Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the sixth and last in a series of posts.

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Part Two: Pissing on Language (4)

Being “politically correct” ceases to mean what it originally meant. It ceases to mean: catering to what is already politically accepted by those with whom one is speaking, rather than being open and honest with them, helping to form wise and honest political decisions through ongoing discourse with one another. Instead, the phrase is taken out of circulation in common, politically constructive conversation, and appropriated by the proponents of one position, to be used as a weapon to cut off conversation and silence others. The first party thereby stops conversing with the second, instead excluding that second party from the conversation altogether.

“Discrimination” ceases to mean the systemic subordination of the social, economic, and political interests of an oppressed population by an oppressing one. Instead, it comes to mean no more than individualized inclinations of anyone in general against anyone else of a different religion, county of origin, sex, sexual orientation, ethnic group, economic status, or whatever.

A paradigm of such deflation or flattening of the term “discrimination” and its cognates is the common currency given to the oxymoronic term and idea of “reverse discrimination.”

That term was first granted currency when the United States Supreme Court issued its judgment in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case back in 1978. In accordance with that decision and the usage it made of that expression, the animus of the oppressed against their oppressors was put on a par with the very systemic practices whereby the oppressed were, and remain, oppressed. In that process, “discrimination” was turned from a community political matter into one of individual morality. , The oppressed themselves were thereby further repressed by being robbed of an important element of the very vocabulary they needed to protest against their oppression.

Similarly, with the emergence and spread of the officially sanctioned euphemism “affirmative action” during the year of the Johnson Administration, discussion of racism in the United States and its redress was blunted, blurred, and derailed. As Jeff Chang writes in “Is Diversity for White People? On Fearmongering, Picture Taking and Avoidance,” a chapter of We Gon’ Be alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation: “For a long time [thereafter], the debate over affirmative action was a proxy for discussing race and inequality. It was a way to talk about debt and reparations, guilt and transformation, without ever using those words.”

As Chang points out, however, the compromise majority Supreme Court decision written by Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., in the California v. Bakke case helped even further flatten the linguistic terrain. It did so by equating “affirmative action” itself with action that ran contrary to the supposed “colorblindness” which that same decision suddenly discovered to be an official national ideal.

That same flattening process has, in fact, gone so far that for quite a while already now, many treat the phrase “affirmative action” as though it were a euphemism, not for acts of national acknowledgement, repentance, and atonement for a long history of systemic racism and discrimination, but for the oxymoronic notion of “reverse discrimination,” itself held out as a failure to adhere to the policy of supposed “colorblindness.” That latter term itself thus loses all remaining legitimate usage and comes to be no more than a cover-word for the institutionalized refusal to repent for racism, let alone actively to try to atone for it.

By Powell’s decision for the majority in the Bakke case, it was illegal for institutions of higher education in the United States to take actions designed to redress the results of centuries of racist oppression in this country. However, it was still permissible for them to seek “diversity,” which Powell held up as of positive benefit for general educational purposes.

No quotas were permitted, that is, no efforts to amend for the centuries of quotas imposed everywhere against minorities, from African Americans to Asian Americans to Hispanic Americans to Jewish Americans and so on, on and on. But Powell did still permit consideration of ethnic differences in higher education student-admission decisions, but only so long as that was just one factor among others considered for the sake a fostering such cherished “diversity” among student populations in institutions of higher learning.

After all, such “diversity” enriched the educational experience of all the fine young white folks, offspring of those who really owned the place, be that place the University of California, or the United States of America.

Chang is very good on all that. His analyses show how the United States “remembers” the Third Reich by repeatedly doing the same sorts of things the Third Reich did, precisely in order to remain the Reich, the Kingdom, the Realm—that is, the sole claimant to coercive power over the whole domain. Such repetitive remembering includes, especially, pissing on language, by flattening it of all its own real power, its definitive potentialities as language.

Pissing on language by flattening it in that way is pissing, as well, on all those who might use an un-flattened, un-pissed-on language to protest against their oppression. Most especially it is pissing on the memory of those who have long suffered the most from such oppression. It pisses on their memory just as the cop’s dog pissed on the memorials that spontaneously sprang in Ferguson, Missouri, for Michael Brown, after another cop shot him dead.

That’s how to remember the Third Reich, American Style.

Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the third in a series of posts.

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Part Two: Pissing on Language (1)

His kind of bourgeois knows only how to talk about business. I’m not saying he’d lost his soul; he no longer had the language to express it.

—Léon Werth, 33 Days (p. 62)


But from the point of view of the philologist I also believe that Hitler’s shamelessly blatant rhetoric was able to make such an enormous impact because it penetrated a language which had hitherto been protected from it with the virulence which accompanies the outbreak of a new epidemic, because this rhetoric was in essence as un-German as the salute and uniform copied from the [Italian] Fascists—replacing a black-shirt with a brown-shirt is not a particularly original idea—and as un-German as the whole decorative embellishments of the public occasions.

But regardless of how much National Socialism learned from the preceding ten years of Fascism, and how much of the infection was caused by foreign bodies, it was, or rather became, in the end, a specifically German disease, a rampant degeneration of German flesh which, through a process of reinfection from Germany, destroyed not only Nazism, but also Italian Fascism, which was undoubtedly criminal, but not quite so bestial.

—Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, translated by Martin Brady (Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 57)


The path of poetic faith in our century suggests that repressive regimes do not tolerate, are in fact afraid of, the subversive powers of language, most especially poetry in the hand of those whom the political order aims to keep powerless.

—Terrence Des Pres, Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics in the 20th Century (Penguin, 1988, p. 203)


One major gift the poet can give to what Des Pres calls the poet’s “tribe”—by which he means the “audience” for the poet’s poetry, that audience which, as Heidegger taught, the poetic work itself calls forth, to hear and heed it—is that of a genuine memorial, a place in the communally shared language where real remembrance can occur. Once so marked out, that place is one to which everyone can readily return, to remember—and a place that regularly and recurrently calls one back to itself, to do just that. Striking lines of poetry that, once heard, stick in the mind work that way. They become a storehouse memory, memory that rises back up into awareness spontaneously whenever it is reactivated, we know not (and need not know) how, by some chance encounter or event, like the taste of marmalade for Proust. When they do, they call us back to ourselves, and to the memories that define us, both as individuals all as members of our community, our “tribe.”

In sharp contrast, the role of the pure slogan, insofar as it remains no more than that—the paradigm being the sheer advertising slogan, like this one from my childhood: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!”—is not to call us back to ourselves. It is, rather, to divert us from ourselves, and most especially from openly sharing our life together in community. Its role is to isolate us from one another, rather than to bring us together in shared recall of who we really are, and to drive us into compulsive action. Instead of fostering community, remembrance, and thought, the sheer slogan divides us from one another and blocks memory, hindering thought, and any genuine thoughtfulness for one another. The pure slogan is trying to sell us something, in one fashion or another, for someone’s profit, not tell us something about ourselves, for our own good.

To use a current example, “Make America great again!” is not a call to each of us to come together with all other “Americans” in remembering the gaps and failures in our community and in our relationships one to another. It is not a call to us to atone for those failures, and address them honestly and humbly. It is, rather, a slogan designed to get us to “buy” a certain Presidential candidate, and vote for him. Or, to use a much older example, but one still from Presidential politics, the slogan “He kept us out of war!” was used to sell the nation on reelecting the man who would then lead us into it—“to keep the world safe for democracy,” of course.

Slogans, like striking lines of poetry, stick in the mind. However, whereas genuinely poetic lines keep the channels of thought’s and recollection’s flow open and clear, the lines of slogans block that flow and close those channels, diverting thinking and memory into fixation on whatever the slogan is selling, whether that be toothpaste, Presidential candidates, or nationalistic fervor (“Remember the Maine!”, “Support our troops!”, “Never forget!”, and the like). Poetry cultivates the field of language, opening new possibilities for rich yields of diverse flowers and grains. Slogans fence language in and flatten out the field of linguistic possibilities, turning it into a smooth, monotonous, dead surface where nothing but the most noxious weeds can grow.

At least that is so unless something manages to breathe life and soul (to be redundant, since those two words really say the same thing) back into the slogan, opening it up into poetry.

That happened to me with regard to the old Pepsodent slogan I mentioned above. That was way back in my childhood, when that insipid, mindless, mind-numbing jingle was still in circulation, not yet having worn itself down completely smooth, so that it needed to be replaced by some new coin of the same (dis)value, destined to the same ultimate flattening into worthlessness. That’s because the version of that slogan that stuck itself into my mind was first, last, and recurrently the version of it that my father used to delight in singing whenever the mood struck him. His version was this: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you wash your drawers in Pepsodent.” By heightening the definitive vulgarity of the original slogan, he thereby brought to the fore—without even trying, and certainly with no special intention on his part, given the simple, though intelligent, working man he always remained—the tastelessness and vulgarity of the original, and gave to me, his youngest son, a lasting memory of just what such slogans are ultimately all about, and worth. All of that—and, above all, the memory of my father himself saying his even more vulgarized version of the already vulgar toothpaste slogan—often comes back to me without effort on my own part, recalling me to myself, when some new advertising vulgarity worms its way into my mind and sticks itself fast there, like some foul, contagion-carrying tick.

Thanks, Dad!

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To be continued.

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

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

— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall

. . . nothing is ever past.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or do we just lack the eyes to see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are other ways as well.

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

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

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

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

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

— Jean Cocteau, Opium


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

— Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII (GA 96)


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

— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *     *     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *     *     *     *

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

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

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

The Traumatic Word (1)

In the strict sense, the word is not a sign at all. For to say its is a sign is to liken it to something in the field of vision. Signum was used for the standard which Roman soldiers carried to identify their military units. It means primarily something seen. The word is not visible. The word is not in the strict sense even a symbol either, for symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties. The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be “broken” and reassembled.

Neither can it be completely defined.

— Walter J. Ong, S. J.

We would like language to be no more than a system of signs, a means for conveying information. At least since Aristotle, and down past C. S. Pierce to the present day, that view of language has been all but universally taken for granted, just assumed as true. It isn’t, as Walter J. Ong realized.

Ong was a United States professor of English who focused upon linguistic and cultural history—especially the cleft between oral and literary cultures, which was the topic of his most influential work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, originally published in 1982.  The lines above are taken from an earlier work, however. They are from next to last page of The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, first published in 1967 but consisting of lectures Ong gave by invitation at Yale in 1964, as the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures On Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy for that year.

Besides being a professor of English, with a Ph.D. in that field from Harvard, Ong had done graduate work in both philosophy and theology, and was also a priest of the Society of Jesus, that is, the Jesuit order, as the “S. J.” after his name indicates. That religious provenance is manifest in his work. In The Presence of the Word, it is especially evident in Ong’s focus not just on any old word, so to speak, but on “the” word in a particular sense. His concern in his Terry Lectures is not just on “words in general,” as the ordinary way of taking his title would suggest. So understood, “the word” in Ong’s title would function the same way “the whale” functions in the sentence, “The whale is a mammal,” which is equivalent to “All whales are mammals,” thus picking out a feature that is common to whales in general, applying indifferently to each and every whale whatever. Ong’s underlying focus in his Terry Lectures, however, is not upon words in general but rather upon the word in the distinctive sense that one might say, for example, that Mount Everest is not just a mountain but rather the mountain, the very embodiment of mountain as such.

Befitting the intent of the grant establishing the Terry Lectures, Ong’s underlying focus in The Presence of the Word, furthermore, is not upon some word that might come out of just anyone’s mouth. It is, rather, upon one uniquely singular word that comes out of one uniquely singular mouth—namely, “the Word of God.” At issue is the Word of which John says in the very opening verse of his version of the Christian Gospel (John 1:1): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Thus, to put it in terms that became traditional within Christianity only long after John but based upon his Gospel, Ong’s underlying focus in The Presence of the Word is on Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Alain Badiou’s seven-session seminar in 1986 was devoted to Malebranche (published in French by Fayard in 2013 as Malebranche: L’être 2—Figure thélogique). In his session of April 29, 1986, Badiou argued that Malebranche, being the committed Christian thinker that he was, found it necessary to think of God’s being (être) in terms of the cleavage (clivage) of God into Father and Son—which, we should note, though Badiou himself calls no special attention to it at this point, is a self-cleavage definitive of the Christian God in that God’s very being, such that God is God only in so self-cleaving.

However, to think of God’s being by thinking it back into his self-cleavage into Father and Son is to empty the thought of God of any substantial content beyond self-cleaving action itself: “In the retroaction of his cleavage,” as Badiou puts it (page 149), “God is empty: he is nothing but his process, his action.” God, so thought, is nothing but the very action set in action by the act of God’s self-cleaving. God voids God-self of any substantively separate self in such self-cleavage, and is only in such vanishing.

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is no accident—and it is deeply resonant with the opening of the John’s Gospel, it bears noting—that Walter Ong, long after Malebranche but more than twenty years before Badiou’s seminar on the latter, says the very same thing of the word. According to Ong (page 9 of The Presence of the Word), the emergence of electronic media in the 20th century “gives us a unique opportunity to become aware at a new depth of the significance of the word.” Not many pages later (on page 18) he expands on that point, writing: “Our new sensitivity to the media has brought with it a growing sense of the word as word, which is to say of the word as sound.” That growing sense of the word as word calls upon us to pay “particular attention to the fact that the word is originally, and in the last analysis irretrievably, a sound phenomenon,” that is, the fact that originally and always the word sounds. The word as word—which is to say the word as saying something—is the word as sound. The word only speaks by sounding.

Not every sound is a word, of course. However, every word is a sound. Or, to put that more resoundingly—that is, to make the sound louder (using the re- of resound not in its sense of “again,” but rather in its intensifying sense, as when we speak of a “resounding success”)—the word as word is nothing but sound, or rather sound-ing. As Malbranche’s God is nothing but his own process or action, so is the word nothing but “how it sounds,” if you will.

The word as sound, Ong insists repeatedly, is pure event. “A word [as spoken sound] is a real happening, indeed a happening par excellence” (page 111). In that sense, we might say that the word never is, but rather forever vanishes. The word as word is a “vocalization, a happening,” as Ong puts it at one point (page 33), adding a bit later (on pages 41-42):

Speech itself as sound is irrevocably committed to time. It leaves no discernable direct effect in space[. . .]. Words come into being through time and exist only so long as they are going out of existence. It is impossible [. . .] to have all of an utterance present to us at once, or even all of a word. When I pronounce “reflect,” by the time I get to the “-flect” the “re-” is gone.* A moving object in a visual field can be arrested. It is, however, impossible to arrest sound and have it still present. If I halt a sound it no longer makes any noise [that is, no longer “sounds” at all].

The word’s sounding is its event-ing, its coming forth in its very vanishing: as sounding, it “does not result in any fixity, in a ‘product,’” but instead “vanishes immediately” (page 95). The word as such is a vanishing that, in so vanishing, speaks, or says something. It speaks or says, as Ong observes (page 73), in the sense “caught in one of the accounts of creation in Genesis (1:3): ‘God said, Let there be light. And there was light.’ ” Such saying is creation itself, as the very letting be of what is bespoken.

In thus vanishing before what it calls forth, just what does the word—not just any old word, but the word as word—say?

It says the world.

*     *     *     *     *     *

More than once in his lecturing and writing, Heidegger addressed a poem by Stefan George entitled “Das Wort” (“The Word”), the closing line of which is: “Kein ding sei wo das wort gebricht.” In German, gebrechen means “to be missing or lacking”; and sei is the subjunctive form of the verb sein, “to be”—as, for example, in the line “If this be love, then . . .”   If we take sei that way in George’s poem, then his closing line says something such as: “no thing may be, where the word is lacking.” It would then express the relatively commonplace idea that, if we don’t have a name for something, as a sort of label to attach to it, then that thing doesn’t really take on full, separate status for us, such that we can retain it clearly in our thought, memory, and discourse with one another. That’s the idea that a thing really and fully “is” for us, separate and distinct from other things, only when we come up with such a name by which to label it—as, for example, an old bit of what passes for popular wisdom has it that we, who do not have a whole bunch of different names for different qualities of snow, such as the Eskimos are said to have, are not really able to see those differences, at least not with the clarity and ease with which the Eskimos are purported to be able to see them.

At the same time, however, sei is also the imperative form of the same verb, sein, “to be”—the form, for instance, a teacher might use to admonish a classroom full of unruly children, “Sei ruhig!” (“Be still!”). Taken that way, George’s closing line would have to be rendered as the imperative, “Let no thing be, where the word is lacking.”

What’s more, gebrechen, “to be missing or lacking,” derives from brechen, “to break,” which is not heard any longer at all in “missing” or “lacking.” At the same time, used as a noun, ein Gebrechen means a more or less lasting debilitation of some sort, such as a chronic limp from an old broken leg, or a mangled hand from an industrial accident (and it is interesting, as a side-note, that “to lack” in German is mangeln). If we were to try to carry over some part of what thus sounds in the German gebrechen, then we might translate the word no longer as “to be missing or lacking,” but instead by something such as “to break” (as the waves break against the shore), or “to break off” (as a softly sounded tone might suddenly be broken off in a piece of music, perhaps to be suddenly replaced or overridden by another, more loudly sounded one—or by a demanding call coming in on a cell-phone with a ringer set on high volume), or “to break up” (as the voices of those stricken by grief might break up when speaking of their losses).

Hearing gebricht along such lines, the closing verse of George’s poem “The Word” would say something to the effect that where the word breaks, or breaks off, or breaks up, there is no thing.

The way I just worded the end of the preceding sentence—“there is no thing”—is intentionally ambiguous, designed to retain some of the rich ambiguity of George’s own line, most especially a part of its ambiguity which is important to what Heidegger would have us hear in that line. To say that where the word breaks, or breaks off, or breaks up, “there is no thing” can be taken two different ways. First, it can be taken to say that no thing “exists.” That way of taking it would fit with the presumably common way of taking George’s line articulated above, whereby that line says that things fully “are” or “exist” for us as distinct and separate things only when we have names for them in their distinctness. However, the same phrase, “there is no thing,” can also be taken in a second way, one in which the first word is emphasized: “there”—that is at such and such a specific place. At what place, exactly, would no thing be? By George’s line, no thing would be exactly there, where the word breaks up, breaks off, just breaks: There, where the word breaks, don’t look for any thing. There, where the word breaks, you will have to look for something else altogether, something that really is no “thing” at all.

Yet if we are not to look for any thing there, where the word breaks, just what are we to look for? What are we to expect to take place there, where the word breaks? Heidegger’s response to that question is that there, where the word breaks, no thing, but rather the “is” itself takes place—the very letting be of whatever may be, as it were, takes place there.

“Thar she blows!” old whalers would call, at least by our stereotypes of them, when a whale broke the water’s surface again after diving when harpooned. “There she be!” they could as well have said, though less colorfully. Well, where the word breaks, there be world.

Just how would the word break—in the sense that the waves break against the beach or Moby Dick breaks the ocean’s surface—if it were not as sound, breaking against silence? Sounding in the silence, the very silence that it breaks, the word is word: It speaks.

As I said before, what the word says—what its says there, where it breaks out, and up, and off as sound—is world.

*     *     *     *     *     *

At this point, I will break off my reflections on “The Traumatic Word,” to resume them, given the breaks to do so, in my next post.

* That is worth repeating. So Ong repeats it almost twenty years later, in Orality and Literacy, just varying his example: instead of using “reflect,” he uses “existence,” and says that by the time I get to the “-tence,” the “exist-” no longer exists. That example especially well suits the word itself, which as word—that is to say, as sound sounding—“exists only at the instant when it is going out of existence,” to use Ong’s way of puting it at one point in The Presence of the Word (page 101).

Final Remarks on Jean-Luc Nancy


This is the third consecutive post I have devoted to French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s ongoing project of rereading Christianity–rereading it in a way I find very suggestive for the study of trauma.  Today’s post contains my philosophical journal entries, first written on the dates indicated below, on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure:  The Deconstruction of Christianity, translated by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2008).

 One of the reasons for the strong appeal Nancy’s effort at recovering Christianity (largely from itself) has for me, lies in his consistent, insistent rejection of any sort of cheap and easy “redemption” or “salvation.”  So, for example, on page 20 of Dis-Enclosure he writes:  “If I am undertaking, at present, a meditation on monotheism, it is not to seek in it some way out, some remedy or salvation.  ‘Salvation’ represents, on the contrary [to what he is attempting], the confirmation of the world of nihilism by the necessity of the redemption that it asserts.”  In Dis-Enclosure and elsewhere, Nancy is careful repeatedly to reject any redemption or salvation so conceived.  Accordingly, his thought makes room for, and thereby respects, the lesson that the Holocaust, the definitive “historical trauma,” and, indeed, that trauma in general, teaches–the lesson that there is no such “redemption” possible, as I have explored in some of my earlier posts at this site.

A little later in the book, in a critical reading of Heidegger in and as a chapter called “On a Divine Wink [German for “hint”],” Nancy also provides grounds for thought on the connection between the Wink or hint, translation (which winkt or hints when it makes an exception for an “untranslatable” word, such as “Wink” itself, just as it functions in the title of Nancy’s essay–and as he perfectly well knows), and sovereignty, which especially today attempts to establish itself on the declaration of “exceptions” to the presumed rule of law, exceptions necessitated by such public or historical traumas as the attacks of September 11, 2001.  (To cite Carl Schmitt’s famous definition, “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”) 

Thus, Nancy writes on page 106:  “The exception of the untranslatable constitutes the law of translation. . . . Where there is exception, there is sovereignty.  What is sovereign is the idiom that declares itself to be untranslatable.”  Then, in the very next paragraph (on page 107), he goes on to write:  “Sovereign is the translator who decides to suspend the translation, leaving instead the word in the original.”  Then he proceeds to express a double connection between the Wink and sovereignty: 

Thus we can establish, on the one hand, that the Wink is sovereign, and on the other, correlatively, that the sovereign winkt. . . . Nothing is more specifically characteristic of sovereign majesty than the frown, the wink, the expression said to be ‘imperceptible,’ the reply to which is called a ‘sign of complicity,’ in the sense that, in that complicity, connivance precedes and exceeds understanding, in the sense that complicity has already understood whatever it is that has not been openly offered up to the understanding, but is expected.  The Wink opens an expectation at the same time as an impatience to which the decision to understand without waiting, in the twinkling of an eye, responds.

In his essay on the Wink Nancy connects Heidegger’s notion of “the last God” as the God who winkt, with  Derrida’s différance (the ordinary spelling of which, in French as in English, uses an e where Derrida writes, instead, an a)–noting in the process that the a in différance is itself a Wink (the very difference to which it calls attention can only be indicated in writing, since as pronounced in French there is no difference between the word written with an a and written with an e)–and with the idea of what passes by, as Heidegger says “the last god” passes by and is the last god only in so passing.  In that connection (of connections) itself, Nancy sees a Wink that opens upon “another sense”–a sense other than that of sovereignty, including, especially and essentially (since, as Derrida taught in Speech and Phenomena, there can be no “meaning” without “indication,” which is to say without any winken that opens the space for “signification”) the sovereignty of “meaning” itself (of that very sense of sense).

On page 113, Nancy writes, on this “other sense”: 

It is not the sense of the other or of an other [as in, say, Levinas], but the other of sense and an other sense, an always other sense that begins freelyif freedom consists in the beginning, and not in the completion, of a new series of events, a new sending back and forth of sense.  This inaugural and never terminal freedom accedes to that excess of sense–which is its sense, which is to say also the sense of being–as if to a climax, a supreme or a sublime that we cannot (and this is precisely the point) call “supreme being,” and that corresponds rather to the suspension of the supreme or of the foundation by which sovereignty declares itself.

This other sense is–to use the title of the next chapter from Nancy’s book, which reflects on a notion of Roland Barthes’, as the preceding essay does on a notion of Heidegger’s–“an exempting from sense.”  Nancy observes (pages 125-126) that to “exempt” is “to relieve of an obligation, to free, to exonerate from a duty or debt.”  Thus, “an exempting from sense” requires (to make sense) that “first sense must have been posited at the level of an obligation, an injunction of some sort . . . an imperative. . . . We have to make sense and produce sense, or else produce ourselves as sense.”  Later (still on page 126) he adds that “the formally sublime dignity of the ‘person’ and anonymous monetary circulation [which defines global market capitalism, of course]” are but the two sides of the single coin of what sets (itself) up (as) the sovereign–and together, as globalization of market economics, constitute the process to which “the other sense” of the preceding chapter on the Wink would be “other.”  Nancy then goes on, still on the same page: 

The wanting-to-say [that is, the “meaning”:  vouloir dire, in French, which literally means “to want to say”] commanded by sense always consists, in sum, in a wanting-to-have-said (“I have said” is the word of the master).  An exempting from  sense, by contrast, designates a wanting-to-say [a “meaning”] in which the wanting melts into the saying and gives up wanting, so that sense is absent and makes sense beyond sense.

“There is no sense that is not shared,” Nancy has said already, at the start of his essay on an exemption from sense.  Returning to that observation on the last page of the same essay he writes:

Sense is shared or it does not exist.  The contrasting couple of the exclusive ineffable and the general equivalent, or, if you prefer, of negative theology and monetary ontology, is the result of the disintegration of sharing itself, in which each of the two senses falls to a single side.  Unique sense, in sum, is always unilateral, and no longer has any sense for that very reason.  Nor is it a question of juxtaposing multiple senses.  Here’s the point:  What makes sense is one person speaking to another, just as what makes love is someone making love to someone else.  And one being the other by turns or simultaneously, without there being an end to these comings and goings.  The goal–if we must speak of a goal–is not to be one with sense.  It is not even mutual understanding:  it is to speak anew.

 Then, at the bottom of the same page, he ends the chapter with this:  “And there we have, if I still dare use this word, an ethics for our time–and more than an ethics.”

Nancy then follows with a third excellent chapter, on “Prayer Demythified,” at the end of which (pages 137-138) he writes the following reflections, which illuminate fanaticism as the most destructive form of the endeavor to avoid or deny trauma–though he does not himself use that term.  What he says applies not only to contemporary religious fanaticism of whatever sort, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian–as in the murder in Kansas just a few days ago of Dr. George Tiller, in the name of the protection of the “rights of the as yet unborn,” as it has sometimes been put.  It also applies to Nazi and fascist fanaticism, as Nancy’s own remarks make clear, and to all other forms of political fanaticism, “religious” in professed motivation or not.  Above all, Nancy’s analysis casts light on the connections between distortions of language and the fanatical avoidance of trauma, just as his earlier discussion of the Wink casts light on the connections between translation and sovereignty.  Nancy writes:  “Fanaticism is nothing but the abolition of the intractable distance of the real [the traumatic structure of “reality” as such, in effect], and consequently also the extinction of prayer and all speech, in favor of effusive outpouring, eructation, and vociferation.” 

In contrast to all such denial and distortion, prayer as such, as he has been arguing in the essay on prayer that precedes that comment on fanaticism, is nothing but the lifting up, the elevation, of the saying that is prayer itself.  Hence, he goes on: 

In the elevation of prayer, a supplication also, albeit “accessory,” cannot fail to intervene, for in it [that is, in prayer] is revealed the “poverty” [of all human speech itself].  The fact is “poor humanity” may have nothing else to pray.  Prayer thus conceived does not enrich, does not remunerate the “poor humanity” that we today have just as many reasons to bemoan [as ever].  It carries poverty over to saying–and it isn’t poverty but saying that is obliterated in this prayer.  Does not the same apply (isn’t it the same thing) to the  saying of love, the saying of mourning, and the saying of speech itself?

However that may be–and clearly his questions function rhetorically here–Nancy concludes that to

concern ourselves with this empty remnant [Note that term!] of prayer, remain faithful to this obligation . . . , [f]or us . . . has the force of a categorical imperative, for nothing today is more important than this:  to empty and let be emptied out all prayers that negotiate a sense, an issue, or a repatriation of the real within the narrow confines of our faded humanisms and clenched religiosities, in order that we may merely open speech once again to its most proper possibility of address, which also makes up all its sense and all its truth.

Trauma calls for just and only such prayer as response–a prayer that lifts up trauma and the traumatized themselves, and, in raising them up, obliterates not trauma and the traumatized but the praying voice itself, vanishing behind what it exhausts itself in lifting up.  Such a remnant prayer, which expropriates those who pray–dis-appropriating them of all their own property, in order that they may at last pray properly–is the only proper prayer, indeed, the only proper speech, of those remnant communities, as I have called them, that are the only real communities, in any world of trauma such as ours.


What follows are my entries on Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure in my philosophical journal from last fall.



Monday, November 24, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure.  The second essay, “Atheism and Monotheism,” from page 25 to the end of the essay on page 28, is excellent.  In general, he is good indeed on the belonging together of atheism and theism, and on the identity (in Heidgger’s sense [of just such belonging-together, as contrasted to identity taken as mere belonging-together]) of the two as defining the West, but in these last few pages of the piece he is even better than usual.  Just to hit some of the highlights:

P. 25: 

Faith is not weak, hypothetical, or subjective knowledge.  [It’s not knowledge at all.] . . . On the contrary, it is the act of the reason that relates, itself, to that which, in it, passes it infinitely:  faith stands precisely at the point where atheism [as the casting loose, one way or another,  of God, if “God” names the principle of totality, as he’s arguing it does]. . . . This is the point Kant already recognized formally [see his critique of reason to make room for faith] when he spoke, for example, of “the incapacity in which reason finds itself, to satisfy by itself its own needs.”  Reason does not suffice unto itself:  for itself it is not a sufficient reason.

P. 26:  However,

the name “God” . . . in [an] atheological [sense, rather than the principle/God of theism/atheism] . . . refers to “something,” to “someone,” or to “a nothing” . . . of which faith is itself the birthplace or the creative event.  That “God” himself may be the fruit of faith, which at the same time depends only on his grace (that is, exempts itself from necessity and obligation), is a thought profoundly foreign–perhaps it is the most foreign–to the theism/atheism pair. . . . Yet this thinking is not foreign to Christian reflection–no more so than to reflection in Judaism or Islam.  Let us cite only Makarios of Magnesia [4th century].  “This one who does the will of my Father gives birth to me [Christ] by participating in this act, and he is born with me.  He who believes that I am the Son of God engenders me in some sense through his faith.”

Bottom of p. 26 he cites “the word that was in a sense Heidegger’s last:  ‘Only a god can save us now.’ ”  Then, top of p. 27:

It is not politically correct to treat his sentence without contempt.  Yet it is philosophically necessary. . . . Now, to “save” is not “to heal.”  It is not a process, and it is not measured against some ultimate “health” (salus and sanus are not the same terms).  It is a unique and instantaneous act [note:  a Heideggerian Event!], through which one who is already in the abyss is held back or recovered.  “To save” does not annul the abyss; it takes place in it.  (Perhaps buddhist “awakening” takes place in a comparable fashion, if it takes place,  right in the middle of the world and not outside it).

A little later on p. 27:

And the “god” of which he [Heidegger in the article in Der Spiegel he gave 10 years before he died, with the proviso that it only be published posthumously] is speaking designates . . . the “nothing other” for which philosophy is neither the site nor the regime.  That god, that “last god” as he puts it elsewhere–that “god,” insofar as every god is the “last one,” which is to say that every god dissipates and dissolves the every essence of the divine–is a god that beckons [winkt].  That means, it makes a sign without sense, a sign of approach, of invitation, and of departure.  That god has its essence in winken.  And that sign-making, that blink of an eye comes to pass, starting from and in the direction of the Ereignis–the appropriating event through which man, appropriated to or by being, may be disappropriated (ent-eignet) of an identity closed in on its humanity.  Man may thus “propriate” himself, address himself and dedicate himself (zu-eignet) to what is infinitely more than him-“self” [lui-“même”].


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “Opening” (first piece), p. 10:  “Christianity designates nothing other, essentially (that is to say simply, infinitely simply:  through an inaccessible simplicity), than the demand to open in this world an alterity or an unconditional alienation.”  Then, a bit later:  “Christianity can be summed up, as Nietzsche, for one, knew well, in the precept of living in this world as outside of it–in the sense that this ‘outside’ is not, not an entity.  It does not exist, but it (or again, since it) defines and mobilizes ex-istence:  the opening of the world to inaccessible alterity.”

Thus does Christianity itself become de-constructive.

Following up further (pp. 11-12):  “. . . the true scope of the ‘dis-enclosure’ can only be measured by this question:  Are we capable, yes or no, of grasping anew–beyond all mastery–the demand that carries thought out of itself without confusing this demand, in its absolute irreducibility with some construction of ideas or with some sloppy assembly of phantasms?”

Later on p. 12:  “. . . it is a question . . . of wondering whether faith has ever, in truth, been confused with belief.”  Indeed!  Then, as he correctly and importantly adds:  “In effect, it is enough to observe that belief is in no way proper [that is, here, “exclusive”] to religion.  There are many profane beliefs”; there are even beliefs among scholars and philosophers.


P. 36 (in third essay, “A Deconstruction of Monotheism”):

With the figure of Christ comes the renunciation of divine power and presence, such that this renunciation becomes the proper act of God, which makes this act into God’s becoming-man. . . . In its principle, monotheism undoes theism, that is to say, the presence of the power that assembles the world and assures this sense.  It thus renders absolutely problematic the name god–it renders it nonsignifying–and above all, it withdraws all power of assurance from it.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Judeo-Christian (on Faith),” p. 53, parenthetically notes that in the sense of “faith” at issue in the letter of James “there is at the heart of faith a decision of faith that precedes itself and exceeds itself,” then writes:  “If belief must be understood as a weak form of an analogy of knowledge, then faith is not of the  order of belief.”  But first (right after the parentheses) he writes that, as such a “decision,” “faith cannot be an adherence to some contents of belief.”  At the end of the same paragraph he writes: 

Taking a step further, even a short step, we could extrapolate from James a declaration like the  following:  “It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a ‘belief,’ for example, in the belief in redemption by the Christ, that which characterizes the Christian:  only Christian practice is Christian, a life like that lived by him who died on the cross”–a declaration that we cold read in Nietzsche.

Perhaps there is, in that last remark, an indication of a genuine difference between Nancy’s articulations and those of [Gianni] Vattimo on the relevant point of faith:  Vattimo does indeed continue to think  in terms of what in the broad sense may be called the “contents” of belief–taking the latter still as a “holding for true” in some sense.  In contrast, Faulkner, say, in Requiem for a Nun is clearly no longer thinking that way at all, and his use of “belief” is such as to make it the same, I’d say, as Nancys “faith.”  More importantly, I think the reading of Vattimo on the basis, in effect, of Nancy’s understanding of “faith” would help articulate a less rigid distinction between “contents” of belief and “practice” of faith.

For example, to “believe” in the power of prayer could surely be taken to be “holding for true” that prayer is effective.  Thus, the latter could be called the “content” of such a belief.  However, to hold that “content” for true is to act in a certain way.  So one might say something such as this to an “uncertain” believer of a certain sort (a certain sort of “uncertainty”):  “If you believe in the power of prayer, why don’t you act like it?”  That is, genuine belief itself must manifest as and in “works.”

Similarly, to use Nancy’s own example, to believe “in redemption by the Christ” is to be empowered and sent underway into redeemed life, a life lived as redemption and [therefore] lived redemptively.  And that “belief” is as much a gift and a grace as Nancy recognizes [what he calls] “faith” to be.

The happening of truth!

On p. 53 Nancy writes:

In a certain sense, James’ Abraham believes nothing, does not even hope. . . . James’ Abraham is not in the economy of assurances or substitutes for assurance . . . . The reasons that this faith has “to believe” are not reasons.  Thus it has nothing, in sum, with which to convince itself.  This faith is but the “conviction” that gives itself over in act–not even to something “incomprehensible” . . . , but to that which is another act:  a commandment. . . . Faith resides in inadequation to itself as a content of meaning.  And it is in this precisely that it is truth qua truth of faith or faith as truth and verification.  This is not sacri-fication [making-sacred] but veri-fication [making-true].

Then, on the next page (54):  “The work of Abraham is the acting or doing of this inadequation:  a praxis [acting] whose poiesis [making] is the incommensurability of an action (to offer Isaac up) and of its representation or its meaning (to immolate his son).”

Yet “to offer up” is no less a “representation,” finally, that “to immolate.”  So I don’t see that he has succeeded in isolating two opposed ideas here.  Despite his parenthetical remark to the contrary [at least as I read its suggestion above], Kierkegaard and Vattimo are pointing toward the same thing he, Nancy, is himself pointing to.  Those are three different ways, terminologically, of pointing to the same thing, I’d say–though none of the three quite succeeds as an articulation, in my judgment.


Something in all this has just occasioned this reflection, linking the interpretation of Abraham and Isaac with the idea I recently wrote of, that giving birth to a child is giving the child over to death:  Perhaps we could read the story of Abraham and Isaac as a parable of birth.  Perhaps all parents are Abraham, and all their children Isaacs who are “offered up” by those parents themselves to “God” = to no-thing = death.  Giving birth is offering up the born to God = death.


Later on p.  54:  “. . . what James . . . calls . . . ‘justification’:  that which makes just, that which creates a just one. . . . would be tied first to faith in the other. . . . The just one or justified one would be he who lets himself be attested, borne witness to, in the other.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins [in the untitled poem that begins, “When kingfishers catch fire”]:  “The just man justices.”


Thursday, November 27, 2008–Thanksgiving Day

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, the end of the reflection on James (“The Judeo-Christian (on Faith)”), p. 59:

What is changing, in the instituting configuration of the West, is that man is no longer the mortal who stands before the immortal.  He is becoming the dying one in a dying that doubles or lives the whole time of his life.  The divine withdraws from its dwelling sites–whether these be the peaks of Mount Olympus or of Sinai–and from every type of temple. It becomes, in so withdrawing, the perpetual imminence of dying.  Death, as the natural end of a mode of existence, is itself finite:  dying becomes the theme of existence according to the always suspended imminence of parousia.

Next paragraph, on [the sacrament of] anointing the sick, especially the dying: 

. . . unction signs not what will later be called life eternal beyond death but the entry into death as into a finite parousia that is infinitely differed or deferred.  This is the entry into incommensurable inadequation.  In this sense, every dying one is a messiah, and every messiah is a dying one.  The dying one is no longer a mortal as distinct from the immortal.  The dying one is the living one in the act of a presence that is incommensurable. . . . Death is tied to sin:  that is, tied to the deficiency of a life that does not practice faith–that cannot practice it without failing or fainting–at the incommensurable height of dying.  Yet despite this, faith gives; it gives dying precisely in its incommensurability (to give death, “the gift of death,” he [that other “James,” namely, Jacques–French for James–Derrida] says):  a gift that is not a matter of receiving in order to keep, any more than is love or poverty, or even veridicity (which are, ultimately, the same thing as dying).


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, in “The Name God in Blanchot,” p. 76: 

Blanchot. . . neither asks nor authorizes any “question of God,” but he additionally posits and says that that question is not to be asked.  This means that it is not a question. . . . God is not within the jurisdiction of a question.  This does not mean that he falls within an affirmation that would answer the question in advance.  Nor does he fall within a negation.  It is not that there is or is not a God.  It is, quite differently, that there is the name God, or rather that the name God is spoken. . . . If all questions intend a “what,” a something, the name God corresponds to the order, the register, or the modality of what is not, or has not, any thing.

He goes on to write that Blanchot also uses words

such as being (as taken from Heidegger) . . . . For them as well,  the question is not to be asked, for it is already deposited within them.  But they are words (concepts), whereas God is a name (without content [any more than any name, properly speaking, has “content”]).  The name God must, then, represent something other than a concept here, more precisely, it must bear and bring to a head a trait common to names as such:  to be at the extremity and the extenuation of sense.


Next essay, “Blanchot’s Resurrection,” p. 89 (first paragraph of the essay):

The resurrection in question [in Blanchot] does not escape death, nor recover from it, nor dialectize it.  On the contrary, it constitutes the extremity and the truth of the phenomenon of dying.  It goes into death not to pass through it but, sinking irreversably into it, to resuscitate death itself.  To resuscitate death is entirely different from resuscitating the dead.  To resuscitate the dead is to bring them back to life, to bring life back where death had destroyed it. . . . Resuscitating death is a completely different operation. . .

The point is, indeed, to let the dead be dead:  thus to resurrect or resuscitate death, and the dead as [still] dead.


Next essay, “Consolation, Desolation,” is a reply to Derrida on Nancy’s deconstruction (in Noli me tangere) of the notion of resurrection.  P. 101:  “Faith never consists–and this, no doubt, in any religious form–in making oneself believe something in the way that one might convince oneself that tomorrow one will be happy.  Faith can only consist, by definition, in addressing what comes to pass, and it annihilates every belief, every reckoning, every economy, and any salvation.”


Monday, December 1, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “On a Divine Wink” [Wink is German for “hint,” and the English “wink,” as in “wink of an eye,” is derived from it], p. 119:  “Such is the divine truth of the Wink:  it stems from the fact that there is no wink of god, but that god is the wink.  He does not do it, he winks himself there, just as he states his name in it, properly common and commonly proper–the name, in sum, of every person.”


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, “The Deconstruction of Christianity”–relevant to my own thoughts on “survivor guilt”–pp. 155-156, arguing that sin is not a “misdeed,” but a “condition,” the very condition of the human in need of redemption (or salvation), and that there is a radical “indebtedness of existence itself”: 

Temptation is essentially the temptation of self, it is the self as temptation, as tempter, as self-tempter.  It is not in the least a question of the expiation of a misdeed, but of redemption or salvation, and salvation cannot come from the self itself, but from its opening . . . and as such it comes to it as the grace of its Creator. . . . Through salvation, God remits to man the debt he incurred in sinning, a debt that is none other than the debt of the self itself.  What man appropriated, for which he is in debt to God, is the self that he has turned in upon itself.  It must be returned to God and not to itself.  Sin is an indebtedness of existence as such.

     In other words, while Heidegger tends to detach existential Schuldigkeit [guilt] from the category of “transgression” or of “debt” (in the ontic sense of the term), I wonder, rather, whether that Schuldigkeit does not realize the essence of sin as the indebtedness of existence–“indebtedness of existence” meaning, at one and the same time, that existence itself is in debt, and that which it is in debt for is precisely for itself, for itself, for the ipseity of existence.

I don’t read Heidegger quite the same way he does.  More importantly, I’m not sure he is not still leaving less than sufficiently clarified the difference-in-interconnection of guilt as simple “indebtedness” and guilt in a negative sense.  Yet his remarks point, perhaps, to the nexus of that interconnection-in-disconnection.  Maybe it is something like this:  the basic “indebtedness of existence” grounds in, and manifests in, the closure toward “self,” which then and as such is the refusal of the debt.