Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ethics and the Tragic Face of Literature in a Post-9/11 World

Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative. –Don DeLillo, Mao II

In between various other projects--finishing my book manuscript, finishing a Woody Allen article, prepping for my German cinema course, creating my new voice over career (Oh, come on--those of you who know me, know how fond I am of incorporating strange voices into every narrative I tell.)--I've started a new project that I'm really excited about.

It's not a form of procrastination. I had to start it because I was thinking through the possibilities for my presentation at the 2011 North American Levinas Society conference in May, trying to write a proposal. I had just finished reading Don DeLillo's Mao II, and was blown away (I know, I'm a bit late on this one.). And it came to me that everything these days--literature, daily conversations, political rhetoric--is either about destruction and violence or it employs violent rhetoric. I just saw an article online today, for example, about how political rhetoric in particular is charged with violent language (political opponents are "demolished," a bill is "killed," "crash and burn," etc.).

But what I really care about is literature--how it looks and feels, what role it plays in our efforts to come to terms with the world around us.

What, I began to wonder, is the new “face” of literature? In an era dominated by senseless brutalities, collective atrocities, and threats of terrorism, how has the face of literature changed both to reflect and respond to these phenomena?

This isn't so different from my book project, which examines the role of non-representational thinking in the context of responses (literary and film) to the Holocaust. But something in the past decade has changed. In a post-9/11 period, it seems that American novelists have begun to forge a path into new ethical terrain. While it may be that the pervasiveness of discussions of violence and terror since 9/11 have colored all of our discourse--social, political, philosophical, religious, etc.--it also might be that the catastrophes of 9/11 gave novelists a new language—a rhetoric through which to address the question of the ethical in our era.

DeLillo’s Mao II in particular highlights the writer’s own anxieties about the place of the artist/novelist in a world dominated by the spectacles of terrorism. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” says one character in Mao II. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

And, later on, “the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art” (157).

Hmph. Art vs Terror? What?

So my question, then, is what role do terror and terrorism play in navigating what we might call the new ethical terrain, particularly as it is mapped out in the space of the literary? How can an understanding of the Levinasian “face” open up the kind of discourse necessary (the “discourse whose first word is obligation”) for an understanding of the ethical in the context of the literary (Totality and Infinity 201)? But more importantly, why is such an understanding important, and how might it spur us on to action?

This is what I'm thinking about. I'm really excited.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Awake Inside the Dark

Awake inside the dark...

This is how the verse begins--the second verse of one of my favorite songs (video below).

Yes, and sometimes I do. Just the other night I awoke in the middle of the dark. Something was pulling me down to the center of something. My head, leaning off one side of the bed, felt a magnet's warmth.

I saw a deep pool of blood, my fingers just barely missing it, but tracing its shape.

I did what one does: I breathed out and it was a scream, echoing against the shaking of my body--I, pinned flat to the bed by someone who understood what I was seeing, not seeing. The kind of scream that says I'm as close to horror as I might get in this world. Because it's first the horror of the unknown, tainted with blood and fear of death and trauma--and then we realize that we have come into contact with remnants of the known.

I get these nighttime bouts frequently.

And so just the other night...I wandered around until the first bit of daylight, so that I would not awake in the dark.

So much of my work--even this blog--is anchored by my reading of Maurice Blanchot, particularly his idea that it is darkness that illuminates more brilliantly than light. And one of my Facebook friends today quoted a phrase from a 1968 sermon given by Dr. King: "Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."

It's when we think we cannot see that our pupils are dilated. We suspend our disbelief not only when we want to imagine, but also, unwittingly, when we want to see. But what are we to do when the darkness reveals madness and horror? What are we to do when the reality of what we find in the darkness differs drastically from the reality of our daily existence. What I mean is this: I know that there was not, that night when I awoke in the dark, a pool of blood on the floor, but I saw it when I was awake, and this experience is incompatible with the life I live during daylight.

And yet it is no less real. It is likely the real more real than real.

Perhaps these near brushes with death and the horror of infinite absence give us a special kind of sight. Think of Abraham, after the binding of his son Isaac--he called the site of the trauma Moriah, a place of vision or seeing.

But what does it mean to see, even when the object of our sight is illuminated by darkness? I suspect I am not supposed to want to merge my two realities: the one I experience in the dark, and the one I walk around in when it is light. But I can't help but see the interplay between the two, and I suspect that my dark reality cannot but come to bear on its counterpart.

LimmudLA 2011 Conference

It's time to register for the 2011 LimmudLA Conference in February. Love this event. You'll never be the same.