Primal political events

There’s Euphoria, another TV show I’ve never watched but read about in, this time, The New Yorker Today. Euphoria is about the homeland generation, the generation I teach. I didn’t know all of this was going on outside of my classroom.

The New Yorker review accounts for “all of this” in part by citing this generation’s “primal political event” — 9/11. The review’s account wouldn’t work for Hannah Arendt: for her, violence isn’t a political event but merely signals a political failure. Her vision of the political is broad and positive, as is (I’m discovering) Roland Barthes’, who distinguishes between “the political” and “politics.” For Barthes, “the political” is “a fundamental order of history, of thought, of everything that is done, and said.” Arendt, too, defines the political as something like pure act and speech. “Politics,” on the other hand, for Barthes is “the same old story, the discourse of repetition.”1

Arendt and Barthes were of the same generation, born nine years apart, like Victoria and me, and a century before my students.

I was born halfway between those writers and my students, and my own primal political event was a mere placeholder. It was the scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More argues with his son-in-law, the impetuous William Roper:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

I first saw the movie when I was my students’ age. I was euphoric: never man spake like this man.2 Get a load of some of the movie’s other dialogue here.

I guess it’s only a kind of justice that the generation I teach is portrayed on TV (outside of life) as having been defined by a political event outside of politics, and that my own primal political event happened not in life but in a movie. Viewing it this way, 9/11 is a kind of Truman Show, a TV show — or a movie, rather, about a TV show. The Truman Show was released just three years before the planes hit, and that attack out of the blue seems to have been anticipated by a TV studio’s light fixture falling from what Truman had taken from birth to be the sky.

I call A Man for All Seasons a “placeholder” for a “primal political event” because the dialogues between More and Roper — and More and Cromwell and More and Norfolk and More and Henry VIII — were eventually replaced for me by the real-life dialogue between Edward Coke and King James I, not a Tudor this time but England’s first Stewart monarch. Coke argued for the common law and therefore for lawyers, for the continuation of their archetypal function as a civic priesthood, a mediator (if not always an intercessor) between God and civil society.

Coke’s context was James’s attempt to become England’s judge as well as its king. James’s rejoinder to Coke, according to Coke, was “that he thought the law was founded upon reason, and that he and others had reason, as well as the Judges.” Here’s Coke’s account of more of the dialogue, beginning with his reply to the king:

that true it was, that God had endowed his Majesty with excellent science, and great endowments of nature; but His Majesty was not learned in the laws of his realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of his subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason but by the artificial reason and judgement of law, which law is an art which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it: and that the law was the golden met-wand [measuring rod] and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protected his Majesty in safety and peace: with with the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, with was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Braxton saith, quod Rex non debit esse sub homie, sed sub Deo et lege [the king ought to be under no man, but under God and the law].3

Did the conversation really stop there? If so, was it because Coke threw some Latin at the king? There’s this scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Henry engages the engaging Margaret, More’s daughter who is then engaged to Roper, with a little Latin. Margaret answers in a torrent. The king loses the thread and turns away.

Our own executive, too, has answered calls for his circumscription by the rule of law with accusations of treason. His understanding of the State doesn’t extend past his mirror, but our larger problem is the modern concept of the State, which James here well articulates. The State is sovereign, so the State threatens the political. And both the State and political sovereignty are modern concepts. In fact, for me these two concepts define modernity. They are modernity’s violent and primal political event, to redeploy that oxymoron.

I’ve always liked Coke’s bold description of law as based on “artificial” reason best construed by lawyers and judges. Some evangelicals, in the spirit of Roper, count how many signers were Christians. Hannah Arendt instead counts how many lawyers were in the colonial legislatures when the first state constitutions were drafted after July 4, 1776 (the Gettysburg Address’s contender for “primal political event”). Lawyers writing constitutions: so much treasonous artificiality, according to the colonies’ sovereign, King George III.

We need art and the artificial. I saw The Truman Show on my TV, after all. In Barthes’ playful prose, he acknowledges, “the political is constantly present, but hidden.”4 The political (as opposed to “politics”) is in what Richard Howard calls in his preface to Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text “an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowing, bubbles, trial balloons, ‘phylacteries,’ as he calls them, of an invisible design . . .”5 There’s some political religion for you: phylacteries. Overt reminders for their wearers to keep the law.

Jesus had no problem with phylacteries, you know. He just didn’t like broad ones — ones to be seen by men and not by the Pharisees wearing them.6 He wasn’t lopping off phylacteries to get at the Devil.

Maybe if our schools passed out phylacteries, there wouldn’t be so much sex in Euphoria.

Howard’s isn’t the only preface to demonstrate how fragments — reality’s intrusions onto ideology — are sometimes a writer’s instinctive response to the modern thirst for sovereignty. Consider Greil Marcus’s preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, the latter written as a kind of newspaper-blog in Germany in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power:

One thing that linked Benjamin, Aragon, Adorno, and Chtchelgov (and, for a moment, Ruttmann, before he became a Nazi) was the philosophical conviction, or instinct, that the totality had to be resisted, even chipped away, even defeated, by the fragment: the street, the sign, the name, the face, the aphorism, the evanescent, the ephemeral, the worthless, the unimportant, the meaningless.7

And Benjamin’s One-Way Street reads like Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text — seemingly random fragments piled like sandbags against ruinous politics that, like sovereignty in man’s hands, have no concept of banks or boundaries.

Both books, of course, read a lot like any reporter from the past 700 years compiling cases construing the common law. (You’ve seen these reporters — numbered, beige books behind lawyers who are interviewed on TV from their firms’ conference rooms. I’ve never heard of anyone, lawyer or otherwise, reading one from cover to cover.)

Here’s some more political religion for you: sovereignty is God’s alone. As Arendt says in the context of the political, “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.”8

It’s Father’s Day, and James I thought himself a father to his people. In fact, James was the first patriarchalist king, adopting the modern theory of sovereignty espoused by the likes of Robert Filmer and known today as the Divine Right of Kings. The Athenian polis, the argument perhaps goes, should be replaced by permitting the Athenian domestic dictatorship that supported it to overrun its banks.

An in-law of mine once defended her vote for our president to me this way: he’s a good father.

More from that New Yorker app: if your father seemed a remote figure, here’s why.

  1. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, at 218.
  2. John 7:46.
  3. James R. Stoner, Jr., Common Law and Liberal Theory, at 30.
  4. Barths, supra, at 219.
  5. Richard Howard, “A Note on the Text” in Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, at viii.
  6. Matthew 23:5.
  7. Greil Marcus, preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, at xvi.
  8. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, at 163.


On Philosophy in fiction. Roland Barthes puts it this way (as only he could have):

There are those who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the “dominant ideology”; but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text (see the myth of the Woman without a Shadow). The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro. [Emphasis original]

The Pleasure of the Text, page 32.


On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.


On Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting. Susan Sontag: “. . .Barthes invariably performs in a affable register. There are no rude or prophetic claims, no pleadings with the reader, and no efforts not to be understood. This is seduction as play, never violation. All of Barthes’s work is an exploration of the histrionic or ludic; in many ingenious modes, a plea for savor, for a festive (rather than dogmatic or credulous) relation to ideas.”

Barthes’s strategy of linked aphorisms is part of his “exploration of the histrionic or ludic.”

Barthes’s world feels like a circus, under the big top and at sunrise, too, when the trapeze artist, assigned a month into the season to pick up the park because the clown during a card game told the men that he had seen her lying on the grass and listening to the dawn chorus, pokes the cups with her stick. Barthes’s circus is the poet Robert Lax‘s circus, a world of vocation and honest living.

Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting

At lunch Sunday in the shade and breeze of a large oak beside the cow-punctuated hills that keep the summer air in Bluemont so dry, I gave a friend a copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. Rocket Scientist Friend (hereinafter “RSF”), who was eating with us, took the book, turned at random to the article “Steak and Chips,” and read the first paragraph out loud.

“Pure unsubstantiated bullshit,” he reflected.

“Yes,” I said, “Barthes backs up nothing. His observations alone are sufficient.”

“Not for me.”


Hope & the photograph

John Berger considers Franz Hals “the only painter whose work was profoundly prophetic of the photograph.”  Hals’s paintings bear little resemblances to photographs, but what Berger means is that they think like cameras.  Like his contemporary Rembrandt, Hals paints his nude as she really looked, Berger says; neither painter painted a Platonic ideal of his subjects.  But Berger believes that Rembrandt achieved realism though his view of redemption, while Hals achieved his through a kind of desperation that Berger admires.  I’m not sure if Berger associates that desperation in any way with photography.

Berger’s view of Rembrandt mirrors mine of Dostoevsky, whom I consider a realist.  Rembrandt applies “a realist practice more radically than any other Dutch painter to the subject of individual experience.  It is not his choice of biblical subjects which matters here, but the fact that his religious view offered him the principle of redemption, and this enabled him to look unflinchingly at the ravages of experience with a minimal, tenuous hope.”

Dostoevsky’s characters are the most realistic I’ve ever encountered if, like Berger, one refers to the realism of “individual experience.”  I feel drawn to Dostoevsky’s Christianity because, unlike a lot of Christianity I’ve experienced in the West, it offers insight into the horrors of experience.  It is precisely Dostoevsky’s “minimal, tenuous hope” that permits him to sketch Dmitri and Ivan Karamazov.  Christians with little experience of redemption flinch, like Job’s friends, in the face of tragedy, unable to accept it in terms other than divine retribution.

Berger’s view of Hals as the only painter-prophet of the photograph stems from his observation that Hals was driven, unlike his predecessors, to paint a world with contingency and without conclusions.  This almost existentialist viewpoint Berger finds in Hals accounts for what Berger perceives as Hals’s desperation and impatience.  Hals’s naked woman on the bed  “does not, like [Rembrandt’s] Bathsheba, glow from the light of her being.  It is simply her flushed, perspiring skin that glows.  Hals did not believe in the principle of redemption.  There was nothing to counteract the realist practice, there was only his rashness and courage in pursuing it.”

But how closely does a photograph render experience as opposed to only appearance?  Because Berger goes on to say that Hals doesn’t get across merely his model’s glowing skin.  Hals’s practice “was not to reduce a bouquet of flowers to their appearance . . . it was to reduce closely observed experience to appearance.”  Most photography gets across only a subject’s appearance and not her experience, I think.  Translating experience to appearance seems like a worthy goal for photography, though Berger doesn’t say as much.

And is photography art enough or broad enough to distinguish between a Hals photograph and a Rembrandt one, if you will, excluding digital postproduction work, which can make a photograph into anything?  From the standpoint of composition, lighting, and the knack for, and skill of, capturing photographic images, can one distinguish between a Rembrandt realism and a Hals one in photography?

Finally, what is Hals’s – really, Berger’s version of Hals’s – equivalent in literature? Friar Lawrence-like, “I do spy a kind of hope” in the most seemingly-hope-forsaken literature.  I don’t find Faulkner’s novels and his Nobel proclamation that “man will prevail” to be contradictory.  Berger’s own Lucie Cabrol is one of my favorite characters in literature, and her third life suggests a “tenuous” silver lining to her tragedy.  Can a novel be at once bereft of hope and yet great?  Maybe Jude the Obscure, though its hopeless feel may stem more from its lack of comic relief than anything else.

I find even philosophically hope-forsaken literature (Sartre’s No Exit, Kafka’s The Penal Colony) to be oddly hopeful – hopeful, perhaps, at a spiritual level.

Can the same thing be said for Hals’s work or for photography at its essence?  Does Berger agree with Roland Barthes that photography’s power comes from its lack of artifice:

It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself.  The noeme of language is perhaps this impotence, or, to put it positively: language is, by nature, fictional; the attempt to render language unfictional requires an enormous appraratus of measurements: we convoke logic, or, lacking that, sworn oath; but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself; the (rare) artifices it permits are not probative; they are, on the contrary, trick pictures . . . (Camera Lucida 85, 87)

Is language by nature hopeful, and is that hope bound up with its essentially fictional nature?  And, given that fiction is often more spiritually accurate than fact is, is that so bad?

And now that digital postproduction – Photoshop and the like – has made photography’s artifices less “rare,” would Barthes find today’s photography less (Barthes’s word) astonishing, less (Berger’s word) despairing, more linguistic, fictional, hopeful?

[All Berger quotations and paraphrases are from his 1979 essay “The Hals Mystery” from The Selected Essays of John Berger.   If I had read more of Berger’s essays on art than I have, I might know more about his views on photography.  But my point here isn’t to figure that out.  All emphasis original.]

Flat Death

[flickr id=”5918544513″ thumbnail=”large” overlay=”true” size=”large” group=”” align=”none”]


With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death.  One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with disdain: “You talk about Death very flatly.”  — As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude!

— Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino

One revelation from reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Barthes and Italo Calvino admired each other’s work.  Maybe they were friends, too.  I don’t know, but it would be fun if it were so: Barthes standing on the shore of nonfiction, shaking hands with Calvino, himself wading in the waters of fiction.

Barthes mentions Calvino in a positive manner at least three times in the book, and Geoff Dwer, in the books’ introduction, quotes a nice thing Calvino said about Barthes shortly after Barthes’s death.

I suppose this realization is ordinarily reserved for people more social than I am.  I’ll ask Victoria when she gets up.  Ever know two interesting people and later discover that they’re friends?  A lot comes over you all at once, thinking about what their friendship might say about each of them.

In retrospect, it seems natural that Barthes and Calvino would enjoy each other. Barthes often teeters but remains just this side of fiction, and in his novels Calvino sometimes comes close to nonfiction.  Together they might embody Borges or Sebald, who often seemed to mix fact (or at least nonfiction) and fiction.  All four were ideamen, writers for whom, as Dyer points out in another fine introduction (this one to John Berger: Selected Essays),  “ideas are the most distinctive and important feature of [their] output.”

[This is the third of three posts on Camera Lucida.  The first is here, and the second is here.]


On Death & the photograph.  This 81-year-old, Polaroid-carting, ‘walking, talking photo booth” — and the Next Door hostess — get Barthes.  From today’s Washington Post:

“The camera’s old as [bleep]; it looks like it’d steal your soul,” observes Allory Anderson, a hostess at Next Door, as Bob squeezes his way through the bar just after midnight. “But I’ve got two pictures of me on my fridge from him. I don’t have iPhone photos on my fridge.”

A physical photo, Bob says, is the presence of you in your absence. A photo is not for now or for Facebook. A photo is for later, when you’re gone. It is for finding in a shoe box.

Barthes would see this guy as the Grim Reaper, someone whose presence is explained by religion’s absence: “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death.  Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose form the final print.”