Heightening the contradictions of radical autonomy

I approached the new film Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) from the standpoint of political theory as a tragedy of revolutionary governance where the pursuit of an autonomous polity resorts to heteronomous means.

Its framework is state and stasis.  The film dramatizes a state in stasis, a government challenged by its people.  Under the tyrant Mayor Richard J. Daley and the abuse of power by the political and economic establishment and the police, the city/polis of Chicago in 1968-69 goes through a crisis as the people organize and rise to refute the authority of sovereignty.

“The Ten-Point Program” of the Black Panther Party (established in 1966) states: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [inalienable human rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government” (article 10).  The Party and its Rainbow Coalition represent the rebellion of constituent power seeking to inaugurate a radical beginning and constitute a new order, namely a socialist and anti-imperialist community.  The FBI considers the Party “the greatest threat to national security.”

To the Panthers, self-determination is fundamental: “We want Freedom.  We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.  We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny” (“Program,” article 1).  Rejecting all external political and ethical norms, the rebels are pursuing immanent justice and governance.  In addition to resistance as counter-conduct, their survival programs (free food, health care, legal aid, and education) represent practices of freedom that actualize the project of autonomy as self-sufficiency.

Showing the political work of the revolution, the film foregrounds the inherent contradictions of self-authorization and the antinomies of civic autonomy by contrasting freedom of action to the necessity of violence (such as engaging in shootouts with authorities that result in deaths of party members and police officers, murder of suspected informants) as “resistance to fascism.”

As they endeavor to “heighten the contradictions” of the oppressive regime and accelerate the decline of capitalism (the major theme of the work, which alludes to Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution), the revolutionaries fall into their own fatal contradictions when trying to control their destiny by using means of their oppressors, thus testing the boundaries of self-limitation.

As a tragedy of left governance, the film focuses on the extreme dilemmas of the legitimacy of constituent power.

P.S. The film may be also approached as a tragedy of the traitor (the Judas figure) who suffers through the irreconcilable contradictions of a radical Black life or as an allegory of the Way of the Cross of Christ (the Black Messiah figure) who sacrifices his life for the people.

25 February 2021

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Listening to classical cover versions

I read with special interest an interview that Benjamin Grosvenor gave recently on playing the Liszt sonata.  Instead of analyzing the work itself or placing it in the history of classical music, the 28-year-old pianist compared his recent recording to others.  His principle was this: “I almost feel like you should know the notable recordings of a work like this. [] More than anything, it helps you understand what works and what doesn’t work.”  To him, what matters in interpretation is not what the work means but what works in performance.

This unusual approach made me think of a comparable one in popular music, the practice of the cover, which assumes a particular attitude to the original.  Professor Ian Balfour (English, York) writes often on cover versions of popular songs, tracing with tremendous erudition a particular piece through some of its incarnations.  Reading on Facebook his scintillating commentary, I often wonder why we use “interpretation” for classical and “cover” for popular music remakes.  What kind of listening attention to an original and its reworkings does each term indicate?  And what would happen if we reversed their use?  How would our listening change if Grosvenor talked about the covers of Liszt by Horowitz and Cherkassky while Balfour wrote about Nina Simone’s interpretations of popular classics?

The idea of the cover certainly allows for great performative flexibility.  Grosvenor’s examples of earlier recordings show that classical pianists too can be quite irreverent.  Having listened to several highly idiosyncratic recordings of the Liszt sonata (with their omissions, improvisations, mistakes, exaggerations), I suggest that by designating them as “covers” we can be more receptive to their performative liberties.  This would apply even more to works where there is no definitive original, such as Verdi’s Don Carlo or several Bruckner symphonies as well as to transcriptions and paraphrases, which by definition remake originals.  I would find it thrilling to attend a recital with a frame of mind attuned to renderings that work rather than interpretations that un-cover and reveal.  After all, certain pianists, like Horowitz, Lang Lang, and Yuja Wang, not to mention Valentina Lisitsa (and going back to Liszt himself!), can be easily treated as “cover acts.”

I have noticed how every time Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” plays a classical work just for the two of us, he improvises his own subtle changes out of sheer performative confidence, strength, and pleasure, in a way conversing with the composer rather than serving him.  Instead of restoring monumentality to canonical works, powerful musicians make them their own in much the way that powerful covers become new originals (such as The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun”).  In discussing the Liszt composition, Grosvenor foregrounded this performative dimension, reminding me why we talk about the Cherkassky Sonata, the Richter 960, the Kleiber 7, and the Lisbon Traviata.

What journalist David Allen in the Grosvenor interview called (quoting Charles Bernstein?) “close listening” is a skill of the modern self that can only be invigorated when applied to cover versions of all musical kinds.

10 February 2021

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All the world’s a studio

The song produced by Phil Spector is the pop song as authentic concoction.

It is not emotional or sincere, it does not represent a slice of life, as did its immediate predecessors, the songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It is just genuinely artificial.

We notice its authentic artificiality from the start:  The very first thing we hear is the studio itself.  As soon as the song starts, above all it is the studio performing (as opposed to the band playing or the singer singing).  The orchestra too is a studio orchestra (there are no such orchestras outside the studio).  Multiple layering, reverb, and echo intensify the sense of a closed yet expansive space.

The topic of the song is always desire as affect, not emotion.  There is no subject speaking and there is no singer for the listener to identify with. The topic is desire as an affect that gradually feels embodied while it is enhanced and embellished into a full-bodied love song where rhythm prevails over melody.

This love song gives affect an intense theatricality as the studio turns into a stage.  There is no story telling, no development of a feeling or situation.  There is only a three-minute surge of pure desire into performed (rather than confessed) sentimentalism.

In the Spector studio, a pop song is given a Wagnerian climactic treatment as the music soars toward a choral crescendo, and a Schubertian simple tune explodes into a Mahlerian march.

28 January 2021

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Για την ποιητική και την ποίηση της Ελένης Βακαλό

Το δοκίμιο “Το όνομα και το πράγμα στην ποιητική θεωρία και πράξη της Ελένης Βακαλό” είναι η συμμετοχή μου στο εξαίρετο αφιέρωμα του περιοδικού Χάρτης (15 Ιανουαρίου 2021) στη μεγάλη αυτή μορφή της ελληνικής ποίησης και τέχνης.  Εδώ προτείνω πως, με τον ριζοσπαστικό μοντερνισμό της, η ποίηση της Βακαλό αποδεικνύει έμπρακτα γιατί ο παραδοσιακός μοντερνισμός της ποιητικής της είναι ξεπερασμένος:  “Δεν είναι τυχαίο πως, αν και ήταν επιφανής πνευματική φυσιογνωμία και μέλος πολλών κύκλων δημιουργών, η Βακαλό ώς τώρα παρέμεινε ένα απροσπέλαστο λογοτεχνικό στοίχημα και αίνιγμα. Φίλοι και συνάδελφοι τη λάτρευαν και ταυτόχρονα ομολογούσαν πως δεν την καταλάβαιναν. Δεν βοηθούσε και το ότι η γραφή της ήταν πολύ πιο προχωρημένη από τη θεωρία της. Παράλληλα οι πρωτοποριακές ερμηνευτικές μέθοδοι δεν αναπτύχθηκαν στην Ελλάδα κι έτσι δεν αποκωδικοποίησαν το έργο της. Μόνο πρόσφατα άρχισε να βρίσκει κάποια απήχηση στην ποιητική γενιά του 2000.”

1 Νοεμβρίου 2020

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Panel on “Tragic Conditions” at the 2021 MLA Convention

As the 2020 Chair of the Forum “Classical and Modern” of the Modern Language Association, I was happy to put together at the 2021 convention a virtual roundtable of great scholars with a special interest in tragedy.

MLA Panel no. 524Tragic Conditions, Saturday, 9 January 2021, 5:15 – 6:30 PM

Presider:  Vassilis Lambropoulos, U of Michigan, Ann ArborSpeakers:  Alexander Beecroft, U of South Carolina, Columbia; Joshua Billings, Princeton U; Blair G. Hoxby, Stanford U; Sarah Nooter, U of Chicago

Short description:  The question of what kind of work may be deemed tragic has been complicated by new criteria mobilized for the term’s definition and evaluation.  In addition to theatrical and moral criteria, scholars have been considering identity, affect, corporeality, and materiality, among others.  Participants discuss conditions conducive to the appearance of tragedy, conditions qualifying as tragic enough for the stage, conditions required for the genre of tragedy, and conditions considered tragic.

Long description:  Following a half-century of attacks on tragedy by writers from Walter Benjamin to George Steiner, a broad intellectual and artistic consensus emerged that tragedy is not dead, and does not need to be.  In fact, producing canonical tragedies, discovering forgotten ones, and making new works has become so widespread around the world that the genre has never been so popular since antiquity.  At the same time, research into the genealogy of “the tragic” has identified its origins in German Idealism.  While some sociologists and political theorists continue to work with this notion, literary and cultural studies have focused instead on the conditions of tragedy itself.  This roundtable will address concerns about the requirements of tragedy, the qualities that legitimize and validate it.As figures like Oedipus, Medea, Lear, and Nora travel across languages, arts, media, genres, and identities, critics and artists continue to use tragic tropes while at the same time renegotiating tragic limits.  As conventions like the chorus, modalities like ritual, and techniques like catharsis are invoked and refunctioned, the tragic space is reoccupied by forces that seek their own efficacy.  This roundtable will explore conditions that, at different times and situations, foster and facilitate the creative distribution of tragedy in particular cultures.

Participants may consider the following questions:

  1. Are there any historical, cultural, ideological and other conditions, usually codified as a period of crisis, that facilitate tragedy? Is tragedy a particularly productive artistic engagement for transitional times?

  2. Are there any literary and stage conventions and techniques that are important, even indispensable, for the function of tragedy? Is there a minimum of requirements for a tragic genre?

  3. Are there any rules that a play or other work needs to follow in order to work as tragedy?  Is there a poetics of tragedy, like those that writers for centuries have tried to devise?

  4. Does tragedy have its own critical vocabulary?  For example, is the Aristotelian, French neoclassical, or Brechtian terminology useful for a contemporary engagement with tragedy?

  5. Are there any tragic conditions in life that drama needs to take into account? Is it worth positing a certain equivalence between tragedy in life and in art at a particular historical period or irruption?

  6. Is there a necessary connection between tragedy and classicism?  Is tragedy required to draw on classical periods (e. g., antiquity), themes (e. g., tyranny), virtues (e. g., valor), and values (e. g., aura)?

My contribution

My project combines literary analysis, performance study, and political theory.

When there is a tyrannical abuse of power, a transgression/excess of rule by self-aggrandizement, we have a crisis of sovereignty and collapse of its foundations.  Revolution rises to challenge the legitimacy of sovereignty.  I study this political work of the revolution by analyzing the inherent contradictions of the exception and self-authorization when the extraordinary rebellion of constituent power seeks to inaugurate a radical beginning and constitute a new order.

I focus on the antinomies of civic autonomy, on the fact that freedom must be self-policed.  I treat the fundamental Idealist antinomy between freedom and necessity as the antinomy of arche as beginning and rule, revolution and institution, constituent and constituted, authorization & authority, stasis (the people) & state (government), polemos & polis.  I am especially interested in ways of limiting/controlling autonomy.

Foucault (Security) says that classical theater from Shakespeare to Racine is basically organized around the coup d’ Etat.  I propose that, starting with Romanticism, theater is organized around the revolution.

Modern theater stages the antinomies of civic autonomy as a tragic agon, the tragedy of revolutionary governance.  It dramatizes moments of extreme dilemmas/irreconcilable contradictions of legitimacy as contestation intrinsic to the revolution.

Modern theater is rich in historical and imaginary figures and events pertaining to revolution, such as kings like Philip II of Spain, emperors like Boris Godunov, presidents like Kazantzakis’ Capodistria and Cesaire’s Lumumba (Season in the Congo), revolutionaries like Marat and Toussaint Louverture, militants (Brecht’s Measures Taken, Müller’s Mission, Negri’s Swarm), terrorists (Camus’ The Just), outlaws (Schiller’s Robbers, Wordsworth’s Borderers), uprisings (Hauptmann’s Weavers, Grass’ Plebeians rehearse the uprising).

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    Φιλία και ετεροτοπία μιάς μεταπολεμικής περιθωριακής παρέας

    Πώς κατορθώνει μια παρέα διανοουμένων που λειτουργεί στο περιθώριο της αριστεράς, της κριτικής και της κουλτούρας να υπερασπιστεί τόσο σθεναρά και μακρόχρονα την εξέγερση, την ποίηση, τη σκέψη και τη φιλία;

    Το λογοτεχνικό περιοδικό Βόρεια-Βορειοανατολικά:  Κείμενα παραμεθορίου, με έδρα τη Μυτιλήνη, αφιέρωσε το τεύχος 5 (Νοέμβρης 2020) στο θέμα “Τόπος και εκτοπισμός” και μου ζήτησε να γράψω για την εκτοπισμένη ομάδα του περιοδικού Σημειώσεις και του εκδοτικού οίκου Έρασμος η οποία αποτελεί αξιοσημείωτο φαινόμενο της  μεταπολεμικής σκέψης.  Εδώ το κείμενό μου, το οποίο συμπληρώνει προηγούμενα κείμενα αυτού του ιστότοπου για το ίδιο θέμα:  ΛΑΜΠΡΟΠΟΥΛΟΣ_ΦΙΛΙΑ_ΚΑΙ_ΕΤΕΡΟΤΟΠΙΑ

    “Η ποιητική ως πολιτική θεωρία:  Ήττα, απόγνωση και μελαγχολία στη μετεμφυλιακή αριστερή ποίηση”

    The comrades’ cause

    1 Ιανουαρίου 2021 Continue reading

    Posted in Collaboration, Culture, Friends, Greek Literature, Greek Poetry, Left, Melancholy, Resistance | Tagged | Leave a comment

    Listening to a friend (2)

    Having a friend is a rigorous exercise in attentive listening:  We do not listen just to what our friend says but to our friendship summoning us.

    Having pianist Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis as my “other self” is a multiple exercise in hearkening, as I listen attentively to him, to our friendship, to his playing, to his listening to music with me.  His sonorous presence resonates in my world, inviting me to our collaborative music making.

    Today I mark 6 years and 300 posts of this blog which carries the etymological echoes of his first name.

    25 December 2020

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    Έλληνες ποιητές “εξεγείρονται” στο Μίσιγκαν

    Σε αυτό τον αιώνα της μεγάλης αβεβαιότητας και αναταραχής η παγκόσμια νέα ποίηση αποκτά συχνά ένα δημόσιο, αμφισβητησιακό χαρακτήρα.  Γίνεται προφορική, θεατρική, μεταιχμιακή, μιγαδική, μηντιακή, πολυφωνική, πολυμεσική, πολυσεξουαλική, πολυφυλετική, πολυπολιτισμική.  Εξεγείρεται εναντίον κάθε κανονιστικού και πειθαρχικού συστήματος που λέει στους ανθρώπους ποιοί είναι και τι να κάνουν.  Απορρίπτει την παραδοσιακή αντίληψη για το αυτοδύναμο και αυτόνομο έργο τέχνης, και τον προικισμένο και προνομιούχο δημιουργό του.  Παρόμοιες κεντρόφυγες τάσεις παρατηρούμε και στην ελληνική ποίηση η οποία συνομιλεί όσο ποτέ με την παγκόσμια.

    Όμως ο εορτασμός της επανάστασης του 1821, που έχει αρχίσει προ πολλού, βάζει εξ ορισμού το φαινόμενο της εξέγερσης σε τριπλό καλούπι:  το περιορίζει σε πλαίσια εθνικά, επαναστατικά και ιστορικά.  Η ιστοσελίδα “Εξέγερση:  Η ρήξη με την παράδοση και η σύγκρουση με την εξουσία” κινητοποιεί τον προωθημένο στοχασμό της καινούργιας ελληνόγλωσσης ποίησης για να δημιουργήσει ένα χώρο για την αντίσταση που δεν αισθητικοποιείται, δεν νομιμοποιείται, δεν καθιερώνεται, δεν εορτάζεται.  Η εξέγερση απορρίπτει την ασφάλεια των βεβαιοτήτων αλλά και την ουτοπία των πίστεων.  Είναι η κορυφαία κραυγή του ανυπότακτου ανθρώπου.  Ας αφουγκραστούμε λοιπόν ποιητικά τη βοή των εξεγέρσεων που συνεχίζουν να συνταράσσουν την εποχή μας.

    Ελληνες ποιητές «εξεγείρονται» στο Μίσιγκαν

    12 Δεκεμβρίου 2020

    Posted in Greek Poetry, Greeks, Revolt, Revolution | Leave a comment

    Rhythmic listening

    As a cosmic, poetic, musical, temporal force, rhythm has an etymological and philosophical resonance that emerged in archaic Greece and continues to echo through recent studies of meter, sound, difference,  time, and performance.

    Such studies have been focusing on the work of rhythm; but how about the rhythm of work, of constructivist creativity?  For example, how can we talk about rhythmic listening, the ways in which we rhythm what we hear?  What kind of rhythmic elaboration turns hearing to listening?  And how about collaborative rhythming, the rhythm of collaborative friendship?

    10 December 2020

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    Elements of the modern tragedy of sovereignty as activated in Schiller’s “The Robbers” (1781)

    An individual claims agency as an autonomous subject by rebelling against a declining ruling order.

    He searches for principles of self-authorizing legitimacy of a new order, based on absolute freedom, which will plot its own history.

    The antinomy of the autonomous subject becomes manifest as self-division between freedom and stasis.

    The split subject commits the hubris/excess of one-sidedness and becomes a criminal.

    The tragic antinomy of collective rebellion becomes manifest as the hubris of freedom which pursues justice though lawlessness.

    The history of the modern tragedy of sovereignty, from Romanticism to Post-colonialism, may be written in terms of the agonism between the sovereign and the robber.

    1 December 2020

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