“SWAEROES ten commandments”

Malavath Poorna, star of the 2015 biopic Poorna: Courage Has No Limit, scaled Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina yesterday, to become the “world’s first tribal woman to scale [the] four highest mountain peaks located in four continents.”

Pedro the airplane and Aconcagua, from Saludos Amigos (Disney and RKO Pictures, 1942).

At age 13, Poorna became the youngest woman ever to climb Sagarmatha (also known as Mt. Everest).  Now 19, she credits her success to the “ten commandments” of the Social Welfare AEROES (or “SWAEROES”) movement, following B.R. Ambedkar’s ideas to educate and empower marginalized and scheduled caste children.

The Swaeroes “ten commandments” are listed on the website of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society as follows:

  • I am not inferior to anyone.
  • I shall be the leader wherever I am.
  • I shall do what I love and be different.
  • I shall always think Big and Aim high.
  • I shall be honest, hardworking and punctual.
  • I shall never blame others for my failures.
  • I shall neither beg nor cheat.
  • I shall repay what I borrow.
  • I shall never fear the unknown.
  • I shall never give up.

(Apparently, an alternative route up Aconcagua, the Glaciar de los Polacos, was named after Konstanty Jodko-Narkiewicz, a Polish geophysicist and balloonist who led an expedition there in 1934.  Jodko-Narkiewicz studied cosmic radiation at different altitudes, contributing to what was then the new field of Raman scattering.  The early history of the Raman effect, and the emergence of Raman spectroscopy is a fascinating index of the politics of science in the 1930s.  Indian physicists C.V. Raman and K.S. Krishnan first reported the scattering effect in liquids in 1928, but the Soviet physicists Grigory Landsberg and Leonid Mandelstam had presented a paper on the same effect in crystals the day before Raman and Krishnan reported their first observations.  But the Soviets couldn’t independently verify their work to the Nobel Committee, which awarded   the prize for Physics to Raman in 1930.  Russian secondary literature continues to refer not to the Raman effect but to “combination scattering.”)

“not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil”

Borget European_Factories_at_Canton
Lithograph of Auguste Borget, “European Factories at Canton” (c.1840).

Martha Nussbaum describes how “the structure of the interaction between the text and its imagined reader invites the reader to see how the mutable features of society and circumstance bear on the realization of shared hopes and desires, and, in fact, on their very shape and structure” (199).  As an example, she gives an account of her own engagements with Dickens’s Hard Times:

As reader (a real-life reader, occupying for the present the role of the implied reader), I notice that the lives of factory workers in my own society differ in some ways from the lives of the workers of Coketown; in other ways, however, they do not differ as much as one might wish. I notice that access to divorce in my own society is easier and less class-divided than it was in the time of Stephen Blackpool; but in other respects gender relations and problems connected with marriage and the family have not changed. I notice that Gradgrind economics has an even greater hold over the political and intellectual life of my society than it did over the society known to Dickens’s characters, or to the authorial voice. And I wonder about this change, in connection with my interest in the novel’s criticisms of this norm of rationality. In all these ways and others, I am invited to think what should be, and to see how “men and women more or less like” myself (Dickens’s way, in the novel, of describing the people his characters encounter when they read novels) have lived differently from the way in which I now live […]

(“Reply to Richard Eldridge,”Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), pp. 199.)

(The post title quote is from the Penguin edition of Hard Times, edited by Kate Flint, p.71.)

” ‘mid the din of towns and cities, / I have owed to them”

Paraphrasing Wordsworth’s understanding of what it means to attend to ordinary experience, to renew the poet’s own and his readers’ “interest” in it, Richard Eldridge in Literature, Life, and Modernity writes: “The proper work of poetry is not simply the depictive presentation of a subject matter but rather the working through of feeling in relation to a subject so that genuineness of feeling is achieved.”

Ostrovrsnik Daydreaming
Jaka Ostrovršnik, “Daydreaming” (2014).

We worry that our feelings, especially those that fill our daily routines and prompt our ordinary lives, are not fully “apt to the object of attention.”  We miss meaning, fumbling insensibly with what could be our keys.  The worry is that even our most intense experiences are simply sensations, reactions elicited from things, not attentive responses given by human “subjects.”

(Eldridge turns again and again to “subjects” as a contrast to things, partly to contest theories that debunk subjects and subjectivity.  But here it seems like the language of “characters” or, in a Confucian register, “gentlemen,” might work, as long as these were understood as achievements rather than essences.)

“historically inflected philosophy by other means”

Cezanne Still life with Italian earthenware jar c1874
Paul Cezanne, “Still Life with Italian Earthenware Jar” (c.1874).

Is that what Manet and Cézanne are up to?  That’s what Robert Pippin explores in a lecture last year based on his recent book, After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).  When the face of Le Dejeuner sur l’herb looks out at us, or when the varying solidity of spheres spilling out of The Basket of Apples seems to weigh on us, what kind of challenge are they presenting?

The pear and jar in “Still Life with Italian Earthenware Jar” both seem to defy a stable height for the beholder.  It’s as if the jar resists tilting toward us if we rise up (on tip-toe?) to see into it from above: it has to be angled toward us, yet looking at the bottom, I can’t escape the feeling that it’s also tilting away from us.  Likewise, the pear seems pointed down, but as if the beholder is floating further up.  The conditions of our beholding a painting are usually understood to be a stable perspective: from a certain height and distance, our gaze moving within a cone from that point to the canvas.  Yet Cezanne (somehow) makes us feel our motion in front of a painting, leaning in or angling ourselves, caught halfway between behaving as if these were real objects (that we could move around and get a better or different view of) and behaving as if they were color patterns of some interest, from which we were entirely detached.

the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

lam visage cubiste-1939

Wilfredo Lam, “Visage cubiste” (1939), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

At what point do Cubism and the various early twentieth-century avant-gardes intersect with “real” history?  In the post-WWII, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq War(s) era, it can seem as if earlier experiments with genre and medium are a luxury the world can no longer afford.  Fredric Jameson, with characteristically two-edged irony, calls modernism “our classicism” — suggesting that our nostalgia for those wilder forms of abstraction and performance is motivated by a bad faith that at once preserves and entombs.  What do we today, multi-national and polyvalent as we are, have to do with attempts to get at the essence of painting, or ethnicity, or embodiment?

I started thinking about this question while reading Aimé Césaire’s “Avis de tirs” (“Gunnery Warning”) from Les armes miraculeuses (1946).  Is this poem surrealist?  Or, like Lam’s face above, cubist?  Some combination of the two or something new?  First of all, I’m struck by the way Césaire knocks all the conventional interpretations of Dalí’s overfamously oozing watches out of my mind:

délacent avant temps

le corsage des versus

et la foudroyante géométrie du trigonocéphale

pour mon rêve aux jambes de montre en retard

pour ma haine de cargison coulée […]

And in Clayton Eschleman and Annette Smith’s translation:

unlace prematurely

the bodice of bolts

and the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

for my dream with the legs of a slow watch

for my sunken cargo hatred.

(The Collected Poetry, 89)

Césaire, somehow suddenly, translates all of surrealism’s infatuations with dream-machine technology and its semi-profound speculations about time into a more historically concrete experience: the material legacies of colonialism in Martinique.  What can sometimes seem to be surrealism’s apolitical associative anarchy or, worse, reactionary escapism, fleeing in all directions away from what is right in front of your nose, here instead constellates, pulling together a set of phenomenologically rich images with a history of “sunken cargo hatred.”

And notice that the speaker is talking about “dream-legs” or a dream “with” the legs of a slow watch, not a dream of a slow watch.  Césaire’s watch is the form, not the content — not the material being worked on, but the practice of working.

Revolutionary planetaria

starry night shoes

Surely Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting is one of the top candidates for thinking about what Benjamin called “aura.”  It’s splashed on billboards, coffee mugs, buses, and shoes.  It’s used to clinch TV dramas about depressed artists and to sell movies about perceiving the world “differently.”  I’d really like to be sanctimonious and turn my nose up at this kind of savage commodification of a work of art, but what happens when, as in the case of the shoes above (made by Arkham Prints), the reference is to an episode of a show (Doctor Whoabout Van Gogh and not quite to the painting at all?

At a certain point, an image becomes so ubiquitous that it’s hard not to perceive the world through its filter.  When I look up at the night sky, all these images of starry nights (in variously distorted hues and shades) come clustering into my awareness.  Maybe stories of time travel and adventure become part of what I see in the constellations, but there’s also a nagging sense that I’m supposed to see “another realm.”  Other people’s notions of beauty and genius and mental illness, which I don’t often share, crowd into the way the moment means for me.

But imagining that I could cut away all these kinds of associations and confront the night sky alone, in rational or geometrical isolation, is also a fantasy.  In one of my favorite short pieces, “To the Planetarium” (1928), Benjamin warns that the ancients and the moderns look to the stars in very different ways.  Whereas modern astronomy, after Kepler and Copernicus, places “an exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe,” the ancients’ “intercourse with the cosmos” required “the ecstatic trance.”

Characteristically, Benjamin swerves from this seemingly nostalgic insight (i.e. “dude, those Greeks really knew how to stargaze”) to give a startling gloss on what it means to experience this kind of trance:

For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one without the other.  This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally (58).

For Benjamin, the spine-shaking experience of an ecstatic perception is inescapably social.

What does a life reveal?

holbein The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb_Detail

Detail from Hans Holbein, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1520-22)

Reviewing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Rowan Williams suggests it’s time to revisit the saint’s status as a “patriarchal villain.”  Augustine, Williams says, can be more to us than the source of the West’s deep structures of self-punishment.  Like Paul, Augustine created new ways of imagining another world, a better realm, beyond, somehow elsewhere but nearby, governed by other forms and practices of justice.

Garry Wills likewise points out what we would today call Augustine’s contributions to psychology and philosophy of mind, both of which Lane Fox tends to downplay in favor of a broad-stroke picture of late Roman culture.  From a modern point of view, it’s easy to read about Augustine or Augustinian ideas of original sin and see holdovers from late antiquity, but it’s much harder to read the Confessions without being struck by the entanglement of self and writing.  It’s a cliché to say that this entanglement feels “modern,” but I think this is a case where the cliché results from unthinking repetition rather than untruth.

William Franke argues that what the text of the Confessions has revealed to generations of readers is the process of “reading as revelation”:

[…] Augustine’s way of addressing God personally and questioningly provides what he is seeking by his very asking: for he asks that he be given to converse with God, to invoke and so to know him.  This self-validating conjuring of divinity by an apparently autistic linguistic act is tantamount to a discovery of God immanent within the self-reflexive faculty of self-consciousness in language. (The Revelation of Imagination, 239)

Brian Stock has also argued for Augustine’s invention of reading as a form of life.  Our acts of reading involve much more than passive reception or linear scanning.  We take signs as significant while also trying to keep open their potential for continuing (or changing) significance.  We want to pin down a meaning even as we want to keep open our experience of that meaning as something we could, sometime down the road, change our mind about.  There’s a creative integration at work in every act of reading we undertake, imagining the world of the words before us and testing the words we’ve learned by the measure of that new world.

But what happens if we compare the subject of the paradigmatic Confessions and shaping force on almost every subsequent would-be autobiographer in the West, with another, very different, sort of life?   With, for example, an anonymous anchoress who lived in a small cell adjoining St. Julian and Edward Church in Norwich for perhaps thirty years in the late fourteenth century?  (I happen to be teaching Julian this week, so she’s on my mind…)

The faithful from Norwich came to ask advice, but mostly they seem to have been seeking the comfort of knowing that someone could perfect a life devoted entirely to God.  Called “Julian of Norwich,” this anchoress’s Revelations of Divine Love are famous for suggesting that sins are somehow “behovely” (befitting, appropriate, or advantageous).  Like many strains of the Augustinian tradition, Julian regards vices as modeled on virtues: out of proportion or misdirected, but basically revealing important structures of our nature.

At the same time, like many later medieval responses to the Black Plague, Julian further regarded suffering from diseases and illnesses as a valuable source of knowledge as well.  Before she received her revelations, she had prayed seriously for serious, life-threatening illness.  Bodily dissolution and pain offered a way of imitating and understanding the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.

What happens to reading–and to the meaning of a life in writing–under these more (pardon the pun) excruciating conditions?

Three themes for (nonviolent) study and play


Folio from an early Qur’an (8th-9th c. BCE)

At a time when the delegate leader for the nomination of one the major political parties in the United States is blatantly and falsely tarring Muslims as violent extremists and social media is making it easier and easier to thoughtlessly advocate genocide, it seems worth remembering the bewildering range of ways that the Qur’an is present in our world.

Here are three examples.  First, I have no idea what to make of the progress of Dubai’s Holy Qur’an Theme Park.  Immersive faith experience?  Blasphemy?  Fun Fundamentalism?  (Would it fit in some strange subgenus with the kids’ activities at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky?)

Second: admittedly, I have a professional bias for books brimming with footnotes and scholarly commentary, but just hefting the weight of the new “Study Qur’an” (described breathlessly here by CNN and in more detail by Muslim Matters) belies reductive characterizations of Islam.  The commentary tradition itself, aside from its relation to worldwide practice, contains multitudes.  Fragments of one of the oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an were discovered just last year, stowed away, safely misclassified, in the collections of a British university library.  Even the complicitous orientalisms of Anglophone scholarship exist in multiple streams, fanning out into criss-crossing rivulets of appropriation, collection, dissemination, and–often overlooked–mutual transformation.

And, third, here’s a 2013 NPR interview with the author of Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.  As I read about what Jefferson may have learned about pluralism through his encounters with Islam (even as he may have owned Muslim slaves), I wonder how many of our public officials today would be willing to abide by Jefferson’s response to a would-be biographer who was attempting to pry a late confession from the Sage of Monticello.  In an 1817 letter to Adams, Jefferson writes (surely with one eye on posterity and one eye on Adams’ own pieties):

[…] say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my god and myself alone.  Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life.  If that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”  (The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester Cappon, 506)

On circumstances in which bears would be frightened

fuseli macbeth witches

Henry Fuseli, “Macbeth, Banquo, and the Witches” (1793-94), distributed by CC-BY 2.0 license.

Deep in the wilderness of his account of skepticism in The Claim of Reason (1979), Stanley Cavell plucks out two moments that, he says, might plausibly count as the beginning and end of philosophical Romanticism.  First, Cavell points to a particularly difficult scene from that particularly difficult philosopher Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (never completed but begun in 1753), and, second, to an infuriatingly self-assured generalization from a book full of them: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821).  In many ways, Hegel’s generalization summarizes and domesticates the wicked problems that Rousseau’s earlier scene imagines.  But sometimes paraphrase produces its own monsters.

Before we move on I should probably note that Cavell isn’t at all interested in policing the dates of the term “romanticism”: just the opposite!  (He describes himself at this point in his carefully eccentric text as “rummaging” around in these texts rather than “possessing” them.  Possession is what happens to him after reading Austin and Wittgenstein, Shakespeare and, perhaps, Blake.)  But he is interested in charting the family resemblances between these two texts and contemporary analytic philosophy’s approach to “the problem of other minds.”  Whereas we often tend to treat our knowledge of other minds as a (relatively) universal problem for epistemology or even neuroscience, Rousseau and Hegel in their strikingly different ways both present this “problem” as thoroughly entangled in history.  Roughly, we could say that Rousseau imagines “other minds” in a detailed (if speculative) anthropological context.  Hegel, as we’ll see, puts the experience of other minds in the context of much vaster timescales, tracking historical transformations in our rational categories from the ancient to the modern world.

Cavell calls our attention to the Rousseau’s attention to the dramatic and expressive dimensions of the “first” human encounter with an “other”:

Upon meeting others, a savage man will initially be frightened.  Because of his fear he sees the others as bigger and stronger than himself.  He calls them giants.  After many experiences, he recognizes that these so-called giants are neither bigger nor stronger than he.  Their stature does not approach the idea he had initially attached to the word giant.  So he invents another name common to them and to him, such as the name man, for example, and leaves giant to the fictitious object that had impressed him during his illusion.  That is how the figurative word is born from the literal word, when our gaze is held in passionate fascination; and how it is that the first idea it conveys to us is not that of the truth. (Quoted in Cavell, CR 466)

For Rousseau, the complex somatic, emotional, and cognitive response of fright “remains the basis of the knowledge of the existence of others; only now we no longer interpret the threat as a function of the other’s bulk or body” (466).  So a kind of existential fright is part of the history and grammar of our experience with others.  We had initially seen other humans as giants, then by later intellectual operations distinguished ‘reality’ from the ‘myth’ of giants, creating what T.S. Eliot called a “dissociation of sensibility.”  Our words for giants lose their attachment to our real fears encountering others, and our words for other people lose the somatic charge and perceptual distortion that came with the contexts where we learned them.  (Does this myth apply also to children, encountering adults?)

But Rousseau’s account has a further twist.  The fear here is also, Cavell points out, a matter of being “frightened by an expression of fright” (italics in original, 467).  The reason the “savage” invents a name common to them and to him is that the “giants” express fright also, “as if he were the giant, or anyway possessed of some form of the monstrous” (467).  Rousseau’s speculative anthropology reveals a wrinkle in our experience of the strangeness of “others.”  They appear as objects of horror, fear, and anxiety, but in addition–as it were, inside these feelings–we see horror, fear, and anxiety as responses to us.  The possibility that we could dig into our own present feelings so deeply that we extract truths about our “savage” selves, that we could mine our souls for truths about the past or about humans generally, is what puts Rousseau on the map of romanticism.  Hic sunt leones. 

By 1821, post-Kantian philosophy had developed various strategies for snaring the lions and no one more systematically so than Hegel.  In section 124 of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel is tackling the infamous “emptiness” of Kantian morality: subjective satisfaction (something like ‘personal happiness’ or ‘fulfillment’) has to be found in implementing “ends which are valid in and for themselves“–but this looks like awfully thin gruel as a motivation to do the right thing (PR, ed. Wood, 151).  But it’s misleading, Hegel says, to think of “subjective” and “objective” ends as mutually exclusive.  Even more misleading is the idea–very tempting within Kantian frameworks–to assert that, because a subjective satisfaction is present, then the objective end must have been merely a means.  In other words, if you’re getting pleasure from what you’re doing, it ain’t purely moral.  It’s this kind of fanatical (or hypocritical) self-policing that Hegel is attempting to find a way out of.  Just because you feel good about finishing a task (say, writing a paragraph or building an arch), should you suspect that those good feelings and not the merits of the task itself were your real motive?

Hegel answers that “[w]hat the subject isis the series of its actions” (151).  Your “real” motive isn’t something concealed in a secret, private intention (i.e. I really, really love the frisson of a finished paragraph or the balance of the last keystone dropping into place) that vitiates your participation in a more public good end (i.e. paragraphs persuading someone to vote for justice, or an arch completing a state-sponsored university).  Rather, the whole sequence of your actions, including the pleasure you take in participating in and completing projects with others, is what constitutes your intention: “if the series of the individual’s deeds are of a substantial nature, then so also is his inner will” (151).  With the scene from Rousseau in mind, we can see how Hegel is showing us something equally uncanny about a feature of our inner lives.  We usually think of our intentions in terms of present feelings: emotional dispositions we currently feel convinced of or compelled by, or else beliefs we can call to mind–beliefs that we take to be causing what we do.  Yet the sequence of our actions may turn out to express an intention far more plausible and significant for us.

To sample the complexities involved here, we might think about the way we discount many of the things Macbeth says about his intentions, however deeply felt and passionately expressed, because of what the sequence of his actions shows.  Two worlds seem to be competing as explanations of Macbeth’s motives: the primeval otherworld of the witches and the more modern (and creatively anachronistic) world of Jacobean political intriguing.  On the one hand, Macbeth’s “subjective feelings” are tragic because they are ultimately determined by the occult force of the witch’s prophecy.  On the other, Macbeth’s hemming and horror at his own deeds may actually be extenuating, because of course the baroque layers of political machination will catch and crush even the most scrupulous “prevaricator.”  Macbeth’s final fate is set by a pun, or by the minute registrations of pointless flexing against the interminable sequence of ambitions set up by monarchical sovreignty.

At a still higher level of abstraction, Hegel notes in an addition to section 124 that “the pivotal and focal point of the difference between antiquity and the modern age” is “the right of the subject’s particularity to find satisfaction, or – to put it differently – the right of subjective freedom” (Wood, ed. 151; Cavell quotes a different translation at 467).  The “infinity” of this right to subjective satisfaction (a version of my being happy about finishing this paragraph or that arch) is Christianity, what Hegel calls “a new form of the world.”  There are some particularly tricky moves in this passage where Hegel says that this satisfaction is “just as much identical with the universal as distinct from it” (152), but Cavell pinpoints the way that Hegel is starkly historicizing the concept and the experience of subjective satisfaction.  Somehow, Christian and/or post-Christian history is a sequence of “concrete expressions, shaping, of this right” (468).

Setting aside Hegel’s here-unargued attribution of the “universalization” of this right to Christianity, Cavell uses the possibility of this kind of massive historical transformation–a mutation of human agreements about what counts as satisfying, even of our sensation of what is satisfying–to ask about the possibility of something he calls, after Wittgenstein, “soul-blindness.”

(Wittgenstein explores the possibility of “aspect-blindness” in Part II of the Philosophical Investigations: the idea that, as in the diagram of a triangle that we might see as a leaning mountain or as a three-sided hole, we might see all there is to see but still have to learn how to see it in a new way.  And the related possibility that we could forget a way of “seeing-as.”)

Can a new form of civilization really replace another?  “In particular,” Cavell asks,

is it being replaced by one in which nothing that happens any longer strikes us as the objectification of subjectivity, as the act of an answerable agent, as the expression and satisfaction of human freedom, of human intention and desire? […] They would not (any longer) be human.  They would not, for example, be frightened upon meeting others – except in the sense, or under circumstances, in which they would be frightened upon encountering bears or storms, circumstances under which bears would also be frightened.  And of course particular forms of laughter and amazement would also no longer be possible, ones which depend upon clear breaks between, say, machines and creatures. (468)

Where is Macbeth on this scale of fright?  Does he experience the frightened recognition of fright of him in the forms of the witches’ grasping hands?  Or does he simply register surprise, like the armored, almost robotic or ghostlike Banquo?