Franz Kafka is hung in Israel for being a Nazi. Hannah Arendt laughs in the face of Auschwitz. Walter Benjamin cries for the lost revolution. With such visions, the Berlin-based-artist Volker März has carved out a space for himself as an artist of the thoughtful and the absurd. I met him last month at MEINBLAU, a gallery on Christinenstraße, his most recent exhibit in Berlin.
I was quickly ushered into an alternate reality. As you walk in, you must become acquainted with the März' artificial world.
This it the tale of Franz Kafka, who, in 1924, aged 41, does not die of tuberculosis but rows with his ape, Mr. Rotpeter, to Palestine, where he still lives to this day in Tel Aviv, aged 126. From here he provides a commentary on world events of the last 85 years, including the history of Israel in brief comments that I have gleaned from his letters and emails.
The exhibit that follows is titled "Israel Hangs Kafka." In März’s world, Kafka was tried and executed in Israel in 2009. He was accused of being a Nazi. In heaven Kafka finds "only a crowd of Kafkas, who tell him that every individual ends up in his own personal heaven in which he has to put up with hundreds of copies of himself." In 2010 there is a new government elected in Israel. Ashamed that the country had framed Kafka, the new government petitions God to have Kafka exonerated and return him to Israel. But as Kafka is falling back to earth, he goes astray and lands on the back of a Donkey in Ramallah in the West Bank. The Donkey carries Kafka to Pina Bausch who, like Kafka, is recently returned from heaven.
And this is just the textual frame for März's playful, gripping, and unexpected figures. The artworks themselves are thousands of miniature clay figures, hanging from the ceilings, attached to walls, and climbing throughout the exhibition hall.
They comprise a suggestive and inventive visual world. Kafka is naked, often erect, sometimes carrying an elephant or with his ape. He rides a donkey. He dances with Pina Bausch. He shoots a gun, he is blown up or drowned. Sometimes he addresses the Knesset. Behind each figure or scene is a story, but the exhibition does not provide the full narrative. For that, one should buy März's two bi-lingual volumes, Kafka In Israel, and In Search of Pina Bausch (Kafka: Auf der Suche nach Pina Bausch).
Volker März is tall, affable, and funny. "Kafka Hangs Israel" is the last of his "trilogy" of work on German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. His first show in the series, "Auratransfer," was inspired by Walter Benjamin. "The Laughter of Hannah Arendt/The Concentration Camp as Space of Thinking" is the show that brought März to my attention, along with his piercing motto that gets right to the heart of brutal reality of Arendt's thesis of the banality of evil: "Auschwitz is human." März pierces Arendt's insight that the evil of the holocaust—as evil—was enabled not by monsters but by human beings who were merely human, or, in other words, who did not think. The banality of evil is an expression of the awful potentiality of human action when mankind abandons the truly human capacity to think.
There is a sense in which the provocative motto “Auschwitz is human” gets Arendt wrong in a small way. For Arendt, the fact that Eichmann is banal is not to say that he is human. It is rather to point to the loss of his humanity. This is the reason that Arendt disavowed a connection between her work and the Stanley Milgram experiments, in which people applied increasing doses of electricity to test subjects when told to do so by the scientists running the experiment. For Arendt, the fact that most people do act with banality shows not that humans are evil, but that in the modern age human beings are in danger of losing their humanity. The motto “Auschwitz is human” gets at the heart of Arendt’s insight that Eichmann—and all real evil in the modern era of the bureaucratic machinery of evil—was rather thoughtless than monstrous. But she never acquiesces to the motto that thoughtlessness is human. On the contrary, the highest activity of humanity is to think.
The transformative power of thinking lies behind Arendt’s own interest in Franz Kafka. For Arendt, Kafka's parables and texts were examples of thinking. Arendt is taken above all by Kafka’s account of the space between past and future, an image she took as the title of her 1954 book Between Past and Future. The parable concerns a person shoved forward from the past, pressed backwards by the future, someone who can jump outside the forces of history and find a space for thinking freely outside of history and free from social scientific predictions of the future. The space of thinking is found, she writes, in "the experience of thinking."
März’s exhibition in Berlin contained only a fraction of the Kafka figures he has created and tell only a fragment of the elaborate story that knits them together. That story is told in his two books on Kafka that can hardly be called the exhibition's catalogues. They are rather books in themselves, bilingual in German and English, and fantastic to read.
The first book is Kafka in Israel. It tells the story I have outlined above, up until Kafka's execution. In it we are introduced to Kafka and also Rotpeter, Kafka's ape. On the occasion of Kafka's 100th birthday the writer is invited to address the Israeli Knesset where he says: "Among all human beings, the Monkey is the one and only outsider." The ape, human but inhuman, is excluded. Which is why "we're pretty much agreed now that an ape is in urgent need of a continent of its own, one inaccessible to humans."
The second book, Kafka in Search of Pina Bausch, takes place after Kafka has been executed by Israel and returns to the West Bank where he meets the German choreographer Pina Bausch, herself recently returned from the beyond. More political than the first volume, the search for Pina Bausch is a raucous and often biting look at the hypocrisies and tensions in the political and culture divisions between Israel and Palestine.
Together, these two volumes make a fascinating journey in both pictures and text. They are accessible and brief, but compelling. You could do worse than to order yourself a copy. And while you are at it, don’t forget to order also März’s volume on Hannah Arendt, The Laughter of Hannah Arendt. These books by Märx are your weekend read.
The after effects of Super-storm Sandy are felt from the beaches to the statehouses. First of all, let’s realize it was not a hurricane, but a freakish combination of storm systems. Super-storm is more truthful than hurricane. Whatever it was, it has upended lives, and politics.
The Financial Times reports today that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has now joined NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in requesting not only emergency aid to repair the damage caused by the storm, but also preventative money to build dunes, use eminent domain to purchase property, and generally re-engineer the New Jersey coastline.
The political transformation here is lost on few. As the FT writes:
Mr. Christie, a Republican, has previously sounded more skeptical than Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, about using state powers to dictate how the state was rebuilt. But he said on Wednesday he might take away local towns’ power to grant “easements” to homeowners objecting to new dunes blocking their sea views and would not rule out using government powers to purchase properties it believed were in the wrong place.
“I have to protect the Jersey shore, both as an economic engine and as a cultural engine,” Mr. Christie said.
The desire to take away local powers and give them to states and to take away state powers and give them to the federal government is neither a democratic nor a republican idea anymore. While the party of the elephant may give lip service to local governance, it has rarely, if ever, backed that up with action. As is now well known, the federal government has grown as fast if not faster under Republican Presidents than it has under democratic.
Hannah Arendt argued that the greatest danger to freedom in the United States was the rise of a large and bureaucratic government. She worried, as she once wrote, that the true threat to freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The sheer size of the country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life.
Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo may well be their respective parties’ nominees for President in 2016. They are both deeply popular and have taken a pragmatic and largely centrist approach to governing at a time of financial crisis and natural disaster. And yet, from an Arendtian angle, it is striking that both governors have so internalized the view that problems are to be solved by bureaucrats and technocrats rather than on a local level.
That the bureaucratic approach is so entrenched should not be a surprise. It is both a consequence of a further spur to the retreat from politics that Hannah Arendt describes. Even Christie’s insistence that he must save the Jersey shore as an economic engine shows the near complete victory of economic thinking over politics.
The set of a 1999 production of "A Masked Ball" for a yearly festival in Bregenz, Austria.
"Thoughts, like fleas, jump from man to man. But they don't bite everybody."
“To be alive means to live in a world that preceded one’s own arrival and will survive one’s own departure. On this level of sheer being alive, appearance and disappearance, as they follow upon each other, are the primordial events, which as such mark out time, the time span between birth and death.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
I credit my undergraduate advisor, the late Kenneth Reshaur, for one of my obsessions: I refer to the crack in the spine, between the Work and the Action chapters that divides my undergraduate copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. That fissure finds sustenance in the passage above, which appears at the very beginning of Arendt’s “Thinking” volume of The Life of the Mind.
It is a telling quote for many reasons, not the least of which because in it, Arendt explicitly echoes Maurice Merleau Ponty’s treatment of “primordial perception” in some of his late writings on painting, but also because it testifies to Arendt’s relentless commitment to thinking as primordially bound to the phenomenality of life, and especially to the life of politics. Politics is, for Arendt, apparitional in nature. It regards the appearance of things, both human and inhuman. And to appear is also what it means to be alive. To be sure, for Arendt there is the fact of natality that regards a coming into life; but that differs from an appearance. Natality is of the order of the new; but an appearance persists regardless of its newness or oldness. We might say that an appearance is indifferent to qualities like newness or oldness. Hence Arendt’s emphasis on the sensoriality of appearances, their ingression, but also their departure. It is an unavoidable fact for her that peoples, things, events appear and disappear in the way in which the sound of a note or of a voice appears and then fades away; what Arendt appreciates about this primordial condition of sensoriality is that the appearance and disappearance of things marks a domain of sheer aliveness; “sheer” in the sense of not having qualifications or conditions for their bodying forth.
For Arendt, the sheerness of the apparitional world of politics means that appearances are not mere appearances. This fact marks, to my mind, her great friction with some aspects of the Platonic tradition from which she also draws. The aspectual alliteration of “sheer” and “mere” resonates with her emphasis on appearances as being a site of care. To be more precise, Arendt’s elaboration of a politics of appearances bespeaks a commitment to a curatorial disposition to the world that she associates with the ability to trust others to “tend and take care of a world of appearances” (The Crisis in Culture). To consider appearances as “mere” (as opposed to “sheer”) suggests a disregard for life itself, for the way in which, as she goes on to affirm a few paragraphs after the quote, “To be alive means to be possessed by an urge to self-display which answers the fact of one’s own appearingness.” (The Life of Mind).
To be alive, in this sense, regards an urge to be felt, to be attended to by others. This is what the spectacle asks of the spectator: not so much “pay attention to me”, but “attend to what appears before you.” Such attention is what spurs on judgment, for Arendt, which is the activity sine qua non of “sharing-of-the-world-with-others” (Crisis in Culture). But before judgment may take place, before what captures our attentions can be morphed into thoughtful reflection, there is the sheerness of appearance that strikes at our curatorial dispositions.
And for Arendt, this primordial capacity to strike is disinterested.
What do I mean by this? Simply put, Arendt’s call to attend to the sheer appearance of the world forces us to come to terms with a domain of experience that precedes any and all capacities to formulate judgments, interests, and ideas: This is the primordial world of disinterest. And “disinterest” here does not mean either “indifferent” or “detached”; nor does this amount to a reassignment of the “Archimedean point.” On the contrary, the domain of disinterest is a domain of absorption and immersion in the facticity of lived sensations: it is the domain of the aesthetic that Arendt rightly identifies as the source of Kant’s political thought.
To recall, Kant’s crucial insight in the Critique of Judgment is that there can be no necessary conditions for something to count as beautiful, and hence there can be no rules for the category of the aesthetic. This is an insight that Kant borrows from Hume’s critique of consequentialism; but whereas for Hume, the heterogeneity that arises from the absence of necessity is a part of life, for Kant it is restricted to aesthetic experience as he defines it.
The aesthetic is the source of Kant’s political thought, then, not because the aesthetic provides normative guides to help us make judgments (it can’t), nor because there is anything specifically political about the beautiful (there can’t be because according to Kant aesthetic experience is disinterested in the sense of unqualifiable). Rather, the aesthetic is a source of political thinking, and political life in general, because it is only through aesthetic experience that one encounters a mode of valuing that is non-instrumental and not reducible to its use value. Indeed, aesthetic experience is that experience that annihilates our reliance on a sense of necessity; and it is precisely the annihilation of necessity – necessity being the concept that Arendt likens to the a-political qualities of the private and the social – which makes aesthetics and politics so intimately entangled for her.
Arendt’s politics of appearances, encapsulated in the quote from The Life of the Mind, thus speaks of the possibility of a life devoid of the force of necessity, and of things not having to go on as they have.
This is why she seems so resistant to the privative nature of the private, and the biologism of the social: what binds Arendt’s characterization of these entities (and I think it important to regard her use of these terms as characterizations and not descriptions), is their inexorable reliance on the force of necessity as sovereign.
For me, moreover, Arendt’s aesthetics of politics evokes the possibility of always having at one’s recourse the polemical claim that “this need not be”, that things need not continue in this way, that the continuity of any form of political subjectification is not necessary. This also means that the assembly of things – as they are at any one point in time – is not necessary in the manner in which an instrumental rationality demands that they must be. The possibility to admit of a resistance to necessity regards a curatorial disposition that attends to the sheer fact of appearance—of peoples, things, and events in the world. Such is the nature of Arendt’s politics of appearances.
In a short entry in her Denktagebuch from 1956, Arendt offers a gnomic reflection on Antigone:
Ad Orff, Antigone: Als sei alles darauf angelegt, uns zum Ertönen zu bringen. Wir aber verschliessen uns, verstummen und klagen nicht. Antigone- die klagende, tönende menschliche Stimme, in der alles offenbar wird.
Ad Orff, Antigone: As if all was set out to bring us to sound. But we lock up, fall silent, and do not lament. Antigone – the lamenting, sounding human voice, in which all becomes revealed. (Notebook XXII, February 1956, Denktagebuch)
The entry first caught my attention because while Arendt often refers to literature (favorite authors include Kafka and Rilke), she rarely refers to specific musical pieces in her published work. Here she reacts to the opera Antigonae by Carl Orff.
Orff had composed for the Nazis, who received his Carmina Burana with incredible adulation, and underwent denazification after the war. Antigonae of 1949 is a minimalist work, first in the everyday sense that it sets Hölderlin's translation of the drama to song with little instrumental accompaniment. In this regard it highlights the translation's inherent musicality on the level of form (rhythms and rhymes in the text) and content (we see how at a number of moments the drama turns on references to singing, crying, tone, and lament). Orff's opera can also be described as minimalist in the more precise sense that when the orchestra does emerge, it often plays looping interludes that remind one of the repetitive avant-garde phrasings that Steve Reich would popularize in the 1960s.
Arendt often turns to art as a free space in which to voice philosophical and political questions in the modern age. Readers compelled by her approach might be inspired by the entry on Orff to look for other passages addressing music that would compliment her better known aesthetic analyses.
At a local level, the entry also raises a question: how would Arendt read Sophocles's Antigone? Patchen Markell offers one suggestion when he links Sophocles and Arendt in a “countertradition of thought about recognition” in his book Bound by Recognition. Markell casts a skeptical eye on the equation of identity and justice and offers an alternative mapping which is open to asymmetry and values finitude. In doing so he suggests a possible approach to this entry that notices the uncanny relation of the “we” and Antigone through the instrument of the voice.
The first line of the entry starts with the “we”– presumably the spectators of the opera and perhaps humanity more broadly – and centers on the German term “Ertönen,” which could be translated as “to ring out,” “to sound,” “resound,” or “chime.” It indicates expression, and even a move to freedom. In the next sentence though, this potential for liberation evaporates and “we” fall silent. It ultimately fails at the possibility, even apparent necessity of “klagen,” a term which contains the powerful double meaning of 1) “moan,” “lament,” “wail,” and 2) “litigate,” “file a suit,” “go to law.” Unlike us, Antigone's voice does ring out, she does lament, and in her lament she takes on the law.
Arendt describes Antigone's voice as the “human voice,” but her description leads us to think in the direction of the questioning of the essence of the human in first stasimon (often referred to as the “ode to man”). Roger Berkowitz connects the deinon (wondrous / terrible) in this ode to Arendt's concern over the “danger that we might so fully create and make our artificial world that we endanger that quality of human life which is subject to fate, nature, and chance” in his article in The Fortnightly Review.
In terms of the question of recognition, Arendt's note on Orff draws our attention to those sections of the drama where Antigone pushes against the inhuman, such as when the guard describes her shriek at the sight of her brother's unburried body as “a distressing painful cry, just like a bird/ who’s seen an empty nest, its fledglings gone.” Later, she sings a long lament to her tomb and dead family, as if those who remain alive are nothing to her. The minimalist loops of Orff's music might indicate something of the energy that insists on living when one has nothing to live for or is even condemned to death. These sections are strikingly different from the over-the-top triumphalism of Carmina Burana, which hounds popular culture in movies and commercials to this day. They suggest persistence rather than victory, or perhaps even a paradoxical continuation in an explicit condition of defeat.
Antigone is the voice, Arendt tells us. We seem to recognize it as our own, even if the total meaning of the “all” that would be the content of our realization remains out of reach.
“Thinking is learning all over again how to see, directing one's consciousness,
making of every image a privileged place.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
“In solitude a dialogue always arises, because even in solitude there are always two.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch
In the back of a volume of letters between Louise von Salome and Rainer Maria Rilke, Hannah Arendt wrote in pencil: “253, 256, Einsamkeit.” On the corresponding pages, she marked out two passages from a letter from Rilke to Salome from January 10th, 1912. The first:
Can I, despite everything, move on through all this? If people happen to be present they offer me the relief of being able to be more or less the person they take me for, without being too particular about my actual existence. How often do I step out of my room as, so to speak, some chaos, and outside, perceived by someone else’s mind, assume a composure that is actually his and in the next moment, to my astonishment, find myself expressing well-formed things, while just before everything in my entire consciousness was utterly amorphous.
When he wrote this letter, Rilke had been alone for several days after the departure of a guest. He thanks Salome for her letter, and describes the comfort and enrichment he got from it. (He uses a strange and vivid simile about a single ant that has lost the anthill.) He only knows himself through others, and when left alone, he feels völlig amorph, completely formless. Arendt may be able to create two out of her own one, but Rilke makes Salome into a dummy “second,” to whom he addresses his private thoughts for the purpose of ordering himself in a way that only happens in the presence of others.
What I find interesting is the use of the word Einsamkeit by both Arendt and Rilke, who explains in the second marked passage:
I merely want you to know what I meant by “people”: not any forfeiting of my [Einsamkeit, here translated as “solitude”]; only that if it were a little less suspended in mid-air, if it were to find itself in good hands, it would lose all its suggestions of morbidity (that is bound to happen eventually), and I would finally achieve some sort of continuity within it instead of carrying it around like a pilfered bone from one bush to the next amid loud hallos.
Einsamkeit could mean the deeply personal and negative feeling of the English “loneliness,” the more neutral, artistic state of “solitude,” the intentional “reclusion” or (often externally) imposed “isolation.” Each of these options would give a different taste to Rilke’s letter. It is interesting and slightly odd that Arendt chose to bracket these two passages in her book, since they illustrate an instance of Einsamkeit which seems to contradict her ideas on that subject.
She makes a great deal of entries in her “Thinking Diary” about Einsamkeit (in these cases she clearly means “solitude” as a tool for thought), especially in the early nineteen-fifties. Arendt argues that we live our whole lives in plurality, either in public, in private, or in solitude. She defines Einsamkeit as “Alone with myself: thinking,” and writes, “In solitude a dialogue always arises, because even in solitude there are always two.” But even in the case of Verlassenheit, her preferred word for “loneliness,” she sees a positive: “Thinking or thought is the only positive side of Verlassenheit.”
In the case of Rilke’s solitude specifically, Arendt writes in her essay on his Duino Elegies that solitude is necessary for Rilke, given the transient nature of the world. We simultaneously are abandoned by things and abandon them ourselves, and this double act, active and passive, is known as solitude.
She argues that love is an exceptional emotion because it does not attach itself to only one person or thing, thus abandoning and being abandoned. In fact, according to Arendt, “love lies in this abandonment alone.”
However, given the way Rilke discusses his Einsamkeit in the letter, it seems that he cannot always put his solitude to good intellectual use as Arendt would like; rather, it owns him. It morphs into a loneliness he cannot control.
Rilke usually treasures his solitude; he wrote a dark yet reverent poem titled “Einsamkeit” in 1902, and the final stanza of his poem “Herbsttag” (also from 1902) is similarly comfortable in its loneliness:
Whoever has no house now, will never have one,
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restless, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Rilke, in his earlier poems, is able to relish his Einsamkeit, but in his letter to Salome of January 10th, 1912, he is not just alone; he is lonely.
- Louise Brinkerhoff
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.
In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
The re-election of Barack Obama is a milestone. Barack Obama will always be remembered as the first black President of the United States. He will now also be remembered as the first black two-term President, one who was re-elected in spite of nearly 8% unemployment and a feeling of deep unease in society. He is the black President who was re-elected because he seemed, to most Americans, more presidential, more trustworthy, and more likable than his opponent—a white, Mormon, representative of the business elite. Whatever you want to say about this election, it is difficult to deny that the racial politics of the United States have now changed.
President Obama's re-election victory and his distinguished service have made the country a better place. The dream of America as a land of equality and the dream that our people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—these dreams, while not realized, are closer to being realized today because of Barack Obama's presidency and his re-election.
There are some who don't see it that way. There is a map going around comparing the 2012 electoral college vote to the civil war map. It is striking, and it shows with pictorial clarity, that the Republic strongholds today are nearly identically matched with the states of the Confederacy 150 years ago. For some, this is an indictment not only of the Republican Party, but also of the United States. The argument made on Facebook and beyond is that the country is still deeply divided racially; that this election brought out the deep-seated racism underlying the country.
There is also the fact that Twitter apparently was awash in profoundly racist commentary after the election. According to the blog Floating Sheep, the worst of the racist commentary was concentrated in states that Mitt Romney won. Mississippi and Alabama were the states with the largest number of racist tweets on election night.
This could be evidence of a real racial problem. But I don't see it that way. Of course there are some people who are less trusting of a black President. But around the country, voters approved gay marriage, Latinos voted in record numbers, women swept into office, and we re-elected a black President to a second term. To see this election as a confirmation of racist intransigence is overly pessimistic.
Yes, Mitt Romney won the white vote, but he received 59% of the white vote; not exactly a landslide given that the country has real problems. Among white voters over 65, Romney received 61% of the vote. But among white voters under 29, he received only 51% of the vote, a sure sign of things to come. And the white vote was only 72% of the national vote, a record low. As David Simon writes in "Barack Obama and the Death of Normal":
The country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. ... This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.
This is all good news.
And yet, we should not celebrate too loudly. Race still matters in these United States. How it does and why is changing, and will continue to change.
Amidst the progress, one fact remains stubbornly true: black Americans still lag behind white Americans in metrics of education, employment, income, and success. Nearly 5% of black men are in prison in the United States, compared to 1.8% of Hispanic men and .7% of white men.
More than 70% of babies born to black mothers are born out-of-wedlock. When looked at honestly, the problem with race in this country remains stark. It is too big a problem to be swept under the carpet.
And yet that is what is happening. The Obama Presidency has not been kind to blacks. Here is how Frederick C. Harris puts it in the New York Times before the election:
[F]or those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.
Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in a rich essay published in The American Interest over the summer. He writes:
Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.
The housing bubble and its crash have disproportionately impacted black and Latino Americans, who most recently achieved the dream of home ownership. And the loss of jobs in manufacturing and public unions have disproportionately impacted blacks, since these were important routes through which black Americans have entered the middle class. The results for blacks in this country are harrowing. As Mead reports:
Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.
What is more, those national statistics like unemployment, exclude inmates in our nation's penitentiaries. Were we to add the 5% of black men in prison into those cumulative statistics, the situation would look even more perilous.
Mead's essay, The Last Compromise, is essential reading. He argues that race relations in America are marked by three main historical compromises. The first compromise, in 1787, is well known. Including the counting of slaves as three fifths of a citizen and the granting of slave states equal representation in the Senate, this original compromise allowed the country to emerge as a democracy without dealing with the obvious scar of slavery.
The Civil War led to what Mead calls the second major compromise on Race that moved the nation forward without actually granting rights to blacks. In the compromise of 1877,
the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes.
As Mead writes, this compromise was a disaster for blacks. And yet, there was some progress. Denied the vote and made second-class citizens in much of the country, and faced with continued violence and oppression, blacks could, nevertheless, work to create a small and thriving middle class.
The compromise of 1877 last about 100 years until, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a new compromise emerged. This compromise of 1977 brought with it desegregation of public institutions, affirmative action, the entry of blacks into government and civil service, voting rights, and the chance for success. But it came with a dark side. As Mead summarizes:
At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.
The election of President Obama shows the promise and the limits of our current state of race relations. On the one hand, black Americans in the middle and upper classes live in a society that if it is not color blind, is at least open to success, entrepreneurship, and leadership by black Americans. On the other hand, the misery of the black poor continues, largely invisible. This is not simply a racial matter, since it is poverty in general, and not only black poverty, that is ignored. There are many impoverished white people. But it would be dishonest to deny the racial components of poverty.
The 2012 election is a milestone. It proves that 2008 was not a fluke, and it shows that most of the United States will vote for the candidate they feel is better, no matter that candidate's race. This is an enormous achievement and one to celebrate. In many ways the future looks bright. But that is no excuse to refuse an honest confrontation of the problems many black Americans continue to have. President Obama has largely avoided the issue of race, for obvious reasons. It is time to insist that we bring the issue to light.
One good way to begin is to read The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead. It is well worth the price of subscription to The American Interest. It is your weekend read.