Hold It All

Philosophy/Poetics/Politics

Category: Intellectuals

When It Comes to My Novel, Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, Elie Wiesel Took the Words Right out of My Mouth

I no longer see literature as an art or entertainment. For me literature must fulfill a certain mission in categories of history and justice. Literature is the art of correcting injustices. If there is nothing else I can do, I write a book. This is precisely the task of the witness today, of the modern storyteller, of the Jewish writer. We use words to try to alter the course of events, to save people from humiliation or death.

–Elie Wiesel, Against Silence, edited by Irving Abrahamson, v. 3, p. 116

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Not This Spotlight, Please!

Yet, one cannot but wonder whether incessant complaints about Bourdieu’s style and terminology are not a symptom of a deeper and different problem, since other “difficult” writers—Habermas, Foucault, or even Weber come to mind—do not elicit the same level of protestation as the author of Distinction. Could it be that, instead of a concern with form itself, these criticisms express anxiety at the social gaze that this form conveys? Could the onerousness of reading Bourdieu stem from our uneasiness at seeing our social selves stripped bare, from a vital reluctance to embrace a mode of analysis that makes us squirm as it throws us “back in the game” and cuts through the mist of our enchanted relations to the social world, and in particular to our own condition as intellectuals—that is, bearers of cultural capital and thus wielders of a dominated form of domination that scarcely wants to recognize itself as such?  [247]

 

Loic J.D. Wacquant, “Bourdieu in America: Notes on the Transatlantic Importation of Social Theory” in Craig Calhoun et al., ed. Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives (University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Dear Noam

I’m currently facilitating an on-line class, Be in Love with Yr Life, based on The Book of Mev, with 11 very special people.  The other day, I posted a short response  to a Barsamian/Chomsky book, and afterwards, going through my files, I found the following letter.

 

Wednesday 9 October 1996
Professor Noam Chomsky
M.I.T./ 20D-219
Cambridge, MA
02139

Dear Noam,

I hope you are doing well  these days.  To refresh your memory, since I know you receive hundreds of letters, I invited you to speak at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley a couple of years ago (while a student at the Maryknoll School of Theology in 1990, I did a thesis on your Mideast work).  Your visit then was just before the time that my wife Mev Puleo was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.   Mev died this past January  at the age of 32 after a long and excruciating deterioration here in St. Louis.  Actually, she took pictures at your talk to us on “Intellectuals and Political Responsibility” —  that was the last  shooting she did before her surgery. (One of her photos appears in the enclosed review).

Anyway, I have been slow to resume my work since it has been quite difficult to face the loss of wife, partner, and best friend, in addition to someone whose commitment to solidarity was simply exemplary.  I am hoping to finish soon  my doctoral dissertation for the GTU on Elie Wiesel; your work has been immensely helpful to me as I  examine the connections between Wiesel’s work of memory and his august status in the U.S. intellectual and political community.  (I’ve recently written Professor Shahak to see if he had translations on Wiesel’s reception in Israel, to which you’ve referred). I am hoping to trace the evolution of Wiesel from “unworthy victim” to most “worthy victim,” in your and Ed Herman’s classification.  You were the first person I’d ever read who dissented from  the strong Christian consensus that Wiesel is a prophet of our times. Read the rest of this entry »

A Witness to Power’s Mendacity

A while back I reread David Barsamian’s first collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky, entitled Chronicles of Dissent.  Actually, I first heard the material starting in the mid-1980s, listening to Barsamian’s cassette tapes of interviews as I drove around Louisville and back and forth to Cincinnati and Chicago in  the often grim days of the second Reagan Administration. Since then, Chomsky’s readership has expanded considerably; even in his late eighties, the linguist still produces two or three books a year. I’ve lost count of the number of collaborative works he’s done with Barsamian.

Something I’ve found refreshing about Chomsky’s lectures and interviews is he speaks pretty much in plain English. There’s no academic jargon. And there’s no cheerleading for American Exceptionalism.  Here’s one terse example: “When the guys we don’t like do it, it’s terrorism. When the guys we do like do it, it’s retaliation.”  When ISIS beheads people, it’s barbarism. When Israel uses white phosphorus on people in Gaza, it’s self-defense.

The media play a key role in focusing attention in how we as US citizens and those of our allies suffer or are harmed. Here’s Chomsky commenting on an issue form the mid-80s : “There’s a big fuss and there should be, about American veterans who have suffered under Agent Orange. However, there’s a slight observation that might be made, and that is that the people of Vietnam suffered a thousand times as much, and we’re certainly not trying to help them, in fact we want to increase their suffering.” U.S. veterans finally came to be seen as “worthy” of care and consideration; what the U.S. did to Vietnam and its people is “unworthy” of U.S.  compassion, much less reparations. Read the rest of this entry »

A New-Old Saintliness

On Maria Clara Bingemer, Simone Weil: Mystic of Passion and Compassion

French intellectual Simone Weil has had many biographers, interpreters, and critics since she died in 1943.   Brazilian liberation theologian Maria Clara Bingemer’s recent book is a generous retrieval of Weil’s relevance in this decade.  What Latin American liberation theology eventually named  in the late 1960s as “the preferential option for the poor” Weil as an individual  was  practicing, sometimes awkwardly,  but always with fierce intensity, in the 1930s and 40s.  Bingemer sees Weil as an inspiring, even exemplary, figure for those who may be distant from the forms and rituals of  traditional religiosity. Read the rest of this entry »

Staying Human

Felicia Langer, An Age of Stone (Quartet Books, 1988) Trans. Isaac Cohen

It is my simple belief that whatever happens to [the Palestinians], their future and their fate in the last decades of the twentieth century must be the concern of everyone.

A Gazan: Inside or out, this whole place is a prison. We have nothing left to lose.

‘The ones who did not know, did not want to know.’

I register the event. I record the facts.

______________________

An Age of Stone is an account of attorney Felicia Langer’s work  from 1979 to  1988.    Published almost thirty years ago, the book reveals what commitment entails in the day to day life of the author: accompanying the Palestinians, defending them in an  absurd and unjust court system, not averting her gaze from the daily horror these people endured, weeping with the families, raging as a spiritual practice, and resolving never to give up.

______________________

1.

There are pictures that stay in the memory as if carved with a fine chisel.

Of the thousands of demolished homes I remember one house in Silwad.

Of the hundreds of torture victims I see the burnt eyes and the crouched back of Sulaiman.

Of the countless smiles in the darkness there is the smile of Sami.

Of the hundreds of hunger-strikers I see the tiny Mehdi.

Like a great sea reflected in a tiny drop. 17 Read the rest of this entry »

The Way It Looked In 1968

Within a short period of time there will be no Jewish workers in Israel. The Arabs shall be the workers; the Jews shall be the managers, inspectors, officials, and policemen and mainly secret service men. A state governing a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners is bound to become a Shin Bet state, with all that this would imply to the spirit of education, freedom of speech and thought and democracy. This corruption, characteristic of any colonial regime, would be true for Israel. The administration will be forced to deal with the suppression of an Arab protest movement and the acquisition of Arab quislings. We must fear that even the army and its officers, a people’s army, will deteriorate by becoming an occupation army, and its officers, turned into military governors, will not differ from military governors elsewhere in the world.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Israeli philosopher and scholar
Yediot Ahronot
March 1968
Quoted in George Baramki Azar, Palestine: A Photographic Journey

Yesh Leibowitz

 

Arundhati Roy: The Right To Be Sentimental

Right around the time in spring 2012 I finished Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine for Nima Sheth on the occasion of her graduation from medical school, I came across a book of interviews with Arundhati Roy, and particularly appreciated the following:

I’m not here to tell stories that people want to hear. I’m not entering some popularity contest. I just say what I have to say, and the consequences are sometimes wonderful and sometimes not. But I’m not here to say what people want to hear. 61

Failure attracts my curiosity as a writer. Loss, grief, brokenness, failure, the ability to find happiness in the saddest things—these are the things that interest me. 75 Read the rest of this entry »

Know Thyself

There are many intellectuals who call the world into question, but there are very few intellectuals who call the intellectual world into question.

–Pierre Bourdieu,  Sketch for a Self-Analysis Read the rest of this entry »

Elie Wiesel and Worthy Remembrance

See, Wiesel has often made this claim quite explicit:  I am above politics, my message is so precious and pure it cannot afford to be sullied by compromise. Such is the transcendent dignity of the murdered Jews of whom I am their delegate and spokesman.  My task is to show, au contraire,  how and why he’s (unconsciously?) political, that is to say, not as independent as he thinks he is, not as distant and detached and free from the determinations of the “political” as he would like to think.  For to reap the symbolic profits that he has himself reaped, he has had to cover a lot of distance in the move from a space of  relative in cognito to one of major publicity and prestige.  And yet, I need to attend to the subtleties involved in his case, because he is often quite deliberately political in the case of Sanctuary for example, even if he in the same case contradicts himself.

Another issue worth investigating  is whether by his own efforts, Wiesel has assisted in the process of transforming the Holocaust from a perennial warning to a political fashion statement [which affords him plenty of symbolic profits, and which he himself already denied in his memoir about “capital”]. Read the rest of this entry »