March 30, 2008


"How does a collective deal, finally, with its vulnerability to violence? At what price, and at whose expense, does it gain a purchase on 'security,' and in what ways has a chain of violence formed in which the aggression of the United States has wrought returns to it in different forms? Can we think of the history of violence here without exonerating those who engage it against the United States in the present? Can we provide a knowledgeable explanation of events that is not confused with a moral exoneration of violence? What has happened to the value of critique as a democratic value? Under what conditions is critique itself censored, as if any reflexive criticism can only and always be construed as weakness and fallibility?
Negotiating a sudden and unprecedented vulnerability -- what are the options? What are the long-term strategies? Women know this question well, have known it in nearly all times, and nothing about the triumph of colonial powers has made our exposure to this kind of violence any less clear."

--Judith Butler, Precarious Lives

Philip Gourevitch's and Errol Morris' New Yorker piece, "Exposure" -- about the army m.p., Sabrina Harman (above) -- presents the psychic fissures introduced by an unbearable intimacy with human violence. Once upon a time, some of Harman's photographs of Abu Ghraib were the momentary talismans of imperial destruction; U.S. torture exposed. Now that acts which shock any conscience worthy of the name have become the lawful prerogative of this state, the images are no longer shocking, no longer indicative of anything that can be addressed as an "issue" for reckoning.

The forms of cruelty her photographs, among others, brought to light have receded into the realm of the historical facts of the war (still being) waged. They have dissolved into the long disquisitions on the ways modern man, from the Inquisition to today, abuses the human. Those photographs are ready relics of what seemed at the time to be the excavation of ruined civilization.

But by presenting the eye that saw, the woman who worked along the edge's of Abu Ghraib's systemic chaos and destruction of human beings, the horror that the "issue" of torture deflected is finally introduced. (Morris, who presented so insistently the internal deceptions and categorical divides of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, has made of film of Harman called Standard Operating Procedure). The horror is that Harman participated without being able to process the implications of her participation. The camera seems like her last defense, a device of transference with which to work through the wretched. For whatever decency she exudes in the conversation with Morris and Gourevitch, she participated in the military's brutalization of men, women, and children in that prison.

And still, her conscience was shocked. She also photographed the violence there with the aim, she says, of giving it an afterlife; of creating an indicting residue of the policies that operated as the standard reduction of human beings to soft targets. And still, she does not see the impossibility of simply showing, or simply getting close to the carnage as a recorder. So she participates (to a degree) and protects her fellow soldiers, and then, like a form of flinching, places a camera before her conscience and the crime.

And when she appears in the photographs, there is the same defensive gesture -- the sweet sign of open, youthful enthusiasm; a willed innocence, a tactical naivete -- no matter the proximity to death.

The theme of "forced" participation in cruel policies saturates "Exposed." From an American perspective, the effects of that participation is where the horror of torture will have to be rooted if there is to be any recognition of the stakes. In this way, the article by Gourevitch and Morris will offer the temptation of a moral exoneration of Sabrina Harman. For she is certainly negotiating a sudden and unprecedented vulnerability. But the determinations to come, the struggle for which will be, one expects, the intellectual nerve-enter of Morris' forthcoming film, is how the individual is to be armored with the recognitions necessary to withstand the participation and dissolve immediately the defenses against the vulnerability.

March 17, 2008

For the time being, I return

The day dawns with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed -- my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy --
I towel my shaven lip and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man.

--"Mirror in February," Thomas Kinsella

The secret of movement
Is not the secret itself
But the movement
Of there being a secret.

For example, the movement
Of an accordion which closes
On one side and opens
On the other.

Or your folding one arm
Against your pushing body
At the turn towards waking
Which is the full length

Of your dream. When
You look at me as a man
May look, it is like a break
Of real sky where one branch

Crosses its fellow, a brown leaf
Taking September into
A brown stone, or green
Under green, grass below trees.

You ask the differene
Between a green shadow
And a brown one? Here
Is a green answer.

I can only say
I feel that green shadow,
That short, morning shadow,
Through and through me,

With a sense of hair in a coil
Recoiling from the fingers
That held it, smoothing
Its darkness till it would seem

Like whatever it is furthest
From, one of those blonde
Napes velvety as leaves
With the tip pointed towards you.

By now you will have painted
The first of the sea fresh-staring
Yellow and changed its name.
So that now I always hear

The sea in the wind, though
I like a wind in which
You hear the rain, however moist
With breath its mask may be.

And after last night's rain
I actually dreamed of you,
Falling asleep for that
Wild purpose, seeing

Your face through the floor
As all the light left
On the flat of a hand.
I wish they could hear

That we lived in one room
And littered a new poetry
Long after both doors, up-
And downstairs, shut.

--"The Time Before You," Medbh McGuckian

It has been for so long a date on the calendar filled with only the glib charms and silly rituals. But this year, before the fire and with the whiskey, the memories were conjured in their cluttered, clustered constellations, the will-to-see making them flicker, uncertain but there, against oblivion: Glendaloch's "ancient" status like a lesson, the deprivation necessary for faith and existence there, in a cell of cold, wet stone, there twelve hundred years before Kierkegaard; the side streets that rise and wind off Grafton where as many mornings as possible there was coffee in the same modern cafe; the Long Hall on a summer Sunday night, the house lights not dim, with noone hidden in any shadows and the talk quiet despite the full room; the dusk walk alone, away from the others, between Ennis and the famous cliffs, with grass and stone fence, the wind carrying high into the air the voices from a small red fishing boat, next to which a big, blackish dolphin arched out of the water; Belfast seemingly empty at night and the sun seeming to hang in the air all evening; a northern seaside town with one taxi, its lone place to drink the tiny, yellow foyer of a man's house--twenty or so packed in there, glass held high under the chin to keep it out of the small of a back, tipped almost sideways; a Pauline, a Polly; sheep and space; a hotel bar in a town I will never find again, serving me a pot of coffee and a piled plate of wheat toast in the morning before they had even opened and there reading the paper as if the news of that world were wholly elsewhere. How many pricks of the remembrance can be built this way, with the effort increasing, those hollow images and taste-like sensations overlapping as shadows that, if colored, are rightly green and brown? Yes, littered poetry in the wake of having lived, and yet for all that, not at all made whole.

March 4, 2008

Promises and Prophecies

"There would have been no Jewish refugees had Israel lost the war [in 1967]. . . . There would have been two million corpses added to the six million Holocaust victims. [No] individual who lived in Israel in the days between 25 May and 5 June can ever forget the atmosphere of devastation which hovered over our stressed and pressured country . . . surrounded and besieged . . . bombarded day and night with prophecies of the approaching end."
--Israel Foreign Minister Abba Eban, June 1967

In the week when the IDF's exercise of force killed 116 in Gaza, the Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai warned that continued Hamas attacks on southern Israel would result in a bigger "Shoah" for the Palestinians, "because we will use all our might to defend ourselves."

Vilnai's use of the term became an irresistible reference when rightfully decrying Israel's military response to the barrage of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza. It seems certain from the context, however, that Vilnai did not make a direct reference to the Destruction of European Jews, but simply to a disaster brought on by Israeli military might. Of course, it is also true that there is no simplicity in the ways the term shoah traffics in Israeli discourse. For almost a half-century, since the time of Eichmann in Jerusalem, the use of a Holocaust poetics to render real political and military problems as existential threats has been standard. Therefore, "shoah" no longer escapes its associations with the planned murder of millions any more than the word holocaust simply refers to a "burnt offering." It cannot be used in innocence.

Vilnai's conjuring, however unconscious, of a "final solution" for the residents of Gaza -- even if his threat was not that -- is that the term used retains its suggestive power while promising something less. That the less is nonetheless an extension of the violent campaign of collective punishment and the death of so many this past week is muted by the reference to the Holocaust that wasn't. And so the bombardment, all of the bombardments, driven by myth, dreams, anxieties in the extreme, are destined to continue.

March 1, 2008

The Agonizing Predicament

True to its spirit, Gillian Rose's The Broken Middle does not hold up to fragmentation. There are few passages that sit well on their own, detached from the accretion of her philosophical insistence. Rose's style is dense. It has little of the soothing poetic resonance of those who can craft thought into sculpture by the patient shaping of the material.

For her, the style seems intent on trapping the mind and forcing it remain en route. This is surely owing to the necessity of a rigor she claims as her own, a rigor missing too often, she says, from an approach loosely defined as "postmodern," or "post-structuralist."

Rose writes:

"Irony" as this yawning rent of yearning, passing to and fro between interchangeable poles -- evident throughout the authorship -- is transformed . . . into the sober statement of "irony" as "the pathos of the middle . . . its moral too, its ethos."

"I have been told that in Hebrew the words for knowing and insight have the same stem as the word for between."
The famous essay . . . itself exercises irony as "playful reserve."

This appears in the chapter, "Myth Out of the Hands of the Fascists," wherein Rose reads both the impulses of Thomas Mann's Joseph books, and Mann's own reading of Freud in the light of those works.

Given that they appear as Nazism does its infernal damage, Rose turns to Mann's works in order to trace how myth is called upon and yet wrested from the instrumental use of fascism; or how a hyper-vigilance over the performance of myth effectively undermines its force. The "substitution," she writes, "of an overly rationalized 'ethical' for the equivocation of the middle brings both the psychology and the politics into discredit" (133). Where the ethical remains uncertain and an agonizing predicament is precisely where, Rose suggests, we must dwell -- neither surrendering in defeat nor claiming that the violence we do brings victory.

Throughout, Rose seeks a "middle" suspended between the poles of pure repetition of the past and a utopian rejection of whatever forms of history have been inherited; this is the realm of ethical equivocation. For Rose, what is vital is where ethics and the law remain unharmonized, where there remains uncertainty in the face of authority and an uncertain authority; an authority that refuses the authoritarian temptation to heal the necessary divides between "universal, particular, and singular, individuals and institutions," and "inner morality and outer legality, individual autonomy and general heteronomy, active cognition and imposed norm" (xii).