California über Alles: reflections on American culture, women and men, anti-rape feminism, and the eclipse of meaningful discourse
© 2013 William Heidbreder, All rights reserved
- In defense of « agressivity »: anecdotal reflections on the crisis in American gender politics
People in California are at least outwardly and insistently pacific and don’t like to argue. You must be calm, never nervous or even overly animated, let alone seem to be in enough of a hurry that you appear to be making a demand (a bank teller once shouted at me with great intensity: « Relax! ») And you can’t ever “raise your voice” (for some reason I always found this a curious metaphor, imagining it was like raising an arm or a stick, perhaps because this injunction always came with a hint of anticipated, imminent, or at least symbolic violence). Though I spent most of my childhood in the golden state, for some reason I never learned how to adapt to or appreciate these norms and everything related to them, like the culture of innuendo rather than directness, maybe just because I learned to articulate myself well in words and I never felt the need to bother about other communicative styles and techniques. It’s a well-worn cliché that New York and California are opposite in these respects as well as perhaps a few others. And so perhaps it is not surprising that when I finally found my life as a slightly troubled and doubtless poorly mannered and in any case often angry young man in Berkeley intolerable and in fact impossible to continue so long as my experiences continued to follow the troubling pattern that was becoming increasingly the norm, all of my friends said either one of two things: see a therapist or move to New York, in either case ASAP. I did both. One of these courses of action, but only one, not only helped, it actually seemed to instantly solve most of my until then extraordinary interpersonal problems. Though only in a certain way and for a time.
Most of these problems were with low-level functionaries, and as the great majority of these were female I began to suspect myself of a certain misogyny. They typically started when I would complain about some injustice, of great or small importance to me, the kinds of injustices that frequently are noticed by institutional clients of a bureaucracy such as students at a large urban university, voicing my complaint usually to the functionary in question, and I would immediately be told, to my great surprise since this was certainly far from my intention or my perception of my own behavior, that I was obviously extremely angry (this was not a question inviting my confirmation but a definitive conclusion ending all discussion, and indeed clearly and always had the effect and probably the intention in part of closing off discussion about the original matter I wanted to talk about – in fact I was usually certain that was the essential purpose), and that because of my misdemeanour or egregious and intolerable incivility she either would refuse to talk with me about the matter at hand, or was insisting I leave, or indeed was actually threating to call the police or in the midst of doing so. In response to this, I would actually get angry (at this further injustice, which far overshadowed its prequel), really angry, indeed typically enraged, my voice certainly raised but more like the effect of a small megaphone constructed from a flimsy sheet of paper than a blunt object, conveying real anger, not without a certain intensity as I was very focused on both my judgment and the emotion it evoked in me, but more important with determination, (rhetorical) force, and insistence, at least on saying what I felt needed to be said . The essential cause of my rage was that it was such an injustice in my eyes to shift the topic immediately from my complaint to the putative inappropriateness and indeed intolerability of my behavior. What a great ad hominem way to win an argument: A. « You still owe me $5. » B: « You’re raising your voice. That’s unacceptable ». (B (implied): « Therefore I don’t have to pay you and refuse to discuss the matter»). And secondly because I was in effect being punished for expressing a disagreement or making a complaint. At a certain point this began to happen frequently, and I started to become filled with rage. Perhaps I was tapping into a latent and long-ignored rage that stemmed from a occasionally traumatic childhood. I don’t know. I don’t even know for sure that these functionaries weren’t even right. Maybe I was misperceiving my own emotions and their verbal and nonverbal expression. All I know is I would become aware of what to me was some injustice, I would be a little bit annoyed about it, and I would express both my belief about the injustice and my slight annoyance, and I would rapidly be thrown into the public wastebasket as a violent criminal. Or at least as someone who was « extremely angry ». In the end I inevitably would be extremely angry indeed, but only in response to what I believed was the great injustice of the way I was being treated, which of course far eclipsed the injustice that lay behind my original complaint. Furthermore, if this is any mitigation, and its hard for me in retrospect to be entirely sure, my rage would almost always be expressed with words conveying real emotion but almost never saying ought that was semantically impolite.
Like most people who might be associated with the religion I would eventually embrace, without ever ceasing completely to suspect that it was only a certain kind of politics and a certain approach to the world of ideas that really mattered to me, I believe in the necessity and importance of morally judging both yourself and others and directly and clearly articulating these judgments, although I have also learned, which happened later in life, from this same tradition that anger can « put a man out of this world » if he does not moderate and manage it with great care. I always clearly focused the content of my speech on a description of what I considered unjust and my reasons for this opinion, my anger resembling the effect of a small amplifier rather than virtual sticks and stones or fisticuffs such as people fear who don’t know you and are hypervigilant to the possibility of violent crime and sometimes tragically certain they can recognize properly its preliminary signs. My speech more closely resembled, at least when I failed to be polite, as sometimes happened, the hurtful words that the proverb poses as the harmless alternative but that few people are actually immune to suffering from, as my anger never provoked a desire to hurt (except maybe with a stingily sharp and acerbic but usually not vulgar or insulting tongue) or threaten (since the desire to harm was not a possibility I ever considered even in the event of some subsequent and still more magnified injustice). Would I commit a murder if very horribly and irreparable wronged by someone’s criminally unjust act, for example if they did something that really ruined my life? Perhaps no one can be sure and anyone might, but I think I would do what I recently did with a professor who wronged me thirty years ago whom I never forgave for claiming with little objective cause that I had threated him. My first impulse when I was prompted by recent events to recollect this ancient incident was to prepare myself to calmly serve as his assassin, but that passing fantasy was of course rapidly dismissed for all of the obvious and right reasons, including the fact that like most revenge mine would be excessive and therefore hardly deserved. Indeed, he might well have believed that he was being threatened, and I suppose he did believe that and was not lying but only making an irresponsible claim for which he could supply any true evidence. As a feminist once demonstrated to me, many people actually believe that if you feel threatened, in effect if you judge that you have been threatened and your emotional response is to be afraid, than you have indeed been threatened as an objective fact. This of course assumes that one’s feelings are the automatic consequence of the other’s action and are not mediated by thought, interpretation, or refletion. I believe some policies designed to prevent sexual harassment, especially at colleges and universities, are based on this belief, which basically gives women who are angry at some man carte blanche to have him punished for a criminal behavior that literally lies essentially and sometimes only in the imagination and/or judgment of the accuser. Well, here is what I did, admittedly with the benefit of distance from my initial anger when I discovered that he had given me a failing grade on an incomplete paper I had finished and delivered to him, claiming I had finished it too late, in what I understood to be a violation of his earlier promise of additional time, which he also falsely claimed to have previously extended. I recently wrote this professor a very polite and respectful, short letter, in which I simply recalled the incident, explained what happened from my point of view and what my intentions actually were (I had stupidly dared him to file a complaint for arguing with him and expressing my anger, saying « I will fight it to the limit, » and while I of course meant a lawsuit or its collegiate administrative analogue, he claimed I had threated him with bodily harm, and like a child immediately took up the dare), and that I believed then and believe today that what he did was wrong, especially as he caused some real damage to my career prospects as the result of his in my view bearing of false witness (false at least because he should have judged the situation better based on the available evidence). This is my alternative to murder, and I recommend it to everyone. Yes, as Thomas Mann said, « To kill is delicious » while « to have killed is horrible. » But my solution, which also of course augurs no guilt or futile handwashing to remove guilt’s imaginary but indelible marks, actually seems more appropriate if not more « delicious » to me ; it offers what to my sensibility is the most perfect satisfaction. Even if he still believed he was originally in the right and saw no reason to apologize (and in fact he did not respond to the letter), I fulfilled my duty and realized my desire for justice simply by telling him he was wrong and what the consequences of his sin or error were. The ultimate justice occurs when the criminal recognizes the injustice and the consequences of his crime, take responsibility to amend those consequences insofar as it is possible, solemnly and credibly promises never to do it or anything like it again, and expresses his empathic sorrow for the harm he caused and his recognition, if this is the truth, that you have judged him rightly and that he agrees with the judgment. I am convinced this is the alternative to revenge. I have no wish to rule out pursuing justice in the courts, but even there this judgment and its recognition by the offender constitute the ultimate purpose and meaning of that wonderfully ambiguous word « sentence » which combines action whose consequences occupy an extended duration, as if it were a sentence that despite being clear and not ambiguous or enigmatic, required for its comprehension many years and much hardship combined with constant reminders that it applies to you because you are guilty of the wrong described in the sentence’s preceding paragraph— combining with the plain sense of enunciation this judicial meaning of « sentence » that juxtaposes and curiously seems to effect a correspondence between the enunciation of a judgment or truth and an experience of long duration that the force of language always abbreviates radically into an idea that can be grasped by the mind rather than having to be appropriated slowly by the bodily discipline that cultivates habits, if not executed on the body as in Kafka’s The Penal Colony, which brilliantly combines the two normally separated meanings. The ordinary sense of the term, which I believe is necessarily preserved in the judicial judgment process as essentially an inquiry involving conclusions reached after much speech, conversation, and writing, is of course that of a mere but highly significant speech act whose audition if not always its fullest comprehension is momentary, though prepared by the writer and speaker after careful thought as the conclusion of a process of reasoning in a manner that bears more than a slight resemblance to a philosophical essay, and whose essential importance lies in what it says. Whether or not the criminal should also suffer as Sonia convinces Raskolnikov he must, to achieve redemption, certainly the decisive moment in the attainment of criminal and many forms of civil justice is the recognition by the wronging party of his wrong and the conversion, if you will, from an often unthinking commitment to evil (Hannah Arendt argues in her book on Eichmann that the failure to think is the essence of evil and its most essential enabling condition) to a very intentional and deliberate commitment to the good.
The most striking incident during this troubled period in my undergraduate years at Berkeley, which is not without its comic aspects as you will see, stood out from the others in certain key respects, because it and my response to it explicitly did or does raise the possibility not only of my misogyny or unanalyzed aggressivity, at least at that time, but also raises real questions about at least certain varieties of feminism and its possible relationship to what I regard as an essentially authoritarian and anti-democratic, deep-rooted tendency in our culture that is quite manifest in California though it may well reach further than any mere geographical particularities ; how much further I touch on at the end of this essay. It happened in an encounter with a woman who I imagine almost anyone except maybe Valerie Solanas (see her remarkable « S.C.U.M. Manifesto, » written before she tried to assassinate Andy Warhol, the French feminist Luce Irigaray, who thinks women and men speak incommensurable languages and that the entire philosophical canon is a thinly disguised allegory of patriarchy, Andrea Dworkin, who thinks all vaginal intercourse is indistinguishable from rape, and their many sympathizers – whom I should like to sharply distinguish from people I admire like Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, and their many followers, although they do represented an older and not only more moderate but less far-reaching form of women’ liberation, would agree was among the hard-core, extremist, probably even man-hating variety of the political tendency that has so often misused the noble appellation of “feminist”. It should perhaps also be noted that the woman in question was a perfect fixture of Berkeley, a place where, after the 60s, many radicals who were once inspired by a vision of social justice retired from the student profession (and student protestor profession) to become part of an entrenched, arrogant, essentially Stalinist (by which I mean not that they were Marxists necessarily but that they would enforce a rigid ideological party line, which might be the line of their own party of one or of twenty, or that of their own version of the international left, which of course originally meant socialism but after the 60s began to mean so many different and sometimes contradictory things), and incidentally almost uniformly white middle class, at least in their cultural background, local orthodoxy of political correctness whose cadres all knew with certainty that they possessed all the theoretical knowledge (never mind that political and theory on the left has grown almost exponentially since 1968 and continues to grow and be very vital, sometimes adding to and more often offering alternatives to the old Marxist left of a working-class socialist revolution) necessary to guide the local community, if not the fifth or sixth international, along the true path of progress and progressivism, even if their much vaunted radicalism was often little more than a very loud and angry militant liberalism not that different from the empty platitudes of the Democratic Party which by the early 80s was beginning to celebrate the corporate marketing strategy of multiculturalist identity politics (« Get a lifestyle! » « Get an identity! ». This actually differs, it strikes me when I think about it, little from the mass marketing of salvation by evangelical churches, and it is indeed a form of consumer capitalism and of what Guy Debord in his book of that name calls the « society of the spectacle », which replaces meaningful lived experience with easily purchasable commodified attributes and accessories to a sometimes creatively constructed but ultimately empty, lonely, and meaningless personality, personalized system of symbols and signs, or personal style. The new political therapeutic injunctions also tell you to claim your « identity » as, for instance, a lesbian black Hispanic catholic transsexual sadomasochist, and recognize your membership in this group, whose marginality guarantees its great significance if not for the revolution people once talked about, at least for being politically correct by respecting the diversity of the relevant populations and honouring the uniqueness of the individual, who could be nothing without the yellow star of his group identity, as if it were enough to know that you are black or Jewish or a woman to have obeyed the Delphic oracle and to know how you are, what you desire or ought to do, and what is the meaning, purpose, and destiny of your life (this of course perfect Sartrean inauthenticity and denial of freedom and responsibility, because the identity is assigned to you by the enlightened political theorists and leaders who handle the redrawing of electoral districts among the many groups that confer these identities and through them a distant semblance of meaning and spiritual truth). Grasping and claiming this assigned identity will surely enable you to have the self-knowledge that was once called wisdom before it was supplanted by theory, thanks to the enormous success in academia of a publically irrelevant intellectual (and typically armchair) leftism, before the rise of the Internet and the use of state budget challenges to justify replacing scholars with low paid temps assigned to teach but never getting the chance to write or contribute to the theoretical flourishing on the left and in the humanities and social sciences generally that began to die along with the dying of the American university that these trends inaugurated. Let’s just note this about Solanas and similarly exemplary exponents of the liberation of women : « The worst are full of passionate intensity », as Yeats remarked in his poetic diatribe against the 20th century.
So who was this Stalinist man-eater and what was her official and surely legitimate and noble, at least before being corrupted, if indeed it was (and it might not have been), political cause? Her name was Judith X, that was what she called herself, explaining that she modeled her nom de guerre after Malcolm X, who recognized that blacks in America lacked a true identity—and hence were an unknown, a cipher, perhaps an inchoate enigma waiting to be energized by a dynamic orator, thanks to the cruelty visited on them by their ancestors’ having been someone else’s property and therefore deprived of a true personality, which implies responsibility, which perhaps implies in a certain sense self-ownership, all of this essential and existential negation of individuality being due to their ancestral status as descendants of slaves who bore their master’s surnames—a logic this Judith the Unnameable extended to women by analogy, presumably in recognition of the truth, which is true enough even if trivial in a society where it no longer designates a property right and legal domination but is the mere effect of a linguistic convention that at least has the politically insignificant virtue, which may compensate for the unsavoury taste the convention has to some people, given what it appears to be saying, of sparing people from eventually having 27 or more (add one or two for every generation of course) last names all run together with hyphens, presumably, I started to say in recognition of the truth pronounced by Joseph Balsamo, who appears in Godard’s satire on the bourgeoisie Weekend as the bastard son of God and Alexander Dumas by virtue of God’s either benevolent or malevolent rectal penetration of the novelist, the truth he proves by asking the wife of Mr. Durand her name. « Corrine Durand ». « That’s not your name, that’s your husband’s name ». « My maiden name was Dupont. » « That’s not your name, that’s your father’s name, » and he goes on to explain that she obviously doesn’t know how she is, obviously not following Shakespeare’s Juliet in affirming the insignificance of a name to a personality and its irrelevance to one’s qualifications as a beloved and perhaps by extension to one’s being respected in and performing well her professional as well as marital capacities. So she was an X, a mere algebraic variable that abbreviates and applies to a multitude of possibilities that are unspecifiable, someone who might be willing to forgo a genuine identity or personality with all the Sartrean freedom and responsibility and Nietzschean self-creation this entails, in order to make a point about persons not being property, and perhaps even about the negation of personality by the property system in all its forms. The woman with no name. Some oppressed people do believe, sometimes rightly, that they have been robbed of their personality and are, unlike Beckett’s Unnameable, unable to say « I » and unable to develop a real sense of self if only by recounting their own story as the of course unnamed character who is the novel’s first-person narrator tries to somehow begin doing as well as through the performative reiteration, by the writer’s self-imposed injunction, of an auto-designation at least as a grammatical and therefore potentially experiencing and acting subject : « I, say I ». The Unnameable ends his first-person dialogue with a prayer for a name-conferring baptism to be achieved as the result of a finally effective storytelling whose ability to perform he hopes for but doubts, and the novel seems to demonstrate ultimately the inadequacy, though perhaps also the necessity and utility, of speaking one’s mind and recounting one’s narrative, as the patient of a psychoanalyst does and as writers do when they discuss themselves, in order to achieve authentic personhood. The absolute loss, under the force of oppression, of personality and indeed which is truly the destruction of one’s humanity was certainly true of the Mussulmen Agamben discusses in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, concentration camp inmates who had lost the will to live and had become exemplars of what he calls elsewhere « bare life. » And I believed it is true to a significant extent of people who have been tortured, as Elaine Scarry demonstrates in her study of torture and its opposite, creative world-making, in The Body in Pain, and doubtless is also true to some extent of the person who has been raped. I seriously doubt it was really true of the actual Judith rather than being a product of at least a slight but not insignificant imaginative and creative genius, but in any case this mixture of nothingness and the enigmatic as embodied in this anti-name is how she presented herself.
Maybe the problem with American culture that generates so much investment in symbolic politics derives from the failure to distinguish, as the French do, significant existential realities with real practical import from mere conventions that are harmless except maybe in terms of what they appear to signify (significations that are often recognized as linguistic relics of an ancien régime or outmoded tradition and are therefore ignored). Like the old convention in English that the masculine pronouns can have neuter and universal significations, the context almost always making it clear whether it means « man » or « person », significations that can represent persons of either or both genders. Incidentally, and this is perhaps a measure not only of the intractability of certain symbolic inequalities but perhaps also of the pointlessness of insisting in every case on rectifying them, no one has yet found a good solution to this grammatical injustice—the major proposed alternatives seem to be « he and she », « s/he », the mere replacement of « he » by « she » as the universal pronoun, used by some authors as a way of waving their red flag and announcing to the world their progressive credentials, perhaps in substitution for taking real action that affects social practices and institutions and not just signifiers, or the alternation between « he » and « she » throughout the manuscript ; and all of these solutions are problematic from the standpoint of good and effective writing. I suggest that this is a form of the broad substitution of symbolic for real solutions to social problems, including by believing that the cause of women or blacks will necessarily be enhanced greatly by having a black or female president or supreme court justice. Focusing on such things as offering affirmative action to underprivileged pronouns to combat the sexism inherent in the use of the generic « he » is a pale substitute for, and I doubt it contributes much if anything at all to, such struggles as the fight for women’s equality in the workplace and in incomes, for an equal sharing between husbands and working wives of domestic tasks (it is almost as if women have largely adopted the new gender roles not as a replacement for but as palimpsest-like supplement to traditional gender roles that they still cling to, or else that their husbands leave them stuck with out of presumption, ignorance, sloth, a selfish willingness to indulge one’s own pleasures while one’s partner labors and sweats, or an aversion to menial or caretaking and supportive tasks that are traditionally regarded as feminine because women are supposed to be nurturing and supportive while men fight and command, seem less challenging than the tasks of their profession), for total reproductive freedom, and indeed for the abolition of wife-beating, rape, and sexual slavery, as well as in, in certain parts of the world whose extreme gender inequalities are not beyond all relation to attitudes that persist in greatly reduced but still significant ways in the West, of such things as the honor killings by their fathers or brothers to protect the family’s « honor » of young women who have boyfriends they have been with in violation of strict sharia law, and the forcible excision of the clitorises of prepubescent girls in order to ensure that they will be incapable of ever enjoying sexual intercourse so that they will be dutiful wives who will never be tempted not only to engage in adultery but also to pursue at all physical intimacy with its pleasure which somehow is imagined as threatening to patriarchal and familiar order (and perhaps it is: sexuality is in its essence excessive and transgressive, and perhaps women’s sexuality is especially so—indeed, some scholars have suggested that this is both definitive of patriarchy and a persistent problem in our own culture; it has occasionally been suggested for example as partly accounting for Othello’s attitude towards Desdemona), and so that they will also be good wives by virtue of fully embodying the feminine role of being nurturing and giving, by being uniquely able to give love to their husbands and not also to receive it (or at least its enjoyment) from them, which would be important were it to be supposed that men too ought to give love and not just commands.
Anyway, such a symbolic politics, surely understandable and doubtless justified (autonomy includes the right to the choice of a name) if perhaps not as resonant politically as she no doubt had hoped, explains her literary and algebraic name. Affirming that she was claiming the identity emblazoned on the tomb of the unknown housewife or perhaps the unknown martyred suffragette. So what was her cause? She was director of the Campaign for the Abolition of Rape in Love and Marriage. Well, I naively reasoned (it required little thought, a sign perhaps of my naïveté), this certainly is a noble cause, I thought, I’m against rape like everyone else. Indeed I was once very nearly gang raped; many men are raped in fact, especially in American jails and prisons, so it is in fact not strictly speaking a (uniquely) woman’s issue. Besides, I have always been in fact a militant feminist. I am a man who like every man and every woman I respect believes fervently in the fundamental equality of men and women. This may in fact be as far, or very nearly as far, as I am willing to go but I actually think it will be seen as having been quite far indeed when this is finally universally acknowledged, as I am confident it will be, perhaps even with the leadership of the United States, a reactionary country in so many ways, which despite the outrageousness of certain Republican politicians, is, I believe, largely and increasingly a country where this equality is recognized. Who today in America (unlike India and China) hopes their child will be a boy, in the belief that men can accomplish more than women? I also believed then, as I do now, that love and marriage are not property relationships. A wife does not « belong to » her husband any more than a child, speaking truly, « belongs to » his parents (their custodial duties do not confer a right to do with the child anything they please, since he is a person in his own right and in fact the concept of property doesn’t even really apply to the self-relationship because to exercise command over yourself is to become your own oppressor and to constitute your identity in an enormously and unnecessarily constraining way; self-government is not always an expression of liberty, and for children to govern themselves with a code of rules and punishments would not only be absurd, impractical, and doubtless appeal to very few children, it would also be horrendous. I am free and responsible, but most of my actions have as their object something or someone external to me; even eating my favorite salmon fried in olive oil strikes me as establishing a relationship with the piece of dead salmon much more than a relationship with my own body, although, at the risk of alluding to a topic historically excluded in polite society as well as to ordinary things like combing and shaving, I will not deny that there are certain things one can indeed do to oneself. Now, since a wife does not belong to her husband, he does not have a right to enjoy a sexual act with her, and no such right can be conferred by what is somewhat absurdly called the marriage « contract », as if marriage were essentially an economic relationship rather than a relationship that remains valid only so long as it is genuine expression of a spontaneous love and caring for each other that cannot possibly be the exercise of an agreement, which would altogether destroy its authenticity, meaning, and worth. That’s why falling in love with someone other than your wife is not immoral, although you probably shouldn’t be seeking it out unless you are already wanting to leave her, in which case you should. Anna Karenina is perfectly right to tell her husband she loves Vronsky now and him no longer and will therefore leave him for the handsome and charming beau parleur she was attracted to on an impulse that renders that love as flawed as it is Anna’s perfect right to enjoy it. Karenin responds by trying to compel her to live a lie in order to protect his reputation, and because it is living a lie by pretending to love when you no longer do that constitutes true adultery, and not the mere fact of having loved or slept with another person, and of course this makes Karenin in a real sense the true adulterer, and the one who violates their marriage not as the contract he thinks it is but as the relationship it has already ceased to be. Since a husband doesn’t have an entitlement to his wife’s sexual favours, his having sex with her against her will is or at least ought to be a crime, as it now is in all 50 states and many countries. The purpose of Madam Judith’s organization, which was ultimately a complete success, was to make this a crime, I believe not only to imprison many husbands, which might also have been her desire, husbands who would then likely have been raped themselves (shall we set aside the question of whether they deserve it, or affirm that rape like torture is something no one deserves to suffer?), but to make this violent act universally recognized as a crime in order to persuade men not to do it and women not to stand for it. And in that I believed then as I do now that this female Malcolm X, whether or not she was also full or rage, vengeance, or misandry, which I began to suspect but in fact did not know then and cannot know now, was fully possessed of a sacred and glorious mission that I did and do affirm unreservedly. I believe she is entitled to the benefit of the doubt on that score, and so I did and do think she was basically working for a valuable and important cause. Indeed, as I have already alluded to, her organization eventually was successful in lobbying in all 50 states to make forcible sex with a wife or girlfriend a crime, and for that at least she can only be lauded.
It is a cause I wouldn’t have been at all reluctant to contribute to, although I have never really been much of an activist, if only because writing is more satisfying to me than marching or discussing strategy in meetings, both which I have done, and I am convinced that it is only by writing that I have a prayer of having the slightest influence by contributing to the betterment of the world, which is my duty as Jew and as a citizen of the global human community as well as of my country, which frightens me with its pervasive ignorance and backwardness but inspires me with what I believe is the passionate commitment of many of its people to ideas of liberty, equality, and democracy, even though most of the time these are just empty pieties. Americans don’t all believe in income or status or power equality, but we have never had an aristocracy, only in certain periods the slight semblance of one among a bourgeoisie that has at times been eager to enforce the exclusivity of its privileges through various legal and social tactics that eventually, particularly after the 1960s, largely faded from view and usefulness. Today the upper class and the middle class American dress, talk, and act essentially the same. And practically everyone believes they are « middle class, » maybe in part because that is usually the only class our politicians seem to care about. And almost all of us believe that the rich man or the powerful man is not because of his wealth or power a superior person morally and spiritually, for lack of a better word (I mean it in the broadest sense): America is truly a land where all are equal before God and the law, and I wish the signs in out courtrooms acknowledged this by saying what those in Italian courtrooms say : La legge e eguale per tutti, the law is equal for all, instead of the at best enigmatic and certainly authoritarian « In God we trust. » Even the hanging judge always made the meaningless declaration (since he rarely if ever bothered to share the divinity’s vaunted compassion), « May God have mercy on your soul. » But if you look at Hollywood cinema, for example, there are many examples that show, for instance, that a person of lesser status, whether by class, intellect, profession, or something else, can and in principle does have as much worth and lovability as a pillar of the community. Vincent Minnelli’s masterpiece Some Came Running features a not terribly bright and somewhat silly Shirley Maclaine who is married by Frank Sinatra partly on a whim and partly because he recognizes that she truly loves him, unlike the frigid intellectual and snobbish schoolteacher he had been pursuing. Sinatra, a published writer, tells Maclaine she’s stupid because she can’t even understand the writing she as his wife is so proud of that she has shared every available copy of the magazine containing his story with all the friends at her menial job. She tells him, « You shouldn’t say things like that, because I’m a human being. » Then, she adds, « I would do anything for you ». In what is virtually the next scene, an obsessive man who has been pursuing Maclaine and obviously thinks he has a right to her, tries to shoot Sinatra, and Maclaine, without pausing to reflect, immediately throws her body in front of her husband and takes the fatal bullet meant for him, proving with this ultimate act of courage the truth of her proclamation of how much she would do (anything and everything) to show her genuine love for this man she can only admire without fully understanding. My point here is not just about courage and sacrifice as a demonstration of love : it is that when Maclaine says that he shouldn’t call her stupid because she’s a human being, and then announces the boundlessness of her love, she asserts two very important claims that are vital features of American culture: first, that she is entitled to respect and is maybe even loveable for the simple reason that she is a person, implicitly affirming the equality of persons ; and secondly, that she is loveable because she is capable of loving and being loved and indeed does truly love, with a resolute commitment that is rare, even if we already know for instance from Powell and Pressburger’s film A Matter of Life and Death that if you truly love someone you will if necessary die for them and that this doubtless applies to everyone. In that film, this gains the two lovers eternal life ; it is literally their salvation, in both a religious and perfectly secular sense, because it also gains them the ability to live a while longer (and they are young) and enjoy a love the great extent of whose genuineness will henceforth be unforgettable to both of them. I think most Americans believe in love, genuine and world-transforming love like you see in the films of Frank Borzage, where often the young married couple faces enormous practical or economic difficulties but they know that being poor and struggling is worth it because they have each other and that marrying for money and not love could never have been an option, as it would be to sin against the infinite, sacred, and transcendent power of love demonstrated in Borzage’s romances to elevate a man and a woman above all practical difficulties. Americans have always believed, and one can only wonder if Badiou is right that love has been largely replaced by sex. Sex is at best a simulacrum of love, which is the significance of prostitution. Americans also believe, and I think these two beliefs are actually connected, because true love assumes liberty and equality, that people are essentially equal, at least morally if not in terms of power and wealth, though the standard reflex is to fall back on the equality of opportunity that was presented at the Democratic Party’s most recent convention in the repeated assertion that, in effect, America is great because if you live a life of great personal sacrifice and extremely hard work that leaves you little or no time for any meaningful leisurely or creative pursuits, it is at least possible (not at all certain or guaranteed : America promises but certainly does not guarantee the good life and that is crucial to our libertarian style of capitalism), that your grandchildren may be able to attend a good college, have a professional job, or live in a $400,000 suburban house. And that is said to be the American dream, which in addition to being basically economic (it is significant that love is never mentioned, although families sometimes are) is essentially a hope, the hope of the grandparent who is in fact denied the good life in almost every relevant way by virtue of the fact that the category of the good, which was the foundation of the state in classical philosophy (notably, Plato), has been displaced onto that of mere hope, which may even be a distant and barely probable possibility. Yet, despite the conservatism of Americans’ clinging relentlessly to what are arguably outdated and primitive forms of capitalism, I do believe that there is something deep in our culture that is affirmative of not only liberty but also equality (including of men and women, which Americans are generally much better at recognizing than much of the world), and therefore resistant to authoritarianism, hierarchy, and domination, and the faint hope this knowledge gives me is the hope that one day our society and culture will become much more extensively and effectively the democratic one it has always pretended to be.
Evidently I was the only man to have applied to work at the Campaign for the Abolition of Rape in Love and Marriage, let alone work there, in recognizable memory, as the subsequent slightly comical scene and its even more comical if also terrifying consequence at the end of my interview demonstrate. Judith the nameless militant claimed to have, and I do not doubt she really did have, an unusual medical condition which required her to take certain precautions and oblige those same precautious to be observed by everyone with whom she came into contact, including at work, and of course her office was in her home as it had to be, and perhaps only at work, assuming as I imagine that her requirements restricted her social contacts to those who were in her employ and therefore under her command. She could hardly have been expected to go sit in a cafe, have dinner with a friend at a restaurant, or even to go see a movie in a theater. Here’s why: she was, or claimed to be, violently allegeric to the ordinary laundry detergents that are used on most people’s clothing, the scent or poisonous vapors from which she believed persisted on that clothing essentially indefinitely or at least for as long as a normal person would wear it without subjecting it to the indelible residues of the toxic detergent yet again. Her solution for this problem, and it was indeed a problem since she obviously had to make certain that every person who came anywhere near her was either naked (and she did not seem inclined towards that suggestion, anyway not with me) or clothed in materials that had not been laundered with detergent, or at least with any of the kinds of detergent, which of course included either all or most of them, that were generally in use. What this meant in concrete and practical terms was that upon appearing at the door and being spoken to from behind a screen that I suppose was sanitized in some suitable manner, I was instructed to go to a shed behind the house and put on clothing that fit me that I found in the big box inside. That box, it turned out, contained only women’s clothing, which is how I drew the inference whose validity I am sure you will not deny that I was most likely the only man either who had ever worked or applied to work there or the only one to have done so recently (depending I suppose on how often the clothing in the box got circulated and had items added or subtracted). Yes, of course, it made me feel slightly ridiculous, but looking or even being a little bit ridiculous is not a fear that has ever oppressed me greatly. Maybe because I had a difficult childhood, I am quite resilient and my self-esteem is strong enough to withstand injuries far greater than the mere light comedy or farce of appearing in this woman’s house as an unwitting transvestite, and indeed when I went inside, I completely forgot I was wearing a skirt and simply performed the task this putatively prospective employer requested of me as a prelude to the actual interview.
That task was to copy, word for word, I was not told for what purpose or what job tasks success at this test would reveal me as capable to perform, a fairly significant amount of printed text in my handwriting onto a blank piece of paper, or rather, several pieces of paper, as the task took me about two hours. When I was finished (she did not observe me while I was doing it), this hypersensitive radical with the noble cause took one quick look at the writing that I had spent two hours and with perfect futility invested every ounce of my capacity for writing semi-neatly to produce, as a test of I am not certain what job skill, and said my handwriting was illegible (as indeed it usually is, so perhaps I wasted two hours and risked the possibly serious and even violent consequences of the altercation that soon followed in part because I lacked the good sense to inquire after writing the first couple of sentences whether I was doing alright). Since my handwriting was illegible, that was it, she could not hire me, and the interview was over before it began. I never got to find out what my tasks or responsibilities might have been, who I would have been working with, the details about the organization’s mission, or anything else about the job, nor did I have the chance to tell her anything at all about my interest, which was quite genuine and about which I could probably have spoken freely and with persuasive eloquence, assuming that my gender didn’t nullify the credibility, meaning, or value or my words, and I did not assume that, although I did suspect it afterwards, along with many other things, rightly or wrongly I will never know.
I was willing to accept not being hired but I did not think it was acceptable morally for her to subject me to two hours of copying a long text by hand only to dismiss me in an instant after I had wasted all that time for a reason that, even if valid (which I suppose it was if the job indeed required writing by hand, although this was well after the widespread adoption of personal computers and it is my recollection than even in those days, for this happened more than 20 years ago, almost every office professional and office worker was doing all of his or her writing on a keyboard and not with a pen). I was angry, not extremely but moderately and yet sufficiently, just enough to want to do what I have always believed is the correct and proper thing to do when you think the other person has done something wrong (to you or anyone else), not unlike the letter I recently wrote to the professor who was victimized by my faux assault: I gave her a piece of my mind. I told her that I believed she was in the wrong, and I told her why. This didn’t take long. And having done that, I was prepared to leave on my motor scooter after of course changing back into my regular clothes in the shed, since there is a limit to my willingness to appear ridiculous in public when it can be avoided and serves no importantly signifying purpose.
The mistake I made was this: As soon as she told me my writing was illegible, and before I told her what I thought about her doing that (after making me waste two hours without so much as telling me what she was looking for in this test of hers which was quite possibly as absurd and Buñuelian as this whole situation). As soon as I had finished telling her what I wanted to say, which took perhaps one minute, two at most, and maybe even before I finished speaking, I don’t remember, she said « I’m calling the police ». As I began to get out as fast as I could, which of course included changing clothes in the shed, I heard her repeatedly shout from inside, « The police are coming ! The police are coming ! » I got out of the skirt and into my pants as fast as I could and managed to drive away on my motorbike before the police came. Later (and after my two phone calls which I describe below), I received a phone call from the police officer she had called upon telling me she had obtained an injunction, which apparently required its enunciation not by a judge but only by himself, against my ever contacting her again in any way.
It was absolutely clear to me that the reason she called the police was that I had had the chutzpah to argue with her, to actually stand up to her and tell her she was wrong. And obviously the fact that I am a man didn’t help the situation given what I was fast beginning to suspect about the deeper significance, at least for her personally, of her politics. Indeed, just prior to informing me that she was calling the police she did say one very significant and revealing thing to me, one thing besides proclaiming my writing illegible and announcing the immanent arrival of the authorities who are responsible for taking people against their will and by force to other authorities who meet out punishments that are sometimes extremely cruel even for minor offenses or for actions that have in fact and quite obviously wronged no one, as I had once had the misfortune to learn. What she said was that when I first entered the house which was her office and she first spoke to me, she had expressed some uncertainty about me that she had formed in her mind (I forget what this was), although she did certainly allow and indeed invite me to take the « test ». She now said that I had insisted and thereby « forced myself » on her.
Suddenly everything was becoming clear. She was a woman who was angry at all men because men are, supposedly or actually (I think there is some real truth in this in fact, and it is not an altogether bad thing) more agressive, and she saw violence being committed by men against women not just in marital and date rape, where she was certainly and obviously entitled to see it, but everywhere, in everyday conversations where the slightest wrong movement or gesture or word, or any insistence on the man’s part, in any way and on any subject and in any degree no matter how small, even if that insistence was obviously made in such a way that quite clearly left the woman the freedom to respond, and indeed to say « no », either in the mere sense of uttering the word with no matter what the evident significance of her other words, her gestures, her tone of voice, her anger or lack thereof, her degree of insistence, etc., or alternately in the way in which women who are about to be raped and who of course like all prospective rape victims are perfectly certain they don’t want to be say no : clearly, unambiguously, with no contradictory hint of coyness or willingness or uncertainty, and forcefully if not indeed aggressively : a loud and clear no that cannot possibly be mistaken for a yes or a maybe. I am at the minimum prepared to say that even if not all women have always behaved this way in the relevant situations (some will be silent out of terror, though I believe even they will typically manage to communicate their unambiguous objection somehow), at least this is what ought to be the norm: since, perhaps unfortunately, many women do still say no when they mean maybe or yes, the « no » that is said to a prospective rapist must be absolutely unambiguous and clear, if not (rhetorically and in tone of voice) forceful. Conversations are games in which each person makes a move followed by a countermove, and normally each move invites a countermove. Violence is always intended as a unilateral action that violates the other person partly by denying her autonomy and personhood and humanity, which includes her ability to respond and exercise responsibility. The essence of violence is an attempt to destroy the other person’s subjectivity, deny her the power of speech, action, or resistance, and in the ultimate instance of course, which is just the fullest realization of this inherent logic, to silence and stop utterly by killing. Rape is always an extremely violent act that is unambiguous in its meaning. Men who rape are not expressing sexual desire or acting on a love whose being unrequited they are reluctant to accept while yet themselves continuing to love —and the latter indeed is impossible : I can continue to love someone who has rejected me as a lover (though obviously not to act on this love with her), but I cannot say I love her if I refuse to accept her rejection and deny that it has even been made. Resistance to rape, the no that means no, is also normally, and must be, unambiguous. I suspect there are few if any exceptions to this being what actually happens. Women or men who are being raped know that they are not being made love to by someone whose feelings they merely fail to share. They know the most intimate physical locations of their person are being subjected to something even more hurtful, much more hurtful in fact, than the coldness of having sex with someone who merely doesn’t love you. It is in fact an expression of rage and hatred. And that hatred is communicated in a very tangible way that, at least in the case of vaginal rape, and this may make it more violent even then the anal rape experienced by many men, brings it into immediate contact with the most intimate part of the woman’s body that is normally used to express the extraordinary and incomparable pleasure of loving and being loved and of expressing this love and receptivity to love in the intimacy of not just caresses but the mutual contact of the most sensitive areas of epidermic flesh, and consequently with a great and usually overwhelming sensory plenitude. Rape is a violation of one’s personhood, and also of one’s capacity for both the most intimate of expression of love and the greatest sensory pleasure known to humankind, a pleasure that reaches its apotheosis and is truly realized only when it is manifestly both given and received, by both parties, in a way that demonstrates that the two care for each other beyond all or nearly all bounds. Love involves an overflowing of the heart that is necessarily a transgressive excess, as Georges Bataille has taught us. That’s why it is such a threat to repressive and totalitarian governments like that in Orwell’s 1984 : it is incompatible with normality and, because it is an event in Alain Badiou’s sense that in its discovery, which can be very upsetting, a bouleversement, of a new and exciting world in the experience of the lovers and it breaks with the established understanding of the world and with the social and cultural ancien régime in the broadest sense, it is a threat to institutions and governments that need to control people’s behavior. (Marriage is something else: this much older institution permits love but does not require it, it is in modern societies a contractual arrangement to regulate the business of living together in a household and raising children, and its basic law is an interdiction of loving another based on the assumption that love is instituted not through passion but a commitment tying what you desire today to what you may do tomorrow. Kant was prescient in saying that marriage is a contractual agreement permitting the mutual – “yes means yes” enjoyment of the other’s body). Love is anti-authoritarian, libertarian, egalitarian, and for those reasons at least inherently democratic, just as language, speech, and discourse are. Rape is the extreme and horrible violation of the capacities for love, intimacy, pleasure, and the excess of a jouissance that transgresses the self’s boundaries in a way that is entirely joyous, as well as liberating and revelatory. Rape transgresses the self’s boundaries in an opposite, violent way, and its superficial proximity, whose physical reality is inescapable, to that experience of the good that is its absolute opposite makes it all the more violent and destructive. Love may well be the greatest good ; Christianity believes it is, the other religions mostly rate it almost as highly, and many people experience it as both the greatest joy and the most morally perfect state. Rape is an act of hate that effectuates this hate by directly negating a person’s ability to love and be loved, and experience all the pleasure that goes with this, as well as the person’s autonomy and will, which is violated as soon as the man refuses to obey the insistent, forceful, and unambiguous « No ! » that makes perfectly clear the reality and intentions of the will he is henceforth violating and attempting to negate and destroy. Judith X had a very just cause, but it was obviously motivated by transference onto this real violence of an hostility to all manner of imaginary violences brought to her mind no doubt by some real original trauma, which might well have been a rape, though of course trauma doesn’t justify irresponsibility : an adult has to assume responsibility for making sense of and performing the necessary adjustments to cope with all of the traumatic events that have occurred to him in the past, although of course that doesn’t negate the very different responsibility of the criminal to answer for his crime. I don’t know what Judith’s original project in the Sartrean sense was or exactly by what perhaps complicated means it was connected with what she had chosen to do, perhaps by a transference or transformation, to realize it; I didn’t interview her to find out and don’t intend to ask to do so now, though I have discovered that she is apparently still alive. I think I know now and knew then enough : this was a woman who positively hated men, who could not distinguish agressivity from violence, and who was liable at the least provocation to treat a man as a rapist. That is why she had to call the police. I am certain that in her mind I was committing an act structurally and essentially akin to rape when I didn’t instantly obey the moment she told me to leave but instead stayed just long enough to tell her why she was in the wrong. And indeed that is what was explained to me when I called after I got home and spoke to an assistant of hers who told me the police were called because I refused to leave when asked, although I lingered only a moment and I believe with every right and justification. I certainly did her no violence. But I suppose I did disobey her. In Wong Kar-Wai’s film 2046 the Tony Leung character plays a ladies’ man who has become a swinging bachelor basically because he cannot get over his love for Maggie Cheung as presented in the film’s prequel, In the Mood for Love, and because he tragically never had the courage to tell her he loved her. I made that mistake once : In the very moment you realize that you have fallen in love with someone and really care for her, that is the moment you have a positive moral duty to say, simply, « I love you ». Those words are so simple and so hard. I think it takes courage to say them, especially at that right and only perfect moment, when it has first become true, not only because of the fear of rejection but because it is sometimes easier to be cold or treat one’s feelings casually or as lacking urgency instead of declaring what is in one’s heart and exposing oneself so visibly to the other in the way that such a declaration does. There is an intertitle that appears at one point in the film (2046), which is essentially about this man’s inability to love and sadness of his substituting true love with the life a playboy. The intertitle reads, « When a man does not take no for an answer, he can sometimes get what he wants ». This film is set in the 1960s, before feminism, and this attitude is now regarded by many people, though not everyone, and women are I believe as divided as men are on this, as improperly aggressive. Because feminism has taught us that when a woman says « no » it means « no » and her wish has to be respected. That may be true today, but it certainly didn’t use to be, and I’m not at all sure it is today with every woman, in fact I am pretty certain of the contrary, because some women like some men have traditional values, while others have new values that have replaced those that were still the norm in the early 60s. In Last Year at Marienbad, made in 1961 and set in approximately 1930, a man incessantly pursues a woman, telling her a story that is an allegory of his present pursuit of her : he says they met a year ago at the same or a similar place and she promised to leave her husband and go with him « next year ». The woman (Delphine Seyrig, who later chose to act only in films by women directors, including Chatal Akerman’s feminist manifesto, Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai de Commerce, Bruxelles) repeatedly says « No, it’s imposssible». But she says this coyly, in a soft voice, almost invitingly, not making the slightest resistance to his relentless pursuit of her, denying but not absenting herself on account of his insistence that they already have a relationship to which she has even committed herself to (the film suggests that she doesn’t want to acknowledge it), and she constantly makes herself available to him, is with him in nearly every scene in the film, frequently saying « No, it’s impossible » but making not the least effort to move away as she surely would if she didn’t want to be touched, while he caresses her breasts. At the end of the film, she leaves her husband and the grand hotel where they are staying and joins the enigmatic man whose name she seems not even to know and whose singular distinctive quality is his persistence in pursuing her as an object of desire and the obvious fact that he is in some sense very much in love with her. I suppose this is not a feminist film. But it is a picture of what many if not most European and American women were like in 1930 and even 1960. I have described above what I think are two very different ways of saying no, and I think that makes clear that this man is at the very least not being aggressive in a way that an honest feminist can object to. All you can really say about the man and the woman in this film is that they are fulfilling rather traditional gender roles (though the man is trying to take her away not only from her husband but also from a caricaturally imprisoning haute bourgeois world, represented by a grand hotel set within a narratively and visually baroque universe which is interrupted by discordant visual memories). The man’s persistence cannot be treated as a violation in some mild yet real sense of the term because the woman doesn’t ever really reject him and even makes it clear she is open to his advances, though albeit with some ambiguity that certainly includes in part her disbelieving his story about their prior encounters (which would establish that they already have a relationship and lend some validity to his hopes and expectations) and in part just her reluctance to leave her husband, an old and common story that doesn’t make the man a sinner, let alone a criminal, except for those who believe that it is immoral for a man to pursue a married woman or to do so with an obsessive persistence even when she doesn’t seem to mind and even seems to invite the attention. In 2046 the man acts on the intertitle : he begins to enter the room of a woman he is attracted to, she tells him to leave (with perhaps a moderate degree of forcefulness in her voice, and he walks further into her room, ignoring her command to leave, and she accepts this, at least momentarily). Judith X would have had this man imprisoned. He clearly violated her because, just like me, he didn’t leave the moment he was told to. It is certainly a fact that women used to want and expect men to insistently pursue them if they were genuinely interested, and that they would play « hard to get » and say no when whey meant maybe or even yes. But I think even then women had ways to ensure that a man knew that if he managed somehow to get into her pants he would be doing so against her will and that that would definitely not be appreciated, and this would be communicated without the ambiguity that the development of a romantic relationship, to the contrary, positively required, especially on the woman’s part. Men and women and relationships between them have changed since 1960. Let’s set aside the question whether the shift from ambiguity to directness is a loss or a gain : it is obviously both, but indeed it is probably more gain than loss, or will be, if the new norms every become universal or adopted at least by most and not just many people. The only real problem is that while feminism has laid down a new set of rules, some women and men want to follow them while others follow the older norms that are very different and in some situations quite opposite. In any case, it was clear to me that to this feminine Malcolm X I was essentially a rapist even if I had not committed an actual rape and showed no sign of any proclivity to do so; it was enough to fit this classification that I did not leave immediately when she asked me to do so. Did she hate all men, I could perhaps wonder, or only men who were insistent and refused to take no for an answer (no doubt to her as I believe to second-wave feminism in general the essence of rape, turning it effectively into a criminalized speech act rather than the act of great physical violence that it is in fact) ? Does it even make very much difference ?
But there is perhaps even more to the story: she was not only a feminist but also both a boss, and I believe significantly, a Californian (as well as a Berkeleyite, which may have compounded the problem by adding the arrogance of Stalinist political correctness to the cultural injunction against argumentation or disagreement generally as well as the additional authoritarianism latent in the conduct of many bosses). I believe I was equally a criminal in her mind not only for being a man who violates a woman’s will, but perhaps also a trespasser and therefore violator of her property for not leaving her house, which contained her office, the instant it was demanded, as well as for arguing, disagreeing, daring to tell her she was wrong. And just for disobeying her orders. For being insubordinate. Supposing you think I’m wrong in my analysis above of what is and is not violence against women and in the legitimacy in certain contexts of a measure of persistence on the part of a man (or woman) who has been initially told no. How do we then separate the, on your argument legitimate, objection of this woman to my behavior on feminist grounds from the surely questionable validity of a boss calling the police just because an employee or job applicant has disobeyed, or rather momentarily resisted and delayed in, obeying an order? How does someone with a genuine left or liberal politics separate the defense of women’s autonomy against men who are or appear to be aggressive (or who don’t, at least not immediately, take no for an answer) from the defense of authoritarianism that obviously belongs not to the left but to the right ? What is the full analysis of this situation ? I believe there is more.
Incidentally, I tend to regard calling the police as a very hostile and threatening act. When I got home I called and left a message on her machine and said, « Actually, Ms. X, you are a rapist, in effect. Because by calling the police you were threatening to have me arrested, and if arrested I would very possibly have gone to jail, where I would almost certainly have been raped. » Those are strong words but I meant them and believe today, 20 years later, that they are correct and I was right to tell her that. People should take responsibility for the possible consequences of their actions, and if she is an expert on violence against women but ignorant about the omnipresent rape of male prisoners in the country with the world’s highest percentage of incarcerated individuals, than she should be enlightened. The police are well known to be frequently abusive and violent to ordinary citizens who are under no suspicion of wrongdoing, let alone to people suspected or accused of a crime. She also must have thought my being anywhere in the vicinity even while in the process of rapidly leaving, which she obviously knew would not be immediate as I had to first return my physical person to the sartorial signifiers of the male identity, that was plain enough to contribute to my constituting a threat to her but that might have been called into doubt or subjected me to ambivalent curiosity had I returned to my own neighbourhood in the vestments supplied, which were obviously the standard apparel whose use and suitability could be normally assumed for any and all of the available militants wanting to work for a non-profit foundation dedicated to opposing a certain form of violence exercised uniquely by persons of the gender this wardrobe excluded. Immediately after I walked out the door, during the minutes it took me to change into my own clothes back in the shed, she shouted repeatedly, « The police are coming ! The police are coming ! » I think that even while I was in the process of getting the hell out she was actually frightened of me somehow, in some deeply irrational way that could have no connection to anything she really believed I either had done or was intending to do. My only obvious intentions besides the earlier one of applying for the job were first to tell her what I thought about the way she had treated me and second to get out as fast as I could. If she could not see that, she was deeply blinded by the effects of some early life trauma of no relevance to me. I was terrified when I heard that the police were on their way because the one time I had been in a jail, after being arrested for the great offense of sleeping in a public park while being homeless, I was very nearly gang raped and this experience, even though it did stop short of actual rape because a guard intervened at the last minute, was terrifying for me and left me with my own trauma for many years thereafter. As a consequence, I have tended to not take kindly to overblown accusations, whether related to gender and sexuality or not, that paint me as a potential criminal thanks to someone’s imaginings or exaggerations. Once, when I lived as a student in a house with a group of people, a young woman said that I was a violent person. In fact, I had behaved somewhat aggressively, in one or both of the two senses of the term (which I will explain in a moment) towards several people in the house (male and female) and was very likely at fault for that, since aggressiveness is sometimes excessive and sometimes fits the to my mind secondary meaning of the term which is that of an attack, if only a verbal attack, as opposed to merely a (rhetorically) forceful assertion. But I make a clear distinction between agressivity and violence. At least a certain kind of aggressivity, which is really just assertiveness with a kind of forward stance, which I don’t believe causes harm though it may be felt by some to be unpleasant and offensive, and more often is simply confrontational, which unfortunately some people experience as necessarily and essentially an attack (though in reality it only sometimes is, certainly need not be, and in the New York style that is sometimes called aggressive rarely is). Assertiveness and agressivity are not always clearly separable, although what is arguably the basic difference, that assertiveness respects the other and gives her the opportunity to respond while aggresiveness really does not, seems to me decisive, and indeed to place a very great deal of what is called agressive behavior into the category of an entirely civil if confrontational assertiveness that is in fact vital to the very existence of a public sphere, a polis, or even a genuine community that lacks the enforced unanimity of a religious cult or of social life under Stalinism. Here is what I said and did to respond to her attribution to me of a violent character : I cornered this very young woman against wall she was standing alongside with both my arms and I looked straight in her face and said, not without a certain amount of forcefulness in my voice (though it was certainly not a threat, and I don’t think could have been interpreted as such ; by forcefulness I mean insistence and force in a rhetorical, not physical, sense) : « Don’t say that I’m a violent person, because I know what violence is and you clearly do not. » I of course did not mean that I knew what violence was because I was a enthusiastic practitioner of it, but because I had myself been a witness to and victim of it, of real, not imaginary, violence. To this day I don’t know if that was the right thing to do and say or not. Maybe it was cruel ; maybe it was overly aggressive ; maybe she didn’t know how to interpret what I was saying and felt confused or threatened ; and almost certainly my response only confirmed her initial impression rather than persuading her that she was wrong, though she might have thought about my statement that she mistook as violence behavior that makes that attribution at best an exaggeration. She may well have thought and such felt such things and, misinterpreting my remark, even confirmed her unfounded fear that I might harm her, although I actually thought my meaning was clear and not without a certain kindness or at least respect. I certainly respected her. I just thought she was throwing around the accusation of violence loosely, since I had neither threatened anyone nor done anything in any way violent, except maybe argue with a few people, and I felt very threatened by her saying that and saying it publically. I was not or not merely insulted, in which case I would have approached her to deny the insult in a much less confrontational manner because I don’t regard insults as threatening, normally, or even that harmful. If I saw this woman again today I would probably want to apologize, as absurd as it might be to make reparation for a guilt that is more than 20 years old, because I think I crossed the line, was too agressive and perhaps even too rhetorically forceful, if such a thing is possible, and maybe even was at fault for not being more tolerant of her naiveté, especially as she was very young and like most of the people living in that house must not have been away from the protection of her parents for very long at all. So my action was unwise as well as possibly unjust. But I have no doubt that I said the right thing to Judith X, nor that she was a perhaps very telling example of what is so very wrong of at least certain varieties of feminism.
2. Elegy for New York: The fate of experience and discourse under capitalism
In the reflections which follow by way of counterpoint, one that will require its own as you will see, I indulge my fantasy of a contemporary city as polis; this is an idea of New York. In a manner somewhat akin to Husserl’s eidetic variations, thought experiments in search of the essence of a thing named by a concept by way of asking what remains as possibly part of its essence if we subtract all that belongs to it only accidentally, I believe that there is a logic of ideas whereby if you push it to its logical limit. My ideas of the stereotypical California/New York distinction are attempts at rational reconstruction of ideal types. My claim about New York would be that the picture I draw is partly true, and it is an imperfect fact that reveals an idea that is, in fact, worth fighting for. And a writer who has nothing to fight for would be like one with no itch to scratch: he may as well hire himself out to write product manuals or advertisements and admit that, like the young man in Oshima’s “Cruel Story of Youth,” he cannot be disillusioned because his generation has no hopes to begin with.
I actually think it is very significant both that she was essentially in a position of authority and domination as a boss, but also that this happened in California. Not only do people in California dislike to argue and seem to be averse to the kind of high energy with an often excitedly and even exuberantly nervous attitude that you find in New York; maybe there is also an ambiguous civilizational superiority to the California style: whereas New Yorkers are very direct and honest and will say what they think, Californians are highly reliant on innuendo and nonverbal communication like body language. (I almost want to say they communicate with extra-sensory perception). Could this enable communication with greater subtlety, intelligence, and even civility? Is it more polite to drop a hint that the savvy person will get and the naïf not recognize or to be perfectly clear and direct at the risk of seeming to impose demands rather than gingerly offer suggestions (even if everyone « in the know » recognizes them as commands, and those not in the know are excluded and isolated)? After all, writers, myself included, do something not dissimilar with allusions that only those who have read the book, seen the film, or know the history will understand. But personally, I am totally clueless in these social situations, where even if I understood the unexpressed aspect of the person’s statement (and is that not a contradiction, or is it in fact expressed but in what to me is an esoteric code?). I seem to lack the time needed to reflect on the most appropriate witty reply that I dream of composing in an elegant iambic hexameter, because, the only talent I have ever cultivated being an at least passible agility in expressing myself in words and particularly in writing, I never learned those languages with all their esoteric subtleties. Besides, I think there is at least a grain of truth in the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu’s observation that « the demand for politeness always involves a political concession ». Bourgeois politeness goes beyond the civility proper to a true civil society, which is recognition of the Other and respect for her arguments and rights while also asserting your own, and when it is demanded or commanded as it is in California it inevitably winds up actually destroying civility through a reinforcement of private property right and the forms of authority and domination that derive from it.
New York may fall well short of being the world’s most culturally democratic city that I like to think of it as being. Though one person who is well-travelled has assured me that only Beijing possibly exceeds it in the tolerance for being in your face. In fact New Yorkers arguably have less interiority, which is a key to self-understanding and to the ability to exteriorize a thought or sentiment when appropriate, in one sense: they are more likely to immediately exteriorize and make plainly visible or audible what they are thinking or feeling, especially if something is at stake and does in fact concern the other person. But it is probably more accurate to say not that their interior life is weaker but rather that their sense of boundaries is. New Yorkers do know perfectly well where I stop and you begin, at least and especially when it really matters. But while people learn to guard their privacy even when it seems threatened by immersion in the crowd and the option of acquiring self-protection by enclosing yourself in a car or a suburban-style house (one of the reasons Los Angeles is so different) is not available, they also are inevitably brought by the forces of the metropolis into close contact with strangers, and for that reason at least I think it becomes easier to say something and thus make contact. In which some things of importance may be said, unlike the superficial « Hi, how are you doing ? » said with great warmth and faux affection by Californians when they encounter a solitary promeneur or hurried pedestrian on his way to work walking in the opposite direction on the same street. I invariably reply with a touch of coldness, « Excuse me. Do I know you from someplace? ». I know someone who starts up a serious conversation with almost every stranger she sits next to on the subway.
Does our directness and relative lack of subtlety make us New Yorkers more barbaric? Actually, I would argue the opposite: it makes us more civilized because more tolerant. New York has to have more weakly enforced social or at least communicational norms in many respects for at least one reason: the city is so international, with people from all over the world, that in addition to the generally greater freedom of Americans from social restrictions of all kinds (except maybe for the upper and sometimes middle classes in, for example, the 1950s of the German-American filmmaker Douglas Sirk, or the nineteenth century upper-class world of Edith Wharton’s Manhattan in The Age of Innocence), it would simply be impossible to sustain the kind of comparatively rigid social boundaries (they aren’t rigid truly but they certainly are when compared with those of Americans, who are typically much freer, « wilder », more open, and perhaps more creative—but also less reflective and less rational—in their interpersonal styles) that exist for instance in France and that are rarely noticed because people learn them in early childhood as conventional forms of civility that are greatly facilitating of social intercourse. How can a Chinese grocer in New York expect a Dominican customer to adhere to norms of propriety that are highly coded, culturally specific, and that have really never existed in America outside the world of upper class WASPs? These norms certainly didn’t exist among the immigrants in the early twentieth century on the Lower East Side, whose New Yorkness is far closer to that of the typical middle-class Manhattanite or Brooklynite of today than the narrow world of Edith Wharton which now exists only as a memory. In part, of course, because American culture has changed and become more democratic, which partly counterbalances the fact that many of the inhabitants of expensive Manhattan and Brooklyn apartments are transplants who moved to America’s most important city for professional reasons and not descendants of the Irish, Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican and other immigrants who largely made New York what it is—though of course there are a few million of those in the city as well, and they still matter a great deal to the city’s culture. There are standards of behavior in that store of course but they are minimal and do not and cannot extend very far at all into manners from morals that are largely represented by the law. So there are very few rules the grocer can effectively enforce (without alienating much of his clientele) besides the rule that you must pay for what you are removing from the premises and not do anything else that’s criminal like issue a threat. In short, social norms in New York are much closer to what is codified in the law books as a true offense than to what can be inferred from the elaborate social codes of the defunct culture of a bourgeoisie that pretended to be an aristocracy and was doomed partly because we have none. Of course, the influence not only of immigrants in general but of Jewish culture in particular on New York must not be ignored: New York is of course heavily, though not predominantly, Jewish. (We are a minority in the boroughs but a highly influential one, almost certainly more so than any other group with the possible exception of the WASPS who generally dominate American life, even today, if decreasingly so thanks to continued immigration). The Jewish commitment to justice combined with what is arguably a weaker commitment to manners that have no truly ethnical significance but only serve to facilitate certain conveniences in social life, whatever the value those conveniences may well be acknowledged to at least potentially have (John Murray Cuddihy makes this argument in The Ordeal of Civility, in which he claims that the Jews, whom he compares in this respect to the Irish—also traditionally one of New York’s major ethnic groups, were on the whole “latecomers to modernity” and often regarded by gentiles—the word is after all related to “gentleman” —as uncivilized) is a very major component of the social and cultural life of the city, which is more Jewish than any city that is not part of an officially Jewish state.
In the context of an essay concerned with the importance of argumentation to justice and of the demand for justice as central to all social and interpersonal life, it is perhaps worth suggesting my own answer to a question that has puzzled so many: Why are the Jews the most hated people in history? Why has this almost always been the case? They are certainly no longer the world’s most oppressed people, as we were in 1940, and I resent people who say this. African-Americans and Muslim women, for example, are far more oppressed. But they have been the most consistently and violently hated group through geographical space and historical time in way that obviously renders insufficient explanations having to do with the deep anti-Semitism of the medieval Catholic church, the role of Jewish moneylenders in European history, or anything else that is culturally or historically specific, including the Nazi search for national ethnic purity which was the apotheosis of the ethnic nation-state of which Israel is, in a great historical irony though for understandable reasons, also an example (as the United States and France officially are not: the constitutive foundations of these republics is in no way ethnic or religious but entirely political and ideological)—and of course anti-Zionism, in the Arab and Muslims worlds and elsewhere, which is often little more than thinly-veiled anti-Semitism trying to borrow a more accepted cause in a bid for legitimacy, seizes upon the fact that the Jewish state is for better and for worse just that, a Jewish state). My claim is that the Jew is hated because he represents a demand for justice, for moral behavior, and non-Jews very often tend to find that excessive. I have often heard people say « there are very few real moral obligations ». Jews think there are many. This is behind the theory of the Noachide laws, according to which gentiles are actually subject to only 7 commandments while Jews have 613. But I believe Jews today not only should but normally do, in a society such as America that they eventually succeeded in become full participants in, demand the same moral behavior of everyone else that they demand of themselves, and I believe this is correct because all truths are universal, there can be no truths (except maybe ritual commandments or historically particular commemorative events) that are specific to one people alone. Something is either true, and universally true, or not true at all. The real motive of anti-Semitism, at least more than any other, for there are indeed several that have at least been added to this one, the reason it is history’s most enduring hatred, is that the Jew is perceived as making a demand for justice which is burdensome and excessive because it is rigorous. Jews generally believe they should judge people’s behavior and tell them when they are wrong, and are often unafraid to do so. I think this is a right and duty incumbent on everyone that is an important component of a true public sphere, since the state or polis can have only justice as its legitimate foundation. Shakespeare’s story of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice contains a crucial insight into the motives for anti-Semitism: the Jew, because he is morally demanding (although it may also be the demand to pay a debt, as Jews were often moneylenders, and I admit that complicates it and maybe even introduces some ambiguity), is perceived as making an excessive demand that is essentially castrating. The uncircumcised gentile (this, that is, the opposite of this, is the symbolic meaning of circumcision) feels he needn’t be subjected to too many limitations, obligations, or demands, or to have to constrain his desires too much. But the Jew often makes a rigorous demand for justice. Not a violent or forceful one; it is usually merely spoken. But that is perceived as castrating, the meaning of which is the loss of absolute moral liberty, and that of course is what the « pound of flesh » that Shylock demands as payment represents.
Perhaps the limitation of social impropriety to what is actual illegal (thus achieving at least in a certain sense in social life the equivalent of the minimal state championed by the conservative political philosopher Robert Nozick and other libertarians who are not full-on anarchists) is the ideal: should the norms be the laws and vice-versa? (To the point where mere manners must either be legislated or forgotten?) Morality has to be the basis of law; should the two then be identical? A claim could be made that the most vital political community would be one where at least moral norms, as distinct from manners of politeness and civility that can be encouraged but not enforced, at least not in official as opposed to informal contexts like among groups of friends (this is crucially important, and the failure of this is indeed one of the problems with California)—where the moral norms are the law and vice-versa, and yet no one wants adultery to be a crime and arguably it is only in closed-knit religious communities like the Amish in Pennsylvania or the Hasidim and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and Brooklyn where this comes close to being fully a possibility. Because modern democratic nations and cities are diverse and some of that diversity is diversity in moral values. And perhaps we need moral diversity as well as ideological diversity to have a vital public sphere. At issue here is the difference between democratic liberalism and republicanism, in the sense that Rousseau was a republican and revolutionary France became republican. (The political philosopher Philip Petite has written a defense of republicanism from a contemporary leftist point of view, emphasizing the role of the state in facilitating liberation from oppression). Republicanism has a tendency to affirm the value of a national consensus: Rousseau for instance spoke of the « general will ». It holds that there is a collective national identity that is at the basis of the political community or polis (which is what the Hegel, whose Philosophy of Right is among other things a republican treatise, meant by the « state »). Could we create a public morality that is entirely political and based on rational argument codified in legislation that is totally independent of the religious differences that underpin many of the moral disputes? France, which has a strong republican tradition, is a country which seems to try to do this. The French state, that, like Turkey until recently, has been so determined to be secular that religion plays basically no role in the public sphere: it is an entirely private matter and the many Muslims and Jews are given practically no allowances in terms of their collective identity (students cannot absent themselves from a Saturday test so far as I know, the Muslim headscarf is banned in schools, and Jewish holidays for instance are never granted official recognition, though France has one of the world’s largest Jewish communities) —they are given no credit for their collective identity, as if the French national identity, which is officially political and not ethnic in its essence, contrary to the original idea of the nation-state (nation comes from antes, which means born—which has been realized at various times in countries like Germany, Japan, and with great historical irony in Israel), was the only legitimate collective identity—while considered of course fully equal as individual citizens of a secular polity that in principle is absolutely indifferent to religion. The religious/moral principles that officially lie at the foundation of the French nation and national identity are still liberty, equality, and fraternity, and these are wholly secular and political. Undoubtedly subnational communities need to be granted more recognition. France is the opposite of the US in this respect: here community and group identity is everything; being Jewish, gay, female, black, Hispanic, etc., are very important parts of people’s identities and for many, sadly the principle part. For they surely lack interiority—though in the case of religion this is obviously complicated, if only because religion can include so much: indeed maybe the problem with blackness and gayness and any of the numerous radical feminist ideas of what is properly feminine (such as in Luce Irigaray and the early Helène Cixous) as identities is that they are not and probably cannot, certainly should not, be religions. But French republicanism, despite its extremes, does have something we can learn from: the state is essentially a political community (which inevitably does have an identity or at least a Wittgenstinian family resemblance-type set of identitarian attributes), and that identity is essentially a matter of the public sphere and one’s role in it as one who participates in debate and an opinion-formation that hopefully is guided by the search for a kind of « truth » (for of course there is political truth : that just means that it can and in principle will ultimately be recognized that there is one course of action that is preferable to all others from the standpoint of the interest of the collectivity—not the majority with their private preferences !)—a search for truth or at least decision guided not by the expression of personal tastes and preferences but by rational discourse and dialogue aimed at discovering the better argument and that, as Habermas puts it, seeks to implement the « unforced force » of the better argument which is unforced because everyone’s needs, interests, and desires are in principle of (equal) relevance to the discussion as is their own individual view about what is in the best interests of the community. That kind of polis is based on a vital public sphere in which everyone not only defends their own interests, as is their right, but also identifies with the good of the community, however defined (including the good of the community’s least advantaged), and it requires the tolerance for and encouragement of argumentation. And that is what New York (as well as Paris, and most cities in Europe if not in the world) manages so much better than Los Angeles and why this (by American standards) old city is much closer to being a true polis in the ancient Athenian sense revived in modernity by Hegel, Arendt, in a certain way the Bolshevik Revolution when it initially was organized by « soviets » or local worker’s councils. Such a polis is finally is a matter not only of public but also to at least a significant extent of « private » or at least interpersonal conduct. For are interpersonal relationships essentially private or inevitably public at least in part? Could that distinction, not least thanks to feminism, have become obsolete? Hegel opposed the family, based on love, to the state, based on justice, and aligned the two principles with the feminine and the masculine and with the courage of Antigone vs. the bureaucratic rigidity of Creon in his essence of priority for the interest of the city, a conflict he saw as an irresolvable contradiction between the two kinds of virtue. It is arguable that the conflict and even separation between justice and love, which is at the basis of so much in Western culture, is obsolete. If so, you can and probably should argue with your wife and listen to her demands for justice not only without feeling that your love or hers is being diminished or threatened but actually believing that the pursuit of justice is a political « truth procedure », to use the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s terminology, that in no way contradicts the truth procedure that (for Badiou as I would argue for Christianity and to some extent most other religions as well) love is also. It’s not just that Venus and Mars are alright tonight (clearly sometimes they are not), but that they ultimately have far more in common than the nonetheless real differences that still seem at least often to separate them.
Arguably, justice must take priority over love in interpersonal life even though it ultimately derives from love in the broadest sense (agape if not also eros), if only because it is all too easy to be unfair or even cruel to the ones you love. Think of all the husbands who truly love their wives, at least in feeling great affection for them if not also in demonstrating in their deeds that they truly care, but who are perfectly content to let Madame do all the housework after coming home from a day at the office that was every bit as prolonged and demanding as their own. The impulse towards cruelty towards those you love, undoubtedly rooted in deep unconscious ambivalence, which can be gendered, is the truth in the song Jeanne Moreau sings in Fassbinder’s Genet adaptation Querelle: « Each man kills the thing he loves. » The broadly political aspects of love and familial relationships, specifically their remarkable capacity to be oppressive (patriarchy is just the most obvious and long-standing form of this), which is why he also titled an early film « Love is Colder than Death, » constitute the central theme of the remarkable oeuvre of the leading figure of the new German cinema of the 70s, a filmmaker who brilliantly brought out and intensified the political dimensions of the socially critical melodrama of the German-American émigré director Douglas Sirk which so inspired him, illustrating more thoroughly, successfully and relentlessly, unsparing even of the gay world he was an active part of, the feminist proclamation that « the personal is the political. » But does « radical » feminism in fact want to politicize the personal and private or to privatize the properly political? I will return to this question, which is raised for me by Judith X.
The apparent conflict between Judaism and Christianity over this issue of justice vs. love can easily be resolved at least in part, notwithstanding the excesses of Jesus’s masochistic demands to love one’s enemy, not fight back when assaulted, and forgive all wrongdoers whether or not they recognize their crime and are willing where possible to not only change their course of behavior but make reparation for the injuries they have caused, which are the conditions Judaism imposes as prerequisites to forgiveness, thereby preconditioning mercy on justice rather than making the former a transgression of and exception to the latter that makes the good dependant on grace send the gift rather than being what is demanded, owed, and an obligation, and therefore a matter of an unjustifiable privilege rather than of law, right, justice, and justification and therefore reason. The simple solution to the dilemma of whether the essence of the sacred is justice or love, the question that supposedly divided the Old and New Testaments and rendered the latter a correction if not a repudiation of the former, even if that correction called itself a fulfillment, is that « God » loves humanity and insists on justice for all persons precisely because this is the necessary consequence of his love, necessary for that love to be effective rather than a mere sentiment or desire that inspires the parallel Pauline virtues of faith and hope, which in their weaker and more passive typical forms fall short of a genuine commitment to the good that they ideally inspire.
Violent conflict may or may not be inevitable in a world where the existence of friends entails that of enemies as Carl Schmitt argued, or in a world such as ours where an inevitable or artificial scarcity of the goods that people desire renders conflict inevitable, as Sartre, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, argued in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. But conflict as such, civil conflict, which unlike war, as Schmitt believed, is the foundation of the political, is something sentient beings endowed with language and reason cannot live without. And if the ability to appreciate and engage in conflict is essentially « masculine » as the ability to love was long thought of as feminine, then we can only say that sexual difference is not without some apparent value, if not necessarily in its traditional form, which is not only exaggerated and overly rigid but makes the mistake of assigning masculinity exclusively and necessarily to men and femininity likewise to women, whereas we would all do well to adopt some measure of the inherent or acquired traits (I am convinced no one really knows how much of gender difference is which) that are perhaps at least most of the time expressed more effectively by the other gender. This has become very obviously necessary and true for women, who now participate in the public as well as the private sphere and have become more like men at least in jobs traditionally exclusive to men, including almost all roles of leadership and authority, while at the same time men have had to change far less. (Though some men do take up some of the child care and domestic tasks). We need love as well as civil conflict, the family as well as the state or community and its political life based on that conflict. Today private and public are less distinct, the argument that the new testament of love has replaced the old one of justice is defunct if it even had any validity to begin with, and you can and should argue with your lover and care for your employees. The principle of private property in the Marxian sense, where it means ownership of capital and the extraction of surplus value from labor or from rents, is at the very least a dangerous one because it represents quite literally the private appropriate of a public or communal good: a shared-use territory is owned and controlled by one individual or by a small privileged minority. The consequence of this for the public sphere and therefore for a vital democratic culture in a meaningful sense (perhaps only realizable in the polis of the Athenian city state and its modern analogues: the soviets or worker’s councils and the similar council democracy advocated by the politically centrist philosopher Hannah Arendt) is potentially devastating : it means that privacy and all that goes with it, including judgment limited to opinion and personal preference or desire that stops well short of any effective notion of truth or justice, takes over from the space of contestation that is the foundation of all genuine politics. A very apt exemplar of this transfiguration is what happens when the owner or director of an organization, profit or non-profit, runs the enterprise out of her home and resolves by a show of force any dispute with an employee, whether about a perceived injustice to himself or a difference of opinion about what is best for the organization (for in any healthy enterprise employees are encouraged to participate at least peripherally in management by sharing their ideas and even arguing for them when they are sufficiently thoughtful, creative, and concerned about the enterprise as a commonwealth—which it is, since its revenues are always shared out at least minimally as wages, and more importantly because anyone who is involved in a project tends to develop an interest in its success). That is what Judith X manifested: a show of force, asserting her private property right as effective owner of her non-profit foundation and telling me to get out of her house, and then regarding me when I failed to obey instantaneously as a criminal for both trespassing on her property and for the perhaps not unrelated crime (obviously they were related to her, though we probably differ about which is cause and which effect) sexually violating her in a symbolic manner with my resistance to the assertion of her will. Indeed I wonder how little has really changed from the days when rape was in fact a property crime? Do radical feminists really have anything very different to say to agressive young men driven partly by their desires than old-fashioned patriarchy? It’s gone from « leave my daughter alone » to « leave me alone »: very different for the woman, less so for the man. It’s just that now the woman herself, and not her husband or father, is the owner of a person and body that are perversely confused with private property, whereas arguably individuality, identity, freedom, and responsibility are not essentially property relations at all (though of course they can be applied to them), and to make them property relations is inevitably to demarcate a territory that has to be defended à la Schmitt with the friends against the enemies who pose a threat by the mere fact that they reside outside that territory, in their own bodies and selves, which are in fact as publically implicated as they are privately isolable, simply because none of us is Robinson Crusoe. I delayed for a brief moment, long enough to make a statement enunciating a claim (or counter-claim), to follow her orders, for the precise reason that to me the public sphere, the demand for justice, and the importance to civil and public life of argument and contestation have always taken precedence over such things as property right and personal comfort, the transgression of which is sufficient for some feminists to claim sexual harassment. In essence the conflict between Judith X and myself was not a conflict about gender politics between a person hypersensitive to her oppression as a woman and the sense of a total negation of self blamed on society that was perhaps indicated by her name, although it was certainly partly that. More centrally, it was simply a conflict between a to my mind improper assertion of private property right and the radically democratic values, based ultimately perhaps in religiously founded ideas of justice that I hold very dear, that I was basing my conduct on, foolishly perhaps but necessarily it seemed to me at the time.
In this paragraph as I did more than 20 years ago in my personal life, I return to my own favorite island, as different from that of Defoe’s Robinson as you could get. Between New York, which, though it has also been the center of global capitalism, does tend to emphasize the public over the private, and California, where the private sphere and private property (homes, cars) are so much more important and the argumentation that constitutes the public sphere so much less so (when it is not disdained utterly), which of these two opposing models of organized urban life is a better, more stimulating, and cognitively nurturing environment for intellectuals and for writers like myself? Which is the better kind of environment for encouraging creativity in the arts? Which holds better promise for nurturing the creative, idea-driven, initiative-taking worker who is treated like a full member of the company team (often resembling somewhat a family, which includes all the office’s professional employees and sometimes its secretaries though never its temps, whose exclusion from the family circle is always made clear) that sometimes exists in the middle echelons of the very best companies and that many pundits think, as I do in fact, that the proper cultivation of this « knowledge worker » is key to the future success of the global economy? (I have written about this elsewhere ; it’s only unfortunate that this capitalism which in its « enlightened self-interest » depends largely on having a workforce that is creative, welcomed in contributing ideas, given real responsibilities and respected, in a business culture that has a minimal resemblance to a republic if not quite a democracy—it’s only too bad that this does not extend to the working class (let alone the unemployed poor, of course) and probably never will or even can. On the above questions, clearly all the evidence, current and historically, on this matter points to New York. Obviously the ability to argue, criticize, and debate is vital to the world of the mind and a necessary source of stimulation to anyone who participates in it in no matter what way, as professional or amateur. I am prepared to say that New York has a vital and vibrant public sphere in a way that the San Francisco Bay Area and even Los Angeles, which does have its own substantial cultural riches, do not. Chicago does, but Chicago is basically just a smaller, colder, more segregated and crime-ridden, and slightly less fast-paced and intense version of New York with cheaper and larger apartments, an arts scene that is proportionally smaller in accordance with its relative size but significant notwithstanding, and a transportation system that relies on buses instead of a subway, and which also goes everywhere but of course not nearly as fast. Paris is a city whose public sphere is arguably even more vital than New York’s although it is one-fourth the American cultural capital’s size. (For example, not only are the French, like the Russians and many other peoples, far more avid readers of serious literature, but also French academic philosophy, which has been so central to the humanities in the last 50 years, especially at American universities, enjoys great public popularity and there are popular magazines devoted to it). Parisians differ from New Yorkers in a number of ways, many of them fairly subtle, but while they are generally less frenetic, less aggressive, and simultaneously a bit less open and friendly, with a business culture that lacks our usually very friendly and helpful customer service, they share with New Yorkers the willingness to articulate disagreements, be they intellectual, political, personal, or admonitions of a stranger. (To my English readers, I have not yet been to London so I reserve comment on that great city of yours that before the world empire changed hands and New York assumed this role was the global center of capitalism, but it seems Londoners are fond of irony and as sophisticated as New Yorkers but don’t feel as free to start an argument). The foundation of the public sphere is argument, contestation, and what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière in an important short book of this title calls La mésentente (disagreement). Arguably that is in fact the foundation of a truly functioning private sphere as well. He who has never known the pleasure of a spirited debate with a friend whose convictions on politics or some other matter are opposite of his, or with a fellow aficionado of philosophy, literature, or cinema whose opinions diverge in small but interesting ways from his own, that person has missed some of the greatest pleasures of friendship, which can involve more than just sharing personal intimacies and secrets. (There is admittedly a bit of a persisting gender divide on this, which I think is unfortunate). What use is a friend or lover who is a « yes man », who merely agrees with and underscores everything you say? Unless you are an insecure narcissist just looking for affirmation and someone to comfort you, take away your guilt like a Christ, be infinitely nurturing like the Madonna, or reassure you and attempt (an attempt that always fails) to supply the self-esteem you so painfully and tragically lack. A husband or wife who never criticizes or points out your faults arguably doesn’t truly or effectively care about you, because he wrongly thinks caring consists entirely of nurturing and affirmation, and such a spouse is nearly as bad as a parent who out of timidity or indifference fails to criticize and reprimand. That’s what children used to learn from fathers when fathers and mothers had clearly differentiated roles, and it may be another mark of the ambiguous value of gender equality that there is something good and necessary about this, which may well remain partially gendered even if it is thankfully less so. I don’t know the limits of future gender equality and abolition of role differences and I believe no one quite does, which is one reason why men and women today, especially in the West, are subject to the Chinese curse, « May you live in interesting times ». The accession to adulthood brings full responsibility for one’s actions and decisions, but it does not automatically confer a maturity that is beyond benefiting from the wisdom of others who can sometimes see your mistakes when you do not. This is also connected with the question of the function of art, and therefore equally to the possibility of making one’s life a work of art as Nietzsche advocated, after Hegel had no doubt correctly announced the supersession of religion by art (and, less incontestably, of art by philosophy), the higher institution incorporating all the truths and meanings of the one before it. Is the function of art (and of a life lived creatively) to entertain, comfort, relieve you of anxiety or depression, and confirm your tastes and prejudices ? Or is it not to challenge and provoke, leading to genuine insight, to the discovery of meaning and truth ? If art is only entertainment, how is it different from watching a basketball game, which clearly has little semantic density or spiritual meaning, the very suggestion of which sounds like a joke? Or how is it different from making love? Yes, that is a crucial component of the private sphere (I don’t think it should be public) but insufficient to constitute satisfaction or even a meaningful love affair, and not only because it is usually relatively brief in duration. Arguably the faculty most responsible for constituting our humanity is language, broadly speaking (including the languages of painting and images, sounds and music, and movement and dance, but with a necessary priority accorded to spoken and written language, because it is through speech and its written derivative that most of us express ourselves most of the time, both with others and in solitary reflections and monologues—and this of course, along with the human need to construct meaning and process experience through narrative, is why literature is the most important art form and even philosophy, because it is also literature, is more important than painting) with the possibilities of understanding, interpretation, creativity (Chomsky has shown that the ability to learn and speak a language makes this universal), the conferral on experience or on things of significant form and meaning, the possibility of using dialogue to exchange useful information and solve problems (including interpersonal conflicts), and the availability that language brings with it of the Other’s meanings and experiences, which is also an important basis of intimacy in love and friendship as well as being another essential component of imaginative literary art and perhaps of the appreciation of artworks in general. Language and speech are the keys to both genuine interiority and effective relations with the outside: they enable us to think as well as communicate, to come to know ourselves as well as to learn about others. Indeed, as a tool of self-knowledge, it has been effectively argued that it is because psychoanalysis provides dialogic interventions that penetrate the obscurities of one’s monologues that it is an effective cure for neurosis, while talking to yourself, even if you do it for an hour a day five days a week, does not, and in this respect analysis doubtless has some advantage even over writing, because it is very hard to challenge and criticize yourself and to see your own blind spots, and the writer’s working and reworking of language to cultivate an understanding of experience and life sometimes fails, for all its success in revealing truths and provoking insights, to untangle the greatest enigmas in his imaginative mirror of the world. And if he is successful, he inevitably will leave for scholars and interpreters to recognize the enigmatic significations, truths, and questions he was articulating « between the lines », sometimes without recognizing them, which are often the most important ones, and which the psychoanalyst (and perhaps also the literary scholar) is so expert at deciphering. Psychoanalysis is the furthest extension of the empire or language and discourse: it holds that the unconscious is a sort of language, expressing itself in enigmatic statements whose confusion it is the work of the analysis to untangle; « Where it [the unconscious that speaks for me and exceeds my will and intentionality while fully articulating in rebuses, ciphers, and repeatedly failed actions my strongest desires, which I often fail to recognize] was, there I must come to light», in Lacan’s quite literal translation of Freud’s statement of the need for the I to appropriate, render meaningful, and assume responsibility for the non-I that lies at its core. This is a process of making present and representing through articulation, a matter of the essentially ethical task of saying what needs to be said. Which in a very different register is what I did to, and for, Judith X. This enunciation of the truth is an act of liberation, as the Biblical Christ was credited with recognizing.
Articulation, making it explicit, is the key to civility as well as understanding. What after all is the reliance on innuendo (at least when it extends beyond the meaningful allusion that enhances but is not essential to understanding the meaning of the text to true obscurity and to a social game of constituting elite cliques composed of those who confirm their possession of cultural capital by showing that they can read the hieroglyphs and excluding the unwashed and the outsiders who cannot, just as Wharton’s world excluded the immigrants of the Lower East Side who were truly invisible to it) and the implicit communication that approaches silence, if not the concealment of speech tending towards its annihilation as well as the mystification of the listener who is being tutored in obscurity and obscurancy? This is the opposite of Freud’s liberating movement from the unsaid to the said, from implicit to explicit, and from darkness to light. One need not fear that an excess of lucidity will destroy the meaning and value of the work of interpretation, for interpretation feeds not on a maximization of obscurity and darkness, on the feat of presenting the least amount of information possible and thus of knowing next to nothing, but on events and phenomena that can be further illuminated because they already enjoy some manifest, visible, and usually highly signifying presence. You can only interpret information that you actually see, hear, or register with the senses and intellect. That’s why there can be interpretations of works of art. Creation and interpretation alike are never ex nihilo ; a reading of an artwork translates something that has already been expressed and is visually manifest into an illuminating if inferior (if only because it is a translation) verbal analogue. Humanity is not suffering from an excess of clarity and insight. Unlike the nineteenth century novelistic hero who lays out his intimate thoughts and feelings to himself and to the reader, and no one else, excluding from the intimate revelations of his consciousness even his best friends and more often than not even his wife, innuendo at its extreme is the interiority of the inarticulate. While the novel with its interior monologues, use of the style indirect libre where the author voices the character’s thoughts and gives them a measure of objectivity, and authorial reflections does cultivate interiority, it is an interiority of reflection and thought and a reflectiveness that may well exceed the realistic possibilities for interpersonal disclosure, as nineteenth century novelistic characters usually knew it did. That interiority may or may not be in irrevocable decline, and while if the Internet replaces the novel as cinema and television already partly have, meanings will still be articulated that provide an at least attenuated provocation to think, there is the ever present danger, clearly visible in the democracy of Facebook posts and comments, of true thought being reduced to mere opinion, or even replaced by it, in accordance with the Sophists’ conviction, which lies at the basis of representative parliamentary democracy, that there are no truths, only opinions. The innuendo and the hint are metaphors, plainly readable to the knowing and opaque to those who are not part of the relevant « in » group, but though they are forms of speech, they effectively approach speechlessness and are designed to provoke the response of a silent if reflective tacit understanding, and often even obedience. One hints instead of stating or asking directly out of timidity, an antiquated delicacy, or a feigned politeness, because one is afraid of naming the thing and hence of speaking or hearing the truth about any of the things or persons one cares about (or wants to control). Because of the success of feminism, the decline of interiority as a result of the decline in reading, and the disappearance in favor of the « cowboy capitalist » of the West of the old, mostly Eastern, bourgeoisie—which as in Wharton’s novel had adopted coded behavior derived from the European aristocracy that was designed both for the bourgeois class’s self-discipline for professional work and to enforce the rigid class boundaries that today are increasingly both sharper in terms of lifestyle and less immediately visible in terms of attitude and comportment (except for the lower class, especially the Black urban poor, who occupy an entirely separate and often very violent world where life is held cheaply because there are few opportunities), as the upper class has in fact come to model its behavior on the middle class it likes to posture as—for all these reasons innuendo has largely been replaced with directness (and this is nowhere more in evidence in New York, where an important contributing role has been made by the enormous influence on the culture of the city of the always noisier, less sophisticated, and more immediately honest and directly speaking working and lower classes, who once lived in over-packed neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side where people were constantly in your face whether they wanted to be or not, who worked 12 hours a day or more and had little time to develop a quasi-literary sophistication embodying an upper class delicacy entirely foreign to their very hard lives, and whose children and grandchildren often did achieve the essentially economic « American dream », many leaving for the suburbs and many others remaining in the city. I have some hope that the explicit statement is replacing the gesture, the facial expression, and the innuendo or ironically worded hint, and I have sufficient confidence in the practically infinite resources of interpretation, imagination, and intellect that I don’t actually think interiority has to disappear along with this hermetic privacy that chooses to reveal so little except through hints, signs, and cultivated subtleties that both exceed and precede the power of speech. Whenever something is said, there is the possibility for elaboration, interpretation, and response. Today, as virtual online communities sometimes appear to threaten to replace the face-to-face contact of social life in the physical metropolis (though in fact more and more of the world’s people are living in cities and especially large cities), the decline in both genuine interiority and experience and a public sphere with real content and real issues as stake (and thus inevitably also real conflict) is perhaps nowhere more visible in the fact that some people choose to share their entire private lives on Facebook and other quasi-public social networks (facilitating corporate and government surveillance in the name of expressing their opinions and preferences, precisely what companies need to know about a person to target their advertising to them, and this may in fact be the ultimate significance of those preferences: to have one is to own an option to buy), and they do so largely with strangers who become « friends » when they discover they have minimal (and usually trivial) remarks that in their boredom and loneliness they are eager to share. I have one friend who posts to Facebook what he had for lunch or whether he was late for the train. What’s next ? Updates on one’s latest bowel movements ?
If you can’t or won’t argue (or if you only speak in mute gestures or innuendo) than you can’t solve any problem that arises between you and someone else. Or else it is automatically solved, pre-empting all discussion, by preserving the status quo ante, which means the person in authority or with greater power gets to assume he is right and can enjoy the comforting assurance that this assumption will not be questioned—the demand not to argue is always the enforcement of authoritarianism. Also if you can’t argue you can’t have any discussions except about things people agree on. Which is why in California when people want to disagree they don’t express a negation, they say « yes, and. . . ». And then try to sneak in their disagreement as if it were a wholly approving mere elaboration on what the interlocutor has said. And so conversations quickly degenerate into triviality and become boring. Instead of discussing with your date the film you just saw or your impressions of a certain writer you have both read, you trade baseball cards with the names of films you’ve seen or books you’ve read, providing your conversational partner with the wonderfully stimulating enlightenment to be gained from listing, absent all justification, interpretation, or commentary, your « likes » just as you do when you push the « like » button on Facebook to offer up your vote in its sophistical and irrelevant democracy of ideas that are far more expressive of impulse than reflection. Also, if no one argues of course no one criticizes and if no one ever criticizes you, you never learn.
Except of course from your own experience. Like the strong silent type played by Clint Eastwood in The Unforgiven, the one-time drunken murder whose touching maturity, wisdom, and even kindness—he initially sets out to kill a man who had cut a prostitute’s face; when he meets this woman, who like so may women seems to respond to hurt with sadness rather than anger (I don’t know which is better but my psychiatrist insists that, until it becomes the depression which afflicts many non-assertive women, sadness is the healthier emotion), she asks if he wants « a free one ». He says no, but a moment later offers this touching clarification: « When I said I didn’t want a free one, I didn’t mean on account of your cut-up face; you are a beautiful woman and I reckon if I wanted a free one I’d like it with you ». But his wisdom and kindness fail to restrain him from committing a revenge killing that leaves a multiplicity of corpses, in a way that is as excessive as Odysseus’s revenge on the suitors. The person whose wisdom comes entirely from his experience has disdained the wisdom of all his family and friends and indeed of all of history and civilization, just like the person who does not read and can learn only from the necessarily very limited range of what he experiences or hears directly.
And so people in California, while they can go on and on in conversation in a way that is usually not very deep and which they largely use not to engage in dialogue but merely to express themselves or engage in what Heidegger called « idle talk », to a point that will quickly wear out anyone from New York who is usually pressed for time even when he is not at work and requires a certain efficiency even in casual conversations, they also can be profoundly quiet. (The volubility of the West Coast style though without, I hope, the superficiality that often accompanies it—for how many of us really or at least very often (I admit I sometimes do) have a great deal to say about ourselves to any particular friend or stranger at any given moment?—is the only communicational trait I have unwittingly retained from my childhood in Los Angeles). The strong silent man of the Hollywood Western, who represents a certain phallic machismo, is at least slightly more at home in Los Angeles (and old Hollywood cinema), though perhaps is equally appreciated and even befitting the expected norm in Texas or Nebraska, than in New York City where people tend to speak their minds and to be expected to. The right to assert yourself in a city where people can get in your face by doing little more than stepping onto the street or into a subway car can be unforgiving. Here, if you don’t assert yourself you get stepped on because people assume you don’t mind as otherwise you would of course have said something. Although this happened when I was still on the West Coast, I recognized how close I once came to falling into a not unrelated trap when I caught myself uttering a Freudian slip that is positively a paean to alienation: « It doesn’t care ; I don’t matter. »
But I picked myself off the ground and built a life in the city (after 13 years I probably had as many as 13 good friends) that quickly brought me peace of mind if not happiness, at least not when stuck in office jobs and facing the hierarchical authoritarianism and disdain for the person who has not been offered significant responsibility or authority, whose opinions are of no value, and who therefore as a person is of little value, especially if he or she is a temp, as temps are easily picked up and just as rapidly dumped in the wastebasket (or shall we just say « canned » ?), an authoritarianism the business world of New York shares with that of Los Angeles, San Francisco, every other city in this country, and perhaps every or almost every city in the world. An « administrative assistant », which as everyone knows is a glorified term for menial clerk whose job is basically to take orders and keep his mouth shut, having arguably less right to question his superiors than a private in the army, and, alas, in this one respect at least, that is in the world of work, at least as it affects the non-professional and pseudo-professional (office worker) classes, New York is really no different from California, and the equation « don’t argue » with « do what you’re told » is as real here as it is out there, the one real difference, and I think it is a very important one indeed, is that outside the workplace, which is to say wherever people are equal, as most Americans believe they are in essence if not in existence, among friends, family, acquaintances, strangers who encounter each other as in big cities they often do, sometimes consequentially, and to at least a slight extent even in the truly professional work environment (this is what today separates the classes as much as anything, besides income and the many things that follow from it), where unlike in the 8 million strong world outside the office, on the streets, in a subway car, at the theater, and almost any place else, behavior actually is highly codified and follows strict and often tacit norms that are not so different from that nineteenth century bourgeois WASP world referred to earlier (the elite of which are referred to in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Wharton’s novel as « all of New York », a New York that resembles the intensely class-conscious Victorian England (traces of which remain in the UK) more than the New York of today or the old New York of immigrant workers, large traces of which I believe remain despite all the transplants, yuppies, and gentrifiers, the faceless immigrant working poor who weren’t recognized as part of the « all » in the phrase identifying the people in the city who possessed enough value to be counted as part of the social world, as the old bourgeoisie, which arguably no longer really exists in a cultural as opposed to economic sense, always enforced both its own exclusivity along with the rigid disciplinary codes it imposed on its members, as Foucault has shown, a world that the Chinese grocer and the Dominican customer buying a six-pack are absolute strangers to, there, even in the office, among people with true professional jobs and careers who are roughly on equal terms, one can, within certain « reasonable » limits, speak one’s mind, as one always does at great personal risk in San Francisco, even in casual social milieux lacking an explicit structure of power. The main difference of the work environment of New York from that of the West Coast is simply that it is faster and more efficiency-conscious, more competitive, and more demanding.
Indeed, I am convinced that as long as we have a capitalist society or a socialist one that resembles it as closely as the old Soviet world did, we will have rampant authoritarianism, at least in the workplace and probably showing up in many aspects of the social world that in one way or another mirror the workplace—or else mirror the supermarket, for these are the two poles of experience under capitalism: work and buy, and it is arguably the latter that has become central. Consumerism means an orientation to pleasure and entertainment at the expense of reading serious fiction, seeing or creating works of art, or having meaningful conversations and relationships, and these twin compulsions to work and buy largely define our society (Godard has a brilliant comment on this at the end of Two or Three Thing I Know about Her, when Juliet asks Robert what they will do at the end of the day (sleep ?), and after than (get up ?), and after that (work ?), and after that, what ? (come home ?) . . . and finally, at the close of this cycle of eternal recurrence of the same, what ? (« die ? », he suggests quizzically)). These twin compulsions, which as Debord noted in the end signify only a desire to sleep, for nothingness and death, are equally meaningless when pursued for their own sake; whatever sense there may be in « art for art’s sake » there is none whatever in « work for work’s sake », all the blandishments of Protestantism, which Max Weber recognized as the religion of business, notwithstanding. I am convinced this is the real significance of professional sports and the reasons why corporations tend to rather like them: they celebrate a generic, empty « excellence » based on a hard work that is devoid or any real meaning or purpose except the logically circular project of enhancing that very undefined and indefinable excellence. (I challenge anyone to explain to me how the entertainment they obtain from watching a basketball game and enjoying the enormous suspense of who will win with the many fascinating plot twists that take place every time the losing team makes a basket or even moves ahead in the score for a bit is meaningful in the same way as the entertainment I derive from reading Stendhal and Tolstoy, with their plot twists that are arguably at least almost as fascinating as those in basketball). And so also with buying for pleasure’s sake, which really is just consumption’s sake. Pleasure has replaced meaningful enjoyment (and has become a positive duty, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out), bringing with it satisfactions that are as hollow, empty, and cold as prostitution; genuine lived experience has been replaced by simulacra of experience promoted by advertising strategies that package the promise of the good life or the salvation of your soul in toothpaste that is guaranteed to enhance your sex life or in yet more mysterious talismans like a twenty-ounce bottle of soda, which the Coca-Cola Company, in a curious inversion that denies the artificiality of the commodity as an auratically glorified phenomenon but also calls attention to this denial by the vapid absurdity of the appellation that seems to render the function of reification almost fully transparent, once baptized « the real thing », while its competitor Pepsi allusively promoted its own marginally distinct caffeinated and sugary magical elixir as a Fountain of Youth. The twin compulsions to work for work’s sake, and ultimately for profit’s sake; this is how work differs from the creativity activity Marx thought would one day replace it: money has value but no significance. A work of art means something and may well even be called « true », whereas the extraction of profit, however socially useful it may be, while it might make it possible for a few individuals to buy works of art, or even to invest in expanding their business and improving their products, services, or even, and rarely, wages and salaries, doesn’t have a signification, doesn’t really say anything. That is why Alain Badiou insists that there can be no philosophy of business; it doesn’t articulate any truths and cannot because its statements are empty signifiers and from the point of view of genuine understanding and sense-making it is effectively mute; the reign of money, and of commodities with their spectacular transferred eroticism, is the ultimate nihilism, and the man whose ambition is to obtain wealth or power by definition loves no one and nothing and is therefore damned, and doomed, like Macbeth, to discover that « life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. » Although this is only from the standpoint of an tale, a narrative, perhaps recollection, and indeed the perspective of art and the meaning and truth that storytelling can reveal, that this devastating emptiness can even be recognized: capitalism itself is, as Marx recognized, a system that sweeps away all old values and hierarchies except the ones intrinsic to it (which is the ultimate reason why feminism and the Civil Rights and gay movements succeeded, and is also what makes the Republican politicians who want to deny women’s health rights or even the reality of rape not only reactionary but doomed ultimately to failure and extinction; furthermore, it also explains the slow decline, albeit with temporary reversals such as the one that has swept much of the Muslim world, over the last century and especially in the most developed capitalist countries, of religion—I believe with Hegel that art and philosophy have replaced religions, absorbed all its truths, and present them in a more comprehensible and comprehensive fashion; this has already become largely true for the intellectual elite, and the masses will ultimately catch up if high quality literature or at least cinema continue to be enjoyed). In this capitalism is essentially nihilistic, converting all ethical value into economic value, unable to recognize (without appropriating it in its own language of value, which is to say commodifying it) the kind of value that is tied up with meaning and the good, and this nihilism prevents it from recognizing its own lack of meaning and value because recognizing that would require adopting the perspective of value (in the ethical sense) and thus abandoning the nihilism that is intrinsic to a system that feeds on, exploits, and makes use of everything, including opposition to the system itself, which can be marketed in numerous ways that are harmless and of no political consequence, no consequence at all except as a new product, experience, lifestyle, or identity that can be sold and bought and is essentially produced for that purpose and thrown away as soon as it has been sufficiently « enjoyed ». (Example : « Guess what. I’m not Black anymore. », announces an African-American character to a group of friends in a Brooklyn diner in a Saturday Night Live skit).
The compulsive nihilistic pursuit of work and excellence in work for its own sake and of consumption and pleasure in consumption for its own sake will always bring with them an effective prohibition on meaningful discourse, and indeed a prohibition or rather a rending impossible of the meaningful experience on which meaningful discourse obviously depends. California has often been said to be a place where trends begin before catching on elsewhere. It does seem to me that New York, the veritable center of capitalism but also of all the arts except mainstream American cinema, has as vital a public sphere and a culture of mind and soul as it long has had and as much or almost as much as anyplace in the world. But it is possible, and maybe this indicates just the extent of the stakes, that the future lies with the abolition of the public sphere and not only of the interiority that is in fact not its opposite but its support—which arguably disappeared along with classical fiction and its interior monologues and style indirect libre and even more so with the rise of visual culture and the decline of reading to the point where, and this has been true for a long time, most literary classics would go out of publication if they were not assigned as course reading in the colleges and universities that are in the process of dying out, perhaps to be replaced by an Internet-centered and entirely free culture of discourse in the arts and sciences, or perhaps to be replaced only by online mega-courses taught by a handful of elite professors at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Berkeley, and Stanford while thousands of people presently being paid to do research and writing that contributes to knowledge and inquiry become unemployed altogether as even the low-paying adjunct professor who doesn’t have time for research becomes superfluous, all of this together leading to the absolute decline in the importance of scientific and intellectual life in this country, both for professional scholars and for those who would otherwise read them, along with the classical literature that will only be available in libraries and doubtless of interest to very people except writers. Despite this potential eclipse of interiority and the fact that a great city like a great university is a bulwark against this, New York at the same time lends itself to a vital exteriority, that of speaking your mind, feeling free to tell someone to their face, perhaps even with a hint of anger, when you think they are wrong, an exteriority that together with true interiority (thought, reflection) constitute the individuality that may be in danger of disappearing along with the effective suppression of meaningful speech. And then the destiny of the late modern world that is called capitalism by some and globalization by others, and that everyone seems to know is both prodigiously productive, at least of material wealth, and dependent on the persistence of obscene inequalities, including the malnutrition or starvation of many millions in a world that has enough capital, much of it in the hands of a very small number of people who have many times as much wealth as they could possibly enjoy in many lifetimes, to easily house, feed, and probably even provide Macintoshes and iPhones, to the world’s entire population, and the frequent irruption, at times in unexpected places, of armed conflicts that mostly impact the world’s poor—the destiny of that world will be, in addition to widespread poverty and universal alienation, the disappearance of meaningful discourse, approaching in a perhaps very informal and anarchic, only very loosely coordinated way, the dictionaries of an approved lexicon that appear in Orwell’s 1984 and Godard’s dystopian and perhaps prophetic comedy Alphaville, about a society run by a computer that manages everyone’s life and that declares that truth is circular, a repetition of the same, rather than a linearity in which one must « move forward towards those one loves », as a man condemned for having a private sentiment (and perhaps also pursuing rather than compromising on his desire, which latter Lacan says is the only thing you can really be guilty of) proclaims before his execution—and this disappearance of meaningful discourse will announce that at last the world’s destiny, the end of history proclaimed by Hegel and more recently Francis Fukuyama, is « California über Alles ».