5.18.2009

Respondez!

Monica just posted a link to a really engaging talk she gave at UCLA (introduced by Eric Sundquist!--awesome).  The talk is clear and focused, and not derivative, but original.  It's important to listen to the entire thing, but I found myself so riveted by an early passage that I went back and forth between pause & play for ten minutes transcribing it.  Monica is speaking about the problems of representing trauma (the Holocaust in particular), alluding to the twin problematic facts that silence may be ethical, but also inadequate (we may forget if we do not speak)... and that representation, even the carefullest kinds of poetic expression, have an unavoidable way of "staging themselves" (my language) between us and the original traumatic event.  That is, representation may ultimately be distancing.  So the problem is, what are we to do with some collective traumatic experience like the Holocaust?  Monica will argue that the impulse toward midrashic response may be a kind of narrow "way."  Here's the part that had me glued to my speakers.  Monica said,

Literature cannot but witness the origin from which it comes, but it may or may not take cognizance of these origins. In the case of collective trauma, the midrashic impulse reveals a more ethical mode of responding to tragedies.  I suggest that the midrashic mode is more ethical because it sidesteps the potential pitfalls of representation (which always claims to know) by relying instead on extensional logic, which implicitly acknowledges the convergence of what can never be known or understood and the imperative that we have to continue to try.

In just the comparison of the midrashic mode to the literary/representational mode, Monica has already created the premise of an argument worth listening to.  I hope I'm not wrong to suggest that Monica understands midrash as being a kind of narrow and tenuous path between silence and narrative, and to identify the point about "extensional logic" as being a key part of the foundation of her argument.

But I'm most struck by the very last half-sentence of that excerpt: "...the imperative that we have to continue to try [to know... what some trauma was like, psychologically/historically]."

I don't have a counter-argument for any of this, but I am drawn to the distinctions that Monica is making.  I have some questions, the kind I would've asked if I had been the only person in Monica's audience on the day she delievered the talk:

  1. What is it that creates the imperative to keep trying?--the magnitude of a trauma?  Its uniqueness?  The "depth" of the tragedy?  What would happen if we stopped trying?
  2. It seems to me that there is a danger in turning to "extensional logic" that I think would be opposed by "revelatory writing" (or something like that).  Is there a risk that we become mired in history at the expense of the present?  Remember Emerson's first words: "Our age is retrospective.  It builds sepulchres of the fathers.  It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face."  [Emerson's "God" here may be interepreted as just "other people," and I include this excerpt as a direct challenge to your inclusion of Levinas.  I've always read Levinas' "other" as a living being, and the "Face" as existing in the present, not in the past.  What if these claims conflict?  What if the inconsistencies of history make us choose between being responsible for our living neighbors and our dead ancestors?  It seems you're making victims of the Holocaust into "neighbors" for whom we should/must be responsible.  Hmmm....  thoughts?  Or are you saying that our midrashic response may encourage midrashic response from our living neighbors?]
  3. To turn to midrash in the wake of the Holocaust has the effect of turning the Holocaust into a kind of "holy text" -- isn't that problematic?: the Holocaust as G-d's latest prophet?
  4. You say later in the talk that 20th century language and theology have been inadequate.  What would adequate look like?  Is joy any more capable of being adequately communicated?  Or even something as mundane as the ennui of the French existentialists: do Camus' essays/stories/plays do an adequate job?  Could midrash have helped Camus to express his angst better?  In other words, is the problem of representation that you have identified not limited to responding to atrocities?
Listeners at home, feel free to play along.  And it case this response hasn't made it clear: great  job, Monica!  Excellent stuff.

9 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Yes, I agree with Casey, great job Monica! I was drawn to the discussion of representation and ethics--especially your/her stressing (to write to the other and the third at the same time! But who is who?) how "speech cuts across vision"--or, to translate into Levinas's other dialects, how ethics precedes epistemology, how sociality precedes consciousness. I like how he puts it in "The Thinking of Being:" "this ethics is not understood as the corollary of a vision of the world, or as founded upon being, upon knowledge, upon categories, or upon existentials" (120-121). Hearing is non-believing (resisting Being's plasticity).

I've been reading/writing Levinas's (on) Talmudic lectures quite a bit recently. I think his theological writings provide a neat way to think about writing otherwise than in its traditional-classical-Enlightenment forms. So, I would say Monica's point about "animating the statue" holds true for all representation (aesthetic and otherwise)--Levinas urges the need to put knowledge into dialogue. The "good" of anything is not solely tied to its truth value, but rather to the possibility of engaging my thinking with others.

Casey, as to your question of why we can't stop trying, here's a passage from John Wild:

In a living dialogue and even in a written monologue of many volumes it is more important to find out who is speaking and why, than merely to know what is said. We do not need to know the other person or thing as he is in himself, and we shall never know him apart from acting with him. But unless we desire this, and go on trying, we shall never escape from the subjectivism of ours systems and the objects that they bring before us to categorize and manipulate. (18)

Given the historical realities of the 20th century, I think the threat of subjectivism (interiority--on a personal or social level) are clear.

On a more philosophical front, in OTB Levinas repeatedly stresses that Being (the said) always emerges as a betrayal (the saying). We have an obligation to acknowledge this betrayal--this is the ethical obligation--taking responsibility for Being's betrayal of the otherwise infinite.

Of course, you've heard me spit this stuff before--I'd be interested in Monica's response!

Casey said...

I can't think of a single atrocity of the 20th century that was caused by a surplus of "interiority." Instead, all of the most heinous violations of justice in the last century grew out of direct engagements with the social. The masters of the subjective in the 20th century were undoubtedly Eliot, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Joyce, Woolf, Pound (and their imitators: Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, etc.). Hardly a bunch of tyrannical fascists.

Wrangler -- what kind of ethical status do you give to something like Yoga or meditation, both of which are techniques of self-discipline? Do you consider those "disgusting anti-social aberrations" or something?

But yeah, Monica... put an end to our bickering. Wrangler and I never have company at this table anymore.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I do take an issue (albeit a small one) with the ways in which Modernist poetry/prose (aesthetic) represses common readers by hypostatizing its audience into the ideal reader. But that's not here or there.

What's really interesting to me, given the amount of philosophy (primary and secondary) I have been reading lately, is that our debate between the poetic and the rhetoric is a bit absurb. I say this since philosophy tends to repeatedly lump us together--(though while they will often forgive the aesthetic for its artificiality, they will not forgive rhetoric for its ruse).

And I have noticed how I repeatedly, in my posts to you, frame your approach to literature in the philosophical (a Modernist approach) or in the absolute individualism of the Romantics.

Interiority becomes dangerous once it involves a relation to other people--whether it attempts to cleave that relation (Emerson, Thoreau) hierarchize it (Plato), or ignore it. Yoga doesn't involve a relation to others. But literature always does--or at least, it suggests an orientation toward others (the relationship between author, voice, character, text, audience, context, histories, etc).

In his theological writing and thinking, Levinas stresses that "meaning" is always caught up in the social--that something doesn't mean something until it "means" to more than one. And here I could do something playful and poststructuralist and annoying with the multiple meanings of mean (average, malicious, beggardly, excellent). But I'm just not in the mood.

Maybe we should post these comments on Monica's blog?

Monica said...

Hehe...I just saw this. I'll be back later to respond!

Casey said...

I think you're onto something, Wrangler -- something about philosophy... it does form an interesting "third" to our apparently dialectical approaches: you take the path of rhetoric, I take the path of literature, and philosophy stands aloof, shaking its head at both of us?

Only I think that's giving philosophy too much credit. Gretchen's reading Proust right now. Did you ever hear about Proust--about how he was going to write philosophical essays, but couldn't find the right manner of expression, and finally turned to narrative? The same evidently goes for the likes of Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, etc. Given his themes, it's astonishing that Dostoevsky didn't write any significant philosophical essays.

You used to say "the medium is the message," and I finally grew convinced that you are precisely right... so when I see three different media (theory/rhetoric essays, literary narratives, and philosophical treatises), I see three different messages. I can't account (yet) for why I approve of the message of literary narrative over and against the rhetorical and the philosophical, but I am happy to have discovered as much. And to have discovered that I'm not alone.

Incidentally, I spent much of the introduction to my dissertation talking about literature vs. philosophy... the best I could tell, my objection to philosophy was based on its difficulty dealing with temporal sequences and the (dis-?)continuity of identity. That and philosophy's difficulty when it comes to ineffable experiences.

On the first point there, a post from my old blog might be of interest to you:

http://vivenza.blogspot.com/2007/09/on-criticism-literature-and-forgiveness.html

As criticisms of philosophy go, it's about the best I have to offer.

I'm still working on my critique of rhetoric -- I hope you read my post on Gorgias last week.

Anyway.... this is why we shouldn't post these comments on Monica's page.

Let's get back to hearing her out.

Monica: GO!

Monica said...

Thanks for this post, Casey. It's great feedback for me, especially considering the discussion between you and Wrangler. Okay, so let me try to address the questions you raised in your initial post.

You ask:
1.) "What is it that creates the imperative to keep trying?--the magnitude of a trauma? Its uniqueness? The "depth" of the tragedy? What would happen if we stopped trying?"

Well, both Elie Wiesel and Maurice Blanchot have famously remarked "Never forget, and yet never will you know." And while this idea has become completely pervasive, I think it's a lot more profound than people realize. When it comes to the Holocaust (the systematic extermination of millions of people, as well as the consideration of each individual death). What's important is what's between the "never forget" and the "never will you know"--the tension that is created when somebody knows they have a responsibility to remember but is not arrogant enough to presume they know the story. And maybe that's what enables us to keep trying--the awareness that no matter how many Holocaust films we create (for example) we will never get it right. The imperative to keep trying is also about ethical responsibility--I think there is something to be said about being responsible for the memories of the victims of the Holocaust, but we must also become responsible for educating people so that it doesn't happen again. But there's still a huge debate--some think that by suggesting that we'll never know we are mystifying the Holocaust in a way that makes us forget that it was perpetrated by humans. Others say that presuming "to know" is an audacity, an arrogance that serves to minimize the undeniably unique aspects of this particular genocide.

In terms of what would happen if we stopped trying...well, it will mean we have forgotten. Or it will mean that we are on to talking about the next tragedy/genocide. I don't know.

Monica said...

2.) First, I don't know what you mean by "revelatory writing," particularly in the suggestion that it is opposed to extensional thinking/writing. You may have missed my meaning--which would not surprise me given the fact that before my lecture a 25-pg essay was circulated, whereas at the talk I just summarized.

Okay--extensional logic doesn't really have anything to do with the past. Rather, it's a simple taking into account of the sources/events/texts that precede the current. Representation vs. Extension is like saying Metaphor vs. Metonymy. Does that make more sense? It's a theoretical approach that is not about the historical.

Levinas's "other" is a living being--you're right. But Levinas also advocates midrashic reading/approaches himself. His later work is very much focused on this--responding to gaps in a primary text (Torah/Talmud) and making sense of them in the context of the contemporary era. He shows us how these texts/events extend into the present, even as they change shape/form.

You ask: "What if the inconsistencies of history make us choose between being responsible for our living neighbors and our dead ancestors? It seems you're making victims of the Holocaust into "neighbors" for whom we should/must be responsible."

Being responsible for Holocaust memory is very much about being responsible for our living neighbors. It is also about remembering the ways in which the Holocaust is a supreme example of the breakdown of ethical responsibility in our era--neighbors in a civilized country literally killing their neighbors. Why should we not forget? Because it will happen again.

But in terms of my work--I find Holocaust representation to be, so often, arrogant and gross. Watch Claude Lanzmann's SHOAH if you want to see the ultimate example of the midrashic impulse. 9 hours of survivor testimony and not one archival image. It's as bare as you get, and yet it's heralded by most scholars as the most powerful document about the Holocaust.


3.) I get this question sometimes! There is nothing sacred about what I am referring to. I take a sacred term ("midrash") OUT of its sacred context. I am simply using the theoretical structure of Classical Midrash. So...there's no direct analogy between the Holocaust and the bible.

I see the creators of midrash using extensional thinking (not parable, for example), and I think it's a mode that works well for talking about trauma.

4.) What would adequate look like? Haha...that's a great question. Nothing will be adequate. Like Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben say--the one who has the true story, the true account of the horrors of the Holocaust, is drowned/dead. Not even the survivor has the authentic story. The authentic/complete witness is dead. So we try, because we must, to get as close as we can to the horror. Remember, the Holocaust is an event with no witnesses, so what will be adequate?

Okay, I'm going to take a break and come back later :)

Casey said...

Those responses are most excellent, Monica -- and as I tried to imply, I didn't find your talk anything but clear. Sometimes I just feel like asking questions to allow a well-informed speaker to educate me a little more.

I find myself still a little drawn to the "banality" argument... I can't really account for this. I guess the idea of comparing horrors -- which, of course, isn't the intention when referring to the Holocaust as a superlatively evil event -- I guess that ensuing comparison, where the Holocaust trumps the genocide in Darfur because of... (and then fill in the blank -- sheer numbers, ethnic considerations, etc.)... that whole thing just makes me want to ask, "What about one person in Charlotte who got murdered last week?--can there ever be an adequate representation of that death?" But I don't really think this takes us anywhere. I know we've talked about it before, and frankly, I don't feel very passionate about my position...

All rewardingly thought-provoking, as usual.

Monica said...

Casey--

In terms of comparing one genocide to another--it should never be done. The loss of one human life does not outweigh or become more than the loss of another. In the same way, the collective loss of the Holocaust is not somehow worse than the genocides of Darfur, Rwanda, or anything else. It's just the mechanization of evil and all that--the fact that this was state sanctioned by the most "civilized" nation of the world--that forces us this time to look at it and think about what it means universally. And the fact that Jews as a culture tend to be fairly well educated and scholarly meant that there were more people who survived who had the skills to write/philosophize/theorize about what happened.

But your question about whether the death of one person can be adequately represented--I would say no. Perhaps the same ideas apply.