Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 2013

Volume 40 Issue 1
    • 1Haun Saussy
    • When Hannah Arendt left Berlin in 1933, embarking on an eighteen-year period of wandering without a nationality, she carried in her bags eleven chapters of a book manuscript about Rahel Levin Varnhagen von Ense, a salonnière and letter-writer of the early nineteenth century. Arendt's doctoral dissertation about the concept of love in Saint Augustine had already been accepted and published in 1929. Retrospectively at least, the book about Rahel Varnhagen became the Habilitation that Arendt could not have submitted, given the legal exclusion of Jews from German university teaching as of 1933. Nothing is simple about the Rahel Varnhagen book. She carried the unfinished manuscript to Paris, where Walter Benjamin, another author of a Habilitation that went nowhere (though for different reasons), urged her to finish it, as she finally did in 1938. Thereafter she was interned in a camp for enemy aliens at Gurs in southwest France, escaped, and made her way to New York. The manuscript, entrusted to a friend, resurfaced in 1945. In 1958 the book was published by the Leo Baeck Institute in an English translation by Richard and Clara Winston and republished in 1959 by Piper-Verlag in the original German. A project that had begun in the mid-1920s stayed on the docket for more than thirty years of the philosopher's life, through changes of nationality and mind.

      See also: Shoshana Felman, Theaters of Justice: Arendt in Jerusalem, the Eichmann Trial, and the Redefinition of Legal Meaning in the Wake of the Holocaust  ·  Julia Kristeva, Is There a Feminine Genius?

    • 15Hannah Arendt-Stern and Haun Saussy
    • The analysis here presented of the relations between Rahel Varnhagen and Goethe is part of a book that reveals, through the example of Rahel's life, the main difficulties and possibilities of early assimilation in Germany. For this first German-Jewish generation—as indeed for all the generations to follow—Goethe played a decisive role. Rahel is an excellent, and, in our view, unassailable example of real and authentic assimilation. The proof lies not only in what she herself said and wrote, but in Goethe's declarations: he called her in so many words one of the first people who had ever understood him. Another testimony is the fact, remarkable from historical and literary points of view, that the Goethe-cult of romantic Berlin was actually inaugurated by Rahel. The history of her assimilation is indistinguishable from the history of her Goetheanism.

      For Rahel, Goethe is the “mediator” between her and an alien world, an alien history, an alien society where she has no place that would be fixed in advance by birth and convention; lacking any link in tradition to these foreigners, she cannot confide in them unless she should find a point of departure from which to orient herself. Goethe is for her the representative of German culture; “Goethe accompanied her throughout her life” and gave her the possibility of understanding her own existence in such a way that she could in turn be understood by the people with whom she had to live, to whom she had to assimilate herself.

      See also: Ian Storey, The Reckless Unsaid: Arendt on Political Poetics  ·  Richard Halpern, Theater and Democratic Thought: Arendt to Rancière

    • 25Leo Bersani
    • A fairly eminent colleague recently described to me his recurrent dream: Having been invited to lecture at a university in an unidentified city, he has chosen to stay at a downtown hotel a few miles from campus. The lecture has been scheduled for 4 pm, and at about 3:45, still in his hotel room, he suddenly realizes that he has only fifteen minutes to get to the building where his academic audience has, he assumes, begun to gather. In a panic, he rushes outside and tries to hail a taxi. In some versions of the dream, there is no taxi to be had; in other versions, his cab gets stuck in heavy city traffic; in still others, the taxi runs out of gas and he must, desperately, search for another one. Or, in the most peculiar twist in this minor nocturnal epic of a failure to reach an assigned destination, the taxi driver makes a detour into a rural setting adjacent to the city where he stops to visit his aged parents, who cordially invite my exasperated friend in for coffee and cake. In the next frame he has, somehow, arrived at the lecture hall, which is—perhaps the dreamwork's compensation for his harrowing journey—packed with students and faculty. But, it turns out, my friend has brought the wrong lecture, and—although he is to be introduced in a few moments—another colleague offers to rush back to the hotel and bring the right one. This is especially embarrassing since my friend is aware of having something of a reputation on the university lecture circuit for not having the lecture he is expected to give and for having to improvise, awkwardly, with none of the verbal elegance and eloquence for which his talks had been appreciated.

      See also: Leo Bersani, ‘Ardent Masturbation’ (Descartes, Freud, and Others)

    • 83Nima Bassiri
    • During the course of the past several decades and within the context of certain psychiatric and neuroscientific circles, psychoanalysis has become a topic of renewed interest, whose future has appeared to be in need of defending. Publications appearing as early as the mid-1980s have sought either tacitly or quite openly to resuscitate and defend the potential legitimacy of psychoanalytic theory and practice. Neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel, a longtime participant in this discussion (and recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in medicine) provided at the end of the 1990s the most candid account of how double-edged the new defense of psychoanalysis actually was:

      If psychoanalysis is to regain its intellectual power and influence, it will need more than the stimulus that comes from responding to its hostile critics…. One way that psychoanalysis might re-energize itself … is by developing a closer relationship with biology in general and with cognitive neuroscience in particular…. From a conceptual point of view, cognitive neuroscience could provide a new foundation for the future growth of psychoanalysis, a foundation that is perhaps more satisfactory than metapsychology.

      What psychoanalysis ultimately needed to be defended against or so it was suggested was itself—its own inevitable obsolescence, a consequence of its inability or refusal to evolve as a natural, experimental science. Only through the context of cognitive neuroscience and neurobiology, these researchers proposed, could psychoanalysis remain not only relevant but also impactful in the behavioral sciences.

      See also: Nicholas Rand and Maria Torok, Questions to Freudian Psychoanalysis: Dream Interpretation, Reality, Fantasy  ·  Fernando Vidal, Brains, Bodies, Selves, and Science: Anthropologies of Identity and the Resurrection of the Body

    • 109Jeffrey T. Nealon
    • There's nothing more banal than the weather. In fact, the weather often functions as a privileged figure for banality itself, the lingua franca of everyday phatic speech. The weather constitutes a pervasive, nearly contentless discourse that we can all safely engage—connecting with others on a superficial level, without running the risk of offending anyone. “Nice day.” “Looks like rain.” “Hot enough for you?”

      In her classic essay “Banality in Cultural Studies,” Meaghan Morris argues that much of the news industry works to ping-pong its consumers between the binary poles of banality and fatality—between comforting repetition of the obvious and wild speculations about impending disaster. As one of her primary examples of this banality/fatality coupling, Morris not surprisingly has recourse to the weather. She recounts an anecdote from her youth when communication was lost, for the better part of a day, with the news bureaus of Darwin in her native Australia. Of course, everyone expected (and hyped) the worst: a disaster, man-made or natural, had stricken the outpost city. The banality of communication lines being down gets instantly translated into the fatality of Armageddon; as Morris recounts, “people panicked, and waited anxiously for details.”

      See also: Evan Kindley, Big Criticism  ·  Carolyn Abbate, Music—Drastic or Gnostic? 

    • 133Marjorie Garber
    • The consummate poet of translations, Ovid has often been both a sign and an agent of shape-shifting in critical thought: metamorphic in himself and the cause of metamorphosis in others.

      My object in what follows is not only to look at moments in which Ovid's stock has risen or plummeted over the years, a question well addressed by several recent books and articles, but also to frame this discussion as a way of predicting something about the future and interpreting something about the present in literary and critical studies. I am going to take the name of Ovid, and particularly the Ovid of the Metamorphoses and the Fasti, as a metonym for a kind of critical interest that had for some time fallen out of favor and has now returned in an unexpected guise—returned, moreover, from the vantage point of science rather than directly through the humanities. What I have in mind is an interest in myth and, in particular, its relation to a certain claim about universalism.

      See also: Jonathan Kramnick, Literary Studies and Science: A Reply to My Critics  ·  Brian Boyd, For Evocriticism: Minds Shaped to Be Reshaped

    • 160Zachary Leader
    • In September 1960, with the encouragement of the Standing Conference of National and University Librarians (SCONUL), Philip Larkin sent a questionnaire to ‘twenty “leading writers”’, among them T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and Graham Greene, asking about the disposition of their literary manuscripts. The results were to be reported back to SCONUL at its annual conference. The writers were asked three questions: (1) ‘Have you ever been asked for a gift of your manuscripts by a British library, an American library, or any other library?'; (2) ‘Have you ever been asked to sell your manuscripts to a British library, an American library, or any other library?’; (3) ‘Would you care to express any general opinion on this question to the conference?’ The idea of the questionnaire was inspired by a letter Larkin received from an American library asking him if he would donate his own papers. The letter arrived sometime before 10 October 1958, when Larkin wrote to the Times Literary Supplement about ‘the growing practice of American libraries of soliciting the gift of manuscripts or worksheets from living authors for study and preservation.’ In the letter, Larkin declares that ‘the time has come for British librarians to consider adopting a more positive policy.’ Larkin's election to the Poetry Panel of the Arts Council in January 1961 led to just such a policy, a collaboration between the Arts Council and the British Museum in creating in 1963 the National Manuscripts Collection of Contemporary Poets (NMCCP), which made its first purchase in 1964.

      See also: Jens Hanssen, Kafka and Arabs  ·  Saul Bellow, A World Too Much with Us

    • 220Anya Bernstein
    • The Pussy Riot affair provoked unprecedented debates over the usefulness and varied meanings of corporal punishment in Russia, from flogging and birching to even tarring and feathering. As time passed, the narratives around the trial increasingly came to focus specifically on the three convicted female bodies. These bodies first appeared to the public as anonymous and hidden behind their colorful balaclavas. They later came unmasked, only to be hidden again, this time behind iron bars and inside the glass cage where Russian courts keep defendants during hearings.

      In short, what these bodies thematized and made increasingly visible to contemporary Russians and their observers around the world was the spectacular violence of sovereign power. Indeed, many Russians interpreted these young women as a threat to the very core of the Russian state and especially its recently elaborated doctrine of sovereign democracy. Drawing on the scholarship on sovereignty and the body—with an added attention to notions of gender at work in the political—I argue that under conditions of postsocialist transformation in Russia, the bodies of the Pussy Riot participants became vital sites for the enactment of sovereignty for a wide range of citizens. These three female bodies, which became increasingly vulnerable during the trial and subsequent imprisonment but at the same time stunned the audiences by their stubborn vitality, were remarkably multivalent. For some, their punishment ratified and strengthened the legitimacy of the Russian polity, while for others it revealed both the brutality and ultimate impotence of the Russian state. What united these diverse perspectives, and what invites us to reflect here on their consequences for contemporary sovereignty in Russia, was an implicit narrative of sacrifice—the legitimacy and desirability of which is still hotly debated—through which sovereign violence inscribed itself upon Pussy Riot's bodies.

      See also: Jennifer Spiegel, Masked Protest in the Age of Austerity

    • 242Peter Uwe Hohendahl
    • When the members of the Frankfurt school came to this country in the late 1930s as refugees they had left behind the explosive mixture of racism and technological progress in Germany and were confronted in the US with the spirit of neopositivism and its narrow and utilitarian definition of philosophy. The American idea of progress, they noted, was focused on the improvement of civilization by the domination of nature. Dialectic of Enlightenment, composed in 1944 but published only in 1947, was their fervent response to the idea of social engineering that seemed to dominate the American discussion of that time. In this response the concept of progress was carefully and aggressively scrutinized. The pages of Dialectic of Enlightenment contain numerous statements that openly undermine the belief in progress. After all, the explicitly stated failure of the historical European Enlightenment would include, it appears, the failure of the Enlightenment's favorite project, that is, mapping human progress and anticipating a better future for the human race.

      Given this critique, Theodor W. Adorno's 1962 essay “Progress” (Fortschritt) comes as a surprise.1 The piece carefully reconsiders the idea of progress and its potential application to the conditions of the early 1960s. Curiously this essay has not received much attention in the vast literature on critical theory. While Adorno's role as an important intellectual mentor in postwar Germany after the war has been widely acknowledged, his intervention in the debate about the future of humanity and the necessary means to ensure such a future has elicited fewer responses. The reason for this lack might be that the critique of the Enlightenment, for which the Frankfurt school is best known, and the defense of the concept of progress seem to be incompatible. Frequently Adorno has been cast in the role of the pessimist who cannot foresee a truly positive turn in the process of human history. The essay on progress urges us to reconsider this verdict not only for historical reasons but also as a potential resource for a renewed engagement with the concept of progress.

      See also: Amanda Anderson, Postwar Aesthetics: The Case of Trilling and Adorno