Interpretive and attentive reading as modern spiritual exercises in self-rule

The exercises of interpretation have been one of my central cultural and scholarly interests.  I consider interpretation a major spiritual technology empowering the modern self to practice ethical self-rule as duty and submission.  My studies of classical listening in this blog are a major part of my explorations of interpretive conduct.

Recently I was very glad to discover a significant convergence between my genealogical writings and Caleb Smith’s fascinating work on modern “disciplines of attention.”  I will illustrate the similarities between our projects by quoting, first from Smith’s paper, and then, from my book subtitled Anatomy of Interpretation (1993).  Issues such as Protestant hermeneutics, secular reading, self-rule, and ethical practice prevail in both.

‘In this essay I offer a genealogy of attentive reading as a secular spiritual exercise. … Our disciplines of attention were born, I argue, when reformers trained in an Anglo-Protestant tradition reconceived ancient religious practices for the purposes of secular pedagogy and self-culture, as a remedy to the psychic damage wrought by modernity. … Anglo-Protestant educators … revised the disciplines of attention in significant ways. … Sketching a chapter from the history of attention’s disciplines, I consider how they came to be understood as therapeutic and ethical practices for the refashioning of the self. … [D]istinctly modern, secular conditions [seemed] to call for a discipline of attention, as if we could remedy the harm that the world has done to us by regulating our ways of taking the world into ourselves.  The new spiritual exercises promised to repair the damage history does to the self — not by remaking historical conditions but by retraining will and perception.  They are disciplines, but they are also therapeutic and ethical practices, in Michel Foucault’s sense.  They appear to be concerned mainly with the relation between a subject and an external object (especially the object known as the text), but their real preoccupation is one’s relation to oneself.  In our modern spiritual exercises, as in those of the ancients, “one is called upon to take oneself as an object of knowledge and a field of action, so as to transform, correct, and purify oneself, and find salvation” [Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self, p. 42].  Some of the new modes of cultivating attention … were animated in part by a desire to wrest control of the mind’s capacities away from religious authorities.  But they also extended the reach of Anglo-Protestant techniques of self-governance… The institutionalization and mass distribution of the disciplines of attention can be counted among the processes by which, as Gil Anidjar has written, Christianity “reincarnated itself as secular” [“Secularism,” Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2006, p. 60]. … Disciplines of attention seek to restore the self’s agency and to display a kind of ethical virtue … They end up reasserting, not abandoning, the individual critic’s claim to ethical authority.  Cultivating a “willingness to attend” is a paradoxical business: an act of self-opening that is also an effect of self-mastery.  Attending is surrendering — but willfully’ (Caleb Smith: “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age,” Critical Inquiry, Summer 2019, pp. 887-9).

Below are three excerpts on textual interpretation from my book The Rise of Eurocentrism (1993).

‘This discipline of communion (which oversees the supreme secular rite [i.e., the communion of verbal forms]) is not imposed from above, from outside, but is bestowed upon, granted to the faithful when its potential (reason) is recognized in the structure of their minds.  Its goal is to train people in literalism so that they may receive through reading the body of forms, the spirit of letters.  Those people, however, might not be enticed to accept the present of the grace, the gift of an (evangelized) present moment of unmediatedness, if it were not for a promise of freedom, of personal (specifically, spiritual) liberation from subservience to every (other) worldly authority, from worldliness itself, so that humans can now begin doing things with, or even to, this world. Interpretation promised emancipation: acceptance and independence in the civic society.  The community of independent interpretation was going to build the kingdom of God on earth (and share it with those qualified).  This contract of emancipation through interpretation, of redemption through the letter of the form—this civic covenant proposed by the European middle class marks the inauguration of modernity. By this contract, Christianity abandoned eternal time in exchange for a pledged present’ (Lambropoulos, “Preface: The Rule of Autonomy,” xi).

‘If personal Biblical reading was the first act of church disobedience, it was also the first act of civil obedience—the declaration of individuality.  In interpretation, a new technology of the self emerged: the interiorization and privatization of meaning.  From another viewpoint, it may also be said that in interpretation a new technology of governance emerged: the self as the depth of secular meaning.  In both cases, the practices of interpretation, succeeding the rituals of exegesis, promise the emancipation of knowledge from the coercion of outside authority to the extent that it can earn its independence—to the extent that knowledge can achieve its autonomy by judiciously governing (and guarding) itself, by scrupulously observing the rules that it has itself chosen to follow.  The law of immanence which rules the secular order—“the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1.25)—is the regime of truth that characterizes modernity.  As a subject of continuous and fierce contention, this law is claimed at different times by various political paradigms, from rationality to aesthetics and from empiricism to communism.  Its presence, however, in the requirement of intrinsic understanding and the promise of liberation is unmistakably manifest’ (Lambropoulos, “Chapter 1:  The Rites of Interpretation,” 28).

‘The practices of contemplative disposition, better known as manners, taste, and style, are the forms of aesthetic conduct.  The appropriate public order, the disposition of a shared public culture, was not a question of who should have access to the temples of discrimination but of what was the required attitude entitling one to such access. Thus the first realm regulated by the principles of autonomous rationality was that of public conduct, of the behavior of the emancipated individual who acts as a responsible reader, one who is capable of personal interpretation.  The public conduct of the reader expresses the introjection of the law, the assimilation of the interpretive dogma.  Since the aesthetic is autonomous self- realization (and its own reflection), the highest bourgeois ideal was to live autonomously, developing human possibility to the fullest according to the organic laws of its divine nature’ (Lambropoulos, “Epilegomena to Modernity,” 328).

18 August 2019

Posted in Autonomy, Bildung, Culture, Literature

On Jewish melancholy

In this blog I have been focusing on melancholic dispositions in three areas:  melancholy over the loss of a friend (ethics), melancholy over the loss of the revolution (politics), and melancholy over the loss of art (aesthetics).  At the same time, I remain very interested in several other manifestations of this mood and continue to follow recent studies.

I have been intrigued by a new book, Zionism and Melancholy (2019) by Nitzan Lebovic (2019), which develops a theory of melancholy by studying the melancholy that pervades Israeli society since its Zionist origins.  The book explores the interaction of the two concepts in the 20th century – the ways in which Zionism arrived at melancholy, and melancholy reoriented Zionism.  Its specific subject is the life and work of a forgotten early Zionist, the fascinating writer Israel Zarchi (1909-47), but the focus soon expands to cover a growing number of figures, themes, fields, and theories.  For example, the gallery of melancholics begins with Zarchi and Lebovic, the writer of his study, and gradually adds Zarchi’s European predecessors (Goethe, Heine), European Jewish writers (Kästner, Toller), pioneer Zionist immigrants to Palestine, the Israeli post-1967 generation, and Lebovic’s own generation.  In addition to individuals, melancholy is seen to afflict places (Jerusalem), other arts (popular music), cultural projects (modernizing ancient Hebrew), literary categories (“minor literature”), and alternative politics (deterritorialized state).

According to Lebovic, the Zionist project grew melancholic for two successive reasons:  “Simply put, Zionist melancholy expresses a double loss:  the loss of the (European past) and a demand that all feelings about that loss be suppressed in favor of an imagined ideal” (xxi).  In other words, it is the result of “the loss of an actual past (a home and a family) and the loss of memory due to an ideological dictum” (106).  The melancholic affect afflicts those Zionists who refuse to mourn and overcome their losses, and instead remain haunted by false hopes, failed dreams, thwarted messianism, forestalled redemption, a defeat that led to loss of direction and ideological dead end.

The horizon of the book is the melancholic predicament of the Zionist state of Jewish life in Palestine since the early 20th century.  Yet there are many elements in the book that encourage a broadening of the scope to include the entire range of Jewish modernity.  Arguably, melancholy characterizes the “demonic utopia” of Jewish assimilation wherever it has repurposed tradition since the late 18th century.  (It may even be possible to expand the scope in the direction of other people though the book does not say anything about non-Jews, such as Germans, Poles, Arabs and Greeks.)

Lebovic’s strongest argument concerns melancholy’s critical work, something that I too have emphasized in my posts and publications.  Even though melancholy is discredited, marginalized, and even silenced by triumphalist discourses of ancestral and chthonic continuity, it has been playing an important critical role questioning essentialist claims about ethnic history (nostalgia, return, revival), collective identity (national homogeneity, territory, and supremacy) and civic values (theological politics).  It is on the strength of this unyielding questioning that melancholy has been resisting resignation and despair.  While the messianic dream failed to materialize, the utopian hope for a better world refuses to die, and keeps searching for radical alternatives.  Nitzan Lebovic’s unflinching survey of Jewish life and culture during roughly a century gives several reasons for bitter disappointment, yet admirably it refuses to indulge in defeatism, victimization, and despondency.  I look forward to learning more from it.

23 June 2019

Posted in Culture, Literature, Melancholy | Tagged ,

“Η αριστερή αποποίηση της εξουσίας και της νομοτέλειας”

To αριστερό πρόταγμα στη μεταπολεμική Ελλάδα διακατέχεται από μιά υπόρρητη στάση που αποκαλώ “αποποίηση”, μια κάθετη αρνητικότητα απέναντι σε κάθε απελευθερωτική επαγγελία και συμβόλαιο με την ιστορία.  Η αποποίηση διακατέχει εκείνους που έπαψαν να περιμένουν την επανάσταση ή όποια άλλη λύτρωση, και παραμένουν αφοσιωμένοι σε αρχές που δεν πρόκειται να επικρατήσουν, αρχές που διαρκώς αρχίζουν και ποτέ δεν ολοκληρώνονται επειδή αντιστέκονται στον ολοκληρωτισμό της αρχηγίας και στην ισότητα της ταυτότητας.  Περισσότερα εδώ:  Αριστερή αποποίηση


Το δοκίμιό μου “Η αριστερή αποποίηση της εξουσίας και της νομοτέλειας στη μεταπολεμική Ελλάδα” περιλαμβάνεται στο συλλογικό τόμο Η δυναμική του ελληνικού λόγου στο θέατρο (επιμ. Ελένη Κουτσιλαίου, Δημοτικό Θέατρο Πειραιά, 2019).

Ιανουάριος 2019




Posted in Crisis, Culture, Disengagement, Friends, Greek, Greek Poetry, Left, Melancholy, Revolt, Revolution, The Arts

“Παίζουμε ένα ποίημα;”/8: Δημήτρης Λεοντζάκος: Aria #22 (μουσική και ποίηση)

Η ζωγραφική υπόσχεται μια παρουσία, μια ύπαρξη απτή, ενώ η μουσική δεν είναι ποτέ εκεί για να την κατακτήσεις και να την αποκτήσεις, κι αυτό τρομάζει τον Έλληνα ποιητή.  Όπως όμως δείχνω εδώ, μια «πνευστή ποίηση» πνέει πάνω από τη μουσική, ποιητική, ερμηνευτική και ζωγραφική παράδοση.

15 Μαΐου 2019


Posted in Classical Music, Greek Poetry | Tagged

“Μία συνάντηση με τον Βασίλη Λαμπρόπουλο: Θέατρο, Τραγωδία, Επανάσταση” (audio)

Εδώ ακούγεται μια συζήτηση για την τραγικότητα της επανάστασης, το πρόταγμα της αυτονομίας, τη συντροφικότητα των κοινών, την αριστερή μελαγχολία της νέας ελληνικής ποίησης, την λογοτεχνία ως εθνικό θεσμό, την πρωτοπορία, το προτεσταντικό δίπολο ελληνισμός-εβραϊσμός και άλλα πολλά.  Στην εκπομπή της Βαβυλωνίας στο ραδιοφωνικό σταθμό του ThePressProject στις 19 Ιουλίου 2019 είχα τη θαυμάσια ευκαιρία να συνομιλήσω με τους συντάκτες της Βαβυλωνίας Νίκο Ιωάννου και Γιάβορ Ταρίνσκι και τον υπεύθυνο του ThePressProject Κωνσταντίνο Πουλή.

Μία συνάντηση με τον Βασίλη Λαμπρόπουλο: Θέατρο, Τραγωδία, Επανάσταση | Εκπομπή Βαβυλωνία (audio)





Posted in Uncategorized

“Παίζουμε ένα ποίημα;”/7: Παυλίνα Μάρβιν: «Πρόλαβες να διαβάσεις τον Ρίλκε;» (o νέος ποιητής)

Εδώ υποστηρίζω πως τα Γράμματα σ’ έναν νέο ποιητή του Ρίλκε “δεν είναι εγχειρίδιο ποιητικής αλλά αυτο-μυθοποίησης, όπως ξέρουμε και από περιπτώσεις Ελλήνων συγγραφέων από το Μεσοπόλεμο ώς σήμερα.  Δεν διδάσκουν πως να γράφει κανείς αλλά πώς να επινοήσει τον εαυτό του ως Ποιητή.”

30 Απριλίου 2019

Posted in Literature | Tagged , ,

Brecht’s Tragic Measures (3)

Scene 6 of Brecht’s The Measures Taken was first called “Rebellion against the Teachings” and later “The Betrayal.”  In it, the Young Comrade rises against the rules of the revolution he has been serving.  Is this a “rebellion” or a “betrayal”?  That is the basic question of the entire play.  In the scene, radical elements among the workers press for an immediate uprising.  Ignoring the Agitators’ position that the workers are not fully prepared, the Young Comrade defies the disciplinary regimen of the Party, disobeys its decisions, tears up its classical teachings, and shreds his mask, disclosing his identity and endangering the secret mission of the group.  Is his action an act of “rebellion” against revolutionary discipline (which makes him a model rebel and martyr) or a “betrayal” of the revolutionary cause (which makes him a traitor who later repents and consents to his execution)?  Is the dilemma of the learning play unresolvable and tragic or moral and propaedeutic?

Recent discussions of the play have downplayed any propagandistic/moralistic elements and emphasized its deeply tragic character which they attribute to a variety of features.  One feature is that “the Party as Destiny” (John Orr: “Terrorism as Social Drama and Dramatic Form,” in Orr & Klaić, eds.: Terrorism and Modern Drama, 1990, 53functions like the gods in ancient drama.  Another is that the sacrificial Young Comrade functions like an ancient hero: “With his acquiescence to his elimination, he ultimately remains up to the bitter end a tragic hero who thereby also resisted The Measures Taken as a learning play wanting to overcome traditional theatrical forms.  Brecht embroils his characters in indissoluble paradoxes. His play puts the formal idiosyncrasies of a tragic text on stage, on the one hand, to overcome them there performatively and, on the other hand, to let his characters fall into traditional role schemata” (Oliver Simons: “Theater of Revolution and the Law of the Genre,” The Germanic Review 84:4, 2009, 337).  A third feature is the “tragic effect” produced by the contradictions of Leninist morality: “A person who accepts Leninism because he is morally outraged at Capitalist society and wants to create a truly moral world can thus find himself in situations which require him to violate his own morals” (G. E. Nelson: “The Birth of Tragedy out of Pedagogy,” German Quarterly 46:4, 1973, 571). This tragic feature is “a remainder … that escapes the dialectic, that testifies to the pain of unresolved contradictions” (Elizabeth Wright:  Postmodern Brecht, 1989, 17).

Thus, the scholarly consensus is that the revolutionary didactic thrust of the learning play is haunted by a fundamental irreconcilable conflict between ethics and politics.  To some commentators, this conflict is located within politics, specifically, within the revolution itself: “In so far as the political act par excellence is a revolution, two opposing strategies arise here:  once can endeavor to separate the noble Idea of the Revolution from its abominable reality … or one can idealize the authentic revolutionary act itself, and bemoan its regrettable but unavoidable later betrayal … Against all these temptations, one should insist on the unconditional need to endorse the act fully in all its consequences.  Fidelity is not fidelity to the principles betrayed by the contingent facticity of their actualization, but fidelity to the consequences entailed by the full actualization of the (revolutionary) principles. … This means that there is none the less something inherently ‘terroristic’ in every authentic act, in its gesture of thoroughly redefining the ‘rules of the game,’ inclusive of the very basic self-identity of its perpetrator” (Slavoj Žižek: The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, 1997, 377).  To others, the conflict between ethics and politics is enacted in “the staging of the tension between an individual’s ethical sense of responsibility and the political need to subjugate oneself to a collective (the Party) held together by a set of rules, which the Party calls an ‘ABC of Communism’” (Horsman 97-8).

Ultimately, what prevails in the play is the “law of the genre,” specifically, the law of tragedy. One possible argument is that both the protagonist and the chorus end up functioning according to the law of that genre which was created in 6thcentury Greece by the emergence of a hero out of the choral collective, and the ensuing tension between citizen and polis: “Strikingly, Brecht’s learning play brings to the stage all the characteristics that have, since Aristotle, marked tragedy:  the pity, the error of the hero, the hero’s comprehension of the error, the guilt of the innocent man, the hero’s death, the sacrifice, and catharsis” (Rasch 327).  No critical distance can enable the actors to overcome the codes and norms of this performative tradition.

Thus the theatrical lesson of the teaching play is that there-is-no-outside-tragedy: “Brecht’s learning play demonstrates that the actors are hardly capable of disassociating themselves from old performance archetypes.  They do attempt to play against the theater but cannot completely suppress the law of genre.  Even in their play within a play, the agitators do not succeed in taking up a metaperspective.  On the contrary, as actors they adopt roles from which they attempt to distance themselves. While acting they entangle themselves in an insurmountable paradox.  In its own theatricality, Brecht’s The Measures Taken seems to encourage a limit, unable to overcome the law of its genre” (Simons 342).

Another possible argument would stress the particular genre of modern tragedy, the tragedy of revolution (the very subject of my research project in this web site), and more specifically the tragic “antinomy of duty and inclination” (Rasch 333) which tends to subordinate the latter (the individual) to the former (the cause):  “Brecht reproduces the law of the genre he wishes to supersede and entangles his figures in inescapable aporias that have dominated the metadiscourse on drama in revolutionary theater from Büchner’s Danton’s Death to Heiner Müller’s Mauser” (327).

This argument takes us back to Schelling seeking in Greek tragedy the solution to Kant’s freedom vs. necessity antinomy.  Kantian autonomy is a major political technique of government.  The paradox of the 3rdantinomy is that the realization of autonomy requires obedience to universal law, the exercise of freedom involves practices of submission.  Accordingly, the Young Comrade realizes his freedom not when he rebels against the law of the Party but when he obeys it by submitting his morally self-legislative will to the Party law, that is, by consenting to his own execution.  Schelling defined this antinomy of autonomous reason as tragic because it means claiming freedom through its loss, being punished, in the case of the Young Comrade, for succumbing to political necessity only after a fight.  What is tragic is that “this guiltless guilty person accepts punishment voluntarily [and] thereby alone does freedom transfigure itself into the highest identity with necessity” (Schelling:  The Philosophy of Art, 1989, 255).  As I have argued elsewhere, when guilt becomes necessary and defiant, when fate turns guilty and heroic, the idea of the tragic is born, finding its archetypal incarnation in a hero who is responsible for a certain crime (and not just an error) yet ethically innocent (Lambropoulos:  The Tragic Idea, 2006, 39).

Despite their anti-Aristotelian arguments and moralizing aspirations, Brecht’s learning plays show why modern theatrical enactments of revolution present it as antinomic and tragic.

[This is the 3rd and last post on Brecht’s Measures.  Future studies will discuss two more learning plays, Heiner Müller’s Mauser and Antonio Negri’s Swarm:  Didactics of the Militant.]

10 June 2019

Posted in Revolution | Tagged