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Author: Svetlana Yefimenko

How Ancient Greeks Remember: A Thoroughly Unresearched, Unprovable, Untenable Hypothesis

How Ancient Greeks Remember: A Thoroughly Unresearched, Unprovable, Untenable Hypothesis

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” -Faulkner

Let’s pretend you misplace your car keys, your phone, your lip gloss. What do you do? Most likely, you pause and try to remember what you were doing, where you were, when you last used the missing object. You re-collect — collect again — relevant fragments of the past, bringing them into the present and thereby making the past present once more. Re-collect and re-create to re-live. This sort of remembering is an internal and solitary experience.

Now let’s say that you anticipate the possibility of forgetting something, so you make a note for yourself:

*pick up mangoes

*text Lina about project

*Zimri-Lim owes the city of Babylon seven hundred sheep

Such administrative reminders prevent the past from slipping away in the first place, keeping the relevant information in a perpetual limbo to be retrieved any time.

But the act of recollection is a historical phenomenon, which means that not everyone has always remembered the way that we remember. Premodern oral cultures, especially song cultures, recalled the past by means of metered verse. In Homer’s time, the song of the bard wasn’t simply entertainment or art, although it was certainly both of these things. Song was the means by which a community made the past present again. The singing bard invoked the Muses to guide him in recollecting the deeds of heroes, thereby reminding the community of who they were and are. It’s a public, shared, communal act wherein the song is more than the content of what has been recollected: the performed song is recollection itself.

So how did Homer’s songs recollect?

Let’s talk about memory, cultural identity, and heroes.

The Iliad makes the past present while simultaneously re-interpreting and re-imagining it, curating a historical vision which simultaneously conveys a sense of nostalgia for a lost social structure and subtly critiques the current one. It reaches beyond performance into the philosophy of history to facilitate collective remembering.


First, let’s lay our scene.

During the turbulent 12th century BC, the entire Aegean was deeply and brutally shaken by economic, political, and social crises which led to the collapse and disappearance of the gorgeous Mycenaean culture (my very very very favorite ancient civilization).

Hostile invaders from the north, environmental catastrophes, and a thousand causes scholars continue to debate saw site after site descend into charred ruin.

By 1000 BC, the stable, highly organized civilization of grand palatial complexes, warrior aristocracies, traditional wall-painting, ivory and gold-working, and sophisticated infrastructural projects had vanished.

This sudden, violent devastation ushered in centuries of depopulation, illiteracy, collapsed trade and administrative networks, and deep uncertainty. Imagine widespread draught, famine, and wars. Oh, things were grim.

This might be when the legendary and mysterious Sea People arrived, likely fleeing their own collapsing societies, invading and destroying struggling cities across the Mediterranean. The last communication from the doomed king of Ugarit, which made me cry the first time I read it, is a heartbreaking plea not for help but for acknowledgment of loss:

When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed.

Our city is sacked.

May you know it! May you know it!

Even if the recipient of this message can do nothing, the king nevertheless demands for someone to know, to bear witness, to literally bear the unimaginable burden of such knowledge, so that the monumental destruction of his beloved city will not be forgotten.

Worst of all? Four hundred years of illiteracy followed the Bronze Age collapse. Messages from desperate kings were no longer sendable or readable.

Imagine living in 8th century BC Greece, a world of illiterate peasants and rough wooden houses, occasionally stumbling upon the ruins of majestic and monumental palaces.

What on earth are these incredible places and who were the giants who built them? What sort of superior beings lived in them? Where did they go? How were they destroyed? What the hell happened here?

What prevails is the trauma of not being able to remember. You cannot know what happened, you have no means to recollect it. Your past is simply missing. Four hundred years of silence. It’s disorienting, at best.

Because Iron Age communities could not re-collect the the Bronze Age by reading about it, they crafted a different way to remember.

In the 8th century BC, tombs filled with Bronze Age weapons and treasure were discovered, coinciding with Greeks’ growing awareness of themselves as both distant and different from those predecessors who had built the awesome fortifications of Tiryns and Mycenae. This newfound interest might be regarded as an embryonic historical consciousness, a self-awareness situating itself into a temporal context, relating and comparing itself to non-mythological ancestors which became the source of the rise of tomb and hero cults.

While the discovered warrior burial customs and Bronze Age iconography seemed to confirm the existence of “heroic” predecessors and the recovered precious objects circulated in the Aegean through trade and gift exchange, a search for evidence began in earnest.

Such deliberate pursuit was coupled with received oral memories of remarkable people who lived at the end of the Late Bronze Age and this construction of the heroic ideal was also either preceded by, followed, or was simply contemporaneous with, the creation of the Homeric epics. Whether the epics arose as a response to the hero cults or vice versa is not as important as their interrelationship at a time when Iron Age Greece became conscious of the enormous loss it had suffered with the destruction of Mycenaean civilization and began healing the trauma of this loss by the creation of a burgeoning, distinctive cultural identity which took its measure from an illustrious and spectacular heroic race.

Evoking and concretizing this identity, Homer’s narratives spread. By the 8th century, writing had been rediscovered, and Iron Age Greeks could finally set down the epics, or portions of them, thereby ensuring their distribution to an even greater audience.

Centuries later, the revival of national feeling was again inspired by the epics’ panhellenic nonpartisanism. Not only does the Iliad not privilege the Greeks at the expense of the Trojans, but it also presents a reverie of inclusiveness wherein the perpetually squabbling city-states are unified by a common purpose and harmonious in their common culture in a way they never were or could be.

For the fratricidal Greeks, this fantasy of unity has a particular poignancy, and with the suppression of the Persian threat, it becomes political dynamite.

Of course, it was that same Alexander who claimed descent from Achilles, performed sacrificial rituals among the ruins of Troy, and slept with the Iliad under his pillow in whom the Homeric spirit of shared values inspired the most successful attempt to create a Greek identity that transcended all ethnic and cultural boundaries.

To summarize, then, the development of Homeric epic, along with hero cults, accomplished three things:

  1. Simultaneously facilitated consciousness of a sense of loss and provided a means for overcoming this loss by remembering the past and recovering a distinctive identity;

2. Legitimized the old elite vanguard and the new polis structure;

3. Created a sense of socio-political unity.

The latter two can be approached as deliberate and essentially political, possible because of the former, which stems from the very nature of epic as a mode that creates the conditions for a shared past which can then be wielded as an instrument. Iron Age Greece was writing history by rewriting it, attempting to control collective memory by appropriating Homeric epic which itself was a recollection and reconstruction of inherited narratives, proceeding by intuiting, expanding upon, and crystallizing a sense of loss into a sense of nostalgia for a lost civilization.

This is possible because the Iliad is not exclusively an epic if we understand epic as what Paul Merchant described as “a chronicle, a ‘book of the tribe,’ a vital record of custom and tradition, and at the same time a story-book for general entertainment.” This common-sense definition is an amalgamation of the literary, the mythical, and the historical which gets established into culture as a constant reference point. Certainly the Iliad is all of these things, but it is something else besides.

In Book VI, Helen tells Hector that she pities the two of them “on whom Zeus set a vile destiny, so that hereafter we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.”

The song she means is, of course, the Iliad itself. This self-reflexive remark momentarily estranges us from the narrative to remind us, just as it reminded its Iron Age audience, that the present story is not present at all and that the “men of the future” are us, now, in the moment of hearing or reading.

Later in the same book, Hector tells Andromache:

For I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:
there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.

We read this from a vantage point of advanced knowledge, already knowing Troy’s fate. Homer’s audience, acquainted with Mycenaean palaces ruins, knew it, too. Hector’s prophecy has, for the audience, the quality of lament which arises from and is made possible by the self-consciousness of the text.

Perhaps most striking, however, is the passage in Book XII which describes the destruction of the Greek wall, emblematic of Greek strength, by referencing the future explicitly:

So long as Hektor was still alive, and Achilleus was angry,
so long as the citadel of lord Priam was a city untaken,
for this time the great wall of the Achaians stood firm. But afterwards
when all the bravest among the Trojans had died in the fighting,
and many of the Argives had been beaten down, and some left,
when in the tenth year the city of Priam had taken
and the Argives gone in their ships to the beloved land of their fathers,
then at last Poseidon and Apollo took counsel
to wreck the wall, letting loose the strength of rivers upon it…
where much ox-hide armour and helmets were tumbled
in the river mud, and many of the race of the half-god mortals.

The demise of the wall and the heroic race is described by once again removing us from the narrative. This collapses the aesthetic distance between ourselves and the present moment, replacing it with a historical distance between ourselves and the heroic race. We’re transported beyond the immediate, here-and-now immanence of the text’s temporal horizon and reverted to our own here-and-now, forced to reflect upon the narrative as narrative.

We are no longer spectating an imaginary story — we become aware of ourselves as the inheritors of historical ruin. This melancholy self-consciousness transcends epic’s status as “vital record of custom and tradition” and certainly that of “story-book for general entertainment.”

Everybody, this isn’t a story. This is a memory.

Such transcendence is further emphasized by the diction used to describe the half-god mortals who fell in the river mud: ἠμίθέων γένος άνδρῶν. Here, the Hesiodic hēmítheoi, demigod, unusually replaces the conventional Homeric hērō. Cataloguing the fourth of the five Ages of Man, Hesiod names the heroes who were destroyed at Thebes and Troy, describing only this fourth race as hēmítheoi.

Hesiod’s chronicle of the successive generations of humanity, contemporary with Homer, is historically regressive, beginning with a distant Golden Age, passing through the Silver Age to the Bronze Age, with the Age of Heroes preceding what he describes as his own cruel and brutish Iron Age: “For now the race is indeed one of iron. And they will not cease from toil and distress by day, nor from being worn out by suffering at night… But Zeus will destroy this race of speech-endowed human beings too.”

Gregory Nagy interprets the Iliad’s shift in diction from Homeric to Hesiodic as indicative not only of the text’s awareness of a perspective which regards the heroes retrospectively, as Hesiod does, but also as an articulation which reaches beyond the boundaries of epic style: “Whereas hērōes is the appropriate word in epic, hēmítheoi is more appropriate to a style of expression that looks beyond epic… The diction of the Works and Days represents the Fourth Generation of Mankind in a manner that is appropriate to the heroes of epic tradition… and at the same time removed from the epic perspectives of the heroic age.”

Beyond epic – to what? Nagy does not specify. Before I suggest a possible direction, let’s look at another selection of passages from the Iliad.

Book I finds the wise Nestor advising the much younger Achilles and Agamemnon by comparing them harshly to the men of the past:

Yet be persuaded. Both of you are younger than I am.
Yes, and in my time I have dealt with better men than
you are, and never once did they disregard me. Never
yet have I seen nor shall see again such men as these were…
These were the strongest generation of earth-born mortals,
the strongest, and they fought against the strongest…
…against such men no one
of the mortals now alive upon earth could do battle.

Nestor is referring to heroes like Herakles and Theseus, who are so unimaginably superior that even the great Achilles and Odysseus wouldn’t be allowed to talk to them. While it’s certainly possible that this example is applied in a well-crafted rhetorical strategy to mollify the angry warriors, it’s altogether unlikely that the honey-voiced Nestor is simply fabricating the memory, particularly since this sentiment is echoed in subsequent passages.

When Phoenix rebukes Achilles’ pride, comparing his stubbornness to past heroes, he reminisces:

Thus it was in the old days also, the deeds that we hear of
from the great men…

Multiple sections gaze from within the narrative into the future, prophetically comparing the heroes with the men of Homer’s time, the latter summarily dismissed with the description as men are now:

Tydeus’ son in his hand caught
up a stone, a huge thing which no two men could carry
as men are now, but by himself he lightly hefted it.


It was Sarpedon’s companion…
whom he struck with a great
jagged stone…
…A man could not easily hold it,
not even if he were very strong, in
both hands,
of men such
as men are now.


Hector snached up a stone…
…two men, the best in all a community,
could not easily hoist it up from the ground to a wagon,
of men such
as men are now.

It’s significant that Homer does not merely tell us that Hector or Diomedes are strong in relation to other men, or even that it would take two men to accomplish what they accomplish. Homer contrasts them specifically with men “now,” men who cannot compare, not even if they’re the community’s best of the best of the best.

These remarks echo Nestor’s remembrances, but apply them to a span of centuries rather than just a few generations, resulting in a three-part regression in excellence: the men of Nestor’s youth were greater than the men who fought at Troy who were greater than the men of Homer’s time. This is obviously reminiscent of Hesiod’s formulation, since it is the Iron Age men whom Hesiod deplores who are the unfortunate men of the Homeric “now.”

The effect of these prophetic repetitions is to once again estrange the audience from the narrative with a self-conscious critique which itself prompts self-consciousness. The audience is reminded that it’s not only qualitatively removed from the heroic race, but also historically: this time was superior to our own and its men were better than our very best, but it is a vanished race, a lost society which has become, in Helen’s words, an object of song.

But what’s the purpose of this song?

Let’s now return to Nagy’s claim that the Iliad reaches beyond the epic. Beyond epic – to what? I would like to suggest that among the many epic, aesthetic, and cultural functions the Iliad undoubtedly serves, if we take into account both its emergence in relation to the rise of hero cults in the midst of the dawning 8th century recollection of a collapsed civilization and its self-aware critique of its own historical moment, what arises is a protean philosophy of history responding to the need for a collective remembering.

Homer’s historical vision is one of continuous regression, which is perhaps inevitable given the 8th century’s nascent awareness of the magnitude of what had been lost. One of several theoretical approaches to collective memory posits that a post-conflict society passes through the stages of memory and remembering, forgiveness, and acknowledgment. Here’s what I think:

The circulation and crystallization of the Iliad is how the 8th century first began to remember.

There are two bardic modes: the statement mode, which is a song that focuses on current events, and the possessive mode, a song of what has been that is preservatory in nature, working toward the possession of a commonly agreed past. The simultaneous rise of hero cults, tomb cults, and emergence of epic demonstrate the 8th century’s conscious need for such an explanation, and its deliberate search for heroes suggests not only the conviction that what has been lost was a more sophisticated society, but also that it is worth recovering.

Nestor’s description of his youth’s companions is not simply praise or recitation of facts; coupled with the evocation of the Greek wall’s demise, the Iliad acts as a sort of eulogy, mourning the vanished race.

The epics’ congruence with the rise of geometric art also attests to this memorializing tendency, since the geometric age was characterized primarily by its funerary application to amphorae and other grave markers. This style of vase painting, aptly described by Cedric Whitman as “death conscious,” both eulogizes and attests, guarding against forgetfulness.

The possessive bardic mode is a historical mode, reconciling the men “now” to this unfortunate epithet by awarding them with a narrative which

*demystifies the palatial ruins,

*illuminates dim memories of exceptional people and splendid palaces,

*organizes recollections of chaos, depopulation, and violence into a coherent structure,

*and explains why it had to happen in just this way in a manner that renders it congruent with the emergent geometric art, hero cults, and tomb cults.

In brief, epic provides the community not only with a history, but also with a philosophy of history by means of which the Bronze Age collapse is recalled, forgiven, and acknowledged.

By thus informing its audience of how it stands in relation to its past, the Iliad performs the act of re-collecting, and in some sense even recovering what four centuries had obscured, healing the trauma of forgetting. This official history, established into Greek collective memory, can then be utilized for crystallizing and protecting Greek collective identity and furthering acts of socio-political import.

Of course, the history is as mythical as the validity of the political goals it gets appropriated by and the social structures it legitimizes, but as the manifestation of the spiritual allegiances of its culture, it is patently true.

You disagree? Go on, then.

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: An Experiment

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: An Experiment

That Tolstoy’s writing is influenced by Homeric epic has been remarked again and again, perhaps most famously by George Steiner and Harold Bloom. Tolstoy, the critical consensus declares, is Homeric.

For me, however, this wasn’t quite the case.

I read War and Peace when I was twenty-one, returning to it for both pleasure and wisdom again and again. Eventually, someone beautiful loaned me his battered, marked-up copy of Homer’s Iliad.

While reading it, I was struck over and over by how much Homer sounds like Tolstoy.

Because I read backwards, Tolstoy was not Homeric for me, but rather I experienced Homer as Tolstoyan.  Of course, the reality is that all of us are backwards readers. Nobody begins their literary education with the Epic of Gilgamesh and then reads chronologically through the ages.  For many, Homeric epic may very well be experienced as Tolstoyan, Joycean, or maybe even Jamesean. This is a phenomenological observation, and I’d like to use it to embark upon a brief thought experiment.

Before we do that, however, I’ll lay the groundwork by referencing two approaches to reading.

First. To escape the limitation of author’s biographies and ideologies, but at the same time avoid the other extreme of completely decontextualizing a text, let us consider a half-ironic technique Pierre Bayard terms mobile attribution wherein a work is attributed to an author who is not the one who wrote it – it’s a way of thinking that frees readers from the authority of a particular author or historical context.

If the Iliad, for example, were read as something composed by an Anatolian woman, our reading would be dramatically foregrounded by the text’s descriptions of femininity or its evocation of the non-Greek, eastern Trojans who have come to be associated with a Bronze Age Anatolian kingdom.

In other words, mobile attribution can bring a text’s themes and values out of the shadows, or displace prominent, canonical interpretations.

Second. Let’s consider Kuisma Korhonen’s concept of textual friendship. By looking at essays by Montaigne and Plutarch, Korhonen describes how the essay creates a relationship we can designate as friendship not between the writer and the reader, but between the reader and the text due to the assumed privacy of the essay form. This intimacy between the reader and a voice which might be the author’s, the narrator’s, or the writer’s creates a hermeneutical circle that links writers and readers across time and space. But this linkage is neither obvious nor comfortable, based not on proximity but on indecidability. Korhonen writes, “What is at stake in textual friendship is less a reunion of old mates than a step… into the uncertain, the unfamiliar, the unknown, toward the Other in its irreducible otherness… to strange landscapes where friends look less and less like friends, or even, for that matter, human beings.”

So, our two concepts are mobile attribution which allows us to edit and remix authors, and we have textual friendship, which links readers and texts on a path toward defamiliarization.

All set?  Let’s go.

In 1857, a 29-year-old Tolstoy read the Iliad, and this reading inspired him to rethink and rewrite the entirety of The Cossacks, his first novel. After completing the epic, Tolstoy writes in his journal: Читал Евантелие, чего давно не делал. После «Илиады». Как мог Гомер не знать, что добро – любовь! [I read the Gospels, which I haven’t done in a long time. After the Iliad. How could Homer not know that goodness is love!]

Critics like Donna Orwin and Robert Jackson don’t doubt that in this passage, Tolstoy is lamenting the absence of true spiritual faith in Homer.  Jackson goes so far as to say about Tolstoy, “after reading the gospel, he is deeply pained like a man who has learned a very disagreeable fact about a friend.”

On this reading, Tolstoy has developed a friendship with Homer, a literary friendship, not a textual one, and we, as readers of Tolstoy’s allegedly private messages to himself, are drawn into a relationship with this journal which addresses itself to us and to our religious sense, if we have any, by exclaiming about Homer’s.

I read this passage of Tolstoy’s in conjunction with his other comments on Homeric virtue and his association of Homer with love, nobility, and the Bible, all of which are scattered throughout his short stories and nonfiction, and I come to the conclusion that как мог Гомер не знать, что добро – любовь actually means, how could anyone possibly think that Homer was ignorant of this moral truth? Как мог Гомер не знать? Конечно он знал. I would like to suggest that, for Tolstoy, Homer did know that goodness is love, and we have all been misreading the Iliad.  The hermeneutical circle which includes Homer, Tolstoy’s journal, and me is an instance of friendship, of intimacy, which is not an argument, but an experience.

You’ll notice that in having this experience, I’m doing exactly what Pierre Bayard has advised us not to do: I’m picking through Tolstoy’s biography, relying on the authority of his other writing, and generally invoking Tolstoy’s authorial presence to legitimize my reading or, if you like, my misreading. However, if authorial authority is a too-limiting ground for my textual friendship with Tolstoy’s journal, then perhaps I can try mobile attribution. If we move chronologically, first Homer speaks in the Iliad, then Tolstoy responds not only privately in his journal but publicly in War and Peace and his other fiction which appropriates Homeric epic, and finally, with Donna Orwin’s reading, or my misreading, the hermeneutical circle is complete and the discourse of friendship is exhausted.

If only it didn’t end there. If only we could have Homer’s response.

Well, perhaps we do. Enter Petrarch.

Petrarch collected and edited hundreds of his own letters, some of which are addressed to ancient writers like Cicero, Livy, and Seneca. The epistles addressed to Latin authors end with some variation on the following lines: “from the land of the living, in the capital of the world, Rome, your fatherland, which has become mine, on 1 November of the year 1350 from the birth of Him whom I wish you had known” or “…from the birth of Him whom you might have seen or heard, had you lived a little longer.”

Petrarch wishes that Livy and Seneca had known the Christian faith, and obviously doesn’t doubt that if they had known of it, they would have been believers. With this backwards lament, Petrarch’s letters, supposedly private communication, come to stand in my hermeneutical circle beside Tolstoy’s journals.

Things get really interesting when we consider that Petrarch received a letter from Homer. We don’t know who sent it. Petrarch claimed not to know who sent it. Whether it was an anonymous correspondent, Petrarch himself, or, who knows, maybe even Homer – we don’t have the letter.

But!  We have Petrarch’s response. Remarkably, the manuscript of this response was folded in three, as he folded his letters to be sent, and an address written: Homero Meonio poete inaccessibili.  The folding, layout, and script is exactly like that of Petrarch’s authentic letters – it seems Petrarch anticipated and plagiarized Bayard’s dismissal of literary chronology, and fiction and reality became one.

So what did Homer say?  Well, he complained about the challenges of classical reception, criticizing his inheritors for attempting to imitate his epic style. Petrarch’s response is instructive: “As for imitators, what shall I say? … you should have foreseen that imitators would never be lacking …” After all, Petrarch tells Homer, to steal the staff from Hercules is a sign of great power.

If we widen the hermeneutical circle to include Petrarch’s letter to Homer, adding Tolstoy to the list of Homer’s undesirable imitators and attributing Petrarch’s response to Tolstoy, we have mobile attribution which results in a diological textual friendship.  Homer speaks in the Iliad, initiating literary friendship with Tolstoy, who crafts his own epic, and responds privately, in his journals, initiating a textual friendship with us.  Homer responds through a private letter: how dare you imitate and try to improve upon me?  Let’s attribute Petrarch’s response to Tolstoy: because I’m good enough to do so.

Homer’s and Petrarch’s letters become part of the text with which we engage in friendship, many voices coalescing into one by the process of our reading. If we put together mobile attribution and textual friendship, we get a hermeneutical circle which includes multiple texts and which the reader organizes into one voice, one friend who is a unique amalgamation of the reader’s backwards reading. This friendship becomes a platform from which to glimpse how Homer’s inadequate knowledge of spiritual faith, or his inability to convey it clearly, achieves mature expression in the spiritual dimension of Tolstoy’s epic.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Kooler Than Us

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Kooler Than Us

In twelve words: Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters rock America with drugs and madness.

This counter-cultural, irreverent weirdness, brimming with neon hippies adventuring across the astonished United States armed with LSD and exuberance, turned fifty years old recently. As something that only 1960s America could have produced, it is nevertheless not mired in its very peculiar sociohistorical moment, reaching its bright green tentacles right into the twenty-first century, poking and rearranging and pointing out.

Essentially, this book is a trip, literally and figuratively, and the trip is Ken Kesey’s. While One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is undeniably a (minor) triumph, Kesey is no visionary. He has no solutions, no explanations, no strategies, no great plan for a juster and more beautiful world. He just wants to, like, hang out.

Oh, but that’s the point, a bedraggled hipster would insist indignantly, with a righteous and sensitive mouth.

Yes yes yes, of course, but the point as pointlessness, this eternal tautology, is neither mysterious nor profound.

It is, however, an opportunity.

We clamber aboard the spray-painted bus with the rollicking, singing, perpetually high Merry Pranksters to criss-cross the deep South and mock the stars and the stripes and the cities and the ordinary people in traffic who just can’t jive to this great refusal of ours.

We drink orange juice laced with acid and perform experimental music with the just-formed Grateful Dead at Acid Tests, which are psychedelic parties replete with LSD, black lights, and projections of spinning melting colors. This exhilaration, flung wide open to new experience, burns at the enviable outside of commercialization.

The Merry Pranksters were doing something new.

Not innovative <— this word, so frequently invoked in tech articles to laud the launch of some mobile app or other, is really an unconscious euphemism for the entrepreneurial spirit which seeks not revolution but a quicker, more efficient, more streamlined way to reproduce the status quo in a way that makes more people more money more quickly.

Kesey and his farcical followers may not have exploded the status quo, but they certainly learned how to thrive on its margins.

Now, when we stand around enormous music venues, gazing up at the blinking Coca-Cola sign, and mosh pits are shoved up against gruff men with flashlights who are paid to ensure nobody has too much irresponsible or unsupervised fun, and marijuana edibles are arranged along glass cases rising impressively in air-conditioned, state-tax-paying dispensaries, and fifty-dollar, handwashed, organic T-Shirts proclaim Rule-Breaker and Che and Rebel, and we can order our own Banksy prints from Amazon for just $7.99, and micro-dosing is an Instagrammable method of getting more work done – when, in short, our dissent has been thoroughly co-opted and commodified and counter-culture is something to consume – the colorful bus called Furthur (sic) careening across a great vastness begins to look a lot like freedom.

Do You Even History?

Do You Even History?

Among its many other virtues, history unifies.  A shared, agreed-upon past reassures us that we are exactly where we should be, indeed, where we must inevitably be, because things couldn’t have and ought not have happened any other way. 

Sargon of Akkad, who unified Mesopotamia by creating the very first empire in the 23rd century BC, became a beloved legend, celebrated as the greatest man who had ever lived.  Just as he unified, the historical vision of his achievements was unifying.

But if you read enough Foucault, you’ll see that this historical approach, too, has a history.  This method achieves historical continuity by means of recollection which proceeds by conscious forgetting, a way of speaking which insists on silence, a list characterized by what’s unlisted.

But what if the wild, wandering, tribal Amorites, whom Sargon subjugated, or the Elamite dynasty, whose land he conquered, had left us their memories of the Akkadian empire’s earliest days?  Would we hear lament, stories of violent resistance, political denunciation?  Would it change our reception of Sargon of Akkad?  Significantly, what would happen to the narrative continuity of the first empire’s development?  Counter-history, it seems, functions as memory which disrupts shared memory.

This is because every conqueror presupposes a conquered, every victory a defeat, and every acquired territory a lost homeland.  What’s forgotten is not only an object of knowledge, but a source of knowledge.  These knowledges themselves can smear on war paint to do battle with sovereign history, and with the rise of modernity in the seventeenth century, they do just that. It is not entirely clear if counter-history has always existed in silent, shadowy forms as the illegitimate progeny of sovereign right and only struggled into the light in the seventeenth century, or if it came into existence at that later date. In speaking at all, however, counter-history commits an act of aggression.

However, if history proper has traditionally been a legitimizer and intensifier of power, it seems reasonable to suppose that history improper has always seethed and simmered beneath the cool façade of sovereign right. In other words, this must mean that as long as history has existed, it has dutifully concealed subjugated knowledges of the oppressed and conquered. Furthermore, this act of continuous, permanent concealment and subjection implies history’s self-awareness of itself as unjustifiable on its own terms.

History, then, has existed as a question which it dared not ask.

Let’s consider Gore Vidal’s comment about Alexander the Great:

“Today when a revulsion against war is normal, the usual commercialite would be inclined to depict Alexander as a Fag Villain Killer, but… it needs to be borne in mind today that not till more than a century later did a handful of philosophers even start to question the morality of war.”

Aside from the complacency of ethnocentrism which Vidal aptly points out, it’s jarring to even consider that the great justificatory battle which sovereign history deploys against subjugated knowledges may, for the likes of Alexander, not have existed at all. The conqueror was not the guardian or recipient of any conqueror’s right because there was simply no such question. Alexander, who doubtless regarded himself just as modern and forward-thinking as we do ourselves, was doing what any man in his position would have done. If we could ask how he justifies his slaughters, it is likely that he would raise bewildered eyes and ask us what we mean.

Much later, with military tacticians such as Caesar and eventually Napoleon, history’s self-awareness as the defender of sovereign privilege and the right of conquest becomes more clear. Napoleon was extraordinarily conscious of his unique, singular position as brilliant strategist and conqueror, and certainly did not think that what he did was what anyone else in his position would have done. Only he, only a Napoleon or a Caesar, has such valor and ability and therefore is privy to the right and privilege which are for Napoleons and Caesars to enjoy.

I’m suggesting, rather less tentatively than perhaps I should be, that perhaps not only was the violence of conquest once a democratic, egalitarian phenomenon, natural and inevitable for anyone, but that it did not take the form of struggle between sovereign and subjugated truth. For example, Plato argues in the Republic that a victory of some over others, even in the name of peace, dissolves society, which must be founded on cooperation of one thriving social organism, utterly rejecting the Hobbesian notion of subjects voluntarily submitting to rulers, and explicitly denying the validity of conquest.  So, before counter-history challenged sovereign right in 1630 in the name of a more just past achievable through revolution, the status quo of ancient Greece rejected it outright.

When Sarpedon tells Glaucus that in battle they either win glory for themselves or yield it to other men, it’s not just a reiteration of the heroic code, but also a historical description: the ancients either conquered or were conquered.  It’s a cool, unsentimental truth, as implacable as a law of nature: today it’s us, tomorrow it’s them.  The vanquished, in another year or mood, may well become the conquerors, and this insight is precisely why Sparta maintained such rigorous control over the helots.  Anyone’s city might be sacked and burned, the doomed men killed, the wretched women and children enslaved — this roulette had nothing to do with “natural right,” skin color, or ethnicity.  If you had this opportunity for conquest and violence, you seized it.  If you didn’t seize it, it just meant you weren’t powerful enough.  It was a time of conquerors and possibilities of conquerors, nothing more.

History’s self-reflexive self-idenitification as ruse, as illusion, as a struggle with counter-history, is itself a historical phenomenon the origins of which are perhaps traceable to a time when violent conquest first began to grope about for a mask.

A Short Note on Identity, Shakespeare, and Foucault (again)

A Short Note on Identity, Shakespeare, and Foucault (again)

Perhaps the broadest nature of Foucault’s project can be summarized as an attempt to make us aware of the contingent nature of familiar and seemingly universal concepts.  The entire body of human sciences has historical antecedents which revolve rather predictably upon a very distinctive concept of the human subject.  Just as Foucault urges us to ask by what processes and under what conditions statements are made and taken to be meaningful, we can probe the processes and conditions by which subjects are made and taken to be selves.  Foucault writes: “The establishment of a complete oeuvre presupposes a number of choices that are difficult to justify or even to formulate.”

Strangely, so is the establishment of the self.

Just as the separation between a published work and a grocery list is precarious and vague, so is the separation between public and private selves.  There are intended, or official, statements, and unintended, or unofficial statements.

A scribbled confession, someone’s name on a napkin, the sketch of a profile – these are the unintended, unofficial statements of self which are excluded from the oeuvre of the self as unjustifiable and illegitimate, like bastard children.  The unity of an oeuvre, Foucault explains, is not given.  It is “the result of an operation.” Well, of course.  When the indomitable Thomas Cromwell arrives at the court of Henry VIII, he arranges his face.  He is suppliant, amenable, and this is not hypocrisy.  The face that he has arranged “can be regarded neither as an immediate unity, nor as a certain unity, nor as a homogenous unity.”  It is, perhaps, a strategic unity.

Whether deliberate or otherwise, the unity resulting from an operation delimits the edges of the oeuvre of the self.  Oeuvres are not stable objects but are situated in networks, and the meaning of an oeuvre is not found in its implicit and secret nature, but develops as a consequence of its location within a network.  The categories for such networks are continually shifting – upon what basis do such categories emerge?  If something is said at all and is constituted as meaningful, it is only because it emerges on a field in terms of which it makes sense – perhaps it is these very terms which constitute discursive formations.

Shakespeare famously declared that “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts.”  In other words, we are ourselves only inasmuch as there is a stage for us to be on.  Indeed, our very status as players, as individuals, as subjects, is discursively conferred upon us.  We are not individuals a priori and continuously, but a posteriori and discontinuously.  Our being is not composed of unities, but by systems of dispersion – our exits and our entrances, our many parts.  As objects of discourse, roles are defined by exterior relations, not interior properties.

Shakespeare’s characters are not to be sought in the biographies of actors, but in the relations among costumes, props, scenery, exits stage right, and the anonymity which allows replacement by an understudy.  In an unexpected way, this analysis is nearly Kantian: we encounter an object as the object that it is only inasmuch as we have categories in which to experience it as such.  This ought to imply that anything which is within the bounds of such categories is a possibility of experience.  Yet this is not so.

Tantalizingly, Foucault introduces the mystery that there are many statements which are grammatically and logically acceptable but which are never, ever uttered.  There are many roles which are not acted, realized, or even scripted.  Obviously, there are rules besides logic and grammar – epistemic rules, perhaps – which delimit the possibility of what can be said, acted, or even thought.

Socrates, the Educator of Tyrants

Socrates, the Educator of Tyrants

When we think of Socrates, we usually imagine a sandaled martyr of democracy, a radical thinker sacrificed to the caprice of the uncomprehending mob. Admired by dissidents like Gandhi and Tolstoy, Socrates was the inspired enfant terrible of the polis, a poster child of free speech who dared to ask the difficult questions, troubling the status quo and undermining authority. This, at all events, is the popular vision of him, expressed very beautifully by Joyce’s paraphrasing of Maeterlinck, who contrasts the benevolent Socrates with a legendary traitor: “If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas goes forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend.”

But is this version completely balanced? We’ll get to that.

First, some background.

After the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, a 30+ year conflict waged between Athens and Sparta from which Sparta emerged victorious and cocky, a 30-man squad of oligarchs took over Athens. Imposed by Sparta, these guys were complete jerks.

Brutal and repressive, they slashed democratic laws, murdered around 1,500 Athenians (which was about 10% of the population), stole everyone’s property, and sent into exile thousands of others who opposed them. Lots of people fled. Needless to say, the Thirty Tyrants’ savage reign dissolved in just a few months the hard-won and precious Athenian democracy.

Here’s the thing: two of the Thirty Tyrants just happened to be Socrates’ former students, Critias and Charmides, and Critias was one of the government’s most ruthless leaders. This didn’t exactly make Socratic teachings look good. More damning, however, was that not only did Socrates not leave Athens with everyone else who opposed the reign of terror, but he wasn’t exiled with the other democrats, either. The Thirty’s harsh laws didn’t touch him or his property.

One day, the oligarchs decided to execute Leon of Salamis and take all his stuff. They turned to Socrates for help, asking him to bring the luckless Leon in. Socrates refused, something he proudly brought up during his trial, saying “That government, as powerful as it was, did not frighten me into any wrongdoing. When we left the Hall, the other four went to Salamis and brought in Leon, but I went home.”

Well, ring-a-ding-ding, Socrates, your fearlessness just blew our minds.

What can we say? He didn’t help arrest the guy, sure, but he also didn’t exactly go to the mattresses to oppose the bloodthirsty dictatorship. He didn’t even protest the order. He could’ve at least warned poor Leon. What’s weird is: why did the Thirty ask Socrates to carry out the cruel mission in the first place? Did they expect him to cooperate? None of the ancient sources tell us that the sharp rhetorical rapier Socrates so famously deployed against power was ever wielded against the Spartan dictatorship, in word or in deed.

Anyway, after the Thirty were finally overthrown and Athens was left reeling from the wave of assassinations and abuse, it’s pretty logical that anyone who’d been tight with the despots was looked upon with suspicion. This alone might have been enough for Athenians to mistrust and persecute Socrates.

The perception of Socrates as an educator of tyrants reached its apotheosis fifty years after Socrates’ execution, when the orator Aeschines reminded the Athenians that they “killed Socrates the Sophist because he appeared to have taught Critias, one of the Thirty who put down democracy.” Put that together with his totally inegalitarian politics, and what you get looks a lot like unequivocal support for the unchecked power of wealthy aristocrats. So much for the revolutionary spirit of a political dissident.

On the Earliest Poetry and Being Less Boring

On the Earliest Poetry and Being Less Boring

In twelve words: goddess loves her, goddess loves her not, goddess loves her, goddess loves… 

Are you surprised that the first known author in human history was a woman?

 Daughter of the legendary rockstar conqueror and dynastic founder Sargon of Akkad, Enheduanna served as high priestess of the moon god’s cult in Ur, a super important religious center in Sumer.

Religion and government were essentially the same thing in those days, and as high priestess, Enheduanna would’ve called the shots in Ur’s temple complex. This was somewhere around 2300 BCE. 

Just think: this princess, priestess, and poet was writing two thousand years before the Greek classical period.  Her poetry influenced centuries of petitionary writing, from Homeric hymns to Biblical psalms.  Looming imperiously at the very beginning of human literacy, Enheduanna’s most astonishing work is The Exaltation of Inanna, an autobiographical hymn to the Mesopotamian goddess of battle. 

It describes how some jerk named Lugal-Ane staged a coup and exiled Enheduanna; after the furious goddess intervened on her behalf, Enheduanna was restored to her authoritative position. 


She also wrote about religion, war, and perhaps most tantalizingly, about herself.  Her poems are intimate, personal, and straightforward in their evocation of inner experience. 

We’re totally used to hearing modern poets complain about their lives, but more than 4,000 years separate us from Enheduanna. 

I’ve encountered a few different translations of her writing – there aren’t many – and it’s always tempting to read her poems and say, “Oh my god, she’s just like me!” But she’s not.  We don’t know her real name.  We don’t even know the origin of the language she spoke and wrote.  Moreover, we don’t know where the Sumerians themselves came from, what they looked like, or who their descendants are.  Ancient Sumer is, in a profound sense, a lost world.  We guess and infer, but the world’s first civilization is mostly an enigmatic, well-guarded secret.

For me, Enheduanna is associated with Nietzsche’s provocative question:

“Supposing that Truth is a woman – what then?” 

Nietzsche thinks we’ve been approaching truth all wrong.  Instead of doggedly pursuing her, philosophers should be charming and wooing her.  Academic articles invariably begin with “This study aims to establish X, Y, and Z.”  Timid, conscientious creatures, scholars are forever “aiming” to “establish” or “prove.” But maybe truth isn’t something to be established, discovered, or proven.  Maybe truth is something to be seduced.  Nothing destroys romance like the methodical argument, and no woman was ever driven mad with desire by a carefully drawn academic conclusion.  Maybe we should swap our syllogisms and deductions for masks, perfumes, poems

It’s not a coincidence that Enheduanna didn’t display her vast theological knowledge in tracts, lists, and summaries, like her contemporaries.  She communicated with poetry.  

Poets are always, always illusionists.  Enheduanna was the very first, uniting the political and the religious, the sacred and the worldly, in art.

Ultimately, our image of Enheduanna and her lost kingdom is not only a matter of history, but also of aesthetics – we create the past just as much as we recover it.  So let’s take our responsibility as artists more seriously by approaching scholarship more playfully.  I’m convinced that Keats couldn’t have meant anything else when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” 

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Immoral? Does it Matter?

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Immoral? Does it Matter?


Have you ever heard someone say that Twilight is a terrible movie because it presents stalking and emotional co-dependency as desirable? Or that 50 Shades of Grey is an awful book because it eroticizes abuse? I have. Every time someone criticizes such pop culture phenomena on ethical grounds, they’re making the assumption that good art has to be good for something — in most cases, that something is morality.  But what’s this assumption grounded on?

Let’s talk about Noel Carroll, a philosopher of art, and the 20-year-old dispute he started.

The debate, politely confined to academic journals, was initiated by Carroll’s explication of his position as a moderate moralist. Here’s what this means: Carroll begins with the observation that many artworks inspire moral responses in their audience, thereby encouraging interpretation and evaluation of themselves in moral terms. For Carroll, such responses are often not prescribed by the work, but already present in the minds of audiences. Numerous presuppositions are required of spectators and readers, who arrive with assumptions and then utilize them to complete narrative gaps. For example, Shakespeare needn’t explain why Hamlet is outraged at his father’s murder. King Lear’s disappointment in Regan’s ingratitude is taken as a matter of course, since ungrateful children are tacitly understood to be disappointing. In fact, narratives are often unintelligible without the audience’s preconceptions: unless one finds the social ostracism of Anna Karenina both inevitable and distressing, Anna’s suicide becomes incomprehensible. Thus, Carroll explains, it is a typical element of artworks to “activate” existing moral emotions, without which the work will be inaccessible to the viewer (whether some works deliberately strive for inaccessibility is a related, but separate, notion). Given sufficient moral flaws, Carroll posits, the activation does not take place, and the work remains beyond intelligibility. Since an antecedent moral understanding is a prerequisite of art’s audience, Carroll concludes that moral evaluation is implicit in aesthetic engagement.

Carroll’s second bulwark for moderate moralism relies upon an Aristotelian conception of proper tragic character. In his Poetics, Aristotle proposes that the plot tragedy offers “must not be the spectacle of a … bad man passing from adversity to prosperity … it neither satisfies the moral sense, nor calls forth pity or fear.” Moral defectiveness, in other words, must not be presented without its just punishment, or, what amounts to the same thing, without a moralizing message. Without it, the audience cannot sympathize with the artwork. If a work strives to arouse pity and fear, as proper tragedy should, the substance of the work must be morally sympathetic.

Venturing where Aristotle points, Carroll introduces the uncontroversial thesis that achieving the desired audience response is an integral feature of successful artworks. However, if a work which aims at the audience’s pity is so ethically inappropriate that it prevents emotional “uptake,” it cannot achieve the desired pitying response because it has “invited the audience to share a defective moral perspective.” Thus, the portrayal of certain unethical attitudes, since it precludes the hoped for aesthetic response, forces the artwork to fail qua art. Invoking the incorrect “bad man passing from adversity to prosperity” formula, Carroll imagines a dramatic representation of Hitler as a sympathetic character. Such a representation must founder in its own emotional inaccessibility, Carroll argues, because the audience cannot summon the necessary sympathy for such a morally objectionable figure. In the simplest terms, the artwork remains beyond sympathy because the audience “doesn’t get it.” For Carroll, emotional remoteness occasioned by the “failure to achieve uptake” is an aesthetic failure precisely because it is a moral failure. Linking the capacity to achieve uptake with his assertion that audiences complete works by contributing an implicit ethical understanding, Carroll concludes: “Securing the right moral response of the audience is as much a part of the design of a narrative artwork as structural components like plot complications. Failure to elicit the right moral response, then, is a failure in the design of the work, and, therefore, is an aesthetic failure.” With this elegant formulation, Carroll defends a moderate moralism which guards the inextricability of ethical from aesthetic value.  In other words, if we think that stalking or sexual domination are unethical, then Twilight and 50 Shades fail aesthetically by failing ethically.

But is it convincing?

Let’s begin by examining Carroll’s first supposition: artworks “activate” existing moral emotions, and if the activation doesn’t take place, the work remains inaccessible. One must understand Hamlet’s outrage at his father’s murder, for example, in order to understand the play. If one believed that murdering fathers was a common or even a cheerfully encouraged practice, Hamlet’s plot would become nonsensical.  Thus, Shakespeare activates our ethical sense by summoning the common knowledge that murder, particularly when applied to family members, is wrong. Very well. But doesn’t Hamlet also activate our biological sense by relying upon our common knowledge that humans are mortal? Is not this sense further activated by Shakespeare neglecting to mention that his characters drink water and use the restroom? The audience is not surprised when Hamlet does not sit down to a single square meal for the long months of the play’s action because the fact that he must be eating is implicitly understood. In fact, there is a myriad of implicit understandings with which an audience arrives at an artwork – biological, historical, cultural, psychological, and even scientific. If the activation of ethical norms is a standard feature of artworks, then so is the activation of biological and historical norms, without which the work may be incomprehensible. This is true, but trivially so. Unless, along with ethics, we are prepared to admit biology, history, and science into the summary of aesthetic value, such implicit understandings, while necessary, are nevertheless not aesthetic features. But wait, an attentive objector might cry, Carroll’s formula regards ethical norms as aesthetic features only if eliciting such norms is part of the design of the work. Again, this is only trivially true. If it’s essential to the design of Hamlet that we reject murder, it’s equally essential that we accept mortality or the undesirability of death because, without them, the plot’s design is not possible. Surely, we are not prepared to admit “moderate biologism” or “moderate psychologism” along with Carroll’s moderate moralism into the scope of art critical standards.

Now let’s consider Carroll’s second supposition: achieving the desired audience response is a standard feature of successful artworks. While this seems self-evident, it does not follow that if the desired response is an ethical one, the artwork’s failure to achieve it is also ethical. Invoking Brett Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, Carroll recounts that it was intended as a satire, but the coldly disturbing descriptions of murders were regarded as so morally offensive, that audiences were unable to see the novel’s ironic elements: “American Psycho’s failure to achieve uptake as satire is attributable to Ellis’ failure to grasp the moral inappropriateness of regarding his serial killer as comic.” Carroll argues that such works fail because they ask the audience to “share a defective moral perspective” where the nature of the work itself calls for a proper moral perspective. However, this contradiction lies not in ethics, but in aesthetics. When Hamlet’s dead father appears in contemporary productions of the play as a transparent phantom, the audience is asked to entertain an unscientific point of view. Ghosts, common knowledge tells us, do not exist. The play asks us to temporarily believe, for its sake, that they do. Despite common knowledge, the audience plays along.  If the scene’s special effects become excessive, with, say, transparent sheets flying to and fro, the childish absurdity of believing in ghosts might overcome the power of the play to move us. In such a case, it would not be the unscientific nature of ghosts, but the way ghosts are presented, that prevents tragic uptake. It would not be the content, but the form, of the work that would become objectionable. These would not be scientific defects, but aesthetic ones. Similarly, if the audience does not play along with American Psycho’s killer, it is not a moral failing, but an aesthetic one. It isn’t that the novel portrays a killer, but rather that it does so badly. Killers need not be justly punished for a novel to “work” at securing uptake, but they must be presented in ways which accord with aesthetic sensibilities. Had Ellis been a stronger artist, the immoral content of his novel may have been transcended by its aesthetic form. Shallower works sometimes founder in the gap between form and content which powerful works are capable of reconciling.  After all, great works ask audiences to identify with rascals and villains very frequently. Let us consider the icy cruelty of Iago, whose soliloquy nevertheless manages to elicit empathy, or the pickpocketing Artful Dodger, whose criminality seems comical. Since Iago is one of the coldest villains in literature, it’s certainly not his congruence with ethical understanding which encourages “uptake” of Othello, but rather Shakespeare’s aesthetic choices which move us despite, or perhaps because of, their disturbance of implicit moral knowledge.

To illustrate this further, let’s imagine the feminist philosopher Marcia Muelder Eaton lingering near a lake in Minneapolis. Beside the water, the loose strife flower blooms. Frothy purple blossoms cling to slender stems. The flower, Ms. Eaton thinks, is beautiful. Then, she recalls that the exotic plant invades wherever it takes root, swiftly ruining water purification processes for other plants and animals and destroying the delicate ecosystem. She writes, “I know that it is a dangerous, even evil, plant … But I cannot prevent myself from finding the plant quite beautiful.”  Despite its ruthlessness, the flower is beautiful, and its destructiveness perhaps only makes this conflict more pronounced and therefore more aesthetically forceful. In Carroll’s parlance, the purple flower contradicts implicit moral knowledge. Nevertheless, it achieves uptake in Ms. Eaton’s mind. This ethical dilemma of beauty in evil is at the very heart of Carroll’s critique. It is, however, an ethical dilemma. American Psycho is unlike the loose strife flower because it lacks aesthetic, not moral, goodness.

Perhaps the most notorious example of an “evil” artwork is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a glorification of Nazi Germany which enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception, though certainly not because it was more moral than American Psycho. The film, made at Hitler’s request, focuses upon the 1934 Nuremberg party rally sponsored by the Nazi Party. Brilliantly orchestrated montages of thousands of troops, marching bands, parades, and speeches flowing to the cadence of Wagnerian music create a stunning spectacle.

The film was successful not only in Germany, but won the Gold Medal at the Venice Film Festival and the Grand Prix at the Paris Film Festival, and is still regarded as a supreme cinematic achievement. The controversy, of course, is explicit. The representation of ecstatic crowds adulating Hitler, who is portrayed as a redeeming figure graciously accepting bouquets from laughing children, culminates in a vision of Nazi Germany as desirable and, quite simply, good. The Triumph of the Will is also unlike the loose strife flower, but not because it lacks aesthetic force. Unlike the flower which prompts us to set aside its destructive nature for the sake of appreciating its formal beauty, the glorification of Nazism structures the work as a whole. Content and form merge: we cannot set aside the content of a messianic Hitler because that content is precisely what forms the film into the kind of film that it is. Here, Carroll would likely insist that when content becomes paramount, aesthetic evaluation is helpless and ethical evaluation must take the reins. However, this is misguided. A purely formalistic survey, wherein we are asked to bracket the film’s veneration of Hitler in order to appreciate only its stylistic features, is not the only aesthetic approach. Form and content are reconciled in exploring how stylistic features convey substance, such that the entire expression of the work is included in aesthetic evaluation. Instead of setting aside the vision of Hitler’s goodness, we assess how that vision is communicated. Much like Othello is canonized not in spite of Iago’s treachery but partially because of it, the film succeeds aesthetically not in spite of its message, but partially because of it. Asking whether the historical Hitler is as messianic as he is represented is like asking whether space travel really occurs as instantaneously as it does in science fiction novels. The magical realism of Borges, wherein tigers are willed into existence and dead men play the gramophone, asks us to transcend the experience of waking reality – we leave the real behind eagerly because Borges is a master artist. We needn’t accept the validity of manifesting tigers for his stories to achieve “uptake,” and we needn’t accept the validity of Hitler’s goodness for a controversial film to achieve “uptake.” Of course, this doesn’t preclude moral critique of the film, just as science fiction novels do not preclude scientific critique. The provocative film promotes ethical questions and fears – as it should. Such critique, however, is nevertheless not aesthetic in nature. Nazi Germany remains despicable; the film remains a masterpiece.

Leaving aside the obvious objection that it is sometimes the very purpose of artworks to elicit moral disgust, it’s important to note that Carroll’s supposition that artworks which cannot achieve their desired responses fail aesthetically is simply not borne out in art history. It is doubtful that Manet painted his Olympia, depicting a nude prostitute, with the anticipation that its spectators will respond with inordinate hostility.  At its first 1865 exhibition, the most famous art critics were scandalized into a brutal disparagement which echoed the public’s immediate rejection of the painting. One critic depicted “the crowd thronging in front of the putrefied Olympia as if it were at the morgue,” another declared that “her face is stupid, her skin cadaverous,” a third declared that “she does not have a human form.” The disturbed public was even less generous with its praise than the critics. In such a case, the achievement of desired audience response figuring as an implicit feature of aesthetic merit begins to seem much less self-evident. Many artworks shared a similar fate. Sargent’s Madame X and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon were scorned by an offended public, and Modigliani and Keats famously languished beneath the weight of critical rejection. Melville’s Moby Dick profoundly disturbed implicit ethical understanding, as well, but it would be difficult to argue that these works were therefore aesthetically defective. Similarly, Carroll’s thesis fails to account for historical shifts in what counts as ethical, and therefore what becomes implicit. While Petronius’ Satyricon roused its Roman audience to laughter, a typical contemporary reader may find nothing amusing in its explicit narration of sexual abuse. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the Satyricon was a good artwork in the first century, but is a defective artwork now. This is partially because the Satyricon is not read for its morality, but for its aesthetic virtue, which retains its hold on us despite changing ethical norms.

Now, let’s hear from the opposition, and consider the moderate autonomist response to Carroll’s moderate moralist thesis. James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean begin their answer to Carroll by invoking the not infrequent tension arising between moral and aesthetic convictions. Recalling Shakespeare’s Jewish merchant Shylock, who is hilariously and yet prejudicially written, the very conflict between morality and art is cited as evidence that they are indeed separate values. This conclusion seems intuitive. Ms. Eaton’s hesitation beside the lake, suspended between appreciation and moral hostility for the purple flower, is perhaps symptomatic of a dissonance that exists at the very heart of art. Great art often troubles and disturbs, deliberately estranging its audience from normative experience. Ethical norms, like scientific or historical norms, do not occupy a privileged position by floating above the material that art transforms. Picasso’s simultaneity disturbs normative perceptions of temporality and Shakespeare’s ghosts disturb normative perceptions of mortality. Why, then, ought normative perceptions of morality – those which Carroll terms implicit — remain immune from art’s relentlessly questioning irreverence? We do not regard Picasso’s Still Life with Compote and Glass as aesthetically defective because it refuses to conform to proper visual experience. If anything, its strangeness is what makes the work vital, significant, and powerful. Why, then, must we regard The Merchant of Venice as aesthetically defective because it refuses to conform to a proper morality? It is possible that the inner struggle such works engender between aesthetic power and ethical conviction, whether intended by the artist or not, contribute to their greatness. An audience’s implicit understanding, whether moral or otherwise, is never secure within the domain of art, and this insecurity is precisely what contributes to art’s awesome power.

A consuming artistic experience may very well include the superseding of normative values. As we read great literature we find ourselves identifying with dubious characters and perspectives, cheering on liars, cheats, conquerors, maniacs, and “bad guys” who overwhelm us with their charisma or their power. Of course, such identifications do not discredit the ethical import of artworks – they are simply not reduced to them. Morality and politics, much like any aspect of sociality, are art’s raw material, not its goal. To strip art of its power to estrange, in effect to neuter it, is to strip it of its aesthetic function. Does this mean that an artwork cannot be motivated by ethico-political aims? Of course it can. Nevertheless, ethico-political aims, however they are deployed within the work, will not necessarily render the work aesthetically valuable.

This is related to Anderson and Dean’s critique of Carroll. Although ethical and political criticism of artworks is a legitimate and important activity, Anderson and Dean argue that Carroll hasn’t succeeded in convincing them that identifying with ethically reprehensible attitudes entails aesthetic shortcomings. Relatedly, an artwork’s representation of ethically commendable attitudes does not result in aesthetic merit. Art can seduce its audience into identifying with “bad guys” and, in some cases, even outright evil, because, Anderson and Dean insist, “an artwork will never be worse because of its moral defects.” They explain that American Psycho’s aesthetic failure stems from its inability to satisfy the Aristotelian demand for audience sympathy, while its moral failure stems from its endorsement of immoral perspectives. Since its moral and aesthetic failings have different causes, then an inquiry into the work’s moral value will not yield any information about its aesthetic value.

Carroll decided to meet the challenge and published a response. Once again returning to his claim that artworks are incomplete structures requiring audiences to arrive with certain prior knowledge, Carroll argued that works must be so structured as to invite audiences to complete them appropriately. Facilitating the improper audience response not only prevents understanding, but subverts the aim of the work. Since this address to the audience is part of the structural design of the work, the failure to elicit the desired moral response is a failure in design and, therefore, an aesthetic failure. Carroll’s response-dependent formula again neglects the shifting nature of audiences, whose responses are deeply influenced by ethical, political, social, and sexual mores such that an Olympia which offends ethical sensibilities in 1865 is incapable of evoking class distinctions a century later. If the representation of a sallow prostitute seems ugly because ethical norms deem her so, and years later the spell she weaves stems from her strange beauty, perhaps achieving undesired responses is a sign not of aesthetic failure, but aesthetic revolution. A moral rejection might seem, to later generations, as little more than puritanical blindness.

Does this mean that American Psycho, along with Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, might come to be regarded as a masterpiece a hundred years hence? Maybe! Certainly nothing in aestheticism’s reasoning would reject this possibility. More importantly, it means that rushing forth to disparage a work’s meaning by critiquing its moral content may not only prove to be historically misguided, but may negate the work’s offering of aesthetic power which is, amid today’s politicized debates, precisely what’s at stake.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

In twelve words: Henry wants a divorce, the Pope refuses, Cromwell makes it happen anyway.

While I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, everything else was uninteresting.  After all, here was heresy, plague, intrigue, murder, lust, betrayal – in short, England in the 1530s – all between two crumbling covers (by the time I’m finished with books, they’ve fallen to pieces, since I bring them everywhere, fold pages, and shamelessly write all over the margins).

However, it wasn’t only the dramadramadrama which gripped me.  It was also Mantel’s masterful portrait of Thomas Cromwell.

In his forties, rings on his fingers, wary, articulate, erudite, having been a mercenary, a lawyer, and a merchant, having seen too much to be trusting yet too wise to be cynical, able to recite the New Testament in Latin, Cromwell as chief advisor to Henry VIII contains multitudes and is one of the most nuanced characters in contemporary fiction:

“His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”

In short, if you’re a man, you want to be him.  If you’re a woman, you’ve fallen desperately in love.  Even though the novel is set in the turbulent and brutal time of England’s break with Rome, replete with public executions and sweating sickness, it remains deeply human and, what’s more significant and difficult to pull off, humane.

Cromwell, whom history came to criticize as a despotic boor, isn’t all coolness and toughness.  Despite his morally ambivalent, if not downright amoral, context, he’s tender and his self-respect extends to others.  Whether the historical Cromwell matched this description or not is really beside the point.  This isn’t history, and if it is, Mantel is re-writing it.  For the purposes of reading and appreciating good books, things like facts, dates, and the looming shadow of What Really Happened, are simply the raw material from which the writer makes meaning.  The point isn’t to re-create the perspective of a king’s minister in the 16th century so we can live through him.  What’s important is how the writer appropriates history and establishes it into contemporary culture.  What’s crucial is what it can, and does, mean to us now.

Anyway, Mantel doesn’t simply write about a time period, or even about Thomas Cromwell; both worthy, but narrowly defined, subjects.  For me, the novel is about a large and roaming consciousness which self-reflexively filters and re-interprets some of Western history’s defining moments with great moral sensitivity and depth, and which begins in Mantel, moves through Cromwell, and ends in us.







Foucault: Why Political Freedom Seems Impossible

Foucault: Why Political Freedom Seems Impossible



Here’s what happens when you read too much Foucault: revolution appears pointless.  Not only explicit regime change with gas masks and molotov cocktails, but also implicit restructuring of thought and behavior, begin to seem utterly impossible.

It isn’t a coincidence that the rise of the modern state which, for Foucault, corresponds to a multiplication of social apparatuses for discipline and habituation, also marks the rapid decline of the public sphere, once exemplified by egalitarian social mingling in English coffee houses, squares, and literary salons, which encouraged deliberation and critique.  Perhaps this decline has something to do with a certain moral quietism which accompanies society’s internalization of what is presented as normal, natural, and necessary.  At the level of the state apparatus, which Foucault regards as a support structure for a much deeper power system, critique or transformation seems only to yield the multiplication of that ubiquitous system, though in a different guise.


Let’s consider two examples.

First, the process of habituation results in the neglect or destruction of that which cannot accommodate, or refuses to accommodate, normative categories.  This condition of marginalization exists where the institutions, responsibilities, and attitudes associated with the social apparatus cannot reach.  A contemporary example might be the social hysteria regarding, and eventual implications of, gay marriage.  Existing beyond the right to marry, some are condemned to live as second-class citizens, without access to certain forms of social capital, legal benefits, and social privileges.  However, when their right to marry is finally announced, to great fanfare and much rhetoric regarding social progress, they are rapidly assimilated into an extension of the state apparatus and the various obligations and regulations it imposes, such as family incentives, family values, tax codes, and so on.  What’s been won?  A simple reversal of surveillance.  Whether marginalized or integrated, whether excluding or including, the state apparatus preserves the web of regulation and punishment, though with a different face, under a different name, and with seemingly more progressive ends.  The passing from marginalization to assimilation, the fighting to achieve the right to be “plugged in” — whether by extending the right to marry or acknowledging the clamor of Iranian adolescents to connect on social media — can also be regarded as a wholly innocent but nevertheless invidious complicity in social surveillance.


The implication is that a state of marginalization is ultimately more free, or more subversive, than one of assimilation, even if it means the vagabond’s wanderings without recourse to legal or social rights.

Second, because power is not monolithic, instead perpetuating itself in a multiplicity of local struggles, it lacks a point of entry.  Like the Medusa, upon whose head a new snake uncoils when the previous one is sliced away, any challenge or change to elite interests only results in their quick readjustment and re-instantiation.  When the Russia of the early 1800s ensured that its golden sons, the young and ambitious aristocrats, had the finest of educations abroad, the country did not anticipate that these men would return brimming with ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  The subsequent uprising they engineered, the Decembrist revolt of 1825, was a terrible shock to the old vanguard of political power.  When the revolt was brutally crushed, the nobility’s sons executed or exiled, it seemed as if the status quo reigned once more.


However, it was this clumsy effort, Russia’s first revolution, which inspired and ushered in the Bolshevik revolt.  This brief history illuminates the spontaneous and unavoidable breaks and re-establishments of power relations: who could have supposed that the Russian nobility’s privileging its elite with access to travel and books would have destroyed that same nobility, but not for the sake of something we might term progress, but for the sake of one of the most oppressive regimes in human history?  Then, in a strange paradox, the very act of maintaining power’s interests has the potential to undermine those interests.

But here’s the discouraging part: these historical lapses and reversals cannot be deliberately engineered because any such meddling only brings about a more intense fortification of the state apparatus, as the examples of Soviet Russia or Napoleon’s France demonstrate.  If the alternatives to the punitive society are marginalization or a struggle which must result in the deeper entrenchment of normalizing systems, moral quietism often takes root.  Why bother voting?  70% of the population has no impact on policy, and is effectively disenfranchised. Still, the lapses occasioned by history, those tiny chasms between surveillance and surveillance, might become the new public sphere, spaces of tension for critical thought, deliberation, and (dare I say it?) even democracy.