After the defeat of the Revolution

A challenging contribution to current discussions of the global predicament of the left has been recently published: Enzo Traverso’s beautifully written, well illustrated, widely learned Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2016). It is a study of left melancholia of a century of defeated revolutions which posits that “the history of revolutions is a history of defeats, because all of them have been followed by restorations, authoritarian turns, and Thermidorean reactions” (32). Its central figure is Walter Benjamin who combined the three M’s (Scholem’s Messianism, Brecht’s Marxism, and Warburg’s Melancholy) to counter Carl Schmitt’s Catholic “political theology” with his own Jewish “political theology,” namely, revolution as redemption and exodus from history.

Traverso’s book of melancholia reads as a companion to his The End of Jewish Modernity (2013), a book of mourning over the exhaustion of Jewish critical thought. Together they constitute an elegy for Mitteleuropa anti-mimetic and socialist radicalism. The author marks the collapse of that world by recalling the solemn mourning of communism in Theo Angelopoulos’ film Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) when a broken and fallen statue of Lenin traverses the Danube “leaving the stage of history” (79).

It is worth reading this study together with The Army of the Sleepwalkers (2014), the latest and in every respect grandiose 800-page novel (still not in English translation) by the “anonymous” Bolognese collective Wu Ming. It covers the years 1793-95 of French history, the “Reign of Terror,” focusing not on the external defeat of the revolution but on its self-defeat, the gradual bankruptcy of left governance. Though it reads as a novel, it is structured as a five-act Romantic tragedy (by, say, Victor Hugo or even Romain Rolland) to dramatize in a Mnouchkinian spectacle that dimension of history which Benjamin occluded and exorcised throughout his career, the tragedy of revolution.

As Traverso mentions in his melancholic study, Raymond Williams observed that “revolutions always tend to deny their tragic dimension” and they “never conceive themselves as tragic events” (52). Indeed, in his Modern Tragedy (1966) Williams noted that in modern times “the ordinary separation of social thinking and tragic thinking. The most influential kinds of explicitly social thinking have often rejected tragedy as in itself defeatist. … The idea of tragedy, that is to say, has been explicitly opposed by the idea of revolution” (63). This is a most interesting question: Why protect revolutionary failure from the consequences of hubris by ignoring any connection of defeat with tragedy?

Writing under the sign of left melancholy in the wake of what he describes as the collapse of communism, the paralysis of the “velvet revolutions,” the deadlock of the “Arab Spring,” and the exhaustion of the social movements, such as feminism, Traverso is renewing explicitly Daniel Bensaïd’s “melancholic bet” (234) in an effort to salvage the anticipation of utopia and keep the covenant of redemption alive in the age of Holocaustal trauma and its memory. Thus he proposes to replace Benjamin’s Jewish “political theology” with Lucien Goldmann’s Pascalian one, and the Messiah with the latter’s “Hidden God.”

On the other hand, by showing in their novel that the mesmerized forces of the counter-revolutionary sleepwalkers are already in power and that the time of the “Great Parody” has arrived, Wu Ming argue that, more than the melancholia over the defeated revolution (or lost election, failed referendum, and the like), it is the tragedy of the self-undermined left governance, the “Thermidor reaction” (be it in Paris in 1794 or in Athens in 2015), that is of urgent relevance to the predicament of today’s left.

May 25, 2017

Posted in Left, Melancholy, Philosophy, Revolution | Tagged , , ,

Friends in opera

A selective list-in-progress of male friends caught in operatic camaraderie, rivalry,             or betrayal, listed in random order:

Don Carlos and Rodrigo (Verdi)

Onegin and Lensky (Tchaikovsky)

Tristan and Kurvenal (Wagner)

Cavaradossi and Angelotti (Puccini)

Tito and Sesto (Mozart)

Oreste and Pylade (Gluck)

Adelson and Salvini (Bellini)

Riccardo and Renato (Verdi’s Ballo)

Zurga and Nadir (Bizet’s Pearl Fishers)

Cinq-Mars and de Thou (Gounod’s Cinq-Mars)

Pierre and Andrei (Prokofiev’s War and Peace)

Rodolfo/Marcello/Schaunard/Colline (Puccini)

Wagner and Nietzsche (Jan Fabre’s Tragedy of a Friendship)

Tamino and Papageno (Mozart) [especially for Pantelis Polychronidis]

May 8, 2015

Posted in Uncategorized

On Not Talking to a Fellow Leftist Friend

Greek leftists will have many reasons to recall the 2010s with disappointment and bitterness but one of their most painful memories will be the breakdown of friendships everywhere inside and around them.

Throughout this decade, directly or indirectly, leftists have been presenting their leftist friends which a stark choice: either they become their comrades by joining forces with them (in an organization, publication, series, festival, and the like) or they stop being their friends. Never since the splintering of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) in 1968 (or, for that matter, the Greek Civil War twenty years earlier) have so many leftists quarreled and split with their friends in the name of leftist principles.

This self-defeating realignment among friends occurs often at promising turns of radical politics everywhere.  Writing on fraternité as a tenet of the French Revolution, I have commented on the twin pre-revolutionary types, the rebel and the friend, which produced the revolutionary ethical man in the late 18th century. At that time, “before becoming first revolutionaries in the barricades, then comrades in the parties, and eventually citizens in the assemblies, individuals who aspired to fashion new selves outside a court, military, or religious setting forged the first modern friendships seeking to balance personal feelings and public virtues. Two complementary pre-revolutionary types emerged who challenged the formal allegiances and reciprocal favors among the nobility with the civic duties of virtue: the rebel and the friend. They emerged together as they created one another.  The rebel needed somebody by his side to fight tyranny. The friend needed somebody’s hand on his shoulder to save him from Werther’s sorrows. Together they overcame rank and sentiment to forge fraternité and fight for a higher purpose. The solidarity between rebel and friend produced a new agent, the revolutionary ethical man. … The revolutionaries idealized friendship as a communion of sentiments and a morality of sympathy, both characteristics represented by the two friends and comrades contemplating the moon while plotting rebellion in Caspar Friedrich’s painting, which is the emblem of my blog.”

However, since the late 18th century, the closer the rebels come to victory, the further away they move from their friends once they begin seeing them only as comrades. With the current decline of leftist trust and solidarity in Greece, friendships have been dissolving at a pace even faster than the dissolution of political commitments.

Great friends certainly share tumultuous attachments. Laurent Dubreuil embraces this affective intoxication, advocating eloquently a “passionate, maximalist, unlimited, unreasonable friendship” (“Friends of War,” Oxford Literary Review, Dec. 2009, 175). Friends go through periods of both stability and collision. “Nothing will decide once and for all that, in good faith, friendship must stop short of excess. … Rather friendship … is capable of its steady state no less than its flight of passion. It is suited to moderation and immoderation. It can fulfill and devastate beyond what is permitted” (175). Thus friendship cannot be controlled by collective interests and strategic formations. The law binding great leftist friends should be stronger than any law “above them” binding their friendship to the left.

That is why Dubreuil sympathizes with Maurice Blanchot’s reservations about the calls for an unconditional camaraderie dictated on the May ’68 demonstrators by the “fraternally anonymous and impersonal movement” (182). He insists that friends should not be absorbed into allies. Yet this is what has been happening during expansive mobilizations: “In the struggle a camaraderie resurges that often ends up superimposing itself on friendship or taking its place rather than enriching it. The great movements of the twentieth century, the revolutions, have left friends with little choice. It was often the worst. I recognise it under its revolutionary garb; it intones the funeral chant of sacrificed friendships” (182).

This chant has been heard again during the 2010s as Greek leftists, invoking another revolutionary covenant, have been demanding military loyalty from their leftist friends, testing them, and often failing them in the name of group purity and moral superiority. Even more than the defeat of their government, it may be the loss of their friends that will haunt these leftists for years to come, as they will be working hard at forgetting them. Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” may be one of them.

“Χτες ακόμα ήμαστ’ έτοιμοι να πεθάνουμε μαζί τους
σήμερα ζούμε κοιτώντας το ρολόι
γιατί η χλόη γίνεται άχυρο κι ο Aύγουστος Σεπτέμβρης.
Έρχεται η ώρα κι οι αρχηγοί σημαίνουν υποχώρηση
τραβιούνται πίσω τα νερά μένουν ξανά γυμνές οι ξέρες
ανακαλούνται οι ποταμοί και τα τραγούδια των νεκρών
“ήτανε λάθος” ο άνεμος που σήκωσε σημαίες
– τώρα οι σημαίες κείτονται στα καταστατικά
οι λέξεις πού βαζαν φωτιά γίνονται πάλι λέξεις

…μόνο το πολυβόλο συνεχίζει να θερίζει τα χρόνια μας
κάθε μέρα σκύβουμε περισσότερο ν’ αποφύγουμε τις σφαίρες
κάθε μέρα ξεχνάμε τους φίλους που σταματήσαν να γερνούν
χτες ακόμα ήμαστ’ έτοιμοι να πεθάνουμε μαζί τους
σήμερα ζούμε κοιτώντας το ρολόι.

Γεράσιμος Λυκιαρδόπουλος:  “Σημειώσεις για μια επέτειο γενεθλίων” ΙΙΙ (1966),  Υπό ξένην σημαία (1972), 23.

Just yesterday we were ready to die with them/today we live looking at our watches because the grass is turning into hay and August to September.                                                 The hour’s coming and the captains give the signal for retreat                                                 the waters recede and the shallows once again stand naked                                                     the rivers are recalled, as are the songs of the dead                                                                      “it was wrong,” this wind that raised the flags/- now the flags lie still among the statutes words that once set worlds on fire become again just words

… only the machine gun keeps on mowing down our years                                                   every day we duck our heads down further lest the bullets catch us                                     every day we forget our friends who stopped growing old                                                        just yesterday we were ready to die with them/today we live looking at our watches.

(I am grateful to Will Stroebel for his translation.)

Next to the mausoleum for the heroes of the movement lies an unmarked grave for their friends to whom they stopped talking on their short-lived march to victory. The “funeral chant of sacrificed friendships” intones the desiccated march of left melancholy amidst the ruins of the revolution, as in the 4th of Webern’s atonal 6 Pieces for orchestra (1910), op. 6 (here in 3:50-8:05).

April 21, 2017 (50 years since the Greek coup and the start of the anti-junta struggle)

Posted in Friends, General, Greeks, Left, Melancholy

Τhe friend as internal condition of thought

The friend is not an external circumstance but an internal presupposition of all thought as such. This friend, the “other self,” is a philosophical and political condition of thought: He is not the second piano but the second pair of hands on the same piano – not Boulez but Boogie!

“From the chaos that lends thought its infinite movement, the other as subject of philosophical thought always emerges as friend. According to this, it is the other as the one who thinks in me and creates concepts. This interpretation posits the division of thought as a division of thinking within itself and not as a division of thought outside itself” (Schönher).

This other-as-friend is the philosophical condition of thought. “This is not two friends who engage in thought; rather, it is thought itself that requires the thinker to be a friend so that thought is divided up within itself and can be exercised. It is thought itself which requires this division of thought between friends” (Deleuze & Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 69 ). The division of thought within itself means that I am not thinking together with my friend but I am thinking as his friend. Thought requires me to be my friend’s friend, positing the friend as the other thought of my thinking.

The friend as a political condition of thought represents the internal presupposition of thinking as a social faculty. “For the Greeks, this primary division of thought is accomplished amongst friends facing each other as rivals, but not without thought being reunified through dialectics and the rivals being reconciled through friendship as the art of mediation” (Schönher). Deleuze asks: “How can a friend, without losing his or her singularity, be inscribed as a condition of thought?” He answers that being friends “brings two thinkers together as singular subjects in thought.” Their dialectic will always remain “traversed by a fissure” because it is not based on a shared quality. Being friends means striving to think immanently: “Not speaking with your friend … but on the contrary going through ordeals with that person … that are necessary for any thinking”.

I have been reading  Mathias Schönher’s splendid “The Friend as Conceptual Persona in Deleuze and Guattari” (Rhizomes 20, 2010) on Gregg Lambert’s “Deleuze and the Political Ontology of the Friend” on Deleuze and Guattari on “conceptual personae” in Plato, and I have been thinking of my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, as internal condition of my own thinking-as-attunement.

April 9, 2017

Posted in Attunement, Friends, Piano | Tagged

The care of the self as care of the “other self”

What is the meaning of Aristotle’s notion of the friend as an “other self”?

An etho-centric (as opposed to ego-centric) understanding of the notion, one centered on character, posits that the highest friendship is based on the friend’s valuable traits and draws on my love of my friend’s virtuous character. I care for my friend for his sake, not mine. The ground of my concern for him is the substance of his character, not its relationship to my character. Concern for the friend is the same in kind as concern for myself. Friends stand to each other psychologically as they stand to their own future self, and therefore they should care for each other as they care for themselves.

Jennifer Whiting’s recently collected papers on first selves (personal identity), second selves (friendship), and other selves (interpersonal love) sent me back to her seminal Monist 1991 paper “Impersonal Friends” and reminded me of her Aristotelian ideal of character-friendship which I have summarized here.

Friends who care for each other’s character also listen to music together and make music together. But what kind of music does their friendship make? What is the musicking going on between friends? In the resonant reciprocity of our mutual care, Pantelis Polychronidis and I echo each other like Florestan and Eusebius in the very opening of the 2nd movement in Schumann’s Kreisleriana (1838), op. 16 (below in 2:55-7:45).

March 26, 2017

Posted in Classical Music, Friends, General

The alienated philosopher: Adorno on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

By making failure the redemption of success, Adorno damned all classical music. Only Missa Solemnis resisted his prophetic fury.

Adorno resented Beethoven’s Missa (1819-23), op. 123, because he could not fit it into his grand narrative of “late style,” of musical evolution as the chronicle of thematized renunciation and dissolution. He called it “enigmatically incomprehensible” (569), accused it of “impotence” (580), and conducted a “disillusioning” (570) of the work in his essay “Alienated Masterpiece: The Missa Solemnis” (1959). He argued that all “great composers from Bach to Schoenberg … had to dredge up the past in the anguish of the present as sacrifices to the future” (Adorno: Essays on Music, 2002, 582). In his “greatest” work, Beethoven, by defying failure, refused to make such a sacrifice.

In his late quartets, sonatas, and bagatelles, Beethoven “disposed sovereignty over all the possibilities which had grown up in the history of his composing ” (572). “He rejected the affirmative” (580) and its untruth, the classical as classicizing, that is, the manipulation of antitheses into a forced unity of subject and object. Thus he fulfilled the penance of the failure of success by making aesthetic impossibility the “aesthetic content of the work” (581).

The case of the Missa is entirely different, and very puzzling to Adorno, who agonized over two questions. One is “the paradox of Beethoven composing a mass at all” (574). The very existence of the work is a scandal and Adorno would like to “understand fully why he did it.” The other question is how he did it — not with a unifying “dynamic pull” but with an “exploded form.”

Adorno’s basic objection is that the work is not structured dialectically: It has no “developing variations” from basic motifs, only “kaleidoscopic mixing and supplementary combinations” (574). Thus, it has no formal organizational principle of organic “process developing through its own impetus” (574) and does not reach “completion.” It is not driven by “subjective dynamics” or “expressive concentration.” Since it contains very little development, everything follows “the planned thematic looseness of the compositional process” (576).

The dearth of development due to the absence of variations left Adorno at a loss: “The lack of dialectical contrasts, which is replaced by the mere opposition of closed phrases, weakens at times the totality. That is particularly obvious in conclusions of movements. Because no direction is traversed, because no individual resistance has been overcome, the trace of the accidental is carried over to the entire work itself, and the phrases, which no longer terminate in a specific goal prescribed by the thrust of the particular, frequently end exhausted; they cease without achieving the security of a conclusion” (578-79). With its resistance to dialectics, development, totality, and conclusion, the scandal of the Missa negates everything Adorno believed about music, if not art in general.

I have been thinking about this infamous critique since attending a few days ago a live performance of the Missa and being overwhelmed by its grandiose self-confidence. If, as Adorno argued, in his late chamber works Beethoven “disposed sovereignty” over compositional history, here he proclaims his supreme sovereignty over an entire tradition by weaving in individual sections, balanced through “contrapuntal enclosure” (574), thickly textured orchestral and vocal fugues with tremendous technical erudition and command of learned techniques. This mass is a cathedral of affirmation — not an expressive/artistic, dialectical/philosophical, or messianic/religious “sacrifice to the future” but a monumental affirmation of music as fugal becoming (without development) and total immanence (without totality).

This dimension of the Missa is particularly evident in the glorious end of the Gloria with its lack of “conclusion,” the stunning double fugue starting with “In gloria dei patris. Amen,” about which Adorno has nothing to say. The tonal progression is clear but the overall sense of direction obscure because harmony does not rest on a large-scale foundation and remains in flux. This makes the fugue sectional and diffusive. Piling fugal envelopments, key changes, rhythmic dislocations, tempo increases, ascending cadenzas, and false endings creates a resounding, unresolved tension which may be what Adorno had in mind when referring to “the withdrawnness from any primary completion, which is characteristic of these fugue themes and is then also encountered in their further development of the work” (575).

With the fugue on “Gloria in excelsis deo. Amen” it becomes clear that the movement is not about hermeneutics or metaphysics but about the art of the fugue itself. Beethoven dispenses with dialectical development through variations to compose with contrapuntal development through fugues, a daring approach that would be worth discussing also from the standpoint of Edward Said’s aesthetics (and corresponding politics) of musical development as co-optative domination or contrapuntal variation. As Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” would remark, the Frankfurtian prophet of negativity must have been terrified by the concluding a capella choral shout “Amen” where music neither concludes nor absolves but absolutes.

Adorno was right when he insisted that the Missa Solemnis has sensuous “splendidness” and “tonal monumentality” (573). To use his highly charged vocabulary, it is defined by objectivity, stylization, and “archaicization” with no announcement of Christian piety (577), precisely because its human assertion is not biblical but mythical: “Not the modern but the ancient is expressive in the Missa. The human idea asserts itself in this work … only by virtue of convulsive, mythic denial of the mythical abyss” (577). Beethoven affirms ontology mythologically as musical form. In contrast to his “late works,” the aesthetic content of this magnificent composition is open-ended aesthetic possibility. “Expressed in more modern terms, it is a matter for Beethoven of whether ontology, the objective intellectual organization of existence, is still possible. … In its aesthetic form the work asks what and how one may sing of the absolute without deceit” (577). It is from this choral singing of the fuguing absolute that Adorno always felt completely alienated.

Leonard Bernstein’s sensuous, idololatric interpretation (with concluding fugue starting at 5:30) might have helped him harken!

March 17, 2017

Posted in Classical Music, Philosophy | Tagged , ,

Deleuze’s concept of assemblage in Greek Studies

I have been reading with special interest and profit very recent, published and unpublished, work by scholars in various disciplines who approach different sites, periods, and aspects of Greek culture by activating the major Deleuzian concept of assemblage. Since I too have been using this concept in my discussions of the Left Melancholy Generation of 2000, I have been especially impressed by the range and rigor of its current circulation in Greek Studies. Before I indicate some of these recent uses, here is an aural illustration of “assemblage” as a collective exercise in attunement:

In Gilles Deleuze’s own words, an assemblage is “a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes, and reigns — different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning … It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind” (Deleuze & Parnet, Dialogues, 69-70).  Deleuze and Guattari call an assemblage “every constellation of singularities and traits deduced from the flow – selected, organized, stratified – in such a way as to converge (consistency), artificially and naturally, into extremely vast constellations constituting ‘cultures’ or even ages” (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 406).

In “The Construction of Community in the Modern Aegean,” Will Stroebel (Michigan) argues that in the “narration” To spiti mou/My home (1965), her invocation of her native Mykonos, Melpo Axioti (1905-73) “composed a kind of textual ‘reconstruction site’ of the island, re-assembling the space through a pastiche of primary historical documents: medieval tracts, journal entries, unpublished songs, scraps of manuscript and print.” He identifies “a network of things that … continue re-assembling themselves in the island’s communal spaces and homes—and … in the novel too, which is itself a powerful agent in this assemblage.” By taking a close look at the networks of materials and humans assembling such books (and also being assembled by them) in the post-Ottoman Aegean he recuperates “the many agencies and actors that today have been eclipsed by authors and their [national] canons.” Overall he brings New Materialism and Actor-Network Theory into dialogue with autonomist political theories by showing how, as a crucial actor in assemblages, literature too assembles the commons.

Looking also at literature, Theodoros Chiotis (Oxford) examines how modernist autogeography, through its deterritorialized documenting and archiving of “things” such as photos and maps, reconceptualizes depersonalized subjectivity as an assemblage and points the way to a new commons of interconnected assemblages as resistance to capitalist subsumption. In “An outlet won’t do any good: Contemporary Greek poetry in crisis,” he argues that poems like George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko (2013), “written while in the throes of this traumatic experience we call crisis, … are documenting historical change in terms of assemblages, that is to say in collective events characterized by spontaneity, amorphousness and unarticulated desires.” He is also interested in textual “meta-machinic assemblages” formed by the “configuration and distribution” of digital poems embedded in computational environments where “human and machine languages become enmeshed” in both material and immaterial spaces.

In a conversation on “an Emergent Politics and Ethics of Resistance” that draws explicitly on Greek anti-austerity mobilizations, Othon Alexandrakis (York) and Athina Athanassiou (Panteion) conceive of mass protest as a “political assemblage,” a resonant arrangement that mobilizes collective practice, and reflect on its epistemic contribution. He understands it as “a political formation that emerges out of the intersection of heterogeneous interests and commitments but that produces effects and finalities that cannot be reduced to a single coalescence of these” (260). In a complementary way she defines it as a matrix of “heterogeneous, indeterminate, and situated social contingencies — such as techniques, temporalities, bodies, affects, and power relations — to be construed in nonessentialist and non-totalizable ways” (216). They are both interested in the performative work of social solidarity in assembling collective politics.

In “Sensorial Assemblages: Affect, Memory and Temporality in Assemblage Thinking,” Yannis Hamilakis (Brown) is interested in “sensorial assemblages” characterized by the contingent coexistence and flow of heterogeneous elements such as sites, things, substances, bodies, ideas, and memories, all energized by affective relations. He argues “that a fundamental property of all assemblages is their sensorial and affective import; that assemblages are arrangements of material and immaterial entities; and that they are also about material and sensorial memory, as well as about the engendering of diverse temporalities; and finally, that assemblages necessitate the deliberate agency and intervention of social actors” (Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27:1, 2017, 170). He focuses on a cumulative assemblage generated by a series of feasting and drinking occasions of communal gatherings in a Cretan landscape around 1500 BC as well as its implications not only for other assemblages in communities near and far away but also for the assemblage produced by the modern excavation and its afterlife.

Even though these scholars of Greek work in 4 different disciplines and are affiliated with universities in 4 different countries, they share many methodological interests.

a) They see their fields (criticism, poetics, anthropology, and archaeology,) as distinct, yet porous, their practices as scholarly, yet creative.

b) Their pursuits converge in the possibility of a “common,” prefigured, as it were, in narrative Mykonos, poetic computation, political protest, and Bronze Age feast.

c) They abandon modernist ontologies of recovery and reconstitution to present publishing, auto-writing, protesting, and feasting as techniques of assembling.

d) They elaborate the notion of assemblage as both method of thought and mode of being, and therefore they define as well as practice it, that is, they simultaneously describe and illustrate its uses.

e) While reflecting on assemblage poetics/politics, at the same time they practice assemblage thinking/writing as an engaged scholarship that invites others (scholars, intellectuals, artists, activists) to assemble as well.

All these recent readings remind me of an activity I often share with my “other self,” Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis: Putting together lists of musical and literary pieces that can work as courses which we will both co-teach and co-perform — experimenting, that is, with collaborative courses-cum-recitals as assemblages (as opposed to traditional syllabi or programs). More on this favorite exercise in another post.

February 28, 2017

Posted in Attunement, Autonomy, General Culture, Greek Literature, Greek Poetry, Greeks, Revolt, The Common | Tagged ,