December 24, 2009


A small island in the Solomon Sea east of Papua New Guinea. Discovered, isolated, embattled in World War II and then torn up again in a 1990s secessionist war. Behind Lloyd Jones Man Booker Prize winning novel, Mr. Pip, is that island of Bougainville.

In Jon Lewis's images, the faces of the inhabitants seem far from the novelistic lessons that Jones suggests through the tale of Dickens' 19th-century Pip; lessons of coming to be morally cognizant, of coming to bear the responsibility of (human) rights. The idea that such ideal inscriptions might so nimbly take root in the soul, and that the price for articulating the moral ideals presented in this literacy project is a savaging of the human body, is a familiar story in the era of human rights. Such hopes, of course, have little to do with the brute inheritances of that island, becoming yet another veil of a worn language that shrouds its actual wars and their aftermath.

December 12, 2009

Resisting the Call

When the Stoics counsel removal from radical investment it is is easy to feel the intimate bonds of family and love being dissolved by the rational.

There are, however, moments when claims made for the sake of the Other rekindle that the Stoic call for the chilling of the passions: the charioteer harnessing a horse gone wild with circumstance.

From last month's Haaretz:

"Just weeks after the arrest of alleged Jewish terrorist, Yaakov Teitel, a West Bank rabbi on Monday released a book giving Jews permission to kill Gentiles who threaten Israel.

Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who heads the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement, wrote in his book "The King's Torah" that even babies and children can be killed if they pose a threat to the nation.

Shapiro based the majority of his teachings on passages quoted from the Bible, to which he adds his opinions and beliefs.

"It is permissable to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation," he wrote, adding: "If we kill a Gentile who has sinned or has violated one of the seven commandments - because we care about the commandments - there is nothing wrong with the murder."

Several prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Yithak Ginzburg and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, have recommended the book to their students and followers."
That is not what New York Times columnist David Brooks had in mind when he also wrote last month, with his signature style of accusation and peculiar sense of measure ("most" and "fringe"):
Most people select stories that lead toward cooperation and goodness. But over the past few decades a malevolent narrative has emerged.
That narrative has emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world. It is a narrative that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other. This narrative causes its adherents to shrink their circle of concern. They don’t see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so.
This narrative is embraced by a small minority. But it has caused incredible amounts of suffering within the Muslim world, in Israel, in the U.S. and elsewhere. With their suicide bombings and terrorist acts, adherents to this narrative have made themselves central to global politics.
Stories enter the imagination and shape perceptions of the world, some selected and cultivated others not. There are some used as shield and others that invade like festering cancers. Both kinds can shape the readings of representations, are shared, repeated and repeated and repeated, whether in extractions from ancient texts or the rancid circulations of the myth of The Protocols, each distilled into a "blood-dimmed tide" where the "worst / Are full of passionate intensity." The only call that makes sense is the calming lure of reflection unburdened, thought apart from the Righteous.

December 6, 2009

Piece and Piece Perceived

piece and piece
piece and piece
moving still trippingly through
through the morningmist

long after the engine
has fought by

and disappeared

in silence
to the left
--William Carlos Williams, The Descent of Winter

Lithographs: Louis Lozowick

December 3, 2009

More Drones of History

Standing in front of the cadets in gray, his head shifting back and forth with such rapidity and practiced cadence that it was as if he were man trying to escape his own skin, and therefore at times almost impossible to watch, the President announced what had been expected: there would play out the myth of leadership, control, liberation, and the completion of the right war, the just war.

More men and women would be sent. Not enough for anything but some slim tragedy, but enough of a symbol, so he must think, just enough of a symbol, to suggest that he is not an "architect of surrender."

At this time of year it is easy to imagine Afghanistan as a hellishly cold place. But there was little talk of the place as it is today. Instead there was the parade of grand abstractions that recalled Hemingway's famous passage about inflated in A Farewell to Arms, in which int he end the dead smell not of some grander purpose but like the unburied death rotting in the Chicago stockyards. Instead there was an argument about how to read history.

Obama's argument for the distinctions between Afghanistan and Vietnam only worked to drive home their similarities. With contractors and cadets instead of the drafted he is in part right about differences. But as he trafficked in a tired language of necessity and America's altruistic gift to the world, one could clearly hear Lyndon Johnson 's famous Minneapolis declaration to the farmers that the US seeks "no wider war."

There was not talk of austerity, though, only of an "honest" accounting of trillions.

And just under the surface, like the phantoms of Tonkin, there seemed to be the message that there is always at the ready

and the necessity of plunging headlong into destabilization by the compelling force of history.

November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving, 2009

The autumn rains have begun

but are over for the moment;

leaves float

on the pools of water on the pavement.

The lonely walker hears

only the swift motor-cars.

--Charles Reznikoff

November 10, 2009

The Disconnect

In a recent New Yorker article on Gaza -- but more on what Israel has done and might do with the people and land it has "secured" -- the author inexplicably stammers over Operation Cast Lead, as if the events that transpired and the variation of methods used were somehow irreconcilable.

Lawrence Wright's essay, "Captives," offers a fragmented portrait of the military project, offering loose juxtaposition rather than connecting transitions to report that: a) the Israeli military worked hard to avoid killing civilians when it telephoned targeted homes ahead of time or sprinkled metal warnings on rooftops before sending down the munitions; b) vandalism of the Palestinian homes that were not rocketed, strafed or bulldozed was not tolerated and IDF soldiers were duly punished for transgressions; c) tactics, like the use of white phosphorous, increased civilian deaths but was possibly done in such a way as to fit within the boundaries of a legally sanctioned act; c) the genocidal act of destroying "cultural institutions" was part of the project; d) soldiers were primed for an assault without limit or regard for the human life they would encounter trapped within the area attacked.

Wright's writing creates the sense that the facts and testimony gathered are somehow at odds and they take on a dream-like uncertainty in his presentation. Perhaps this is a way of saying what the Goldstone Report has said without having to align oneself with that product. Perhaps it is meant to communicate the horrific and irrational plight of the "captives" (of whom the Israeli Gilad Shalit is the most noted and symbolic). But perhaps he and the editors are simply unsure of how to connect a democratic nation defending itself legally and with utmost pride in its purpose, righteousness and humanity to a nation that while claiming "self-defense" made the first principle, as one IDF claims, "no innocents." Every child, if not in the old and tired cliche, a potential terrorist, then in this context, a potential "spotter" or "shield" and therefore available as target. (That only, if one accepts the Amnesty International number, 300 children died, the only conclusion can be that Israel used great restraint in applying its own approach).

That the process of sparing selected lives in selected ways is the the quantifying gesture of just wars, the legalizing rationalizations of democratic institutions are possibly more opaque in their process but no less clear in their function than the Spanish El Requerimiento of the early sixteenth-century.

The words calm the bloodied nerves. Pushed out between the method and madness, as rote responses written down in advance, or as a confused postmortem, they maintain the disconnect.

November 8, 2009

Making an Inhumane Science

In the theater of "health care reform," which late last night took a step toward final legislation, the phrase "best practices" has come to stand out as a defining concept of contemporary politics.

Last year, as a candidate, the President said that if we were to design health care from scratch a single-payer system was the preferred and logical model; it would be the supposed wide-spread public resistance to change that dictated smaller steps and compromised measures. The allure of a bi-partisan symbol was something else altogether. But as the minority party resisted any changes to how health care is distributed and paid for, polls repeatedly indicated support for the very idea Obama was in the process of turning from in the name of political realism: namely a single-payer system. Instead of leading, he chose a passive course of capitulation. His to a path of false realism brings into sharper relief the particularities of his technocratic ideology; one that is less about the efficient functioning of government than an avoidance of analysis, decision, or engagement.

Rather than an agonistic stance that eschews pre-packaged mantras for the sake of dialogue, persuasion and the battles of arguing positions, Obama's pattern is to posit as steadfast limits that are mere fictions, and continually promote his practical positions in terms ambiguous and ill-defined. This could seem like a typical third-way politics of opportunism (with the Keynesian elements of liberalism stripped away in our perpetual emergency to become only rhetorical moralizing), but the "best practices" provision of the health care bill reflects Obama's "philosophy" of governance as much as the drone strikes of Afghanistan and Pakistan: one accepts that there are no choices to be made so as to appear, to or to feel, victorious while simply enduring the time of choice.

Evidence-based practice is rooted in the idea that beliefs can be corrected by evidence and that practices can be authorized by the calculations of observing experts. Authority moves from a kind of faith (posited as almost mythic) in the physician to the aggregate determinations of the data. The assumption, or dream, is that a whole range of treatment modalities may be thus liberated from tradition and opened to new (already proven) methods.

The "best practices" language haunting the current health care legislation represents the economic and political leverage that can emerge from those assumptions. When physician Jerome Groopman describes this to the New York Review of Books, we hear how the benefits of clinical analysis quickly give way to an economic calculus that prescribes away the physician's most micro-level interactions with singular patients; patients whose histories, sensibilities, physical and psychological responses vary widely to treatment options. Where there is, and there can only be, conjecture in the face of the individual, the aphoristic, the bodily clue of symptom, there will be, the legislation promises, something more predictable, managed, enduring. Influenced to adhere to the legal fiction that there are no choices to be made, success will be measured in securing malpractice protection, and the idiosyncratic encounters of a humane "science" -- in that regard the tension unchanged from the time of Hippocrates -- made an inhumane gesture of mere endurance.

November 3, 2009

And Then the Time Passed, Claude Levi-Strauss: 1908-2009

"Why did I do it? When I work, I suffer moments of anxiety, but when I don't work I'm bored, and my conscience keeps pricking me. Working doesn't make me any happier, but at least it makes the time pass."
--Claude Levi-Strauss, interview.

October 25, 2009

Into Oblivion

The Afghanistan fixation continues to present a war without the war. The stories that circulate are of troop-level debates, comparative national investments in the hopelessness enterprise of "defeating" insurgency; dreams of "decapitating" the Taliban, as if it were an organism instead of a functioning organization. The death of it all awash in the lavish language of "Hellfire," "Predator," "human terrain."

There is, sometimes, the tough lament for, but no pictures allowed of, the Marines sacrificing their ultimate safety and their comrades for a "policy," for a choice of method. It will matter less that it is for the sake of people sleeping in a hillside house that are quite innocent of whatever it is that is to be blown apart. The people themselves, so remote, remain in the imaginary more or less a mysterious, likely barbaric remnant; mere data in homeland calculations or the crude anthropology that helps determine targets.

There is, in incremental obscurity, Pakistan quietly emerging as the backdrop for the elevated and distant strategic conversations about air-power and force, which themselves dovetail with the truth of CIA contractors operating drones, the tactical function of which has become nothing more, and nothing less, than carrying out Pakistani or Afghanistan assassination requests. The blood price of doing business.

The notions of legality are dissolved and as the slow build up "on the ground" becomes ever more groundless, and at least one steps away from another Richard Holbrooke fantasy, our plot of death unrolls: unstoppable, unthinkable, inexorable in its tragic cadence.

Photographs: Fazal Sheikh (from The Victor Weeps)

October 19, 2009

Seeing the Stern Facts through the Theater of Mental Operations

"He who habituates himself, in his daily life, to seek for the stern facts in whatever he hears or sees, will have these facts again brought before him by the involuntary imaginative power in their noblest associations; and he who seeks for frivolities and fallacies, will have frivolities and fallacies again presented to him in his dreams."

--John Ruskin, Modern Painters

"The boldness of such an approach is . . . compensated for the humility . . . of observation as it is practiced by the anthropologist. Leaving his country and his home for long periods; exposing himself to hunger, sickness and occasional danger; allowing his habits, his beliefs, his convictions to be tampered with, conniving at this, indeed, when, without mental reservations or ulterior motives, he assumes the modes of life of a strange society, the anthropologist practices total observation, beyond which there is nothing except -- and there is a risk -- the complete absorption of the observer by the object of his observations. . . . We really can verify that the same mind which has abandoned itself to the experience and allowed itself to be moulded by it becomes the theatre of mental operations which, without suppressing the experience, nevertheless transform it into a model which releases further mental operations."

--Claude Levi-Strauss, The Scope of Anthropology

October 15, 2009

When the World Is Wet with Autumn

Because we are in the direct situation: it is. If you don't like it you may choose to avoid it.

But if you avoid it that's a pity, because it resembles life very closely, and life and it are essentially a cause for joy.

--John Cage

October 11, 2009

Irving Penn, 1917 - 2009

The day the New York Times announced the death of Irving Penn I was in the Chicago Art Institute passing by a Barnett Newman painting and thinking of a gallery trip to Berkeley in 1985. The show then was Penn' s portraits; large and dense; the wash of the big bulbous bodies he turned to fruit; the arched and aching pictures he made of authors and artists; gorgeous platinum palladium prints. The book of Penn's work from that show was one of the first books I ever owned, certainly the biggest and nicest, and the first that was not a paperback bought at a used shop.

The faces he presented in his highly formal arrangements did not need names. They were eyes with lids just so, lips pursed or agape like the mask he had read onto the character, and heads that seemed to be rotating so slowly around the sun of Penn's lens so that you could imagine him like an astronomer, waiting beneath the hood, waiting and waiting until just what was needed came into view.

When I did look at the captions, few names stood out. Capote, yes. Maybe Mencken. The rest came slowly, piece-meal, year by year, through the accidents of encounter. One was Barnett Newman. I had seen the Penn portrait a hundred times. Later, much later, I came to see the paintings here and there, beside a Rothko, maybe. When I made the connection between the man in the picture and the painter of the color blocks with their singular line of alteration, there was no end of pleasure in the link, in the new meaning behind the portrait. I carried that with me this week, not knowing that when I did, Penn had died, leaving the innumerable traces that craft, formally, if fleeting, in a singular moment, or onement, how one can come to see the world.

photo: Irving Penn
painting: Barnett Newman

September 8, 2009

Reading the Book of Life

Sherlock Holmes the character was also an author. Like some of Poe's disquisitions on the logic behind the character of Dupin, the analysis of analysis is more alive than the detective genre can ever allow. This in part helps explain why Hammett refuses its conceits and created his own. In the case of Holmes, his writing on what of life there is, through the coal dust of London, to be detected is far more interesting than the strange and foreign riddles portrayed.

His method is described by way of an anonymous article he pens, which Watson reads almost as an introduction to him. It is called "The Book of Life." There he describes the infinite task of careful appraisal that renders the system of the world as legible as Galileo imagined the heavens to be.

In this, if only this, he sounds like an anthropologist who believes that culture is nothing less than the "the order of the symbolic" and that in the creative exercise of that symbolic material, culture is made and remade, sustained in its perpetual, baseless, and communicable expression.

"Let the inquirer . . . learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade and profession to which he belongs. . . . By a man's finger-tips, by his coat sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his fore-finger and thumb, by his expression, by his short-cuffs--by each of these things a man's calling is plainly revealed."
--A. Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

August 18, 2009

In and Out of Someone's Eye

"And each of us said to the other: maybe."

--Alberto Giacometti

"Strange feeling that someone is looking at me. I am clear, then dim, then gone, then dim again, then clear again, and so on, back and forth, in and out of someone's eye."

--Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Portraits: Henri Cartier-Bresson

July 14, 2009

Centuries More of Unrest

Too old to carry arms and fight like the others --

they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler
I record -- I don't know for whom -- the history of the siege

I am supposed to be exact but I don't know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time

all we have left is the place attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left

I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
Monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency
Tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
Wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire
the enemy has imprisoned our messengers

we don't know where they are held that is the place of torture
Thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender
Friday: the beginning of the plague Saturday: our invincible defender
N.N. committed suicide Sunday: no more water we drove back
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of Alliance

all of this is monotonous I know it can't move anymore

I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts

only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children
our children don't like fairy tales they play at killing
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones
just like dogs and cats

in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the City
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself

the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor
regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them
the colors of their banners change like the forest on the horizon
from delicate bird's yellow in spring through green through red to winter's black

and so in the evening released from facts I can think
abut distant ancient matters for example our
friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize
they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice
they don't even know their fathers betrayed us
our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse
their sons are blameless they deserved our gratitude therefore we are grateful

they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity
those struck by misfortune are always alone
the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers

now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation
have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles
a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defense continues it will continue to the end

and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all -- the face of betrayal

and only our dreams have not been humiliated.

--Zbigniew Hebert, "Report from the Besieged City."

July 9, 2009

The Knowledge of Violence

When Rene Girard describes an education of violence, he appeals to the possibility that there is something to be learned from war's disasters, that there may be an escape, through a retrospective appraisal, from the mimetic economy of war-making and the logic of attack-counter-attack-wounding-revenge-plot-wounding-attack-counter-attack.

In the 1960s, dismayed at the cultural numbness that seemed to permeate the rebuilt Germany, Adorno wrote that if nothing else, the hollow echo of postwar appeals to Hitler and fascism should have been unthinkable. And if not by attention to the victims of the regime, then at least by virtue the brute sufferings endured by even the staunchest nationalist supporters. But instead, there seemed little interest or capacity to connect the ideology designed to dispense destruction outward and the ruinous results absorbed, best symbolized by Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.

And so one thinks too of Brecht's postwar version of Antigone where the tragedy is not in the image of a controlling Creon who comes to see his error too late, but in the "unteachable" Creon, a maker of war who controls even the dead.

Still, Girard, citing Clausewitz, describes the extreme forms of mimetic desire that drives war forward and the race toward forms of destruction. And from this Girard holds to the possibility of breaking that cycle, insisting, however quietly, that violence can teach one what not to do. There is, he says, a possible otherwise: one can make a leap out of the tragic propulsion by refusing the rules given and the form to be copied.

Is this what Robert McNamara, who died this week, did late in his life, after helping to formulate the air terror inflicted on Japan and unleashing the "rolling thunder" of the bombing of Vietnam? Did he testify to a new vision?

McNamara's memoir, In Retrospect, and his presentation in Errol Morris's The Fog of War, may have been appeals for a forgiveness most would not and should not grant. It might have also been a Girardian attempt: to learn from the process of deciding upon such horrific destruction, to dispense a new wisdom of war in the nuclear age, to teach the lessons that might instigate a new mimetic desire for avoiding war, for developing empathy, for an illumination beyond a crude, groping violence. But there are still deep reservoirs of thought and memory that McNamara seems incapable of fathoming. What we hear instead of learnable lessons is the cadence of someone who long ago passed from the realm of the living. He remains too comfortably on the surface of his survival and so the lessons seem hollow, escapist, the tragic in lockstep with the insight.

June 28, 2009

Uses and Abuses of Reading

Three summers ago, Hamid Dabashi wrote an essay about imperialism and its cultural weaponry. At its core is a correction of the distortion that comprises the cover of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, an image that, says Dabashi, attempts to fill an amnestic void.

Nafisi's memoir has been widely read and much praised. Its clear and saccharine portrait of western values defying the tyrannical forces of Iran's current ruling regime helps explain her current position at Johns Hopkins, where at the School for Advanced International Studies, she joins colleagues like Fouad Ajami and Francis Fukuyama.

In a 2003 address, she offers the following contradictory statements about reading practices in Iran, which it seems would be, or should be, the focus of her book. First, as for her work's title and its chapters like "Gatsby," her insistence is that western literature means freedom. She says:

Nabokov once said, 'Readers are born free and they ought to remain free.' Grasping this simple yet profound statement is essential to understanding why I chose Lolita and why my book is both a celebration of reading, as well as a window into a stark world offering few choices. Contrasting sharply with daily Iranian life, Lolita stands tall as a literary figure symbolizing personal choice and the freedom of thought – precisely what Iranians are denied. The revolution didn't just seize their political rights and the right to own private property, it stole from millions of readers a fundamental freedom to imagine and think for oneself. The Iranian readers' plight is akin to those who have suffered under communism and fascism, where the regimes' conception of the world, imposed on an entire nation, eradicates any contradictory voices.

At the same time, though, she acknowledges that there are many forces at work in the cultural currents of Iran, with nothing as simple as a leaden ideology stifling all reading and thinking. But even when conceding this obvious truth she insists on removing the political from the discussion. There can only be, for her, the claim that there is a magical transformation when an individual -- beforehand, utterly crushed by evil -- beholds a western "masterpiece" :

Across the republic, regular people, not the elites or the so-called "reformers," are restive in their demand for change. The same students who took hostages during the 1970's and 1980's are now thoroughly disillusioned and find what modernity has to offer appealing. As was the case in the past, young Iranians are spearheading an ideological transformation as they are increasingly drawn to the language of secular liberalism and its architects; Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannah Arendt, et al. … Once strictly forbidden authors and literary masterpieces are beginning to see the light of day and are consequently growing in popularity. Activists, questioning the very pillars of the revolution, are also pressuring the regime to hold a referendum on the constitution.

The nonsensical certainties are easy enough to dismiss, easier even than seeing Foucault's error of being seduced by the ecstatic sheen of the 1979 revolution. But there is a richness of simplicity in one part of Dabashi's correction. Setting aside his claims for the post-colonial project associated with Spivak, Said, and Amy Kaplan, there is this:

In fact the case of this cover provides an intriguing twist on Roland Barthes' binary opposition between the denoted and connoted messages of a photograph and its caption. The twist rests on the fact that the picture of these two teenagers on the cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is in fact lifted from an entirely different context. The original picture from which this cover is excised is lifted off a news report during the parliamentary election of February 2000 in Iran. In the original picture, the two young women are in fact reading the leading reformist newspaper Mosharekat. Azar Nafisi and her publisher may have thought that the world is not looking, and that they can distort the history of a people any way they wish. But the original picture from which this cover steals its idea speaks to the fact of this falsehood.
The cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran is an iconic burglary from the press, distorted and staged in a frame for an entirely different purpose than when it was taken. In its distorted form and framing, the picture is cropped so we no longer see the newspaper that the two young female students are holding in their hands, thus creating the illusion that they are 'Reading Lolita'--with the scarves of the two teenagers doing the task of 'in Tehran.' In the original picture the two young students are obviously on a college campus, reading a newspaper that is reporting the latest results of a major parliamentary election in their country. Cropping the newspaper, their classmates behind them, and a perfectly visible photograph of President Khatami--the iconic representation of the reformist movement--out of the picture and suggesting that the two young women are reading Lolita strips them of their moral intelligence and their participation in the democratic aspirations of their homeland, ushering them into a colonial harem.

The vitality of literacy Dabashi describes includes a discourse of reform and the press, the poster for a reformist (dismissed by Nafisi) and the public act of looking, reading, and being -- in nothing more and nothing less than posture and pose -- publicly political. Nafisi may cite Arendt but she misses what Arendt would have drawn our attention to: the two women and their willingness to be seen reading the reformist paper in the schoolyard; a public, participatory act in an ongoing project of Iranian politics.

There are indeed western voices at work within Iran. There is, Danny Postel says in Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran, much talk of Arendt, Said and Chomsky, but also readings of Heidegger, celebrations of Kant, citations of Popper, and obviously, a use of Habermas. They are taken up in varying degrees and for various purposes, and used within a cultural climate that is politically fraught and changing now, again, but hardly alone and pure, so as to give some new name to a moribund situation. As Dabashi writes:
No one will ever know, reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, that Iranians, like all other nations, have a literature of their own, a constellation of women writers, poets, artists, activist, and scholars second to none, that they are survivors and dreamers in terms not just global to their geopolitics but also domestic to their own perils and promises, and that in the span of the same period of time (the 1990's) that Azar Nafisi deigned to live in Iran and sought to save the soul of a nation by teaching a privileged few among them "Western Classics," Iranians had produced a glorious cinema that has captivated the globe in awe and admiration, produced a feminist press and literature rarely matched in any other country, and elected more women to their parliament than those in the United States. The narrative eradication of Persian literature and Iranian culture while writing in an entirely Iranian context mutates into a more global dismissal of world literatures at large, any literature or culture that might pause and pose an element of resistance to imperial designs and their ideological foregrounding.

June 25, 2009

The Significance of Precise Organization, or What We Are in Fact

From Ted Barron's discovery, the voice of Henri Cartier-Bresson, trying to give shape to the eye that seizes, through the mechanism, the crucial instant of shapes themselves converging.

"We have to be alert. . . . It is given. Take it."

The rigorous interplay is found, recognized; there, in the instant, a way of cognition, a means of entering the world's difficult realities.

June 16, 2009

Forms of Revolt Without Revolution

Uprisings belong to history, but in a certain way, they escape it. The movement through which a lone man, a group, a minority, or an entire people say, "I will no longer obey," and are willing to risk their lives in the face of a power they believe to be unjust, seems to me to be irreducible. This is because no power is capable of making it absolutely impossible. Warsaw will always have its ghetto in revolt and its sewers populated with insurgents. The man in revolt is ultimately inexplicable. There must be an uprooting that interrupts the unfolding of history, and its long series of reasons why, for a man "really" to prefer the risk of death over the certainty of having to obey.

--Michel Foucault, on Iran, May 1979

Zahra Rahnavard

I think that the first thing to do is to recognize the fact that there are democratic pluralists in Iran fighting for democratic values and civil liberties. Their struggle for empowerment or Iranian civil society goes beyond a simple act of contestation. The process of democraticization in Iran is a day-to-day challenge which is not only political, but also social and cultural.

Democracy is not a place where you sit and relax for the rest of your life. It is about responsible civic participation and intellectual integrity. So without this sense of responsibility I don't see how we could manage to have a strong civil society wherein people find their confidence in speaking and acting. . . .

The actors in Iranian civil society need to find their own logics and practices of togetherness rather than those imposed on them. But this cannot be done without intellectual maturity. Maturity is the condition of possibility for pluralism in Iranian society.

--Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian dissident, 2006

With the semi-spontaneous demonstration in Tehran and other major cities (including Shiraz, where we have had eyewitness accounts by members of my family), the civil unrest that began on 13 June with opposition to the announced results of the presidential election of 12 June has entered a new phase. The assumption of the election having been rigged is now a "social fact." It is no longer relevant if the election was or was not rigged. Millions of Iranians believe it was and they are putting their lives on the line to announce and assert it — with at least 12 fatalities, as just reported by The Guardian.
We need to have a careful and accurate summation of what has happened so far. On 12 June upward of 80% of eligible voters, about 40 out of 46 million, have voted. This has been the most magnificent manifestation of the political maturity of Iran as a nation and their collective democratic will. This nation does not need, nor has it ever needed, either a medieval concoction called the Vali Faqih in Qom or Tehran to patronize it or else a Neocon chicanery called "Iran Democracy Project" in Hoover Institution in California to promote it. This nation, as always, can take care of itself. It needs nothing but the active solidarity of ordinary people around the globe to be a witness to their struggles and demand from their media an accurate and comprehensive representation of their movement. So please, hands off Iran! No "democracy project," no sanction, no threat, no military attack, no regime change.
The day after the results were announced, on 13 June, there was a spontaneous demonstration in Tehran by supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi demanding recount and charging vote rigging. The following day, on 14 June, the government staged a major pro-Ahmadinejad rally in which his supporters were bussed in from surrounding villages. It is important to keep in mind that Ahmadinejad's supporters come from the poorest and most disenfranchised segments of Iranian society, subject to his and his campaign's populism and demagoguery. From this fact one should not conclude that all the impoverished segments of Iranian society, suffering from double digit inflation and endemic unemployment, are on his side or fooled by his charlatanism. The supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the Reformist movement come from a vast trajectory of Iranian society.
Today, on 15 June 2009, the uprising has assumed an entirely different dimension and may have already transmuted into a full-fledged civil disobedience movement, with hundreds of thousands (according to BBC, which is usually quite conservative in its estimations), demonstrating peacefully and joyously between Meydan-e Enqelab and Meydan-e Azadi. Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mohammad Khatami have led the demonstration and made speeches, as has Zahra Rahnavard, now an inspiration and role model for millions of Iranian women. Please take a good look at her and keep a print of her picture and the picture of other women participating in these demonstrations in your files before some other charlatan comes and crops it for the cover of the next edition of Reading Lolita in Tehran, or else puts together a collage of it for yet another book on "Sexual Revolution" or "Sexual Politics" in Iran. Whoever has won this particular presidential election, lipstick jihadis, career opportunist memoirists, obscene and fraudulent anthropologists on a summer "field work" in Iran, useless expatriate "opposition," and comprador intellectuals in general are among its main losers.
--Hamid Dabashi, June 15, 2009

May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

The white crosses on a vast manicured green, all the way to the horizon, or marble slabs set on a Presidio slope under ocean fog, as if ascending to the sky. The white crosses go on and on, stark and clean and in their scale, sublime; the marble gathering blades of blown grass and moisture marks and the dullness of time, slipping out of alignment -- a carefully controlled ruin.

These are the backdrops for the slightest of memory gestures confined to the ritual performance on date, at place: formal dress and wreath-laying, stiff, awkward, empty. Bitburg. More likely, these spaces will be avoided today and forgotten. Their confusing array of dates and bare boned details are too confusing and abstract -- war upon war in the wake of the war to end all wars -- and better left alone while towns assemble for one of those warm-day distractions. A holiday.

If the day is to be a way of avoiding the war dead, whose memories might be only addressed in fear and trembling, then let the dead speak instead. And let speak in a language that will not be understood, murmuring curses and wonders to themselves.

Let them speak from a forgotten and insignificant moment of a war that does not belong to the nation, but simply was, a generation ago, on a landscape that is coming to be adopted as our own calamity, though the seeds were planted then, growing first then, at that moment presented in Jeff Wall's photo-work, an imagined scene called "Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)":

March 31, 2009

The Season of Distintegration

God and all angles sing the world to sleep,
Now that the moon is rising in the heat

And rickets are loud again in the grass. The moon
Burns in the mind on lost remembrances.

He lies down and the night wind blows upon him here.
The bell grows longer. This is not sleep. This is desire.

Ah! Yes, desire . . . this leaning on his bed,
This leaning on his elbows on his bed,

Staring, at midnight, at the pillow that is black
In the catastrophic room . . . beyond despair,

Like an intenser instinct. What is it he desires?
But this he cannot know, the man that thinks,

Yet life itself, the fulfillment of desire
In the grinding ric-rac, staring steadily

At a head upon the pillow in the dark,
More than sudarium, speaking the speech

Of absolutes, bodiless, a head
Thick-lipped from riot and rebellious cries,

The head of one of the men that are falling, placed
Upon the pillow to repose and speak,

Speak and say the immaculate syllables
That he spoke only by doing what he did.

God and all angles, this was his desire
Whose head lies blurring here, for this he died.

Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips,
O pensioners, O demagogues and pay-men!

This death was his belief though death is a stone.
This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die.

The night wind blows upon the dreamer, bent
Over words that are life's voluble utterance.

--Wallace Stevens, "The Men That Are Falling," 1936-37

March 29, 2009

A German Spring

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty -- their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty -- that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the opposite. They have "devoured" everything, both "culture and people," and they have had such a surfeit it has exhausted them. . . . Tiredness is followed by sleep, and then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day -- a dream that shows us in its realized form the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality.

The existence of Mickey Mouse is such a dream for contemporary man. His life is full of miracles -- miracles that not only surpass the wonders of technology, but make fun of them. For the most extraordinary thing about them is that they all appear, quite without any of his supporters and persecutors, and out of the most ordinary pieces of furniture, as well as from trees, clouds, and the sea. Nature and technology, primitiveness and comfort, have completely merged. And to people who have grown weary of the endless complications of everyday living and to whom the purpose of existence seems to have been reduced to the most relief to find a way of life in which everything is solved in the simplest and most comfortable way, in which a car is no heavier than a straw hat and the fruit on a tree becomes round as quickly as a hot-air balloon. And now we need to step back and keep our distance.

We have become impoverished. We have given up one portion of the human heritage after another, and have often left it at the pawnbroker's for a hundredth of its true value, in exchange for the small change of the "contemporary." The economic crisis is at the door, and behind it is the shadow of the approaching war. Holding on to things has become the monopoly of a few powerful people, who, God knows, are no more human than the many; for the most part, they are more barbaric, but not in the good way.
--Walter Benjamin, "Experience and Poverty," 1934

Photomontage: John Heartfield

March 24, 2009

Another Open Letter

To Lawrence Ferlinghetti on his 90th birthday:

Dear Lawrence,

Yesterday was just another cold March day on the morning Metra commuter from Hyde Park into Chicago until looking down from my second-level seat I saw a man reading a book with a familiar logo at the base of the spine, a figure with outstretched arms. Tales of Ordinary Madness it was. Indeed.

When I am back in San Francisco -- where in grad school I learned by browsing in the basement of City Lights -- I always go in and make sure I buy a book, something like Shepard's Motel Chronicles -- and then take it up to Trieste so I get the first taste of it there. I am devoted to that ritual. But yesterday was the true measure of the gift you've given; a stray look and suddenly the most affirming recognition and I was back "home," and I certainly felt kinship with that stranger, and I have no doubt that such recognition happens over and over, over the whole world, each day.

Happy birthday.

Sincerest regards.

March 17, 2009

Returns to the Island of the Dead

Another year of memory, to the time now dead but forever, it seems, a page to be marked and revised. A galley of promise.

To be dead is to stop believing in
The masterpieces we will begin tomorrow;
To be an exile is to be a coward,
To know that growth has stopped,
That whatever is done is the end;

Correct the proofs over and over,
Rewrite all the old poems again and again,
Tell lies to yourself about your achievement:
Ten printed books on the shelves.
Though you know that no one loves you for
What you have done,
But for what you might do.

And you perhaps take up religion bitterly
Which you laughed at in your youth,
Well not actually laughed
But it wasn't your kind of truth.

--Patrick Kavanagh, "To be Dead"

White Light and Black Sites

Further notes from ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody, 2007:

I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. The room measured approximately [13 feet by 13 feet]. The room had three solid walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars separating it from a larger room. I am not sure how long I remained in the bed. After some time, I think it was several days, but can't remember exactly, I was transferred to a chair where I was kept, shackled by [the] hands and feet for what I think was the next 2 to 3 weeks. During this time I developed blisters on the underside of my legs due to the constant sitting. I was only allowed to get up from the chair to go [to] the toilet, which consisted of a bucket. Water for cleaning myself was provided in a plastic bottle.
I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure [a nutrient supplement] and water to drink. At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time.
The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating about every fifteen minutes twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise.
The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks.
During this first two to three week period I was questioned for about one to two hours each day. American interrogators would come to the room and speak to me through the bars of the cell. During the questioning the music was switched off, but was then put back on again afterwards. I could not sleep at all for the first two to three weeks. If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.

"The state of [legal] exception, which used to be essentially a temporary suspension of the [lawful] order, becomes now a new and stable spatial arrangement inhabited by that naked life that increasingly cannot be inscribed into that order. . . . The camp intended as a dislocating localization is the hidden matrix of politics in which we still live, and we must learn to recognize it in all its metamorphoses. The camp is the fourth and inseparable element that has been added to and has broken up the old trinity of nation (birth), state, and territory."

--Giorgio Agamben, "What is a Camp?" (1994)

March 15, 2009

An Open Letter to John Yoo et al.


1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime....

[in conclusion]

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
From the International Committee of the Red Cross report: ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody, 2007

March 5, 2009

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow

As if they had been sent out like two messages in a single bottle, a pair of photographs arrived tonight.

They show an intersection of Brooklyn; a cross of quiet streets hushed by snow.

The first was taken in the day. The cross of street and square of four corners shows the calm commotion of city life in the peripheries. Walkers in pairs, cars moving. You can hear the image, hear the ways tires on snow beautifully murmur. On the corner an awning promises business and something sustaining the busyness. If it had a caption that caption would contain the word "errands."

The other is a night scene of the same space. The snow seems replenished, but still slight over the city, casting the rough gauze of burning streetlight glow into the cloudy night, making earth and sky almost the same color. The awning on the corner shop is dark, emptied of meaning, as if it really is asleep.

There are some distinct footprints on one of the sidewalks. The neighborhood seems to have agreed on the need to turn in, though surely many peek out to see and feel the quiet, as the photographer did before claiming the moment with a click. Only one figure is visible below. Small and remote, a blur of movement becoming shadow that could so easily be missed; a woman, certainly, going home alone, maybe; maybe leaving the restaurant shift behind, or carrying the bar talk with her, the conversation living on in the cold close of a long day.

If the long season of February turned the words brittle and left too little of the mind able to see differently the familiar scenes buried by weather and blurred by numbing repetition, then it surely seemed March might follow just the same until April would become as cruel as promised. But then a glance at a stray cast off image from a city far off presents an image that makes the difference, marking, in its passage, the tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow of living in recognition, which in its petty pace, is all there is.

From Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang and written by Paul Auster:

February 27, 2009

From a Daybook Scrap

"There is not a 'cure' for us, reversal of some wrong or perverse decision we have made somewhere or sometime. It is the death of time which has passed, the accumulation of knowledge which has confronted us with despair.

We simply know too much"

--George Oppen, a fragment, from Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers

February 20, 2009


Life consists of antagonism.

Struggle against those of ill will, shifting reefs which hole the ship below the waterline.

--Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Photographs: Radek Skrivanek

February 19, 2009


February 15, 2009

Within the Lining of the Heart

Standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is to see its force and know its immensity; dark gray undulations and white foam peaks, the constant shifts, the pattern of motion and invisible depth growing all the way to the horizon, all of it always familiar yet always in every second of light change and motion, new. But to wade into it, even just ankle deep, was something different. The wave would come in cold and thick, enveloping, making you part of the water and pushing away what counts as shore. Then as if after some exhale, the water returns to the ocean, pulling you with it. You hold your ground, claim your spot, dig your cold feet into the sand, only to find that it too dissolves under the movement. You are stuck and vulnerable, caught in the watery sand as another wave comes, which is constant, and it feels larger than before, as if the ocean were trying to find the necessary gravity to absorb whatever would resist it.

Under the pressure brought by the torrents of history, the feeling of being absorbed by a language, a way of being, and a grounding alien to one's own mode of cultivation is so amplified that the quiet adjustments and deflections, the slight forms of re-articulations and the almost imperceptible, except by accretion, variations on the performance of self give way to more dramatic gestures. And rather than for showing it is for knowing, within the lining of the heart, how one will claim presence in the world.

The Egyptian Jewish poet Edmond Jabes, who at an advanced age landed in France after being cast out of his native land, wrote lovingly of a certain practice known to belong to the Marranos of Spain. Against the tide of forced conversion these

"carried in a well-hidden pocket fitted into the lining of one of their wide sleeves -- usually the left -- a tiny book of commentaries on the Torah or with the prayers of their childhood.

Thus, while making a show of humble submission to the implacable masters' will, they could at any time stroke with their free hand, through the dense material that protected it from being seen, the book of their ancestors and reaffirm with their secret, but O how significant, gesture their loyalty to the words of their invisible and now also silent God."

In a prison in China in the 1970s revolution, the landscape painter Mu Xin was imprisoned and given paper on which to record a "self-criticism." Instead, he wrote out a kind of dialogue with those who were not there but who nonetheless informed his choice to survive hopelessness.

The scraps of paper were archived, it is said, in the cotton lining of his prison uniform, encasing him, armoring him for life. And surely more than the words themselves, and the ideas that incited him to write, he felt the paper he had written on as he turned or sat or twisted. He must have felt, like a current, that slight resistance to the body's movements there within the fabric, like an invisible aura.

Paintings by Mu Xin: "The Beach" and "Spring".

February 10, 2009

A Forced Relocation of Values: What the Soldier Saw

When they went into attack they used to wear their blankets as capes, slit in the middle, plunged over their heads and blowing out, trailing about them in the wind. He loved that. That was as close as one came in this war to an heroic stance, to a banner, to a suggestion of flair or gesture. Of course, it was not for the sake of image, or even warmth that they wore them so, but rather in the superstition or belief that they created an indefinite and distributed target. Often, after an assault or firefight on patrol, they would count the holes in their blankets and marvel -- how was it possible to remain so invulnerable! And I suppose that was partly it, a way to press closer to the myth of immortality, of one's own state of blessedness and magical survival. Each throw of the dice that left you in possession of the field and unscathed built the incredible and sacred odds within which you breathed, and walked. The air was keener, sweeter in your nostrils in that time -- each choice, each insignificant choice, no longer insignificant.

He remembered once, advancing across a field under a cordon of fire where the sporadic tracers floated like fiery bees in a soft net in the air about them; and as they advanced in a staggered line up a broad slope of golden field at a slow walk, firing assault fire, the wind took their capes and wove them around them from their shoulders in dark and sinuous veronicas, as though each of them was passing by his own dark and deadly beast. Afterwards, he would think that in all his life he had never seen anything quite so beautiful.

--Robert Gajdusek, Resurrection

February 4, 2009

The Drone of History

He had already been co-opted into the soft legitimation of torture. When Cheney, and then Bush, made such public and prideful pronouncements about instigating illegal practices, their war-crimes posturing was met with niceties about looking to the future. Instead of prosecuting past violations, all attention would be on the pragmatic necessities of the current situation. In other words, there would be no turning back, as if the storm of progress made it an impossible, naive notion.

Now Obama, no doubt having to prove himself to the mechanisms of "defense" and "security," authorizes air strikes in the remote reaches of Pakistan, continuing and intensifying the Bush administration's fall offensive.

The use of robotics in war has greatly expanded in the laboratories of Iraq and Afghanistan, from the variety of surveillance and de-mining contraptions to a hope for the coming deployment of mobile machine guns. The drone, an unmanned missile machine in the air, is the prime symbol.

Aristotle, Diderot, Hume, Smith, Orson Welles in The Third Man. All spoke of, or wondered at, the moral freedom born of distance. "But for the fear of punishment," wrote Diderot, "many people would find it less hard to kill a man at a distance from which he appeared no larger than a swallow, than they would to slit a bullock's throat with their own hands."

And if the swallow-sized man is on a screen visible to someone couched in a remote location of Nevada or Colorado, or nothing more than a piece of intelligence data, invisible in a potentially crowded house, the calculus surely becomes all the more absolute; a deeply seductive temptation to do a good job.

Add to this, the creeping corrosive dissemination of the images themselves. Their circulation must also play a roll in the ways in which the discipline of war turns on the discourse of games: some sense of control and some lack of ultimate consequence.

Or worse, it becomes, as Don DeLillo suggested in various ways, a plot from which one cannot turn and within which one's participation is sanctified by history itself.

And so if the decision is not really a decision, and instead a deferred look toward some future in which morality and illegality and consequences will not matter -- retreating into the imagined past -- then the moment seems to find its inarguable and necessary form, as if "history is to blame."

January 31, 2009

Remnants and Recastings: Benjamin's Realm

"Only on that particular day was catastrophe possible."

--Hannah Arendt, "Introduction" to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations.

At Passages, J. Bowring, author of A Field Guide to Melancholy, shows a clip of her venture into the Walter Benjamin memorial of Dani Karavan.

The space is a descending slant along, almost hovering above, the rocky shore of Portbou, on the Spanish coast. While Karavan's work is often marked by a false whiteness -- bright paths cut into grass, towers rising from the brownish soil, pillars in a public alley -- the memorial to Benjamin is aptly and strikingly dark. Perhaps this is to echo the title of Benjamin's massive project, Passagen-Werk, and the sense of the dim afterglow he evoked in those Paris arcades. But it must also refer to the passage through the Pyrenees from France, and obviously, in Benjamin's case, to death. Its brick and steel tones speak to both the slow erosion of entropy and the more powerful, unavoidable grind of the sea at the bottom of the memorial's arc.

Because Spain's rail system uses a different track system than the rest of Europe, Portbou has long been a dreary point for arrivals and departure along the coast; those waiting to enter from France, or leave for it, often stacked in the station, dull and tired. Or that is how it was a long time ago, when a great many fewer people would have heard the name -- now with its saint-like aura -- of the writer who committed suicide there in 1940, his attempt to escape Nazified Europe having failed. Today he is more widely recognized, if surely few would have made a pilgrimage to his memorial on a biting January day, and perhaps, though his burial spot was long unmarked and is now expanded to include the sea and earth, the station fills and empties like clockwork, most passers-through oblivious to what occurred so close, where a catastrophe occurred just once, on a certain day, and even then was hardly understood by those who found the body of just another escapee.

January 30, 2009

Leaving Writing

"Writing: a way of leaving no space for death, of pushing back forgetfulness, of never letting oneself be surprised by the abyss. . . . Maybe I've always written for no other reason than to win grace from this countenance. Because of disappearance. To confront perpetually the mystery of the there-not there. The visible and the invisible. To fight against the law that says, 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above of that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.' Against the decree of blindness. I have often lost my sight; and I will never finish fashioning the graven image for myself. My writing watches. Eyes closed."
--Helene Cixous, "Coming to Writing"

Photos from Graeme Mitchell: John Updike, 1962; Graeme Mitchell, "Inside a Found Book."

January 24, 2009

Critical Lens

Through Brecht's glasses; viewing a dedication by Walter Benjamin:

From Tomoko Yoneda's "Between Visible and Invisible" series.

January 20, 2009


This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. I can not be ignorant of the fact that many worthy and patriotic citizens are desirous of having the National Constitution amended. While I
make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself; and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it. I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or refuse. I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have referred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this if also they choose, but the Executive as such has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer the present Government as it came to his hands and to transmit it unimpaired by him to his successor.
Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.

By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new Administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

--Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861