Saturday, April 17, 2010
POSTSCRIPT 2 / Epilogue
99 Let Us Have Alterity or
Come The Alternative —….
These blogs tend to be a continuum of an idea or thought, which is why—if you are interested in what you read—you are encouraged to consider reading the previous blog and the blog hereafter. http://esoschronicles.blogspot.com/
First, as to the word "alterity" in the title. According to the dictionary “alterity” means: otherness; specifically the quality or state of being radically alien to the conscious self or a particular cultural orientation
Second, I have mentioned in my blogs in the past Michael Taussig, the anthropologist. I acknowledge my debt to Taussig here by citing him and his analysis of Walter Benjamin’s thought from his own thought provoking book, “Mimesis and Alterity”, Routledge, 1993. I am referring specifically to Chapter 3, ‘Spacing Out’ (Latvians would probably use the word “iedomāties”, to think into).
Taussing quotes Walter Benjamin: “The gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else.” I cite this passage, because I do not believe that for Latvia today those “former times” are past, but are of profound relevance and need to be exercised today.
This is because as things are in Latvia now, it is a state with a failed government. While there are many mundane administrative functions that can be fixed without a change of government, the chief problem is that the state’s would-be orthodox reformers et al, are insufficiently alive in their imaginations and articulations to probe and try alterity. Indeed, at a time when it is clear that the “West” (capitalism) is as failed an affair as the recent “East” (communism), and yet the ossified model of the former inspires the Latvian reformers in the midst of ongoing social turmoil—even death (suicides) and pain (look at the teeth)—one has to wonder whether the inarticulateness of the ‘picture’ of the state of Latvian society (such mimesis of the community’s self as there exists) is not in fact a process realizing the intolerability of the situation by acting out a communal dying.
Of course, the “good” reformers will not admit that the old Latvia is dead or shout with me “Long live the other Latvia!” They will ask: “What other Latvia?”
In order to survive, Latvia needs to imagine itself a survivor. This survival must include the possibility of seizing on radical direct not-violent actions as means to survival. The Latvia of tomorrow must shed its dead orthodox skin. This skin—a distorted history of pagans, peasants, and neo-Christian preachers—has been let overwrite a people who were in their proto-Latvian stage artisans (weavers, carpenters, potters, smiths, cobblers, gardeners, etc.) and were better known as Johns Children (Jāņu bērni). These were hobbled in the recovery of their identity, when in 1888 the figure of the itinerant teacher John (still visible on the Lihgo flag of 1874) was replaced by one Bear-Slayer, a figure lifted out of Luther’s Illustrated Bible (where he appears as Samson the Lion-Slayer).
The switch away from John in favour of Bear-Slayer happened not only because in 1881 Tsar Alexander III came to power and provoked pogroms against the Jews, but because he threatened many of the people living in the tsardom by attempting to have their language replaced with Russian. Among these people were Latvian speaking people. The tensions exploded under Tsar Nicholas II with what we know as the “1905 Revolution”. While dissatisfaction with economic development was one of its motivating forces, there were other motivations not tied to economics. This is the reason why the image (and the alterity) of Bear-Slayer, a macho character, found fertile soil in what had formerly been a kingdom held together by itinerant story tellers, who served equally well as saints. By making Bear-Slayer the hero and then leaving him to replaced John was a fatal mistake.
At the same time, the death rattle may be just what the doctor ordered if we understand the anxieties of the subjective self of Latvians as they enter the death spiral caused by out-migration, an increasingly low birth rate, and not least by a parliamentary government believing itself to know better, though responsible for the time of troubles. This may be an opportune moment for Latvians to recapture the moment of self-identification lost in the last half of the 19th century and—with the help of alterity—re-identify themselves.
To cite Walter Benjamin (by way of Taussig) again: “If the theory is correct that feeling is not located in the head, that we sentiently experience a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brains but, rather, in the place where we see it, then we are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside ourselves. But in a torment of tension and ravishment.”
If the people who once knew themselves as Johns Children still retain in themselves something of the power of “mimesis”, that curious desire to be someone, something or somewhere else, an alterity remains a possibility. Though one cannot accomplish this directly of course, one can feel one’s self into it, and there are many ways of doing it. The copy machine is as much a mimesis machine as a wreath of grasses and flowers on one’s head. The latter was how the Latvian Children of Johns felt themselves into the role of being the children of John, their hero, the maternal male storyteller come on Johns Eve to keep them awake and make sure the Sun rises on Midsummer morning. Today, however, we have for alterity the young Latvian woman, who imagines she comes from impoverished peasants (perhaps kolhozniks), who conceives a child in England with the seed of an irresponsible Latvian boy also imagining he has endless generations of impoverished peasants in his background. Such is the result of the alterity that the parliamentary government of Latvia presents its people with.
Walter Benjamin is writing about his “ravishment” (his feeling his way into an alterity) while thinking of a young Latvian woman, a theatre director, (“a Russian revolutionary from Riga”—circa 1920s) with whom he is infatuated. Asja Lācis is an object out there in Walter Benjamin’s field of vision, that—to paraphrase Benjamin in first person singular—…cuts a one-way street through me, and by that cut stimulates my commitment to Marxism…. Walter and Asja live together for two years in Berlin (no doubt this is the time when Asja cut through Walter Benjamin with arguments that she makes ever so much more profound than words on paper). An intellect bound together by love (be it infatuation) is able to make the quantum jump from singer to linden tree in blossom time, to the song of bees in the blooms, and to the Revolution. So can’t government acting as if it has the rights of state and can go riding piggy-back on the wagon of history pushed onto the steel rails of a neo-liberal capitalist economy.
An important point raised by Michael Taussig is Benjamin’s perception of history. Writes Taussig: “The radical displacement of self in sentience—taking one outside of oneself—accounts for one of the most curious features of Benjamin’s entire philosophy of history, the flash wherein ‘the past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at an instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.’ Repeatedly this mystical flash illuminates his anxiety for reappraisal of past in present, this understanding that ‘to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’”
Taussig continues: “This flash marks that leap ‘in the open air of history’ which establishes history as ‘Marx understood revolution’ as ‘the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the ‘now’.’”
The government of Latvia, the one in office for the last twenty years, perceives the history of Latvia as a homogenous empty time. By so doing, the government causes the Latvian people to perceive their history as an “empty time” as well. The Latvian government of today empties the people of their “now” as a community and replaces it with visions of conspicuous consumption. In the end, conspicuous consumption is a form of cannibalism performed by the government on the people so that when everything else has been consumed, they consume themselves. The subjection of and then the limitation of the peoples’ subjectivity to Pop globalizes the world for freedom to be a Conspicuous Consumer, but it fails to impress the community of proto-Latvians, 200,000 of who have voted with their feet and left Latvia.
The Latvian people describe the consumption of their state with the phrase “the stolen state”, a word combo that is one of the top ten in Latvia. It is "the stolen state", the nicely crisped body with green garnishes on the long dining room table, that is the centre piece of attention of the guests.
I trust this explains what alterity has to do with vision, with tomorrow, with a people at peace and a purpose. The “not-vote” campaign continues. To not-vote must be done to ensure humankind an alterity beyond that of the Conspicuous Consumer. It is worth as a consciousness raiser. My 99 blogs lead toward it.
Copy leaflet at 98 and pass it on.