About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Friday, September 30, 2011

Emergency Powers - conclusion - art and society in a time of crisis

The shared experience of a sort of internal exile must, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests, be assumed in the contemporary community, whether “coming” or “unavowable” (see Agamben’s post 9/11 articles as well as “We, refugees”: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/giorgio-agamben/articles/we-refugees/  ). To be in internal exile is an experience twentieth century literature centrally explores, and one which contemporary writing continues to confront all the more urgently since our image-bound society has fed on and been bloated by continual crisis and the resulting paralysis. Language itself has been usurped by the rule of crisis with its ever multiplying images and manipulations. Given the resulting deterioration – the sense of the exile and death of language – ‘what is to be done?’ Writers often minister parody, paradox, and solipsism to the patient, instead of making the tragic demand Benjamin defined: that there is more to language and existence than what the rule of continuous spectacle and emergency imagines or allows.
As I noted earlier, Benjamin understands that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule....[I]t is our task to bring about a real state of emergency,” to make manifest the shocking reality of emergency and oppression, to make visible those who are invisible in the emergency world of sovereign power, and to retrieve the marginalized and give voice to the voiceless. Artists and thinkers must meet Benjamin’s challenge and promote the redemptive awareness that yet endures under the tragic and “irreparable” condition of post-modernity. “Our task” is continually to imagine and probe how to activate and sustain alternatives to the world of emergency regulation, to tap the alternative “emergency power” of the tragic reach for and receptivity to the potential still alive within a world of shared exile. My earlier discussion has attempted to show how more recent thinkers, including Agamben and Blanchot (along with Ranciere, Zizek, Nancy, and others), have addressed Benjamin's challenge.
In this time of emergency, the risk remains of being entrapped within the solipsism of a grievous isolation. Dostoyevsky – whom J. M. Coetzee powerfully imagines in The Master of Petersburg – explores just such an entrapped state in his novels, where ravenous and tragically isolated selves become part of a nexus of competing voices, of continual contact among humans, of intrusions, mixings, impositions – even between author and reader. In Dostoyevsky’s vision of emergency, the zone of abandonment is transformed into a zone of contact, and an entire world of contact is imagined with “a little difference,” with a tragically redemptive openness and exposure to the vivid and flowering sense of potential connectedness among humans. In the art of such novels as in the thinking of Walter Benjamin and the other philosophers we engaged, we encounter the model of responsiveness to and contact with the range of life from the margin to the center. Given these ten years of America in crisis after 9/11, the possibility of a resilient responsiveness can yet find its model in the demanding aesthetic experience of tragedy, which tests and activates the capacity to respond in the midst of erasure and abandonment. Such is the ethical obligation to respond incurred in the face of the state of emergency.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Emergency Powers: art and society in a time of crisis - Walter Benjamin section

In this post, I’d like to return to my comments on Walter Benjamin (from my July 17 post) and offer a more pointed and cohesive account of his ideas about “emergency powers” and the arts and society in a time of crisis, ideas which are important especially to Giorgio Agamben’s thinking. (Agamben's exploration of these ideas is one subject of Mark Danner's article "Our State of Exception" in the current issue of "The New York Review of Books.")

The context for Benjamin’s development is, of course, Nazi Germany and its extreme instance and model of the imposition of emergency powers on a ‘developed’ industrialized society. It was Benjamin’s misfortune and his opportunity to observe and struggle to endure this political extremity. I’ll briefly examine his core ideas about how to confront such a crisis, for they form a crucial template for thinking about how to engage regressive forces in contemporary society. In “Critique of Violence” (in Reflections and Volume I of his Selected Writings), written early on in his career, he shows how police-state power can be adopted by democracies in crisis ostensibly to “preserve” its laws “at any price.” In so doing, such governments can establish in the midst of the bourgeois society a state of emergency – an “all-pervasive, ghostly presence” void of humanity, to which the resulting suffering and evident oppression testify.

The zone of emergency, where the potential for human freedom struggles against its obliteration, is for Benjamin particularly illuminated by the form of tragedy. Tragedy is seen in the history of the arts as the form achieving the profoundest vision of human struggle and suffering caused by the negation of hope. The genre of tragedy arises in times and societies as diverse as Classical Greece, Elizabethan England, or Baroque Europe, and it appears to lead a life, lasting and universal, independent of any prevailing or originating conditions of oppression and crisis. The emergence of tragedy achieves and celebrates the resilient survival of a most ambitious form of aesthetic experience. For Benjamin, such resilience is important to the nature both of tragic form and of the tragic hero. That resilience supports and defines a redemptive hope in confronting the situation of emergency power, and it can provide an ethical and aesthetic model for resistance to the distorted conditions of society arising from the crisis in these first decades of the twenty-first century.

The possibility of the partly Messianic hope embodied in the tragic hero’s resilience is the subject of Benjamin’s early study The Origins of German Tragic Drama, for example, and also of his short essay “Fate and Character.” In his work on German Baroque tragedy, Benjamin explains that the Baroque artist “clings so tightly to the world because of the feeling that he is being driven along to a cataract with it;” the life of the world is condemned to empty into the cataract of its vanishing, during this period of “Counter-Reformation.” The Baroque version of tragic form renders “a profusion of things which customarily escaped the grasp of artistic formulation and brings them violently into the light of day,” partly because in its vision this very profusion of life is destined for the “vacuum” of its vanishing into nothingness. (Similarly, the Baroque version of heaven’s yearned-for transcendence becomes an antithetical instrument for fearful purgation and regulation, whereby the “hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world.”) The consciousness developed in Baroque tragedy becomes a means to identify the font and “profusion” of “worldly” possibility in the midst of its erasure.

In this conception, a tragic potentiality exists within the scorched zone of its obliteration, of a punishing nothingness. Benjamin sees the perspective of the tragic drama as parallel to the societal vision of world-encompassing catastrophe which haunts the sovereign state in the Counter-Reformation and which oppresses its citizens. In fear of the recurrence and “restoration” of “the rich feeling for life characteristic of the Renaissance,” the Baroque sovereign develops a conception of the “state of emergency” as the last and terrible means to trap and regulate the chaos of life. The continually haunting tragic possibility is that the sense of crisis can arbitrarily issue in the sovereign's decision to achieve “complete stabilization” by consigning any citizen to a zone of “abandonment.”

Over the past hundred years, the totalitarian application of that conception has been repeatedly enacted. For example, there is the proto-Nazi formulation of the state of emergency as essential to the nature of sovereignty by one of its theorists, Carl Schmidt: “the sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception” to which humans may be consigned without rights. Benjamin takes up Schmidt’s idea and radically redefines the region of “exception” as a banned zone without an admissible language audible to the state; within the twentieth-century version of the abandoned zone, Benjamin writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule....[I]t is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism” (in Illuminations and Volume IV of Selected Writings). The call to action in the last sentence is startling; “our task” is to make manifest the shocking reality of emergency and oppression, to make visible those who are invisible in the emergency world of sovereign power, and to retrieve the marginalized and give voice to the voiceless.

Benjamin’s most challenging message for our period stems from his understanding of the tragic hero as the prototypical figure exposing the reality of the zone of emergency. In “Fate and Character” (in Reflections and Volume I of Selected Writings), Benjamin writes that the hero’s insistent grandeur voices and models an alternative language to societally sanctioned speech. Tragedy gives dramatic form to “the head of genius lift[ing] itself for the first time from the mist of guilt,” from the zone of the proscribed, for the tragic hero has been condemned by god (and in modernity, by the sovereign) for demanding more of existence than gods or sovereign will allow. “Man becomes aware that he is better than his god, but the realization robs him of speech, remains unspoken,” for speech – in order to be heard – depends on the hearers, who exist in the community regulated by the sovereign. However, the tragic spirit “seeks secretly to gather its forces,” for the tragic hero yet “wishes to raise himself by shaking the tormented world.” Tragedy is the language of the counter emergency, of that “shaking” and destabilization which the sovereign would silence, for the emergent power born in tragedy demands more of the world than it can and will give. Tragic form – with its language of emergency, its play with and against silence – implicitly calls for the restoration of the unheard to language, law, and life. The unheard freedom and humanity, which are potentiality consigned to the zone of abandonment and erased under the sovereign’s powers, must be restored.

Benjamin's vision of tragedy speaks to the universal yearning for freedom in our own period. Even as it is a response to Germany’s dire descent into Nazism, it is yet linked to the similar ideas developed by Agamben and other thinkers in the last few decades. (As well, it is a fertile revising and questioning of the nineteenth century Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, of Romantic as well as Heideggerian aesthetics, and of Kabbalistic thought. At the core of Benjamin's influential idea of tragedy is the notion of a tragic welcome to the dissolution of self. The transfiguring voice tragedy calls into being emerges from a disappearance of the pre-formed self and an opening to the multiple forms of being in the mundane world. Its response to the world formed by sovereign power is this transformation and dying of the ordinary self, resulting in a tragic flowering of potentiality. Witnessing the hero enacting this acute responsiveness to the “profusion” of being from the margins to the center, we the spectators witness a transfiguration of the mundane, the marginal and obscure, the doubtful and mysterious, and all that had seemed deadened in existence.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Radiation and the destruction of the future

The passage of time since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster offers some perspective on the threat to nuclear installations posed by severe earthquakes and tidal waves. As the concern over the August earthquake in Virginia shows, it remains an issue whether the nuclear plants across the United States, with their long record of shut-downs, would hold up under the conditions which prevailed in Japan last March.
A question that haunts the newspaper and magazine reports is one I was taught to ask by my late father, Dr. Perry Melnick, a pathologist researching the effect of radiation on our cells. That question is how close the residents of an affected region – now especially Japan – came to being exposed to the mutilating effect of radiation on human genes. [Radiation's potential assault on genetic inheritance is one focus of my new novel Acts of Terror and Contrition: a nuclear fable. - see the side bar links. ]
Our awareness of the destructiveness of radiation grew exponentially in the aftermath of America’s atomic bombing of two Japanese cities at the end of World War Two, but scientific knowledge of those effects began to develop earlier in the twentieth century. In the 1930s, for example, my father published his research into “the deleterious effects of radiation on human subjects.” When the earthquake in Japan spurred the tsunami, the critical failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the release of radiation into the environment, I thought about what my father’s response would have been.
The sloppiness of maintenance, the lax attitude toward the storage of nuclear material, and the risks taken by the nuclear industry and accepted by the Japanese government – all these would have earned my father’s censure. And he would be shocked by the generally cavalier attitude prevailing today toward the nuclear radiation generated by power plants – including those throughout the United States.  My father would also have seen the disaster at Fukushima as an opportunity to alert us to our responsibility to eliminate from the planet poorly designed, sloppily maintained, and dangerously positioned nuclear energy installations. The Japanese crisis presents a “teachable moment,” an object lesson about radiation’s danger to future generations and to all organic life on Earth.
My own first lesson as a child about such dangers was a gift given by my Uncle Alvin to my family living then in Los Angeles; he was an economist working with General MacArthur during the occupation of Japan, and his present to us was a four inch square roofing tile found near the Sairenji Temple at the Hiroshima explosion center. I have it here before me. The tile is smooth and very hard, except that half of one side is darkened and eaten away by the immense heat of the atomic bomb explosion.
My second lesson was offered by my father in the early 1950s. He instructed me about the absurdity of my elementary school’s atomic bomb drills, when the bell would ring its alarm and we fourth-graders would assume a crouching position beneath our little desks. He explained in simple terms that the school and the whole city would likely be vaporized. Those who survived would bear the stigmata of radioactive fallout’s effects in their genes and so pass on a deformed genetic inheritance to the next generation. In the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, I remember his outrage at the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, pumping bursts of radioactivity into the air we breathe.
Of course, my father did not reject all uses of nuclear radiation, for his research helped to validate its medical applications, notably in the treatment of cancer. But he would have insisted that the Fukushima nuclear disaster must serve to show us how irresponsible and immoral is an unthinking and passive attitude toward the dangers of radiation.
Thirty years ago, Jonathan Schell explained that “the fate of the earth” is at stake, and he eloquently called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the strict control of nuclear power. As research has revealed for a century, the consequences of multiple releases of radiation into the environment are a geometric increase in cancer rates and in irremediable genetic mutations. The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi should remind us that the destruction of the future is the risk we face.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Emergency Powers - iii - art and society in a time of crisis

How the sense of being entrapped or negated by society can be transformed and made productive is the focus of Maurice Blanchot in The Unavowable Community. A powerful thinker given to intentional difficulty and abstraction, the French philosopher – writing in the decades before his death in 2003 – poses the implicit question of how to endure in an increasingly media-filled, manipulated, and militarized society, a condition intensified of course by the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed.

In my last post, I explored how this question is engaged by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, with his often lyrical and tragicomic sense of existence. Blanchot also focuses on how to confront the prefabricated identity of the self particularly within what he sees as the deadly consumerist spectacle of contemporary life, and he suggests how our consciousness, passing through a sort of death of self, can gain an openness to potentiality and to the possibility of speaking truly rather than in our society's preformed words. He explains that a model of transfigured experience can be provided by the contact between lovers (as the philosopher Emile Levinas also proposes) and by works of art and particularly tragedy, for Blanchot as for Walter Benjamin (though not for Levinas).

Literature's capability is to voice the tragic demand that there is a world of potentiality within and beyond the sense of erasure enforced by the experience of continual crisis. This openness to a hidden, unstable, ambiguous potential for meaning is literature's negative capability, an intentional virtuality able to “yield everything” out of the nothingness which the condition of continual emergency enforces within and around us. It is literature's “tragic endeavor” to confront the death of self within a world in crisis and to open our perception to the continual flux of untrappable potentiality. The tragic model of literature – elucidated in his essay “Literature and the Right to Death” – can lead in this way toward “the coming community” or, as he names it in the title of his monograph, The Unavowable Community – unavowable in the language and world usurped by the spectacle of emergency powers.

Blanchot, like Agamben, identifies the consequences of a sovereign state's invocation of emergency – consequences of suffering and destruction to the individual and communal psyche, but also consequences involving the tragic yet celebrating consciousness alive in artworks. For the images and forms of artworks, with their Keatsian “negative capability,” can tap a source of unregulated potentiality, ambiguity, and finally of resistance and refusal. Art’s special power is that ironically its alternative imagining of “emergency powers,” with its answering response to the rule of crisis, is normally undetected by the powers that be.

This alternative consciousness is not so much messianic, altering the universe, as a form of what Benjamin called secondary or “weak” messianism (this idea is voiced in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” – as I discussed in my July 17 post). Agamben also affirms this connection, citing Benjamin's poignant and desperate 1938 description in the essay: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” What would be that small difference in the twenty-first century, with the spectacle of power moving continually in and out of a state of crisis? In Agamben’s abstract image, it is “the imperceptible trembling of the finite that makes its limits indeterminate;” this lyrical and idealistic formulation absorbs Benjamin's idea of a tragic receptivity and insists that the finite can here and now become the realm of potentiality. If this trembling and ambiguous fertility of possibility can infuse our consciousness, Agamben claims, it would subvert the paralyzing spectacle of crisis which dominates the present.

Blanchot makes similar use of Benjamin's “secondary messianism” and explicitly invests the aesthetic with its potential; its “little” difference is a version of literature's “autonomy,” its “dodging,” reworking, and subversive “unworking” (a term used also by Jean-Luc Nancy) of commodified relations and emergency regulations; these features of a sort of aestheticized rebellion – of risk-taking ‘artful dodgers’ – are reminiscent too of the qualities of Agamben’s amorphous tricksters and fakes. Blanchot proposes a transferring of aesthetic autonomy and “unworking” from the realm of art to that of life, resulting in a new network of human relations “not letting themselves be grasped, being as much the dissolution of the social fact as the stubborn obstinacy to reinvent the latter in a sovereignty the law cannot circumscribe.” Lovers and outcasts, writers and tragicomic fabricators – all can participate in the transience and evanescence of continual reinvention. The strategy of this resiliently ungraspable fictiveness of literature is central to Blanchot’s “unavowable community.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Emergency Powers: art and society in a time of crisis - ii

In my July 17 post, I attempted to sketch Walter Benjamin's understanding of the significance of apocalyptic thinking, particularly his insights into the bearing of tragedy and aesthetic transformation on a society in crisis (these are developed in his essays of the 1920s and 30s). My hope is that you'll take a look at that post, for Benjamin’s insights are seminal for the thinking of certain forceful and delving later European philosopher; each of them – including Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Slavoj Zizek – is also influenced by the social-political ideals of 1968 and the subsequent disillusionment. These thinkers propose related ideas about how emergency powers exercised in a crisis may be confronted and how their negation of the human may itself be negated and transformed. For each, I would suggest, the consciousness enacted in tragedy offers a model of that strategy.

I want to explore the example of this conception offered by Giorgio Agamben and his thinking about the confrontation with a world of continual emergency, with its threatened erasure of human potentiality. The Italian philosopher has profoundly influenced the well-known critiques of twenty-first century American globalism, particularly the critique by Hardt and Negri in their discussions of the “multitude's” potential response to “empire.” Agamben's analysis of how to engage the current conditions of crisis, as society increasingly manipulates the spectacle of emergency powers in the spheres both of policing and of economics, contains crucial and suggestive echoes of Benjamin’s ideas.

In Homo Sacer, for example, Agamben locates the threat arising from the possibility that for “modern man,” “politics calls his existence as a living being into question.” When modern society decides that human life can be only selectively honored, individuals and groups can be excepted from the world of law and rights, abandoned – as “bare life” or homo sacer – to the zone of exception, where some may be put to death. As modern democracies have descended into the crisis of recent years and have invoked the specter of emergency powers, these “post-democratic spectacular societies [i.e., image-saturated and dominated]” are all too ready to call into question the value of all individual “bare lives.” For Agamben, the abandonment and alienation of the human stir – in both the victim and the witness – an ultimately tragic awareness that the human must be more than “the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns it.” [See this link to Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics).]

That awareness, Agamben writes in The Coming Community, perceives and exposes a “limbo” or zone of “abandonment” in which identity is expropriated; a resulting “isolation from being” prevails within our experience of the image realm and within the “consumerism” of “the society of the spectacle.” The means to overcome the resulting “nothingness of all things,” the “alienation” of experience and of language, is a sort of breaking of ranks, a breaking ideally toward the transcendent “appropriation” of infinite “potentiality.” For Agamben, an ecstasy of unexpected and unmapped possibility is released by this opening up to being, latent in the zone of nothingness.

The “coming community” he elucidates is a sharing and building upon a sort of ecstatic refusal and negating of society’s own spectacular negations (that is, in part, the negations of the spirit at work in the media spectacle in contemporary society). Agamben’s thinking develops Benjamin’s conception and even exceeds it with regard both to the use of spatial thinking and, more important, to the role of hope. At the core of the aesthetic and ethical form of tragedy for Benjamin is the hope that the zone of nothingness can be a font of “potentiality” (Agamben’s Potentialities contains a lengthy discussion of Benjamin’s concept of hope). From this model, the Italian philosopher builds an entire vision of community. In this, he is joined by Blanchot, Nancy, and Rancière, and their thinking forms a sort of conversation dedicated to the aspiration that community can be based on a resilient responsiveness and refusal in the face of the state of emergency. (Here's a link to Agamben's Coming Community (Theory Out Of Bounds) and to his Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy.)

In order to create “the coming community,” Agamben proposes that human beings must ideally enter into alternative relations to each other and to the world. This community embodies a utopian hope; it would be based on a welcoming of the flux of experience, of all the transcendent potential it contains without concern for “the marks of individual possession.” In such a fluidly creative communality, the shape-shifting, off-beat improvisations and destabilizations of “tricksters and fakes” would make them “exemplars of the coming community.” They are able to confront the nothingness of being at the frozen core of emergency powers by dodging fluidly from possibility to possibility, potentially “being” each of them.

In a recent on-line essay, he speaks of the European Union’s open borders as an opportunity for just such fluidity and for redefining citizenship as a sort of fluid state of exile. “The only ethical experience,” Agamben writes in "The Coming Community," is the experience of hesitating before any identity rigidified into a “thing” – it is the experience of opening to freedom, improvisation, and exiled being. Such is “the experience of being potentiality ... of exposing in every form one's own amorphousness and in every act one's inactuality.” Such is our “irreparable” condition, yet it is “without lament,” for it refuses “to remain in a deficit of existence” and in this way escapes what he understands to be the trap of the frozen emergency state.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Note on teaching intellectual backgrounds

Currently I am teaching a first semester course for seventeen first-year college students, and in a couple of weeks the students will be presenting their choices from a series of essays in a somewhat limited anthology Past to Present, essays which will be arranged chronologically. Many were written in the twentieth century and serve to present facets of the modern and postmodern periods in science, the social sciences, and the arts. However, the first half (or third) of the essay presentations will focus on works written in the previous twenty-five hundred years (actually, I start the course with the students discussing Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" - to initiate our discussion of critical thinking and the nature of creativity). For the essay presentations in the middle section of the course, students can choose from a range of works: selections start with Herodotus, the Old Testament, and Hindu and Buddhist texts and move to passages from the New Testament and the Koran and then late medieval texts about Satan and Joan of Arc. Their choices can involve some Renaissance texts (Vasari’s Leonardo, Michelangelo, or some Pascal) and finally include some Enlightenment and nineteenth-century selections (Chesterfield, Paine, Malthus, Keats, Stendhal, Twain, Douglass, Whitman, and Darwin). The twentieth century essays' engagements of critical thinking and creativity range from work by Freud to the physicist Fred Hoyle or to Simone de Beauvoir, from Orwell to Thiong'o and Baldwin.

Establishing a chronological order for our readings and presentations seems to strengthen students’ intellectual background, and it can also clarify issues significant to the present. It’s a bit old-fashioned as an approach, but my hope is that it will not seem so, for the readings fill gaps, stimulate much critical thinking, and are self-selected.

The initial reading experience is to encounter some of the first human texts, some of the first written efforts to sustain thinking and imagining. These initial writings present Hebraic ideas about community and the godhead in the Old Testament and the Hellenic, classically humanistic values of reasoned inquiry and historical analysis in Herodotus. Then contrasting yet connected visions of religion and human culture are evident in "cross-cultural texts" - Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Mohammedan. After the late Medieval period (with its religious orientation), there is the reemergence of classical humanism in the Renaissance, with its influential examples of creativity across the arts and sciences. In the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the Romanticism which followed in the early nineteenth century, there is the contention between reason and emotion in European culture, and out of this oscillation between objectivity and subjectivity emerged a range of achievements – from the assertion of individual rights to the growth of imperial power, from the transformative discoveries in the physical sciences to the revelations about the nature of human subjectivity from Wordsworth to Dostoyevsky.

Certain themes inevitably become clear in the students’ self-conducted survey. There is the power of text itself, of changing written modes of human thought and feeling (of course, it is said that we exist at the moment when a new digital mode is arriving). There are the recurrent patterns of difference among ways of seeing the world – objective and subjective, human-centered and religion-centered, individual and corporate or imperial – and blood continues to be shed over such conflicts. Finally, there is Vico’s insight, which one increasingly appreciates, into both the cycles of devastation which emerge from these conflicts as well as the on-going creative process producing human culture.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Emergency Powers: Art and Society in a Time of Crisis - i

A characteristic sense of crisis afflicts any society experiencing an attack on its central structures, both physical and symbolic. In a crisis such as the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the response can be to demonize the ethnic or religious group from which the enemy emerged; in short, an unwitting belligerence can descend on societal relations generally. In some instances, a pugnacious leader is celebrated, and politics can slip further into bullying, xenophobia, and distraction. Ensuing economic crises can set off waves of panic, despite the unprecedented investments made in arms as the reach of an empire expands, and as new technologies are harnessed to make the instruments of war more ruthless, shocking, and efficient.

Against the specter of “global terror” and waves of economic instability, the traditional hierarchy of power may attempt to confirm itself with a regressive declaration of “emergency powers” in various guises. In some instances, protests are treated as treasonous acts, and the government can fine or imprison publishers and writers. Ultimately, it may impose emergency police state measures; even an ostensibly ‘advanced’ democratic society may threaten to suspend habeas corpus. While not all these consequences of crisis are to be noted in the United States during the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are points of similarity, particularly as the fading images of the terrorist assault are refashioned into the spectacle of propaganda projected across the media. A society in the ongoing throes of such a crisis becomes less and less habitable.

How to confront this political and cultural crisis is a central question recently posed by many contemporary thinkers, among them Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, and Slavoj Zizek. In my next few posts, I’ll explore some answers proposed by one of these writers, Giorgio Agamben. As I do so, I want to note some of the ways that their shared thinking has been influenced by two significant earlier theorists – first, in the next post, Walter Benjamin and then, later, Maurice Blanchot. All of these writers analyze and encourage certain modes of resistance to extreme political measures, as they attempt to reframe how we should observe and engage the potentially decadent and regressive behavior of governments.