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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Christian Hawkey: Ventrakl

I wrote a review of this book, a sort of postmodern engagement with Austrian poet Georg Trakl, for the Poetry Project Newsletter. The issue hasn’t been posted online, and since it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of outside of the city, I figured I would post it here in the meantime. But first, Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek,” about his terrible experiences on the front in World War I:

Grodek

Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons, and the golden plains
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to the blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

(tr. Michael Hamburger)

It is apparently ambiguous whether Weidengrund is to mean “pastureland” or “willow-ground.” This poem was one of the last two that Trakl wrote before his suicide, and while there are signature stylistic tics (the colors, for one), it is far from representative.

On to the review:

______________

Georg Trakl was an Austrian poet who killed himself at 27. Born in 1887, he trained as a pharmacist and became a medical officer in the war. His ghastly experiences on the front lines while treating wounded soldiers caused a psychotic break in his already unstable personality, which led to his suicide not long after in 1914. Trakl’s experimentation with forms and his feverish imagery mark him as a modernist and expressionist, but the absence of psychology and his Dionysian mysticism mark him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke. His obsessive use of color, blue and purple especially, is a marker of a poetic language whose meanings can only be grasped obliquely. This aloofness, this immersion in 19th century poetics, challenges anyone to invade his mind.
Christian Hawkey intends to do just this. Ventrakl is a “scrapbook” of “collaborations” with Trakl. Its investigations into Trakl–Hawkey’s personal reflections, imagined interviews with Trakl, manipulated photographs, a biography of Trakl’s sister, and formal and aleatoric manipulations and translations of Trakl’s poems–confront Trakl’s work from multiple angles, usually indirectly rather than head-on. Such a potpourri is bound to be messy, something Hawkey advertises by terming Ventrakl a scrapbook. Yet the humility of that term is contradicted by the deliberate presumption of also calling the work “a collaboration,” underscoring Hawkey’s own ambivalence about engaging with such an elusive figure. Ambivalence and messiness, rather than an elegant falsity, is what is called for.

Hawkey rightly plays up the difficulties rather than obscuring them. The title page of each section in Ventrakl is marked with an obelus, the division symbol. Two individuals–two dots–separated by a literal line of division. There are many such figurative lines in Ventrakl: English/German, present/past, prose/poetry, reader/writer. The book stakes its success on the extent to which the identification of these lines reveals more than merely the failure to cross them. As Hawkey says of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek”: “the words erasing the line between two worlds.”

Hawkey reveals some of his translation and transformation techniques in the introduction, but is cagey about how and where they have been applied. One of the clearest processes produces some of the most striking joins of past and present, a series of color poems (“Whitetrakl,” “Yellowtrakl,” etc.) that translate and assemble Trakl’s lines containing that color. The color is made to seem arbitrary, and yet the result is a bas-relief map of the color’s tenor in Trakl’s mind, presented in time-lapse.

black angel, who quietly slipped from a tree’s heart,

the black flight of birds always touches

the black dew, dripping from your temples, all roads flow into black decay . . .

Other poems are constructed via homophonic manipulation of the German texts, a technique memorably used by Louis and Celia Zukofsky in their translations of Catullus and David Melnick in his reappropriation of the Iliad. In Hawkey’s appropriation of “Nachtlied,” “Erstaart vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit” becomes “For the blue of error-stars, heaven’s klieg light,” loosely but effectively evoking the efflorescence of the original. Later in the same poem, “nächtlichen” becomes “night-lichen” and “Spiegel der Wahrheit [mirror of truth]” becomes “speech’s warfare.”  It is some work to track down the originals, as Hawkey does not always give clear pointers to his sources, but a good many of his treatments become more evocative when viewed with the originals at hand. As I participated by delving through Trakl, I came to identify further with Hawkey’s position.

Other words and phrases recur throughout the poems, again pointing to a hidden web of connections behind the veil of a different language. “Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens” picks up on that final word, already used in earlier poems in the book, and gives an ordered list of those reasons. It is strongly affecting, drawing on Hawkey’s ability to take these strange homophones and draw out their emotional juice. It is here he perhaps comes closest to achieving something of Trakl’s own foreboding presence, by way of creating distance from both Trakl and himself through the space between languages. The recurrent use of such words across poems reinforces the effect. A number of poems use the word “sternum,” linking the heart and chest to the stars (the German stern), a link that is a fitting metaphor for the book itself.

There is an inherent element of risk, however. In Hawkey’s idiolect, “Durch Wolken fährt ein goldner Karren” becomes “A duck fart woke the golden Karen,” in a coarse excursion into sub-Silliman space that even apologizes for itself: “how completely your mirror-language / Has failed.” It seems we must take the good with the bad, but it sits uneasily next to the talk of war and insanity elsewhere in the pages.

The prose excursions are more tentative, lacking the focused incandescence of the best poems in the book. The “interviews” with Trakl, in particular, strive for a self-consciously awkward engagement, but sometimes slide into a stilted preciousness. Yet there are still such gems as Hawkey’s thoughts on gazing at Trakl’s manically intense expression: “Your physician in the Krakow asylum reported that you often saw a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back. Even though your head faces forward, your gaze seems directed there, behind you.”

Taken as a whole, these problematic points still contribute to the book’s acutely Midrashian quality. Appropriation becomes a motif, with Hawkey noting his lifts from Spicer, David Cameron, the Zukofskys, and others. Nothing prevented him from adopting more novel techniques, as K. Silem Mohammad has done, for example, in his treatments of Shakespeare. But Hawkey chooses to emphasize Ventrakl’s lack of autonomy. The translations/deformations are littered with contemporary references both serious and trivial. The strangely po-faced introduction drops Bachelard, Heidegger, Agamben, Stein, and Benjamin in its first three pages, encasing the book in a theoretical carapace that stresses its dependency on contemporary poetic discourse. Trakl, in contrast, comes to seem increasingly universal in refusing to provide anything but the barest specifiers of time and place.

Weighed down by its declared lack of autonomy, the book appeals to Trakl as a source of unimpeachable authenticity, only to be overwhelmed by the concept of that authenticity and the inability to contain it across language, time, and place. It throws up beautiful but uncanny images, only to be unable to claim them as its own. (Here the word “collaboration” starts to seem more sinister.) When it now seems depressingly obligatory to cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in any meditation on translation, as Hawkey indeed does, how can a writer and reader escape the theoretical baggage and speak of poetry and war? Ventrakl does not give an answer, but tenaciously refuses to admit success or surrender. It is an ouroboros looking to let go of its tail.

________________

One last note: I really would endorse an embargo on the use of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of a Translator” when discussing translation. It has become too ubiquitous and its Romantic notion of translation as a gnostic, transcendent impossibility doesn’t strike me as helpful. His idea of “pure language” simply seems wrong-headed. I had real problems with Adam Thirlwell’s book on translation, The Delighted States, but I think he had the right idea in going with Borges’ more elastic and pragmatic conceptions of translation.

The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the “perfect” page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.

Borges, “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader”

Charles Hinton and His Cubes

Thanks (and happy birthday) to Michelle at Potato Benevolence for (re?)introducing me to Charles Hinton, mysterious theorist of fourth-dimensionality in the late 19th century. Aside from his forays into gunpowder-charged pitching machines (a proto-Survival Research Laboratories experiment retired after a few accidents) and bigamy, his obsession with extra spatial dimensions influenced Edwin Abbott’s better known Flatland and was celebrated by Borges, who also mentioned him in “The Secret Miracle.” It’s easy to see a connection back to Llull and Bruno in his gnostic quest for knowledge of hidden spaces. He also constructed a series of cubes designed to help train one to envision a four-dimensional hypercube (or tesseract) by envisioning the various three-dimensional views of the hypercube in a mental superimposition. Sort of like this:

But the oddest part is the letter that was sent to Martin Gardner after he wrote about Hinton in Scientific American. (Mark Blacklock has also covered the odd history of the cubes in his comprehensive site on Hinton and others.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Hiram Barton

On the other hand, Theosophist Sedlak seemed to be fairly happy with the result, as chronicled by his wife:

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.

Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [Die]

“You know it was self-defense!…I mean, running into the brush yelling Colonize, Colonize, and all that. They were going to force me to have babies. I was going to be tied to a tree and raped, for goodness’ sake. It was a mass-delusional system…and anybody who doesn’t agree has to be shut up somehow because it’s too terrifying. So I ran away, but they wouldn’t let it be; they came back after me to drag me back into that insanity and I killed them; I had to.”

That passage comes towards the end of Russ’s novel, after our heroine is the only one left alive. She and a half-dozen others had been stranded on a habitable planet where they will never be found, and after making half-assed attempts at “colonization,” our heroine has gotten fed up with them and the dictatorial ways of some of the men and killed them all. This happens about halfway through the book, leaving her seventy pages or so (it’s a short novel) to ruminate on her sins and her upcoming fate of dying alone.

With such a skeletal plot, the book gets by on voice alone. The narrative can seem slapdash or tedious because of the thinness of the other characters, but Russ controls the heroine’s voice more skillfully than her character’s blunt, sometimes clunky rants make it seem. She teeters between despondent, angry theorizing and irrational misanthropy; she’s not merely a “feminist” character, but also a “Trembler,” a member of a rather ascetic and Purtian-ish sect of fatalistic Christianity. (Draw Kierkegaard comparisons as you will.) I think it was Raymond Smullyan who said that Schopenhauer damaged his case by jumping back and forth between cosmic pessimism and whines about every little thing that bothered him. We Who Are About To… mixes those two aspects, the rebellious and the pathological, inextricably.

It’s there first early on, when our heroine gives a list of the reasons why their little group is so very doomed, including:

That there were no mineral poisons, but that we couldn’t test for organics of allergens.

That we could die of exposure in the winter because we had no way to make heat after our bungalow wore out and that was in six months.

That heart failure could kill.

That each of us carried five to eight lethal genes, and that even without them, humanity had not exactly been breeding for survival for the past hundred years.

Even though she’s right that they very certainly are doomed (the general idiocy of the other characters is reason enough), she grasps at too many straws here, both significant and insignificant, because she has a vested interest in their deaths. She is disgusted by society and wants it done with, at least within a billion mile radius.

The other characters tend to be pretty annoying, but the full thrust of our heroine’s disgust is implicit, denoted by the genre in which Russ is writing. Russ is answering the long tradition of macho, libertarian science fiction novels that, even post-New Wave, had shown no sign of abating. Books like Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero idolize the strong, hyperrational man who holds society together by casting off antiquated sentiments like monogamy and altruism; the female ideal is a tough, loose woman who naturally respects that man above all–and sleeps with him (she sleeps with others too, but he’s the one she respects). (See also: Heinlein, Asimov, Simmons, etc., etc.) Even if it’s not as insidious as the great masculine traditions of literature, it’s far more blatant and clumsy, and We Who Are About To… is the equally blatant response. But only in the first half.

The second half is a reflexive analysis of what it means to be that agent of reaction and militancy, the one who snaps and kills everyone. Russ is open-ended on this point. When our heroine is considering the justification (or not) of her murders, there is no answer to be had. She asks herself the question: are her murders justified given that she is a casualty of the imperialistic tendencies she’s suffered under (and her suffering is a given; Russ is scabrous enough about it)? To what extent is she a thoughtful militant reacting to the worst in human society, and to what extent is she simply a homicidal maniac long divorced from any rational cause? Russ does not offer a rational discussion but an intuitive one, as her long-seated ideas mutate and take on dissociative forms. By making her both a fundamentalist and a feminist, by having the voices of sanity and insanity comingle in her head, Russ suggests that there is simply no separating the two sides. She is incapable of isolating her activism from her trauma and victimization. Russ says: how could she? None of us are at liberty to step back freely from the preconditions of society and view the matter from an imagined objectivity. It’s a Fanonian answer, and it makes Russ one of the most distinctive radicals to have written in science fiction. Most portray revolutionaries as rational agents or great unwashed proletarian masses; Russ is not willing to stop at dialectical materialism.

Keiho Oguri: Sting of Death

A friend and I saw Sting of Death recently and were bewildered by it. An ex-soldier in 1955 or so confesses his infidelity to his wife. For two hours, they alternate between robotic interactions drained of inflection (Bresson on Haldol) and histrionic fits of attempted suicide, murder, etc. There is little of psychological depth actually said, and little plot. I did not enjoy the movie and I think the film unsuccessful and unnecessarily opaque. Normally this means I wouldn’t write about it, but since (a) there is almost no English reference to this movie on the web, and (b) I have already written a letter to my friend describing my eventual interpretation of the movie in response to his, I am posting on it. Because I am lazy, at least when it comes to things I don’t like, I am going to post the letter mostly unaltered, without explanation for some of the scenes that I refer to. I think it still gives a decent impression of the movie to someone who hasn’t seen it. And anyhow, isn’t it good to undercut occasionally the hegemony the reviewer holds over a reader who has not read the book or seen the movie under consideration?

Dear A–

What keyed me into the psychology of the film were the regressive aspects of parts of the film: at one point, the wife calls the husband Lieutenant and he throws water on her, while at others she calls him Papa. Both regress to the state of children several times over the course of the movie. Likewise, there are role reversals where one partner compensates for the others, such as the scene where the husband runs to the train tracks and lays his arm on it, and the wife has to hold him back.

From what I know of Japanese view of psychology based on the novels of Soseki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Tanizaki, it’s one that puts the focus squarely on interpersonal trauma and disability: things such as infidelity, violence, sexual inadequacy, and jealousy. It does not play out in the form of repression (ironically, given the repressed aspects of Japanese society) but in various pathological forms of “insanity,” such as those seen in the film. There is, as you say, very rarely any “cure”–the process is one-way. The traumas in this film seem to be twofold: first, the infidelity, and second, the husband’s military past, which presumably ended in ignominious defeat. Connections between these two are speculative, since the movie is cryptic about his military career, but based on the water/Lieutenant scene, it seems that he also has some past demons based on his military experience.

The husband suggests at one point that they leave so that they can “create a new past”–most of their actions over the course of the movie seem to indicate that they are trying to erase the trauma of the past (the husband’s infidelity) and fail to do so, though how they fail is usually left quite vague. The wife will be acting normal and sedate in one scene, then inexplicably insane in the next. I don’t see this as repression per se, but rather a reaction to the removal of the previous context in which they existed. The “island,” and of course the hospital at the end, underscores their isolation from the world (i.e., the past), and the kids seem to function as a chorus for them.

The neighbor said, when interrupting the wife and mistress trying to kill each other, that she didn’t know who was right or wrong and that it wasn’t her business. I took this to imply that the couple’s business is indeed too private and they have succeeded in isolating themselves from the rest of humanity. Whether they are aiming for death or avoiding it–they alternate between the two–I think the movie is supposed to display this sort of quasi-death state as they isolate themselves from everyone else. They can’t achieve actual death because they still retain the desire/hope that they can erase the past, yet by attempting to do so they erase themselves. I see the movie as more a portrait of a culture that, having not recovered from a terminal loss of dignity, can no longer embrace death as a purifying force (a la seppuku or kamikaze). In the larger sense, Oguri seems to say that Japanese culture desires to erase itself by trying to ignore the past. But this only produces increased anomie and ultimately stasis.

As for the success of the movie, I simply found it too repetitive and too stiff. The fact that the movie is open to such wildly differing interpretations is not a factor in its favor. The artificial hyper-exaggerated acting of the two leads did not “work” for me in any noticeable way. It is perhaps the director’s homage to butoh and noh theater traditions, and possibly if I was more familiar with them I would appreciate the film more, but as it is, the film drifts fatally and the lack of realism undercuts the point he is trying to make. Since they aren’t believable as everyday people, they have to function as abstract extremes, but their artificially limited emotional vocabulary left the film feeling didactic, overdetermined, and ultimately tiresome, as though the director were completely unwilling to let the material breathe or offer a single sign that there might be more beyond his thesis.

In contrast, I would say, a film such as Vengeance is Mine (or any Imamura film) teems with the raw material of life and does not have a rigid, claustrophobic agenda to pursue, and for me this above all makes Imamura a far greater artist. “Sting of Death” doesn’t even seem open to the possibility that things could be otherwise. I find this absurd and arrogant.

A.

Three Versions of Politics

In the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunamis, the Bush administration pathetically found itself spending more money on its second inauguration than it initially committed to disaster relief. Even now, its contributions are not especially impressive. I donated to relief organizations, and then, left to my own thoughts, I went through three responses: anger, despair, and detachment.

I was infuriated when I read Slavoj Zizek’s The Liberal Waterloo. Zizek proposes that it is for the better that Bush won the 2004 election, since it will

dispel the illusions about the solidarity of interests among the developed Western countries. It will give a new impetus to the painful but necessary process of strengthening new alliances like the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. … Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush&#x92s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division. After all, Kerry did not have a global vision that would present a feasible alternative to Bush&#x92s politics.

Zizek spends a good deal of space lambasting liberals for their faulty faith in Kerry and his empty vision, instead proclaiming the ascent of a new counterweight that will not seek unity with the United States. I disagree (except on the empty vision part), but it is not this that bothers me. Nor is it throwaway lines like this, which make me fear that his grasp of economics is quite weak:

Further, Bush&#x92s victory is paradoxically better for both the European and Latin American economies: In order to get trade union backing, Kerry promised to support protectionist measures.

No, it was the words “painful but necessary” that were maddening. I pictured Zizek sitting in his safe European home, gently telling his dialectic-minded followers that it is all for the best, that the nightmares that await are part of a cleansing clarity of darkness through which the new sun will rise. I thought it displays a faith not so different than that which informs the Left Behind books that he mentions. I exaggerate, but I was upset.

From Edmund Burke, a philosopher I despised for a long time before coming to a tenuous rapprochement, I learned not that revolution was wrong, but that it is absurd to believe that a ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, can be faithfully transmuted into a working polity. Zizek does not offer statecraft, but inflated theory with which he cheers the coming crash. I have no doubt that life will get far more unpleasant, but I will not allow myself to believe that the decreased education, increased poverty, and burgeoning intolerance will yield a better world or revivified political debate through anything except pure accident. I will not applaud the clarity gained when the U.S. refuses to ante up more than a pittance for the damage wrought by tsunamis in Southeast Asia.

Nor do I believe that the “lessons” learned from these horrible experiences by the vast majority of Americans (or others) will be anything other than instinctive reactions towards some new random vector. Even the ultimately optimistic economist Joseph Schumpeter was sober and cautious when considering the failure of capitalism and the successful rise of socialism, offering only an equivocal endorsement of what he believed would come to pass.

Zizek portrays an America of uniquely extreme religious fanatics. But the United States’ problem is that through an unlucky confluence of events, a group of crazies have taken over, people who do not act, in general, in line with the beliefs of those who voted for them. This is not because Americans are particularly close-minded or bloodthirsty, but because most people everywhere are irrational and ignorant.

After the election, I felt an alienation from huge chunks of my country far greater than anything I’d previously experienced. I could not find words for it, but Steven Shaviro sharply articulated the paralyzing despair: Nothing.

I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice.

I believed this too in darker moments, but then I asked myself: what duty? I remind myself that this President hardly articulates policy, especially given how often it reverses. His steady, agonizingly simple personality is the foundation for any policy; (I don’t think Tom DeLay could have gotten elected with the same rhetoric, and so far, he agrees with me.) With any luck, this version of politics too will fall away after Bush leaves public office (whenever that may be), and there is no longer a cowboy hat on which to hang the current policies.

Looking to the future, I think that India has it right. The Road to Surfdom has a piece on India’s attitude towards America that gives probably the best-case long-term scenario. Dunlop paraphrases the Indian government’s attitudes as such:

[The Congressional delegation] spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don’t much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That’s our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You’ve encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix – terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don’t care about sanctions.

That seems about right. The resistance of so many people to embrace a non-Western-centric view of the next half-century years (and I include Zizek here) is as much a product of parochialism as it is of short-sightedness. The view of a battle between European progressivism and American fundamentalism (Zizek calls it fundamentalism; I, who can’t see a competent hand at the wheel, would just term it insanity) seems obsolete, an artifact of half a millennium of Eurocentrism.

Given the damage wrought to it by the tsunamis, India certainly regrets the United States’ lack of assistance, but is probably not surprised by it. The United States’ total inability to lead in aiding South Asia, or even to feign appropriate sympathy (pace Burke), is ironically appropriate. I still wish that the richest country in the world would shell out a few billion, and I do believe Kerry would have wrangled a bit more, though not as much as I would like. But either way, change is coming through economic realignment, not through Zizek’s advocacy of the repoliticization of the economy (which itself seems to be synonymous with a re-Europeanization of the world).

Likewise, the damaging acts of the United States, assuming they don’t wipe us all out, will be self-marginalizing, rendering the decline of liberalism and the increased polarization of Europeans and Americans irrelevant. So when I am set upon by the black mood of despair that Steven Shaviro described, I regretfully welcome the decline of the United States’ influence, so as to minimize the impact and scope of what Zizek ominously describes as “the confrontations to come.”

Ominous to me, at least.

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