Originally posted on Middle East Policy journal.
For nearly fifty years Allen Ginsberg told readers and listeners that his efforts to change writing and society we’re ignited by the mystical visions he had in 1948, at the age of 22, in which he heard the voice of William Blake reciting “Ah Sunflower.” At the time he journaled: “I was staring out of the window when I saw a vast gleam of light cover the sky. The bowl of heaven was suffused with an eerie glow.”
In a 1965 interview published in the Paris Review Ginsberg gave the most explicit description of the visions. This time he said: “…suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.” Several other small published pieces briefly mentioned visions with a voice, but none before 1960. The Paris Review interview became the definitive version of the Blake visions.
1948 to 1965 leaves a mysterious and unexplained gap of 17 years from the days of experiencing visions in Harlem to his elaborated confession that he heard Blake’s voice. A gap that surprisingly has not been acknowledged or explained despite the massive amount of writings by and on Allen Ginsberg. What are we to make of this 17-year gap from a writer who famously documented everything?
While trying to learn more about the visions, I found something shocking and secret in Ginsberg’s archives. I found a letter from Dr. Worthing of Pilgrim State Hospital concerning the 1948 lobotomy of his mother, Naomi. Naomi had a severe chronic psychotic illness since before Ginsberg was born. She suffered from hallucinations and paranoia and was in and out of state mental hospitals for most of her adult life, receiving electroconvulsive and insulin therapies. Dr. Worthing wrote to Ginsberg, because after his parents’ divorce, Allen was responsible for Naomi’s care. Though he was only 22 at the time, the letter asked him to give the doctors consent for his mother’s lobotomy. Ginsberg signed the consent document and the lobotomy was performed soon thereafter.
When I found this letter in his archives, it was summer 1986 and Allen Ginsberg’s consent for the lobotomy had not yet been publicly disclosed. When I showed this letter to Ginsberg he paused in silence, looked down, and said, “Hmmm. That’s a very extreme thing.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I wonder to what extent there is a relation to my whole change of mind during that time, psychotic breakthrough so to speak. Because I had to do the signing for that.”
It was only six months after the lobotomy that Allen Ginsberg began to have visions. He was living by himself in an East Harlem apartment subleased from a friend in the divinity school. Ginsberg was single, gay but closeted, and apart from his friends. He hadn’t managed to fulfill his dream of himself as a writer. And he was trying to live with himself after authorizing a psychiatrist to cut into his mother’s brain presumably to save her life – a life that neither she nor he thought there was much chance of salvaging, given the horrible price that her chronic severe psychotic illness had already exacted.
His readings were a veritable syllabus in the literature of visions—William Butler Yeats, William Blake, St. John of the Cross, and other visionary literature that he found on the bookshelves in his Harlem sublet. But he wanted to be an artist, not a professor, and to descend from what he perceived as neurosis and too many abstractions. The visions offered that and more by turning him into a religious man.
Having visions allied him with Naomi and her misunderstood visions, but gave him a clear purpose. He was now a visionary poet whose calling was to write vision-inspired poems, salvaging her madness, and his own. He turned to literary classics on visions and tried to write his own allegories. Seventeen vision-poems from this time were later included in Gates of Wrath (1948-1949), published 25 years later.
But in addition to seeing the visions as an igniter of changes, I discovered how Ginsberg’s memory and representation of them from 1965 on came to differ from his original accounts. Thus the Blake visions were actually a consequence of changes made by Ginsberg well after 1948; changes in his approaches to madness, to writing, and to his role in society. Making those changes involved deep studying of visionary literature, composing scores of vision-poems, and unceasing correspondence with his supportive and challenging literary brethren.
It also involved his lock-up in the madhouse (the prestigious New York State Psychiatric Institute) and getting treatment, both inpatient and outpatient – another secret story that needs telling. Ginsberg knew from reading William James that psychiatry was likely to dismiss visions as hallucinations, and visionaries as being mentally ill. He felt that psychiatry did not help his mother, or for that matter, to try to understand her. Nonetheless, Ginsberg acknowledged that in those early years psychiatry helped him.
None of this fully explains the appearance of Blake’s voice after a 17-year gap. Nor how the changes in the visions came upon the heels of “Howl”(1957) and “Kaddish” (1962), side by side with his emergence as a poet-prophet. In his archives I found another letter bearing important evidence that could explain these changes. In June 1957, Ginsberg wrote a letter from Madrid to his brother Eugene. He spoke of his encounter that month with an extraordinary painting by Fra Angelica at the Muse del Prado: “the annunciation seemed the greatest painting I ever saw first hand – I’d vaguely remember it from life, or art books – but was not aware of its perfection – delicacy and solid bright centuries.” Ginsberg even crudely sketched the image for his brother to see.
The surprising meeting with Fra Angelico’s Annunciationi offered a model for revising the visions as an annunciation experience. From then on Blake’s voice was in the first place, like the doves and angels whispering into Mary’s ear, making it immediately obvious that Allen Ginsberg made a holy connection and was indeed Blake’s heir. This reimagined holy connection through visions, centered on Blake’s voice, was the central image that Ginsberg used to justify his role as a modern day poet-prophet. The dreadful links to Naomi’s lobotomy and Allen’s signature remained hidden behind myth.
This means that the Blake visions were not the singular transformative event that they have been made out to be for the public. Ginsberg’s tendency, and those of his chroniclers, to present the 1965 revised Blake visions as the original event, do not give full justice to the changes he made and the hard work necessary to achieve them. Nor to how his immersion in his mother’s madness and lobotomy somehow led to creating something powerful and sublime. Apparently the need for visualizing a dramatic event that encapsulated a completed foundation myth to justify Ginsberg’s role as a poet-prophet was greater than the messiness of a fifty-year evolving attachment.
Though Ginsberg may have sacrificed these truths of the visions, it was done for higher purposes. Beginning in 1948 and continuing throughout his life, Ginsberg used his experiences with visions to devise a radical new way of depicting madness not as a single unitary construct but in multiples: as a religious experience of ecstatic visions; as a psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia; as the experience of deviance of a mental patient, junky, or homosexual; as something that characterized the governmental and political forces that destroyed human souls, as manifested in the Cold War and later in the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. According to Ginsberg, madness not only has more than one meaning, but is precisely the point where reality and ecstasy meet, and thus is part of our humanity and should be embraced. By letting all the multiplicities of madness flourish in his art, Ginsberg could not only live with himself, but could give birth to poems that would powerfully challenge existing orders and remake the world.
Stevan Weine is professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of When History Is a Nightmare (1999) and Testimony after Catastrophe (2006).
It has come to our attention that an extended passage in Slavoj Zizek’s Critical Inquiry essay ”A Plea for a Return to Differance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua)” 32 (Winter 2006) was taken from a review by Stanley Hornbeck in American Renaissance of Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique. We deeply regret that this passage appeared in our pages without any citation of its source.
Given the source of the material in question, we emphasize that the passage was an expository summary of an anti-Semitic tract with which Slavoj Zizek himself profoundly disagrees. Zizek adduced this tract as evidence for a “new barbarism” in critical discourse. Critical Inquiry stands behind the point that the anti-Semitic screed is indeed barbaric, even as we regret Zizek’s failure to adhere to a baseline standard of academic discussion.
Zizek’s own statement:
With regard to the recent accusations about my plagiarism, here is what happened. When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book. (These passages are also taken over in Part III, Chapter 1, of my book The Parallax View.) As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another’s theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever; all I do after this brief resume is quickly dismissing Macdonald’s theory as a new chapter in the long process of the destruction of Reason. In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarizing another’s line of thought, of “stealing ideas.” I nonetheless deeply regret the incident.
High-stakes, standardized testing is to learning as:
a). memorizing a flight manual is to flying
b). watching Hawaii Five-O is to doing detective work
c). exchanging marriage vows is to a successful marriage
d). reading Gray’s Anatomy is to practicing surgery
e). singing the national anthem is to good citizenship
f). all of the above
On June 10, 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that current teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under California’s constitution.Vergara v. Californiawas cast as a group of poor kids suing the state to get rid of bad teachers under the banner of an advocacy group called Students Matter, a not-for-profit founded by Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch in order to bankroll his multimillion dollar lawsuit.
Vergara was immediately hailed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as an opportunity and “a mandate to fix these problems.” Give Arne Duncan credit for consistency: he called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it swept the slate clean and folks could just start over (never mind those black bodies piled in the corner), and in 2010 he applauded the school board in Central Falls, RI, the most densely populated and one of the poorest cities in the state, for firing every teacher, guidance counselor, and the principal at the high school because of poor performance. “This is hard work and these are tough decisions,” Duncan said at the time. “But students only have one chance for an education, and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”
Breitbart.com called the California decision a “conservative’s dream-come-true victory” over the unions, and cheered Welch and his supporters as “a long-time coalition of educational free-market supporters and privatization philanthropists, including the Gates Foundation, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation.” Karen Lewis, fiery leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, responded that the ruling had “the moguls drinking champagne.”
The link to Brown v. Board of Education was explicit in Judge Treu’s decision as well as in aneditorial in the liberal New York Times which acknowledged somewhat grudgingly that teachers deserve “reasonable due process rights,” but saluted the decision for opening “a new chapter in the equal education struggle.”
There’s trouble in every direction.
Because Judge Treu wrapped his judgment in it, let’s start with Brown, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and heralded the legal termination of racially segregated schools—it’s become an icon in the popular story America tells itself about its inevitable upward trajectory. On October 26, 1992, the US Congress designated Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated black schools in Topeka, Kansas, a National Historic Site because of its significance in the famous case, and the National Archives include several documents from the case in its digital classroom.
Brown occurred in the wake of World War II, in the wash of that reenergized sense of freedom. The decision followed incessant and increasingly intense demands by African-Americans that the country live up to the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment. And, importantly, Brown coincided with clear white interests that had nothing to do with black well-being: avoiding a revolution led and defined by subjugated African-Americans; transforming the feudal South and integrating it into a repositioned capitalist juggernaut; removing a blatant and embarrassing fact of American life that was being effectively wielded against the US in the escalating Cold War. White power needed Brown—but only a bit of Brown.
Brown was, importantly, the result of relentless action and activism from below—whenever I read an account that begins with something like, “As a result of Brown, America experienced a wave of activism for justice…,” I want to offer an amendment: “As a result of a wave of activism for justice, America got Brown…”
In any case the promise of Brown was not simply about ending segregation in public schools; the promise, rather, rested on a profoundly democratic aspiration—that all individuals will receive equal education and opportunity, and that each will be afforded full dignity and equal respect. The most radical possibilities of Brown are that the country might recognize black people’s full humanity, their complete membership in the nation. Ralph Ellison wrote at the time that “the court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship and another battle of the Civil War has been won.” Another battle won, perhaps, but not the last.
Brown embodies a fundamental, even a fatal, flaw that runs deep in the American racial narrative. The argument in the case turns on the specific harm suffered by black children and the feelings of inferiority that are a result of segregation, rather than the despicable, immoral, and destructive system of white supremacy itself. Black people—not racism—were the acknowledged concern; black pathology, however, not white privilege, became the focus of action. And the institutions of white supremacy live on: mass incarceration and massive school closings in black communities, home foreclosures which disproportionately erase black wealth and the gutting of voting rights for black people. On and on and on.
And so Brown, the widely celebrated and lofty statement of principle, was followed immediately by its lesser-known brother, the betrayer and assassin, Brown II, the implementation, or remedy phase, and here again—consistent with the long tradition of all things racial—the remedy fit neither the crime nor the injury. In fact Brown II gave the local school districts, the parties defeated in Brown, the power and responsibility to construct the solution—to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The fox—far from being banished from the hen house—was given the only set of keys.
“With all deliberate speed” turned out to mean “never.” The activity in the courts over the decades following Brown went decidedly south: racially isolated black communities were denied the right to draw students from adjoining white suburbs; children were denied the right to equal school funding; the concept of “neighborhood school” was reinforced and reified even if the result was re-segregation. School segregation is alive and well, more firmly entrenched than ever, and each year schools are more racially divided.
Monroe Elementary—that iconic temple in Topeka elevated as a National Historic Site—may as well be turned from a museum into a mausoleum: Here is one more place where African-American aspirations and struggles for decent and equal education were laid to rest.
With minimal imagination and a bit of thought the struggle for “equal education” and Arne Duncan’s “collective obligation to take action” might extend to include the impact of concentrated poverty on children’s health and well-being and educational opportunities, or the consequences of skeletal budgets, overcrowding, and school closings, or the failure of Brown to remedy what it claimed it would fix.
And now comes Judge Treu using the lofty language of Brown to attack teachers, but without a word about the reality of districts continuing to herd black children into unnatural, chronically underfunded and inferior schools, build ever higher walls, and no mention of the policy interventions championed by Duncan and the corporate “reformers”—things like the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, massive school closures and school “turnarounds,” the stripping of needed resources, and inadequate scripted and “teacher-proof” curricula—that have disrupted and hurt urban districts for years. As usual, white supremacy is hiding in plain sight.
Judge Treu’s decision is not an isolated event; it’s part of a pattern and an intentional strategy that begins by positing education as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screw driver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity—and schools as businesses run by CEOs with teachers taking the role of assembly line workers and students playing the part of the raw materials bumping helplessly along the factory floor as information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads. In this metaphoric strait-jacket it’s rather easy to suppose that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that once belonged to the public is a natural event; that teaching toward a simple standardized metric and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately-developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes,” is a rational proxy for learning; that centrally controlled “standards” for curriculum and teaching are commonsensical; that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior as a stand-in for child development or justice is sane; and that “accountability,” that is, a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on law-makers, foundations, or corporations—is logical and level-headed. This is in fact what a range of noisy politicians, and their chattering pundits in the bought media call “school reform.” And this is what Judge Treu just bought and affirmed.
The magic sauce for this reform recipe has three ingredients: replace the public schools with some sort of privately-controlled administration; sort the winners relentlessly from the losers—test, test, TEST! (and then punish)—and destroy teachers’ ability to speak with any sustained or unified voice. The operative controlling metaphor for these moves has by now become quite familiar: education is an item for individual consumption, not a public trust or a social good, and certainly not a fundamental human right. Management, inputs and outcomes, efficiency, cost controls, profit and loss—the dominant language of this kind of reform doesn’t leave much room for doubt or much space to breathe.
The forces fighting to create this new common-sense are led by a merry band of billionaires—Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, Eli Broad—who work relentlessly to take up all the available space, preaching, persuading, and promoting, always spreading around liberal amounts of cash to underline their fundamental points: dismantle public schools, crush the teachers unions, test and punish. When Rupert Murdoch was in trouble in the summer of 2011, it came to light that Joel Klein, a leading “reformer” as head of the New York City public schools for years (and whose own kids, of course, attended private schools), was on Murdoch’s payroll; according to the New York Times, the two saw eye to eye “on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors (the now-famous “lazy incompetent teachers”) should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed.” The trifecta!
And, of course, these imaginary reformers create a fictional opposition—in a flattering portrait of Arne Duncan in the February 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker the author claimed that in the contemporary school reform battles “there are, roughly speaking, two major camps.” The first he called “the free-market reformers,” the second, “the liberal traditionalists.” The reformers have the vitality and the energy, the big ideas and the grand plans, the troops and the momentum and all of the ready money; the traditionalists accept the schools just as they are, and they embrace the status quo as embodied in the colleges of education and especially in the big teachers unions.
This caricature leaves out a huge range of approaches and actors, including those who argue, as John Dewey did a century ago, that in a democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons), and so did Mayor Daley’s, Mayor Emmanuel’s, and President and Mrs. Obama’s children, where they had small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the farthest limits—oh, and a respected and unionized teacher corps as well. Good enough for the Obamas and the Duncans, good enough for us—and good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of Dewey, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”
Before teachers were organized, women were paid less than men, African-Americans were last hired and first fired, and teachers were routinely dismissed for their political opinions without any hope of due process. Fact: in those states where teachers are denied the right to organize, student achievement on the measures favored by the corporate group do much worse; fact: good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and good teaching conditions are good learning conditions—good working conditions can only be developed if teachers are collectively in the conversation.
The moguls may be drinking champagne, Breitbart and company may be having a late-night orgy, and Judge Treu may imagine himself a freedom fighter, but none of this is the last word.
Helen Tartar, in memoriam
If she had not been killed in an absurd traffic accident earlier this month, the great editor Helen Tartar would almost certainly be at a conference now, listening to papers, talking to authors and showing the latest books from Fordham University Press. She was a regular at ACLA and MLA meetings, as she was at the gatherings of the philosophers, the phenomenologists, the media scholars, and the religious-studies people. She was on her way to the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy meeting in Denver when she died. At these meetings, her calendar was always full. Many of our readers will have had the enlivening experience of telling her about a project or an idea and receiving in return a flash of enthusiasm and insight: her eyes lit up and her voice rose in the anticipation of what that idea could become if it were realized in all its potential glory. Whether or not one went home and wrote that book, whether or not one published it with Helen, that moment of intellectual warmth was not easily forgotten. It wasn’t a professional trick: she loved framing arguments and she loved tugging them into shape—a job for at least four hands. Being an editor was the full, but not the only, expression of her own powers. We at Critical Inquiry mourn her loss, a loss for American letters and for the worldwide circulation of ideas.
I first met Helen thanks to Cathy Caruth. Helen was visiting Yale, the site of her own graduate work in English and East Asian Studies, and Cathy had given her some names of people who were finishing dissertations and might have something worth publishing down the line. I had written only two and a half chapters by then and was nervous as a cat: a real-live editor coming to call? What was I getting myself into? I invited her to lunch and was so jumpy I broke a plate in the kitchen. She listened to me telling her where I thought the dissertation was going and asked to see a chapter. I sent her one, by mail, and promptly got it back with one of the most thoughtful letters I have seen, before or since, about the tasks of establishing my foothold, wielding my evidence, engaging the reader, moving things along. This attention was deeply flattering. She did not, however, flatter me as an author. “When I read this argument,” she said at one point in that first letter, “I felt I needed to take hold of it like a twisted sock and pull it inside-out.” The simile involving woven material—the sock—was characteristic of her as someone who wove and knitted and sewed. It was part of her daily regimen to untangle fuzzy strands and bind them to each other in structures of knots and empty spaces, so as to turn mere lines into planes and then into volumes, volumes that would maintain the warmth of a body when the garment was complete. She saw things in their intersections, ordinal and cardinal. I don’t remember if I did turn that argument inside-out after all, but I can’t forget the humor, the modesty and the forthrightness of her request. It wasn’t: “I think you could modify a little detail here and there.” But: “Even if you have all your elements in a structure, you need to completely invert and redirect every element of that structure, or you’ll be out there with one bare foot.”
On Helen’s tall frame, clothes that looked hand-woven and probably were of her own making made one think of self-sufficiency, a do-it-yourself ethos, a readiness to plunge into work with wool, cotton, metal, glass, and make something of it. It was the femininity Homer describes when he says of Athena that she took on the appearance among mortals of “a woman, tall and beautiful and skilled at making fine things.” As in the case of me and my sorry sock, her engagement with physical making gave a vivid immediacy to her way of taking hold of refractory intellectual issues.
I published a first book with Helen. Then came other books: a critical edition, an anthology, a book series, an as yet uncompleted book that she read and commented on as the chapters crept forth. Not everything I did matched her interests; some things I published with other editors; but I trusted her judgment and I prized her encouragement. We disagreed about some things, but as friends do. I liked to see the circle of people who had benefited from her attention grow and grow.
Helen had what some would call expensive tastes. I don’t mean diamonds and champagne. I mean that she thought it was important to commission translations of books from abroad—with a subsidy when possible, but to do it at any rate; and that she insisted on publishing the first books of younger scholars. To do this is an act of faith in the profession on the part of a university press, because most first books take a long time to earn back their costs, if they ever do. But without first books, careers will founder and the later books will never be written. To lessen the burden on publishers, Helen played a primary role in devising the Modern Languages Initiative, an agreement between the Mellon Foundation and a number of US university presses to support publishing first books in literary and cultural studies. To speak up for these loss-leading first books was an act entirely characteristic of Helen.
To take the measure of her determination, let us consider the role of a university press editor. In one way, these editors are powerful people, gatekeepers to the reward system of academia. They do the first reading, the triage, the consultation with experts, the developmental work a manuscript may need. They solicit the peer evaluations that result in books being accepted or declined. They present cases, i.e., manuscript reports, to a board, which judges and disposes. This power of theirs is however highly conditional. Unlike most of the faculty members who write the reports and vote on manuscripts, the editors do not have tenure or any of the protections of academic freedom. They have to reckon with budgets and sales figures. They must do the bidding of their boards, to whom they are finally responsible. Their power, even when used wisely, can always be turned against them by opinionated and better-protected faculty colleagues.
Helen used to tell me a story from her very first year as an editor. Some author was not listening to advice and she had written a Strongly Worded Memo laying down the expectations that the author was to fulfill. She showed it to her senior editor at Stanford, who recoiled in horror. He said to her: “You can’t write it like that. You have to understand, we editors are little girls.” Little girls?, she said, and I can imagine the young Helen reddening. University press editors, her senior editor explained, have no power to make anyone do anything. They can suggest and cajole, but they’re going to get in trouble if they start to command. – I have never thought of Helen’s as a little-girl style (quite the contrary: hers was confident and free), but she knew the narrow margin of maneuver an editor has. Aside from its imparting of professional wisdom, the story stays in my mind because of Helen’s hilarious parody of a large older man parodying a little girl: irony to the third power, at least.
Editors, then, if they are going to take risks, put themselves on the line. I found myself on the board of Stanford University Press at a moment when Helen’s priorities—critical theory, Continental philosophy, translations, and above all first books—came into conflict with the wishes of an extremely powerful administrator who later went on to roles of national importance (and who will be remembered for attempting to mislead Congress about the national intelligence estimate’s assessment of the likelihood of a terrorist attack in September 2001). That administrator challenged proposals Helen brought to the board, saying, “I can’t understand this stuff and I don’t see how anyone else is going to.” These exchanges were acrimonious. Helen tensed up. Her patience was less than perfect. But she held her ground and defended the kinds of books that she felt it was her mission, and Stanford’s mission, to continue to produce: difficult philosophy, inventive interdisciplinarity, counter-intuitive interpretations. Her defense of these things came at a high cost to her personally and, eventually, professionally. But I think Stanford has every reason to be proud of the dozens of titles Helen acquired or developed for them, just as Fordham can be proud of the list Helen built up in the ten years since moving to be their editorial director.
Helen kept her balance and strength through a steady engagement with the martial arts. I described her as a knitter but it would be unfair to leave out her qualifications as a swordswoman. The next to last time I saw her, we attended a dinner in honor of the global health care advocate Paul Farmer, who was to be presented with the “Sword of Loyola” for his social-justice work. The sword was a real broadsword, of steel, engraved, and heavy. After the presentation, Helen took it in hand, weighed its heft, and quickly made a few gracious passes. An archbishop leapt backward, startled. I wish I had caught it all with a camera. For in traditional Western imagery when a woman wields a sword, it is almost a guarantee that she is not herself, but an allegory: Justice, or the Motherland, or Truth. Helen, slicing the air with lateral figure-eights, was completely and comfortably herself. Maybe a Chinese martial-arts romance would have been her true home after all.
I would give almost anything to be calling up these moments of Helen’s life a few years hence at her retirement party or seventy-fifth birthday celebration. Instead, here we are baffled by the chance events that leave her life—a good life of dedication, courage and generosity—as an incomplete project. Who, I wonder, will continue it?
(This is the fuller text of a speech delivered on my behalf by Eric Hayot at the American Comparative Literature Association meeting in New York.)
 See Steven Strasser, ed., The 9/11 Investigations: Staff Reports of the 9/11 Commission (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), pp. 222-228. The common point of these two anecdotes: incuriosity raised to the level of principle.
Shortly after my essay (“Avant-Garde in a Different Key: Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind”) went to press, Kraus, whose work has long been neglected in the Anglophone world, suddenly found himself at the center of lively controversy in the press. The occasion was the publication in October 2013 of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Ironically, it has taken the attention of a celebrated novelist like Franzen to bring a great figure like Karl Kraus to the attention of our own literary/intellectual community. Or so we may conclude from the dozens of serous reviews devoted to The Kraus Project in the autumn of 1913. Most of these reviews—for example, Michael Hoffmann’s in The New York Review of Books– treated Kraus as a fascinating—but finally flawed—polemicist, whose virulent critique of the Hapsburg monarchy and especially of the media was perhaps too extreme—and certainly too local—to retain its satiric punch today. One notable exception is Eric Banks’s long and richly documented piece in Bookforum (Sept/Oct/Nov 2013).
Whether praised or denigrated, Franzen’s eccentric study can hardly be taken as any sort of beginner’s guide to Kraus’s oeuvre: it is much less about Kraus than about Franzen himself—his own progress as a writer, his studies in Berlin, his own withering contempt for the world of the internet and social media When Franzen compares Kraus’s dichotomy between the Germanic emphasis on literary content versus the French concern for form to that of the “sober” and “functional” PC versus the “cool” and “elegant” Apple, one feels that the author is being little more than frivolous. And it is never clear why The Kraus Project chooses, as its texts to be translated and annotated, the two youthful essays “Heine and the Consequences” (1910) and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912). The critique of the great German lyric poet for his excessive Francophilia is, to my mind, one of Kraus’s least successful literary essays; and the Nestroy essay can’t mean much to contemporary readers, who are not likely to have heard of the obscure nineteenth-century Austrian dramatist. But then, Franzen uses these essays only as the jumping off point for his own wild and whacky commentary, interspersed with glosses by the scholar Paul Reitter and the German-Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann.
There are fascinating aperçus scattered throughout this collage-commentary: Franzen is, for example, very perceptive about Last Days, which he calls “the strangest great play ever written,” and remarks, “At first glance, it can be mistaken for postmodern, since the bulk of its 793 pages consists of quotation; it’s unabashedly a play about language. Kraus maintained that, with the exception of the Grumbler-Optimist scenes and the verse fantasias, every line spoken by it several hundred characters was something he had personally heard or read during the First World War” (p. 257). Yet, Franzen argues, “what makes the play modern, rather than postmodern, is the figure of the Grumbler, who in most respects is indistinguishable from Kraus himself. His friend the Optimist keeps coming to him with fresh phrases of propaganda and journalism, trying to persuade him that war is a glorious thing and is going well, and the Grumbler aphoristically demolishes every one of them. . . His coordinating subjectivity is too central to be postmodern” (257). This description of the roles of Grumbler and Optimist strikes me as quite accurate but it is also the case that the Grumbler’s didactic summations become tedious–he is indeed Kraus’s mouthpiece—and undercut the play’s dramatic power. And since didacticism is hardly a characteristic of Modernism, my own conclusion would be that The Last Days is best understood as a postmodern work manqué.
The Kraus Project, in any case, is not likely to bring the Austrian writer a new readership: its technique—translation, commentary, commentary on the commentary by others—is too confusing, its conclusions about politics conclusions about politics too idiosyncratic. But I applaud the book’s publication because it has certainly succeeded in enlarging the discourse about Kraus’s writing, if for no other reason than that the reviews, responses, and letters to the editor have brought new facts to light. The most important of these is that there is a new translation of Last Days of Mankind. In November 2013, the British writer Michael Russell, whose career has been in television drama, responded to the ongoing discussion of The Kraus Project by posting the following on his website dedicated to Kraus:
1914 saw the start of the First World War and of Karl Kraus’s bitter, relentless and incomparable dissection of its progress. 11 November 2014 will see the publication of my full translation of ‘The Last Days of Mankind – Part One’ as an e-book on Amazon; that is to say the prologue, act I, act II & act III, with commentary (part two, acts IV & V, & the epilogue, will be published in 2016). Almost 100 years on this will be the first ever English version of Karl Kraus’s complete text of the play. The translation will be revised from the work-in-progress version used to provide the condensed material currently on this website; the commentary notes will be revised and extended…
I am happy to report that Russell’s translation is excellent—certainly the best I’ve seen to date. I only wish it had been available when I began my own work on Kraus! But now that it is here—and very accessible on line—I urge readers to take a look, especially at the scenes discussed in my own essay. It seems, then, that in time for the centenary of World War I, Kraus’s great war drama is finally going to get its due in the English-speaking world.
“2013 has been a challenging year,” said president Vladimir Putin in his New Year’s address to Russian citizens. “In the coming year, we have a lot of work to do for the prosperity and security of our citizens,” he continued, mentioning the recent suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd and flooding in the Far East. “We also have to ensure that the Olympic Games are held at the highest possible level.” The Winter Olympics, which are to be held in the subtropical city of Sochi in less than a month, are supposed to be a chance to showcase Russia’s economic growth, modernization, and openness to the world. The multi-year preparations for the Games, a ritual spectacle that puts individual bodies on display, subjecting them to intense scrutiny while metonymizing them as the collective body of the nation, have been nothing short of breathtaking. They have included the complete rebuilding of the subtropical city of Sochi, with massive relocations, the widespread use of migrant labor, and 14,000 runners passing the Olympic flame, starting at the Kremlin, spacewalking at the International Space Station, scuba diving with the torch in the deep waters of the semi-frozen Lake Baikal, zip-lining across Siberia, and boarding a nuclear-powered icebreaker on the North Pole. Yet it is a rather different traffic in bodies that put Russia into the international spotlight in the years preceding the Olympics.
In the summer of 2012, two members of the Pussy Riot collective received two-year prison sentences for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral. With limited access to the outside world while doing their time in prison, the Pussy Riot women missed a few momentous developments in Russia’s long 2013. On the eve of the last New Year celebrations, a new law banned foreign adoptions of Russian orphans among vague fears that, with these children, some kind of vital essence was being siphoned away from Russia by hostile forces. Soon after, a law banning “gay propaganda” was passed with overwhelming support, as public display of homosexuality was deemed detrimental to children and, more generally, to the health of the Russian body politic. Moscow’s government cracked down on illegal migrants, conducting street sweeps and forcefully placing them in makeshift detention camps. While denying citizenship to certain populations, the Russian state eagerly invited others—more desirable international subjects such as Gérard Depardieu and Edward Snowden—under its auspices. Finally, a new law punishing blasphemy with up to three years of imprisonment under the guise of protecting the “feelings of religious believers” was passed. A new post-post-Soviet strain of biopolitics aimed at strengthening the collective body of the nation seemed to have dawned.
An alternative form of corporeal politics also came of age in 2013: from Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike in prison to the artist Petr Pavlensky nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of the Red Square in a kind of somber self-sacrifice, these acts suggested the ways in which the body could also be used as a site of resistance. Finally, at the very end of the year, quite unexpectedly, a number of political prisoners, including Pussy Riot members Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, were released two months prior to the end of their sentence under an amnesty related to the celebration of twenty years of the Russian constitution. What was this unilateral release of prisoners meant to signify? Was it, in fact, unilateral, or was there a sacrificial logic hidden in this peculiar non-exchange?
In early 2013, I wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry that argued that the trial and punishment of Pussy Riot ended up acquiring a distinct sacrificial character, where the women’s bodies became a means of communicative practice, such as sacrifice, hierarchical discipline, and legal warning. I suggested that two distinct sacrificial processes were, in fact, at play: the sacrifice of Pussy Riot to various audiences and the sacrifice of the law itself, artfully maneuvered in the sovereign’s enactment of the state of exception. Observers also stressed ascetic denial and martyrdom, emphasizing Christian-like self-sacrifice, while others emphasized the ways in which Pussy Riot became an inadvertent medium for ritual action and communication between multiple actors. Pussy Riot’s bodies, almost inevitably, became appropriated and saturated with signification as they became objects of violence and, at the same time, sites of its vital resistance.
By unexpectedly granting amnesty to certain prisoners to show Russia’s benevolent face in advance of the Winter Olympics, Putin once again engaged in an arbitrary and selective application of law. As Carl Schmitt and Jacques Derrida showed long ago, forgiveness—as well as any amnesty, pardon, or grace—functions exactly as a sovereign exception. Forgiveness presupposes sovereign power, a superior position from which to forgive; it is indeed an “affirmation of sovereignty.” Pussy Riot were released under new amnesty laws that apply to the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, and mothers of small children who have committed minor crimes, including hooliganism, and whose sentence is less than five years. Altogether this was less than 2% of the population of Russian prisons.
It was not the fist time, however, that Nadezhda’s and Maria’s motherhood was invoked in public discourse. During the trial and subsequent parole hearings, many liberals who argued that Pussy Riot should be released did so not because they appreciated their performance (most claimed to find it morally abhorrent) or agreed with their views (which were too far to the left for most), but because they felt it was wrong to keep mothers of small children in prison. Most of Pussy Riot’s liberal supporters did not recognize their performance as political speech at all. Now, after the amnesty and the initial jubilation, the women were subjected to the same or even greater enforcement of gender than ever before. Strikingly, a poignant controversy erupted in the Russian blogosphere when it became known that Nadezhda and Maria did not immediately fly to Moscow to be with their children. Instead, they chose to meet in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk to discuss their plans to form an NGO intended to help political prisoners. The blogosphere exploded in laments and moral outcry, calling the women “soulless robots” and effectively withdrawing moral support for them. Only occasionally someone would question this approach, mentioning that if such a question had been asked about another famous (male) political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, released around the same time, it would have been seen as utterly absurd.
While liberals decried the fact that Maria and Nadezhda did not justify their expectations, the leftists had their own share of disappointments. They disapproved of the women’s admiration of Khodorkovsky, who, although he may not have deserved his 10-year sentence, remains for many a “slimy” oligarch, too close to power. The leftists declared that Pussy Riot made a joke of those who had made icons out of them, mentioning that during their first press conference at the liberal TV Station Dozhd’, Nadezhda looked not like a punk feminist, but as glamorous as an American top model. Indeed, days after her release, Nadezhda surprised quite a few of her fans by participating in a fashion photo shoot, advertising hip clothes by Evil Twin, American Apparel, and Glamorous, distributed by the company Trends Brands (who, as she later claimed, helped provide her with clothes while she was in prison, which she distributed to other inmates). In the meantime, the majority of the population remains slightly disappointed with Putin’s leniency, as they believe the women fully deserved to complete their full sentences, and then some. The time in prison and the amnesty, it appears, did nothing to change Pussy Riot’s essential illegibility across the entire Russian political spectrum. The sacrificial processes continue, but the victim, while remaining the medium, has not yet been destroyed.
 This past summer the opposition members synechdochally dubbed the Duma—the lower house of the parliament where all of these laws were passed with overwhelming support—the “mad printer,” evoking a hypothetical printer gone wild, spewing out laws without human supervision.
 Anya Bernstein, “An Inadvertent Sacrifice: Body Politics and Sovereign Power in the Pussy Riot Affair,” Critical Inquiry 40:220-241.
 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, pp. 58-59.
 Dmitrii Zhvaniia. “Pussy Riot opozorili levakov.” [Pussy Riot Disgraced the Lefties], December 28, 2013. http://www.sensusnovus.ru/opinion/2013/12/28/17688.html
Anthropology, Harvard University