I am writing less here of late, not because I do not love to write here, but only because I have very many commitments to publish elsewhere and am doing my best, frantically, to despatch these. Not only am I not posting here, but I am also actively deleting a number of posts that have gone up over the past year or two. I was very fond of them, but decided it would be better to delete, for the simple reason that portions of them will soon be appearing in cleaned-up versions, in print, in either one of two forthcoming books. I had posted bits with which I had been particularly satisfied as 'previews', but now that the books themselves are nearing publication, I have an interest in ensuring that the these quasi-physical entities be the exclusive locus for the presentation of the ideas and concerns that motivated me to write them.
My new book, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy, will be appearing in print from Princeton University Press in early 2015, and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.
I have just submitted the manuscript for a subsequent book, The Philosopher: A Short History, also to appear at Princeton. Here is the opening paragraph:
This book, an essay in the proper Montaignean sense, seeks to answer that most fundamental of philosophical questions: What is philosophy? It does so, however, in an unusual way: by refraining from proclamations about what philosophy, ideally, ought to be, and by asking instead what philosophy has in fact been, what it is that people have in fact been doing under the heading of philosophy in different times and places. In what follows we will survey the history of the various self-conceptions of philosophers in different historical eras and contexts. We will seek to uncover the different ‘job descriptions’ attached to the social role of the philosopher in different times and places. There will be some autobiographical interjections, and some parafictional excursuses, but the principal purpose will be to enrich our current understanding of what the project of philosophy is, or could be, by uncovering and critically examining lost, forgotten, or undervalued conceptions of the project from philosophy’s distinguished past.
I am busy with a number of other editing and translating projects, and a few other handbook entries and journal articles, but will not summarize those here. I try to keep discussion of these projects cordoned off at my academic website.
Beyond the scholarly work (and the line here is growing ever blurrier), I am currently writing a feature article for a well-known American magazine on Roma migrations in Europe, with special focus on the impact of EU expansion on Roma communities moving from the Balkans to France. This is my first work of real long-form investigative journalism, and the research for it has brought me, recently, to Kosovo and to a Roma bidonville on the outstkirts of Paris. More on this once the article has hit the newsstands.
I continue to appear on France 24's televised debate show, when invited, on topics that are important to me, such as immigration and refugees. I don't really understand what television is for, or why it even exists at all at this point, if all it does is to summarize what they've just read on social media. As far as I can tell it's for people with no Internet access, which is to say mostly elderly people, and all it really does is transmit a rough impression of what it would be like to be getting the news online. The last time I was onm a 'media watch' expert appeared at the end of our debate and basically just read to the viewers from his social media feed. Anyhow the host, François Picard, is a very affable and gracious person, and the conversations he sustains are at least as interesting as what you might experience with a reasonably well-selected group of people talking about politics without cameras pointed at them.
I continue to contribute to the New York Times' 'Stone' section. I try very hard to stay out of 'state of the discipline' debates among professional philosophers --I think there are big important questions about what philosophy is, but these are not the same as the questions addressed by APA subcommittees and 'philosophy bloggers'--, and sometimes I fear that the 'Stone' cannot help but function as a forum for such debates. I was pleased therefore to branch out recently in my Times writing with an article on 'The Skeleton Garden of Paris' for the 'Menagerie' section of Opinionator, which also appeared in the print edition of the International New York Times. Often, what I would like to write for the Times is too philosophical for 'Menagerie', but too animal-fixated for the 'Stone'. Indeed in the best of all possible worlds these two columns would be fused into one, and readers would be invited to consider how philosophically stimulating it can be to contemplate the brute beasts.
I continue to write for Cabinet Magazine, and in the next issue have an article appearing on deaf-blind pedagogy in the Soviet Union, and on my personal experiences in Moscow, in 1994 and again in 2013, with some of this tradition's representatives. In the most recent issue of Cabinet Sina Najafi and I also have an interview with the subtle-minded Michael Witmore on the subject of 'accidents'.
I also continue to conduct research together with my colleagues in the ESTAR (SER) collective, on topics pertaining to the history of the Order of the Third Bird. This has issued in several public interventions, notably at the Palais de Tokyo this past February, at the Centre Pompidou in May, and, later this month, in Jerusalem.
I currently owe an article to a volume on theories of animal perception and cognition in early modern philosophy. My contribution is to treat the question of avian vocalization, more commonly known as 'birdsong'.
I am in the middle of translating a 19th-century French treatise on 'the Pasilalinic Sympathetic Compass', sometimes called 'the snail telegraph', which was a device that promised instantaneous wireless communication around the world by means of the animal magnetism between two snails that have previously been brought into copulative contact with one another and that therefore bear a charge of 'escargotic force'. I do not know quite where this is going, but I have much to say about the deep history of the desire for wireless communication, about the significance of the idea that it is precisely through harnessing biological forces that this could be brought about, and in general about what this could reveal for our understanding of what might be called 'the metaphysics of the Internet'.
I have chronic high blood pressure and at my doctor's orders have recently taken on a very different sort of research project. I had always interpreted the imperative to 'know thyself' in a qualitative sense, but now I am being asked, and indeed am accepting the challenge, to know myself quantitatively: to measure my pressure at frequent intervals throughout the day and to correlate it with comprehensive details about my daily intake of food and drink, as well as about my physical activity. This has been the occasion for considerable reflection about what exactly may be learned through such an undertaking. More on this, too, when the data, or my reflections on them, lead to new insights.
Anyhow, the general point is that I am terribly busy, and I really hope all this business spontaneously forms into what may someday be respectably called 'a body of work'. I also hope that I find a way to pull this off while at the same time maintaining this fragile vehicle of my own physical body, this compages of vessels and ducts, in a viable condition. But for now I'm just plugging away, and writing at somewhat less regular intervals in this still very dear to me space.
I have been reading Aleksandr Dugin's Foundations of Geopolitics (Russia's Geopolitical Future), and translating bits as I go. This 1997 work is widely appreciated among Russian military and foreign-policy elites, and while there is broad official denial many believe that Dugin has a more or less direct line to Putin as a strategy advisor and as an ideological tutor.
Dugin promotes the ideology of 'Eurasianism', which involves the following core ideas. First, that world powers divide naturally into sea-based 'thalassocracies' and continental 'tellurocracies'. Second, that Anglo-American dominance throughout most of the world since the 19th century has been based on maritime domination, but the empire that was built up in this way extends itself too far, where it does not belong, when it implants itself on the European continent and seeks to influence the geopolitical fate of not just the Balkans, Ukraine, or Georgia, but indeed Germany or France. This, on a proper geopolitical understanding, is Russia's job: there is a corridor extending 'from Dublin to Vladivostok' that is Russia's 'Near Abroad', and it is therefore Russia's historical destiny to push NATO out of these zones and to end the Pax Americana that has held in Europe since the end of World War II. In a newly aligned world the United States, now remodeled as a sort of 'greater Oceania', will be permitted to keep its regional hegemony over a good portion of the world. But it must stay out of Eurasia.
I am in fact sympathetic to the sort of geopolitical approach Dugin is attempting, even if his claims are generally backed up by little supporting argument or evidence, and his principal accomplishment within the Russian context of the 1990s seems to have been the demonstration of a certain mastery of the canonical texts of Western European political theory, notably Carl Schmitt. It seems clear enough for example that the US appropriation of the North American continent, and the claiming of California early on as a state (1849), when the 'Indian Wars' still raged in much of the interior, had everything to do with an ambition to use this bi-coastal positioning for control of the two oceans. Hardly had California been incorporated when Hawaii, and then the Philippines, entered into the sights of the US government as constituting their own 'Near Abroad'. There was a similar motion eastward by the Russians intent on appropriating Siberia two centuries earlier, and they arrived at their own Pacific coast by the 1630s. But there does not seem to have been any comparable intention to use this access to two oceans for maritime global domination. Rather, the eastward movement was part of a millennia-long pendular pattern that includes the establishment of the hordes that had come from the other direction, and that always had as its goal only the domination of the continent, not the world. The Russians were securing control of the North Eurasian interior that had previously belonged to the Siberian Khanate, which in turn was a remnant of the same Mongol Empire that a few centuries earlier had extended to the Baltic Sea.
Again, the continent in question, on the Eurasianist view, includes Europe as a proper part. I really cannot understand why the shadow Russia casts over these parts is not perceived more sharply, or with greater dread. One frequently reads dismissals in the Western media, to the effect that it's all bluster, that Russia is in no position economically to really mount a plausible counter-hegemony within its sphere of influence, let alone at a global level. But Russia isn't terribly interested in economic dominance. It's often acknowledged in these dismissive articles that the one thing Russia does have that makes it something of a contender is its full arsenal of nuclear weapons. It is insinuated that these don't amount to much, because they are effectively unusable. But this is a sort of reassurance that one can only offer oneself if one is not paying close attention to the extreme ideological conditioning that the Eurasianist camp is performing on the military and foreign-policy elite in Russia. There are indeed Eurasianists on record as saying that nuclear holocaust would be preferable to the ongoing national humiliation of NATO hegemony within the former Soviet bloc. This is not about gruesome beheadings by criminal gangs like ISIS, or about the prospect of disadvantageous trade relations with a growing China and the possibility of ensuing proxy wars for regional dominance in the South China Sea. This is about a continent that is destructible hundreds of times over by nuclear weapons that are fully armed and ready, and a current Russian regime that is seriously mulling the idea that such a destiny for humanity is less bad than putting up with the circumstances of its present destiny: not being listened to or respected.
Mikhail Gorbachev is currently warning about the imminent 'return' of the Cold War, but this seems far too mild. There is now rumbling among certain members of the Duma about the possibility of putting Gorbachev himself on trial for treason: that is, for allowing the Soviet Union to break up. What Gorbachev allowed, in effect, was for Russia to lose its hegemony over the Near Abroad, and Putin now calls this loss 'the greatest tragedy of the 20th century'. Not the Holocaust, not Hiroshima, but the loss of Soviet power. This is what Putin is now committed to restoring, and perhaps, indeed, in an even more extensive form than the USSR could manage.
An official line is taking shape in the Putin regime according to which the Gorbachev-Yeltsin chapter amounts to a sort of recapitulation of the Bolshevik period, a temporary descent into chaos, while Putin is, if not a new Stalin (who remains a target of at least superficial offical criticism), then at least the bringer of a new period of law and order that bears some important similarities to the Stalin period of Soviet history. While Stalin pretended to be a continuator of the legacy of Lenin, however, this time around Putin is happy to position himself as counter-revolutionary, as the negation and opposite of everything Gorbachev might have hoped to see for Russia's future. The Soviets could continue to tell themselves to the very end that their attempts at establishing satellite regimes throughout the world were in the end a matter of 'exporting revolution'. Today by contrast there is no concealing the real character of Russia's campaign for greater regional hegemony: imperialism.
I'm certainly not pleased about US-NATO domination of Europe, and I believe it is crucal to continue striving for alternatives to the Pax Americana. But replacing one empire with another is not a viable alternative, and when it comes down to it I'm prepared to say that I strongly prefer the present arrangement. More importantly, so do the great majority of people living east of the former Iron Curtain, and west of Russia proper. It is therefore a question of support for self-determination, rather than of one empire over another, that compels the strong denunciation of Russian imperialism. Naturally, also, in the current political and economic crisis, some opportunistic leaders in the region, notably Viktor Orbán in Hungary, are prepared to declare liberal democracy a complete bust and to threaten a realignment towards Russia. Such a realignment would practically guarantee another 1956: a popular uprising against a sell-out regime, and a harsh crackdown sponsored by the power to whom they've sold out.
The case of Orbán is also telling: while a particularly misinformed understanding of Russia's role in the world sees that country as a sort of valiant counter-hegemon, Orbán's reasons for orienting towards Moscow are not that he prefers a genuinely radical and progressive alternative to the tepid and false promises of liberal democracy, but because he represents a genuine and full-fledged fascism of the sort that Russia pretends to be opposing in Ukraine. His regime sponsors or threatens pogroms against Roma and Jews, and it has created a general climate of xenophobia more oppressive, at this point, than anywhere else in Europe. This is what small countries like Hungary get when they trade in liberal democracy for a reorientation toward Moscow. I am certainly not trying to say that liberal democracy is not a great disappointment, or that we don't have the right to hope for something better, but only that whatever that better thing is will not come from Moscow.
So, I am not promoting 'hawkishness'; I'm not at all interested in joining the chorus sung now by George Soros and many others, which says that moral support for the Ukrainians means nothing if we do not also provide them with missiles. On the contrary, I think the best thing that can be done is to express such moral support --or, rather, political solidarity-- with anti-Putin forces within Russia, rather than allowing the imperialist regime there to stand, in our imaginations, for Russia tout court. This is the picture of Russia with which the vast majority of self-identified western leftists are perfectly happy to rest content, as if Russians could have no will other than the one embodied by the state. This is nothing more than a prejudice, and a great failure on the part of the western left.
Here are a few excerpts from Dugin's treatise:
There is virtually no geopolitician who would be removed from participation in the political life of his state. From this flows the evident partiality of all of them, without exception. The geopolitician, approaching his scientific research, is necessarily obligated to determine his own position on the map of geopolitical poles; from this the point of view will depend, from which he will undertake to analyze all world processes. In the entire history of geopolitics we do not find a single author who would be indifferent to the fate of his state and of his people, who would not share its fundamental ethical and historical orientation. This is made apparent with particular clarity in the distant poles by Anglo-Saxon authors, who impeccably and unambiguously follow the logic and the value system of the Sea Power, the thalassocracy, formulating their theories from the position of the unconditional defenders of Atlanticism; Russian Eurasians, equally consistent in their faith in the ideals of the heartland, do not even subject to doubt the absolute ethical and historical preeminence of the ideocracy of Russia-Eurasia...
A more complicated matter is that of the French, who have a theoretical choice in their self-identification either as a thalassocracy, or as a tellurocracy. In the first case, there follows a solidarity with the Anglo-Saxon world, with Sea Power; and in the second case, Germanophilia ensues. Both variants involve clear national sympathie. Theoretically both of these tendencies are present among French geopoliticians, but the more developed geopolitical conception has been worked out by the group of 'Atlanticists' following Vidal de la Blache, who remains the central figure in this area. His geopolitical antipodes, Lavalle and De Gaulle, largely acquiesce in his theoretical point of view.
Germany is also in a dual situation. If on the whole its geopolitical view is substantively oriented in a continental and Eurasian direction, this orientation is limited by a complicated relationship to the Slavic world, to Asia, and particularly to Russia. This limitation is so significant as to bring about attempts by Germany to voluntaristically compare its Middle European position with the Middle Eurasian one, ignoring in this way the historical meaning of Russia-Eurasia, and these attempts are so stubborn, that in both world wars Germany was compelled to fight not only against the thalassocratic powers, but against its logical Eurasian confederate Russia (USSR). It can be said that a 'non-Eurasian' continentalism is characteristic of German geopolitics. Such a situation sums up all of German history in a geopolitical formula, and predetermines the very structure of German national consciousness.
The necessity for the geopolitician to initially determine his own position on the geopolitical map of the world and its poles... has helped to bring it about that this science has developed almost exclusively among the representatives of the world bowers, having an ambition to becoming a 'world power' (Weltmacht), a 'superpower': an ambition to attain planetary domination.
Нет, практически, ни одного геополитика, который был бы отстранен от участия в политической жизни своего государства. Отсюда вытекает очевидная пристрастность всех без исключения. Геополитик, приступая к научным исследованиям, обязательно должен определить свое собственное место на карте геополитических полюсов; от этого будет зависеть тот угол зрения, под которым он станет анализировать все мировые процессы. Во всей истории геополитики мы не встречаем ни одного автора, который был бы безразличен к судьбе своего государства и своего народа, не разделял бы его основной этической и исторической ориентации. Особенно ярко это проявляется на крайних полюсах англосаксонские авторы безукоризненно и однозначно следуют логике и ценностной системе Sea Power, талассократии, формулируя свои теории с позиции безоговорочных сторонников атлантизма; русские евразийцы столь же последовательны в своей верности идеалам heartland'а они даже не ставят под сомнение абсолютное этическое и историческое превосходство идеократии и России-Евразии...
Сложнее обстоит дело с французами, у которых есть теоретический выбор самоидентификации либо талассократия, либо теллурократия. В первом случае, следует солидарность с англосаксонским миром, с Sea Power, во втором германофилия. Оба варианта подразумева ют безусловные национальные симпатии. Теоретически обе эти тенденции присутствуют среди французских геополитиков, но наиболее стройную геополитическую концепцию выработала группа 'атлантистов', последовате лей Видаля де ля Блаша, остающегося центральной фигурой в этой области. Его геополитические антиподы Лавалль и Де Голль с теоретической точки зрения значительно ему уступают.
У Германии тоже двойственная ситуация. Если в целом ее геополитическая мысль ориентирована преимущественно континентально и "евразийски", эта ориента ция ограничивается сложным отношением к славянско му миру, к Азии и особенно к России. Это ограничение настолько существенно и попытки Германии волюнта ристски уравнять свое срединно-европейское положение со срединно-евразийским, игнорируя тем самым историческое значение России-Евразии, настолько упорны, что в обеих мировых войнах Германия вынуждена была воевать не только против талассократических держав, но и против своего логического евразийского союзника России (СССР). Можно сказать, что для германской геополитики характерен "неевразийский" континентализм. Такая установка резюмирует в геополитической формуле всю немецкую историю и предопределяет саму структуру германского национального сознания.
Необходимость для геополитика изначально определить собственную позицию на геополитической карте мира и ее поясах... повлияла на то, что эта наука развивалась почти исключительно у представителей крупных держав, имеющих амбиции стать "мировым могуществом" (Weltmacht), "сверхдержавами", достичь планетарного господства.
"Every time they set out to return to the Balkans, they came across people fleeing from there. 'Are you out of your minds?' the people said. 'We barely got out alive, and you are trying to return? Down there death is everywhere!'" --Ismail Kadare, Three Elegies for Kosovo
It is a part of the world I know well, but this does not keep me free from prejudice. Already in the Vienna airport I can feel the defensive, reptilian, judgmental part of my brain taking over, colonizing the cosmopolitan and ecumenical lobes. I have been directed to that special wing of VIE for flights to cities that invariably instill unease: Belgrade, Tehran, Astana, Tiranë, Prishtina. This is the only part of the airport where they could not possibly remove the glass-encased cubicles for hardened smokers. I send a message to a friend and joke that I will need a shiny track suit and a broken nose in order to fit in at my destination.
But this is all unfair, and I should know better. There are plenty of track suits here, and men who huddle together and smoke in a way that appears, to those of us who come from across a certain geographical divide that seems to lie somewhere between Graz and Győr, but that will resist any attempt you make to define it with precision: that appears, I say, to be the prelude to a criminal overture. But it is in fact only a form of sociability, of male sociability, or of what some of my academic cohort would call homosociality, that still thrives in parts of the world where masculinity is less problematized. They are men, so of course they huddle together and smoke, and after a day or so in Kosovo one's vision comes into focus, and one sees these men everywhere, but no longer feels that unease that had so engulfed the traveller during what was really just a journey but felt distinctly like a descent.
Yes, one always descends into the Balkans, like some Dame Rebecca West. One takes up smoking again, despises health and well-being and complacent comfort, and feels the sharpest contempt for the sanctimonious academic colleagues one has left behind in the so-called West, with their performances of deep concern for all of humanity, which seem seldom to get much beyond recycling and childcare. Where are their track suits, one now wishes to know? Where is my track suit? Where are my cigarettes? Where is my broken nose?
I am here for a project that I would do better not to mention, for now, but inevitably I return, while here, to my perennial obsession with the question of the 'Oriental', not in that distorted sense in which Americans understand it, but rather in the sense that preoccupies Eastern Europeans and art historians: the question, namely, of the uniqueness of the West, of where it leaves off, and of the identity and prospects of all those people whose affiliation to it is in doubt. This is also the question of the weight of history, of historical legacies, and whether they can be changed by force of will.
There was a war here not long ago. Mass graves were filled by the bodies of people whose loved ones, the survivors, are still walking around, selling vegetables and bus tickets, huddling and smoking. This war was the expression of a sort of popular will, and it was part of a process of geopolitical realignment that ought to be of significant interest to self-identified Westerners, yet is not. Neither Samuel Huntington, nor Sam Harris, nor Bill Maher, nor anyone even lower among the pundits whose reptilian lobes do not just kick in in moments of distress, but whose careers in fact depend on the continuous buzzing of these lobes: none of these people, I note, ever care to acknowledge, in their professional performances of Islamophobia, that what is perhaps the most Americanophile country in the world is also a Muslim country. Today I went to the Museum of the History of Kosovo hoping to see ancient Venus figurines and sundry Thraco-Illyrian treasures. Instead I found only sacred objects and monuments relating to the very recent origins of the Republic: a NATO-themed portal; laminated copies of the New York Times tacked to the wall, telling of Serbian massacres and of the 1999 Rambouillet Accord; a sort of shrine to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair; and a hat worn by Misses Madeleine Albright.
I walked out and quickly found my way to the intersection of the boulevards Bill Klinton and Xhorxh Bush-- the latter of which might be able to preserve its air of foreignness, if the visitor has not yet learned the phonetic value of 'xh' in the Albanian alphabet. The crossing of a Democrat and a Republican does not present a problem for the Kosovars: both stand for America, and America, along with NATO, plays a key role in the somewhat hasty construction of a myth of national origins. How strange to be there and to witness this construction at such an early stage!
A recent article in the Washington Post describes a supposedly distant past in which "the West wanted Islam to curb Christian extremism." The variety of Christianity in question is Orthodoxy. Until his recent fall, the pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist known as Colonel Igor Strelkov had banned cursing and mandated daily prayer among his fighters, and had instilled a discipline based on an ideology of holy war for Christ and for nation. He is suspected in the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight. His first experience of war was as a mercenary, fighting on the side of Serbia, and he is believed to have been involved in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Višegrad in 1992.
The Russian-Serbian bond remains strong, and while Americans might not know that Kosovo is grateful toward their government, Russians most certainly do know this. Most recently, Serbia rescheduled its own Liberation Day parade in order to synchronize it with the visit of Vladimir Putin. There is talk of Serbia's newfound Putin-mania, but in fact the rhetoric of Russian-Serbian 'brotherhood', sometimes generalized as pan-Slavism, goes way back, and was a common theme in Russia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. I heard from many Russians at the time that they would have liked for their government to intervene directly (rather than only covertly supporting mercenaries), but that they were caught at a weak moment, and not prepared for a full-scale war against NATO. It is not nearly so certain that we would see the same passivity, should there be another confrontation between Albanian Kosovars and Serbia. Albanian Kosovars are, again, mostly Muslims, and their disputed territory is arguably the real flashpoint of global conflict. Is the Islamic State recruiting in the dark corners of Prishtina? Probably, but probably not nearly with the same intensity as in London or Paris. And anyhow the Islamic State doesn't have ICBMs, ready to launch at a moment's notice. Russia, the de facto Orthodox Christian monarchy to the East, most certainly does. The chatterers on American television are simply distracted.
If pushed, they would probably say that what we have here is not real Islam, it's secularized, Europeanized, de-Islamicized. Man, what is the name of this logical fallacy? It's not begging the question, but it's something like it: defining the concept in question so narrowly, in a way that is so closely honed to one's desired outcome, that one cannot fail to be right. If the fact that there are Muslims, who wear fezzes and love the sound of the call to prayer from their local minarets (which I can hear right now), but who are not prone to radicalism, means that these people are 'not really Muslims at all', then what one really means by 'Muslim' is 'radical Muslim'. But 'Christian' is still permitted to mean 'vaguely, culturally-but-not-practicing, post-Reformation Christian', while the fanatical war-mongering cults of Donetsk and Uganda are conveniently sidelined. You can go on not thinking about Uganda with little consequence other than the intrinsic shamefulness of your own ignorance. But Donetsk is a different story, and that story is a chapter in a book that includes the infant republic of Kosovo. Again, this is a book that is not about ideologues taking the first steps towards the enrichment of uranium, as has been the case in America's silly detours into the Middle East, but about ideologues with plenty of enriched uranium and fully functional delivery systems to ensure that that atomic stuff does some proper damage. None of us can know the future, of course, but for my money this is a far more important fact about our present predicament than your or my carbon footprint, or ebola, or radical Islam.
I have never studied Albanian, but it is one of the many languages I have 'looked into'. While flipping through manuals I have admired the so-called admirative verbal mood, which enables one to make explicit one's appreciation of another in the very conjugation of a verb (as a good friend has speculated, the admirative mood simply must have mutated into 'the sarcastic mood' under communism, when every statement was required to be maximally superlative and maximally earnest). I seem to understand nearly everything I see out in public, either because it is borrowed from a Latin, Slavic, or Turkic root, or because it comes from that deep Indo-European wellspring that unites so many of us. The language is held to be an oddity, in that it is the sole member of its own branch of the Indo-European family, and it was not until the mid-19th century that its membership in the family was established with certainty, thanks to the crucial lexical studies of the German linguist Franz Bopp. Albanian is generally thought to be a sort of hold-out or living fossil of a deeper Illyrian substrate: what was spoken, we may speculate, in the broader Hellenic world long before the Greeks took to writing and philosophizing.
Albanian is spoken natively not only in Albania and Kosovo, but also in Montenegro, Greece, Serbia, and, in its Arbëresh dialect, in southern Italy. Sometimes, the linguistic unity of Albanian speakers in all these countries inspires talk of the existence of a 'greater Albania', which in turn inspires fear of irredentism, or feigned fear for the pretext of repression, in all of the countries just mentioned. But it is unlikely that Albania will ever get much greater than it is at present. The Republic of Kosovo, for one thing, is very happy to be its own creature: ethnically Albanian, for the most part, but also Roma, Serbian, Bosniak, and Turkish (hence the five stars on its new flag). For another thing, there does not seem to be much of an irredentist spirit within Albania. Under communism, Enver Hoxha (with the 'xh' pronounced 'j', giving us the honorary title of a learned Ottoman elder) was far too isolationist to have much real interest in expansion. And before communism there was Zog I, King of the Albanians (whose name sounds fable-like to the foreign ear, but in fact means, simply, 'bird'). A complicated figure, King Zog was also President Zog, and he was sworn in on both the Quran and the Bible. Although he was the King of Albanians, and although he was linked by aristocratic genealogy to the Prince of Kosova, he does not seem to have had any interest in expanding the Albanian state to its maximum reach. Zog does not seem to have had much of a taste for the modern project of state-building as the project of ethnolinguistic homogenization.
Before Zog, there was Ottoman rule, in which ethnicity was one thing, the rule of the Sultan quite another, and no one thought that rule and ethnicity ought to be coextensive. It strikes me that however overripe the current Kosovar fawning over George Bush and all that he stands for might be, in the end it is motivated by a rejection, widespread among Kosovars, of the idea of the ethnic state, a rejection that keeps them relatively indifferent to the Albanian state, and that leaves them sharply opposed to the ethnonationalism and the very real irredentism of Serbia, which would retain Kosovo as a key part of 'greater Serbia' mostly because of the role certain medieval battles and monasteries here continue to play in the stories Serbia tells about itself. Serbians have a legitimate claim to these sites (all nations, not just Serbia, are generated and sustained by storytelling), and it will be a great disappointment if the Kosovar Albanians create serious obstacles to their access, particularly if they do so for punitive reasons. Anyhow the Ottoman empire, for all its anti-democratic dimensions, was in its own way cosmopolitan. Kosovo remains a sort of pocket of Ottomanism in a world surrounded by ethnic nation-states, and, surprisingly to us, it sees a place for this self-conception within the broader pax americana, with all the attendant kitsch of stars-and-stripes and bald eagles.
I am not a great fan of the American empire, but I always support local upstarts against regional thugs. I also believe --quite strongly in fact-- that cosmopolitanism has its virtues. And I am extremely wary of the Christian ethnonationalists of Eastern Europe who despise it.
One day I'm sitting in a rented SUV in a traffic jam, near yet far from LaGuardia, listening to NPR. Some harmless duffer, probably wearing a bowtie and a Yankees cap, is waxing sentimental about the great baseball stadiums of yore. I get in a plane and the next day I'm back in France and the taxi driver is listening to France Culture. Some professor is on, talking about Maurice Blanchot, who suspects that what we all really want, deep down, is to get spanked.
So I'm back in France. I came out of the airplane into a gauntlet of ads from HSBC, the ones asking you to imagine what banking is going to be like in the future. Whenever I see them I imagine how they will look --sorry, how they would look-- sticking out of post-apocalyptic rubble.
Really, I'm sorry. Elif Batuman has announced that we've exited the age of irony and have entered the age of awkwardness. Oy, Elif, I just can't keep up with all the ages, and I suppose that in itself is a prescription for countless awkward encounters. Anyhow I'm still dwelling on how ironic, not awkward, all the feverish proclamations of capitalism triumphant are going to look someday.
Now I'm back home, back in Europe. Where? When I got my French cellphone contract they told me I would have to call for a special forfait prior to any trips to North America, but they assured me I could use it anywhere in 'Europe'. This sounded strange, and ill-defined. I asked if I could use it in Romania. Yes, of course, the agent replied. Bulgaria? Yes. Croatia? I think so. Montenegro? Um. Moldova? Uh. Chechnya? No, definitely not. The poor young man was laughing, and a bit annoyed, but he got my point. Europe's vagueness is intrinsic to its constitution. This is what makes the E.U. so hard to transform into a political reality. It is not that it is 'porous', or that its boundaries are not secure, but rather that there is a vast region that is itself a great, planar boundary zone. It is, perhaps, that part of Europe that puts carpets on its walls, or the part that has a historical memory of Mongol or Turkic reigns. Except that for any attempt to define it, one can always come forth with a compelling reason to move 'it' a bit further west.
It is significant, more significant than anyone has appreciated since the Pax Americana settled over Western Europe in 1945, that during the war 'Hun' had served as a catch-all insult for Germans and Japanese alike (and implicitly, though this created a bit of a problem in accounting for the allied Russians, for everyone in between). A 'Hun' is a Eurasian, which up until the end of World War II included everyone from the Pacific coast all the way to Mitteleuropa. After the war, Germany was split, and the DDR fell into the sphere of influence of the Soviets. Tales are numerous of babies with demi-Mongolian features cropping up all over Berlin around, let's see, midwinter, 1946. I recall many people, among them my father, crossing Checkpoint Charlie in the mid-1980s and reporting back that the soldiers patrolling the streets of East Berlin were 'Central Asian' or 'Mongolian' (read 'Hunnic') in appearance. This commonplace endures. Thus Tim Judah, filing for the New York Review of Books from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, writes: "The tanks looked relatively modern. As they pulled away, a man whose head was sticking out of the hatch at the top of a tank waved at us. His features were central Asian." Judah is telling the truth, of course, but he is also playing on an ancient fear about the identity of Europe, one that seems little changed since Batu Khan's hordes faced Yuri II of Vladimir in 1237.
The Russians, many recently realigned Eastern Europeans now think, are the true descendants of the Mongol Horde. They bring the soldiers with the Asiatic physiognomies. This is what determines where the absolute boundaries must be drawn. This is what motivates Obama's speechwriters to write that "the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London." This is what brings NATO forward with its righteous Hollywood teleology, and this is what makes Putin puff out his chest and insist upon his terrible counter-history, his hordic revenge.
When I was studying in Leningrad a quarter-century ago, there was much hand-wringing about the identity of Russia, and its place in a changing world. "Are we European, or are we Asian?" This struck me as a childish, pointless question. Now I see it is a gravely important one, so important that the very future of the world may hang on its satisfactory resolution. That there is no real answer, that no amount of scrutiny of maps or of soil, or measurement of lines of latitude or of magnetic variation, could possibly resolve the question, can only make it all the more disconcerting that ICBMs are involved.
But I love Europe: I need to be in the place that is being fought over. That was always the attraction of Berlin, whatever the idiot youngsters are saying about that city today, about its 'urban spaces' and 'creative redesigns'.
When I was growing up on a defunct chicken farm in the central valley of California, there was a great barn out back in which someone had dumped thousands of books. They were covered in chicken shit, and they were the first books that truly provoked my imagination, made me a bibliophile... a coprobibliophile. Most of them would have been shit even without the shit: large-print Reader's Digest versions of the classics, wit and wisdom from Lady Bird Johnson, the 1971 AAA guide to the motor inns of Utah, etc. But there was one book that stuck out, that demanded to be cleaned off and studied: it was, I think, a 1975 statistical report of the Bundesministerium für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Forsten concerning the number of hectares of uncultivated forest in the Federal Republic of Germany. The key thing is that it was in German, and for me to find it there was a highly improbably sort of magic. I took it inside and treated it like a holy text, and opened it up and marveled at its impossibly long words, and at the thought that these words could actually have a meaning. Everything I've ever done since has been an attempt to unravel that meaning, and others like it.
But still, there is America, and what I love most about living in Europe, perhaps, is that I can now experience the continent of my birth with a similar sense of marvel and strangeness to the one with which I had so long experienced the continent of my ancestry. I can go there, to New Jersey, say, and I can feel the autumn beginning to set in, and I can feel, sharply, the great violence that made New Jersey possible, and the millennia that preceded it too. Or at least I think I can. Anyhow I feel estranged, in the proper sense: made into an étranger.
It is significant that one of the founding myths of the continent on which I currently find myself has to do with the rape of a Phoenician woman. Alternative translations will tell you that we should understand this 'rape' rather as a ravishment, or, seemingly much more innocuously, as an abduction. Yet we mustn't exaggerate the difference of connotation. One of the core features of Eurasian folk culture, spreading from the Adriatic Sea to Eastern Turkestan, is the idea that marriage is itself a rape or ravishment or taking-away for the purpose of non-consensual sex. This transgression must be enacted, if only ritualistically, in the wedding celebration. The family, with its recently discovered 'values', is a product of unspeakable violence. This is the anthropology of kinship, in Europe as in Asia. This is the story that gives Europe its name.
Every man carries his 'I.D.' at all times... upon his very face!
The arc of life: desire gives way to deadlines. The word that rides this arc all the way is 'determination', but its meaning shifts as we advance: from 'drive, vigor, spiritedness', to 'the order of things can be no other way'.
Nothing makes me angrier than when I hear someone ask, after a respectable dinner, 'Can I get you some dessert?' Do I look like I am five years old, that I should want a cup of pudding? A cream tart with berries? I am a grown man! No, no, I say, bring me some more salt!
Once I found myself at high table at Trinity College in Cambridge. I was sitting next to an ancient robed man, who wished to tell me what meals were like there before the war. 'It used to be they brought you two savories before your sweet', he offered. 'Now it's your savory, then your sweet, just like that'. This man had likely won all sorts of prizes; at the time I had still barely escaped juvenile delinquency. I didn't know what the word 'savory' meant, but I found the word 'sweet' obscenely undignified, and wondered why I had pushed so hard to gain a place at that table.
Benevolent community members can carve out 'safe spaces' here and there, but this will not prevent you from rupturing on the inside.
When I was 19 I still had not mastered the difference between 'its' and 'it's'. Around that time I realized that to gain such mastery, to perfect grammar and syntax and spelling, was my surest hope for gaining social capital, and eventually, perhaps, other forms of capital too. And now I am surrounded by literati who seem to write well enough in their published work, but from whom I receive e-mails in which they replace 'you' with 'u', in which they write 'definately', use 'good' as an adverb, and even leave the accent marks clean off of borrowed French terms. Some even boast that they let their editors take care of that stuff, that it is beneath the dignity of the true writer to worry about such things. And here I had supposed that to be a true writer meant to never let your standards drop, not for a second, not for any task, no matter how trivial.
I love America. I am sitting in a West-facing Mannahatta perch looking out at the helicopters over the Hudson, at honest New Jersey across the water, and at the Battleship Intrepid that makes me forget, momentarily, my hatred of war. I think of Canada, from where I have just arrived, and where I betrayed my country a few years ago by swearing loyalty to the queen and her successors. I think of all the tired recitations I hear of Canada's advantages over the US, especially, and worst of all, from self-identified progressive Americans. Sure, health care, gun control, etc. But there's no poetry in it!
Well, the Yukon is poetic. Baffin is poetic. But Canadians turn their backs on their great poetic North, and hug their southern border, as if for warmth, as if it were some fat sleeping spouse.
People involved in the production of high-prestige literary reviews, agents, publishers: they read jehsmith.com. I know they do because they write to me, full of praise, and tell me they want in on the action. So I send them ideas I have --'pitches', they're called-- and almost without exception I am told, 'This is not quite what we're looking for', or 'We need to find a more contemporary hook', or 'This wouldn't really appeal to a wide audience'. Then they say, 'Let's try to hammer something else out'. And I say: What the hell did you think I was going to deliver? Why not just leave me be, here, where I can write what I wish to write? How can it be that there is a whole class of people whose job it is to say, 'Instead of writing this thing that you wanted to write --which, don't get us wrong, we love-- why don't you write this other thing you didn't want to write?'?
Heidegger pretends to be getting closer to the true meaning of 'being' by using the archaic seyn instead of sein. We might just as well substitute, for the English verb 'to be', the Elizabethan 'bee'. Some paternalistic public-service ad campaign featuring an anthropomorphized hymenopteron telling kids to 'Bee smart, take your vitamins': does this get us closer to the primordial meaning of being?
Academic philosophers are now in the habit of mocking the unwashed masses for asking us, when seated next to us on airplanes and informed of our line of work, what our 'sayings' are. Well I think sayings are a fine thing to have, and am currently working on some of my own.
Azure! That’s me… I come from the caves of the dead
To hear the waves break by degrees of sound
And I see again the galleys of dawn rebound
From shadow in the golden oars’ thread.
My solitary hands call out to the lords,
Who pleased my pure fingers with their beards of salt;
I cried. They their dark victories took to exalt
And the fleeing gulfs of their vessels’ boards.
I hear the deep conchs and the martial horns
Imparting their rhythm to the flight of the oars;
The clear song of the rowers triggers a roar,
And the Gods reach, at the heroic prow exalted
In their ancient smile, and which the foam abhors,
Me, now, in their great kind arms envaulted.
Azur! c’est moi... Je viens des grottes de la mort
Entendre l’onde se rompre aux degrés sonores,
Et je revois les galères dans les aurores
Ressusciter de l’ombre au fil des rames d’or.
Mes solitaires mains appellent les monarques
Dont la barbe de sel amusait mes doigts purs;
Je pleurais. Ils chantaient leurs triomphes obscurs
Et les golfes enfuis aux poupes de leurs barques.
J’entends les conques profondes et les clairons
Militaires rythmer le vol des avirons;
Le chant clair des rameurs enchaîne le tumulte,
Et les Dieux, à la proue héroïque exaltés
Dans leur sourire antique et que l´écume insulte,
Tendent vers moi leurs bras indulgents et sculptés.
I, being sick of an Ague, have come out to Country for a change of Air. But in truth I am not so sick at all, and I embrace this circumstance with whole Heart, for it enables me to pursue, as is my true Vocation, still further Observations touching upon divers questions of Natural Philosophy.
The Duke, when he comes galloping through England between diplomatic missions to Vienna and Constantinople, makes light of my inquiries, and says mockingly how good it is that Philosophy now includes matters suitable for Ladies too. There was no room for the feminine sex in the Schools and their endless debates about the Quiddity of this and the Thisness of that, he laughs, but how fitting for a Duchess, with leisure to spare, to look with her magnifying Lens at the industry of Silkworms, at the fine detail of the leg of a Flea, or to place two such Lenses together within a Tube, and to look out at the Heavens, to chart the Eclipse of the Moon or to follow the path of a shooting Star.
But the Duke cannot see past his own Nose, I tell him, for in truth such matters were always of great concern to the Philosopher. For did Aristotle himself not wade in the Tides, searching for ever new forms of Corral, of Medusae and Polypi? Did he not describe the formation of Clouds and other Meteors, and the fatty exhalations of earth that we call Comets? No, ‘tis the Schools that shrank Philosophy down to the mere quarrel over Words, distorting the legacy of the great Aristotle, while neglecting altogether the work of Hippocrates, the Elder Pliny, Isidore of Seville. As if these too were not Philosophers! What these men possess, and the discoursers upon Quiddity lack, I believe, is Curiosity. Those discoursers suffer from Wind. They do not hunger for the World, nor have they Appetite for the astounding and infinite diversity of its Particulars.
When I arrived at the Estate yesterday I was delighted to learn that the servant child Tom had, with his parents’ encouragement, kept strong our Experiment in the culture and production of Silk since I helped him with it Summer last. My own Mother suffered not her servants to speak or play in her presence, nor in any way to show their fellow Humanity. Yet from the earliest age I could not help but take an interest in the knowledge they pass down from one generation to the next, which differs from the Learning of the natural Philosophers principally in this, that it be communicated not in books but in speech and in practice. The remedies Tom’s Mother offers for the Bee-Sting, for example, or even for a condition as mundane as the hic-Cough: is this not just as much a part of the totality of Learning, as are Observations made upon the elliptical Orbit of the Planets?
Meanwhile Tom’s Father turns up stones with mysterious unknown Writing upon them, during his long walks through the forest, and he has even shewn me his collection of Bones turned to Stone, among them monstrous horned Carapaces, and what look like the thigh bones of Oxen, but are far too large to belong to any known Beast of the Land. If we are ever to amass that great store of Observations, of which Lord Verulam only dreamt, that will help us to make truly sound Generalisations and to apply these efficaciously for the improvement of all Mankind, we will have to rely not just upon the Observations made by men of Learning --nay, for there are not nearly enough such Men--, but by everyone in a position to make ‘em, regardless of Sex or Station.
Now that I am here in the Country I will have time to return to my Correspondence, yea, to re-establish my lapsed Citizenship in the Republic of Letters, which has no Territory but in the Minds of Men. I am everywhere addicted to Contemplation, but it is only in quiet retreat that I have that much-needed Peace that enables me to turn my Thoughts into Words.
I will begin, this morning, with a brief report to Mr. Oldenburg on the Effluvia of the Loadstone, which I have been studying ever since I met that Irish impostor Valentine Greatrakes, who claimed for himself the Power to cure Illnesses by the bare Laying on of his Hands, but in fact was relying upon the hidden virtues of the Magnet. These virtues, I have now shewn, are no different from any other in Nature: they are to be explained not by hidden Affinities betwixt the Things of nature, nor by I-know-not-what action at a distance, but by the Emission of invisible Corpuscles that act directly upon surrounding Bodies, just as a heavy Hammer acts directly upon the Anvil that receives its Blows. Ah, but the absence of Mystery reveals in turn the greatest Mystery of all: the Order and Perfection of Nature itself! Who needs posit Ghosts and Sprites derrière les coulisses, when the Machine of this unending Natural Theatre is already wondrous enough!
My next letter will be to Freiherr Godfrey William von Leibnitz, of Hanover, who is surely my most faithful Correspondent of all, since our first meeting in the year 1676 following his entry into the Royal Society. I was in London at the time tending to some of the Duke’s debts, incurred by rash investments in the West Indies Sugar manufactury, while he meanwhile was waiting out a spell of inclement Weather for his transit home from Calais. Of course, as a woman I was not permitted to attend the closed Events of the day, but Leibnitz had wished to speak to me, I learned, about my Methods for the Production of Silk, so it was arranged that we would meet to walk through Hyde Park that very afternoon.
He confided in me his grand Plan to pay for many great projects --the establishment of learned academies in far-away Russia, the Illumination of the streets of Vienna by means of artificial Light-- all with Revenues derived from a system for Sericulture so intensive it would rival, in the city of Berlin alone, all the Silk of China. He was a Rêveur, that young man, and I happily told him everything I know, for I do not consider Knowledge a secret to be jealously guarded, and in any case I do not consider my own Technique for Breeding the Worms so as to yield perfect consistency in the quality of their threads any great Secret: I learnt it from Tom!
We spoke of many other things besides, of course. What a perfect Harmony of Minds I discovered with that man! I have never shunned the Company of his sex, but I have also never been infected with the disease of amorous Love. The Love however that is often called Platonick, it must be understood, is not devoid of Desire, but is rather a true and fitting Realisation of a Person’s deepest and truest Desire: to know lasting Union with another, lasting because it does not depend upon the fleeting states and vicissitudes of the Body.
So, as I’ve said, I must write to Leibnitz. But I hear Tom coming up the stairs just now. I expect he will want to show me this Stove he has been building, that regulates its own Heat, so he says. He calls it his own perpetual motion Machine! Truly, that boy has some ideas. I should like to see him a member of the Royal Society too someday. And afterward there is that tiresome Query from the Manx Physician, what’s-his-name, who wishes to solicit my opinion concerning the two-headed Calf lately turned up on that Island. And of course there are always more of the Duke’s affairs to tend to: the Sugar debts; the Hounds he wants returned to the breeder, who it seems have no taste for hunting down helpless Foxes.
And then there is the fiction I am composing, though I daren’t tell anyone yet, about a young Duchess who transits to the Moon by a clever use of Magnetism, and there conducts all manner of Observations touching upon Natural Philosophy. This Fiction, like all Fictions, engages the Fancy, so that the reader might be more readily led to the use of Reason. If only more of the writing of Philosophy could proceed in this wise, truly I believe we would see a great Increase in the numbers of Philosophers. I have just had this morning a new turn of events in the story, where the Heroine encounters a sort of Moon-Gnome who represents the figure of Mister Des-Cartes. I must write it out quickly before it sinks back down into the dark Morass of unfertilised Ideas. I am beginning to fear that the Letter to Leibnitz will have to wait until tomorrow.
I have no proper Learning in any subject, but I make do as best I can, through Correspondence and Communication with others, and by Force of my own Determination, in those subjects for which I have a natural Inclination. I lack such an Inclination in Mathematics, and in general in those fields of Learning that are concerned with Universal and Eternal things. My Mind’s Eye focuses as if spontaneously upon the variety of Things that come into being and pass away, the manifold of mortal, corruptible, astonishing Things. It is my most basic belief that these Things, too, are a veridical Reflection of the Wisdom of God, and that one may just as easily turn to them in order to discover the Divine Truths that do not change, as to the fixity of numbers and the relations between them. Here too, I say, is Philosophy.
I recall trembling with excitement that first day last February, as I ran down the icy sidewalk toward the General Secretary’s apartments. It’s hard to believe, this sudden turn of events. There I was, a few months ago, the author of a single monograph on the sources of Klopp’s doctoral dissertation on the concept of inertia. And now, here I am, the homeland's most renowned expert on Kloppism-Noginism, called by the GenSek himself to serve as his loyal tutor! After he was humiliated at the Security Council meeting when the ambassador from the United Provinces of C**** dropped that unscripted question about Klopp’s debt to Epicurus, the GenSek's councillors decided it was time for a crash-course in Kloppist-Noginist philosophy. As if that had anything to do with revolution and state-building!
You have to understand, the GenSek is a fine Kloppist-Noginist, but books just aren’t his forté: he was too busy making revolution back when others were preparing for their exams. His first exposure to Klopp was in prison, where he wound up in the aftermath of some low-level, hunger-driven chicken thievery. He never got his Klopp from a leather-bound volume in the collected works at the Philosophy Faculty. No, that was a luxury reserved to me, and others of my class. The GenSek got it from poverty, from life, from the dank prison air. Now it’s time for me to give him what I can from my world, so that I may thrive in his world. Because it is his world now.
At our first lesson we talked about Epicurus, and atoms: not the kind you can harness, so the scientists now say, to make apocalyptic weapons, but the kind that exist only as concepts, the kind that must be posited, some thought, so I tell the GenSek, in order to avoid logical pitfalls, such as, that bodies having dimension could be composed out of constituents lacking dimension. The GenSek interrupted, said that whatever only exists as a concept doesn’t exist at all, and so there’s no use talking about it. He said this with an intentional exaggeration of that folksy South-Eastern accent of his, and I couldn’t help find it endearing, even as it caused me to worry that he was really not catching on to the spirit of our lessons. I will have to try, I thought, to make it more relevant to the GenSek’s life and concerns.
At our next meeting the following week I told him to review Klopp’s 1857 manifesto, and to learn by heart the basic principles of Kloppist diacritics: that the basis of reality is body, which contains the principles of life and change; that the survival of the self does not depend on memory, and therefore each self is immortal simply in the constant permutations of body; and so on. There are four principles in all, the ‘Core Four’ we’re all supposed to know by heart, these days, by the end of primary school. What ten-year-old does not dream of being selected to recite the Core Four, green bandanna around his little neck, before a committee of local party functionaries, to display his perfect diction and to be crowned by a fully costumed Madame Elektrika, if he is lucky, with a wreath of yew leaves? The GenSek never went to primary school, and even if he had gone, that was before the revolution, and he would have heard nothing but stale old doctrine about the finiteness of the soul, the singular importance of what happens over the course of our mortal life, and the ultimate ground of all reality not in body, nor yet in matter or in spirit, but rather in various combinations of light and water. Benighted reactionaries!
When we next meet he is beaming with self-contentment. He tells me he has mastered the Core Four. “See,” he says in an uncharacteristically playful tone, “it’s never too late to learn.” He recites them to me a couple of times, One through Four, and then announces that this will be enough as a lesson for today. I had intended to introduce some new material on Chesterville’s three laws of inertia, but the GenSek is in charge, of course. He asks me about my childhood. I tell him the truth. My political record is solid and I’ve got nothing to hide. I tell him all about my French nanny and my disciplinary problems when Mum sent me away to boarding school at Le Rosey: it was, I explain, my delinquency in that staid environment that helped me to convince the nomination commission at the university of M**** that, in spite of my privileged background and my bookish habits, I had my share of revolutionary spirit too. The GenSek was silent, reflective, and so I kept on talking. I told him of how I eventually earned my degree in philosophy in the provincial University of G**** way out east of the Y**** Mountains where it’s always frozen. I told him my first intellectual love was the work of Rabelais, in which I admired the unabashed celebration of freedom and excess, but that I matured quickly when I took my first course on diacritics under the renowned Academician Korff. The GenSek had never heard of Academician Korff. Enough for today, he said.
When I next see him I come prepared with an elaborate lesson on Nogin’s 1907 ‘Letter from the Corn Exchange’, but the GenSek has other ideas. “I will give a speech on philosophy,” he announces. “It will be a grand speech, with electronic amplification, and it will be recorded on the best spools. I will speak of the Core Four, and inertia, and atoms. All the men of the Academy will be in attendance, especially this Korff.” Korff died some years ago, I tell him. “Well then whoever replaced him,” the GenSek continues, “and it will be made known that philosophy is a great priority in the construction of our Kloppist-Noginist society, and there will be much applause.”
The lessons continue, officially. Once a week I go the GenSek’s apartments to tutor him in philosophy. But most often I just sit there drinking strong black tea straight from the saucer as he paces back and forth, regaling me with disjointed stories about the revolution, or about the growth of industry in the next five years, all peppered here and there with allusions to atoms, or Chesterville’s three laws, or Klopp’s four principles. One grey afternoon as I was sitting in the GenSek’s favourite divan, dipping a beignet in clotted cream, he paced back and forth and blurted out to me, suddenly: “You know I’ve done away with Korg, don’t you?” ‘Done away’, Mister Secretary? I squeaked. “That’s right. I disassembled the atoms that once constituted that grovelling traitor.”
I can’t complain, I tell myself. I’m still alive.
He really surprises me sometimes. Just this last week he interrupted some tale of derring-do, how he and his comrades dynamited the railroad tracks outside of T**** or some such thing, in order to tell me of his plan to establish, at the end of his upcoming speech, a ‘philosophy medal’, to be handed out annually by the GenSek himself, in honor of philosophical contributions to the glory of our great revolutionary Kloppist-Noginist homeland. And do you know who is going to be the first recipient of said medal? You guessed right.
But there’s still more work to be done, if this is not to be a total wash. For one thing, I must see to it that the audience knows when to applaud, and more importantly when to stop applauding. It would be a disaster if the academicians failed to detect a profound philosophical observation the GenSek had just made, especially if this is an observation he associates with the lessons he has had from me. I would therefore like very much to rehearse with him, but he is intent on lecturing me, now, about the boons of automated sheep-shearing.
I place a sugarcube between my front teeth and allow the black tea to filter right through it. I really should try to get through to him somehow. There is much more than my philosophy medal on the line. I crunch the cube between my teeth and I replace it with a new one.
Things could be worse, and they may get worse soon. But I’ve made it this far. I’m being fed sugarcubes by the Basilisk (as he’s called in the streets). Hah! ‘The philosopher is an ass’, as that example from my logic textbook had it, so long ago. But what can I do? There is so much that is beyond my power.
1. As with, say, colour perception, reports on the direct experience of feelings are necessarily veridical. E.g., you cannot report (in good faith) that you are experiencing fear, while not in fact being afraid.
2. This experience reveals that fear is real. One needn't go looking for fear in the world, as one would go looking for bigfoot or quarks. This is just not what we have in mind when we attribute reality to certain things.
3. I experience love.
4. God is, by definition, love.
5. Therefore, God is real.
Issue will be taken, of course, with step 4, as having a stipulative character. I am taking it from 1 John 4:8, but others will look to other biblical passages and to other religious traditions to say that God is an anthropomorphized being of some sort, or a theriomorphized one, or a many-headed chimera: in any case, a conscious agent, not a feeling.
But here one might also note that any virtue or feeling at all can be, and often is, anthropomorphized: justice, beauty, purity, etc., have all been represented as human beings in the history of art, and a future historian or a Martian anthropologist would be forgiven for inferring, for example, that late-modern New Yorker-New Jerseyans follow a cult around the goddess of liberty. This is one of the central concerns of the Jean Seznec's great book of 1940, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: the Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art. We cannot make a facile distinction between the polytheism of the ancients and the artistic symbolism of the Renaissance: we often don't even know of ourselves whether we have in mind a concrete being, or rather an abstract ideal, principle, or emotion represented in the figure of a concrete being.
So I take it that in the Gospel of John what we are seeing is a stripping away of the symbolic dimensions of the social experience of God in order to lay bare the truth of the personal experience of God. And what we are left with is a sort of proof that is, in its own way, as forceful and incontrovertible as G. E. Moore's "Here is a hand, here is another hand..." It says, to distill the five steps down to the basic inference at their core: "Here is love, here is God..."
...the executioner himself adopts beside the block an offensively heroic pose, as if to do the thing with dignity were the only motive of the doing.
--Angela Carter, "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter"
I knew another of my periodic retreats from the public expression of political opinions had arrived when, contacted by a certain French media outlet for my views on the recent electoral victories of the Front National, I muttered something about how I've been busy writing about animals recently, and then quoted Kropotkin to the effect that the animals, unlike us, seem to get by just fine without holding elections at all.
The name I've just invoked should serve as a guide to the sort of 'deviations' I am about to express, relative to what is increasingly a party-line view among young metropolitan leftists and their hangers-on in fashion and lifestyle.
Well, it's hard to really talk about 'views' in the age of memes. Surely you've seen it by now: the ironized, memified representation of the guillotine, often accompanied by slogans announcing that this is the fate awaiting the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, that 'the French knew how to deal with the 1%', etc. Likely the most iconic representation of that execution device in the past few years is the one presented on the cover of the Spring, 2013, issue of Jacobin Magazine, showing it as the 'Giljotin': an IKEA-bought, home-assembled, mass-produced piece of furniture.
I am not an admirer of the original Jacobins, and for this reason I cannot support any media venture that derives its name from that movement. The magazine has on occasion shown itself to be a lucid defender of truth and justice, as for example in a recent defense of serious social-scientific critique of capitalism, against the frivolous academic-blogger culture's displacement of our attention to the all-pervasiveness of gender, and that same culture's vain dream of fixing the associated problems by compelling everyone, pretty much, to just watch their language, and to make regular public performances of preparedness for privilege-checking, of 'radical humility'. "Give me a card-carrying brocialist over one of these oily 'allies' any day" is surely among the most refreshingly exasperated pleas from the left I've read in a long, long time.
But still, shame on Jacobin for helping to turn a murder weapon into an icon of urban radical fashion. I understand that from a certain point of view it is the same desire for 'realness' that motivates them both to publish lovely screeds against silly liberal moralizing and dead-end identity-mongering, on the one hand, and on the other hand to insist that what they are really pushing for is revolution, and that revolution means heads are going to roll, etc. But in truth I strongly suspect that most educated urban twenty-somethings who flirt with the symbol do so in the secret hope and expectation that it is never in fact going to come to that, that they will never be called on to pull the lever on a Goldman Sachs CEO, or on the small child of a Goldman Sachs CEO (nipping inheritance structures in the bud), or on a former comrade now accused of harboring too many deviations. Anyhow I know I would not pull the lever, and in fact I do think a scenario in which I would be called upon to do so is likely enough in the near future that I consider it important to spell out my position now. I am on the side of the people being guillotined, whoever they are, by definition.
Am I with the 1% then? It is only the most ill-informed and romantic idea of the history of the guillotine's use that would lead a young person today to suppose that it is an execution instrument uniquely suited to the despatching of people who have it coming: one-percenters, idiot bourgeois with Izod shirts and with pink sweaters tied around their necks, or this ridiculous pair. You would have to know nothing at all about the actual events of the French Revolution to suppose that only the late-18th-century equivalents of these familiar types met their doom at the guillotine. At the university in Paris where I teach, for example, there is an ampitheater, in which I sometimes have the honor of lecturing, named after Olympe de Gouges. She was a brave and lucid French feminist, murdered by the Jacobins in 1793, at the guillotine, effectively for no other crime than taking the idea of égalité a bit too seriously.
Many also do not know that the blade continued to fall long after the French Revolution had congealed into the French state. It was a weapon of state violence, by which the state monopoly on violence, against its own citizens, was continually demonstrated and reaffirmed up until the last French execution in 1977. The death penalty was formally abolished in France in 1981, and it is this abolition that now gives France, along with other EU states, a compelling moral voice in its routine denunciations of the continued use of capital punishment as state terror in the United States.
During the 187 years of its use in France, the guillotine was also deployed by other regimes whose claim to be exacting revolutionary justice by means of it was even more disputable. It was deployed in the murder of at least 16,000 people in Nazi Germany, and was used in countless secret executions in the GDR. Anyone can use a guillotine, in fact, just as anyone can use an electric chair or a 'cocktail' of fatal chemicals. The idea that one method of capital punishment is specially suited to revolutionary justice, while others are strictly the mark of oppressive regimes, is a symptom of the same pathetically sloppy thinking about capital punishment that currently enables it to continue in the United States: if only we could find the right way of doing it, liberals and lawmakers seem to think, then it would be just fine.
Until his retirement in 1981, France employed a single state executioner, a functionary of the Republic named Marcel Chevalier. He was married to the daughter of the previous state executioner, and at the moment of the abolition of the death penalty his son was in training to succeed him. (Revolutions generate their own inheritance structures.)
Chevalier was last called to duty for the beheading of a certain Hamida Djandoubi, a 28-year-old Tunisian immigrant, on September 10, 1977. Djandoubi had murdered his former French girlfriend, Elisabeth Bouquet, three years earlier. He was the sort of criminal who could easily find his way to an electric chair in the US. He was a sadistic murderer, a member of an increasingly detested minority group, and there was nothing, but nothing, counter-revolutionary about his transgression.
Remarkable testimony of his death was given by Monique Mabelly, at the time the chief examining magistrate of Marseille [doyenne des juges d'instruction], who was obligated in view of her position to bear witness to the execution. She took personal notes on what she saw, and confided them to the Lord Chancellor Robert Badinter, who in turn had them published in Le Monde in 2013, a year after her death.
She bears profound and revolting testimony to the true nature of what she sees. She relates surprisingly significant details, as when the executioner Chevalier takes off Djandoubi's handcuffs in order to replace them by a cord, and exclaims in joking reassurance, "You see, you're free!" She describes how the condemned man desperately stalls for time like a child who does not want to go to bed.
She describes turning away just before the blade comes down, not for fear of 'losing it', "but out of a sort of instinctive, visceral shame (I do not find another word)." And she describes what happened next:
I hear a dull sound. I look again - there is blood, a lot of blood, very red blood - , the body has tumbled into the basket. In one second a life has been cut off. The man who spoke less than one minute before is now nothing more than a blue pair of pyjamas in a basket. A guard takes up a spray hose. One must quickly remove the traces of a crime... I have a sort of nausea, which I control. I have in me a cold revulsion.
The return of the guillotine remains, for now, not a crime, but only a meme. It would be good if some of the people who are spreading it could feel a trace of the shame Monique Mabelly felt when the French state last asserted its power by using that revolutionary weapon on a sorry and powerless man.
Surely no one makes the case for orthophemism as a virtue of public speech more clearly than Cicero: "When you speak of the anus," he writes, "you call it by a name [‘anus’, i.e., ‘ring’] that is not its own; why not rather call it by its own [i.e., ‘culus’]? If it is indecent, do not use even the substituted name; if not, you had better call it by its own" (Epistolae ad familiares IX xxii).
This sounds like a reasonable enough demand: say what you mean, don't hide it, don't hold back. But notice what has happened in the languages that descend from Latin or that have borrowed heavily from its vocabulary: the straightshooting word (culus) has become a profanity (French cul, Spanish culo, etc.), and the word (anus) previously used for talking around what was really in question has moved in to serve as the orthophemism par excellence: doctors now say 'anus' to their patients to signal that they mean the actual anatomical region, with no cultural, moral, or aesthetic judgment implied; family members and other intimates will speak of their 'butts' or (Br.) 'bums'; prudes and kindergarten teachers say 'bottom'; while Lyndon B. Johnson, in celebration of his presidential might, proudly sings the song of his own 'bunghole'.
There is a wide array of choices here, but one senses that none gets it quite right. One senses in fact that it is impossible to get it right. All you can do is speak of the thing in question at various registers, and the trick of communication is to be able to judge what the correct register is in a given situation.
Anus started out as a euphemism, one meant to bring to mind rings in general rather than that particular sphincter (thus the noteworthy similarity to words such as the Latin annus, the Spanish año, and the English annual: all suggesting a cyclical or ring-like motion of the seasons back to where they started). Anyone who thinks that bodily opening can always be adequately discussed in total abstraction from its cultural, moral, aesthetic, etc., implications is missing out on most of what in fact motivates people to turn to this topic of conversation. We are not proctologists. If we insist too hard on using the proctological orthophemism, we will find that it, too, starts to sound funny, and we'll have to move on to another supposed anchor of correctness.
When it comes to words for the genital organs, the truth is I just don't know what to say. 'Penis' and 'vagina' are out of the question. These, too, like anus, started out as Latin euphemisms. 'Penis' for example derives from a word for 'tail', and thus, like the German Schwanz, originates as a euphemism of the most common sort: a terminological displacement to another slightly more acceptable bodily part, presumably rendered safer by the fact that it is a part human beings lack. It is hard also not to believe that it is this particular lexeme that prevailed, at least for a time, in part as a result of a fortuitous impression of onomatopoeia: penises pee, just as bees buzz. It's all so hopelessly diminutive, primitive, fundamentally unserious, notwithstanding its pretense of directness.
'Penis', 'vagina': people never just use these words, without also wanting it to be registered that they are using them. You've surely felt this yourself, as a speaker or a listener: the way they hang in the air, the way they demand recognition, even as the official rule of the conversational game is that one must take them straightfacedly, like adults. Like urologists.
As I've said, I just can't play along. Nothing seems to work. I go searching in foreign tongues: I speak of le sexe, le membre. I go looking for archaicisms, such as 'the yard', or I deploy poetical convolutions, like 'the mound of Venus'. But these overreach, and I retreat in embarrassment. I want to rewind and erase. I go searching instead in the dusty old files of vulgarities I learned in youth. But these are too low, now, and would give the impression of slumming (only 'cunt', I find, has any philological nobility). No, nothing works. Not the dysphemistic dick, nor the orthophemistic penis, nor yet the various high-brow talkings-around to which I have access thanks to my education in arts and letters. I just can't find the right register.
When I do say these words, against my very nature, they hang in the air like lies.
Cicero missed the point, later established by solid sociolinguistic evidence, that any attempt to fix the right word once and for all will only send our imaginations elsewhere. This is what Eve Ensler has missed too, and all of our earnest young-adult friends in academic and self-styled progressive circles who use the language of urology to publicly display their coming of age, their sérieux. But there is perhaps a corollary point to the one Cicero makes: that if you wish to speak about something, you had better be sure you are ready to do so. On this line of thinking the fact that it is so hard to find the right register when it comes to the genital organs is a result of their, shall we say, particularly charged role in human life, in human imagination, phantasm, lore.
Academics, and other right-thinking people, imagine that it would be a mark of progress to drain the genitals of this charge. It seems to me however that the difficulty of finding the right register, and the essential instability of any elected orthophemism, could be a perfectly appropriate reflection of the significance of the domain of human life in question. Insisting on the clinical term neither deflates nor faces up to this significance, but in the end only constitutes its own sort of evasion.
If cultural studies were not so wrapped up in the vapid and fleeting, to the point where they forget all about Baudelaire's injunction to find 'the eternal in the ephemeral', they might just be able to discern some important truths about the sacred character of popular music.
Les Murray has compellingly described religion as poetry spoken 'in loving repetition'. When I was 13 I was baptized in the Catholic church. I had been the only unbaptized student in a Catholic elementary school, and it was judged at some point that I might fit in better if I were to become a member of the flock. I acquiesced, happily, and for a year or so I muttered the rosary with deep inward yearning, an obsessive-compulsive freak: in loving repetition.
This experience overlaps in my memory with a period of intense, ridiculous, adolescent Beatlemania. I knew all their birthdays, all their parents' birthdays, the precise layouts of the streets of Liverpool, of Hamburg, the bra size of May Pang. I knew, most of all, the precise contours of every available recording of every Beatles song, whether canonical or bootleg.
I do not remember whether the Beatles came before, or after, the Catholicism. What I remember is that they blended perfectly into one another in my fantasy life.
Now the recordings, though I played them back in loving repetition, were not, strictly speaking, repeated. They were each performed only once, in a studio, at some point in the 1960s, before I was born. Perhaps these singular performances involved tracks, and so multiple recordings of different elements, but in any case the whole production of the authoritative version was completed in a finite, no doubt very short, series of steps.
What was produced was what Nelson Goodman would call an 'allographic' artwork: a work that can be fully experienced even if the thing itself remains remote, even if the thing itself is indefinable. My copy of the White Album, scooped up at a San Francisco garage sale from some kindly hippie, repairing his VW bus, circa 1985, cannot in any sense be said to be the White Album, and yet I have experienced the White Album as fully as anyone has simply by bringing this copy home and putting it on the record player and listening to it: in loving repetition.
The recording of that album fixed and eternalized a number of contingencies, a number of things that could just as well not have happened: some words muttered, George's fingers staying on the strings a microsecond too long and generating that superfluous but not unpleasant string noise for which I'm sure there's a term. These contingencies become canonical. They are awaited lovingly by the knowing listener. They arrive as expected, and they reconfirm the aesthetic order of the world.
This reconfirmation is just as strong when it is experienced in supposedly bad pop music as when it is experienced in the great instances. It is there when Rufus calls out to Chaka Khan, and when Paula Abdul dismisses her would-be lover with just the number of stuttered consonants she has to offer up, and not more or less: B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bye. Who, tuned into the FM radio universe of the mid-1980s, did not know what that number was? Who could not feel it coming on, and feel it, when it came, reconfirming the order? This is an unusual way of experiencing music: in the form of allographic, canonical tokens of singular type-recordings. But it supervenes on something much older, even something primordial.
For me, conceptual questions in aesthetics, and perhaps in philosophy in general, are best answered genealogically. And a key genealogical question to be asked for most modern and technologically mediated art forms is: What is that human experience out of which this new form emerges? In the case of cinema, we are fairly familiar by now with the analysis of this new art form into its constitutive ancestral lineages: the realist novel, certain schools of European painting, the shadow theater. We know, also, that the era of musical recording was preceded by a period of commercial standardization of sheet music, which was sold and distributed and played around household pianos by a bourgeoisie that was generally far more musically literate than would be later consumers of vinyl, or CDs, or of the services of Spotify.
The domestic performance of sheet music allowed, certainly, for variability in each instance, but the very standardization of the notes on the page was already a stage on the way towards recording. What surely remained most variable, when families gathered around pianos, was the recitative element, that is, the lyrics, the part of music that has the most evident share in poetry.
To the extent that music involves repetition, whether of melodies or chords or words, it is all rooted in poetry. This is ancient, but still clear in certain traditions that survive into the era of recording, such as the Russian bard style of Vysotsky (the homonymy with Shakespeare's moniker is not coincidental). Here, as in the music of Seikilos, there is a cycle of words, whose transcendent or non-mundane force is heightened by an accompanying string instrument, but not subordinated to that instrument. In general, if one wishes to find the pre-recording roots of popular music, one does well to look, not only to the history of music strictly speaking (melody and harmony in particular), but also to traditions of oral poetry and oral lore. Alan Lomax seems to have understood this very well in his field recordings: he realized he could not go in and ask only to hear the tunes of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta, but had to listen to the folk tales as well.
We know that a number of the world's most glorious works of epic poetry, including Homeric epic, began as traditions of oral recitation, presumably involving some degree of rhythmic articulation, and perhaps also inflections of the voice's pitch and timber. In this respect, literature and music are really only different trajectories of the same deeper aesthetic activity: a repetition that reconfirms, or reestablishes, or perhaps recreates, the order of the world. To be invested in this repetition aesthetically is to experience it with love, which again, following Murray, is nothing other than religion itself.
I've been reading recently the transcribed version of the Yakut heroic epos, the Olonkho-- considered to be the Urtext of pre-Islamic Turkic mythology, preserved across the centuries in the oral tradition of northeastern Siberia. It speaks of snow, and reindeer, and human beings, and ancestors, and the transcendent cause of all of this. What I am reading is a trace, not the real thing, and it is enjoyable to attempt to imagine the proper mise-en-scène, by a trusted elder, of these events to which I have only minimal access, and from which the trace nature of the textual version distances me even more. One imagines an expert raconteur, someone who relates the Olonkho with a degree of mastery comparable to the mastery we recognize as involved in conducting the Ring Cycle or playing Othello.
What one would particularly relish, it is easy to imagine, experiencing the recitation directly, and intimately, would be the variety of deviations, and the way the master raconteur controls the deviations for such-and-such desired effect. 'Here comes that part where he's going to make a bear-grunt noise!' the Yakut adolescent might think to himself. And then it comes, and it's slightly different than the last time, yet perfectly, satisfyingly different. The repetitions are irreducibly social, variable yet constant, and mediated through a figure who in turn mediates between the human and the transhuman spheres of existence.
It is an unusual state of affairs when the repetition can be experienced both in a way that is not directly social, at home with headphones on in front of a record player, and in a way that involves total invariability from one 'performance' to the next. My experience of the Catholic faith was also somewhat unusual: it consisted almost entirely in private mutterings of memorized prayers, in a way that remained almost completely oblivious to the existence of the Church, the coming together of two or more people that in turn calls God to presence as well. But these obsessive compulsions, like the socially mediated recitation of epic, or like technologically mediated communion with god-like pop stars through recorded tokens of their canonical creations, are all, as I've said, the work of love.
This love seems to send a person straight outside of himself. But since this cannot really happen, since we all in fact stay right where we are, the ecstasy arrives in the next best way possible: through a cycling back, again and again, to the syllables and sounds that order the world, and that may give some hint of its true cause and nature.
God, on a certain widespread understanding, is an imaginary friend for the childish and simpleminded. Those so accused will often defend themselves: but I don't mean a white-bearded old-man God. I just mean, you know, something. A first mover, a ground, an ultimate end of the series of causes. If that all sounds too medieval, then you are free to invoke some vague and universalist notion of a 'higher power', which we cannot know directly but in reference to which our own lower powers, of goodness and love in particular, make sense. God can be mostly gutted of mythology, and with some success re-stuffed and propped back up as a pure product of reason, or even just of right-mindedness.
Not so with the angels: there is likely no way to enter into angelological disquisitions without being received as a hollering streetcorner proselytizer, with those bright, kitschly illustrated pamphlets depicting life in the clouds. God might not be an old man with a beard, but angels are always ridiculous wingèd humanoids in white, perverted fat cherubim, Michael Landon. They are for sad and lonely people with diminished resources, people locked away in rest homes, who live their lives anchored to the cycle of the daytime TV line-up.
A pair of considerations, coming from the history of European philosophy, might help to liberate the angels from this reduced and degraded repertoire. The medieval period is of course often mocked as the span of centuries in which philosophers wasted their inborn talents debating pointless questions about angels on the heads of pins. But as many scholars have noted, this long period is by no means static, and what we in fact see is a gradual progression from the 12th to the 16th centuries in which angels evolve, from beings whose nature and properties are in need of straightforward explanation, to the posits of thought experiments. It becomes ever less important to account for how angels actually are, and ever more important to use the concept of angels in the analysis of, say, intelligence, or individual substance, in order to better be able to account for what these things are. (And these things are, the reader is imagined to presume, more plausible candidates for the status of actual things than angels are.)
Now it might be supposed that this changing role is simply a stage on the path to the eventual full disappearance of the angels from the way we talk about the world. This would not be entirely incorrect, and it brings us to our second point: between roughly 1650 and 1750, angels appear to be replaced by aliens. To put this slightly differently, talk of supernatural beings intermediate between God and men gives way to talk of advanced celestial beings that are far greater than human beings, but not for that reason supernatural. There is virtually no European philosopher writing in this period who does not affirm their existence, under various descriptions and titles. Leibniz called them génies, Kant conceived them as "the more perfect classes of rational beings." The reasons for this transformation are several, and it has most importantly to do with the uniformization of nature, the collapse of the distinction between the superlunar and the terrestrial spheres, and the consequent rise of what is sometimes called 'the Harlequin principle': the idea that toujours et partout, c'est tout comme ici.
I've written about this transformation at great length elsewhere. What I want to emphasize here is something different: that you can't get rid of the angels. You push them out of your ontology, or you allow them to remain only as etiolated conceptual posits without any real being of their own, and lo, they return in a new guise: from the angelic hierarchies of Ezekiel to the many-worlds fantasies of early modern science fiction, it has proven exceedingly hard for human beings to think of themselves as the end of the line, as the ne plus ultra of the cosmos's various actors.
One might mention at this point the fellow beings, convoked or hallucinated, whenever DMT is illegally ingested (and thus adds to the DMT already naturally occurring-- your brain is always already on drugs), and one might in the same breath recall the SETI program and the vain hurling of bottled messages, in the form of radio waves, out into space. Both of these experiences, in very different senses of the word 'experience', and from very different spheres of contemporary culture, reinforce the idea, as it is also often said of God, that there simply has to be something. We cannot get these beings out of our minds-- our minds even seem neurochemically predisposed to recall them to attention under certain circumstances.
The astrophysicists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial life generally suppose that this search is limited to our xenobiological counterparts, and does not concern disembodied or ethereal beings, but only beings of flesh and blood, or whatever the materials are on the extraterrestrial's planet that come together to constitute something we would be in a position to recognize as a living body. But the search itself is the practical culmination of the speculation that we see in Leibniz and Kant, and this speculation is plainly the descendant of angelology. We conceive the celestial beings according to the idiom and conventions of our era, and so in this era of naturalism they are organic beings, like us, with internal organs, mixtures of fluids and soft parts and bone, that come together for a time as a result of natural generation. They are generally humanoid. But just a moment of reflection should suffice to reveal the improbability of such a situation. Extraterrestrials as currently conceived are arguably just as absurd, and just as much a reflection of our own cultural moment, as the Seraphim and Elohim have been to those whose world is shaped by the Talmud.
Do I believe in angels? Well, I believe that supramundane intelligences are not going to go away, and this quite apart from the question whether they turn out in the end to exist or not. With angels as with God, our own era has lapsed into a sort of thinking that would be more appropriate to the search for Bigfoot: looking for clumps of rough orange hair brushed off on trees, for footprints and photographs. Though even here there is room for debate: Tim Ingold for example argues that cryptozoology is but an impoverished form of mythology, and that it is always a misunderstanding to attempt to give a biological account of the beings that play a role in our cognitive and imaginative landscape without for that reason needing to exist as masses of hair and flesh and blood. I believe it is very plausible to see SETI and similar undertakings, in the same way, as impoverishments of premodern angelology. It is not at all that I am opposed to xenobiology as a collective scientific project. But I do wish that there were improved understanding of the ways in which our contemporary preoccupations are rooted in deep history, and emerge out of preoccupations that only appear foreign and distant as a result of our general and total historical illiteracy.
I believe we need to pay serious attention to the recurring patterns in the way human cultures experience the world as filled and animated by different classes of being. This can be done scientifically, and indeed is far truer to the spirit of science than the thick-skulled and thoroughly uninteresting dichotomization of the existent and the non-existent that currently prevails in the tedious Culture War opposition between believers and non-believers.
People experience the world as filled and animated by beings of all sorts. Daniel Dennett calls this our evolved hyperactive intentionality detection device. This may be the case. It may also be that my pervasive habit of thinking about myself, say, or of Dan Dennett, as the sort of things it would be a shame to kill needlessly is the result of an evolved hyperactive morally-relevant-entity-detection device. In all these cases, though, whatever the evolutionary account that can be given, there is surely also an interesting fact --a phenomenological fact, an anthropological fact, perhaps a moral fact, and perhaps even a theological fact-- that people tend to experience the world in the way they do. For certain immediate purposes in everyday life it is a lot harder to dispatch the self or midsized physical objects than it is to get rid of angels, and this is perhaps why we still allow people to deploy the latter sort of evolved detection device, while we ridicule people who mistake the former for a revelation of angels, ghosts, or benevolent ancestors.
But beyond the accomplishment of these simple tasks --opening doors, asking for directions-- there are the full and rich lives we live out, made rich largely by the stories we tell and the beings that figure into these stories, whose existence as clumps or masses does not require proof. This aspect of life receives little attention, or is only condescendingly and passingly treated, by the prideful professional spokesmen for the exhaustiveness of contemporary science. It is here, in these stories --'in loving repetition', as Les Murray describes religious faith-- that one encounters the angels.
‘Nature’, in common usage, can mean a number of different things. Sometimes it refers to the external world, and more particularly to the earth’s surface, and more particularly still to that part of the earth’s surface made up of biomass. In the same general conceptual vicinity, we also find the notion of nature as environment, as the surrounding medium through which we move. At other times, ‘nature’ refers to the particular nature of a given being, or what is sometimes called ‘essence’-- what it is to be a particular entity rather than another.
The first sense of ‘nature’ reflects the word’s etymology, which is rooted in the Latin verb nasci, ‘to be born’. Nature, on this understanding, is that which undergoes generation and growth (and generally also corruption or death). This connection between nature and birth is similarly reflected in the Slavic and many other Indo-European languages (in Russian, for example, nature is priroda, connected to the verb rodit’sia, ‘to be born’; in the Sanskrit prakṛti by contrast the verbal root has to do more with active creation than with generation). If less evidently, the concepts of generation and growth are also embedded in the Greek term physis, from which of course we get both ‘physical’ and what is sometimes held to lie beyond this, the ‘metaphysical’.
In Aristotle, physis describes what is everywhere the same, in contrast with human-based nomos or ‘custom’: thus he observes in the Nicomachean Ethics that in Persia as in Greece, fire burns the same. This burning is governed by nature rather than by culture, and therefore national boundaries have no bearing on it. Yet nature as the indifferent background to or support of human life is not prior, conceptually or temporally, to nature as essence. In fact, the first occurrence of physis, in Homer’s Odyssey, refers to the particular nature of a plant: here we read of Argeiphontes, who draws a plant from the ground and shows it to the narrator, revealing its unique physis.
How are these two primary meanings of ‘nature’ related? And what is the significance of their lexical overlap? In Aristotle, physis had been in different senses both the matter and form of a thing, that is, both the ‘physical’ stuff from which a thing is made, as well as the immaterial principle that makes that stuff into a particular thing. In the modern period, there would be little room for form, and we see attempts such as Descartes’s to account for all of nature as consisting entirely in the modifications of res extensa or extended stuff. Eventually, the notion of the ‘metaphysical’ would take on connotations very much like the ‘supernatural’, which latter is in the end a Latin rendering of the former Greek, even if the two terms have had very different and only partially overlapping histories. For many in the modern period, beginning roughly in the era of Descartes, we are left with nature, or nothing at all (except in the very reduced domain of the human soul): there can be no principles above or outside of the natural world giving it shape or imbuing individual things with their particular natures, and nor can this ‘within’ be conceived as consisting in immaterial principles such as form or entelechy or soul.
Nature is also often held to be a first principle or a source, a behind-the-scenes operator that makes the scene what it is. In this role it can move between both form and matter: on the one hand, it is the essence, or the immaterial something that makes a bodily being the sort of being it is; on the other hand, nature is the formless generative stuff out of which forms arise. In this latter role, it is sometimes popularly envisioned as ‘Mother Nature’, a personification that is not at all surprising when we bear in mind the etymology of the term. Nature so conceived is not just a source but also a ‘secret’: as Pierre Hadot has compellingly shown, the idea that ‘nature loves to hide’, first expressed in an enigmatic fragment of Heraclitus, is very deeply rooted in Western intellectual traditions.
Nature, as we have seen, sometimes contrasts with social or custom-based nomos, and at other times it contrasts with what is above or outside of nature; it also contrasts with the unnatural. This latter term itself is understood in many different ways. Often, ‘unnatural’ is used simply as a veiled moral judgment, against ‘sodomy’, for example, or pizza for breakfast. To identify a thing or a deed as unnatural here is simply to disapprove of it, while invoking, plausibly or implausibly, an eternal moral order that somehow governs the order of nature. Beyond simple moral judgment, the ‘unnatural’ can be understood to describe products of human activity that violate or go against the proper functioning of nature, or, in turn, simply those products of human activity that cause nature to do something it wouldn’t ordinarily do, and this for the betterment of human life. While Aristotle excludes most products of the technical arts [technai] from the domain of the natural, he also recognizes that not all art is merely imitative: “the arts either, on the basis of Nature, carry things further [epitelei] than Nature can, or they imitate [mimeitai] Nature.” As William R. Newman notes, for Aristotle certain artisanal procedures, such as broiling and boiling, are also natural processes, and so their products can be understood as natural, albeit ‘perfected’ --not in the sense of outdoing nature, but more modestly of improving or furthering its works-- through human ingenuity.
There does not seem to be any clear criteria by which to judge a particular artificial process imitative or perfective, but there is a clear evaluative judgment in this distinction: if we manipulate nature, we should be careful to limit our manipulation to steward-like direction, rather than setting ourselves up as gods capable of reproducing nature by our design and for our own ends. All three of these sense of ‘unnatural’ --as setting ourselves up as the makers of processes that imitate nature, as harnessing for our own ends the latent powers of nature, and, finally, as moral transgression-- blend easily into one another. Wherever human beings probe too deeply into nature’s hidden forces, there is a perceived threat of what Newman nicely calls ‘Promethean ambition’: getting into trouble by attempting, as they say, to play God. The poet James Merrill describes this condition forcefully in his lines, from The Changing Light at Sandover, on nuclear technology: “Powers at the heart of matter, powers / We shall have hacked through thorns to kiss awake, / Will open baleful, sweeping eyes, draw breath / And speak new formulae of megadeath.”
By now we have identified several pairs of opposed concepts:
1. Nature (as source of generations, as natura naturans, as ‘Mother Nature’) vs. particular generated beings
2. Nature (as formal essence) vs. matter
3. Nature (as external world) vs. the self
4. Nature (as external world) vs. culture or nomos
5. Nature (as wilderness) vs. human settlement
6. Nature vs. the supernatural
7. Nature vs. the unnatural
7.1. The unnatural as moral transgression
7.2. The unnatural as mimetic artifice (including the mechanical reproduction of natural systems).
In view of this tremendous polysemy of the term in question, it is worth revisiting a well-known scholarly thesis, most closely associated with the innovative work of Carolyn Merchant, according to which the early modern period witnessed the ‘death of nature’. This death is supposed to have been caused by the equally well-known ‘mechanization of the world picture’, whose principal agent, or culprit, René Descartes is often taken to be. But which nature, exactly? Surely Descartes could not have taken down all of these different senses of the term together? In fact, when Merchant speaks of the death of nature, she has in mind only 7.2 above. She believes that as a result of the scientific revolution, we have lost a world that was ‘organic’, and we have reconceptualized the entire world instead on the model of the machines of our own invention. For 16th-century Europeans, she explains, “the root metaphor binding together the self, society, and the cosmos was that of an organism.” As a result of the scientific revolution, by some time in the 17th century, Merchant believes, the world came to be conceived as a machine rather than an organism, as a clockwork rather than a living being. In its core claims Merchant’s account differs little from the triumphalist historiography that long dominated in the secondary literature on the early modern European rise of science: she simply describes disapprovingly what E. J. Dijksterhuis and Alexandre Koyré in their classic studies, for example, relate with pride.
But why should we suppose that 16th-century Europeans had any particularly valuable insights into the nature of the surrounding world and of our place within it? By now the ‘death of nature’ thesis has been criticized on many fronts, but so far most of them have remained within a philosophical and idea-historical perspective which takes for granted the universal validity of the classical Western concept of physis or natura, and fail to take seriously the significant comparative evidence for the peculiarly local dimensions of the history of the concept of nature, or of concepts from the non-European world that partially overlap with nature. The announcement of nature’s death turns out to be little more than a notice of death within a fairly small parish, and this parochial perspective makes it very difficult to take adequate stock of the real significance of the local changes that occurred in the history of the concept at the beginning of European modernity.
In the modern period, nature, notwithstanding rumors of its death, is alive and well. It is not the case that until the modern period Europeans and non-Europeans alike were blissfully pananimist, and that with the rise of science the Europeans turned their nature into a machine while the rest of the world went on happily conceptualizing it as a living, growing, vital being that existed in constant harmonious interchange with human society. This account is inadequate for two reasons. First, the mechanical world picture never became hegemonic in modern European philosophy, or even predominant, notwithstanding the prevailing interpretation offered in much 20th-century historiography. Leibniz, for example, continued to believe long after Descartes that nothing happens in nature that is not underlain by the activity of a mind-like entity; well into the 20th century, moreover, there is a prominent tradition of vitalistic natural philosophy that disputes the central claim of the mechanistic world picture, namely, that all natural change can be accounted for in terms of the mass, figure, and motion of intrinsically inert physical particles. Second, there is no real evidence that the picture of human society existing in harmonious interchange with a living nature is the picture of humanity’s place in the world is, in a cross-cultural light, the default conception of humanity’s place in the world. The best evidence suggests not that non-Western people inhabit a society cradled within a living nature, but that there simply is no meaningful distinction between society and nature at all.
Before moving to some properly ethnographic examples, it is important to bear in mind that, as with so many other concepts, when it comes to ‘nature’ even the European past is a sort of foreign country. The concept has undergone radical transformations over the centuries, and there is little that binds the Greeks, Romans, medievals, and early moderns. Our own conception of ‘nature’, finally, which takes places like Yellowstone National Park as its paradigm instances, is an extremely recent, mostly 19th-century innovation.
As Philippe Descola argues in his important 2005 work, Par-delà nature et culture, ‘wild’ and ‘domestic’ are subject to a rare polarization in Western history; even in other agricultural societies, what we tend to find more often are “multiple forms of gradual discontinuity or englobing.” In the West, by contrast, these notions are “mutually exclusive and only acquire their entire meaning when they are brought into a complementary opposition to one another.” Outside of Europe, the ‘mental and technological contexts’ did not “favor the emergence of a mutually exclusive distinction between that which is anthropized and a residual sector that is unuseful to people, or destined to fall to their domination.” Within Europe, by contrast,
a major contrast takes shape that of course opposes cultivated to non-cultivated spaces, but also, and above all, domestic animals to wild animals, the world of the stables and of grazing space to the realm of the hunter and of game.. Perhaps such a contrast was even sought out and maintained in an active way in order to preserve spaces where qualities could be exercised --such as the ruse, physical endurance, the pleasure of conquest-- that, outside of war, could no longer find an outlet within the very controlled space of the agricultural field.
Again, however, Europe is by no means an eternal and static entity, and we see radical changes over time in the understanding of the division between the human realm and the natural realm. For the Greeks, “the habitat of the wild beasts constitutes an indispensable belt of non-civilization that enables it to thrive, a theater where it can exercise its virile dispositions that are the polar opposite of the virtues of conciliation required in the treatment of domestic animals and in the political life.” In medieval Europe, particularly in the Germanic realm, the ‘belt’ of nature around human settlements would be increasingly conceptualized as part of society, as a carefully kept zone in which privileged members of society could cultivate particular virtues. Surprisingly, in this respect, forests full of ‘wild’ animals were in some sense more tightly controlled by human beings than were pastoral spaces in which domestic animals were permitted to graze. A prohibition on grazing in a given space does not preserve its wildness, but rather sets it apart as an artificially maintained non-grazing zone, an exception to the dominant human economic order that is made all the more human in virtue of its exceptional status:
If it is not the straightforward opposite of the agricultural enterprise, the domain of the Wild is not any less socialized. It is identified with the great forest, not with the silva that is unproductive and that impedes colonization, but with the foresta, this giant game park that, from the 9th century, the Carolingian dynasty undertakes to create by means of edicts that limit the rights of pannage and of defilement.
In a sense, the culmination of this process of incorporation through preservation, that is, of making a region a part of human society by keeping it cordoned off from certain types of human use, can be seen in the creation of national parks, the first of which appear in the United States, under Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and at the energetic encouragement of the romantically inclined Scottish-American thinker John Muir. It was in this period, Descola maintains, that
the moral and aesthetic dimension that continues to color our appreciation of these places. This is the epoch, we know, in which romanticism invents wild nature and propagates a taste for it: this is the epoch in which the essayists of the philosophy of wilderness, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or John Muir, incite their compatriots to look, in their visits to the American mountains and forests, for an existence that is more free and more authentic than the one for which Europe had long furnished the model. It is also the epoch in which the first national park is created, at Yellowstone, as a grandiose staging of the divine work.
The language of ‘staging’ is Muir’s own, not Descola’s. When Ralph Waldo Emerson attempted to entice Muir, in his distant outpost in California, to accept a faculty position at Harvard, the author responded stubbornly: “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!” Muir takes his refusal to be one in favor of a timelessly and self-evidently distinct zone of reality: he is on the side not just of trees and mountains, but also of the transcendent creator, with whom direct contact is facilitated by means of an attunement with the mountains and trees. This zone is in turn contrasted with the artificial, the institutional, and even with the ‘back East’ that precedes, historically and conceptually, the braving of the great frontier that did so much to shape 19th-century ideas about nature. And significantly, Muir seems entirely unaware of the historical conditioning of his preference for nature, and of the way in which his essays, his lobbying, and his mediation between the East Coast and Yellowstone themselves amount to a domestication of the natural.
One of the great problems in Western thinking about nature over the past several centuries is that we have transported throughout the world “a very particular vision of [our] environment, a great baggage of prejudices and sentiments,” that the Amazonians, for example, would find utterly unfamiliar. Descola writes of the voyage in the early 20th century of the Belgian artist Henri Michaux to the Amazon:
The conquest of virgin spaces was for [Michaux’s company] a tangible reality and a desirable goal, as well as an attenuated and confused echo of a more fundamental contrast between nature and civilization. All of this, we discern, would have made no sense to the Indians who see in the forest something quite different from a savage place to be domesticated or a motif for aesthetic delectation. It is true that the question of nature hardly comes up for them. Thus we have a fetish of our own, a very effective one at that, just like all the objects of belief that people offer themselves in order to act upon the world.
Many non-European groups, in Descola’s view, seem to be better able to think about the wilderness without setting it apart from the zone of human existence as if it were on the other side of some ontological divide. Thus for example Descola notes that
certain peoples of Amazonia are perfectly aware of the fact that their cultural practices have a direct influence on the distribution and reproduction of wild plants. This phenomenon of indirect anthropization of the forest ecosystem, long misunderstood, was well described in the studies of William Balée on the historical ecology of the Ka’apor of Brazil. Thanks to a precise labor of identification and counting, he was able to establish that the clearings that have been abandoned for more than forty years are twice as rich in useful species of plant than the neighboring portions of the primary forest that however they hardly distinguish at first glance…. Pursued for millennia in a great part of Amazonia, this fashioning of the forest ecosystem certainly contributes not a little to legitimating the idea that the jungle is a space that is as domesticated as the gardens.
For our purposes, what is significant about Descola’s sweeping account are the implications it holds for the ‘death of nature’ thesis, that is, for the idea that until modernity Western thinkers had a conception of nature as vital and agentive; further, implicitly, that to the extent that nature was conceived in this way pre-modern Westerners also had a conception of nature more or less continuous with that of people in other parts of the world. What this account misses is, first of all, that modes of production, as well as ecological circumstances, significantly impact the human conceptualization of the surrounding environment, and that here the most important shift in Western history is not at all the scientific revolution of the 17th century, but rather the agricultural revolution several millennia prior. Second, it appears characteristic of those cultures in which nature is not set apart from human culture as if across an ontological divide, that precisely in virtue of the absence of such a divide there can be no need for a distinct concept of nature.
That is, nature comes into existence as a concept precisely to the extent that humanity sets itself up against it. We must therefore not imagine that indigenous peoples throughout most of human history thought of themselves as living ‘in harmony’ with nature, any more than they thought of hunting and gathering as ‘a good line of work’. Nature could not have been killed by Western thinking, if it only existed in the first place as a concept to the extent that it measured the human sense of distinctness from the external world. And when it is finally supposed to have died, in the modern period, what we in fact witness is a widening of the gap, or a more thorough clearing of the belt that Descola perceived already surrounding the Greek polis, and so, ultimately, a strengthening of the ontological division between the ‘in here’ and the ‘out there’. Various ‘back to nature’ sentiments of late modernity, including Muir’s, and including the occasional camping trips of educated urbanites, are a symptom of this division, and not an overcoming of it. They have nothing to do with a return to the way in which some imagined prelapsarians once experienced the world around them.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, ch. 7.
 Homer, Odyssey, 10.302-303.
 See Pierre Hadot, Le voile d’Isis. Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de Nature, Paris: Gallimard, 2004.
 Aristotle, Physics II 8 199a15-17.
 Aristotle, Meteorology, IV, 381b4-5.
 William R. Newman, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 17-18.
 James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover, New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011 , 55
 Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980, 1.
 See E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture: Pythagoras to Newton, tr. C. Dikshoorn, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961; Alexandre Koyré, Du monde clos à l’univers infini, Paris: Gallimard, 2003 . There has been significant revisionist work in the past couple of decades, which calls into question the typically Whiggish and triumphalist historiography of earlier generations on the advances and attainments of early modern science, focusing instead, or in different degrees, on the concerns and aims of the actors in the period themselves. See for example, John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; Peter dear, Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700, Princeton University Press, 2009 . However, no amount of revision has succeeded in displacing the idea that something of great significance took place in early modern Europe in the way people conceptualized the structure and nature of the external world. Steven Shapin expresses the limits of revisionism very well with the opening sentence of his introductory book on the scientific revolution: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it” (Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 1996, 1).
 Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, Paris: Gallimard, 2005, 79.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 79.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 84.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 84-85.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 86. For an unsurpassed investigation of classical Greek conceptions of wilderness, and its contrast with society, see Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Le chasseur noir. Formes de pensée et formes de société dans le monde grec, Paris : Éditions Découverte, 2004.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 83.
 John Muir to Robert Underwood Johnson, May 3, 1895, in John Muir: His Life and Letters and Other Writings, Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1996,321
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 90.
 Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 71.
[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming essay-review of several books on animal extinction.]
There is a great die-off under way, one that may justly be compared to the disappearance of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, or the sudden downfall of so many great mammals at the beginning of the Holocene. But how far can such a comparison really take us in assessing the present moment?
The hard data tell us that what is happening to animals right now is part of the same broad historical process that has swept up humans: we are all being absorbed into what was once comfortably called ‘civilization’, and in the process we are being homogenized, subjected to uniform standards, domesticated. A curiosity that might help to drive this home: at present, the total biomass of domestic mammals raised for food vastly exceeds the biomass of all mammalian wildlife on the planet (it also exceeds that of the human species itself). This was certainly not the case 10,000 or so years ago, at the dawn of the age of pastoralism.
It is hard to know where exactly, or even inexactly, to place the boundary between prehistory and history. Indeed, some authors argue that the very idea of prehistory is a sort of artificial buffer zone set up to protect properly human society from the infinite expanse of mere nature that preceded us. But if we must set up a boundary somewhere, it would be difficult to do better than to choose the moment when human beings began to dominate and control other large mammals for their own, human ends.
We tend, still today, to think about history as by definition human history. Yet a suitably wide-focused perspective reveals that nothing in the course of human affairs makes complete sense without some account of the non-human animal actors who show up as well: history has in fact been a question of human-animal interaction all along. Cherchez la vache is how E. E. Evans-Pritchard claimed the social life of the cattle-herding Nuer of South Sudan might best be summed up --‘look for the cow’-- but in fact one could probably, without much stretching, extend this principle to human society in general. The cattle who now outweigh us are a mirror of our political and economic crisis, just as cattle were once a mirror of the sociocosmic harmony that characterized Nuer life.
Most of history, to the extent that it is understood narrowly as a human affair, has consisted in a patchwork of interconnected, but still largely autonomous, human societies; or at least they were autonomous in their self-conception, even if in fact they were always intricately interconnected by trade, war, migration. In the 18th century, a period in Europe sometimes called the ‘Enlightenment’, thinkers such as Immanuel Kant had come to understand history precisely as the process whereby European civilization radiates out and progressively engulfs the Arctic, the Americas, and the South Sea islands: progressively bringing them, that is, into the fold of history. And however we define ‘history’, it is certain at least that these areas were enfolded into something new and unprecedented. When Kant was writing, the Inuit, for example, lived more or less independently, as hunters and foragers, in a mode of life that was directly adapted to and integrated with their environment. Today, the Inuit live under the administration of a Euro-American colonial state, and many depend for their food on transport of mass-produced, processed commodities from the urban, industrial south.
What is often overlooked in the familiar summaries of this process --overlooked, perhaps, for fear of appearing disrespectful by running indigenous peoples and wild animals together-- is that it has not been limited to a single species. Non-human animals are swept up in exactly the same frenzy: either join up with what is increasingly the only game in town, and you will grow fat, and homogeneous, and your very body will be instrumentalized for economic ends; or die out. Mammalian biodiversity is dropping, while the biomass of cattle is skyrocketing. Cattle, which is to say the bovine portion of modern global civilization, are even driving indigenous humans out of their habitats, most notably in the Amazon, either to assimilate into the urbanized proletariat, or, likewise, to die off.
We do not need to exaggerate the analogy between human cultures on the one hand and biological species on the other in order to appreciate the unitary nature of the process that is under way. History has always been the history of humans within their environments, and it is crucial to understand history in this trans-species way in order to place the recent idea of the ‘anthropocene’ in proper perspective.
It may seem a terribly presumptuous thing to propose that the principle characteristic of the present period of the Cenozoic era is the presence of human beings on the planet. After all, these are divisions in a geological time scale, and the rocks go fairly deep, and hide from even the most ill-thought-out plans of men. But in truth all the epochs and eons, going back to the boundary of the Archean 2.5 billion years ago, have been named according to their representative life forms, and no life form represents the present better than homo sapiens.
The supposed presumptuousness of acknowledging this role fails to take into account that we literally couldn’t have done it without the animals. We brought the world to its present state, but we did so by putting non-human nature to work for us. A crucial part of this has been the exploitation of, and occasional cooperation with, animals, and it is not surprising that as we appear to be approaching some sort of climactic finish, the animals that remain are now principally the ones that have been incorporated into the process in some way or other: the ones that are regulated, conserved, bred, consumed, and in so many other ways made to play a role in the global world system.
Herb and Harry were the names of our two steers, the one a Hereford, the other a Holstein. They did not do much but stand, bovine and stoic, from one day to the next. They sculpted strange rolling shapes into the salt lick with their fat blue tongues, and delighted, with minimal expression, in the delivery of fresh hay. My father liked to joke that they were 'out standing in their field', and they were. They excelled in matters of bovinity, one could not dream of surpassing them. That there was not much to do in the role of bovine did not diminish their excellence, and did not increase their strangeness. In fact, it made them so much more familiar, so much more like me. I was seven, and I did not do much either. I had no known talents, and it would be a long while yet before I would get the idea to try to write. I spent my time taking the world in, watching the animals, mostly. Sitting in the pasture as Herb and Harry grazed nearby, and calling them, in imagined conversations, by their names.
I do not remember when these two appeared, but I do recall, as if it were yesterday, the day the deep-freeze was delivered: a freezer, waist-high to an average adult, as long and as wide as a comfortable bed. It was a descendant of the old ice-boxes that had brought the miracle of long-term food storage to the sweltering Central Valley of California already in the 1920s. Fifty years later, every household in Rio Linda would have in its kitchen a vertical refrigerator with a small freezer compartment at the top, but only a special few would have a ground-dwelling vault, a shiny white tomb dedicated solely to the preservation of sweetmeats and tissues in an eternal solid state, installed with pride by toothless men with tool belts in a corner of the family garage.
We were of indeterminate class. We inhabited a defunct chicken farm, inherited from the Scandinavian grandparents of my mother's side. My father, born in Southern California to a renegade Utah Mormon and an Arkansas dustbowl migrant, was exposed to big ideas and the hope of some upward mobility thanks to a naturally curious mind and also in part to a stint in naval intelligence (involving the transcription of Chinese and Russian radio signals) followed by the GI Bill and graduate study. My mother, born in Sacramento to Minnesota Lutherans (softened by the pseudomystical fun of Shrinerdom), went to law school by night, with the dream of eventually helping the poor white women of the trailer parks of Rio Linda escape their abusive relationships. When the JD in family law was finally earned, and nailed to the wall of the strip-mall office, she would discover that the local economy still functioned mostly by barter, and she would receive, in remuneration for her services, a 1978 AMC Pacer, home grown tomatoes, a vicious goat named Snowy (of whom we have not heard the last), and many a hand-scrawled misspelled Post-It note of gratitude.
There were some lean times in the Valley, and though San Francisco was only a two-hour drive away, though Michel Foucault was just down the road at Berkeley, where my own mother had been an undergraduate at the end of the 1960s, speaking of technologies of the self and the liberatory potential of pleasure, I recall a Central Californian childhood in which the cycles of drought and flood still played a role, in which the desperation of James Agee's interbellum South had been translated Westward with little change. While my parents were not themselves peasants or 'harvest gypsies', to speak with John Steinbeck, the simple fact of their choice to settle in Rio Linda, California, was sufficient to pull us downward, classwise, and to ensure that in all of my subsequent motion through elite East Coast institutions and centers of metropolitan sophistication, I would never, for a second, be free of the singular thought: you are from Rio Linda. You are white trash.
A profile of that community in the Sacramento Bee, dated January 13, 1993, might help to impart a sense of what this brute fact means, and why it is so hard to be free of it. The article (which my mother sent to me as a 'joke' when I was an undergraduate studying in Moscow, and which I have carried with me, among a precious few possessions, to Paris), entitled "Greetings from Rio Linda," is worth quoting at some length:
Rio Linda is the land of yard cars and roaming dogs, where chain-link fences are a status symbol and the local law is something the cops call 'Okie justice'.
There is a story from a few years back about a man jailed for beating his wife; she supposedly carried on with a neighbor while he was away. One morning, soon after his release, the neighbor woke up in extreme pain. He'd been hit over the head with a beer bottle during the night -- and castrated.
The article goes on in this vein. We are told that Rio Linda is "a place that still has bloody family feuds, witchcraft, biker gangs... and active methamphetamine labs. The Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses here" (acknowledging the Klan in the present tense would likely have drowned out the jocular tone of the article). The predominant crimes, we learn, "tend to be cattle rustling, horse-stealing and domestic violence."
All the stereotypes exhaused, of dogs on chains and broken machines on front lawns, the article turns to history. "It started as a land swindle of sorts," we are told. In 1919 "the Suburban Fruit Lands Co. in Minneapolis bought 12,500 acres of the Rancho Del Paso Grant and began selling parcels for commercial agriculture." The problem was that the soil was too hard to raise citrus, as the Minnesota Scandinavians had dreamt of doing, and so they were forced to resort to the much less lucrative life of egg farming. The Company "had claimed the land would be worth $1500 to $3000 an acre within six months and that 10 or 20 acres was enough to grow commercial crops of nearly every fruit known in the United States." After a lawsuit brought against them in the 1920s, "the land value dropped to $35 an acre."
The historical excursus then concludes: "Some of the old coops are still standing today" (pictured above are my sister and I standing in front of our grandfather's defunct coop, circa 1975).
In any case I've already acknowledged that somehow, within the microcosm of my own family, the endless generations of desperation gave way to higher hopes, which is to say to aspiration toward a slightly higher status. By the time I came along there was no longer any possibility of clinging to the pride of the silent dirt-farmer, the solidarity of the truly poor. We were, notwithstanding the newsletters that still arrived from the local Grange, lower-bourgeois Bohemian dabblers. My parents had desk jobs, and even if the tuition often went unpaid my sister and I were brought up through the Montessori system, and habituated to its ethos of freedom and self-determination. Yet at the end of each day we children put down our construction paper art projects and our Marlo Thomas records, and our parents put down their grown-up work files, and we returned to the land, and to the animals that ranged upon it, as if back to some primordial necessity.
At various times there were chickens, goats, horses (kept but not owned), ponies (owned), steer, two demonic llamas, a German shepherd named Flicka who had 13 puppies, 12 of which soon fell ill and died before they could open their eyes. There was an Irish setter named Rose, who snuck into the neighbor's yard one night, and dragged back the mortal remains of 78 prize turkeys, their necks snapped by her strong jaw. She had laid them out across the front lawn to show them to us, with evident pride, before animal control came and took her away later that morning. There were cats roving in and out, cats who'd lost eyes in unimaginable fights, cats to whom it hardly made any sense to give names. There was Snowy the goat, whom I often saw in dreams walking upright with calm evil. And there were Herb and Harry, who had no trace of evil in them at all, who did not respond when you called them but who nonetheless seemed eminently worthy of their names: their names that, by simple alliteration with their breeds, seemed to pick out their very essences, just as, so it is said, the names given by Adam to the beasts were not just arbitrary sounds, but true names, names identical to the beings they name.
Herb and Harry, and the deep-freeze, their destiny. When the day arrived I was bursting with giddy anticipation. I rushed around the playground at our Montessori (the backyard of a converted home), reporting to teachers and kids alike that I would be leaving school early that afternoon, to watch my two steers, Herb and Harry, get butchered. If I was pressed for further explanation of my excitement, I would explain that this is simply the natural cycle of things: the animals are raised up to be eaten by the humans. The animals are raised up to be put in the deep-freeze. You can't fight it. You can't change the way things are.
Our grandfather, my mother's father, the retired Norwegian chicken farmer, picked us up at noon, and we made our usual course away from the modest center of Sacramento, out past the air force base, past the Country Comfort Lounge, toward the feed lots and the ramshackle Baptist churches of Rio Linda. Toward home. He seemed sullen. Who knows how many chickens he'd killed in his lifetime, how many defective runts discarded that could make no economic sense? He never made a spectacle of it.
I do not recall whose idea it was to pull us out of school that day to teach us a lesson about the natural cycle of things. I do not recall whose idea it was to name Herb and Harry, but the lesson that I drew from that day, a lesson that gestated long before coming to my consciousness and that stays with me still, is that you cannot have it both ways: naming breaks the natural cycle of things. It turns a brute beast into a fellow creature.
When we arrived my mother and father were already in the pasture, standing with a man who had pulled in with his pick-up truck covered in a camper shell. He may have been Hank, the man with the turkeys who lived next-door, and who sometimes came over and with truckloads of hay bails, which he could throw great distances. Or he may have been someone else, and my memory has created a composite. He had, I think, thick black hair, greased back, reptilian, like Ronald Reagan, and he was wearing a leather smock, a torturer's smock. He pulled a shotgun out of the truck bed and manipulated it with expertise. Herb, or Harry, stood 10 yards or so away, grazing, outstanding. His partner was being kept in the other pasture, away, for now, from the impending carnage.
Hank lifted the shotgun, it cracked, and Herb, or Harry, fell. Hank walked swiftly, purposively over, and slit the steer's throat. Blood poured out in waves, mixed with the grasses, and steamed just like all the half-digested pats of hay and manure on frosty autumn mornings that Herb and Harry had deposited and left for me to stare at with wonder. The heat and mystery of life! When the beast had been thoroughly bled and the steam had ascended like a soul to the sky, Hank cut open the stomach, and all its terrible unthinkable viscera poured out. There was nothing to wonder at here, but only a surfeit of escaping life, indecent to behold. I think it is at this point that I turned my eyes away, that I had had enough. You can't fight it, but if you are still a boy you can be whisked away from that hard world of men acting in accordance with necessity, men named Hank with guns and knives, and taken indoors by your dear indulgent mother, to rediscover a world of diverting storybooks where animals talk, and have names and human intrigues of their own.
The deep-freeze was full for years to come, of the parts of Herb and Harry, wrapped in thick white paper, stained here and there with brown blood. They survived divorce, floods, the deaths of grandparents, and so much more yet of the unending flow of human life. Parts still remained when we finally sold the farm land in 1987 and moved into a condominium in a proper suburb of Sacramento, bringing to a definitive end the vestigial agrarianism that had come down to us from the millennia. There was a small orange light that glowed on top of the white vault, which was intended to signal that the device was properly plugged in, and that the current was flowing, but to me it always remained a faint sign of life, like the steam that once rose from manure, a sign that our glistening appliance had been imbued with the souls, now blended together, of my two loved ones.
I did not rebel that day, I did not demand that the farce of false necessity be called off. Up to a certain point I delighted in it, and I had faith in the adults' insistence on its legitimacy. But the seed (to remain with safe vegetal metaphors) of an idea was planted: that it is a lie adults tell themselves, which keeps the animals cordoned off from us as mere brutes, which refuses to recognize our community with them...
It is hard not be struck by the severe parochialism, and usually the US-centrism, of the now-popular approach to human diversity that calculates a person’s ‘privilege ranking’ by considering a few supposedly basic features of identity, particularly gender, religion, sexual identity, physical ability, and ‘race’. The combinatorics involved do not diminish the essentialism of this approach, for there is a fairly short list of elements from which one may come up with the formula telling us who one really is. These are typically the elements that will be of interest to offices of equal employment opportunity in a particular developed western country, but they hardly help us to map the diversity of people beyond those who might be applying for jobs in that country—which is to say beyond those people who are already in fundamental respects acknowledged as members of one and the same society. This leaves out people who have radically different forms of social organization, food production, kinship, and literacy. It is of little use for coming to terms with the sort of difference manifested by peasants or hunter-gatherers.
Beyond these obvious, and sometimes excusable, forms of exclusion, there is a particular danger involved in passively accepting an approach to human diversity that sees the world through the distorting lens of American history, for this history is highly peculiar. The history of the United States has brought it about that in that country ethnic diversity is generally conceived in binary terms, with several residual classes that tend to be added on as afterthoughts. There are the people who descended from African slaves, and there are ‘white’ people. If this seems a bit reductive, it is important to understand that ‘white’ functions here almost entirely as an aspirational category, into which any ethnic group may eventually hope to blend through the proper displays of cultural affiliation-- any ethnic group, that is, except for the descendants of African slaves. This latter group constitutes a structural underclass, which ensures that newly arrived immigrants from different ethnicities will never start out, as they do in Europe, at the lowest rung of the social ladder, and that wherever they start out on the ladder they may hope to climb from there. If they climb high enough, they will be ‘white’, and in this respect the principal function of the category of whiteness in American society is to preserve the black underclass: to preserve, in other words, the racial economic order, formerly called ‘slavery’, on which American society was built.
It is in reference to this local history that we must understand the notion of white privilege, and not in reference to some supposedly natural taxonomy of skin pigmentations or other physical features. Does a Muslim Chechen migrant laborer in a provincial Siberian city --a ‘Caucasian’ if anyone ever was-- enjoy ‘white privilege’? It seems offensive to suggest that he does. Of course, there is some scenario on which his children could be taken to the US and raised by Americans, and if this were to happen they would have a set of privileges denied to African adoptees. But that scenario is so remote from the actual range of advantages of which this Chechen can avail himself as he navigates his own social reality that one may as well not mention it. In his context, though racially ‘white’ by American standards, he is the object of suspicion, contempt, and exclusion. The thought that he is ‘white’ has almost certainly never crossed his mind.
Now of course there is nothing wrong in principle with focusing on our own parochial context—indeed it is our responsibility to be concerned with it, and to strive to improve it. When Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the intersectional approach, she had just such a focused and non-global concern, namely, to analyze the actors’ categories that come into play in government responses to domestic violence against women in the United States. But one serious problem with staying faithful to actors’ categories and thinking of local contexts in terms of ‘race’, is that this seems to imply a universal natural order in which the locally salient distinctions between different types of people are grounded. And there simply is no such order. What we find when we move to the global context, and to the longue durée, rather, is that the focus on supposedly racial physical attributes is generally an a posteriori rationalization of a prior unequal system of interaction between members of different ethnic groups. The more aggravated this inequality, typically, the more racially different the people on different sides of the ethnic divide will appear to one another. We have seen this regularity played out in so many historical instances that there is no need to argue for it here.
What is the sense of invoking the universal order of race to account for local systems of exclusion and discrimination? And why is it the sort of system that tends to prevail in the Atlantic world broadly speaking, including the Americas and Western Europe, that tends to be invoked as the one-size-fits-all schema for understanding human diversity throughout the world? An important part of the answer to these questions is the fact that the most ambitious attempts at a universal taxonomy of human racial types, the so-called ‘racial science’ that flourished from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries, was primarily interested in accounting for, and naturalizing, the social order that had emerged in the Atlantic world as a consequence of slavery. The racial science is posterior to the racism, and the racism is posterior to the economic order of the region, which was built on the labor of Africans not because these people had been seen at the outset as inferior and thus as suitable for enslavement, but mostly because shifting power dynamics in the Mediterranean region had greatly diminished the Ottoman slave trade by the 16th century and had sent European traders to West Africa for a more reliable supply.
The Ottoman trade was significant, but took place at a much smaller scale than the trans-Atlantic system that would come after it. This latter stage of the world history of slavery, in fact, unfolded at such a large scale, and had such a profound impact on the global economy, that it was possible to take the categories of human being implicated in this system to be, so to speak, universally valid. It is not coincidental that the early modern period, which witnessed the explosion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, also witnessed the first post-classical large-scale projects for a universal taxonomy of natural kinds, most notably of plants and animals, culminating in particular in the universal ‘system of nature’ of Carl Linnaeus in the early 18th century.
‘Race’ is an historical artefact of these ambitious projects of the modern period, and a result of a simple failure to understand the nature of the object of study. Traits do cluster in populations, and this is a biological fact about the human species-- one eminently worth studying. Yet the way these traits cluster almost never has anything interesting to do with the sort of questions people are talking about when they talk about ‘race’. What are people talking about, then? Considerable insight may be gained here by looking at the period of early modern globalization prior to the emergence of ‘racial science’, and prior to the casting of Africans as the ultimate other. We already noted above that in the US context there is a binary system of race, between ‘white’ (conceived as an aspirational category) and ‘black’. But this opposition leaves out an important tertium quid, namely, the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas.
For the first two centuries or so after the first contact with the New World, it was the origins and nature of the Native Americans that most preoccupied Europeans interested in the question of human diversity. If this third term is left out today, this is not because Native Americans have been made ‘white’, as, say, Irish people have been, but rather because genocide and ethnic cleansing have made Native Americans mostly marginal to political debate and to the efforts of Americans to define the present reality of their multicultural society. Yet much of the way we continue to think about human diversity, under the poor cover of ‘race’, in fact continues to look a good deal more like 16th- and early 17th-century conceptualization of human diversity, in which the key binary division was not based on some purportedly significant physical traits, but rather on the distinction between the civilized and the savage. This distinction is in turn rooted in a more fundamental opposition between the realms of the properly human on the one hand and the natural on the other. ‘Natives’, as the shared lexical root plainly attests, are those people who are thought to be grounded or ‘at home’ in nature in a way that others, the properly human, are not.
Today, in most theoretical reflection on human diversity in the developed world, there are, as we’ve already claimed, varieties of difference that seldom enter into consideration. Again, this exclusion is not inappropriate, if what we are doing is mapping or enumerating the forms of difference within our own society. But it is important not to forget that the reason why certain other forms of difference fall out of this sort of consideration is not because they are intrinsically of little interest, but because the people who embodied these forms have been decimated, exterminated, and marginalized. If it is a challenge for a disabled person to obtain full equality within our society, it is already a fait accompli that a forager or a practitioner of subsistence agriculture can have no place in our society at all. But intersectionality does not concern itself with such forms of life; it is not principally concerned with the full range of human difference, but only with the various intersections between the various ways of being American. The legacy of imperialist genocide has brought it about that hunting and gathering are not among these ways.
Intersectionality barely scratches the surface. It is an ornamentation of the present order, not a radical questioning of it.
 For the locus classicus of this approach, see Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, 6 (1991): 1241-1299.
 For a particularly compelling account of the historical continuity between the era of slavery and the era of mass incarceration, see Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009; Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society 3, 1 (2001): 95-133.
 See in particular Peggy McIntosh, “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom (July-August 1989): 9-10.
 To cite just a few popular case studies, see See Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge, 1995; Karen Brodkin, How the Jews Became White Folks, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
 On the Western European turn away from the Eastern Mediterranean and towards West Africa as a principal source of slaves, see in particular John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.