nikki moore

Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

with.out the hollow

In philosophy as biography, Subjection on February 9, 2009 at 3:49 pm

hannah arendt was criticized from 1963 until her death in 1975 for her report of the eichmann trials.  adolf eichmann coordinated the deportation and disappearance of, as he bragged, ‘5 million jews’ during hitler’s tenure, after loudly disappearing to argentina after the war he was later kidnapped by the state of israel and put on trial for his german ‘tours of duty’.  under arendt’s pen, eichmann appears as simply dumb.  a man after a career, yes, duty bound, and guided by quips and cliches of morality that somehow guided him right down the wrong side of the tracks.  yet what hannah was critiqued for was not the banality of eichmann, but the banality of evil.  she was not the first to propose that much of this deportation an disappearance would have been at least more difficult if jewish community organizers and leadership had not helped tally and account for their own members and populations.  and she is not the last to say that ‘who are we to judge’, in the face of atrocities unfathomable, is not only a self-righteous stance it contributes to and collaborates with the very ‘evils’ it is hoping not to judge.

early in the introduction to Eichmann in Jerusalem, arendt writes:

good can be radical: evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet – and this is the horror! – it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. evil comes from a failure to think.  it defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there.  that is the banality of evil.

her point is well taken, and though fungus may not be the best analogy (perhaps a shadow, something more clearly immaterial and insubstantial would have been more in keeping with her point) the pervasiveness, the sporadic and underground growth and the minute revulsion fungus induces hits home.  i can’t remember what analogies augustine uses, but he shares with arendt the view that evil is lack.  it is absence.  in augustin’s work evil is all that is without god, whereas for arendt it is all that is without thought.

without thought. 

with.out thought.

is this the point:  with.out

avital ronell, in a seminar in saas fee touched on this out/with.  what is it to be with and out at once.  there is a communal call from the with. yet the out positions the potential bearer of this community clearly across communal borders.  it sounds like a having-out-of-sync, this with.out

in other books, other pages, by arendt, she probes this with.out in other terms: looking at morality in a way that puts her in conversation not only with judith butler but also with slavoj zizek, she questions assumed foundations.  from plato to kant, arendt is looking for something to ground morals, in a way clearly pressing and prescient after hitler, after the nazi’s, after eichmann.  the problem lies directly in social construction, an area so potentially liberating and damning all the same.  to break it down:  if morality is socially constructed, if it, like kant’s aesthetic judgements are the point of consensus and nothing more, than how can anyone be legally (and otherwise) judged against the law of their land, as eichmann was?  if morality is by consensus, and not just nazi germany but every conquered country (with the valiant exceptions of denmark, sweden and finland) agreed to the concentration and extermination of peoples by race (jew, gypsy and otherwise) what ground is left to judge from unless we appeal to a divine, or a platonic idea, or…

judith butler, probes similar questions.  as a thinker who so clearly delineates culture as a social construction, her work is a dedication to pulling at the borders, the edges, the lose strings to find where we unravel ourselves.  she looks at social construction as the ground of critique and of contest – if we have made it up, we can unmake it, though clearly not without difficulty.

arendt seems to want more than that.  she turns, in the epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem, to words and ideas like humanity and mankind.  but i’d like to suggest that this is not the humanism it seems to be, but something else…

None of the actual participants ever arrived at a clear understanding of the actual horror of Auschwitz, which is of a different nature from all the atrocities of the past, because it appeared to prosecution and judges alike as not much more than the most horrible pogrom in jewish history.  they therefore believed that a direct line existed from the early anti-semitism f the nazi party to the nuremburg laws and from there to the expulsion of the jews from the reich and finally, to the gas chambers.  politcally and legally, however, these were ‘crimes’ different not only in degree of seriousness but in essence.

why this move?  why was it not a pogrom? wouldn’t it be all the more heinous as part of a history of devastation against one nation of homeless peoples?  no.  arendt’s project is not to look for the most heinous: the nazi’s have done that work for her and no further proof should be needed (the deniers of the holocaust being quite another problem…).  arendt is looking not for the evil that slips through, that grows like fungus, but for the good.  where are the grounds for the good?  what, other than moral cliches, could people turn to when culture was not only turning the other way, but turning circles from where it had been?

this was her project.  this is the project. this is (for all its personal irony) ‘what is called thinking’.

it is the search for a that can be theorized, lived, and positively free.

reading un-adorned?

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2009 at 3:04 pm

“the mania for foundations”

politically, psychologically, it is not only compelling but isn’t it simply ‘good rigor’ to search for antecedents?  we live out this mania in every sphere, asking what lead up to the current gaza conflict?  what was behind my last slip of the tongue? etc, etc. etc…

is it to all of this back peddling that Derrida writes, ‘there is nothing outside the text?’

many modes of critical reading have taken this route: close reading, new criticism, they all boil down to the acknowledgement of nothing beyond the page.  no history, no biography.  just the words as you see them there, which of course has with nothing ‘just’ (as in mere) about it as the apparent restriction, the requirement to only see what is seen opens up everything for the reader.  metaphor, puns, word choices all take on a weight formerly lost in the baggage of history. Adorno knew this as well as anyone else.  In his lectures on Kant, beginning to clarify his own methodology, he writes:

“When Kant says that we are drive by our nature to g further and further in order to arrive at some sort of primary and absolute knowledge, it is legitimate for us to cast doubt on this supposed natural disposition.  Or, to put it less anthropologically, since that is not how Kant meant it to be understood, he believes that the compulsion lies in the matter itself.  I should like at least to invite you to consider whether it is not an illusion that if our knowledge is to be secure everything that is known has to be traced back to some ultimate truth or to some primary certitude.  That raises the question whether we are not faced here with what I have elsewhere called the ‘mania for foundations’ (Fundierungswahn).  This is the idea that no piece of knowledge can be understood simply within the framework in which it happens to be located.  I can only be satisfied with it once I have pursued it back to infinity, to the point where nothing further can happen, and nothing can deprive me of this piece of knowledge.  You should be quite clear in your minds that this principle – which is indeed a principle accepted in the entire tradition of Western philosophy – actually implies that there is a match between the knowing mind and the objects of possible knowledge that allows us to reduce every object of cognition to such an absolute.  Only if I start from this metaphysical premise of an ultimate, conclusive identity between the object of cognition and the cognitive faculty can I legitimately require everything I know to be able to demonstrate its credentials in terms of its own founding principles.”  (Adorno, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Stanford: 1995.  pp. 52-53)

While deconstructive readings, close readings, as Adorno is here offering and inviting his students/readers to, (though not using that coded terminology, have been criticized as anti-political, or agency leeching… Adorno opens up something almost ethical (though i cringe from the word and its implications, i can’t think of a better…) in asking us to read the text in front of us.  To weigh what is happening in the right here and now of a reading.  Slipping this method of reading into other contexts is both fruitful and dangerous: it would allow us to read a combat scene as the violence it is, without precursor, without justifications of vengeance, right of defense or otherwise.  It would evaluate each moment on its own terms, nothing outside the present tense, present text…

I don’t know if that is what Derrida was getting at.  But by this methodology, what he was getting at is outside of my readable space and I am left with the weight of my own response to his written words.

I’ve outlined the fruit. I imagine you can see the danger, and it is important to remember, to consider, that Adorno knew his audience.  Speaking to a group of well read students, surely he knew for them that history could never be erased even if it could be momentarily bracketed.  We could suggest that this close reading should, might, be coupled with what Judith Butler calls a ‘politics of mourning’ that allows for not only memory but critical commentary on (especially) topics under erasure in order to ensure that history’s most heinous mistakes are not repeated in ignorance.  While this may first sound like the reintroduction of all that lies outside the lines we are inscribing, Butler’s call is an even more rigorous call to read the present.  All of the present – both that which can be easily seen, read and counted, and all that which falls below the readable speakable lines of every present tense/text.

read this way, it isn’t only reading.  or perhaps it is, but reading more fully, more responsibly, responsively, than i had formerly understood it…