03/22/22

“Obedience and support are the same.”

I realize that Anna Netrebko is to her country what Elizabeth Schwartzkopf was to hers, but can you imagine if the Soviets had asked Van Cliburn to denounce Eisenhower as a condition of his playing at the Tschaikovsky Competition?

[Commenters elsewhere have pointed out that in the Cliburn example, there was no American “inciting event” on the scale of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I would call these events Operation Hardtack, large-scale U.S. ground testing of nuclear weapons rising to a record high in 1958, and Operation Argus, exo-atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons to in future knock out Soviet air and space defenses. (Operation Argus worked in some respects, but it seeded the continental U.S. with radioactive fallout.)]

03/16/22

Twenty Tons of TNT

This country has learned nothing about nuclear brinksmanship in the past seventy years. 1956: the Hungarians overthrow the USSR puppet government, and Soviet tanks go right back to crush the Hungarians and re-install the puppets. The United States does nothing; Hungary is not worth setting the world on fire. 1968: Roughly the same thing happens in Czechoslovakia. The United States does nothing; Czechoslovakia is not worth setting the world on fire. And then there’s now, where the predictable decision is being made, aided by Putin’s declaration that he will launch if conventional forces arrayed against him seem like they’re going to win. We spent how many millions on RAND and the War Colleges for them not to have come up with an answer for this?

Yes, I’ve heard about the benefits of statesmanly multilateralism. All I can say is that if it doesn’t work before Ukraine is destroyed, it gets the President the “He Kept Us Out Of War” medal, which is what Woodrow Wilson got, and no better.

03/10/22

daed si luaP

At one point in my childhood, records were being played backwards and speculations were rife about a certain pedestrian photographed crossing the street outside the Abbey Road Studios barefoot.

Now the question that agitated us then has a different referent. One much more important for me. I can’t adjust to the loss of the sole person to whom, for 43 years, I could tell everything, try out any stupid idea, appeal for a reality check or an ethics consult.

I am at a loss. Lost in loss.

02/5/22

The right enemies to have

The ethnic entrepreneurs are at it again! Now a bunch of blackshirts are parading outside a Boston hospital protesting that social justice measures amount to “anti-White genocide.”

I am proud to have such goons as enemies. Genocide, shmenocide. Wouldn’t want them on my side in any case. Even as insecticide.

02/1/22

Tigers

Let me tell you about tigers, said Zigong. If you shave the hair off it, a tiger or panther skin is no different from a dog’s or sheep’s.

This little moment from the Analects must reflect a prior debate about the kinds of things that bothered the thinkers of 5th-C BCE China. There were those who insisted that if only people followed the rituals of the ancients, and made sure that all the definitions were reflected in actual practices, things would be just dandy. And there were those who sneered at the archaizers as being mere specialists in smells and bells, with no grip on reality (economics, warfare, policy). Two words served as rallying flags in the polarized debate: 質 or substance, and 文 or pattern. In the way such debates around slogans go, everyone was getting stupider by the minute, trying to insult the other side by calling them aesthetes or cavemen, depending on where you started.

Zigong thought of an example that rebuked all of them alike for thinking that they could separate substance from pattern, pattern from substance. A panther’s or tiger’s skin is beautiful, conveys majesty, is worth a lot– but if you were so nihilistic as to shave it bare (removing the evidence of its stripy or spotty patterns), it would be no different from a dog’s skin, and only a fool would do that. The world had not yet advanced to the stage where the possessors of tiger skins would shave them defensively, to avoid being accused of wearing something finer than dog skin. In Zigong’s world, the reminder not to lose sight of what makes for distinction was enough.

I wish you all a happy year of the Tiger, and patterns commensurate with your substance.

01/29/22

White Discomfort

Now that state legislatures are lining up to ban books and forbid teaching on the history of inequality in the US (including such troubling topics as slavery, sale of persons, segregation, lynching, and the creation of an underclass with its attendant phantasms), I’ve identified a new career path for myself. For the fulcrum of the issue seems to be “white discomfort,” the fear that knowing the truth about our society and its past might make some people feel bad about themselves. And on that, I have specialized, intimate knowledge!

Most likely, the nightmare scenario is that an angry Black person (other ethnicities eligible as well) will appear, in person or as the narrative voice of a book, and cause the lily-white children seated in the classroom to feel accused or critiqued. Maybe, for many people, this has never happened before. Maybe they would like to prevent it from happening. Well, if an actual Black person is too scary, let me propose myself as a witness to the very discomfort they want to avoid.

Hi! I am a white southerner whose family has been here for over 300 years. You can guess what that means. I have been through the classic stages: obliviousness (it was just the way the world was), recognition (huh! I get to occupy this position in life without having done anything to earn it? that’s weird), rationalization (surely it’s never been so bad, people do exaggerate, maybe the conditions are changing, perhaps there is something worth preserving in the old ways after all), abandonment (no, there was nothing in that system worth keeping, and if I can’t completely eradicate its traces in me, I can start other people on the path of vigilance). The things to avoid are complaining and bragging, the two chief ingredients in social-media personality. Consider how much better life can be if you don’t have anything to brag about and are reluctant to complain! In other words, if you put acknowledgment of wrong forward and don’t expect people to admire you for it. I can reassure the anxious white folk that there will still be room in the world for them after they have embarked on the anti-racist journey, that it will lead them to a better and less paranoid worldview, and that being able to set that horror at a distance will give them kinds of peace that they can never attain by protesting against the very possibility of self-knowledge.

01/25/22

Ostranenie

I haven’t taught Descartes for twenty-odd years. When I pulled down my book I was intrigued to see in the margins of the Sixth Meditation a note reading “> Shk.” What could that possibly mean?

The passage in question:

… je me persuadais aisément que je n’avais aucune idée dans mon esprit, qui n’eût passé auparavant par mes sens. Ce n’était pas aussi sans quelque raison que je croyais que ce corps (lequel par un certain droit particulier j’appelais mien) m’appartenait plus proprement et plus étroitement que pas un autre. Car en effet je n’en pouvais jamais être séparé comme des autres corps; je ressentais en lui et pour lui tous mes appétits et toutes mes affections; et enfin j’étais touché des sentiments de plaisir et de douleur en ses parties, et non pas en celles des autres corps qui en sont séparés. (Translation by the duc de Luynes.)

… In this way I easily convinced myself that I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation. As for the body which by some special right I called “mine,” my belief that this body, more than any other, belonged to me had some justification. For I could never be separated from it, as I could from other bodies; and I felt all my appetites and emotions in, and on account of, this body; and finally, I was aware of pain and pleasurable tickling in parts of this body, but not in other bodies external to it. (Translation by John Cottingham.)

The cryptic abbreviation, I realized, had to mean “greater than or equal to Shklovsky.” Shklovsky, who in “Art as Device” had proposed that the most intimate aim of writing is to alienate you from what’s taken for granted, to cause you to see things in a new light and question old assumptions. Shklovsky’s favorite examples come from Tolstoy, who often narrates rituals or formalities as if from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know what they’re about, who witnesses the behavior but not its meaning; and in one case he gives the narrative voice over to a horse, who is a piece of property to his “owner” but doesn’t recognize the meaning of “property” at all. Ostranenie or estrangement unsettles our social arrangements by describing them without assenting to them. But Descartes in this passage tells us what it’s like to be embodied in the words that would be used by someone for whom it’s not at all obvious that a living person inhabits a body, or that the body has sensations that are felt by the person whose body it is. The effect is profoundly alienating in its half-hints that if things were otherwise than they chance to be, our selves might wander from body to body or pluck a string of sensation from this or that random flesh-envelope on the horizon. The reader of such a passage wants to know “why?” about something that had never been questioned before. It’s of a pair with this other wondrously alienating passage from the Second Meditation:

… si par hasard je ne regardais d’une fenêtre des hommes qui passent dans la rue, à la vue desquels je ne manque pas de dire que je vois des hommes… et cependant que vois-je de cette fenêtre, sinon des chapeaux et des manteaux, qui peuvent couvrir des spectres ou des hommes feints qui ne se remuent que par ressorts?

… But then if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves… Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?

01/14/22

Reading Without Distance

The other day a colleague of mine refused to advise an undergraduate thesis that was partly about Hegel. The reason? “Because Hegel was a racist.” Well yes, and most Europeans who lived between 1770 and 1830 — even the ones who campaigned against the slave trade and recognized the dignity of Asians, Africans, and Native Americans — had no less racist ideas knocking around their brains and writing-desks. The question is whether there was anything else in there. And Hegel, whose detractor I am proud to be every day, had a lot going on.

It’s just one data-point, just one senior professor at a top university refusing to help a student understand one canonical philosopher, but how typical!

Typical of what?

Professors of literature don’t like to read books. That is the melancholy conclusion to be derived from several of the latest trends in theory, which amount to devices for avoiding the book-reading that is the actual experimental basis of our criticism and analysis. Computer reading and the use of summaries (or translations); studies that slot authors into race and gender categories as a preliminary to determining their importance; postcolonial naming and shaming — all give us ways of handling books by means other than reading, whether it is a matter of delegating an algorithm to pluck out their word-frequencies or pontificating on them by referring to the adjectives attached to their authors, in other words, by relying on gossip. 

I like to read books. I am fascinated by them. Just as there are crate-diggers who will give every scratched LP its chance, however obtuse or cheesy the album-cover looks (the weirder the better!), so I’m willing to open any book and read at least a few pages in order to hear out the author’s claim on the world’s attention. The best service a book can render me is to challenge my preconceptions. I don’t like to push them away with an excuse in the style of “Oh, that’s Southern Gothic. I don’t do Southern Gothic.” I may read a few pages and arrive at a provisional judgment, “Aha, two parts Anne Rice and one part Flannery O’Connor, but the ingredients aren’t well-mixed,” and put it aside for someone else. But at least I give the book its chance.

I also try to be aware of what I don’t know: the dark side of the moon, the submerged part of the iceberg, the part of the joke that went over my head. There’s my ethic of reading. It doesn’t start with a preconception that I am ethical and set the standards. It starts from a readiness to find out what others have to say for themselves. It being unlikely for me to approach literature with an attitude of mastery, the best I can manage is an attitude of curiosity and the energy to carry it forward. 

But, someone will say, isn’t life limited and the number of books to be read practically unlimited? Well, of course, I may speak as if every book has a right to someone’s attention but that doesn’t mean it has an equal claim on mine. It’s probably best that I don’t live in a huge used bookstore. I pursue certain kinds of excitement and avoid certain kinds of dullness. Taste, or preferences, lead me to drop some books after a glance and to put some on the pile for intensive scrutiny. Experience makes me sensitive to certain signals that ping my likes and dislikes. Epistemologically speaking, a lot of books have nothing new to say to the person who has already had a certain kind of literary experience, so conformation to an existing category is a sign that the book belongs on the discard pile. But discordant signals that imply a different relationship to that category may keep alive an interest in the book. Hasty dismissal is as much to be avoided as the repetition of tautological banalities.  

If the message of the “no reading required” schools is that you don’t actually have to read a book in order to say acceptable things about it, the thought that directs my activity is that we don’t know what literature is, in an empirical way, yet; at best we have some intuitions that can be applied inductively, but on condition that they not hinder us from doing the empirical labor. And enjoying it, if we are so set up. If you don’t enjoy reading and discovering new books, you should probably find another line of work, though the absence of actual performance standards makes this profession a tempting one for the effort-adverse. 

01/1/22

Affogato

The new year is upon us and none of us are getting any younger. So I make bold to propose two videos with pedagogical value:

12/17/21

Purity and Danger

Dear Ms C*d*,

I write to protest your astonishing lack of consideration in sending my client, Mx. ****, a letter about holiday songs without affixing a conspicuously visible Trigger Warning and Content Label. Mx. **** has been my patient for several years now. They have been diagnosed as suffering from Major Depressive Disorder, Non-Psychotic (ICD-10 F33.3), With Suicidal Ideation (ICD-10 R45.851), and your message awakened many of the symptoms characteristic of this disorder:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts (Source: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression)

Your letter conveyed the judgment of the music staff of the school that Mx. ****’s children attend, that “Jingle Bells” and other seasonal songs must no longer be sung at the school. The reason adduced was that

the music department has started to research the background of songs we’ve used and found out some have a problematic past: racist or derogatory terms or themes, questionable authenticity, and/or appropriated origins. December songs we are no longer singing at school include: Jingle Bells, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Winter Wonderland, and Chestnuts Roasting, you can click on the links to learn more. We take responsibility for singing these songs in the past and are committed to our continued work to evolve as educators. … Song repertoire is a piece of the larger school-wide identity scope and sequence as we support each other in raising a generation of changemakers.

Mx. **** has always sung “Jingle Bells” in the comfortable belief that, unlike many year-end holiday songs, it was neither racist nor anti-Semitic. To the untrained ear, its lyric has to do with dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh (presumably without cruelty to the aforenamed horse), over the fields, laughing all the way (attention: laughing from mere physical exhilaration, not laughing at any person, creed, ability status, or nationality). The idea of bobbing a horse’s tail and affixing bells to it (as in “Bells on bobtails ring”) has caused Mx. **** some pain in the past, but in therapy I suggested they simply sing out “Bells on bumpers ring” loudly enough that they will not hear the offensive “bobtail” word as sung by others, and this method seems to have been well-tolerated, by my patient at least.

But now your message and the linked essay have informed them that “Jingle Bells” was apparently sung as part of a minstrel entertainment in 1857. The fact that its composer wrote tunes to be performed by white actors wearing blackface, and the suggestion that “Jingle Bells” might at one time have figured amongst the numbers on stage, condemns it forever in the eyes of properly vigilant people, for we all know that, just as in the old South one drop of the “wrong” kind of blood was sufficient to exclude a person from the category of free white people, so too, in our enlightened era, the possibility of tracing any element of culture to a situation, a person, and/or a connotation that are in any way “problematic” suffices to justify removing it forever from the repertoire. It doesn’t matter that “Jingle Bells” is not usually sung in blackface. The fact that a historian has found evidence that it might have been sung in blackface at least once condemns it. It also doesn’t matter that evidence has never been brought forth that singing “Jingle Bells” promotes racist attitudes in white children, or induces problems of self-esteem in non-white children. I will gladly concede the bit about the bobtails, but the larger point is that any suspicion of complicity with evil (by which we mean attitudes that are derogatory, exclusionary, appropriative, or otherwise non-nice) calls for prompt action to remove the offensive cultural object. The moral imperative– who will think of the children?– is plain. Even the pleasure that generations of children have taken in singing “Jingle Bells” must be sacrificed on the altar of this demanding ideal.

No person aspiring to virtue today could possibly disagree with your strategy of cultural correction. But my patient, who although non-psychotic is subject to rumination and insomnia, was, I regret to say, profoundly triggered by your mail. How many times have they, unawares, sung “Jingle Bells” in public? How many times have they hummed it in private? How can they bear the knowledge of having done that, understanding as they now do that to hum “Jingle Bells” is the moral equivalent of sailing to Africa, clapping chains on innocent villagers, and dragging them across the Atlantic to serve without salary and die early after decades of back-breaking labor? Not to put too fine a point on it, singing “Jingle Bells” is spiritual lynching. What other customs, cultural artifacts, or activities in which Mx. **** has engaged over a lifetime, though apparently harmless, could be traced to a similar origin? Can anyone be pure?

My patient is a White Liberal American, and to make things worse, a Protestant [gender withheld by patient’s request]. They have tried to do all the right things in their life. They have not spoken the N-word. They have not discriminated against Jews, or Muslims either. They have left the room when relatives told jokes about chitlins or nose operations. They have marched against the war in Iraq and for Black Lives Matter. They have given to the right charities (small problem: they omitted to brag about it). They have voted regularly. They do not belong to any segregated clubs. They have looked into their genealogy and discovered many individuals in the past fifteen or so traceable generations who owned slaves or benefited from the slave economy, who considered heterosexuality normative, who believed their own religion or nation superior to others. All this self-scrutiny they have faithfully performed since attaining the age of reason.

And yet your message was allowed to reach my patient’s ears without so much as a warning that its content would trigger bouts of guilt, self-doubt, and suicidal ideation. How can I guide my patient toward healthy self-esteem if they are constantly reminded that their very DNA is soaked in the blood of criminals, that their profession and hobbies glitter with privilege, that their desires, pleasures, and dreams cannot be innocent? What short of a quick exit from this vale of tears could put right the injustice that is the life of a person who has inherited so much of American majority culture? How, moreover, can I keep my patient from snapping into an opposite subject position and espousing White Christian Nationalism as a flight from constant guilt and self-recrimination? Or turning to Fox News in order to externalize these guilt feelings into hatred and resentment of the Other?

Worry about how to be a worthy person has sent my patient into a tailspin. They are unable to sleep, they avoid friends, conversations, and public places, their consumption of alcohol to deaden the pain of being themself has gone up. All this could have been avoided by simply affixing a label that reads: WARNING. WHITE LIBERAL GUILT TRIGGERS BELOW. AVOID READING IF AT ALL SENSITIVE.

You have put yourself in the position of authority, the judgment seat. Yours is the voice that decides if my patient deserves to live or die. However, were they to die by suicide, their life insurance policies would be invalidated, and being a White Middle-Class Person, they could not accept that– the very thought of losing their death benefit might kill them. Such are the unendurable double-binds of the guilt of privileged people.

Please allow me in conclusion to express my sincerest envy of your moral unassailability.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Narziss Goldmund Fort-Da

12/4/21

“Ἕλληνες ἀεὶ παῖδές ἐστε”

Benjamin Moser’s meditation on translation struck me as muddled and inconclusive in some ways that are fairly typical of our moment. Accusing English of colonizing the planet, finding fault with translation into English as somehow advancing that process, and then letting off a snobbish vibe when talking about foreigners with their nakedly functional, “airport” English, the essay left me feeling that another writer would have served the topic better. And speaking of snobbery, I couldn’t suppress a tiny giggle of superiority when I read Moser’s brag that

Ours was one of the oldest continually written literatures in the world, an uninterrupted stream that goes back beyond even Beowulf

Well, yes, Caedmon and Cynewulf lived at least a couple of hundred years before the Beowulf-poet. But a tradition that begins around 700 CE isn’t really all that old. If you want to meet a “continually written literature” with some history to it, I recommend Greek, Chinese, Hebrew, or Farsi; and with a quibble on the qualifier “written,” you could learn Sanskrit too.

Moser’s meditations begin with encountering a book collection that reminds him of his grandmother’s, containing hundreds of volumes of writers nobody (he says) reads. Mostly writers in a certain kind of modern American English; lots of translations into that idiom too. Like Moser, I grew up climbing around the shelves of my grandmother’s library (she was born in 1906). From it I got my first acquaintance with Dante, Baudelaire, Homer, Cervantes, Tolstoy, as well as Poe, Henry James, Melville, Faulkner, and the Fugitives. I still have on my shelves her copy of Ulysses and her Analects of Confucius. In some ways she wasn’t sophisticated: her critical sense was rooted in a kind of realism that wouldn’t get you far in the seminar-room today (you’d find on those shelves Edmund Wilson and How We Live, The Shock of Recognition, Bright Book of Life). But although we were living in a middle-sized town in the South, and basically monolingual people with a smattering of other languages, she was conversant with Lin Yutang, Auden, Stephen Spender, Hannah Arendt, as any intelligent person in the postwar West had to be. When I think about that library, my feeling isn’t mournfulness at its obsolescence, but gratitude that I got to read freely in it and readiness to share what I got there.

11/24/21

The How of the What

I hope it isn’t a questionable position to say that in college we need to teach people not what to think, but how. Learning how to think, and acquiring a base of knowledge to think about, leaves the learner free to come to whatever conclusions.

I was thinking about this basic question today as I was trying to pull together a syllabus for next quarter’s course– an existing course called “Philosophical Perspectives” into which I get to slip a bit of my own favorites and favoritisms. There’s always too much stuff that I’d like to show the class. And I have to remind myself that if I give them too much stuff, the course becomes a survey of the “what,” a nickel tour of thumbnail sketches of condensed summaries of hasty opinions of preordained conclusions. Teaching fewer texts allow us to explore how each one of them is put together, how they dialogue with earlier texts and with the difficult-to-persuade reader, as well as how they deceive and dissemble. There’s a trade-off, then, between What and How, and I would rather have a smaller number of Whats and spend more time unraveling their Hows. The loss can be absorbed. I tell myself that if someone has watched one careful reading take place, and been affected by it, they may want to go home and do the same thing on their own. And that’s the point.

11/21/21

“It’s like the Sounds Came Out of the Mud”

The origin-story of the Muscle Shoals hybrid of musical styles.

These are people my father knew in the 1960s and 70s, and whom I must have met occasionally. (Norbert Putnam, who features in the picture, was bassist on two of my father’s albums.) Watching the movie, you learn what astonishingly hard lives most of them had, unlike my father, a Tampa lawyer’s son from a big Savannah family. Segregation was indeed a parchment barrier, keeping apart groups of people who had in common desperate poverty and sparks of musical genius.

As always, the Muscle-Shoals-adjacent heretical bard R. Stevie Moore must be mentioned:

11/20/21

Business as Usual

When I was tutoring last night, I hit upon an analogy between slaveowners and climate change deniers (which effectively includes most companies and investors seeking “Business As Usual.”) In both cases, they could not see their own ends coming, no matter how obvious it got.

Cotton and tobacco exhausted the land; it could have been left fallow or planted with cover crops, but no one did this. As a result, there was a constant need for new land to ruin. The various congressional compromises got them that land, right up to Texas, but the end of cheap arable land where slaves could be held was nigh. The slaveowners couldn’t accept it. There would always be more land! They thought of elaborate schemes in which they could conquer Latin and South America and create a slaveholding paradise free from Northern interference and moral censure. But it was not to be. War was the only thing that could move them from their checked position.

Just so, the deniers want to keep making money up until the very last second when we are all dead. They may be in bunkers or orbiting Mars, and they will have their carbon-generating paradise without censure — even if this is all a pipe dream. The only question is, now that the world is gone, who will give their money faith and credit? What will they buy? Whom will they hire?

11/19/21

The Things They Said in 1828

La littérature, science expérimentale au plus haut degré, s’étend, se renouvelle, se rajeunit suivant tous les accidents de la pensée humaine, sans pouvoir jamais être encadrée dans un type de principe, ou dans un type d’exécution, fait par le génie des hommes qui l’ont précédée.” / Literature, this supremely experimental science, grows, renews itself, rejuvenates itself in response to every new twist of human thought, without ever being contained by the principles or types of execution that the genius of earlier generations has made.

Sounds pretty good for us fans of experimental literature! But Abel-François Villemain was actually talking about history-writing in this passage of his Cours de littérature française, tableau du dix-huitième siècle, deuxième partie, lesson 4 (Paris: Pichon & Didier, 1828), pages 2-3, to which I was happily misdirected by a citation in the Littré. Still, I’ll take it: “literature, this supremely experimental science…”

Paging Dr. Claude Bernard!

11/16/21

As Others See Us

Being Chinese is no hindrance to understanding what’s messed up in this society. This heartbreaking poster (or pair of posters– I’m not sure if they have the same or different authors) was on a bulletin board in a building I teach in:

11/12/21

The Furies Never Left Town

Yesterday Judith Butler came and gave an in-person lecture on the implications of the ending of Aeschylus’s Eumenides (The Furies, last play in the Oresteia trilogy). She was, as usual, dry, witty, persistent, demanding — a speaker who invigorates and reminds us of how good an event an academic talk can be. The house was full. A livestream accommodated the overflow (I’ll link to it when it’s posted). I was lucky to get one of the last seats.

The problem Butler addressed was: what really happens at the end of the play? Supposedly the raging Furies, demanding blood for blood and crime as payment for crime in the first two plays of the trilogy, become tamed in the third after Orestes is acquitted for the murder of his mother (actually not his mother, in the sophistical argument of the defense*). Although they have threatened to “spread poison through the land” if their demands are not heard, Athena placates them with an offer of an honored position in the city:

ἔξεστι γάρ σοι τῆσδε γαμόρῳ χθονὸς
εἶναι δικαίως ἐς τὸ πᾶν τιμωμένῃ.

πάσης ἀπήμον᾽ οἰζύος: δέχου δὲ σύ. (890 ff)

That is, “You have the chance to become settlers in this land, justly honored forever more… and relieved of all pain: accept this offer.”

The Furies do accept the offer, according to Aeschylus, and agree to delay their demands for vengeance, redirecting their anger into the public forum: accusation, trial, and punishment will now take the place of pursuit and murder. Athena sees the advantage in this alliance with her erstwhile antagonists:

ἐκ τῶν φοβερῶν τῶνδε προσώπων
μέγα κέρδος ὁρῶ τοῖσδε πολίταις. (990-991)

“From their terrifying faces I can see a great benefit to come for these citizens.” Better to have them inside the tent, as the political saying goes. Now at this point Butler switches to discussion of classicists’ commentaries on the passage. Kitto, seeing here a foundational moment of civilization, applauds the new deal as the emergence of light and goodness from irrational (and feminized) passions, the victory of right over force, of law over lawlessness; Butler is not so sure. For the passions certainly remain passions even if redirected. The faces of the Furies are still “terrifying.” And what does terror come from? Imbalance of power. Athena knows what she’s doing: earlier she asked, τίς γὰρ δεδοικὼς μηδὲν ἔνδικος βροτῶν; (“can a mortal who fears nothing ever be just?”). Fear, transformed into reverence, is the very basis of religion, the atmosphere in which the gods bathe. Butler sees the ambivalence of this situation: as Freud has taught us, when we drive a desire out of our conscious minds, it is apt to reappear somewhere else, as symptom or sublimation. Where have the Furies gone?

They have gone, as Butler sees it, into the apparatus dedicated to preserving the majesty and terror of the law. Police, courts, prisons stand as perpetual threats discouraging us from going astray. You might think that the law stands over against violence, protects us from violence, but law incorporates violence, is in its essence violent. Here Butler cited law-review articles by Paul Gewirtz and Robert Cover that confess this fact. I haven’t looked up the Gewirtz, but Cover’s contribution was the famous “Violence and the Word,” Yale Law Journal 95 (1986) 1601-1629. She cited with a raised eyebrow and delicate sarcasm the passage where Cover says:

The act of sentencing a convicted defendant is among [the] most routine of acts performed by judges. … If convicted, the defendant customarily walks — escorted — to prolonged confinement, usually without significant disturbance to the civil appearance of the event. It is, of course, grotesque to assume that the civil façade is ‘voluntary’ except in the sense that it represents the defendant’s autonomous recognition of the overwhelming array of violence ranged against him, and of the hopelessness of resistance or outcry…. If I have exhibited some sympathy for the victims of this violence it is misleading. Very often the balance of terror in this regard is just as I would want it. (1607-1608)

Then Butler shifted to contemporary issues: the carceral state, the murder of innocent civilians, mostly Black or Brown, by police officers, the question of whether due process is required or insufficient in the context of #MeToo accusations. She concluded with a summons to reform the prison system, to make prisons places where inmates are educated, not left to rot or to marinate in violence — maybe this is the way, finally, to deal with the Furies, by education.

I agree with her condemnations and I endorse her endorsements. I think any decent person would. Violence performed in the name of the state should fall under extreme scrutiny, because it is done in our names and engages us, the citizens. “The monopoly on the legitimate use of force” (Weber, Politics as Vocation, 1919) has long been recognized as a defining characteristic of the state — but that means it must undergo a legitimating process, not be wielded arbitrarily.

And this is where Butler’s scenario seems to me to have fallen apart. Yes, what passes for peace and order in any state is built on fear and repression, as Athena recognized in addressing the furies. Peace relies on violence or the threat of violence. But the men in blue who killed George Floyd or the suburban busybodies who killed Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, were not legitimately carrying out a state interest. It is important to say this. Wearing the uniform does not confer license to kill. Shouting “citizen’s arrest” does not sanctify your murderous intent. Police unions and juries have for too long banded with the offenders in these cases and kept them from being prosecuted for actions that in any other situation would be recognized as crimes. Such protection networks define mafias, which should not be confused with the state, unless we are ready to give up on the idea of legality altogether (if that seems attractive, I recommend you take a study tour of the major kleptocracies, list available on demand).

Violence is not simply or even preeminently exercised by state actors. The example to which Butler’s reading of Aeschylus allusively led spotlights only such cases (though, as I’ve just mentioned, some of the most egregious are not proper examples). Yes, we need to be attentive to legal violence and minimize it. We need to be attentive to pseudo-legal violence and prosecute it, as a way of making clear the difference between it and the authority it misappropriates. But even if we do so, we will not have eliminated violence in this country. It surrounds us and threatens us, makes us live in fear, not of the law but simply of our neighbor. It was particularly painful to notice the partial spotlighting of Butler’s talk inasmuch as she was speaking in Chicago, two days after the cold-blooded murder, by gun, of a young man on a street two blocks from campus. That young man, (Dennis) Zheng Shaoxiong 鄭少雄, died not by reason of any state action, but… No, I went too fast. He would not have met this death so easily if it were not for a particular federal action in repression of a state and city code that might have saved his life and many more.

I refer to attempts by the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to regulate the possession of firearms, attempts repeatedly batted down by the Supreme Court in the name of the Second Amendment. I would say that state and city strove to pit law, with its inevitable violence, against the violence of lawlessness. They failed when a superior authority voted on the side of lawlessness. “The right to bear arms shall not be infringed.” And so we are all left living under the gun, in a climate of fear that makes none of us wiser or more virtuous.

By personality, education and friendships, I feel a particular affinity to the Chinese students who come to this country to sharpen our wits and theirs, to experience a different kind of life, to burnish their qualifications, to prepare for a crushing competition for success in their professions. Zheng Shaoxiong was not the first young Chinese man to be killed in an arbitrary confrontation on the borders of the University of Chicago campus in the last few years. The Chinese students I have spoken with see a pattern. It is a pattern of exposure to random, senseless violence activated and energized by the availability of high-performance weapons — exposure heightened by bias.

And similarly, as we have seen, we who read the papers, that availability makes it possible for any aggrieved worker, any complaining incel, any resentful or depressed person to pull out a credit card, acquire a semi-automatic (or a dozen!), and join the band of the Furies. I had not expected Butler to come out in favor of the Second Amendment (nor, I think, did she; I am just drawing the unexpected consequence, for which I beg pardon), but when she cites mockingly Cover’s rather candid admission that in a well-ordered state “the balance of terror… is just as I would want it to be,” perhaps throwing shade at him for being too comfortable with that state of affairs, the implication is that a less lopsided balance of terror would be fairer somehow. Exactly what the stockpilers of AK-47s, the Sovereign Citizens, the flyers of the Gadsden Banner, the doomers, preppers, and adherents of “Q” would like to think. Now indeed if it were possible to reestablish effective arms control, that would be a step toward a “balance of terror… as I would want it to be.” I don’t think my wishes in this regard are particular to the subset of the population that shares my skin color, educational level, residential zone, or income bracket. Some countries experience ideologically-based terror from organized bands; in America, land of do-it-yourself, we just declare a free-fire zone and watch the show.

It’s a terrible situation and it doesn’t lend itself to good-versus-evil, underdog-versus-baddie schematization. Are the victims of this violence outside the law “ungrievable”? (For the term, see Butler, Antigone’s Claim.) Not to me.


  • Reason to declare a mistrial: as Athena admits, she, the judge, never had a mother, so she doesn’t even know what one is. And note that the jury’s vote is 50/50, with Athena casting the deciding ballot. Shaky jurisprudence indeed, especially when taken as foundational.