Upcoming in Representations 149: ALINE GUILLERMET on Vera Molnar’s computer paintings; ANDREW COUNTER on Wilde, Zola, and Dreyfus; KENT PUCKETT on the RAND Corporation ; PETER DE BOLLA, RYAN HEALEY, EWAN JONES, PAUL NULTY, GABRIEL RECCHIA, and JOHN REGAN on the uses of genre; and an Untimely Review of Epistemology of the Closet by Whitney Davis. (Coming in February.)
by Claudio Lomnitz
After a brief introduction, the essay begins:
Aporia of the “Cartel”
Since the drug war’s inception in 2006, organized and disorganized violence has claimed approximately 200,000 lives in Mexico, and more than 30,000 people have “disappeared.” In the thirteen years that have transpired since then, more people have been killed in Mexico’s war than in the US invasion of Iraq, and more have been forcibly “disappeared” than during Argentina’s Dirty War. Illegal economies have been revolutionized along the way, in processes that Natalia Mendoza has called “cartelization,” which started with the privatization of trade routes for illegal border traffic, most notably of drugs and migrants, and with the development of a bureaucracy within the illegal economy. Contrary to the general prejudice, “cartels” are not reliant on trade in illegal drugs in any transcendental sense; they rely essentially on the armed privatization of public space, the ransom of public liberties, and the forcible appropriation of public goods.
Because cartelization depends crucially on exacting tribute in exchange for protection, cartels can be seen as the privateers of deregulation, and in Mexico they are involved in the regulation of activities as diverse as drug running, undocumented migration, mining, fishing, logging, commercial agriculture, street vending, prostitution, illegal gasoline traffic, construction, arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources. They are known as “drug cartels” because the vast wealth that poured in from drug trafficking in the 1990s helped leverage a diversification of activities, most notably in the business of transnational migration, but drugs are not indispensable to cartelization. Protection, territorial control, and the credible fear of unbridled violence are. Indeed, territorial control is an essential requisite for cartelization, but local entrenchment brings with it a core tension, that is, a tension between protection and extortion.
This antinomy between protection and extortion is expressed in social-organizational form as ambivalence between the representation of the cartel as a ruthless business and as a family-like guardian against, or coldly indifferent or downright hostile to, outside forces (such as the government). This tension between bureaucratic and familistic paradigms is inherent in the process of cartelization itself. Indeed, once cartelization sets in, the opposition between the “social bandit” and the regular unmarked brigand gets deeply complicated, because these two modes of criminal self-fashioning must be strategically juggled by the cartel and by individual operators at all times. This is because gaining territorial control requires some degree of redistribution such that a patriarchal rhetoric of protection naturally develops, but the final aim of cartel control is amassing unrestrained translocal organizational power and freely circulating private wealth. As a result, the contradiction between the familistic “man of the people” and the “strictly business” conceits of criminal self-fashioning is an aporia that runs through the whole of the so-called narcoculture. Indeed, the new cultures of criminality that are emerging in Mexico are forged in the space of precisely this contradiction.
The Pledge of the Knights Templar
In what follows, I focus on the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) and, tangentially, on La Familia Michoacana (The Michoacano Family), the organization from which the Templarios stemmed. These two drug cartels are often seen as exceptionally “bizarre and deadly” because they developed what has been characterized as “religious” and “messianic” components. Their exceptionality, however, has a strategic component that reflects and reveals a cultural logic that transcends the Michoacán case.
Michoacán has long been a marihuana producing state, and its Tierra Caliente region has also produced opium poppy since the 1950s. When Colombian cocaine started to be channeled to the United States through Mexican middlemen in the early 1990s, however, the value and scale of Mexico’s drug business surged. The much-galvanized cartels that emerged from this process had their home bases on or near the border, and one, the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel and its “praetorian guard,” Los Zetas, took notice of Michoacán as a valuable asset. This was because Michoacán’s city of Lázaro Cárdenas is Mexico’s largest and most modern port on the Pacific Ocean, and a rail line had been built connecting Lázaro Cardenas to Texas, passing through Mexico’s burgeoning automotive and aerospace manufacturing region in the Bajío. In addition, Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente was home to experienced drug producers and runners, along with a thriving but relatively weak local crime organization known as Los Valencias. Given this tempting combination of factors, the Zetas decided to oust Los Valencias and take control of the state.
In order to do this, they relied on the leadership of a number of Michoacano operators, some of whom later staged a rebellion against the Zetas, forming an organization that differentiated itself by stressing their own local roots and commitments. This was the origin, in 2006, of La Familia Michoacana, whose identitarian strategy for seeking local support against the Zetas lies at the origin of the apparently exceptional familistic and religious bent of both La Familia Michoacana and its splinter group, the Caballeros Templarios, which emerged in 2011. The Templarios’ principal innovation was its code of honor. Thus, whereas La Familia portrayed itself loosely as an organization of Michoacanos pledged to protect the interests of the population of that state, the Caballeros Templarios thought of themselves as sworn members of a quasi-religious order with strict rules of induction for its members.
The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán (Código de los caballeros templarios de Michoacán) is a twenty-three-page document composed of fifty-three articles, chivalrous illustrations, and the text of the “Templar’s Oath.” It establishes in article 5 that no one who has not been inducted through the proper ritual and sworn to uphold the code may be admitted to the order, and in article 7 it imposes a vow of silence on all its members. Knights Templar must also believe in God (article 9), struggle against materialism (article 10), and fight against injustice and in defense of the values of society (articles 10-14). They must value freedom of expression and freedom of religion (article 15), foment patriotism (article 18), be chivalrous and courteous (articles 19 and 21), be respectful and protective of women (article 22), be sober and good humored (article 30), observe hierarchical discipline (article 31), abstain from killing without approval of the council (article 41), and forfeit their lives and that of their families if they betray the order (article 52).
Despite its punctilious effort at regimentation, and despite its belabored parallels both with the medieval order of the Knights Templar, or perhaps with the Freemason Lodge that existed with that same name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the cultural significance of this effort of turning an extremely violent crime organization into a chivalrous order is anything but transparent. Indeed, even the code’s practical significance within the organization is murky. In part, this is because the Knights Templar had only a brief flourishing, from approximately 2011 to 2014, which is hardly long enough to consolidate a knightly ethos. The moral code of the Knights Templar was thus more a project than a well-established ritual order.
Moreover, we still know comparatively little about just how much of an effort the Knights Templar actually invested in shaping a unified ritual system. It is true that the writings of Nazario Moreno, who was the guiding intellect of the Knights Templar, were widely distributed amongst members of the organization and that Templar culture and propaganda was on show in the regional capitals of Uruapan, Morelia, and Apatzingán, but we don’t know the degree to which these displays were complemented by a routine drilling of new recruits or whether the distribution of publications was instead oriented to shaping a public image and, as such, was simply a part of the Templario propaganda machine.
To these considerations—insufficient time for institutional consolidation and insufficient information on the operative uses of Nazario Moreno’s key texts—I must add still a third, which is that, like all other drug organizations of this period, the Caballeros Templarios arose and declined in the midst of a war. They expanded rapidly for a time, then contracted and are now dispersed. To consolidate a knightly order under conditions of competitive recruitment and changing allegiances isn’t easy, and it seems likely that the Templars had only limited time and space for the indoctrination of newcomers, especially once the group began to expand into territories beyond Michoacán. Indeed, there is an inherent disconnect between the creation of a knightly order and recruiting an army, which is what the drug war demanded. As a result, the moral code of the Knights Templar was only briefly and unevenly implemented, while the degree to which it was adopted by the organization’s rank and file is still very much in question. Even so, the fleeting phenomenon of this cartel’s moral project provides a useful vantage from which to interrogate the connection between changing mores and Mexico’s narcoculture. Continue reading …
In this essay, anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz mounts an ethnographic exploration of the ethos and mores of Mexico’s contemporary drug culture. He shows that Mexican drug organizations, in their dedication to the business of privatizing public goods, are thus at the same time parallel state structures and trust-based organizations of brothers working to build a collective future. The essay emphasizes the cultural elaboration of competing communitarian and bureaucratic organizational forms and ideals in order to explore the leadership style and moral codes of honor of the Knights Templar, underscoring the centrality of transnational movement in the invention of an acutely gender- and class-based culture of violent domination and caste formation.
CLAUDIO LOMNITZ teaches anthropology at Columbia University and is a regular contributor to the Mexico City press. He is author of Death and the Idea of Mexico (Zone Books, 2005) and The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014), among other works. His most recent book is Nuestra América: Utopía y persistencia de una familia judía (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018).
by Shigehisa Kuriyama
The essay begins:
If you think about it, “No pain, no gain” is a very strange saying. It exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. Pain is arguably the barest, most primal experience of the bad; and yet “No pain, no gain!” enthusiastically lauds pain as a good to be actively pursued, promoting it even, as the sole source of the good. Which seems not only odd and paradoxical, but also almost willfully perverse—and makes us wonder how such a saying came to be so widely recited as common sense.
Bodybuilders in 1970s America were among its earliest champions. “No pain, no gain” became known as the motto of the celebrated muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and appeared regularly in advertisements, as the catchphrase, for example, of Soloflex weight training machines. But the saying soon spread beyond devotees of muscle sculpting and was adopted by countless other Americans aspiring just to be healthy and fit. For vast legions of joggers and exercise enthusiasts, the “No pain, no gain” motto voiced a diffuse but earnest faith in the need for a certain strenuousness. Any exercise worthy of the name, any truly effective workout, had to hurt a bit. “Feel the burn!” Jane Fonda urged the sweating and panting followers of her popular aerobics videos. “No pain, no gain!”
There were critics, to be sure. Although “No pain, no gain” was championed as a mantra of fitness, it had scarcely caught hold when it was denounced, intriguingly, by precisely those experts who knew the body best. Physicians called it a foolish misconception, “macho nonsense.” “Physical pain,” one doctor wrote, “is the body’s way of saying that what you are doing goes beyond its limits.” It was a message, nature’s warning against harm, and by ignoring pain aspirants to fitness actually risked serious injury.
Athletic trainers, too, were critical. “Learn to listen to the body,” one counseled:
The “no pain no gain” philosophy is wrong and suited only to masochists. If any activity causes pain, reduce the intensity of the workout or stop the activity altogether, at least for a while.
To ignore pain is foolish, to embrace it is a perversion. The belief that gain demanded pain, that one could enhance the body only by making it hurt, declared a trainer in 1986, was “the most damaging myth in athletics and fitness.” Articles debunking the myth were common, and “No pain, no gain” was cited far more often in condemnation than in praise.
And yet, the belief persisted—and still persists, as witnessed by the criticisms, which also persist. This is what is strangest. Although doctors and athletic trainers regularly attacked “No pain, no gain” as dangerous folly, their need to keep repeating their attacks bespoke the appeal and resilience of the idea. “No pain, no gain” is one of those primordial certainties that mere science cannot easily shake. The arguments against overexertion—the need to heed pain as a warning and the wisdom of moderation—all sound sensible and are backed by expert opinion. But they somehow fail to reach the roots of conviction. Somehow, the tie between pain and gain just feels true, despite the ostensible oddity of seeking the good in the bad, despite the risk of lasting bodily harm.
I want to excavate the archaeology of this deeply felt truth. Once a saying gains common currency, we often cease to reflect on how or why it became common, or even what it really means. Yet if ever there was a notion that called for serious reflection, it is surely the idea of good pain. Few of us would claim that all pain is good, and most of us would probably agree that most pain is bad. But the popularity of “No pain, no gain” suggests that there is a special kind of pain that is widely considered a definite and necessary good. I want to probe the nature of this exception, and trace the history of how and why this pain became special. Continue reading …
“No pain, no gain” exhorts us actively to embrace what we ordinarily abhor and are desperate to avoid. It promotes the idea of good pain. In this essay, cultural historian Shigehisa Kuriyama excavates the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of good pain and situates the modern slogan in the context of a profound change in the experience of presence.
SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard University. His book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (1999) received the 2001 William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine. His recent work includes studies on the history of distraction, the happiness of happenings, the transformation of money into a palpable humor, hiddenness in traditional Chinese medicine, and the web of connections binding ginseng, opium, tea, silver, and MSG.
by Darius Rejali
The essay begins:
The general problem is one familiar to many scholars whose careful work founders on public resistance. The particular form that interests me concerns scholarly work on torture. Many scholars feel there is truth to be discovered in pain, and therefore torture reveals or extracts truths, at least sometimes. I’m interested in reflecting on this disposition.
Scholarly work in this area seems to break repeatedly on the rocks of what Aristotle calls endoxa, items of thought that might be based on empirical observations, perceptual evidence, or things that we might not call observations at all—such as propositions that strike people as true or commonly said or believed. For Aristotle, these include common dispositions like “the many are wiser than the few” or “the fewer are wiser than the many” or, as he discusses in the Rhetoric, the belief that “torture works.”
Some scholars also argue sincerely that torture “works,” and they make arguments in service of their political or moral views. These scholars don’t concern me here. They share in a community of reason, where their arguments and evidence can be evaluated. What interests me instead is how many people simply don’t care about these pro-torture arguments. They don’t cite the pro-torture scholars, nor do they pay them much attention. They already know that torture works to produce truth. They believe pain yields truth, and thus torture works. Maybe not always, but torture works sometimes, they say. Even people who oppose torture sometimes privately confess: I would have confessed the truth under torture even if you say it won’t work. Secretly, they feel that pain and discovering the truth are related.
I find this curious. So in 2008 I began to itemize the cultural elements that subtly, in their own way, support the belief that there is truth in pain. In this paper, I’m going to talk about four endoxa. For three of them, I can’t claim any originality; they are well known—all I do is link them to torture specifically. I will not endeavor to offer their genealogies—though I will gesture to their necessary components. The fourth, the story of Zahra and the saints, arises from my own research in the psychiatric files of torture victims.
In what follows, I speak of torture. For my purposes, I don’t think it matters whether we are talking about torture for confessions or information, or as a means of deterrence—in fact, the endoxa I identify cloud the distinction and merge them by various means. Likewise, I would argue that one reason the definition of torture is hazy and contested is because these endoxa blur the edges between what we do publicly and privately, between what is true of us and true of others, between torture and other ordinary activities. Continue reading …
In this essay Darius Rejali explores four ways in which we believe truth can be found in painful experiences, even among those people who doubt that torture “works.” These endoxa, or commonplace beliefs, tap into deep human anxieties—about manhood, the maintenance of a just world, the meaning of suffering, and the possibility of transcending injustice. As such, they make it difficult for people to hear arguments against torture, including coerced interrogation. The essay suggests alternative ways of engaging these beliefs while acknowledging the challenge of dislodging them.
DARIUS REJALI is Professor of Political Science at Reed College and the author of the award-winning book Torture and Democracy (2007). Interviewed widely, Rejali is an internationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation, and he has submitted testimony for Guantanamo- and Abu Ghraib-related cases.
Number 146, Spring 2019
Special Issue: The Social Life of Pain
Edited by Rachel Ablow
“The essays collected here counter [the] fantasy of pain as a knowable sensation that lies within that is then represented, or misrepresented, in language. Instead, they consider pain as always already enmeshed in social life, and representation as the means through which we can engage this imbrication. In so doing, they demonstrate the importance of bringing together two approaches to the problem of pain that have often been kept distinct. The first is the anthropological insight that pain behavior constitutes a mode of social engagement and, hence, that suffering is necessarily bound up with shifting, often unpredictable, cultural, familial, and interpersonal dynamics. The second involves a historical and literary-critical account of representation’s complex and productive relations to both experience and culture.” –from the editor’s introduction
The Social Life of Pain
Is There Truth in Pain?
A Finger in the Wound: On Pain, Scars, and Suffering
Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus
‘‘No Pain, No Gain’’ and the History of Presence
An Interview with ELAINE SCARRY
by Aaron Rich
The essay begins:
Despite decades of being considered quite conventional, the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme has recently enjoyed a renewal of interest. The 2010 exhibition The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in its catalog and in an accompanying collection of essays, argued that Gérôme was in fact a pioneer of modern painting. The exhibition and its publications make the case that Gérôme’s work is in fact protocinematic—in its engagement with subjects of large-scale spectacle, its circulation in secondary formats such as prints and photographs, and its use of strategies of duration and anticipation. While several authors discussed a few of his Roman paintings, such as Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You (1859), The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1862–83), and Pollice Verso (1872), missing from their discussions was the fact that Hollywood studios actually used copies of these paintings in their background research for productions of films set in ancient Rome. An examination of the materials used as visual guidance for the 1951 production by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) of the Roman melodrama Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, makes it clear that Gérôme’s paintings of the Circus Maximus, along with many other images of the ancient city by academic artists including Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Thomas Couture, and hundreds of popular illustrations and photographs of ancient sites, were used by Hollywood studios to understand and recreate the look and material culture of antiquity in a way the audience would recognize and enjoy.
By the mid-1920s, nearly every Hollywood studio had already established a research library where extensive collections of visual materials, including illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as photographs, postcards, cartes de visite, stereo-view slides, maps, building blueprints, technical manuals, prints of paintings, and drawings were housed and managed. Their staff compiled these images into what they called “research bibles,” scrapbooks of thematically organized images. To obtain images that might help suggest a design for a prop or set, researchers scoured their own libraries; those of other studios; outside picture collections in the public libraries of Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris; the Huntington Library; the libraries of the major universities of Los Angeles; the picture and photo collections of many state historical libraries; and the collections of other film services, such as Western Costume Company, the film industry’s largest costume maker. Research bibles helped film workers in managerial and craft departments—including producers, directors, writers, art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup designers, set decorators, and prop builders—visualize all sorts of mundane details, whether they were bowls, tables, and lamps or more exotic items like chariots, military uniforms, and fountains, to create believable cinematic environments. These multivolume collections could be reproduced, allowing every department to use the same visual sources simultaneously. The art department would see images of costumes, and the props department would see images of hair and makeup; all of a film’s creative crew had access to the same visual field. As a typical example, the Quo Vadis research bible contained five volumes, each focusing on a different element of the production: locations, costumes, sets, props, and sculpture from the ancient world.
Hollywood studio films made through the 1960s were part of a much larger “republic of images.” The depictions of the world, its people, and its material culture found in films circulated within a larger system of modern visual media that included illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials. Much like the Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, within which ideas and essays circulated among a class of learned people throughout Europe and North America, this twentieth-century visual network allowed for the wide dissemination of knowledge about the ancient and modern world throughout a broad, decentralized area. When producing movies, filmmakers were inspired by images gathered from a diverse set of illustrated sources that were recognizable to viewers precisely because such pictures were already circulating throughout many popular forms of media.
Scholarship regarding the research undertaken for Hollywood films has for the most part focused on issues of historical accuracy. In so doing, historians have often assumed that the films in question were simply renarrating written historical discourse, emphasizing the attention filmmakers showed to how these narratives were previously presented in literature, rather than considering how Hollywood cinema has recirculated a body of visual knowledge of the world of the past. Such scholarship has largely overlooked the fact that film research was largely picture-centered, using methods related to earlier visual practices from the centuries before the advent of cinema, and that Hollywood research departments were less concerned with accuracy than with gathering a large quantity of visual media about a time and place. It did not matter, for example, that statuary in antiquity was frequently polychromatic, richly decorated in bright colors; by the twentieth century, the film audience familiar with printed and projected depictions of ancient Rome would have assumed that the white marble sculpture most often depicted was historically accurate.
Stephen Bann has explained how inauthentic historical narratives and objects were popular with scholars and audiences alike from 1750 through the late nineteenth century. “The critical preoccupation with authenticity and the transgressive wish to simulate authenticity are, in a certain sense, two sides of the same coin,” he explained. But in Hollywood, all materials relating to a film’s subject, time period, characters, and material culture were considered when creating a film; authenticity was merely a marketing flourish. Standard practice in the industry involved visual research that considered a tremendous range of illustrated media from popular and scholarly sources, which together contributed to what Bann has called “historical poetics.” Such a practice combined historical details with entertainment and spectacle, often with a tinge of irony, to interest, amuse, and educate the audience. This heterogeneous mix of source materials also structured history museums, dioramas, panoramas, historical literature, and historical painting in the nineteenth century, and it is the most common way modern people have experienced history for the past three centuries. In this way, the question of whether or not a film presents an authentic historical narrative misses the point; Hollywood filmmakers were much more interested in presenting familiar images that the audience would recognize from many earlier and well-circulated depictions of the past, regardless of their historical validity.
In the case of Quo Vadis, the film narrative contains true historical events, such as Nero’s setting fire to Rome in 64 CE or the spectacle of the crucifixions of early Christians. But the film also refers to thousands of images and elements from visual depictions of the city created, for the most part, not from the first century but from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anne Friedberg, referring to the late twentieth-century point of view, explains that history is “inexorably bound with images of a constructed past: a confusing blur of ‘simulated’ and ‘real.’” Through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century depictions of ancient Rome that were widely circulated in prints and illustrated journals, the modern understanding of the city changed to fit those images, and in turn, twentieth-century films were designed to echo those earlier images, using them as inspiration for their recreations of the ancient capital.
Likewise, nineteenth-century academic painters looked to earlier depictions of the past, including earlier narrative paintings and antiquarian images, to find visual inspiration for invented details. Gérôme, for example, gathered a tremendous volume of visual materials and pioneered the use of photographs to help him to recreate the material culture of the distant lands that were frequently his subject. He claimed that his Roman painting Pollice Verso was a depiction of gladiators in the Circus Maximus superior to his earlier Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You because he had done more research on the armor and appearance of gladiators for the later picture. He explained that the accumulation of so many details helped to create an “accent of truth” that the audience would understand. Continue reading …
In this essay Aaron Rich shows describes the process by which Hollywood studio film productions through the 1960s used research to develop depictions of the past that would show audiences representations they would recognize and believe. He situates this research as part of a much larger and more complex republic of images through which pictures of the world, its people, and its material culture circulated within a system of modern media, including illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials of which movies were a part. Rich then makes the case that Hollywood cinema should be reconsidered an essential part of the twentieth-century perception of history, regardless of the accuracy of its depictions.
AARON RICH is a PhD candidate in the division of Cinema and Media Studies in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. His dissertation, “The Hollywood Research Library: Visual Knowledge in the Republic of Images,” focuses on studio research departments that gathered images from popular media to guide craft departments in recreating the world and investigates how these picture collections emerge from a Western tradition of understanding and appreciating the past and present visually.
by JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN
The essay begins:
In chapter 40 of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda we learn that the title character’s “more exquisite” quality lies in his “keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness,” his “profound sensibility to a cry from the depths of another.” Earlier on, Deronda is said to have “the stamp of rarity in a subdued fervor of sympathy, an activity of imagination on behalf of others” (178). This is not a casual trope. Deronda is extolled for being “receptive instead of superciliously prejudging,” and “receptiveness” is described as “a rare and massive power” (492). The terms rare and rarity recur in the novel, denoting what is very uncommon or unusually fine. As a modifier, rare is almost invariably paired with the nouns of Jewish singularity—moral “receptiveness” (496), vocal-physiognomic “perfection,” verbal “quality” (809), and “visionary excitement” (513). By the time Gwendolen realizes that her feelings have turned Daniel “into a sort of trust less rare than the fidelity that guards it” (430), the suggestion that moral redemption presupposes rarity is simply overbearing. The rationale of the polysemy is catachrestic because scarcity connotes value. The rare item is precious because its limited currency eludes the wider circulation of commodified objects and persons in liberal-capitalist society:
To save an unhappy Jewess from drowning herself, would not have seemed a startling variation among police reports; but to discover in her so rare a creature as Mirah, was an exceptional event which might well bring exceptional consequences. (378; emphasis mine)
Like the jewels bartered back and forth by the novel’s characters (Gwendolen, the pawnbroker, Daniel, Grandcourt, Lydia), something rare is valuable because it is ontologically unlikely: its ancestrality attests to the value of survival, and its exposure to the risk of extinction folds back on the value. However temporarily coopted by wider trade orbits, the jewels remain an intractable, inassimilable surplus. And so do Deronda’s Jews, always on the brink of an excessive, sacrificial, and sublime self-waste. Even the renegade Baruch Spinoza got “his crust by a quiet handicraft” (472) in lens-grinding before completing his Ethics. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of rarity.
The contention that “receptiveness is a rare . . . power” involves a twofold implication: first, that receptiveness is a power, and second, that receptiveness is rare. Mesmerized by the range of hermeneutic possibility that the concept of sympathy affords, Eliot’s critics have addressed the former implication while neglecting the latter. Predictably, then, the response to Daniel Deronda has been spellbound by the shine of a familiar faculty (moral sympathy) that, because in principle unrare in Eliot’s narrative world, seems in little need of special examination. Indeed, the near scientific symmetries of a plot conceivably modeled upon the Goethean allegoresis of elective affinities reinforce the impression that everything in the story depends on moral relatedness. On the one hand we have the English characters, with the rich Grandcourt at the extreme of emotional stolidity. Then comes Gwendolen Harleth, an ungenerous dweller in “the border-territory of rank” (Deronda, 23) who marries Grandcourt to allay social anxiety. This doesn’t prevent her from cultivating an interest in Daniel, the character that occupies the novel’s central position. Daniel enjoys the best of both worlds: groomed impeccably as an English gentleman, he can also boast of “the keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness” that, in the novel’s logic, belongs to the Jews. Because, it turns out, he is also a Jew. On the other hand we have Mirah and Mordecai—Deronda’s Jews—which I designate as such to distinguish them from the common, money-minded, shop-keeping Hebrews also present in a novel where, let me recall, “there are Ezras and Ezras” (567). Mordecai is placed at the extreme, in figurative opposition to Grandcourt, whom he never meets. He is a concentrated, unproductive version of Jewish rarity: the passionate man who sacrifices his life to dig up the historical grounds of his people’s moral superiority. Grandcourt and Mordecai are both unrealistic, near Dickensian characters who belong in the world of romance (if not romantic farce): significantly, both die before the tale comes to a close. Between Mordecai and Deronda stands Mirah, Mordecai’s sister, a destitute Jewish girl, in a position of structural equivalence to Gwendolen. Like the English girl, she is saved by Deronda and falls in love with him. Unlike Gwendolen, she becomes the object of Deronda’s favor. The end of the novel describes their wedding and trip to Palestine to start a new life devoted to the construction of the nation of Israel.
The value of the central characters (Gwendolen, Daniel) is a measure of their ability to relate to characters standing—or seeming to stand—across the Gentile-Jew divide. Understandably, critics have been less interested in the dynamics of that ability than in the origin and function of Eliot’s sympathy toward the Jews. This sympathy most critics take for granted. I argue, however, that the overdetermined specificity of the cultural-ethnic division dramatized in Deronda forces Eliot to depart from the more generic-universal treatment of moral sympathy at work in her other narratives. And she certainly knows it: “Nothing is here narrated of human nature generally” (Deronda, 91). It forces her to realize, somewhere in her narrative unconscious, that sympathy is a passion not exclusively based on receptivity (the ability to receive the other), since it also depends on the givenness of the other. And her novel, I contend, construes the Jew as a poorly given, if not ungiven, alterity. The reason for Jewish ungivenness is rarity, a quality that stands in direct proportion to receptivity within the group: the higher your receptivity to those of your group (race, nation), the less chance you have of being received—even by the people inside the group whom you are most willing to receive. The “unpleasant” grabbing of Deronda’s arm, an action performed twice, first by the white-bearded Joseph Kalonymos in the Frankfort synagogue (368) and second by the consumptive Mordecai in the secondhand bookshop (387), testifies to the dilemma of ethnical-cultural asynchronicity and moral interruption that my article sets out to explore. The fact that rarity is bound up thematically and rhetorically with the parallel notions of ancestrality and extinction calls for biological considerations that Eliot may have discovered, as I will argue, in Charles Darwin. But insofar as these notions (ancestrality and extinction) map out a deep time without human time, Eliot’s depiction of Jewish rarity in Deronda raises the kind of metaphysical challenge that Immanuel Kant aimed to meet in his first Critique: What is the ontological status of nonhuman time? And what kind of epistemic (narrative, rhetorical) processing does it demand?
My attention to the rhetorical effects of this thematic focus on rarity may result in a corrective to standard accounts of George Eliot’s philo-Semitism. Although this is not the primary goal of my article, I do not disown it as a hermeneutic corollary. The fact that readers with a stake in Eliot’s philo-Semitism unfailingly overlook the existence of deconstructive approaches to the novel shows that disregard for the novel’s complex rhetorical texture can foster belief in versions of Eliot as a utopian ideologue, a champion of either proto-Zionism or cosmopolitanism. My interpretation, by contrast, draws on extant deconstructive and rhetorically focused readings of Daniel Deronda by critics such as Cynthia Chase, Catherine Gallagher, and Ian Duncan and yet seeks to reach beyond them by putting into play the metaphysical question of time that instigates the rhetorical-narrative processing of temporality.
When Deronda’s friend Hans Meyrick boasts that “there is really little difference between me and—Maimonides” (642) he is wrong in ways that go beyond—and against—his intended irony. In the novel’s moral-lexical economy, difference-making rarity is the exclusive property of the Jewish people. But they pay a great price for this distinction. They reach the present from an immemorial past—David Kaufmann has stressed “the enigma of their marvelous preservation”—and have limited hope of reaching the future. Compared to some of the substantial English people dwelling in the novel’s present, they seem hardly real. The figural etymology of rare underpins this unreality. Since the mid-fifteenth century, the adjective rare has meant both “unusual” and “thin, airy, porous.” The more specific implication of rare as “few in number and widely separated, sparsely distributed, seldom found,” can be traced back, via Old French rere (“sparse”), to the Latin rarus, meaning “thinly sown, having a loose texture; not thick; having intervals between.” Thus Jewishness and rarity concur in a shared implication of dissemination or diaspora. Thinly sown, airy, and scattered, Deronda’s Jews are inexorably disembedded, whence their paradoxical status as archaic ultramoderns. They roam the narrative as dialectical images of an Urgeschichte (prehistory) whose discrepancy in and for the present might harbor a utopian future. Alienated from the English community, they also risk losing touch with their related particulars: Deronda nearly missing Mirah, Deronda on the verge of discounting Mordecai, Mirah close to overlooking her family, Deronda, of course, forgone by his mother. The existence of these singularities is, moreover, steadily encircled by a void. If their future is dizzily open, their past is a riddle and a mire. Daniel, described at one point as a “yearning disembodied spirit” (365), ignores his origins; Mirah flees from them and attempts suicide; Mordecai tumbles into them and dies. Remote and obscure like Mordecai, elusive and unfocused like Daniel, fragile and fugitive like Mirah, these Jews cherish nonetheless a gift—a rare talent—of moral receptiveness that is at odds with the utilitarian lifestyle of most of the English. Hence the paradox: the differential aspect (the stamp of rarity) that deepens their unrelation—with the English, at least—is precisely their ability to relate, their extraordinary receptivity. This doesn’t mean that the problem is an English incapacity to receive them. In the novel this is less a problem than a fact. The problem—and Eliot makes it very clear that there is a problem—lies with the Jews, who cannot be received because, however fit to receive others, they themselves posit an unacceptable otherness. Though explicitly perspectivized through English prejudice—Deronda’s, the Meyrick women’s—the first forthright depiction in the novel of a Jewish person (Mirah) answers no other purpose than to uphold the racist preconception, denounced by Kaufmann, of the Jews as “a peculiar people.” Recall that, in its extended meaning, rare also means anomalous. Or that no English character wishes to keep the diamonds: the jewels end up “scattered around [Gwendolen] on the floor” (359). Just like the Jews at the end, shipped toward the uncertain. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of diaspora. Continue reading …
There are patterns of continuité discontinu (Derrida) in the figural transactions between human groups and between humans and animals in George Eliot’sDaniel Deronda that remain underexamined. By emphasizing ironic incommensurability and difference, this essay seeks to reveal the logic of ungivenness organizing human interactions in a novel haunted by images of deep time and species extermination. Eliot’s interest in ancestrality and extinction was fueled by her readings in geology and biology (Darwin), but it also evinces a metaphysical concern with uncorrelated time (Kant) that is inseparable from her fascination with the idea of moral rarity.
JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Córdoba, Spain. He is the co-editor (with Paula Martín Salván and Gerardo Rodríguez Salas) of the volume Community in Twentieth-Century Fiction and publishes on Victorian literature, modern fiction, narrative theory, and deconstruction.
“Reading-In”: Franz Boas’s Theory of the Beholder’s Share
ROGER MATHEW GRANT
Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects
Thermodynamic Rhythm: The Poetics of Waste
JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN
The Stamp of Rarity: Ancestrality and Extinction in Daniel Deronda
KATHRYN L. BRACKNEY
Remembering “Planet Auschwitz” During the Cold War
Robert H. Sharf: What Do Nanquan and Schrödinger Have Against Cats?
Upcoming in Representations 145, a special issue, Visual History: The Past in Pictures, edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz: Billie Melman on the archaeological site of Ur between the two world wars, Randall Meissen on Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits, Evonne Levy on eyewitness accounts and the Renaissance media revolution, Allan Doyle on Géricault and the production of visual history, and Aaron Rich on role of the Hollywood “research bible” in creating cinematic recreations of the past. With an introduction by the editors. (Coming in February.)
Sawyer Seminar on Linguistic Anthropology and Literary and Cultural Studies: Translation/TransductionThis first of seven two-day seminars exploring the potential of a set of concepts, tools, and critical practices developed in the field of linguistic anthropology for work being done in the fields of literary and cultural criticism takes place Wednesday and Thursday, September 12 and 13, from 5-7 pm in 370 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley. With presentations by Susan Gal (Chicago) and Elliott Colla (Georgetown) on September 12, and by Mairi McLaughlin (Berkeley), Saul Schwartz (Berkeley), and Toby Warner (Davis) on September 13. For information on the seminar’s working group and background readings, please contact Michael Lucey (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Tom McEnaney (email@example.com).
by Jeffrey Knapp
The essay begins:
“This isn’t right.” Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. “I accept this honor,” he’d been saying, “for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed . “Corrie”—it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him—“this ain’t right.” “What’s that?” she asks, entering from another room. “This necktie. It’s not right.” “It’s not a necktie,” she corrects him, “it’s an ascot.” “Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.”
This opening to Selma announces the complexity not only of the movie itself but also of the genre to which it belongs—the historical film. First, there is the tonal instability of the scene, which swerves from the tragedy of “our lost ones” to the comedy of the ascot. Then there is the rhetorical switch from King’s earnest and formal speech to the colloquialism of his “ain’t” and the domestic ease of his “Corrie.” As the film reviewer Michael Sragow comments, these transformations seem intended “to signal to audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look” at King; in general, A. O. Scott argues, Selma is dedicated to “restoring” King’s “human dimensions.” But the start of Selma also briefly confuses us about the meaning of a word that one might have assumed was the last one the movie would want us to feel confused about: “right,” as in “the right to vote,” “the right to assemble, and demonstrate,” “equal rights,” “civil rights.” “I don’t like how this looks,” King says of his ascot: what’s troubling him seems to be an aesthetic, not a moral offense. Another change in emphasis apparently neutralizes that distinction. When Coretta replies that the ascot “looks distinguished and debonair to me,” King clarifies that his objection has all along had a moral dimension to it. “You know what I mean,” he says to his wife: the ascot makes it seem “like we’re living high on the hog dressed like this, while folks back home are . . . It’s not right.” Just as King wants the language of his speech to match the weightiness of its subject, so he’s concerned that his clothes reflect his social commitments; in aesthetics as in ethics, he believes, “the same principles should apply.” Yet the disorienting shifts of focus in this first scene nevertheless emphasize the potential for principles to become misaligned. Something else “isn’t right” at the start of Selma: the man who speaks these words, the British actor David Oyelowo, is after all merely pretending to be Martin Luther King Jr., and for a moment we might think that he’s expressing nothing more than his dissatisfaction with his performance. The opening to Selma seems, in other words, to anticipate two sorts of skeptical responses to the film: first, that Selma falls short as a historical recreation, and second, that it does so because of its trivializing overinvestment in such merely aesthetic questions as how the recreation “looks.”
These are indeed the very charges that have been leveled against the film, although they have centered less on the portrayal of King than on the representation of another historical figure in the movie, Lyndon Johnson. In an editorial for the Washington Post, the former Johnson aide Joseph Califano Jr. argued that
the makers of the new movie Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.
In Selma, Califano charged, aesthetics “trumped” ethics: the producers, screenwriter, and director felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story.” Even reviewers more sympathetic to the film have agreed with Califano about its misrepresentation of LBJ. Though praising Selma as “the best depiction of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s,” Albert R. Hunt nevertheless added that “it needlessly, and erroneously, casts Johnson as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act”; so, too, Ari Berman characterized the film’s account of Johnson as “unnecessarily one-sided.” What troubled all three critics was how “needlessly,” in their view, the makers of Selma had set their aesthetic desire for dramatic “embellishment” against a moral “obligation” to “the facts.”
Proponents of Selma have by and large declined to defend the historical accuracy of Johnson’s portrayal in the film, instead choosing to criticize the very demand for accuracy as hopelessly naive. “Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story?” David Carr asked. “Why yes—just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made.” Differentiating Selma from “a documentary or even a dramatized history,” Jamelle Bouie defined it as “a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history.” Consequently, Bouie added, “it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts” in Selma not as defects but rather “as creative choices—license in pursuit of art.” “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian,” Selma’s director Ava DuVernay similarly maintained in a televised interview with Gwen Ifill: “This is art. This is a movie. This is a film.” According to the reviewer Bilge Ebiri, the only relevant terms for judging the rightness of historical films are aesthetic ones: “These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. . . . They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves.”
“Every year,” the film scholar Jeanine Basinger wearily complained when asked to comment on Selma, “I know someone is going to call me about distortion of history when we hit the Oscars.” But there’s a reason that the objection keeps recurring. If it’s a mistake to look for accuracy in historical films, then why do historical films bother with accuracy at all? Although DuVernay rejected the label of documentarian in her interview with Ifill, that is exactly how she began her directorial career, with the hip-hop documentary This Is the Life (2008)—and her next project after Selma was a documentary on the US criminal justice system, 13th. What’s more, historical verisimilitude mattered enough to DuVernay in making Selma that she meticulously reproduced the look and feel of the sixties in her film, chose actors who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the figures they played, and even spliced actual documentary footage of the final march to Montgomery into Selma’s recreation of it. In the same interview where she claimed that she was no more of a historian than a documentarian, DuVernay expressed her dismay at the “jaw-dropping” ignorance of moviegoers regarding the events her film “chronicled,” and she hoped that her movie would help Selma “resonate with people in the way that it should as being just such a cornerstone of democracy.” Prominent participants in the march have indeed championed the film as historiography. “Everything” except the film’s “depiction of the interaction between King and Johnson,” Andrew Young has said, “they got 100 percent right.” But then how could historical accuracy not be an issue for a film that ends with King’s proclaiming, “His truth is marching on”? The tensions between fact and fiction in Selma are anything but incidental to the movie: they instead reflect the irreducibly hybrid nature of the historical film.
Is it possible to argue that a mix of fact and fiction is necessary to Selma and to historical films generally? Continue reading …
Every historical film must contend with the possibility that its viewers will be scandalized by its mixture of fact and fiction, but no recent historical film has faced such pressure to justify its hybrid nature as Selma has, in large part because no recent film has taken on so momentous and controversial a historical subject: the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The renewed urgency of the issues Selma dramatizes, along with the film’s own commitment to the “moral certainty” of the civil rights movement, helps explain why Selma wavers in a self-defense that links the fictionality of its historical reenactments to the purposely theatrical element of the marches themselves. But politics are not the only problem for fiction in Selma, and to show why, this essay compares Selma to an earlier historical film, The Westerner (1940), that openly flaunts the commercial nature of its fictionality.
JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Faculty Affiliate of Berkeley’s Film and Media Department. He is most recently the author of Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.