Embracing Ourselves (2)

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

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In general, the question I want to ask is: How do we embrace ourselves in our entirety? Specifically, I want to ask this question: How can we embrace not just those parts of ourselves we are proud of, and would like to be known by, but also—and especially—those parts of ourselves we are not proud of, and would not like to be known by?

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Specifying the Question

Most specifically, what I want to focus on is this question: How can we embrace those of us who individually, yet in our collective name and under our collective authority, do deeds that bring shame and dishonor to us all collectively? That is, how can we as a community embrace among ourselves even those of us who, in our very name and under our very authority, commit crimes and perpetrate atrocities?

How, for instance, can the United States of America, one of the communities to which I belong, embrace not just its war heroes but also its war murderers, as it were. It is easy enough, and morally inexpensive, for us as a nation to embrace “Alvin York, Eddie Rickenbacker, and all the other veterans who served the United States honorably during World War I and during all other U.S. wars before and since then,” to quote myself from a post I put up on my own personal Facebook page just this last November 11 (Veterans Day, which was originally established as Armistice Day to memorialize the end of the active hostilities of World War I). We have no trouble embracing all such exemplary soldiers, named and anonymous. But how can we manage to embrace not just such heroic individuals but also “such baby killers and murderers of women, old men, and other innocents as Vietnam war veterans William Calley and Bob Kerrey”? Or, to use a more recent example (one I also used in the same recent Facebook post) to ask the same question: How can all of us who constitute the United States collectively embrace not just all the veterans whom we have sent into our wars in the Middle East during this current century, and who performed their military service in a way that honored us as a nation, or at least brought no dishonor on us, but also those veterans we sent into the same wars, but who acted in ways that did bring dishonor on us as a nation, such as the veterans “who tortured Iraqi prisoners during the U.S. war in Iraq”?

My asking of that question here is not for the sake of such dishonorably serving veterans themselves. It is not for William Calley’s or Bob Kerrey’s sake that I ask it. Nor is it for the sake of those veterans who tortured Iraqi prisoners.

As I have written already in my preceding series of posts on this blog, I have compassion for any such veterans who suffer from the memories of their own misdeeds, and I honestly hope they can find a way to live with those memories and to accept their irremediable guilt. However, that is not my focus in this series of posts.

Rather, in specifying the general question I formulated in my first post of this series, my focus here is on us as a community, and not on them as veterans bearing the burden of “moral injury” for their own past deeds. My focus is on how we as a nation can embrace those very veterans whose service gave us reasons for national shame, embrace them alongside all those other veterans whose service gave us reasons for national pride.

We sent troops into Vietnam, into Afghanistan, and into Iraq. We fed those troops full of an ideology in accordance with which much if not most of the world is ranged against us, despite the fact—or perhaps just because of it: out of envy—that we as a nation (at least, so we tell ourselves) are the “shining city on a hill,” “the last, best hope for mankind.” We painted the enemy as consisting of no more than “Communists,” “Gooks,” “Slopes,” “Rag-heads,” “Islamic terrorists,” or some other species of evil creature, less than fully human—or at least less gloriously so than we ourselves so obviously are. We appealed to the patriotism we have so long instilled into our youth. We appealed as well to their desire to serve, and to make a difference in the world. Most of all we took advantage of the destitution and lack of economic prospects that faced the least privileged segments of our younger population, segments disproportionally composed of blacks and Hispanics, by offering them regular pay and benefits, and a way, supposedly, out of the ghetto. By those and whatever other means suggested themselves to us—including appeals based on images of heroism, glory, and superstardom taken from Star Wars and Marvel Comics—we enticed young men and women to enlist in our military forces. Then we sent them off to fight the good fight against what we had always depicted to them as our demonically evil, fanatical, stop-at-nothing, Godless (or at least idolatrous), terrorist enemies. We equipped them with an abundance of all the latest weaponry, and sent them off to kill for us—but only to kill, of course, “if need be.”

Yet then, when some of them “crossed over the line,” a line we’d never spent any real time or effort trying to show them and help them internalize as a line of moral proscription, and when they committed atrocities under conditions of war, what did we do? Simple! We abandoned those who did cross that line, even if they did so under orders from their military superiors. Far from continuing to embrace them and celebrate their service to us, their country—celebrate it at least in cheap words and easy-to-commercialize ceremonies—we berated them. We made an example of them. At least we made an example of those who make the mistake of being found out in their trespasses.

In short, we turned them into scapegoats—a common, easy way for most of us to wash our hands of the rest of us.

My specific question is how we can finally stop doing that, and find a way to embrace ourselves entirely.

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To be continued.

Published in: on December 5, 2016 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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Embracing Ourselves (1)

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

*     *     *

In general, the question I want to ask is: How do we embrace ourselves in our entirety? Specifically, I want to ask this question: How can we embrace not just those parts of ourselves we are proud of, and would like to be known by, but also—and especially—those parts of ourselves we are not proud of, and would not like to be known by?


The Question in General

I have very intentionally worded the general question in the plural—using “our-” rather than “my-” and “selves” rather than “self” (so “ourselves,” not just “myself”). What I want to focus on is “us,” not just in the distributive sense of each of us as individuals, but also and above all on “us” in the collective sense of the community of individuals to which “we” all belong. I want to ask not how “I” (whoever “I” happen to be—in logicians’ jargon: whatever value is given to that variable) can embrace “myselfin “myentirety, including all those parts of me I’d rather not own up to. That is certainly a good and important question to ask oneself, of course. But what I want to focus on in this series of posts is, rather, the question how a community of individuals can embrace all those individuals who belong to that community. It is the question of how we, as a community, can embrace all of us, without exception, rather than embracing only some of us and excluding the rest of us.

Thus, I want to ask: “How do we (in the collective sense of us as a single community—any community—consisting of many diverse individuals) embrace ourselves (as just that: one single community) in our entirety (which is to say including each and every one of us all together equally, excluding none?”

That is, in general, the question I am asking.

That question is itself not only my question, in the sense of being a question that just happens to be of interest to me personally, whereas others may have different questions that interest them. It is also, and above all, our question, that is, a question of interest to us all—whether we know it or not. Indeed, it is a question that “interests” us in the deepest sense, because it is only by really asking ourselves that question that we can truly be “ourselves”—truly be the very community that, like it or not, “we” are.

In hopes of being as clear as I can, for all of our sakes, I will keep rephrasing the question a few more times. The question is:

How can any community—whatever that community may be, whether a nation, an ethnic community within a nation, an inter-ethnic community or even an an-ethnic one, of national or international scope, all the way even up to the universal community of all human beings (the great community of “all the living and the dead” that James Joyce invokes at the end of “The Dead,” the great final story in Dubliners)—embrace all of itself? How can a community, any community, as a whole embrace itself in its entirety, which is to say with no exceptions, inclusive of every member of the community? How can any community constitute itself as a community without in the process opposing to itself some of itself? How can any community constitute itself without in the process—surreptitiously, as it were— generating what contemporary French political thinker Jacques Rancière calls “the part that has no part” in that very community? How can community create and sustain itself without excluding some part of itself, which is to say some of the individuals who make it up, from full participation (notice that: “participation,” actively or fully being a part of, being “party to”) in that community (full “communion” with everyone else in it, we might say)?

How can “we” really be all of “us”?

In general, that’s what I’m asking.

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To be continued.

Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (1)

This is the first of a series of what will be four posts under the same title. All four derive from the manuscript I wrote this summer for an eventually cancelled conference.

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Having already by then been invited to a conference, originally set to take place in Poland at the end of October this year, on the topic of poetry (literature) and the remembrance of the Holocaust, ideas for my talks on that topic were already germinating in my mind when I read Roy Scranton’s New York Times column on the 2003 war in Iraq (see my preceding post) over the 2016 July 4th weekend. Reading that piece helped begin bringing my thoughts on the topic of the conference to fruition.

Then, just a few more days after that weekend, I read another column by a different author, but with the same historical focus as the one by Scranton: the United States invasion of Iraq early in this century. This second column was called “A Misguided War, The Untold Dead” (New York Times, July 7, 2016), and was occasioned by the release just the day before of the so-called “Chilcot report,” the long-delayed official report from the British government on Britain’s involvement in the war the Bush administration unleashed against Iraq in 2003. The author of the column was Carne Ross, a British diplomat who was the Iraq expert in Britain’s delegation to the United Nations from 1997-2002. Here are the closing lines of his column:

[. . .] I’ve come to believe that government’s failed attempts to impose order by force are themselves the source of disorder. Many Iraqis would doubtless agree

The Chilcot report reveals much about government and its failure but largely ignores the greatest issue. The enormous suffering and losses of the Iraqi people are scarcely mentioned; there is no attempt to count the dead.

There is also no recommendation of making reparation to the Iraqi people, let alone an apology. For me, this should be the ultimate significance of a report like this: that it speaks for those whose lives were needlessly wasted. It is their fate, not those of us and our politicians, that should preoccupy us. Only then can we begin to grasp the magnitude of what was done in our name.

It was actually Ross’s article that finally suggested to me the title for the presentation I was preparing for presentation at the eventually cancelled conference in Poland to which I had been invited. As I wrote in an email to my contact at the Institute sponsoring the conference a few days after reading Ross’s column:

Since I received your initial invitation, the basic concept of the conference has been on my mind. One idea that I find germinating in my own thoughts is that I might do something under some title such as ” ‘Forgetting Ourselves’: Poetry and the Obligation of Remembrance.” In that context, one thing I would want to do is to play upon the ambiguity of the American expression, “forgetting oneself,” which can have both a negative and a positive connotation. In the former sense, saying something, for example, in which old prejudices one has tried to keep buried resurface would be “forgetting oneself”–that is, lapsing back into old, undesirable behaviors. But in the positive sense, we say that we “forget ourselves” when we rush to help someone in need, even if that may prove dangerous to our own physical safety. There, to “forget oneself” means to let go of self-centered attachment and concern, in order to help others.

Here’s what I had already written in my own notes after reading Ross’s column on the Chilcot report:

It occurred to me that I might call my upcoming talks in Poland “Forgetting Ourselves,” which I’d use in the double sense of (1) dropping self-concern to let the suffering of others be “remembered” (and there, not only Ross in this piece but also Viet Thanh Nguyen on Bob Kerry and the concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators are highly relevant [see below]) and (2) lapsing forgetfully into old behavior patterns we’d like to claim we’ve outgrown (“forgetting ourselves” when, for instance, we lapse back into racist or sexist language or response when stressed or “provoked” [as we self-servingly like to put it].

To explain the two references I make in the first parenthetical remark in that passage: Those references pertain to two other, earlier newspaper articles I’d recently read, both addressing, not the United States’ war in Iraq begun in 2003, but the United States’ war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The first of the two articles at issue was the opinion piece entitled “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam” (NY Times, July 20, 2016), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I discuss in my post before last. The second article pertains to my parenthetical remark in my journal passage above about “concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators.” I’d read it a few weeks before Viet Thanh Nguyen’s column appeared. It was a news-article in the same earlier issue of The New York Times, in fact, that contained the column about the Chilcot report.

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To be continued.

Thinking Time, Drinking Time: A Beginner’s Thought (3)


Enlightenment is the realization that you’ve been enlightened all along, only didn’t know it.



You, most esteemed teacher, have brought everyone who travelled along under your leadership to the point of being confronted with the choice either to become a guardian of essential things, or to work against them. [. . . .] What let your leadership become what it is, is this: the content and style of your questioning directly compel us to face final confrontations and always demand the readiness for transformation or avoidance. None of us is ever certain whether it will be given him to find the way to where the model of your work—quite inconspicuously—constantly seeks to direct him: into the tranquility [Gelassenheit] to grow ripe for the problems.

—Heidegger, address at the formal Freiburg University celebration of his mentor Edmund Husserl’s 70th birthday on April 8, 1929 (in Gesamtausgbe 16)


The same year that I discovered philosophy, I also discovered alcohol. Together, those two discoveries would determine the entire subsequent course of my life to this day. They will continue to go on determining it for however many days I have left, though their two modes of determination will differ: philosophy determining me in my continuing to do it, alcohol determining me in my continuing to not-do it.

I discovered alcohol during the same trip to Europe I took with my parents when I was fifteen, described in my preceding post. After I made that discovery, it took twenty-five years of drinking to bring me to a point of final decision, where I at last was brought to face my own inner desolation, coupled with a matching lifelong lack of awareness that I had any option. Because I finally saw clearly that I had to do something, but had no idea at all of what that “something” might be, I sought help. Then, when help did in fact turn out to be available, I received it with gratitude—which is to say I availed myself of it.

Twenty-five years of pickling myself in philosophy no less than in alcohol helped teach me by that genuine gratitude for a gift consists of nothing other than accepting and receiving the gift fully, which means taking it up and using it. That is what I did when I was finally brought to that point of decision that made me ask, genuinely ask, for help, and was offered it.

I am not a slow learner. However, the school system, in league with a number of other systems into which I was thrown at my very birth, did everything it could to block me from learning what I most needed to learn, which I learned only by choosing to receive what I was given when I was brought to that final decision point. Given such bondage, the wonder is not that it took me more than forty years to learn my lesson. Rather, the wonder is that I was ever allowed to learn it at all. That it did was ultimately thanks to the conjunction of the two gifts that were given me when I was fifteen—the gifts of philosophy and alcohol—that I was finally permitted to learn, even despite all my schooling, how actually to live my own life, rather than just enduring it, waiting for it to end.

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“My control disease.” That is how psychologist J. Keith Miller, a recovered alcoholic, refers to his alcoholism in his book A Hunger for Healing (San Francisco: Harper, 1991, p. 5). It is an apt description. As I wrote in my own book Addiction and Responsibility (originally published in New York by Crossroad in 1993, now available in a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace) when I first cited Miller’s descriptive reference, “whatever else they may be addicted [to], all addicts are addicted to ‘control.’ ” That is, as I went on to explain, they are all addicted—which by its etymology and history of usage literally means “spoken over to,” precisely in the way a slave is spoken over to an owner—the experience of feeling “in control,” or “under control,” even if (indeed, especially if) in reality they are not. Addicts are people spoken over to, and owned by, the compulsive need to experience that very feeling, the feeling that they are in or under their own control.

As I suggested already in Addiction and Responsibility, that goes a long way toward explaining the correlation researchers have found between addiction and two interrelated psychological traits: “field dependency” and “external locus of control.” Both have the status of significant risk factors for addiction. “To be field dependent,” as I then explained, “means to take one’s cues for how to behave from outside oneself, such as from the reactions of others, rather than from one’s own desires, emotions, and autonomous motivations.” As for the second trait: “To have an external locus of control means to perceive oneself as largely at the mercy of powers beyond one’s own control, rather than largely able to control one’s own destiny (an ‘internal locus of control’).”

The rates of occurrence for the two traits, field dependency and external locus of control, tend to vary proportionately. That is, they tend to rise and fall with one another. That certainly makes sense. After all, when we experience our own lives as not really our own, but at the mercy of powers beyond us (“external locus of control”), it is hardly surprising that we become especially sensitive to the cues our environment delivers to us about how we need to behave to keep on the good side of those powers (“field dependency”).

Nor is it any more surprising that the stronger those two interconnected traits grow—that is, the more one experiences one’s own life as being under external control, and therefore requiring one to be ever more vigilant for cues about how one is expected to behave if one does not want to run afoul of the powers exercising that control—the more likely it becomes that one will seek relief from the constant pressure. In other words, the more one will crave the feeling of being in and under one’s own control.

For addicts, it is precisely the practice of their addictions, whatever those addictions may be, that gives them, however fleetingly, that very feeling. So it is no wonder they get hooked!

No wonder, either, that rates of addiction continue to skyrocket in our globalized system of ever more mass-produced needs and ever more mass-produced products that falsely promise to fulfill those needs. In such a world-less world—where no one is “in control,” really—it is no surprise that we all experience such a yen to “pick up and use,” as addicts say. When learning becomes no more than schooling to consume, and teaching no more than the tooling of consumers, nothing else can be expected than that more and more students, coercively conditioned not to think, will be driven to drink instead.

Then the only hope left is that such students may finally drink enough that their drinking itself will become their greatest teacher, driving them to a final decision point. Finding themselves at last at that point, they really have to choice, in one sense. Either they choose to go ahead and choose—that is, to enter into the tranquility wherein they can sooner or later come to perceive and then to do whatever they must, each in each one’s own situation, to take back ownership over their own lives, and then to maintain it, day by day. Or else they just turn away again, refusing to choose at all, instead just heading back into oblivion, “blotting out the consciousness of [their] intolerable situation as best [they] can,” to use a formulation from Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s “Big Book.”



For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.

—Plato, 7th Letter (341 c-d)


Art in the technological world stands at a point of decision it has never faced before.

—Heidegger, “Art and Technology” (in Gesamtausgabe 76)

The first step in making a decision is coming to the realization that we have one to make. The more crucial the decision, the longer does the process of coming to such realization take. But however long it takes, the realization becomes fully clear only when the options themselves, between which we have to decide, have finally come to be clearly marked out before us. What exactly our options are has to be made clear to us. Only then are we truly at the decision point, where we must go one way or another. Then, at last, we are finally left with no choice but to choose, or to pull the blanket of oblivion back over our heads. Either we choose to choose, which means we go ahead to take up and do whatever it is that has been put before us to take up and do at that point. Or else we simply relinquish our own choice, and draw back, perhaps with a deep sense of relief, into the oblivion from which we had just emerged to come to that decision point in the first place.

Those who are brought to such final decision points in their lives are confronted, in fact, with the choice either to gain that life itself, accepting full ownership of their own singular lives, “owning up” to them, or to dis-own their own lives—and thereby lose them. Then, however much they might gain by refusing to choose to own up to their own lives—all the money, fame, or other forms the Biblical forty pieces of silver might take for them, even if they gain the whole world—they will truly have profited themselves nothing.

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Capitalism [. . .] is the first socio-economic order which de-totalizes meaning: there is no global “capitalist worldview,” no “capitalist civilization” proper: the fundamental lesson of globalization is precisely that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilizations, from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist, from West to East. Capitalism’s global dimension can only be formulated at the level of truth-without-meaning, as the “real” of the global market mechanism. This is why the famous Porto Allegre motto “Another world is possible!” is too simplistic; it fails to register that right now we already live less and less within what can be called a world, so that the task is no longer just to replace the old one with a new one, but . . . what? The first indications are given in art.

—Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London & New York: Verso, 2010, p. 365)

What most impressed me about Boots Riley and The Coup when I attended their Shadowbox concert at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco in the summer of 2014 was how they created a space where they and others, including not only other musical and non-musical performance groups but also the audience, could come together as a single co-creative community, as it were. Above all, whatever else it created, the very coming together of such a diverse bunch of people created their very co-creative community itself. There was nothing really in common to all those participating, except for this, that they all did participate, and thereby built a community together.

To explain that a bit more fully:

As I wrote in this blog at the time (in a post I called, with intentional redundancy, “The Après-Coup After The Coup,” part of an episodic post-series entitled “Pulling Out of the Traffic,” namely, the traffic in trauma) one good way of describing The Coup is as “a group of musicians that goes out of its way, whenever and wherever it performs, to share the spotlight, whose shine its presence generates, with other, lesser-known, more ‘local’ groups.” As I went on to note: “Rather than laying claim to all the glory for itself, The Coup would seem to glory in sharing the glory with others.” Thus, I wrote, one vitally important way The Coup establishes its own uniqueness is by actively being “a group that builds up groups,” builds up groups—including itself—by joining together with others in one united yet richly diverse performance community.

It was not only fellow musical performance groups that The Coup invited to perform with and beside them. Rather, what could rightly be called the “co-performers” for that evening—each of whose participation Boots Riley and The Coup publicly recognized and honored—included a puppet troupe and a comedian, as well as the visual artist who created the striking wall-murals that surrounded the shared space for performers and audience, and the production designer. What is more, as I wrote in my post, the others whom The Coup welcomed into the community they opened up “also included all the members of the audience who attended the two sold-out premier performances on August 16.” All the members of that audience themselves literally “played along” by their participation. Each audience member was granted the space, not just physically but emotionally and socially, to participate in her or his own way. Most did so, as I wrote in that earlier post, “by dancing, hopping, jumping, writhing, gyrating, hand-lifting, gesticulating, waving, noise-making, and in other ways noticeably moving around physically.” However, those like me, “who just stood there pretty much immobile,” were no less “co-performers” of the community as a whole.  With each and every one of us taking part in her or his own way, all alone together, we all helped build what, “at least for that few hours, [was] a richly diverse community of our own.” All alone together, we co-created what I called in my post a “communizing space,” that is, “a space, an opening, where community c[ould]—and in one manner or another actually d[id]—occur.”

In what passes for a world today, for a civilization, the only way that anyone—artists most definitely included, but also all of us in their audiences—can survive at all, is by selling what they do or are for money. That’s just the way our world-less world works. But there is selling yourself, and then there is selling yourself out. The two are not the same, however difficult it may sometimes be to learn the difference.

Those who are truly graced are those who along their way encounter a teacher to let them learn how not to sell themselves out, even when they are forced into selling themselves. When that happens, it is quite a coup! After such a coup, all that remains—but it is everything—is to remain in the truth that has just struck.



Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail only confuses the issue.

—George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?” (1943), in All Art Is Propaganda


When tranquility toward things and openness toward mystery awaken in us, then we may find ourselves going along a way that leads to a new land and soil. The creation of lasting works could send down new roots into such soil.

—Heidegger, “Gelassenheit” (in GA 16)

Those lucky enough to encounter true teachers are eventually led to the point where they have no other choice but one. Either they open themselves to receive the gift that is offered to them there, entering into the serenity necessary to address essential things. Or they refuse that gift, and retreat into oblivion, drawing it back over themselves like children drawings blankets over their heads in order not to see or be seen.

If students whose teachers have brought them to that point fail that test, it is not their teachers’ fault. But if at that point such students honor their teachers by choosing to choose, rather than just abdicating all responsibility, then they may find themselves, like Abram becoming Abraham, going along a way that eventually leads to the Promised Land. Along the way they will encounter obstacles. In one fashion or another, they will have to wrestle with angels, as it were, just as Jacob did to become Israel (“He Who Struggles With God”). If they persevere in the journey, however, they will win the prize, as St. Paul assures them in one of his letters. They will find a new land and a new home, where they can at last settle down and begin to build—and thus art in the fullest sense will happen again.

So in the end it all comes down to just this: whether those students choose to start along the way their teachers have led them to, and then persevere in their journey along that way, one step at a time, day after day. It will do such students no good to huddle together at the parting point to which their teachers have led them—huddle together trying to imagine what the land at the end of the way will look like, or how they are to grapple with the difficulties they may encounter along their way. Such shilly-shallying is just one way of retreating back into oblivion. It is nothing but a security blanket to cling to in order to soothe oneself, like Linus in Peanuts—just another of all the childish things that, to rely on St. Paul’s teaching again, we must put aside when we grow up.

Nor is getting underway to a land where a new world might be built a matter of trying to plan the route, or trying to take charge of the means of conveyance. Trying to plan a route makes sense only when one knows in advance where one is going; but that is just what one does not know, when one starts off for an altogether new world. The example of Columbus and the still unremembered genocides his plans for journeying to India unleashed should be warning enough against such presumptuous planning. Similarly, to take charge of the vehicle that is taking us to somewhere, we know not where, presupposes at least minimal clarity about just what constitutes that vehicle. What looks like what will convey us to our unknown destination may turn out to be no transportation device at all, but just some useless widget being pushed on us for some huckster’s easy profit. If we don’t know where we’re going, we also don’t know what will take us there.

    *    *      *    *     *

When Viktor thought about just how the new theory had come to him, he was struck by something quite unexpected. There appeared to be absolutely no logical connection between the theory and the experiments. The tracks he was following suddenly broke off. He couldn’t understand what path he had taken. Previously he had always thought that theories arose from experience and were engendered by it. Contradictions between an existing theory and new experimental results naturally led to a new, broader theory. But it had all happened quite differently. Viktor was sure of this. He had succeeded at a time when he was in no way attempting to connect theory with experimental data, or vice versa. The new theory was not derived from experience. Viktor could see this quite clearly. It had arisen in absolute freedom; it had sprung from his own head. [. . .] The theory had sprung from the free play of thought. It was this free play of thought –which seemed quite detached from the world of experience –that had made it possible to explain the wealth of experimental data, both old and new. The experiments had been merely a jolt that had forced him to start thinking. They had not determined the content of his thoughts. All this was quite extraordinary . . .

–Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (trans. Robert Chandler, New York Review Books, 2006, pp. 347-348)

If, when we are brought to a final decision point, we are not to avoid our responsibility by wasting our time speculating about where we’re going, planning the route, or getting our cars or other conveyances ready to roll, then just what is to be done? In fact, by just asking that question—at least if that is really what we are doing, and not just stalling for time by pretending to be asking, or maybe just back-sassing—we are already doing it. Really to ask a question is to give up the illusion of already knowing the answer, and to give up the sense of control that comes from such an illusion. It is to become, instead, open to learning, ready to be taught—already underway.

Thinking itself is not planning. Nor is it the manipulation of representations or symbols. It is not a compulsive drive to become secure. It does not aim at establishing any order, nor serve any will to dominion and control. It is not an extension of business as usual by other means. It is not a regular weekday practice.

Thinking is a sabbatical practice, the fruit of rest and not of restlessness. It begins only after we are set free to go home, to a place not of business but of tranquility, of serenity rather than drivenness.

Just by letting go and letting ourselves be drawn at last into a place of serenity, we become thoughtful, which is already to begin to think. Then, wherever we are, it is 3 o’clock, and school is over. Now at last, it is time to think. That’s all.

Today, all alone together, we need to find a serene place where we can  start to think. Only then might we find the way to a new land and soil, where art might again send down roots and flourish among us so that we all—artists and audiences alike—might once again build a world together. We cannot know in advance where thinking will eventually lead us. We can only find out by beginning to think.

Just think!




Thinking Time, Drinking Time: A Beginner’s Thought (2)

Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.

—George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays (Mariner Books, 2009)

The lines above are the opening ones of “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali,” an essay Orwell wrote in 1944, while World War II was still raging. In that essay Orwell thinks about the relationship between art on one hand and ethics or morality on the other—and, so to speak in the margins of that focal concern, about the relationship between art, taste, criticism, and what Orwell calls at one point in the essay “the decay of capitalist civilization.”

Orwell does his thinking about art and morality by way of reflecting on Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, which had recently been published. The person Dali reveals himself to be in his autobiography is not someone Orwell likes. At one point Orwell labels Dali “a disgusting human being.” Yet despite judging him to be a bad person, Orwell sill judges Dali to be a good artist—or at least a good “draughtsman,” which is the term Orwell uses when speaking of Dali’s technical proficiency at painting. For Orwell, those two ideas are perfectly compatible. “One ought, to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two thoughts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being,” he writes. “The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.”

Accordingly, “it should be possible to say: ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being [that is, is to be held to the same moral standards as everyone else].”

Orwell is disdainful toward those who can’t say that although a book or painting is good it is still deserving of condemnation, and he identifies two broad classes of those who merit such disdain. The first are those who would refuse to acknowledge any disgusting thing that should be burned as being nonetheless a technically good work considered solely as a novel or painting or sculpture or the like—just as Dali’s work displays good draughtsman-ship, even though Dali himself may have been a despicable human being and his paintings themselves disgusting. The second group who cannot say both at once—that a work is good, yet disgusting—just flip over the position of the first group. Instead of maintaining that a disgusting work can’t be any good as a work, they maintain that a good work can’t be disgusting. So, for example, because Dali’s paintings are so good as paintings, they maintain they are not offensive.

The difference between the two groups is one that doesn’t really make any difference, when it comes to what really matters. I think we should therefore call it an “indifferent difference.” It is the sort of difference that William James had in mind when he remarked that a difference that makes no difference, makes no difference. Orwell is trying to get us to see that whether we deny that disgusting things can be good works of their kind, or deny that good works of their kind can be disgusting things, really doesn’t make any difference. Both amount to the same thing: erasing the difference between art and morality—a difference that does make a difference.

Worse yet, from the perspective of the public good, in erasing the important difference between art and morality the indifferent difference between the two aesthetics at issue diverts us from attending to something even more important, something that is really Orwell’s whole point. It is his point not only in this essay on Dali but also in a number of others in the same collection. It is a central point in his whole life’s work as a writer, in fact—not only in his essays but also in his greatest works of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984.

That point is to get us to think. It is to get us to resist all the pressure put upon us not to think. It is only by persisting in practicing thinking that we most effectively resist everything that pressures us not to think.

With regard to Salavdor Dali, says Orwell, what we need to think about is not at all whether Dali is a good painter or a good human being. Both those questions can be answered quickly, after a quick look at Dali’s paintings and autobiography. They can be answered quickly, at least, unless we let ourselves get diverted into confusion about art or morality. Dali, according to Orwell, was a good painter, but a disgusting human being, the sort that can only flourish in a society that “has something wrong with it.” It takes no real thought to establish those two facts, by Orwell’s lights. Indeed, that remark about there being something wrong with a society that cannot combine the two ideas at issue points to what we really do need to think about with regard to Dali: What has gone so wrong with our society that such people can flourish in it, and why, even when his paintings were as disgusting (and not all of them were, I would add) as the rotting corpses he sometimes depicts, “it should be so easy to ‘sell’ such horrors as rotting corpses to a sophisticate public.” And I will add yet another thing we need to think about, something implicit in what Orwell himself says.

In his depiction of those who refuse to admit that disgusting paintings or books could still be good paintings or books, Orwell remarks that “their real demand of every artist is that he shall pat them on the back and tell them that thought is unnecessary.” I think we should extend that to cover the other sort of critic Orwell dismisses, who insists that what is good as a work cannot still be disgusting. I think they demand the same assurance that they no longer need to think, because they already know it all.

Accordingly, what I think we should add to Orwell’s two things we need to think about is this: Why does our society make so many of us so afraid of thinking?



Who has thought most deeply                                                                                                            Loves what is most alive.

—Friedrich Hölderlin, “Socrates and Alcibiades”

When I was fifteen I discovered two things that were to determine the subsequent course of my entire life. The first thing I discovered was that philosophy was the name the tradition into which I was born gave thinking—or at least what I’ve always thought of as thinking. I learned that for myself, by reading.

Nevertheless, it was actually because of one of my high school teachers that I happened to learn it just when I did, and by reading just what I did at the time. I learned that particular lesson then by reading John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Though I learned it despite, not because of, school, it was because of school—or that one school-teacher—that I happened to learn it then rather than some other time, and by reading that book rather than some other one.

Locke’s second treatise on government was one of the reading assignments I was given in the mandatory “Western Civilization” course I had to take along with every other sophomore in my high school. The teacher assigned to teach the course when I took it was one of the school’s athletic coaches, and coaching was his real love and calling. To keep his coaching job, he had to teach the classroom courses assigned him, including the one I took. Not unreasonably, given that his heart was really in coaching, in order to deal with the requirements of his job as a classroom teacher he made extensive use of the technique of assigning the students themselves responsibility for dealing with the materials on the course curriculum. He did that by having each student do some of the reading involved for a given part of the course curriculum, and then reporting on that reading to the class as a whole. That coach was a nice and decent man who knew I was interested in politics, and that I had even already been active with my best friend the year before, when we were both fourteen, in the successful political campaign of a candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Either for that reason or for some other, my teacher gave me the assignment to read and report on Locke.

I did not like what Locke had to say. I still don’t, though the reasons I’d cite today are different from the one’s I cited then. I strongly disagreed with him on almost everything. But reading him was nevertheless a revelation to me. It revealed to me that one could actually define oneself, and cut out a place for oneself in our society, as someone who did just the sort of thing that I always found myself doing. It was the very sort of thing I did when my friend and I got involved in public politics, but that my friend did not especially do, which was to question the various political positions we were confronted with, asking about their foundations, reasons, and legitimacy, and what both the long and short term consequences of adopting them would be. My friend even used to get irritated at me for insisting on trying to think all such positions through, rather than just getting busy trying to help the fellow who spouted them get elected.

What I learned from Locke was that what I just thought of as thinking was actually a distinct enterprise, at least according to the tradition into which I was born, with included Locke as part of itself—the “Western” tradition, the very tradition of the “civilization” about which we were supposedly leaning in our class. Reading Locke taught me that tradition’s name for that enterprise. In that tradition, the name of such thinking was philosophy. As seemed to be true for Locke as well, that was just something I did. From my reading and thinking about what Locke had to say on civil government, I learned that one could actually make that one’s “identity” as it were: One could be “a philosopher.”

Soon after making that discovery, I decided that was what I was called to be, “a philosopher.” I was not dull, and I soon realized that the only way I would be able to fulfill that vocation, given the society in which I lived, was by getting money for doing it. What’s more, I realized the only way I could do that was by getting a Ph.D. degree in philosophy, and then getting a college or university job teaching it to other people. So that’s what I resolved to do. I came to that resolution when I was still fifteen, but not until early in my next year of high school, my junior year.

The downside was that in order to do what I loved doing, which I’d found was called philosophy, I’d have to stay in school, which I’ve always hated, as I’ve said before. That’s another thing wrong with our society.



[Mallarmé] said: ‘Music declares itself to be the last and most complete human religion.’ That was certainly the case then. Now, however, music has become a solitary religion. At big rock concerts the yearning for ceremony is blatant. You feel it intensely when you see how young people of all stripes share this deep yearning for ceremony. Except that it is a parody; it never manages (. . .) to get beyond parody, yet that is clearly what it is attempting to do. Music was once ‘the last and most complete human religion’ but it has turned out to be a human religion in as sorry a state as the Brotherhood of Knights in Act I of Parsifal. It has ended up being about having earphones in your ears—portable music players! Obviously nothing could be further removed from a ceremony than a portable music player. The ceremony is a meeting in a specific place; it is the constitution of a place, where the portable music player is music devoid of place.

—Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner, translated by Susan Spitzer (London and New York: Verso, 2010, p. 148)


Yet why can these works no longer found for themselves the place where they belong?

—Heidegger, “Über Igor Strawinski” (“On Igor Stravinski”), in Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens (Out of the Experience of Thinking) (GA

“Art and Technology,” occurs as an appendix to a volume in his Gesamtausgabe (GA) or “Complete Works” (vol. 16, published in Frankfurt by Klostermann in 2009), is the transcription of a conversation Heidegger had in Munich in 1952 with a small circle of other people who had just heard him deliver his lecture “Dichterish wohnet der Mensch . . .” (“Poetically dwells man . . .”), a line he took from one of Hölderlin’s poems. At one point in their conversation those present draw a distinction between “poetry” (Dichtung) on the one hand and “literature” (Literatur) on the other, and relate it to a distinction they also draw between “architecture” and “construction.”

In German usage, Dichtung means “poetry” in a very broad sense of that English word, which ultimately derives from the Greek poiesis, from poiein, “to make or compose.” Used as an equivalent for the German term Dichtung, “poetry” has to be taken in a sense broad enough, in fact, to include all of what we call the “arts,” from architecture, to music and poetry in the more ordinary sense of verse, to sculpture, and even to weaving—everything that is a matter of “making” or “composing.”

Thus, the underlying issue Heidegger and his companions are trying to think about when they distinguish poetry from literature and architecture from construction is really that between art on the one hand and . . . What? My stab at answering that question is to say: whatever passes for art in this, our technological world. To polish my formulation up a bit, it would be better to say whatever is passed off for art in today’s technological world. To use yet another way of putting it, we might say that what concerns Heidegger and his conversation partners at the point in question is the distinction between art as it was before the emergence of our modern, technological world, on the one hand, and art as it has come to be included in that world, on the other. At any rate, what matters is not how we finally choose to word the distinction. What matters is that we see the distinction itself, and above all that we keep it in mind and think about it.

It used to be that art, whether poesy or architecture or any other art, built places for human beings to be in the world together. Art built the shared human home.

Any home is truly set free fully to be the very home it is, only by being lived in. It is only by coming and living together in the places art opens for us—which is what we do when perform rituals and ceremonies—do we keep those places open, letting them truly be the open places they are. In the case of works of music, we do that by gathering together for a performance, whether in a church, a town square, or a public auditorium (literally, a place set aside for us to listen to such works together). In the case of tales, we do it by telling and listening to them, or enacting and watching them being enacted, around a campfire, or in a church, a theatre, or some other place we gather for the performance. In the case of such non-performing arts as painting, sculpture, or architecture, we do not do it by “putting them on,” as when we speak of performing a play before an audience as “putting it on.” Instead of putting on paintings, sculptures, or works of architecture, we “put them up,” as when we ceremoniously hang a painting together in public, or install a statue, or raise the roof of a house. The variety of rituals and ceremonies whereby we come actively to inhabit the places art opens for us are as varied as are the arts themselves, from architecture to weaving and in all their possible juxtapositions with one another.

That’s how it used to be, at any rate.

Today, however, things are different. Today, art is not for the sake of opening shared human places to be inhabited together. What art builds today is not such places to be lived in together in ritual and ceremony. Instead, it builds something else, such as bank accounts. Art today no longer serves dwelling. Today, it serves the accumulation of profit—“profit” in the sense that Marx captured perfectly when he defined it as “surplus value,” the value that the exploitation of resources leaves over for the exploiters after all the costs of discovering and exploiting those resources, be they what we call “natural resources” or what we “human resources,” have been paid.

To make a profit out of some product, the profiteers must first and above all exploit those who produce it. That also applies to art. To make a profit out of works of art, it is artists, those who actually produce works of art, who must be most fully exploited.

That is certainly to be seen today in the case of musicians, for example. It is almost impossible today to make one’s living as a musician, because the pay is so dismal—when any pay is there at all, since musicians are constantly being expected to play for free, just for the “exposure,” as they are often told. The profit-generating trick is to keep up the demand for the musical product, while continuing to reduce its production costs. To do that, all one really needs is a few celebrities to generate global followings of fans. Those celebrities, who constitute an ever lessening percentage of a single percent of all musicians, can be paid astronomical sums, just like professional sports figures, because even those sums are but an insignificant portion of the vast profits to be made from sales of their music to meet the demand that has been generated for it—and for the endless stream of other stuff that is mass-produced to be hyped and sold to the celebrities’ massive global fandoms. That global demand itself is something that the celebrities’ constantly trumpeted celebrity itself largely generates (think Kim Kardashian), in an endless loop.

When all the systems ranged against us from birth everywhere we look push such nonsense on us as though it alone made sense, the only sensible thing to do is to follow Rimbaud and—whether systematically or not—derange our senses. If nowhere else, at least there we may find some hope.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many artists—especially the celebrities among them—turn to drink, in one form or another?

*    *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Sanctifying Life (2)

This is the second of a two-post series under the same title. The first was my post before last, that is, the post before “Pimps and Pushers,” which I put up a few days ago—and which itself is not at all irrelevant with regard to the issues addressed below.

*     *     *     *     *     *


            Tranquility toward things and openness toward the mystery give us the view of a new rootedness. That might even be suited one day to call back the old, now rapidly vanishing rootedness in a changed form. [. . . .]

So, in a changed way for an altered age, must come true again what Johann Peter Hebel once said:

“We are plants that—whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not—must rise with our roots out of the earth, if we are to bloom in the ether and be able to bear fruits.”

—Heidegger, “Gelassenheit” (in Gesamtausgabe 16, Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000, pp. 528, 529)

At the very beginning of the passage above, I have translated Gelassenheit (the German word Heidegger uses) as “tranquility.” The passage comes from an address Heidegger delivered at his hometown of Messkirch in 1955, at a memorial celebration on the 175th anniversary of the birth of composer Conradin Kreutzer, a local boy made good. In the English translation of the address by John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (in Discourse on Thinking, Harper, 1966), the same word, Gelassenheit, is translated as “releasement.” More recently—for example, in Peter Skafish’s English translation of philosopher Catherine Malabou’s French translation of the word in her book Le Change Heidegger (The Heidegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy, SUNY Press, 2011, page 196)—it has been rendered as “serenity.” German dictionaries inform us that it could also be translated as “calmness” or “composure.”

At any rate, the basic idea behind the word is an attitude of relaxed freedom that is able to take what comes its way and be comfortable with using it or not, as circumstances suggest, without getting involved with it any more deeply one way or another. Having Gelassenheit zu den Dingen—that is, tranquility, releasement, serenity, calmness, or composure toward “things”—is being what is colloquially called “laid-back” toward them. Gelassenheit is such “laid-back-ness.”

What, especially, are the “things” toward which Heidegger recommends we cultivate such “laid-back-ness”? Above all, they are the things that today most threaten to absorb all of our attention, thereby diverting us from ourselves and from our need to send down roots somewhere, if we are ever to bloom anywhere. They are the things that quietly go about robbing us of our lives even as we go about living them. They are those things that come to exercise dominant power over us by stealing our own power from us, most of the time without our ever even noticing: all the things that everywhere surround us and invite us to sell out to them, one way or another. It is toward such things above all that we need to cultivate tranquility, Gelassenheit.

If we are gelassen toward something, laid-back toward it, then we can, as we also say, “take it, or leave it alone” as circumstances dictate in any given case. When we are thus tranquil in the face of something, whatever it may be, then that thing no longer has any power over us any longer. Whatever power we might have given it over ourselves, had we been taken in by its blandishments, has been withheld.

Thus, what we most of all need to be laid-back, serene, or tranquil toward is precisely that which otherwise sucks out all our own power from us, so that it may claim that power for its own, to use in order to own us. We do not even need to defend ourselves against whatever is at issue.

In fact, by the very effort we put into defending ourselves, we fall prey to that against which we are banking our defensive investments. Despite ourselves, by our very investments we thereby give what we fear the power to rule us.

What we need is not any such mighty endeavor to defend ourselves, but only a healthy indifference.



Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.
—Ikonnikov, a character in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate ((translated by Richard Chandler, New York Review Books, 2006, p. 409)


‘Auschwitz’ names what might be called the murderous dimension of identity in philosophy.

—Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner (Verso, 2010, p. 47, on Theodor Adorno’s thought in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics)

Near the beginning of his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche contrasts two very different ways of affirming oneself. The first consists of just that: self-affirmation. It is the exuberance of vitality, of life, that simply affirms itself in and by its own spontaneous, joyous expression of itself, in all its vitality, its aliveness and liveliness. What affirms itself in that direct, active way is like the rose of Angelus Silesius, a 17th century German mystic poet. The rose, says Silesius, just blooms because it blooms. It doesn’t pay any attention to itself, nor ask if anyone sees it.

Just so does whatever is alive and lively naturally affirms itself in the very liveliness of its own unfettered behavior, conduct, and demeanor—free of worry about itself, or the compulsion to try to manage its image in the eyes of others. For example, a gentle heart affirms itself gently, in all of its acts of gentleness, with no need to call special attention to itself; and the truly kind are even embarrassed when they are caught out in doing the acts of kindness that flow naturally from them.

On the other hand, the second way of affirming oneself requires that, before and in order to affirm oneself, one first establish one’s identity by differentiating oneself from what one is not. In this sort of affirming of oneself, thus begins with the recognition of what one is not, what is other—in order then to be able to go on, after the fact as it were, to establish, by contrast, what one is in oneself. So the other to oneself must come to one first, and only after that can one come to oneself, by differentiating oneself from that other, “other-ing” oneself from that other, as it were. Then one affirms the result, which one takes to be one’s self.

Thus, this second sort of self-affirmation is no longer spontaneous. It is no longer the direct upsurge of life itself in its very liveliness, as occurs in the first sort of self-affirmation. In contrast to such active and primary affirmation of self, the second sort is reactive and derivative. It is the affirmation of self only as a result—namely, the result of a prior process of differentiation of that self from what is other than it. As such, it is an affirmation of oneself that can only be maintained by maintaining one’s difference from that primary, grounding other.

The second sort of self-affirmation, the reactive, derivative sort, is therefore an anxious sort of self-affirmation. It is anxious for itself, rather than for any other. A loving mother, for instance, is spontaneously anxious for the wellbeing of her child, or a loving child is spontaneously anxious to please its mother. In sharp contrast to such loving anxiety for the sake of the other—which is itself rooted in the first sort of self-affirmation, the direct, spontaneous sort—self-affirmation of the second sort is always anxious about itself. It is anxious to protect its derivative sense of its specialness by defending itself against that in contrast to which it has defined itself. It always perceives itself as under threat of being absorbed by that definitive other, a threat against which it must maintain constant surveillance in perpetual pursuit of its own security.

Since World War II, “Auschwitz” has been the most fitting name for what always inevitably results, sooner or later, from letting the mechanism of such secondary, derived, anxious self-identification run unchecked. Nietzsche, of course, did not live to see that particular place-name emerge as the name most appropriate for such a “murderous dimension of identity.” However, Adorno did—as Badiou says in the passage above.

To this day, so long “after” Auschwitz, that name still remains the proper name for such murderousness.



The notion of state power is a mirage: the seizure of the state is not the seizure of power.

—John Holloway, “The Concept of Power and the Zapatistas,” in Take the Power to Change the World, edited by Phil Hearse (London: IMG Publications, 2007, p. 131)


Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not where we live, my brothers: here there are states. State? What is that? Well then! Open your ears, for now I shall say my word about the death of peoples. State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. It tells lies coldly, too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” That’s a lie! [. . . .] State is what I call it where everyone drinks poison, the good and the vile alike: state, where all lose themselves, the good and the vile alike: state, where the slow suicide of all is called—“life.”

—Nietzsche, “On the New Idol,” Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part


It is there, at the start of the text, that one finds the formula that has become a commonplace of sorts: State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters, a formula General de Gaulle liked to cite, and many others, many other . . . men of state!

—Alain Badiou, Le Séminaire. Nietzsche: L’antiphilosophie I. 1992-1993 (France: Fayard, 2015, p. 127)

The power of the state is always derivative. Historically, there has always been and still continues to be debate among proponents of the state about just what the source of state power is—that is, what the state derives its power from. Does the state derive its power from God, thought of as some sort of “Czar of the Heavens,” for example? Some say so. Others say it derives only from “the people,” though just who is to be counted as “the people” continues to this day to be under dispute among the proponents of that position.

Either way, says Nietzsche, whether it says its power comes from God or from the people, the state is lying. Ultimately, he says, the state derives all its power only from those it can con with its lies—including lies about the sources of its power—con them, like some cheap magician, into believing in the state’s supposed power.

In his remarks about Nietzsche cited above, Alain Badiou reminds us that among the best liars, which is to say the most successful con-artists, are those statesmen—literally, those state’s-men—who can turn the truth itself into a lie. Such accomplished liars can turn even the truth about the state into no more than a tool to use as they choose, to serve themselves—and to honor the idol they have bowed down before, and sold themselves to.



While social movements, in general, tend to struggle for progressive or radical changes to national polity—think of the U.S. civil rights movement, or the suffragist movement—indigenous-led movements tend toward constructing power outside the framework of the state.

—Jeff Conant, A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency (Oakland: AK Press, 2010, p. 227)


[T]here is a struggle, but that struggle not only will make your life fulfilled once this inevitable revolution that may happen sometime in the future happens, but it will make your life better right now, and [. . .] engaging with other folks is a better way of living.

—Boots Riley, speaking during an interview conducted at the Socialism conference in Chicago in 2012, in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 13)

Boots Riley is an artist. He is a song-writer, rapper, and committed social activist who regards is best known as the front man for The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, two fine, politically conscious, socially responsible hip-hop groups.* A little latter in the same interview from which I have taken the lines above, he goes on to tell a story that should be placed beside the story Emil Fackenheim tells about the Hasidim of Lublin during World War II—a story I quoted near the beginning of my preceding post, the first of this two-part series on “Sanctifying Life.”

The story Boots Riley recounts goes back to his early days as an activist, when he was involved in “canvassing this area of San Francisco called Double Rock.” Here is his telling (p. 14 of the collection of his lyrics and writings that make up Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb):

A woman named Rossy Hawkins and her two twin sons who were eight years old got beat down, bloodied by the police in the Double Rock projects. The neighborhood immediately came out, hundreds of people, and surrounded the police. What had happened a week or two before was a guy had gotten beaten up by the police and been taken in the police car and driven around until he died—because they didn’t take him to the hospital. So people wanted to get Rossy and her kids away from the police and take her to the hospital because they feared for her life. So they surrounded the police, and the police got scared and started shooting up in the air. If you’ve ever been around a gun going off, you know that whatever you were thinking a second before is not what you’re thinking then. You’re thinking, Let me get the fuck out of here. And everybody ran away. But at a certain point everybody turned around. They turned around and came back, got Rossy and her kids away from the police, and sent those police out without their car. The car was turned over.

So two things. One, none of this was put in any mainstream newspapers or anything like that the next day. What I’ve told you so far is what dozens of people said. Other folks added other things. But this is what everyone agreed happened, everything that I’ve told you so far. And the other thing that happened is that what made everyone turn around was this: It was the summer of 1989, and the number-one song on the radio was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. And somebody started chanting “Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.” And everyone said that then is when they knew that they all had a job to do.

When that story was being told to me that day is when I realized the power that music could have, that hip-hop could be a rallying cry that consolidates our ideas into action.

What Boots Riley realized that day was the power of music—a power it shares will the other arts, I would add—to call those who truly hear it to honor the sanctity of life. Truly to hear music, and thus to let it truly be powerful, is to hear that call.

In turn, truly to hear the call to honor life in its sanctity is immediately to answer that call. It is no more possible truly to hear that call yet fail to answer it immediately in one’s actions, than it is to hear the cry of a baby in distress, and not get up and go to offer help. Just so, truly to hear the call to sanctify in one’s turn the life that itself sanctifies whatever it touches, is immediately to move to honor the holiness of life in one’s acts—or to slink away in shame, thereby dishonoring not only oneself but also, far more damningly, life in its holiness.

Here is another tale that says the same thing. This time, it is a fictional story, one embedded in the much larger fiction that is Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s great novel of Russia, World War II, and the Holocaust, centered around the battle of Stalingrad. The episode at issue (on pages 303-305 of the novel) concerns three Soviet soldiers—Ikonnikov, a non-political POW; Chernetsov, an old Menshevik; and Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik—and one French priest named Gardi. They have all been imprisoned together by the German forces that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and made to work in a Nazi camp. The first speaker is Ikonnikov:

‘Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.’

‘Yes,’ said Chernetsov, ‘there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.’

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

‘But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’
[. . . .]

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards. ‘Que dois-je faire, mio padre?’ he asked. ‘Nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager.’ [“What should I do, Father? We are working in an extermination camp.”]

Gardi’s coal-black eyes looked round at the three men. ‘Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,’ he said slowly. ‘Dieu nous pardonnera.’ [“Everybody works there. I work there too. We are slaves. God will pardon us.”]

C’est son métier,’ added Mostovskoy. [“That’s his job.”]

Mais ce n’est pas votre métier,’ said Gardi reproachfully. [“But it’s not your job.”]

‘But that’s just it, Mikhail Sidorovich, you too think you’re going to be forgiven,’ said Ikonnikov, hurrying to get the words out and ignoring Gardi. ‘But me – I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No”. There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” Je dirai non, mio padre,

je dirai non!’ [“I shall say no, Father, I shall say no!”]

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov’s grey head. ‘Donnez-moi votre main,’ he said. [“Give me your hand.”]

‘Now the shepherd’s going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,’ said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But, rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.

Gardi, who as a priest had a calling to honor the holy, realized it was Ikonnikov who had truly heard the music.

* I have blogged about Boots Riley and The Coup before, in the summer of 2104, after my wife and I attended a Coup concert in San Francisco at which our daughter, a professional cellist, played in one of the groups The Coup invited to share the spotlight with them—a practice central to the work of Boots Riley and The Coup.

An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz (2)

This is the last of two posts under the same general title.

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Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is the African-American father of a teen-aged son, as well as a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The lines above come from his recent book Between the World and Me (Melbourne, Australia: The Text Publishing Company, 2015, page 7), which is cast as a letter to his son. They address what Coates presents as the second “ideal” that has defined the United States of America in its historical reality. That “ideal,” Coates writes a few lines earlier (pages 6-7) is “one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” As his next lines make clear, what is at issue in that second “ideal” is American racism. He writes:

Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism, the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

As I have already said, this rarely acknowledged ideal of race and racism is actually the second definitive American ideal Coates discusses at the very opening of his book, his long letter to his son. The first is the ideal of democracy itself, as paradigmatically articulated by Lincoln at Gettysburg, concerning which Coates writes (page 6):

Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared in, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.


“This,” he writes in his very next line, “leads us to another equally important ideal,” the second one—the racist one that, as I’ve already quoted, “Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” It is in pursuing that second ideal, however unacknowledged the pursuit, that so many people in America have been historically excluded from “the people” of, by, and for whom the United States was founded and preserved, according to the first, most deeply foundational ideal of America. In what I’ve also already quoted, Coates suggests that the presumed “reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” is itself used by the powers that be in America who take themselves to be to be white—precisely to justify racism as “the innocent daughter of Mother Nature.”

Against any such racist self-justification, however, Coates reminds his readers that “race is the child of racism, not the father,” and points out that “the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” He then adds the lines I quoted to begin this post, in which he speaks of needs to happen among the “new people” of America, if that same America is ever to fulfill its “national hopes.”

Exactly one hundred pages later, Coates writes to his son concerning these “new people” of America: “And I would not have you like them.” He writes that (on page 107) to his son, despite everything that would seem to speak against any such wish for someone he loves—that is, despite all the death, destruction, and misery inflicted on the black American community by the racism, rarely even acknowledged, of “those Americans who believe that they are white,” as Coates first puts it back at the very beginning of his book. “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heel,” he continues in his letter to his son. “And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” Coates’s son’s own true privilege, the one that gives Coates reason not to wish his son could have been born white, does not lie in the ignorance that grounds white privilege. Rather, Coates’s son’s genuine privilege lies in knowledge. That is a knowledge taught only by centuries of cruelty, but which nevertheless brings with it a genuine potential of liberation, as does all true knowledge, however painful to acquire.

The knowledge to Coates’s son is heir by right of being born black is precisely the knowledge we all need, in fact, if we Americans are ever to attain genuine peace among us all, and fulfill the true potential of America’s first ideal by creating a real democracy as the rule of, by, and for all the people of America.

The peace we really need in America today to fulfill that first ideal is not the peace of mutual respect between “blacks” and “whites.” What we really need is mutual respect between all the various peoples who make up the one American people, once we finally succeed in defining “the American people” in a way that excludes no one who lives here. For any such anxious peace to break out, however, “white” unity must first be destroyed. For America’s national hopes ever to find true fulfillment, the “white” community must first be fragmented into pieces. Or, rather, since “the ‘white’ community” does not actually succeed in naming any unified community at all in the first place, the illusion that there is any such thing must first be shattered.

There will never be any final peace between “whites” and “blacks.” There can only be an anxious peace between peoples, and for that, there must first be some peoples—more than just one—“divorced from the machinery of criminal power.”

That is itself one worthy ideal we can glean from reading Coates’s book, in fact. In turn, it leads us to another equally important ideal: of an America freed from the belief in magic.



Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and case out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers.’

—Matthew 7: 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)


We live in a “goal oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. The rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live in this black body? It is a profound question because American understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. [. . .] The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (page 12)


The magic from belief in which his grandparents’ gift freed Coates is magic in the sense of the endeavor to control events through the manipulation of supernatural or occult forces by way of charms, spells, incantations, rituals, or the like. To believe in magic in the sense at issue is to believe, for example, that one can assure oneself victory in contests such as are involved in war, love, or football by more properly invoking the name of God before the contest than do one’s opponents.

Such belief is a form of superstition, and as such is based in ignorance and fear—just such fear as love drives out, at least according to Christian scriptural tradition. According to 1 John 4:18 (NRSV): “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

A few centuries later, John Cassian relayed, from the early Christian desert solitaries, the teaching that there are three kinds of “obedience.” First, there is the obedience of the slave, who obeys out of fear of punishment for disobedience. Second, there is the obedience of the servant, who obeys in hopes of reward—of getting paid for obeying. Third, there is the obedience of the child, who obeys out of love.

It is only in that third and final form, where obedience and love become indistinguishable, that each at last comes into its own. Either to love or to obey—and most especially to obey the command to love, that most, if not only, divine command—either out of fear of punishment if one doesn’t, or out of hope for reward if one does, is neither to love nor to obey at all, really. It is to confuse love and obedience with acts of magic, or at least magic-acts: attempts to manipulate forces beyond one’s own, or at least to engender the illusion that one can do so. Both acts of magic and magic-acts engage superstition, not faith. They are among the childish things that St. Paul (to remain within the Christian tradition) advises us to leave behind with our childhoods when we grow up.

In the Jewish tradition from which the Christian one grows—that tradition to which Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, for example, belong—belief in magic is just a form of idolatry. It confuses God with what is not God, but just the work of human hands (Psalm 135:15).

By their gift, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s grandparents helped him grow up, and leave idolatry behind.



What confuses the most is that everyone everywhere more and more agrees on one way of thinking, which counts as giving the only standard.

—Martin Heidegger, “Confusion” (“Die Wirrnis”), in Gesamtausgabe 76 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2009, page 269)


Contradiction tends to be negatively viewed in an intellectual milieu dominated by positivistic empiricism. Thus the demonstration that there are contradictions in a body of theory is likely to be understood as a refutation of the validity of the theory. The reader should not conclude that this is the author’s view.

—A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism: Theory and Practice in France and the United States (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, Inc., 1988, page 250)


Become who you are!

—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Only if we grow up can America ever become what The Pledge of Allegiance—which was not formally adopted by Congress until1942 and not formally given that name until three years later, in 1945—says that we are (or at least has so said since the last formal change was made to The Pledge in 1954, adding the invocation of God’s name). That is, only by finally growing up can America truly be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Until then, America will remain many nations and no nation, superstitious, conflicted, with privilege for some and justice for none. Properly understood, truly to pledge allegiance to what The Pledge says we are, is really to pledge to work to change who we really still all too much are. Truly pledged, The Pledge has to be taken as a promise still demanding to be kept, and not as a boast of past achievements that establish how exceptional we already are.

I don’t know if it is still fashionable in some right-wing circles, as it was a few years ago, to insist that America is a “republic,” and not a “democracy.” At any rate, at least the last part of that does hold: America is indeed not a democracy, if by “being” one means current actuality, stripped of any not yet actual but still definitive potential. American is not a democracy in the same sense that an acorn is not an oak. That means that America still is a democracy, in terms of the promise that in effect defines that name, and challenges what bears that name to become worthy of it, just as an acorn is, so to speak, an oak, only an oak to be.

The manipulative proliferation of ever more cheeply maintained and ever less deeply grounded “opinions” and “views” on everything under (and over) the sun, a proliferation so characteristic of our current American system of governing the diverse peoples of America, has made what America is as a pure actuality void of all promise into what might best be called, not demo-cracy, Lincoln’s “rule of, by, and for the people” (from Greek demos, people), but doxo-cracy, that is, rule of, by, and for opinion (from Greek doxa, opinion). And if America remains satisfied to be no more than such a doxocracy, it will only betray itself and what it most truly has always been—been as that “last, best hope” for humankind that Lincoln also famously said it was.

What is needed if America is to evade such self-betrayal is no politics of consensus. The solution does not lie in the promotion of dialogue in search of areas of agreement between the proponents of fundamentally different positions on divisive issues—for example, the search for some supposed “common ground” between so called “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates. The ever-growing confusion of “opinions” and “views” among the diverse population in the United States (and increasingly globe-wide) cannot be dispelled through any push to “come to an agreement” about the matters about which those opinions and view are maintained with ever-growing rancor and contentiousness. That just makes the confusion by which the doxocracy governs grow worse, and the governing all the easier.

The politics of consensus is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to borrow a useful popular way of putting the point. As opposed to the politics of consensus, what is really required is something such as the politics of dis-sensus for which contemporary French political philosopher Jacques Rancière, for one, has called. The politics of consensus has always ended up, regardless of the intentions of those who pursue it, keeping everything going along smoothly on an even keel. Politically considered, that means it always works to serve the already powerful, and to protect their special privileges, rather than to serve and protect everyone, equally and justly. In contrast, a politics of dissensus would strive to rock the boat. It would seek to disrupt “business as usual.” To use a different metaphor, it would seek to point out that the king has no clothes, and thereby to make of the king a laughingstock.

What is sorely needed for America to fulfill its own defining promise as America is not the formation of any consensus of opinion out of the swirling proliferation of them. What is needed is to replace the proliferation and protection of opinions with the proliferation and protection of all the peoples of America, whether they be Sioux or Navaho, Aleut or Afghan or African, Coptic, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, or Zen, and including even all us uprooted, thoroughly assimilated, people-less folks who have been taught to think that we are nothing but white, and may not have one single clue among us all about how to find our way home again.

What we need in America, as all around the planet, is no peace in the sense of “the repose of a self within itself,” as Levinas puts it in In the Time of the Nations, that pseudo peace that lets us feel secure and safe in our supposed “autonomous self-sufficiency.” We need no such easy, self-satisfied simulation of real peace. We need, instead, “an anxious peace,” the sort of true peace that Levinas characterizes purely and simply as the peace of “love for one’s fellow man.” We need the peace of a love anxious for the wellbeing of others—and anxious not to betray itself.

If America is what The Plede of Allegiance says it is, then America can only be the place of such peace. If America is what The Pledge says it is, then America is not yet. It remains an open question whether America ever will be.

Making Room for Community (5)

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

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Choosing Community

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot has changed since then.


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

Hardt and Negri then add:

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

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

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

May Hardt and Negri be right!

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

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

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

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

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Lashing Out, Rising Up, Striking Back


Retaliation, Insurrection, Reclamation


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

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


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

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

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

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

Freedom from such constraints goes with victory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Room for Community (3)

Making Room for Community (3)

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

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Forgiveness: Forced, Feigned, and Free


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


It also invites deception.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Free forgiveness never comes cheap.

*     *     *     *     *     *

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

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

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

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

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