for official Egypt to admit to its official wrong, and officially apologize for it.

To put the point generally and simply, it is only when such apologies no longer cost anything to the entities that, through their representative mouthpieces, make them, that they will be made at all. Such official apologies are made, as a rule, only when they no longer really accomplish anything. Or rather, all they really accomplish is further to solidify the coercive power that is apologizing for its own past abuses—to help circle the wagons ever more tightly, as it were.

At issue is not the integrity of the individual mouthpieces through which the apology gets issued. For example, I have no reason to doubt the personal integrity of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (at least no reason aside from the fact that he is an elected official of an official state apparatus, which should always make one somewhat sceptical). I have even less reason to doubt the personal integrity of the prosecutor in South Carolina who officially apologized to the Friendship 9 the other day, and least reason of all to doubt that of the judge there who officially voided their convictions and expunged their records. I’m not quite as free of suspicion toward the members of the Egyptian court that dismissed the charges against Mubarak, but even in that case I am not interested in raising any issues of personal integrity. That is simply not my point.

My point, rather, is that we should institutionalize in ourselves suspicion against institutional apologies, and the institutions that sooner or later (most often later) issue such apologies for their own past institutional misbehavior.  We should never just trust an institution when it issues such an apology. Rather, such official apologies should give us even more reason to distrust the institutions issuing them.

Years ago, I used to warn students in my classes never to trust anyone who made a point of telling you how honest he was, since he was probably picking your pocket even while he spoke. That applies even more to institutions than to individuals, and most especially to institutions wielding coercive power of any sort.

Even if I trust Governor Hickenlooper personally, I do not trust the State of Colorado, that “authority” for which, as Governor, he spoke his recent official apology for the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. The State of Colorado has too much to gain, and nothing to lose, by issuing such an apology—too much to gain and too little to lose for me to take it at its word.

Nor was it only the State of Colorado that apologized recently for the role it played with regard to the Sand Creek Massacre. So did two universities. One of them (the University of Denver) is itself in Colorado. However, the other (Northwestern) is in Illinois. The University of Denver and Northwestern University both issued apologies pertaining to the Sand Creek Massacre because the two schools share a common founder: John C. Evans. Besides going around and founding institutions of higher education, John Evans also preceded John Hickenlooper in the Colorado Governor’s chair—though when Evans was Governor, Colorado was still a Territory, not yet a State. Evans, in fact, was Colorado Territorial Governor back when the Sand Creek Massacre occurred, and the Colorado troops that did all the massacring did so under his final authority. That particular buck stopped with him.

I personally know almost all the faculty members on the University of Denver (DU) committee that researched and wrote the report detailing Evan’s culpability in the massacre, his involvement in which led to the recent DU apology. Over the many years that I taught at DU, I worked with them. I respected and liked them. I still do. I have no doubt whatsoever about their personal integrity, their scholarship, or their ethical commitment. I have read their report, and find it to be a thorough, thoroughly admirable analysis.

Thus, toward the DU committee and their report, I feel no suspicion at all. I trust the committee. I do not, however, trust the University that commissioned their work, nor its pronouncement of regrets with regard to the massacre in which its founder had an important hand. The University has too much to gain, and nothing to lose, by issuing the committee’s report with its official imprimatur, and adding an expression of institutional chagrin at the University’s founder’s complicity in the Sand Creek Massacre.

To an extent, at least, universities are themselves coercive institutions. Even insofar as they are not, however, it was nevertheless to serve such institutions that the University first arose; and ever since it arose the University has continued to provide such service. The University exists for the sake of “authority,” that is, coercive power. We should therefore always be suspicious of universities and their proclamations, most especially when those proclamations tend to cast the University in a good light, as uttering apologies for old wrongs can easily do.

That the University has much to apologize for is a given. The University has committed wrongs aplenty to go around to all the diverse universities that are its individual class-members. There are, for example, many examples of collusion between the University and such more directly and obviously coercive institutions as the army and the police. Many instances have occurred during my own lifetime, and I will mention only a few of the most egregious.

In 1968 at the University of Nanterre, in the France of De Gaulle’s “Fifth Republic,” students went to the streets protesting the American war in Vietnam, French collusion with that war, especially through the University system itself, and in general the whole market-capitalist fabric that underlay such acts of official violence. What began with those protests at Nanterre soon enough culminated in the largest general strike anywhere ever, one that shut the whole of France down—but which has been glossed over since, in the officially sanctioned memory, as no more than a “student revolt,” one seeking to increase such individual liberties as what used to be called “free love,” in Paris in May ‘68.

Back at the beginning of that whole process, when the protesting students first took to the streets of Nanterre, authorities at the University there called out the cops. As Kristin Ross, an American professor of comparative literature, writes in her excellent study, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press, 2002, page 28): “The very presence of large numbers of police, called to Nanterre by a rector, Pierre Grappin, who had himself been active in the Resistance [to the Nazis during the German occupation of France in World War II], made the collusion between the university and the police visible to a new degree.”

Not to be outdone by their French counterparts, American University administrators soon followed Grappin’s suit, by calling in police or army to quell student protests at American universities. That included most famously the protests at Kent State University in Ohio in May of 1970, after Nixon and Kissinger unleashed the American bombing of Cambodia. Then Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes called in the Ohio Army National Guard, who soon killed four unarmed Kent State students and wounded nine others, permanently paralyzing one.

That in turn set off waves of student protests at other universities across the country. Among them was what came to be known as “Woodstock West.” That took place at the same University of Denver that recently apologized for its founder’s culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre. In the spring of 1970, the spring of “Woodstock West,” then Chancellor Maurice Mitchell appealed to then Colorado Governor John Love, who called out the Colorado National Guard to rout the protesting DU students who, eschewing violence, had set up a shanty-town of protest on the DU campus–where I joined the faculty myself a little over two years later, returning to my native Colorado after three years being occupied elsewhere.

I began this current series of three posts—three “Fragments” under the same general title of “Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs”—with a quote from an essay by Jean-Claude Milner about the University as an institution in service to coercive power, that power that lays claim to being the “authority” in charge of things at any given time. In his essay Milner does a nice job of pointing out how, as the identity of “authority” changes over time, the University undergoes a change in masters, as well as in how exactly it renders those masters service.

The University as we have come to know it first developed during the Middle Ages. At that time the University arose, as Milner points out, in order to produce more priests for the Christian Church, the authority of the day. Especially with its insistence on celibacy for the priesthood, the Church was constantly in need of more priests, and the job of the University was to provide them.

Then in the modern era, Milner explains, as the authority of the Church waned and came to be replaced by the modern nation-state, so did the needs of authority change. What it needed “more” of, was no longer priests. Instead, modern power needed more members of the bourgeoisie. So that became what the University turned out: good bourgeois citizens.

Today, however, things have changed once again. What contemporary authority needs more of today is no longer good bourgeois citizens. What authority needs more of today is broader—and emptier—than that. What the powers that be today need is ever more of what Milner aptly calls “agents of the market,” which above all means good consumers for the products that market markets.

So that is just what the University produces today: all sorts of obedient agents of the global consumer market. As Milner writes (L’Universal en éclats: Court traité politique 3, Verdier: 2013, page 104): “Sellers, buyers, producers, consumers form [what Freud called] a ‘natural mob [or “mass,” crowd,” “group”: all being possible as translations of the French foule, which Milner uses for Freud’s German term Masse, which is itself most often rendered my “group” in the standard English translation of Freud’s works].’ From now on, that is coextensive with the entirety of humanity. It dedicates itself to a constant growth. To that growth of a mob taken for natural, the artificial mob that is the University wishes to offer its assistance.”

Whichever presumably “natural” mob it may serve at a given time, the obviously “artificial” mob of the University turns all into one, both as assembly of persons and as system of knowledges—of all the “arts and sciences,” to use a term that began to become dated about three decades ago, at least at DU, where I spent almost all of my professorial career, and where the old “College of Arts and Sciences” was rendered defunct by the then-resident University authorities in the mid-1980s. Such turning into one of all persons and knowledges only befits the name of the institution charged with that task: University, from Latin unus, “one,” and versus, the past participle of the verb vertere, “to turn.”

Today, in service to the rulers of the global marketplace, the University turns everyone into a good consumer, and everything into a product to be consumed. That includes especially, turning all who attend its classes into good, never sated consumers of “information” and—first, last, and above all—faithful, lifelong “consumers of education,” to use the corporate-market jargon favored by up-to-date University administrators today.

At the very end of his classic, Masse und Macht, first published in German in 1960 and translated into English by Carol Stewart as Crowds and Power (London: Victor Gollancz, 1962), Elias Canetti, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981, writes this:

The system of commands is acknowledged everywhere. It is perhaps most articulate in armies, but there is scarcely any sphere of civilized life where commands do not reach and none of us they do not mark. Their threat of death is the coin of power, and here it is all too easy to add coin to coin and amass wealth. If we would master power [by which Canetti, as I read him, means “break its hold on us”] we must face command openly and boldly, and search for means to deprive it of its sting.

For those who are under the command of the University, as I was for my entire adult life until my recent retirement and elevation to emeritus professor status, the way to heed Canetti’s admonition—if anything, an admonition that calls for heeding even more loudly today than it did 55 years ago, when Canetti first issued it (or even just 21 years ago, when he died)—Milner points the way. It is the way of cheerful, apparently compliant subversion indicated in the quotation with which I began this three-fragment series, and by repeating which I will now end it. The lines come from page 114 of his L’Universal en éclats, which most appropriately means “The universal in pieces” (or “in fragments), in his essay called “De l’Université comme foule,” “On the University as mob”:

The University is not an alma mater, but a milk-cow.   Not just scoundrels can milk it. Neither to believe it, nor to believe in it, nor to serve it, but to serve oneself to it, should be the order of the day. To place in doubt, though it be only by detour, one, several, or all, facile universals—that program is not easy, and not without risk. But being wise doesn’t preclude being sly. It is possible for the wise to shatter the mass.

Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs–Another Fragment

“You see, it’s easy for the musicians to feel as if they were serving the conductor. They even call their rehearsals and performances ‘services.’ The very physical structure of the organization—with the orchestra radiating out from a central raised platform and the conductor standing over them—promotes that dynamic. In this kind of an environment, many orchestral musicians feel disconnected.”

“Yes,” I said, nodding. “It’s a perfect setup for ‘Shut up, and do what you’re told.’”

“Exactly. The very context of an orchestra fosters a culture in which the players don’t own the work; the conductor does.”

–Roger Nierenberg


There is a difference between trusting someone as a leader, and being dependent on someone. Leadership depends upon trust. What depends upon dependency is something else, however. It is tyranny. Leaders build trust in those they lead. Tyrants build insecurity.

The approach to conducting that Roger Nierenberg models in his Music Paradigm program—as embodied in his novel Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening (Portfolio, 2009), from early in which (page 20) the citation above is taken—provides a fine example of genuine leadership. As the citation suggests, the exercise of such leadership may well require working against the grain of the very organizational or institutional setting within which it takes place. That is especially the case whenever that setting is both built upon and designed to foster dependency rather than trust.

Nierenberg makes the connection between leadership—at least the sort he models—and trust explicit in an even earlier passage, near the very start of the novel (page 5). The fictional narrator, a business executive facing a downturn in company business, comes home from work one day and overhears a conversation between his daughter and Robert, her music teacher, about the new conductor in the orchestra to which he belongs. His interest perked by what he hears, the narrator asks Robert what is so special about the new conductor. Robert replies: “When he’s on the podium it’s as if the differences between us [various musicians in the orchestra] somehow magically disappear, which in turn promotes trust and confidence.” “Trust in him?” the narrator asks. After hesitation, Robert replies: “I guess so. But I think we get the feeling that he trusts us. Somehow that makes us work together so much better. It never seems as if he’s dictating. You always feel like you’re contributing toward something bigger than yourself.”

As Nierenberg depicts his sorts of conductors, they, too, are guided by a vision of something bigger than themselves. In the later parts of the brief novel, the maestro of the title repeatedly points to how the good conductor must always be guided by such a vision. In the case of conductors, it is an auditory vision, as it were. That is: a vision of how the score being played here and now by this given orchestra, with all of its diverse parts with diverse talents and degrees of accomplishment, can sound, if all the diverse musician that make up the orchestra can indeed be brought fully to trust themselves and one another, and give themselves over to the piece.

The “eyes” that can see such visions—regardless of whether they be eyes or ears or whatever other organs—are the eyes of love. Leadership guided by such visions, and in turn guiding others to share them, is a loving leadership.   It is creative: it brings into being.

Such leadership is magical.

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Mentioning magic, at one point in his book-length analysis of the Harry Potter films, published just this last spring (Harry Potter: À l’école des sciences morales et politique, PUF, 2014, page 51), Jean-Claude Milner remarks that “one might define magic as an integrally anti-capitalist enterprise. Because it can transform objects without labor and without machines, it makes the material base of capitalism, which is to say surplus value and the power of labor, disappear.”

So conceived, magic—as celebrated not only in the Harry Potter novels and films, which might, because their lack of significant Christian references, be accused of blasphemy by those defensive about their Christianity,* but also in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and other hobbit” narratives, and even in C. S. Lewis’s blatantly Christian Chronicles of Narnia—is inherently subversive of the ruling power of our endless day. Yet magic, of course, has a power of its own, one that can all too easily be made to undergo a completely non-magical transformation into the snakiest imaginable servant of what the better angels of its nature would have it subvert.

There is a scene towards the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I—which came out in 2010, the first of the two-part finale to the Harry Potter films—that serves well as a counter-model to the leadership exemplified by Nierenberg’s “maestro.” Voldemort, the Dark Lord of the films, has returned, literally from the other side of the grave, to grasp a second time for unchallenged power over wizards, witches, and “Muggles” (i.e., ordinary mortals) alike. He has called all the heads of the old sorcerer families that supported his return together at one of their castles, and at one point during the proceedings he subjects the entire assembly to a demonstration of his power, and of what awaits any of them who may for whatever reason run afoul of it. Voldemort floats the paralyzed but very much still living and conscious body of Charity Burbage, Professor of Muggle Studies at the Hogwarts school of sorcery who has made the mistake of teaching the equality of Muggles and sorcerers and the legitimacy of marriage between them, above the table where they are all seated. “Dinner!” says Voldemort after speaking a few apt words, therewith unleashing Nagini, the magical snake who is his irreplaceable supporting companion, to devour her as they watch.

The lesson is clear, as Milner notes in his book on the Harry Potter films when he discusses the scene. By his act, writes Milner (pages 107-108), Voldemort lets those who have thought to serve themselves by serving him “see a close-up of what they had chosen to ignore: the power they have worked to put in place accepts no limits to its own exercise.” Such a power will exercise itself, regardless of consequences. By its very nature, it is cruel, such that “even if a cruelty shows itself to have no utility [on its own], that will be no reason not to pursue it to the extreme.” Indeed, “to the contrary,” since the whole point of such egregious acts of cruelty is precisely to display the unlimited nature of the claim to power so exercised. What those who are made to witness such displays have thrust upon their attention is their own impotence in the face of such power. “In a general way,” what Voldemort’s act of wanton cruelty makes clear is that, under such a sovereign power as his, “rational politics will never have the last word, because the last word comes back to Voldemort’s pleasure.”

Milner calls attention to the parallels between the fictional character of Voldemort and the historical one of Hitler. In the case at hand, the parallel is between the “old families” of wizards and witches who help Voldemort rise to power in the story of Harry Potter, on the one hand, and the rich industrialists and other “conservative” elements of German society who did the same for Hitler in the 1930s, on the other. The “old families” in the Potter narratives are enamored of themselves because of what they perceive as the “superiority” their magic powers give them over the Muggles, and protective of the privileges that accrues to them through those magic powers. Just like the rich under the Weimar Republic, merely replacing “magic” with “money” and “Muggles” with “hoi polloi.”

Unfortunately, a sense of superiority easily follows upon the recognition that one has been given special powers, whether those powers be magical, mental, or musical. In turn, that sense of superiority brings in its own train defensiveness against anything perceived as challenging it. Thus, as Milner is quick to point out, the sense of superiority that goes with the recognition that one has unusual talents or gifts is nearly always accompanied by the fear of inferiority—of somehow not being worthy of having the very powers one finds oneself to have.

That is especially so when the special powers at issue are dispensed randomly, without their recipients having done or been anything special to deserve them.   However, that is exactly how it is with most talents, gifts, and powers, of course. They come to those to whom they come by accident, not as a reward for merit.

For instance, in the Harry Potter story Harry’s basic magical capacities—what makes him different from the Muggles who raise him after his parents have been killed during his infancy—are nothing he sought and acquired through his own efforts. He is born with them, inheriting them from his parents. Similarly, physical beauty, musical or other artistic talent, physical prowess, and the intelligence measured by IQ tests, are all based on natural gifts dispensed without regard to antecedent individual merit.

For that matter, so are most of the conditions that account for some individuals becoming aware of their special talents and capacities, whereas others never even come to know they have such talents.   Furthermore, even if circumstances conspire to let one become aware that one has some special gift, they must also conspire to grant one the opportunity to develop that gift. By accident, for instance, a child may learn she has a talent and taste for playing the cello, as our own daughter learned when she was 11. But then it is no less by accident that the same child may be provided with the resources needed to develop that talent and taste—as was, once again, our own daughter, who, when she found she had both a desire and a gift for playing the cello, also found herself living in a reasonably well-funded school system and with a set of reasonably well-paid parents, so that she could be provided the material and educational means to pursue that desire and develop that gift.

Having special powers does not make one somebody special. They do not make those who have them superior to those who don’t. Nevertheless, those so endowed are subject to the temptation to become, as Milner puts it (page 112), “bearers of an ideology of superiority.” The specially gifted “can be seduced, not despite their exceptional talents, but by reason of those talents. Especially if they are ignored or mistreated by their entourage,” as those with special talents often are—again, not despite, but because of, those same talents, we might add, since any gift that makes someone “different” can easily evoke such defensive reactions from those around them, those not so gifted.

Once seduced to such an ideology of superiority, those with special powers can, like Voldemort, also easily succumb to the temptation to exercise those powers over others. They can, like him, come to take pleasure in imposing their will upon others, in the process convincing themselves of their right so to enslave those to whom they have come to consider themselves superior.

However, the underlying, ever-present doubt of their own superiority and their defensiveness about it, grounded in their awareness of having been and done nothing special to deserve their special gifts, continues to carry “a germ of vulnerability” even in the midst of wanton displays of “brutality and terror.” That sense of continuing, inescapable vulnerability sets up such self-styled masters, who delight in subjecting others to their will, to subject themselves in turn to yet others claiming mastery, and indeed to find relief and solace in such submission. For example, Milner writes (p. 113): “Let us suppose that an admired thinker, taken as the greatest of his generation, rallies to an ignorant, belching, hysterical tribune. [Think Heidegger and Hitler, of course!**] Simple folks are astonished; but on the contrary nothing is more normal: this thinker is doubtful of the admiration he knows surrounds him, until it confirms itself in the admiration of which he discovers himself capable.” Thus, imagined superiority doesn’t just lead one to enslave those one takes to be inferior to oneself, it also leads one to let oneself be enslaved in turn.

Against such temptations and perversions of gifts, talents, and powers, Milner suggests, only humility offers any real, final defense. Humility alone would accept gifts as just that—gifts: things for which thanks are be offered.

Humility is not that easy a thing to come by, however.  It is itself a gift, in fact.

What is more, if that gift of humility itself is given, it is also no easy thing truly to give thanks for such a gift. There is a strong, constant tendency to turn thanks for the gift of humility into its very opposite, making of it no more than an exercise in even greater arrogance—the arrogance of thinking oneself humble, like the righteous man at the back of the temple thanking God for making him so superior to the disgusting tax collector beating his chest and weeping in the profession of his guilt down at the altar.

Above all, the way that one properly gives thanks for a gift by accepting and using it. However, just what are the uses of humility? Perhaps Harry Potter can show us something of that, as well. At least it may be worth briefly reflecting upon what Milner calls “the Potterian narrative” with that in mind.

Although that is a direction of reflection that Milner himself does not explicitly pursue, what he says provides good clues. That is especially true of a line in the Potter films to which Milner calls his reader’s attention, one that occurs in more than one of the films and is spoken by more than one of the character, about Harry and to him: “You have your mother’s eyes.”   In explanation of that remark, Milner cites (on page 33) what one of the characters in the narrative says about Harry’s mother Lily Potter’s eyes, which is that they had the power to see the beauty in others, most especially when they weren’t able to see any themselves.

The use of humility is to open eyes like Harry’s mother’s, eyes that in turn open others, calling forth—which is to say creating—the beauty that is in them. The gift of humility is given not for the good of the humble themselves, at least not directly. It is given for the good of others. To give proper thanks for such a gift is to use it by practicing seeing through eyes like Lily Potter’s.***

Such eyes are simply the eyes of love—which brings me back to where I started this fragment, and which is also a good place to end it.

* On page 28 of his Harry Potter book, Milner says that so far he is unaware of any such charges being leveled against the Harry Potter stories, but then adds sarcastically that he “does not despair of learning one day that the Potterian narrative has been banned in part for blasphemy.” In these benighted United States, of course, at least a few such charges and such efforts have indeed been made.

** And appropriately so, at least by one reading of Heidegger’s relationship to Hitler and the Nazis—though not the only reading possible, nor necessarily the one finally to be preferred.

*** Lest one think that is an easy thing to do, one might want to go back and watch the Harry Potter films again. Or read Roger Nierenberg’s Maestro.


Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs—A Fragment

The University is not an alma mater, but a milk-cow.   Not just scoundrels can milk it. Neither to believe it, nor to believe in it, nor to serve it, but to serve oneself to it, should be the order of the day. To place in doubt, though it be only by detour, one, several, or all, facile universals—that program is not easy, and not without risk. But being wise doesn’t preclude being sly. It is possible for the wise to shatter the mass.

— Jean-Claude Milner, “De l’Université comme foule”


When I finally sobered up a bit over a quarter of a century ago, one of the things that first hooked me on sobriety was the sheer freedom of it. No one but a happily abstinent alcoholic can experience the joy of the freedom sobriety brings with it.

One way my newfound sobriety freed me was in my driving.

I am not proud of having done so, but during the years of my drinking I often drove “under the influence.” Once I embraced sobriety I no longer had to contend with at least one constant anxiety that accompanies any dedicated drinker who drives after drinking, even if is that drinker and driver feels no real anxiety about a possible accident. That is the anxiety that, however attentively one minds the road, one might not detect every lurking unmarked (or even marked) police car, and might get pulled over and risk arrest for drunk driving.

In fact, I got so hooked on the wonderful freedom of not having to care about being pulled over by the police, that I even went through a period of challenging them to pull me over.   Most of the time most of us (drinkers or not) will automatically slow down if we are driving along and suddenly notice a police car sitting somewhere up ahead. We have long grown accustomed to doing that even if we are not exceeding the speed limit at the time. So anxious have we become before the representatives of that which claims authority over us that we often relate to ourselves as criminals even when we are being the best-behaved, most law-abiding citizens. If we are indeed breaking the law by driving “under the influence,” that anxiety is exponentially heightened.

Well, for a while not long after I embraced the life of sobriety, when I would come over a hill on, say, the 50-mile drive along the interstate between my home and my office at the university where I taught, and spy a police car waiting down the road a bit, instead of slowing down I would actually speed up. What did it matter if I got pulled over for speeding? At most, I’d have to pay a few (maybe even quite a few) bucks for it, but so what? What did such trivia matter? It mattered nothing to speak of, so far as I was concerned in my newfound exuberance of abstinence. Because I was at last free of the guilt of being me, I was also free of any concern—or at least any crippling concern—for what “the authorities” might do to me.

Thus, sobriety not only set me free not to drink any more. It also set me free to break the law—with, in effect, a good conscience.

I’m glad to report that soon, so soon that I never even got a single speeding ticket from such doings, it dawned on me that sobriety also set me free not to break the law—and to do that, too, with a good conscience. Indeed, I saw how much more important the freedom not to break the law was than the freedom to break it. That was because the freedom not to break it gave me the chance creatively to subvert it.

One way of putting it is that I saw how obeying the letter of the law could be a skillful means for subverting the law’s whole spirit. That is the spirit of subservience. It is the spirit, that is, of spiritlessness.

The point is not subservience. It is subversion—or, rather, the freedom that makes skilful subversion possible.

*     *   *     *     *     *

Only in the freedom recovery brought me was I able clearly to apprehend something of my preceding bondage, and of just what role my addiction itself had played in it. For the powers that be, and that would have us serve them, addiction is a very socially useful tool. It puts us addicts in service to power despite ourselves, however hard we may try to make ourselves unserviceable. It puts us at the mercy of power. Especially in our consumer society today, addicts make perfect subjects: obedient to the laws even in their very efforts to disobey.

*     *     *     *     *     *

At one point in Ghandi’s Truth (New York: W. W. W. Norton and Co., 1969) Erik Erikson describes how challenging it was for Gandhi to maintain the vow of vegetarianism he made to his Jain mother when he left India for England, that land of ubiquitous beef and mutton, to study at Oxford. Erikson writes that, to preserve his vow, Gandhi had to learn to do something more—and, indeed, completely different from—just resisting the temptation to eat meat. He had to learn, instead, to make not-eating meat itself into a definitive positive goal all on its own. As Erickson puts it (on page 145, emphasis in original), Gandhi “had to learn to choose actively and affirmatively what not to do—and ethical capacity not to be confused with the moralistic inability to break a prohibition.”

As I have pointed out before (in my Addiction and Responsibility, page 143), using that same reference: “The only proof against addiction in general is the sort of active and affirmative choice of ‘what not to do’ that Erikson mentions, the sort of choice involved in Gandhi’s vegetarianism or genuine calls to celibacy.” After noting (on the next page) that abstinence is “the general term for refraining from some common practice or pursuit,” I go on to observe:

What allows us to transform abstinence (whether from meat, from genital sex, from heroin, from child molestation, or whatever) from negative avoidance into positive embrace is this element of self-restraint at the heart of all abstinence. If we abstain from doing something merely because we fear the consequences of doing it, either on practical or moral grounds (Erikson’s “moral inability to break a prohibition” . . .), then we remain at the level of negative avoidance. However, once we begin to abstain from something for the sake of exercising our own self-restraint, we pass over from a negative abstinence to a positive one. From that point on, abstaining becomes its own, ever-growing reward.


Then it’s just for fun.

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The citation from Milner with which I began this post is from the third of his “short political treatises,” L’universel en éclats: Court traité politique 3 (Verdier, 2014, page 114). The quoted lines are the closing ones of the fourth of six essays in that book. We might translate the title of the essay as “The University as Mob”—in the sense, for example, that organized crime is called “the Mob.” Foule, the French term Milner uses, is the same one used in the standard French translation of Freud’s Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse. Freud’s work provides Milner with a basis for his thinking about the University.

The standard English translation of the same work is called Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Etymologically, the German Masse and the English mass are the same word. Die Massen would be translated by “the masses.” The translation of Freud’s title by “group” can weaken his meaning. The French foule, which can be translated by “crowd,” “mob,” or “mass,” depending on context, comes closer.

What Freud is talking about in the essay at issue, as he tells us there, is not just any grouping of diverse individuals. Rather, what concerns him are assemblages that arise when diverse individuals come to identify themselves with some group, and with others insofar as they also so identify themselves. Above all, in his essay Freud is concerned with such assemblages insofar as they arise from diverse individuals coming to identify with one another insofar as each in turn identifies with one and the same leader, who comes through such identification to take over the role of what Freud calls the “ego ideal” for each individual.

Freud’s own discussion focuses on two “mobs” or “masses” as paradigms: the Army and the Church. Both are examples of what he calls “artificial masses.”   An artificial mass, as the name implies, is one that has to be brought about and then maintained by some external force—with all the hierarchical organization and directorial leadership that typically entails. The Nazi Party (NSDAP, from the German for “National Socialist German Workers Party”), the rise to power of which was eventually to drive Freud out of Vienna in 1938, seventeen years after his book about mass psychology and ego-analysis first appeared, would be another example, to go along with the Army and the Church.

Freud distinguishes such artificial masses from “natural masses,” which form spontaneously of themselves and, left to themselves, eventually dissolve. Often natural masses do not last for very long. We could use the mob that stormed the Bastille in 1789 to inaugurate the French Revolution as an example of such a natural mass of relatively brief duration. Another example would be the crowd that congealed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and overthrew Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011.

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Just while composing this post, I came across an interesting case of what strikes me as a creative subversion of one “artificial mass (though we don’t normally think of it that way): an orchestra. On the third page of the arts section of the New York Times for September 18, 2014, is a piece by critic James R. Oestreich about conductor Roger Nierenberg bringing his “Music Paradigm” program to the Lincoln Center for the Arts, before “an audience of nursing directors from New York-Presbyterian Hospital.”

Mr. Nierenberg began (“without apparent irony,” writes Mr. Oestreich) by remarking: “An orchestra is a great place to model organizational dysfunction.” According to Mr. Oestreich, the conductor, 67, had only rehearsed the 26 string players he brought with him for an hour before the performance—of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings—but had otherwise left them unprepared for what was going to happen next, which was that “he continued to rehearse them in public, running through snippets and discussing those with players and audience alike, drawing lessons in leadership from the work of the conductor and the interactions of the players.” In the process, says Mr. Oestreich, Mr. Nierenberg did indeed “model dysfunction,” by showing “how a performance might be adversely affected if the conductor micromanaged with his baton, eyes and gestures, or if the conductor were simply disengaged or fidgety.”

But then he went on to model something else—or at least so it seems to me, though Mr. Oestreich does not himself say this: He modeled a fine, creative alternative to the organizational dysfunction by way of bad leadership that he had already displayed. Instead of having all the players focus their attention on his augustly conducting—albeit potentially micromanaging and/or disengaged and/or fidgety—self. Mr. Oestreich writes:

He had the players shift their focus to a particular colleague and attune their playing to complement one another’s. He had them perform with a conductor, then without a conductor and with eyes closed, to show how adept they were at intuitively adjusting to others on their own.

He had them start the piece at different tempos of their choice and alter tempos spontaneously, slowing down, perhaps, in midstream. The musicians were called on to speak as well as play, and audience members were occasionally drafted into action.

The watchword throughout was listening: players listening to one another and to the conductor, but just as much, the conductor listening to the players, how they sound, what they said.

This went on for some 75 minutes. Then the orchestra, with Mr. Nirenberg in place, performed the Adagio complete, beautifully, and departed to huge applause.

Later, toward the very end of his review, Mr. Oestreich quotes these lines from Mr. Nierenberg’s Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening (Portfolio, 2009), an attempt to present his Music Paradigm idea in the form of a novel. Mr. Oestreich quotes the maestro of the novel as saying: “Every word I speak, every inflection in my tone of voice, every gesture is directed toward the goal of creating a feeling of community. A community simply acts faster, more intelligently, more creatively and with more joy than a group that is primarily focused on its leader.”

Since even before I ever started my own career as a teacher, I’ve always thought that the job of teachers was to make themselves unnecessary as soon as possible. To me, that’s always been a corollary of Nietzsche’s great line that students who always remain only students are repaying their teachers poorly. Taken at his own word (as well as Mr. Oestreich’s), in his Music Paradigm program Roger Nierenberg is in effect modeling how conductors in turn can—and should—model themselves on what I would call Nietzschean teachers.

What a wonderfully creative way to subvert the orchestra as mob! What a way to lead out of dependence on leaders!

What a way, too, to turn a mob into a community—but more on that in my next fragment.

Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Après-Coups After The Coup (2)

Second After-Shock*: Accidental Strokes of Necessity

Art is good when it springs from necessity. This kind of origin is the guarantee of its value; there is no other.

— Neal Cassady

Our daughter has two cellos. To go with them, she has two cello-cases. Both cases are pretty well covered with various stickers and posts-ups that have struck her fancy from time to time. When we went to San Francisco recently to watch her play the cello in a quartet representing Classical Revolution, as part of The Coup’s Shadowbox premier, I noticed a new sticker on one of her cello cases. It had the lines above, from Neal Cassady.

That’s the same Neal Cassady who inhabited the heart of the Beat movement. Later he was not only “on the bus,” but even drove it. He drove the bus—namely, the psychedelic bus filled with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the same bus Tom Wolfe eventually rode to fame in 1968 with the publication of TheElectric Kool-Aid Acid Test, that foundational text of the “New Journalism” that already long ago became old hat.

I didn’t notice our daughter’s new (to me at least) Neal Cassady sticker till a day or two after we’d attended Shadowbox, and when I read Cassady’s remark it resonated for me with my experience of the concert. That resonance was deepened when, even later, I noticed a brochure our daughter had lying on a bookshelf—an advertisement for the concert we had just attended. Put out by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and by Bay Area Now, the brochure started with “A Note from the Curators”—Marc Bamuthi Joseph, YBCA Director of Performing Arts, and Isabel Yrigoyen, Associate Director of Performing Arts—to which I’ll eventually return. That was followed by “A Note from the Artist,” in which an explanation, of a certain sort, was given for titling the concert Shadowbox. It read:

Late one night in the skies over Oakland, a strange object appeared. A cube. Perfectly still, 200 feet in the air. A reflective black box, with a neon glow surrounding it. Thousands of people hurriedly got out of bed, or filed out of bars and house parties, or left the cash register unattended—to stand on the street and gaze at the sight. Dogs barked and howled, louder and louder, in various pitches and timbres until it was clear that there was a consistent melody and harmony to their vocalizations. The cube started trembling, sending out a low vibration that made the asphalt shake, windows rattle, and car alarms across the city go off. Thousands of car alarms went off in a tidal wave of honks, beeps, and bleeps until they formed a percussive rhythm that accompanied the dogs’ beautiful howling. From the cube, a kick drum was heard that tied it together. A spiral staircase descended from the box. Only a few dared enter. What those few experienced has been the subject of several poorly made documentaries, an article in US Weekly, and three half-assed anthropology dissertations. What you will see tonight is a re-enactment of that experience.

I suggest that the “re-enactment” at issue be taken in the sense of an enacting again, as legislators are said to re-enact a law that will otherwise expire, rather than in the more ordinary sense of a miming, an acting out, as a community theatre group might re-enact Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire or Walt Disney’s Dumbo, or as bunch of court stooges might re-enact a crime in a courtroom at the behest of a prosecuting attorney, let’s say.   The Coup’s Shadowbox doesn’t just represent or mime the enactment of community that seems to have proven necessary following the sudden, unaccountable appearance—“fictitiously,” of course (and I’ll eventually return to that, too)—of a strange, black cube suddenly hovering in the sky over Oakland one night.

After all, The Coup—although it may be erotically capitalist and even, for all I know, scientifically fascist—is “politically communist,” as Wikipedia has it; and what The Coup is trying to do in Shadowbox, at least if we are to believe (as I do) Coup front-man and co-founder Boots Riley, is to get everybody moving. And although the movement at issue may be a dance, it is a dance that even such dance-dysfunctional still-standers as myself can join into, as I also wrote about last time. It is a political dance.

Which brings me to Jean-Claude Milner.

*     *     *     *     *     *

According to Jean-Claude Milner, ever since the ancient Greeks, politics—which term is itself derived from a Greek word, of course: polis, “city”—has been a hostage of mimesis, which is to say of just the sort of acting-out, of play-acting, that “represents” the action it mimes without re-presenting it, that is, without committing that action again. The mimetic re-enactment of a murder as part of a courtroom trial does not culminate in a second murder. In the same way, politics as the mimetic re-enactment of whatever acts mimetic politics re-enacts does not result in any new enactments of those original acts.

The acts that mimetic politics re-enacts are acts whereby the polis or “city” itself–which for the Greeks meant, in effect, the place where all real, truly human be-ing took place, to use again a way of speaking I favor—is first opened and set up, then kept open and going after that. From the days of the ancient Greeks until relatively recently, in one way or another such decisive political acts were taken not by everyone together, but only by a few.

Of course, those few invariably found it useful to represent themselves as making their decisions for the good of “all.” As Milner points out, however (3rd treatise, page 58**): “It is always in the name of all that each is mistreated.”

For the few who did make the decisions, and then impose them on everybody else, to keep their claim to be acting for the good of all even remotely plausible it always also helped to get “the people”—as we’ve grown long used to calling those the rulers rule over, though the term is supposedly inclusive of both—to believe that they were somehow actually participants in the decision-making itself. Those who were being decided over needed to be kept down on the farm, as it were, regardless of whether they ever got a chance to see Paree or not. The decided-over needed to be given the impression that somehow they were themselves deciders—as President George W. Bush once in/famously called himself.

Milner argues that classically, among the ancient Athenians, the theatre, specifically as staged in the great public performances of tragedies, was the crucial device that permitted the governors to govern those they governed—that is, permitted those who exercised power over others to keep those others in line. It did so by regularly bringing together all those who counted as “the people”*** to witness re-enactments, by actors behind masks, of the heroic deeds that were taken originally to have defined the people as the very people they were (with running commentaries provided by choruses that took over the job of being mouth-pieces for “the people,” who were thereby relieved of any need to speak for themselves). By so convening to witness such re-enactments, the citizenry—the public, the people—actually constituted itself as such.

Furthermore, in being brought openly together as an audience to witness the re-enactments of the original, originating tragic acts of the great heroes of Greek tradition, religion, and mythology, the people were also brought, through empathy, to vicarious identification with those people-defining heroes themselves, and their suffering for the people’s sake. Through such identification the people as audience were allowed to process the terror and pity with which the mimetic re-enactments of tragedy filled them, achieving catharsis, as Aristotle observed. That also helped keep them down on the farm.

Precisely because they were assembled as such an otherwise passive audience for the spectacle of decisive acts re-enacted or mimed in front of them, the people were effectively distanced from the underlying definitive decisions and actions being so mimed. They were allowed to feel a part of what was being re-enacted before them, in the sense of being mimed or “acted out,” while they were simultaneously being distanced from all the underlying genuine action itself. They could marvel and weep as “destiny” unfolded itself in the actions being mimed before them, while being dispensed from the need to undergo that destiny themselves.

As Milner puts it (2nd treatise, page 59):) “That distanced object, which in the crucial tradition of tragedy was called destiny, carries in politics, of course, the names: power, state, liberty, justice, or quite simply government.” What is more, he says, in our times the role that used to be played by tragic theatre is now played by—political discussion: the endless expression of opinions compulsively formed about political matters. Such discussion permits the discussants to think that they are really part of the political action, when in fact they are distanced effectively from it by the endless palaver about it. They are merely playing at politics, the way children play at being adults. They are “actors” only it that mimetic sense, not in the sense of decisive agents.

The difference, however, is that today, unlike in ancient Athens, everybody is reduced to the status of such a mere play-actor. That even includes the few who presumably, in the days of the ancient Greeks and for a long while thereafter, used actually to govern—to be genuine agents or “deciders.”

The reality today is simply this: No one decides, decisions just get made. Things of themselves get decided, as though things themselves are dictating the decisions—hence the name of Milner’s first short political treatise, which translates as The Politics of Things—but without anyone doing the actual deciding.

Accordingly, as I already indicated in my previous series of posts on “The Future of Culture,” no possibility of clearly assigning responsibility for decisions remains. Even more importantly, there are therefore no identifiable political pressure points, points where political pressure might be exerted in order to effect significant change. Everything just keeps on chugging along, with no one directing anything, despite how deluded some may still be into thinking they have some impact (for example, the President of the United States, whoever that may happen to be at any given time). The whole thing is no more than a dumb-show. Nobody is in charge of anything.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Sometimes, though, lightning strikes. Or suddenly a huge black cube with a neon glow appears in the sky. The Coup comes, and folks get moving.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Necessity is not causality. For necessity to emerge, in fact, the causal chain must actually be broken. Causality brings inevitability, Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence of the same”—always the same old same old, never anything truly new under the sun (or the moon and stars at night). The necessity that Neal Cassidy says is the only guarantee of real worth in art is not causal inevitability. It is the necessity, the need, of creativity—the need of a pregnancy brought full term finally to burst and bring forth new life.

Any child born of such necessity always comes unexpected. The child always comes as an unexpected, un-expectable surprise, even for parents long filled with the knowledge that they are “expecting.” What can be expected is at most a child, one or another of the innumerably substitutable instances of the class of children, but never this child, the very one who so suddenly, so urgently, so imperiously, insistently comes into the world, and who, once come into it, simply demands, by its very being there, to be named.

Giving a name in the sense of what we call a “proper” name—which is to say “insofar as it is not just another name” (as, for example, dog, Hund, or chien are just three names for the same thing), that is, a name “insofar as it [names] not just anyone,” as Milner writes at one point (3rd treatise, page 75)—always “appears as an obstacle” to whatever or whomever claims to act in the name of “all.” What Milner means in that context is “all” taken in the sense of a closed totality, such as what is ordinarily called a “nation,” for example, the “borders” of which must be secured and protected. The singular, the radically unique, what escapes number, substitutability, and, therewith, any capacity to be “represented” by another, always constitutes a threat to all claims to special authority in the name of any such totalizing “all.”

However, universal quatification, as logicians call it, over “us” or over “human being”—as in “all of us,” or “all human beings”—need not be the move to any such totality as a “nation.” The “all” need not be taken in any such collective sense. Instead, the “all” can be taken in the distributive sense of “each and every single one,” so that “all of us” means each and every one of us as someone who has been given, or at least cries out to be given, a proper name, a name by which that singular one, and that one alone, no other, can be called.

The name by which the singular individual is called, however, calls that one as just that very one, and not as no more than an instance of what that one has in common with a bunch of other ones—for example, being black, white, brown, or yellow, young or old, educated or uneducated, employed or unemployed, American, Mexican, Honduran, Syrian, Iranian, or Indian. The bearer of a proper name—by which I would like above all to mean a name that is truly just that, a genuine name, and not a mere place-holder for a description—is no mere instance of a type, replaceable with any other. The bearer of a proper name is, rather, irreplaceable. (Regular readers of my blog might think of Fluffy, my daughter’s childhood pet guinea pig, for instance.)

*     *     *     *     *     *

As cacophonous as it may initially sound—like the sound of multiple dogs howling and multiple horns blowing in the night—to say so, it is only such an irreplaceable singularity that can be “necessary” in the way Neal Cassady says the authentic work of art is necessary. The necessity of artistic work is the same as the necessity of seizing one’s one and only opportunity to become who one is, when that opportunity suddenly presents itself. It is the same as the necessity of joining the fight against injustice into the reality of which one is suddenly given clear insight, or the necessity of giving oneself over completely to a suddenly awakened love. In short, it is the necessity of selling everything one owns for the sake of pursing what one is given to see is priceless.

Necessity is order, to be sure. However, it is the order that comes from the unexpected emergence of connection between what theretofore seemed to be no more than a randomly thrown together bunch of discreet, isolated facts. Necessity gives birth to the cosmos. That word is from the Greek word for “ordered whole,” but which originally meant “ornament,” which is why we also get cosmetic from the same word.  Cosmos is the “all” of everything insofar as everything has been brought together into one coherent whole, like an ornament. Cosmos is the ornamental whole of everything emerging out of chaos itself, which also a Greek word, which originally meant something like “yawning gap.” Necessity is the origin of that genuine cosmos which is the coming into an ordered whole of chaos itself. Necessity is the origin of that order that is not imposed upon chaos from without, as though by some ruler, but that arises, instead, of necessity, from chaos itself.

Among the same ancient Greeks to whom we owe tragic drama, the emergence of cosmos from chaos was attributed to Zeus. However, Zeus, the god of thunder and the thunder-bolt, was not himself without genesis. King of the gods he might have been, but Zeus himself came from the chaos; and if he came to order the latter, he still came at its bidding, and from within. He came of necessity, which origin demonstrates the authenticity of his glory.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Coming from out of the Greek chaos, Zeus also came from out of the Greek imagination, that same imagination from which sprang all the gods of Greek mythology. The order that the Greek imagination attributed to Zeus was itself anything but an imaginary order. Nevertheless, its origin—and its guarantee of worth, which is also to say its real necessity—lay in the Greek imagination.

Imagine that!

*     *     *    *     *     *

I will try to imagine something of it, in my next post, which will continue—and, I think, end—this present series on the after-coups of The Coup.

* Only while writing this post did it occur to me to call the separate posts of this series not “Parts,” as I had it when I put up the series’ first post a few days ago, but “After-Shocks,” which is much more appropriate. So I went back and edited my first post a couple of days ago. First, I slightly changed the title. Originally, I had used après-coup, French for “after-shock,” in the singular. I turned that into the plural, après-coups. Then I changed the title of the first series’ post itself from “Part One” to “First After-Shock.” Thus, it was only by one of the smaller après-coups of the coup delivered to me by attending The Coup concert that I was coincidentally struck by the need to change my titles a bit. Appropriate indeed!

** Milner has published three “short political treatises,” all brought out in France by Verdier: La Politique des Choses is his Court traité politique 1 (20011), followed by Pour une politique des êtres parlant as treatise 2 (2011) and L’Universal en éclats as treatise 3 (2014). I will give references in the text of this post, when needed, by the number of Milner’s treatise, followed by the page number at issue.

*** That is, the “citizens,” which means literally the habitants of the “city” as such, the polis, the place where human being took place. So, of course, that left out slaves, women, and all the other others who simply didn’t count—including counting as fully human, since they were not “citizens,” not full-fledged inhabitants of the place human beings as such inhabit. As non-citizens, those other others didn’t need to be brought on board the city boat because they were simply subject to force, with no need to rely on subterfuge—conscious and deliberate or not, who cares?—to make them think they were free even while they were being coerced.

Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture (4)

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

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All sorts of things transpire—but nothing any longer happens—that is, no more decisions fall . . .

— Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen IV (in GA 94), ¶219


. . . it’s neither here, nor elsewhere . . .

— Alain Badiou, Images du temps present (January 14, 2014)


I had one opportunity. I had to cut out all ties with the flattening, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.

But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family . . . And I had a weakness in my character . . . that was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening.

I was a whore. This was the only suitable term.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Stuggle. Book Two: A Man in Love


Points of decision are crisis points. “Critical condition” in the medical sense is the condition of a patient who is at the decision point between survival and demise, where the body—with, it is to be hoped, the assistance of the medical staff—must marshal all its resources to sustain life, in the minimal, zoological sense. In the passage cited above, Knausgaard describes how he came to stand at a critical point of decision for or against life in the full, no longer merely biological sense of the term—the truly live-ly sense, we might say, in contrast to the rather deadening sense of bare survival.

Actually, that way of putting it, “ a critical point of decision for or against life,” won’t quite work. Rather, Knausgaard describes coming to a point where he was faced with the need and opportunity at last actually and fully to make a decision in the first place and, by and in making it, to become truly alive at last. At that point he was faced with either “choosing to choose,” as Heidegger puts it in Being and Time, or else just going on going on, literally just surviving (“living-through” or “-over”) his own life, having already outlived himself, as it were, by letting his moment of opportunity slip by, in failing or refusing to decide at all.

The way that Alain Badiou puts it in his seminar on “images of the present times” (in the session of November 27, 2003) is that what he calls simply a “point” is “the moment where you make the world [as such and as a whole] manifest in the yes or the no of a decision. . . . It is the manifestation of the world in the figure of the decision.” He adds right away that “[o]ne is not always in the process of dealing with points, thank God!” Badiou, a self-proclaimed atheist proud of his atheistic family heritage, adds that ejaculation of thanks because, as he goes on to say: “It is terribly astringent, this imperative necessity that suddenly the totality of your life, your world, comes to be the eye of a needle of yes or no. Do I accept or do I refuse? That is a point.”

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Early in the second of the six volumes of the long story of his “stuggle”—Kampf in German, it is worth remembering, as in Hitler’s Mein Kampf—Knausgaard himself has already noted how challenging it is actually to have to decide to live one’s life, rather than just to keep on living through it. Toward the very beginning of that second volume—toward the very end of which comes the passage already cited –he writes: “Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy.” The everyday life at issue for him during the time he is addressing was one of an at-home husband of an employed wife, and a father taking care of his young children while his wife was at work. Thus, it was a life filled with such things as washing floors and changing diapers. However, Knausgaard immediately tells us that his mere endurance rather than enjoyment of such a life “had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers.” It was not that he disdained such activities, or regarded them as beneath him, or anything else along such lines. It had nothing to do with all that, “but rather,” he continues, “with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.”

Knausgaard immediately goes on to tell us that his failure to make his everyday life his own was not for lack of effort on his part to do just that. In the process of telling us of his efforts, he also offers at least one good explanation for giving his massive, six-volume, autobiographical novel the title it bears. “I tried to make it mine,” he writes, “this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it . . .”

He loved his wife and his children, and he wanted to share his life with them all—a sharing, it is to be noted, that requires that one first have one’s life as one’s own to share. Thus, “I tried to make it mine,” he writes, “ . . . but I failed.” That failure was not for lack of effort but because: “The longing for something else undermined all my efforts.”

Conjoining the two passages, one from near the start of the book and one from near its very end, suggests that Knausgaard’s long struggle has been of the same sort as that of St. Augustine, as the latter depicted it in his Confessions. That is, the “struggle” at issue derives from the ongoing condition of not yet having made a real decision, one way or another. In such struggles, the struggle itself comes to an end only in and with one’s finally making up one’s mind, finally coming to a resolution, finally deciding oneself.

In the passage at the start of today’s post, coming more than 400 pages of “struggle’ after the one just cited, Knausgaard gives the fact that he “had a family” as the first reason he “couldn’t grasp” the “one opportunity” that he says he had.   Nevertheless, what is really at issue cannot be grasped in terms of choosing between two equally possible but conflicting options, either living the life of a family man or living the life of an artist. Rather, what is at issue is something only Knausgaard’s subsequent remarks really bring to focus: what kept him from seizing his sole opportunity was nothing but himself. It was not the love of his family that hindered him. It was the love of his own comfort—or at least the desire not to disturb his own comfort by disturbing the comfort of others nearby.

I can identify! It was really not my love of my daughter that tripped me up when her childhood pet, Fluffy the guinea pig, died one day, causing me to tempt my own daughter to betray her love for her pet by rushing out to buy a replacement, as I recounted in my preceding post. I did love my daughter, to be sure, as I still do. But, as I already revealed when first discussing the episode, what tripped me up was really not my love for her. Rather, it was my discomfort with my own discomfort over her discomfort over Fluffy’s death. I betrayed myself out of love of my own comfort, not out of love for her. So my betrayal as such was not done out of any genuine love at all; it was done just out of fear—the fear of dis-comfort. That is how clinging to one’s precious comfort always manifests itself, in fact: in Knausgaard’s case no less than my own.

Now, there may truly be cases in which points of decision manifest as what we might call “Gauguin moments.” That is, there may really be cases in which, in order to make one’s life one’s own, one must indeed leave behind one’s family and one’s home and go off into some other, far country, as Gauguin did in the 19th century for the sake of his art (or as Abraham does in the Bible, though not, of course, for the sake of art).

What truly marks points as points of decision, however, is not a matter of the difference in content between two equally possible life-options (let alone the romantic grandiosity of the choices suggested by Gauguin’s, or Abraham’s, model). What defines them (including in such dramatic examples) is just that they are points at which one confronted with the necessity at last truly to decide, that is to resolve oneself—to say yes or no to one’s world, and one’s life in it, as a whole, as Badiou puts it.

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German for “moment” is Augenblick—literally, “the blink of an eye.” Heidegger likes to note that etymologically Blick, an ordinary German word for look, glance, view, or sight, is the same as Blitz, the German for lightning-flash, lightning-bolt. Points of decision, in the sense that I am using that expression, are moments that proffer what Heidegger calls an “Einblick in das, was ist,” an in-sight or illuminating in-flash into that which is. Points of decision are moments of illumination of what is there and has been there all along, though we are only now, in a flash, given the opportunity to see it. They are those points in our lives that offer us the chance to make our lives our own: to come fully alive ourselves—at last and for firsts.

In common with Blitzen in the everyday sense of lightning-bolts, moments or points of decisive in-sight/in-flash sometimes come accompanied by loud thunderclaps, or the equivalent. God may come down and talk to us as God did to Moses as the burning bush, or come in a whirlwind, or with bells and whistles. At least as often, however, moments or points of decision come whispering to us in a still, small voice, one easily and almost always drowned out by all the noise of the everyday traffic with which we everywhere surround ourselves (even if only in the space between our ears), for very fear of hearing that voice . . . and being discomfited by it.

Points of decision may break the surface of our the everyday lives—those lives that, like Knausgaard, we endure without enjoying—as suddenly and dramatically as the white whale breaks the surface at the end of Melville’s Moby Dick. Or they may come upon us slowly, and catch up on us all unawares, such that we waken one morning and realize that for a long while now, we have not been in, say, Kansas any longer, but have no idea of just where and when we might have crossed the border into whatever very different place we are now.

All such differences make no difference, however. What counts is only that we come to a moment, a point of clarity, where we are struck, as though by a bolt of lightning, with the realization that we do indeed have a choice, but only one choice. We have a choice, not in the sense that we can pick between two different options, as we might pick between brands of cereal to buy for our breakfast. Rather, we have a choice in the sense that, like Knausgaard, we realize that we do indeed have one and only one opportunity, which we can either take, or fail to take. We are faced with the choice, as the Heidegger of Being and Time put it, of choosing to choose, choosing to have a choice to exercise, rather than continuing just to let ourselves live through our own lives, without ever having to live them. The choice is either to live, or just to go on living.

An acquaintance of mine once came to such a point of decision in his own life, and who did indeed decide to make his life his own at that point. When asked about it, he says that up until that point it had always been as though his life was running on alongside him, while he was just sort of standing there observing it. What his moment of decision offered him, he says, was precisely the opportunity to “take part in” his own life, rather than just continue to let it run itself next to him. In a certain sense, he may have “had” a life up to that point, but only at that point did he come to live it himself.

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In The Politics of Things (La politique des choses, first published in France in 2005 by Navarin, then in a slightly revised, updated edition in 2011 by Verdier) contemporary French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner traces the global processes driving inexorably, in what passes for a world in what passes for today, toward eliminating the very possibility of there being any genuine politics at all. That goal is being achieved above all through the development of ever more new techniques of “evaluation,” and the ubiquitous spread of processes of such evaluationinto ever more new dimensions of individual and collective life. (In the United States, we might add, the deafening demand for incessant development and promulgation of ever more new ways and means of evaluating everything and everyone is typically coupled with equally incessant palaver about the supposed need for “accountability.”)

What Milner calls “the politics of things” aims at what he calls “government by things.” At issue is the longstanding global drive to substitute what is presented as the very voice of “things” themselves—that is, what is passed off for “reality,” and its supposed demands—for any such messy, uncertain politics or government as that which requires actual decisions by human beings.

Thus, for example, “market mechanisms” are supposed to dictate austerity according to one set of “experts,” or deficit spending according to another set. Whichever set of experts and whichever direction their winds may blow doesn’t really make any difference, however. What counts, as Milner says, is just that it be one set or another, and one direction or another.

That’s because, he observes in his fourth and final chapter, “Obedience and Liberties” (in French, “Obéissance ou libértes”), the real aim of the whole business is simply the former: sheer obedience—what is indeed captured in the English word “obeisance,” derived from the French term. He writes (page 59) that, “contrary to appearances, the government of things does not place prosperity at the summit of its preoccupations; that is only a means to its fundamental goal: the inert tranquility of bodies and souls.”

To achieve that goal, the government of things plays upon human fears—two above all: the fear of crime, and the fear of illness. Under the guise of “preventing” crime and/or illness, the government of things reduces us all to un-protesting subservience. We prove always willing to do just as we’re told, as unpleasant as we may find it, because we have let ourselves be convinced that it is all for the sake of preventing crime or illness.

I will offer two examples of my own.  The first is how we line up docilely in long queues in airports, take our shoes (and, if requested, even our clothes) off, subject ourselves to pat-downs and scan-ups, delays and even strip-searches—all because we are assured that otherwise we run the risk, however slight, of opening ourselves to dreaded terrorist attacks. My second example is how we readily subject ourselves to blood-tests, digital rectal examinations, breast ex-rays, hormone treatments, and what not, all the tests, checks, and re-checks that our medical experts tell us are necessary to prevent such horrors as prostate or breast or colon or skin cancer, or whatever. We readily subject ourselves to all these intrusive procedures, only to be told sooner or later by the very same experts that new evidence has changed their collective expert thinking, and that we must now stop subjecting ourselves to the same evaluation procedures, in order to prevent equally undesirable outcomes. In either case, we do just as we’re told, without complaint.

We do as we’re told, whatever that may be at the moment, to prevent crime and/or illness because, as Milner writes (page 61): “Under the two figures of crime and illness, in effect one and the same fear achieves itself, that one which, according to Lucretius, gives birth to all superstition: the fear of death.” In fact, we are all so afraid of death and so subject to manipulation through that fear that we fall easy prey to the “charlatans,” as Milner appropriately calls them (on page 62), through whom the government of things seeks to universalize what amounts (page 64) to the belief in Santa Claus (Père Noël in France, and in Milner’s text)—a belief, finally, that “consists of supposing that in the last instance, whether in this world or in the next, the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.”

The government of things strives to make everyone believe in such a Santa Claus “with the same effect” that it fosters the development and universalization of techniques and procedures of evaluation: the effect of “planetary infantilization.” Furthermore:

One knows that no Santa Claus is complete without his whip. Indefectible solidarity of gentle evaluation and severe control [our American Santa making up his lists of who’s naughty and nice, then rewarding the latter with goodies and punishing the former with lumps of coal, for instance]! The child who does not act like a child [by being all innocent and obedient, sleeping all nice and snug in her bed, with visions of sugar-plumbs dancing away in her head] is punished; that is the rule [and we must all abide by the rules, musn’t we?]. All discourse not conducive to infantilization will be punished by the evaluators, that is the constant. Among its effects, control also carries this one: the promise of infantilization and the initiation of transformation into a thing.

After all, the desideratum is a government not only of things, but also by things and for things (pace Lincoln—at least it we grant him the charity of thinking that’s not what he really meant all along).

In the closing paragraphs of his little book (pages 66-67), Milner issues a call for resistance and rebellion against all such pseudo-politics and pseudo-government of things, and in affirmation of a genuine politics. It is a call, quite simply, for there to be again decision.

“If the name of politics has any meaning,” Milner writes, “it resolutely opposes itself to the government of things.” In rejecting the pretense of a politics of things, real politics “supposes that the regime of generalized subordination can be put in suspense.” A politics worthy of the name can emerge only if at last an end is put to all the endless chatter about how we all need to show “respect for the law,” “respect for authority,” and the like, all of which is just code for doing what we’re told.

Such suspension of generalized subordination and end of infantilizing chatter may not last long: “Maybe only for an instant . . .” But that instant, that moment, that blink of an eye, “that’s already enough, if that instant is one of decision. What’s needed is that there again be decision.”

That’s all that’s needed, but that’s everything. As Milner writes, “politics doesn’t merit the name unless it combats the spirit of subordination. One doesn’t demand that everyone be generous, or fight for the liberties of everyone; it is quite enough if each fights for her own freedom.” The return of a genuine politics requires that we stop relinquishing our own choices to “the order of things.” It requires, instead, “[t]hat at times we decide for ourselves . . .”

There is no future of politics otherwise. Nor, without decision, is there any future of culture in any form, be it political, artistic, philosophical, or whatever. But that just means that, without decision, there really is no future at all.

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I intend my next post to be the last in this current series on “Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Future of Culture.”