Monday, September 24, 2012


As Rodgers and Hammerstein might have put it: How do you solve a problem like Medea? But of course if Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music turns out to be not such a problem at all, in that her carefree ways make her a bad novice nun but a terrific governess and mother, in Euripides's Medea the title character is the very image of a "bad mother" and in significant ways the problem that she represents is never fully resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

But what is Medea's problem? Is it that she is an outsider in Corinth, to which she has fled with her husband Jason and their small children, unable to fit in or be accepted? Is it indeed that she is a non-Greek, a barbarian, who has to be expelled for the sake of social order and collective harmony? Is it that she is a woman, whom Jason feels he can drop in favour of a rather more advantageous match with the Corinthian King's daughter? Or is it that she is not enough of a woman, that she doesn't know that her role should be submissive and accepting in the face of Jason's pragmatic actions to maintain his fame and his legacy? Is she too emotional, too hysterical and so allows herself to be carried away by her anger and desire for vengeance, enough so as to commit the terrible act of murdering the King, the princess, and worst of all her two young offspring? Is she a monster? Is she crazy?

Or is her problem, by contrast, that she is too rational, too clever even for her own good? That far from turning away from or refusing the conventions of Greek democracy, she takes them to their limit, to the point at which the social contract is itself shown to be insane, unnatural, and monstrous?

In essence, Medea's complaint is that Jason has broken his contract with her. She insisted he make a promise to "love / and honor" her because, aware of the fickleness of familial and affective ties (having herself betrayed her father and killed her brother), she "thought only great oaths would keep / him bound" to her (163-66). Medea believes in such contracts, and believes that the Greeks do, too. Hence she also presses the Athenian King, Aegeus, to "restate [his] promise" that he will give her shelter in his city "as an oath. Only then will I feel secure. [. . .] An oath / Will keep your promises safe against / [her enemies'] powerful inducements to give me up" (725-26; 729-31). And indeed, despite what she has done, at the end Aegeus does provide her sanctuary in Athens. An oath is a solemn thing; the Corinthian Chorus agrees that, with Jason's (literal) disavowal of his bond to Medea "the spell of trust is broken" (444). The danger is that as a result everyone sees that trust is "merely" a spell, a form of words with no power over reality. If Jason's betrayal goes unpunished, then the putative basis of social order, the entire framework of civic incantations and declarations, may come to seem null and void.

Medea, in short, kills her children (and so ruins Jason and destroys his lineage) in order to uphold the social contract. Her claim is that our actions should not be guided either by passing whims or short-term pragmatism. The spell of trust must be maintained by insisting on the harshest of consequences for those who break it. And if Medea is an outsider, this only proves that those who most insist that society keeps its promises are those who have only the promise to depend on. Medea can't make any claims otherwise on affect, habit, or the connections that she could count on if she had grown up in the Greek polis, rubbing shoulders with neighbours and citizens.

But by insisting on the point, Medea inadvertently reveals that the contract is not fundamentally the basis of Greek sociability at all. The Corinthians are aghast: they admit that Medea is consistently in the right, that she has indeed made her case and invoked all the logic and reason that is on her side. Her clever use of argument bears out her threat that her "words / will pin [Jason] to the mat" (592-93). Yet the Chorus protests that her "justice [is] too harsh / for Jason's heartless crimes" (973-74). They plead for mercy, for the suspension of the law rather than Medea's single-minded determination to see the proper consequences follow Jason's precipitating actions.

To put this another way: the Chorus argues for the logic of exception, for the sovereign decision that comes not from following the law but from suspending it. They also thereby reveal the dirty little secret of Greek democracy (and perhaps democracy tout court): that in the end its promises are always at least potentially worthless; that the struggle for hegemony, for consensus, is but a distraction; and that those in power will always ignore the rules if it suits them. In the end, this is the problem of Medea.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


The Odyssey is structured around repeated dramas of (mis)recognition: who is he? what is this? who am I? But no recognition scene is more crucial than the one in which Odysseus finally reveals himself to his son Telemachus. For this is always more a story about fathers and sons than it is about husbands and wives.

Penelope is at best a foil: her task is to keep a place open for the rightful head of the household, and therefore to fend off the suitors' attempt to fill the void left by her husband's long absence. But by the time that Odysseus returns, Telemachus finally has a claim to that spot, as is shown by his curt treatment of his mother in Book One: "So mother, / go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, / the distaff and the loom [. . .] As for giving orders / me will see to that, but I most of all: / I hold the reins of power in this house" (1:409-414). The irony, of course, is that it is precisely by tending to "the distaff and the loom" that, in the long span during which Telemachus has been growing up, Penelope has in fact surreptitiously been holding the reins of power--or rather, preventing anyone else from taking them up.

But by Book Sixteen, Odysseus is back and ready (or as ready as he will ever be) to take his place and reassert order in what has become a household turned upside down, in which the guests have abused the code of hospitality by which Greek society is shown to cohere. The suitors have to be killed because they have confused the roles of host and guest. Odysseus will be the unwanted guest, the beggar at the threshold, who asserts his right to host--and to deny hospitality.

Telemachus, however, takes some persuading that his father has returned. Though Athena returns Odysseus to his former appearance (perhaps making him look still more like the younger man who originally embarked to war against Troy: "taller, supple, young" [16:197]), the son assumes that his transformation indicates divinity: "this must be some god [. . .] surely you are some god who rules the vaulting skies!" (16:202, 206). Even after "long-enduring" Odysseus clarifies twice--"No, I am not a god [. . .] No, I am your father" (16:209, 212)--his son continues to be skeptical. "No, you're not Odysseus! Not my father! / Just some spirit spellbinding me now [. . .] you seem like a god who rules the skies up there!" (16:220-21, 228). It is only after our hero repeats himself once more that Telemachus finally accepts that his father has finally returned.

What then? How does one treat a man, as opposed to a god? If the poem repeatedly confuses the distinction between divinity and humanity (if a son cannot recognize his father, who can be sure who is what?), then what is the key difference?

The answer is simple: you ask a man to tell you his story.

As soon as Telemachus has it clear in his mind that he is dealing with his father rather than a god, he comes out with all sorts of questions: "What sort of ship, dear father, brought you here?-- / Ithaca, at last. Who did the sailors say they are? / I hardly think you came back home on foot!" (16:252-54). And these questions echo the queries put to Odysseus by the loyal swineherd, who never doubted that the man before him (even if he didn't recognize him) was a mortal like himself: "Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents? / What sort of vessel brought you? Why did the sailors / land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are? / I hardly think you came this way on foot" (14:215-19). In turn, these questions also echo the myriad queries made of any guest throughout the epic. Nestor to Telemachus: "Strangers--friends, who are you? / Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?" (3:79-80); the queen of the Phaeacians to Odysseus: "Who are you? Where are you from? / Who gave you the clothes you're wearing now? / Didn't you say you reached us roving on the sea?" (7:274-76). And so on and so forth.

Men tell stories. They tell stories about themselves, their ships, their crewmates, their clothes. And of course they also tell stories about their exploits, their families, their gods. This is how they reward the hospitality they receive. More importantly, this is what makes them human. And there is nothing more human, then, than the Odyssey itself: one long story about men, ships, crewmates, clothes, exploits, families, and gods.

The gods themselves do not tell stories. The appropriate reaction to a god is not to elicit narrative, but (as Telemachus makes clear) to make them promises of gifts and sacrifices: "Oh be kind, and we will give you offerings, / gifts of hammered gold to warm your heart" (16:207-8). Men tell stories about gods; the gods accept sacrifices from men.

So stories--discourse, narrative--are essential to human intercourse. No wonder every guest is asked to tell his tale. And in an oral culture, he tale told is all the more important: it is the performance of narrative that assures our humanity. But at the same time, the recognition that performance can also be "only" an act, a tall tale, a means of deception, provokes great distrust and ambivalence. Odysseus, after all, tells great stories. But even after insisting to the swineherd that he "hate[s] that man like the very Gates of Death who, / ground down by poverty, stoops to peddling lies" (14:182-83), he goes on to tell the most elaborate of whopping falsehoods about "hail[ing] from Crete's broad land" (14:228).

Tale-telling is what makes us human, and how we relate to each other as humans, but it is also inherently unreliable, untrustworthy.

It is no surprise then that the only two characters who recognize Odysseus on their own account are either strangers to language (the master's loyal dog; 17: 330-31) or do so by reading some rather more material sign. The old nurse, Eurycleia, is washing her former charge down when "in a flash, she knew the scar" (19:445) left on his knee by a boar many years earlier. Eurycleia reads Odysseus's body directly, and as such is the only human to sound out the truth before the king himself makes himself known to them.

The mark on the body, a sort of primitive writing of injury and affect, shows up the precarious humanity of the tall tale that is The Odyssey itself.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


The Wednesday quotation, part XVIII: More on TED, from a quite damning review of Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:
I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

[. . .]

Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action. (Evgeny Morozov, "The Naked and the TED ". The New Republic [August 2, 2012].)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Watching this footage (which I've just come across) gives me goosebumps.

It comes from a pro-Sandinista solidarity concert held in Nicaragua in 1983, billed as a "concierto por la paz centroamericana." The soundtrack was released as "April in Managua." I used to own the cassette version, which I was given in Honduras sometime around 1988. I practically wore it out listening to it.

Wikipedia tells me that AlĂ­ Primera, the singer here, died a couple of years later, at the age of 42, which only adds further poignancy to this video.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Guy de Maupassant's "Toine" is (much like "The Little Cask") something of a parable of economic theory.

Toine, the eponymous innkeeper, is the very model of productive consumption. He is the biggest fan of his own product: the cognac that he calls "extra-special," which he declares to be "the best in France." His zealous praise of his own produce gives him his nickname, "Toine-My-Extra-Special," and his loquacity and cheeriness draw customers from miles around, "for fat Toine would make a tombstone laugh."

But what makes him special (and presumably what makes him cheery) is also his prodigious appetite, which is itself a marvel for visitors to this out-of-the-way hamlet, sheltered in a ravine from the ocean winds: "merely to see him drink was a curiosity. He drank everything that was offered him."

This consumption, however, is not simply wasteful or a drain on his resources. It is in fact what makes his business profitable. Consumption and acquisition are happily mixed in Toine's gregarious nature: "His was a double pleasure: first, that of drinking; and second, that of piling up the cash."

Toine is a poster boy for profitable sybaritism. He is a living rejoinder to miserliness on the one hand, and the Protestant work ethic on the other.

And this is surely what irks his wife. She is angered by the fact that her husband "earned his money without working." The story's narrative, then, is devoted to her efforts to turn him into something more like a laborer: to reap profit not from his consumption but from a more stringent (and more morally acceptable) program of regimentation and discipline.

So she makes Toine into a broody hen.

Laid up after an apoplectic fit (the fruit of his excessive enjoyment, though it hardly slows him down: he sets up a regular domino game by his bedside and he would still "have made the devil himself laugh"), Toine is forced to keep his wife's chickens' eggs warm. For the long, anxious gestation season, his movements are even more radically restricted: he can no longer turn to left or right, for fear of "plunging him[self] into the midst of an omelette."

As time goes by, Toine, whom his wife has long regarded as more beast than man ("You'd be better in the sty with along with the pigs!") comes more and more to identify with the animal kingdom. There's something almost Kafkaesque about his gradual metamorphosis, if not into a pestilent cockroach but into a mother hen. His arms become like wings, under which his precious charges shelter.

And becoming animal is also (here at least) a becoming feminine: he manifests "the anguish of a woman who is about to become a mother." No wonder that his is an "unusual sort of paternity" as he is transformed into "a remarkable specimen of humanity."

But the story is not so much about Toine's gradual animalization, and more about simply his increasing recognition of his animal status. For Maupassant treats all his characters as, frankly, beasts: Toine's wife "walked with long steps like a stork, and had a head resembling that of a screech-owl"; his friend Prosper, whose idea the entire stratagem is, has "a ferret nose" and is "cunning as a fox." Another friend is if anything less human still: he is "somewhat gnarled, like the trunk of an apple-tree."

So perhaps Maupassant's final word is that, whichever economic regime they favour, and whether they choose the moral virtue of restraint or the sybaritic pleasures of unlicensed consumption, in the end all of his characters are animals. Either way, what you have are simply various modalities of affective labor. It's just that some are more in tune with this realization than others.