Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Books taken with me to NYC: Zizek, The Ticklish Subject (read parts at The Cloisters); Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship (read parts on couch and in garden of Upper West Side apt.); Ben Lerner, The Lichtenberg Figures (read on train).

Book acquired in NYC: Keith Waldrop, The Opposite of Letting the Mind Wander (read at Starbucks).

Magazines acquired in NYC: The Canary Issue Four; n+1 Issue Two; Time Out New York (with a cover story on The Aristocrats).

n+1 is a great magazine: possessed of boundless intellectual appetite, engaged with the culture as we know it without condescension or obsequiousness. There's a provocative survey of "The Intellectual Situation," in which one of the editors calls for novels to return to the terrain of accurately describing the world that was ceded to French theory for a twenty-year span (though his model for such a novelist is still French, in the person of Michel Houellebecq. There's a laugh-out-loud funny account of a conference on Isaac Babel at Stanford by Elif Batuman, who responds in this way to a colleague who insists that only someone who has experienced the "specifically Jewish alienation" of the narrator of Red Cavalry could really understand it:
     "Indeed," I finally said, "as a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."
     He nodded: "So you see the problem."
There's a wonderful Svevo-esque essay on smoking by Marco Roth; a surreal look by the German writer and filmmaker Alexander Kluge at a surreal event, "At the 2003 International Security Conference"; a philosophical essay by Mark Greif, one of the magazine's editors, called "The Concept of Experience"; Peter Frankel's "Trends in Network Television Comedy" (it sounds like a McSweeney's-style goof but it's actually a trenchant survey of the title topic, focusing on the postironic A.S. (After Seinfeld) era; a clever article on the work of Coetzee that creates an imaginary female reviewer paralleling Coetzee's imaginary female novelist, Elizabeth Costello; and not least, eleven pages of poetry by Peter Gizzi, with an appreciation of the work by the man who settled Adam Kirsch's hash, John Palattella. Most of all I appreciated the long and thoughtful reviews or review essays: George Scialabba produces the smartest and most sensible analysis of the madness of Christopher Hitchens since The Onion did a piece re-imagining him as a pundit version of Mr. Show's Ronnie Dobbs. Kim Phillips-Fein has an appreciation of the work of Naomi Klein, finding her pre- and post-9/11 anti-globalization stance to be admirably consistent. Most interesting to me was a nother piece of Mark Greife on Giorgio Agamben's latest book, State of Exception. It includes a pretty good survey of Agamben's recent and influential thought on the concept of "bare life" (dating back to Homo Sacer, Remnants of Auschwitz, The Coming Community, and other important books): the recreation by the Nazis of a legal-ontological category of person that has no rights and may be killed with impunity (homo sacer refers to an obscure Roman law referring to a person who could be killed but not sacrificed—that is, whose death could take place outside the bounds of ritual or law). Or in Hitler's chilling phrase (an epigraph to Maus, "The Jews are certainly a race, but they are not human." Greif goes on to point out that such a category of person has been recreated by our own government: the "unlawful combatants" who can be seized anywhere (even citizens on U.S. soil) and turned into permanent "detainees" at Guantanomo Bay. The fact that we are not actually murdering these people doesn't mean that their erasure from the bounds of all law, U.S. or international, isn't total and terrifying. Although he doesn't mention Zizek, and Zizek doesn't seem to have mentioned Agamben, I was interested in Greif's account of Agamben's desire to have the category of "bare life" become in effect the new universal that could somehow shatter hegemony. Supposedly this would happen through an act of sublation, in which the abjection of bare life would be reconfigured as the source of all right and all sovereignty. (Is this not the same action by which the humiliated and suffering figure of Christ flanked by thieves becomes the Son of Man?) Greif is skeptical about this as an actual political strategy, as am I; aside from being, like Greif, unable to envision a non-aesthetic scene of confrontation with people's bare life, it seems to me that Agamben's notion reifies an image of suffering as sovereignty that is, as my example above shows, too much a Christology (is this the hidden Christianity in Levinas, too? the Face of the suffering Other to whom we must sacrifice everything already resembles the face of G-d). Too much, even, a Catholicism, reliant on images that can always be reabsorbed by a system built on images (Debord, et al). The Levinasian Face is an image we can edit out or absorb into a more comfortable narrative. Think of encountering a homeless person on the street: whether you give them something or not, you are forced to turn them into something other than what they are as bare life/sovereign command: a living indictment, absolutely incommensurate with the world-system that produced their suffering and which has simultaneously produced your power to walk on by or give money (to pay for the privilege of walking on by). To truly heed the command of bare life is to become as outcast as those whose abjection inscribes it; is to join them as saint or martyr. What seems to be missing most of the time is some ground of identification convertible into a means of political action and effect. That has less to do with receiving or manipulating images and more to do with education and historical insight: with a constructing a narrative that illuminates the gap between what is and should be, a gap in which we discover ourselves and the others with whom we can form pacts, alliances, parties. Still I am compelled by the Zizekian notion of the empty Universal, and the Bourdieuan notion of the Event. Perhaps I really am getting religion

Not the least interesting observation made by Greif is that the policy failures of the Bush Administration have prevented it from what had seemed like a march into full-bore Fascism: in a gesture of oddly exhausted optimism, he writes that "Bush's reelection may be a disaster, but the moment of real danger, when it seemed a totalitarian consolidation might occur, may also have passed. We can be curiously relieved that Bush is distracted with destroying the social and economic fabric of the United States, through the dismantling of Social Security, retention of tax cuts, and enlargement of deficits, rather than developing his internal security apparatus." I don't fully identify with his optimism (this piece was written before Congress made the Patriot Act permanent) or his fatigue: to quote Arlo Guthrie midway through "Alice's Restaurant," "I'm not proud... or tired." Maybe there is a sense in which we can be thankful that 9/11 has not yet served as the political event around which a truly terrible reaction can consolidate its power. But I'm more interested in whatever groundwork might be necessary in anticipating the event to come. Not a messiah, not even a political savior (Barack Obama, anyone?), but a genuine advance in the realm of economic justice and political rights. Something newer than the New Deal to capture our imaginations. Some impulse surpassing the image.


Books received: Ange Mlinko, Starred Wire; Ted Mathys, Forge (both from Coffee House Press).

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