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Philosophy and Literature

in Times of Crisis
Philosophy and Literature
in Times of Crisis
Challenging Our Infatuation with Numbers

Michael Mack


Bloomsbury Academic
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First published 2014

© Michael Mack, 2014

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Mack, Michael, 1969-
Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis : Challenging Our Infatuation
With Numbers / Michael Mack.
pages cm
Summary: “Analyses the heuristic value of fiction by highlighting literature and
philosophy’s potential impact on economics, health care, bioethics, public policy
and theology”–Provided by publisher.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-62356-046-1 (hardback) – ISBN 978-1-62356-649-4 (paperback)
1. Literature and society. 2. Numbers in literature. 3. Literature–Philosophy. I. Title.
PN51.M17 2014
809’.93358 – dc23

ISBN: HB: 978-1-6235-6046-1

PB: 978-1-6235-6649-4
ePDF: 978-1-6235-6979-2
ePub: 978-1-6235-6845-0

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I want to dedicate this book to the Leverhulme Trust.

Acknowledgements viii

Introduction: Objects and Numbers – Our Current Infatuation 1

1 What Is It about Numbers? 19
2 Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 47
3 Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers: The Question
of Literary Ethics 75
4 A Disenchantment with Numbers: Philosophy and Literature 107
5 Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 141
6 Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 175
7 Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual –
A New Ethics of Subjectivity 201

Index 229

This book has been supported by various institutions. It grew out of a most
generous research fellowship at the University of Sydney more than 10 years
ago. The early conception of the book has also been supported by an ensuing
Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in 2007. The award of a 2012–2013
Leverhulme Research fellowship entitled ‘Science and the Ethics of Literature’
made possible the completion of Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis:
Challenging Our Infatuation with Numbers. The Leverhulme Trust has been
most supportive not only in terms of research funding but also in terms of
moral and intellectual encouragement. I am most grateful to the Leverhulme
Trust. I would like to thank in particular Jean Cater and Anna Grundy of the
Trust for their moral and intellectual support. I want to dedicate this book to
the Leverhulme Trust.
Haaris Naqvi of Bloomsbury has been as usual a most discerning editor
and invaluable intellectual interlocutor. I am most grateful to him for all his
great help, support and advice over the years. From the publication of Spinoza
and the Specters of Modernity onwards he has been most generous and I
cannot thank him enough. I also wish to thank Haaris’s team at Bloomsbury,
Laura Murray in particular.
Work on this book has been benefitted from discussions at various venues
and universities here in the United Kingdom and abroad. I would like to
thank Gillian Beer, Jackie Stacey, Paul Mendes-Flohr, Avital Ronell, Jeffrey
Malpas, Richard Velkley, Michael O’Neil, Jonathan Long, Andrew Benjamin,
Dimitris Vardoulakis, Howard Morphy, Reineir Munk, Jakob Johannes
Köllhofer, Jakob Engholm Feldt, Berel Lang, Bernard Harcourt, Simon James
and Mark Sandy for all their help, advice and support. Tim Clark of the
English Department here in Durham has kindly authorized Avishek Parui
to assist me with the index of Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis:
Challenging Our Infatuation with Numbers.
Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and we apologize in
advance for any unintentional omission. We would be pleased to insert the
appropriate acknowledgement in any subsequent edition.
“Daddy” (13), “Ariel” (6), “Tale of Tub” (10), “Three Women” (8),
“Kindness” (3), “Burning the Letters” (8) from The Collected Letters of Sylvia
Plath, Edited by Ted Hughes, Copyright 1960, 65, 71, 81 by the estate of
Sylvia Plath Editorial mat’l Copyright (c) 1981 by Ted Hughes. Reprinted by
permission of HarperColllins Publishers.
Introduction: Objects and Numbers –
Our Current Infatuation

It is a strange world
David Lynch, Blue Velvet

Life is a stranger in this world

Franz Baermann Steiner

All theories are fictions

Gary Becker at the open seminar ‘American Neoliberalism
and Michel Foucault’s Biopolititcs’, University of Chicago,
9 May 2012

Human rights and numbers: The contemporary fusion

of the humanitarian with the techno-science
of military calculation

This work is a study in ethics, literature, economics and medicine. It

investigates how we can better understand literature as a critique of what
appears to be certain, predictable and non-ambiguous. Our infatuation
with the supposed certainty of numbers has deleterious effects on
various economic and medical practices. This is a broad-ranging study:
its historical scope extends from the pre-modern to the modern and
contemporary – from Augustine to Spinoza to Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath,
P. Roth, E. L. Doctorow, E. Perlman, W. G. Sebald and J. Littell. Although it
takes its points of reference from medieval (Augustine) and early modern
thinkers (Spinoza and Shakespeare), its focus is on contemporary issues
and concerns.
Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis further develops the
methodological innovation first outlined in the introduction to Spinoza and
the Specters of Modernity: it practices a highly interdisciplinary version of
intellectual history, which is productive of contemporary thought. Within
2 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

this methodological context, the book sheds new light on how bio-politics
introduces forms of pseudo-scientific certainty into ethics, economics and
medicine. In this context, it offers the first analytical account of the so far
ignored pseudo-theological underpinnings of some dubious contemporary
economic and medical practices.
What are corrupt versions of theological paradigms? One way to describe
the corruption in question would be to call it a pseudo-theology as I have
proposed in German Idealism and the Jew. In this study, I have shown how
anti-Semitism and other forms of racism employ not only pseudo-scientific
but also pseudo-theological stereotypes. In a different context, Eyal Weizman
has recently analysed how Augustine’s theological concept of the ‘lesser evil’
has been put to socio-political uses, which are distortions of the theology
Augustine and other early Christian theologians actually had in mind:

For example, unlike the tradition of liberal ethics that would invoke
him centuries later, Augustine was never content with lesser evils.
Indeed, a significant aspect of the idea of the lesser evil has been lost
in this process of secularization from early Christian theology into
the utilitarian foundations of liberal ethics. For the original Christian
toleration of the lesser evil was understood in relation to the telos of
redemption that is ultimately in excess of all calculations. For Augustine,
the name for this state beyond calculations was ‘the kingdom of heaven’.
In contrast to the teachings of the Christian theologians that they
invoked, and locked within a perpetual economy of immanence, liberal
ethics can be interpreted as drive for the ‘optimization’ of a system of
government. But what is the sense of optimizing those regimes when
they perpetuate intolerable injustice? Even those of us without much use
for a ‘kingdom of heaven’ and without much patience for the systems of
pastoral government that should guide us to it, can still see in Augustine’s
argument an important challenge: how to engage in political practice
within the complex force-fields of the present in a way that also aims to
break away from them?1

In Augustine the concept of the lesser evil does not partake of a larger set of
calculations but is part of a theology that would put an end to all calculations:
be they military, medical or economic. In contemporary discourse and socio-
political practice, in contrast, the perpetuation of the violence implicit in the
concept of the lesser evil constitutes an end in itself.

Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Hannah Arendt to
Gaza (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 21–22.
Introduction: Objects and Numbers 3

Weizman calls this distortive societal mind-set our ‘humanitarian present’.

He employs this rather confusing term to describe the complete fusion of
military strategy and human rights law. According to this fusion, it is legal
to kill or starve civilians as long as the violence in question is ‘proportional’.
Weizman shows how the Iraq war was conducted along the human rights
doctrine of ‘proportionality’. There is a new economy of violence: ‘violence
that both kills and saves, a violence that calculates and determines the
threshold between life and death’.2 During the Iraq war every dwelling space
was a legitimate target except for houses with over 30 inhabitants. In this
case, the US president G.W. Bush had to be consulted and he had to decide
whether the deaths of 30 civilians were ‘proportional’ to military strategy.
Weizman analyses the present-day fusion of scientific questions with military
or bio-political aims and objectives.
One disturbing consequence of the new techno-scientific human rights
outlook is the erasure of the witness and of testimony: ‘An emergent object
oriented juridical culture is part of a general transformation that has directed
attention away from a preoccupation with the subjective and linguistic
aspects of trauma and memory, and towards the information saturated
in the material world.’3 This radical divide between the scientific and the
subjective seems to be in keeping with what Bruno Latour has analysed as
the modern constitution, at the heart of which is a purification project that
separates nature and human society into two separate spheres. The modern
constitution ‘makes a total distinction between humans and nonhumans’.4
As Latour shows, this constitution does not work in practice because these
supposedly separate spheres give rise to creation hybrids and other works of
mediation. Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis shows how what we
take to be practices backed up by scientific objectivity are actually saturated
with subjectivity, affect and various distortions of traditional theological
paradigms (like those of immortality). Is our contemporary society really
taken in by deception of various scientific claims of objectivity? Let me briefly
show that Weizman’s analysis of the present-day fusion of the humanitarian
with the techno-scientific is one symptom of this ever-increasing devaluation
of what is merely ‘subjective’. Other examples abound  – ranging from the
pseudo-scientific appeal of risk-free mortgage packages to the medical
prioritization of longevity over the alleviation of pain – and they are
extensively discussed in this study.

Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils, p. 134.
Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils, p. 114.
Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1993), p. 91.
4 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Weizman argues that as consequence of our infatuation with techno-

science, human rights law has turned from the human witness to the forensic
piece of evidence. He shows how this development constitutes a shift not
only ‘from the human witness to the material object, but from a focus on
the victims of war to an analysis of the mechanisms of the violation of law’.5
Most importantly, Weizman makes clear that the scientific appearance of
forensic objectivity is illusory too. According to him, scientific or forensic
evidence is:

not one in which the misanthropic object emerges as stable and fixed
alternative to humane uncertainties, ambiguities and anxieties. Rather,
in contemporary forensics, and through the thick field of interpretation
and cross-investigation, the problem of human testimony – those of
the subject – seem to be somewhat reproduced as the problems of the

Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis analyses such illusions of scientific

objectivity that give rise to the contemporary presentation of human rights as
deprived of human subjectivity. It does so by discovering the ways in which
pseudo-scientific and pseudo-theological structures of thought intrude upon
contemporary medical and economic performances. Literature provides us
with the heuristic tools with which we can uncover the points of impact left
behind by such intrusion.
How is literature capable of providing the tools for such heuristic
endeavours? The notion of literature presented in this study diverges from
the mimetic or representational framework in which it has traditionally been
located. Developing and deepening the discussion of How Literature Changes
the Way We Think, this study proffers innovative readings of the arts and the
humanities. My usage of the term ‘literature’ is broad: it includes cinema,
philosophy, cultural theory, drama and advances of knowledge in the natural
as well as social sciences. In short, the term ‘literature’ here denotes various
aspects of creativity in the sciences, humanities and arts.
This is not to deny the distinctiveness of the medium ‘literature’. The
medium of literature is no doubt unique in its particular focus on the internal
operations of the reader. Cinema, in contrast, operates in a more exterior
arena. A film does not allow access to interiority to the same extent that
reading a novel or poem may open up. In a fascinating comparison between
Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and P T Anderson’s 2007 film There will be

Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils, pp. 124–125.


Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils, p. 115.

Introduction: Objects and Numbers 5

Blood Michael W. Clune describes the less interior exteriority of the medium
film as follows: ‘Thus where The Bell Jar can be understood as an attempt
to exemplify a subjectivity free of recognition, the film cannot present its
protagonist except as subject to recognition.’7
Why, then, use the term ‘literature’ for an all-inclusive description of
creativity? Precisely because the notion ‘literature’ denotes what has been
marginalized in discussions of creativity: the interior or contemplative field
of perception. Literature indeed unsettles standard oppositions between
perception and action, between singularity and generality, between subjective
and objective. In this way Derek Attridge has described literature’s pioneering
form of creativity ‘by the new possibilities for thought and feeling it opens up
in its creative transformation of familiar norms and habits: singularity is thus
inseparable from inventiveness’.8 As will be discussed in Chapter 4, literature’s
singular or subjective inventiveness helps us see anew the universality and
objectivity of our lives beyond the homogenous standards of quantifiable
This book analyses how literature may stage-innovate acts of creation,
which counter our infatuation with numbers or, as Sylvia Plath puts it,
the homogeneity of ‘faceless faces’. Literature constitutes a space in which
we can create new forms of life – or new beginnings – rather than merely
representing what we already know. This nascent approach puts literature
into close proximity to cinema and this despite the obvious difference in
medium (reading literature as a primarily interior act whereas watching a
film being primarily exterior). Our contemporary digital culture accentuates
the blurring of the differences between audience and production, perception
and action. Films as well as literature are crucial in this context, because,
while first working on the perceptions of the audience, the two art forms
have the capacity not only to inform our ways of seeing the world but also to
transform our actions within it.
This blurring of the traditional distinctions between contemplative as well
as individual perceptions and interactive activities is also backed by recent
neuroscientific findings, which, through new analysis of so-called mirror
neurons, have shown how we experience as action what we perceive and
conceptualize. Antonio Damasio explains as follows:

So-called mirror neurons are, in effect, the ultimate as-if body device. The
network in which those neurons are embedded achieves conceptually
Clune, American Literature and the Free Market (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2010), p. 40.
Attridge, J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 11.
6 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

what I hypothesized as the as-if body loop system: the simulation, in

the brain’s body maps, of a body state that is not actually taking place
in the organism.9

The recent neuroscientific discovery of mirror neurons and a Deleuzean

understanding of cinema is also pertinent for a new approach to literature,
because literature works in terms of perception too – albeit more interior
than the exterior medium of film. What cinema offers in terms of immediacy,
literature may complement in terms of the depths of inner experience.
Both film and literature operate via different but related screens – exterior
(film) and interior (literature), but here again distinctions are not absolute
because exteriority may turn interior and interiority may transform into
exteriority. According to Deleuze, ‘the brain itself functions like a screen’.10 The
discovery of the brain in terms of a screen makes porous the divide between
the actual and the virtual, the objective and the subjective, the present and
the past, the mental and the corporeal, the intellectual and the emotive.
Oppositions between the cerebral and physical, in contrast, precondition
and inform the traditional mimetic approach towards literature and the
arts. The controlling, directing and representative position of the mind
over the ‘mere’ matter of the body helps install the work of representation
as sovereign artistic practice. In this way, the mind takes charge of
the corporeal by representing the body and the same holds true of the
representative work of the intellect as opposed to the emotions, the present
as opposed to the past (and so forth). Spinoza radically breaks with this
mimetic model of culture.11 He does so by establishing a parallelism of
mind and body. As Pisters points out, Deleuze’s work on cinema follows
Spinoza’s approach:

Going back to Spinoza and Bergson, Deleuze does not believe in the
all-encompassing force of the concept of representation and the concept
of identification as a means of modelling subjectivity. According to
Deleuze, the brain, which is both an intellectual and emotional entity
and functions parallel (not hierarchical) to the body, can give more
insights about how we perceive ourselves as subjects.12

Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (London: Vintage, 2012),
p. 103.
Patricia Pisters, The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 7.
See Mack’s Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity
from Spinoza to Freud (New York: Continuum, 2010).
Pisters, The Matrix of Visual Culture, p. 17.
Introduction: Objects and Numbers 7

Being premised on the concept of repetition – which replaces that of

representation – Deleuze’s philosophical system may itself – even though in
different forms – repeat the conceptual impasse of the traditional mimetic
approach. Along these lines, Chapter 2 offers a critique of Deleuze’s philosophy
of repetition.
Here, however, it is worth emphasizing Deleuze’s highly innovative
deconstruction of mimesis in his writings on cinema and visual culture.
Both cinema and literature ask us to establish connections rather than
oppositions between the subjective and the objective, between the social and
the scientific:

The spectator is no longer invited to identify but to make connections

between the different images. It is now the model of the brain, the
rhizomatic mental connections that it can make and the way it conceives
time, that are important. The sense of self is still important, but it is
confused, loosened, and made more flexible.13

By affiliating a new understanding of literature with Deleuze’s neuroscientific

view of cinema, this study discovers in a blurring of the divide between
objectivity and subjectivity heuristic tools with which to dismantle the
preoccupation with objects as opposed to subjects. Weizman’s critique of our
‘humanitarian present’ does precisely this: it disenchants the contemporary
fetishist adoration of the object. Literature’s ethic entrusts us with a timely
analysis of the ‘forensic fetishism as the return to the object, to the non-human
in human rights work’.14 The ethical analysis that literature performs helps us
discover objectivity not in opposition to subjectivity, but as itself saturated with
a plurality of subjective positions. Mediating between the objective and the
subjective, between science and the socio-political, between the emotive and
the intellectual, literature performs the work of ethics.

Our infatuation with numbers and objects: Where ethics

and economics have become indistinguishable

Both ethics and literature are forms of mediation. Philosophy, however, has
traditionally been the proper and professional home of ethics. Questioning
the traditional prerogative of philosophy for ethical inquiry Bernard Williams
argues for ‘scepticism about philosophical ethics, but a scepticism that is

Pisters, The Matrix of Visual Culture, p. 39.


Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils, p. 128.

8 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

more about philosophy than it is about ethics’.15 Williams’s scepticism about

philosophy arises from what he sees as the philosophical ‘desire to reduce’16 a
diversity of ethical perspectives. The most extreme version of subjectivity – i.e.
egoism – occupies the target of philosophy’s reductive approach to ethics; at
least according to Williams, philosophy

has tended, first of all, to see all nonethical considerations as reducible

to egoism, the narrowest form of self-interest. Indeed some philosophers
have wanted to reduce that to one special kind of egoistic concern, the
pursuit of pleasure. Kant, in particular, believed that every action not
done from moral principle was done for the agent’s pleasure.17

Subjectivity has played a rather marginal role in philosophical ethics, because

it belongs to the demoted sphere of mere pleasure and associated with it, the
emotions and the body.
Williams published his critique of philosophy’s reductive approach towards
ethics in the mid-eighties of the last century, at a time when economics had already
started to supersede philosophy as a driving force of ethical considerations.
Today economic questions and issues dominate our societal map. As Michael
J. Sandel has recently pointed out, economics has become the determining
discipline for almost all aspects of human behaviour – ethics excluded:

Recently, however, many economists have set themselves a more

ambitious project. What economics offers, they argue, is not merely a
set of insights about the production and consumption of material goods
but also a science of human behaviour. At the heart of this science is a
simple but sweeping idea: In all domains of life, human behaviour can
be explained by assuming that people decide what to do by weighing the
costs and benefits of the options before them, and choosing the one they
believe will give them the greatest welfare, or utility. If this idea is right,
then everything has a price.18

Sandel clearly shows how through so-called ‘incentives’ the whole of our life
has been turned into economics – from medicine (health) to education  –
our success or failure immediately morphs into a quantitative, ‘objective’

Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, with a Commentary on the Text by A. W.
Moore and a foreword by Jonathan Lear (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 83.
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 17.
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 17.
Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Market (New York: Ferrar, Straus
and Giroux, 2012), pp. 48–49.
Introduction: Objects and Numbers 9

or ‘scientific’ number/price – visible for all to discern. As we will soon see,

Sandel singles out ethical judgements as the only sphere that has not yet
been homogenized by economic consideration. This study begs to differ.
Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis shows that what Williams critiqued
as philosophy’s reductionism in the mid-eighties of the last century has today
become far more comprehensive in economic terms: ethics and other fields of
human behaviour have by now been reduced to prices, to a set of numbers, to
statistics. One reason for the preponderance of economics over all aspects
of contemporary life is that it promises freedom, predictability and order.
As Bernard Harcourt has recently shown, in the public imagination the free
markets have become synonymous with justice and the natural order. His
book The Illusion of Free Markets ‘reveals how the notion of natural order
from the eighteenth century evolved into one of market efficiency at its most
sophisticated, erudite, scientific theorization – the version that achieved
multiple Nobel prizes, prizes that have validated and confirmed in the public
imagination the superiority of unfettered free markets’.19 Harcourt’s analysis
of the link between the moral philosophies of natural order and free market
theories implies that neoliberal economics propound an ethical system that
divides humanity into those who act in accordance with economic rules and
those who violate such rules. The latter are deviant or criminal and in need
of punishment (this explains why, under the auspices of the free market,
contemporary America has the largest incarceration rates worldwide).
Clearly, theories of the free market outline public conceptions of the good life.
Sandel, in contrast, argues that by excluding ethical questions – questions
of the good life – from public discourse, ethics has almost invisibly turned
into a question of economics: ‘But despite its good intention, the reluctance
to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for
market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.’20
At first glance he seems to reject the argument according to which this
economization of the whole of our lives is itself a neutral or non-ethical force.
To the assertion ‘Markets don’t wag fingers’,21 Sandel responds, ‘We don’t
allow parents to sell their children or citizens to sell their votes. And one
of the reasons we don’t is, frankly, judgmental: we believe that selling these
things values them in the wrong way and cultivates bad attitudes.’22 Philosophy
and Literature in Times of Crisis contributes to Sandel’s analysis of a new all-
encompassing economistic paradigm. For one thing, it shows how what

Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 232.
Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, p. 14.
Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, p. 14.
Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, p. 15.
10 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Sandel calls ‘bad attitudes’ amount to homogeneity: every form of life has to
fit the managerial rubrics of economic value (price, economic cost per hour
and so forth), which completely disregards the social, cultural and subjective
value of different activities (education is a striking example) or states of being
(illness or pain cannot be measured or cured via statistical assessments).
In the end, however, Sandel seems to agree with the assertion that markets
are non-judgemental. This study, in contrast, shows how the apparent non-
judgement of economics is in actual fact judgemental, as has been implied
by Harcourt’s analysis of the link between the increase in the penitentiary
system and the public espousal of free market economics:

The logic of neoliberal penality has made possible our contemporary

punishment practices by fueling the belief that legitimate and
competent space for government intervention is the penal sphere. The
logic of neoliberal penality has facilitated our punishment practices
by weakening any resistance to governmental initiatives in the penal
sphere because that is where the state may legitimately, competently, and
effectively govern.23

Sandel argues that the apparent lack of ethics makes economics all the more
appealing, objective and scientific:

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market

reasoning and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage
in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets,
has exacted a heavy price: it has trained public discourse of moral and
civic energy, and it contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics
that afflicts many societies today.24

Technocratic, managerial politics is what Weizman takes issue with too in our
contemporary approach towards the ‘humanitarian’ that is so preoccupied
with objects and the ‘objective’ that it goes so far as to exclude human subjects
from its domain. Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis contributes to
both Sandel’s and Weizman’s critique of our present infatuation with the
numerical, with the visible, with the quasi-scientific object by bringing to
light the so far invisible judgemental and pseudo-theological foundations
of an economistic paradigm that endows ‘objective’ numbers with fetishist

Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets, p. 52.


Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, p. 14.

Introduction: Objects and Numbers 11

In doing so, this study analyses the pseudo-scientific blind spots within
contemporary economic and medical forms of practice. One striking
example is contemporary medicine’s preoccupation with longevity; the
term ‘longevity’ bears what Giorgio Agamben has recently called the
theological ‘signature’ of eternal life (see Chapter 5). As Norelle Lickiss has
recently shown, contemporary medicine is so concerned with the attempt to
extend the life span that it avoids issues to do with pain ‘lest the slightest
possibility for temporary prolongation of life be lost’.25 Lickiss goes on to
urge the implementation of ‘possible approaches to an examination of why
contemporary medical practitioners in affluent Western contexts, in the
eyes of many’, are ‘frequently failing in the core business of relieving human
suffering’.26 Chapter 5 will offer one possible analysis of why contemporary
medicine prioritizes longevity over and above ‘the core business of relieving
human suffering’. The explanation to this complex question can be found
in the invisible presence or secret return of a theological idea that has been
emptied out of its transcendent dimension: the promise of eternal life has
turned immanent in the medical ideal of the long life. This is not to demote
theology. On the contrary, this book bears witness to theology’s persistence
in a non-theological age. Theology’s immanent figures of return (spectres or
revenants) do not of course do justice to the spiritual and intellectual outlook
of genuine theological thought.
The contemporary medical as well as economic infatuation with
substantive issues such as facts, statistical figure and number of years in
which a life could be extended (and so forth) obfuscates – if it does not
deny – the affective aspect of human life. Pain and suffering are subjective
and affective. Due to its subjective nature, contemporary medicine only
reluctantly engages with pain and other affects. This is why Eric J. Cassel
has held his own discipline (medicine) responsible for the ‘continuing failure
to accord subjective knowledge and subjectivity the same status as objective
knowledge and objectivity’.27 A similar disregard of subjective and affective
factors haunts the contemporary practice of economics.
Crucially the economist’s – or what Weizman calls ‘humanitarian’ –
exclusion of the subjective radicalizes the demotion or marginalization of the
particular and affective, which – as we have seen above – Williams criticizes
in philosophical ethics. This study shows how the contemporary infatuation
with the object and the ‘objective’ constitutes the economistic intensification

Lickiss, ‘On Facing Human Suffering’ in J. Malpas and N. Lickiss, Perspectives on Human
Suffering (London: Springer, 2012), pp. 245–260 (p. 250).
Lickiss, ‘On Facing Human Suffering’.
Cassell, The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004), p. xii.
12 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

of philosophy’s ethical reductionism (see Chapters 2 and 3). Whereas the

traditional philosophical approach has demoted the value of the particular
for the greater good of the universal, the contemporary economist paradigm
excludes the former as part of its overall process, which is predicated on
calculation. What Weizman calls the ‘humanitarian’ is indeed economic: it
calculates the proportionality of the lesser evil. Indeed in the secularized
theology of ‘the least of all possible evils’, we encounter the point where
economics and ethics meet – it is the place of seemingly affect-less or subject-
less, ‘indifferent’ calculation. Shedding light on the spectres of theology in
this apparent impersonal process illuminates the hidden chemistry of affect
in the purported indifference of both philosophical ethics and economics.
In the wake of the recent financial crises, it has become clear that economics
cannot be understood in quasi-scientific models of certainty, predictability and
rationality. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has recently become more and more
suspect: markets are no longer seen to be orderly and rational instruments
that could guarantee stability and equilibrium. By uncovering the pseudo-
theological foundations of the belief in financial stability and harmony,
Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis brings to the fore the affective
chemistry of what has previously been assumed to be a purely rational and
objective social science of market mechanisms. John Cassidy has called
‘utopian economics’ what the current book analyses as the pseudo-theological
foundations of economic theories, which are founded on axioms of stability
and equilibrium. Cassidy’s term ‘utopian’ evokes rational planning but leaves
out the theological or providential aspect of markets, which are seen to be
self-regulating and ever progressing in creating wealth for the society at large.
Adam Smith’s key term ‘invisible hand’ highlights the ghostly, non-empirical
presence of a secularized form of providence and governance, which Giorgio
Agamben has recently traced back to the management of Trinitarian Christian
theology (see Chapter 5). Cassidy does not refer to theology but to mathematics
when he discusses the Chicago School’s fervent belief in market rationality.
However, Cassidy concedes that mathematics is not the issue as such:

The issue is not the mathematics per se, but how it is used (and abused).
During the past ten years, many economists working at central banks and
finance ministries have embraced so-called New Keynesian models. Despite
the name attached to them, these models owe at least as much to Lucas as
they do to Keynes: they are self-correcting equilibrium models, built on the
foundation of efficient financial markets and rational expectations.28

Cassidy, How Markets Fall: The Logic of Economic Calamities (London: Penguin, 2009),

p. 105.
Introduction: Objects and Numbers 13

The Chicago economist Robert Lucas – a disciple of Milton Friedman – tried

to prove the rationality and beneficence of the free market mathematically
(as proclaimed by Friedman). In doing so Lucas and mainstream neoliberal
economists ignore to factor in issues of unpredictability and uncertainty as
well as the human chemistry of affect (herd behaviour, panic behaviour and
so forth):

As in the original Lucas models, there is no role in them [i.e. third

generation rational expectations models] for stock market bubbles,
credit crunches, or a drying up of liquidity. Indeed, recognizable
financial markets don’t really exist. The illusion of harmony, stability,
and predictability are maintained, and Hayek’s information processing
machine does its job perfectly: at all times, prices reflect economic
fundamentals and send the right signal to economic decision-makers.29

Cassidy here describes Lucas, Friedman and F. A. v. Hayek’s belief in the

perfect congruence between monetary prices and the indication of value
they represent. Alan Greenspan and other decision makers believed in
the perfect representation of value yielded by the sign system of pricing.
The housing and credit bubble thus went undetected for years until it
burst in the autumn of 2008.
It is, however, not only economists and political decision makers who have
been blind to the subjective ingredient of ‘purely’ objective or scientific market
calculations (the subject matter of J. C. Chandor’s 2012 film Margin Call). How
can we trace the ascendency of the pseudo-theological rule of economics over
all aspects of socio-political, ethical, technological and scientific life? Pseudo-
theological is the ever-increasing promise of a quasi-transcendent (or magical)
cure for immanent limitations. As Wendy Brown has shown, the hegemonic
rise of an economistic paradigm is, to some extent, due to the historical
fact that in contrast to Hannah Arendt’s earlier attempts ‘to reformulate the
problematic of political freedom on fully non-economic ground’, the majority
of late-twentieth century progressives abandoned ideas of equality ‘to embrace
a vision involving state-administrated “economic justice” combined with a
panoply of private liberties’.30 The economist paradigm has by now become
homogenous to the point that even human rights organizations perform their
work along the lines of the economic principle of calculation.

Cassidy, How Markets Fall: The Logic of Economic Calamities (London: Penguin, 2009),
p. 105.
Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1995), pp. 10–11.
14 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

As Brown has pointed out, the spurious indifference or neutrality of an

economistic performance of the law – human rights law included – ignores
the affect-ridden machinations of legal and other socio-political operations:
‘This effort also casts the law in particular and the state more generally as
neutral arbiters of injury rather than as themselves invested with the power
to injure.’31 The combination of ethical and economical procedures serves the
interests of social homogeneity while brandishing those who do not conform
as social, sexual, moral and pecuniary outcasts:

Thus, the effort to ‘outlaw’ social injury powerfully legitimates law and
the state as appropriate protectors of injury and casts injured individuals
as needing such protection by such protectors. Finally, in its economy of
perpetrator and victim, the project seeks not power or emancipation for
the injured or the subordinated, but the revenge of punishment, making
the perpetrator hurt as the sufferer does.32

In this way, the contemporary exclusion of subjectivity amounts to the

increasing abrogation of democracy and politics.
In a society wherein we can appeal to nothing else but the calculating
processes of law and economics, individuality as well as diversity lose
their political foundations: ‘When social “hurt” is conveyed to the law for
resolution, political ground is ceded to moral and juridical ground.’33 By now
the moral and the juridical have become indistinguishable in the economic
meeting place of calculation (what Weizman calls the ‘humanitarian present’
illustrates this point). This study locates in literature (or what Deleuze calls
cinema) a space wherein we can recover a lost political dimension. Politics
mediates between the particular and the universal, between the subjective
and the objective. Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis discovers how
we may find in literature precisely such mediation between the subjective and
the objective, between the factual and the affective, between the embodied
and the cerebral.
The mode of inquiry is that of literary criticism. The literary is here
understood in a novel way: as the mediation between the subjective and the
substantive, the philosophical and the historical, the psychic and the physical.
Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis asks how the study of literature
and philosophy helps us find ways of changing our lives, as well as ways in
which we could come to terms with the often-disturbing changes that we are

Brown, States of Injury, p. 27.


Brown, States of Injury, p. 27.


Brown, States of Injury, p. 27.

Introduction: Objects and Numbers 15

facing now. Here literature performs an ethics of resilience by dint of which

we can overcome the repetition and thus consolidation of harmful practices.
Literature and cultural inquiry as a whole has the potential to intervene in
the violence and denigration of the past and the present. Broadly understood,
literature intervenes in and interferes with the status quo. Philosophy and
Literature in Times of Crisis engages with what I call a nascent approach
to the study of literature. Here literature does not so much represent and
consolidate past and current harmful practices but instead scoops out the
mental space in which we can rethink what it means to be human and to live
in our world. The discussion of How literature changes the way we think has
focused on current demographic issues: it attempts to change the way we
perceive ageing and how we interact with substantive questions of youth and
age. Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis focuses on how a nascent
approach to literature helps us conceptualize a new perspective on economics
and medicine.

The recovery of politics (overview of the book)

Opening on a promissory note, Chapter 1 discusses how the move from

postmodern detachment to affect theory might signal a change that departs
from the economist approach to the sciences, arts and humanities. The
change in question is an intellectual one, moving away from what Brown
diagnosed as the reduction of socialism to ‘the status of a (nonpolitical)
economic practice’34 at the end of the last century. The contemporary socio-
economic realities that affect theory analyses are bleak, to say the least.
Analytical work, however, pivots around issues to do with change. The
starting point of Lauren Berlant’s recent book Cruel Optimism focuses on the
question of what keeps ordinary or everyday life enthralled to fantasies and
aspirations that have repeatedly proven to be harmful if not lethal: ‘Why do
people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies – say, of enduring
reciprocity in couples, families, political institutions, markets, and at work –
when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds.’35
Chapter 1 discusses the fraying of the economist fantasy of the good life. After
the recent financial crises the evidence of such fraying abounds and yet the
calculating mechanism of financial value – as we will be analysed throughout
the book – still reigns supreme as fantasy, which proclaims the end of all
forms of limitations – from being caught in subjectivity to being confined to

Brown, States of Injury, p. 14.


Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 2.

16 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

mortality, the affect-ridden monetary promise of practical or applied science,

seems to transcend all these natural limitations. The study as a whole brings
to light how science, technology and ethics have increasingly become synonyms
for economics. Through a discussion of Amitav Ghosh’s postcolonial writings,
the last part of Chapter 1 analyses how the secularized theology of economics
propounds identity rather than difference as a key ingredient of the fantasy
that revolves around social harmony. Ghosh’s novels uncover such identity as
a mirage of mirrors. It is not difference but identity that produces strife, harm
and violence. As this discussion shows, violence ensues from striving not for
different goods but for identical ones. Indeed our infatuation with numbers
propels our affective attachments to those identical objects that promise the
biggest numerical value. Literature’s ethics of resilience, in contrast, confirms
the value of what is different and idiosyncratic.
As discussed above, Bernard Williams’s critique of the limits of philosophy
brings to the fore the reductive and homogenizing trend of philosophical
ethics. Countering such a trend towards identity rather than diversity,
Chapter 2 asks how some strands of philosophical discourse have reduced
ethics to a dualism of mind and body wherein economics assumes the role of
providence. The providential role of economics is to ensure the compatibility
between the ethical good and non-ethical state of a mere natural embodied
being. The notion of providence throws light on the ways in which utopian
economics have been haunted by spectres of theology. Providence turns the
incompatible into the compatible: nature – while being opposed to reason
and redemption – in the end coincides with rational and ethical actions. Via
providence – Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ – economics affects the presumed
utopian position of equilibrium, stability and harmony.
The concluding part of Chapter 2 shows how the ethics of literature
changes our understanding of reason. Reason here no longer excludes or
berates the affective and embodied sphere of our life; instead, what unfolds
here is a new science of literature wherein reason is the mind’s mindfulness of its
embodiment and, consequently, its imaginative tendencies. Chapter 3 analyses
the rationality of literature in the readings of Malamud’s The Fixer and
Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Chapter 4 further discusses how literature uncovers
the partiality of the purported impartiality (or non-subjectivity) of publically
acclaimed truths through an innovative reading of Sylvia Plath’s poetry.
This chapter focuses on Plath’s discovery that such assumed impartiality
obfuscates the violence implicit in conformism and homogeneity: the
pressure to turn people into ‘faceless faces’ as Plath calls it. When it comes
to the interruption of homogeneity, literature plays a crucial role, precisely
because literature foregrounds the subjective against the background of its
public representation where it appears under the disguise of substantiality. By
Introduction: Objects and Numbers 17

unmasking the deceptive display of substantiality (during the acclamation

of a ruler or during the public marketing of a political or economic idea
or procedure), literature performs a form of heuristic or detective work. It
does so by delineating how the purported substantiality of an ideology or an
economic system or of a medical assessment is in actual fact a fantasy that
grows out of the longing for a world in which we all cohere and are identical
tools for a greater teleological or providential good.
The ethics of literature disrupts the governmental blurring of the subjective
and the substantive. In other words, literature’s insistence on subjectivity is not
a subjective but a public matter: it counters the one-size-fits-all approach in
public policies by articulating the infinite variety of subjective voices that do
not fit into the homogenous call of the ruling discourse. Chapter 4 offers a
new reading of Plath’s poetry along these lines: whereas critics have so far
emphasized the subjective quality of Plath’s work, this chapter brings to light
the public relevance of such foregrounding of subjectivity.
Another way in which literature (as shown in readings of Plath’s and Kafka’s
writings) disrupts homogeneity is by turning representation against itself, thus
highlighting the lack of congruency and identity. Part of literature’s heuristic
work (as shown through a reading of historical novels by E. L. Doctorow and
Philip Roth in Chapter 5) is the discovery of how scientific endeavours – such
as the medical quest for longevity – are in actual fact mutations of economic
and secularized theological paradigms. This study analyses how Doctorow’s
and P. Roth’s historical novel’s critique medicine’s prioritization of longevity
over the alleviation of pain. Medicine turns bio-political when it attempts to
eliminate subjectivity. In dialogue with Lauren Berlant’s affect theory Chapter
5 examines how bio-political operations feed on crises because it is in times of
crisis when bio-politics can best impose its conditionality upon life. Here health
becomes an effect of normality within the working of bio-politics.
Spectres of theology appear in the crisis-ridden and deceptive
representation of the partial as the impartial, of the subjective as the
substantive. This is the case in the positing of health as effect of normality as
it is in the opposite move, which is the theme of P. Roth’s new novel Nemesis
(last part of Chapter 5). Here evil and pain figure not in terms of affective
conditions as in Plath’s poetry, but instead the main protagonist of Roth’s
latest novel represents his suffering as if it were impartial, substantive, as if
it were all there is. In Nemesis Roth disrupts the deceitful concept of nemesis
as an outside force by unmasking it as the power of representation: of how
the main protagonist creates his own nemesis by turning his life and that
of this environment into a representation of static images and categories.
The flux of life’s contingency thus morphs into a representation of God –
a representation that inverts the traditional theological content but clings
18 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

to the allure of immutability and immortality. The narrator analyses how

such coincidence of pre-modern notions of immortality and Mr Cantor’s
modern medico-theological approach to immutability shares a troubling – if
ridiculous – loss of life and action.
Roth’s Nemesis offers a critique of both pre-modern delusions of ethics
and their inverted modern representations. Pseudo-theology’s dogmatism
haunts contemporary economics when it silences doubt and critique through
representing its point of view as the absence of perspective, as impartiality and
inevitability. Inevitability – the posited impossibility of an otherwise – denotes
a secular type of faith, one that silences doubt and critique. Market economic
reason turns into a secular theology at the point at which it denies its position as
a point of view; this will be discussed in a theoretical reading of E. Perlman’s
novel Seven Types of Ambiguity. The concluding Chapter 7 returns to what
our pseudo-scientific infatuation with numbers and objects marginalizes and
ignores: pain and trauma. This study closes with a discussion that lets us
view recent novels by J. Littell, W. G. Sebald and E. Perlman as both literary
and ethical critiques of the homogenous move to forensic objects, which has
been the starting point for the arguments developed at the opening of this

What Is It about Numbers?

closing words of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption

At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that

people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate
lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children
go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American
life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.
Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy

Our infatuation with numbers: Snow’s Two Cultures

meets Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition

Speaking of ‘the turn to affect’ we may describe the structure of feeling that
we inhabit in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The term ‘turn
to affect’ does not necessarily proclaim the overcoming of modernism or
postmodernism. It merely signals a certain time-lapse or change in society at
large. Strikingly, the divide between two cultures, between nature and society,
between science and politics is constitutive of modernity’s consciousness.
According to Bruno Latour, we have never been modern for the reason that
the modern purification project – premised as it is on the radical separation
between nature and society – has actually never been put to practice nor
could it have ever been realized and because these nominally separated
spheres are actually similarly constituted and in need of mediation. The
project of modernity obfuscates or even denies the existence of subjectivity
and the invisible. Deepening and developing Latour’s thesis, modernity could
be defined as the unconscious of the invisible, as the unconscious of affect.
Postmodernism recognizes that there is something wrong with the
modern insistence on objectivity and visibility, but it abstains from further
commitments that would investigate modernity’s unconsciousness – which
is the unconsciousness of affect and other forms of the non-measurable. As
Latour put it, ‘Postmodernism is a symptom, not a fresh solution. It lives
20 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

under the modern Constitution, but it no longer believes in the guarantees

the Constitution offers.’1 Postmodernity’s non-commitment has also been
called aloofness.
In this way Peter V. Zima has recently argued that indifference, or, in
other words, a withdrawal of affect, characterizes postmodernism.2 Where
postmodern art and culture remain aloof or cool, contemporary society
seems to have fallen prey to various anxieties that grow out of an increasing
sense of crisis, of instability and uncertainty. The recent financial crises and
their implications for growing levels of anxiety in everyday life have led to a
change in the structure of feeling.
Based on his reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Lionel Trilling has distinguished
between feeling and passion. The emotions form a substantial part of our
mental life: ‘To us today, mind must inevitably seem to be a poor gray thing,
for it always sought to detach itself from the passions (not from the emotions,
Spinoza said and explained the difference) and from the conditions of time
and place.’3 As will be discussed in the closing section of this chapter, literature
engages with a realm beyond numbers. It is the sphere of feeling that cannot
be measured. This immeasurable aspect of our life nevertheless constitutes
a substantial part of the human mind and we cannot wish it away as C. P.
Snow has famously done in his Rede lecture on the Two Cultures. This lecture
and its postmodern variation will be the subject of critical engagement in
the first section of this chapter. In the wake of the collapse of the supposedly
ordered and predictable economic measurements, Trilling’s concern with
our emotive and immeasurable sense of humanity has returned with new
force in the form of affect studies.
As part of a contemporary change in the structure of feeling, we are
becoming gradually more aware of the precarious foundations of life. Judith
Butler has turned her attention to what it means to live precariously. Part of
this recent preoccupation with the precarious is a re-discovery of care rather
than postmodern indifference and aloofness. Lauren Berlant – a leading
thinker of contemporary affect theory – has thus argued for a new aesthetics
that does justice to what she calls crisis ordinariness, which characterizes life
in the early twenty-first century.
Against this background, this chapter establishes the economic and
cultural break of contemporary society with various optimistic beliefs in

Latour, We Have Never Been Moderns, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 46.
See Zima’s Modern/Postmodern: Society, Philosophy, Literature (London: Continuum,
Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: Selected Essays, edited and introduced by
Leon Wieseltier (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000), p. 425.
What Is It about Numbers? 21

economic and scientific improvements, which has characterized not only

modern but also postmodern theory. Previously, critics have argued that
Lyotard’s famous The Postmodern Condition critiques a modern scientific
and economic paradigm (this critique was seen to be part of Lyotard’s
postmodernism). This chapter shows that the opposite is in fact the case:
Lyotard radicalizes C. P. Snow’s plea for the public implementation of
an economic paradigm while abandoning Snow’s modernist trust in the
egalitarian benefit derived from science and economics. Lyotard embraces the
computerization of society, which promises economic growth in developed
societies. As Fredric Jameson has put it this pre-occupation with computers
and economic processes led to ‘the eclipse of all of the affect (depth, anxiety,
terror, the emotions of the monumental) that marked high modernism
and its replacement by what Coleridge would have called fancy or Schiller
aesthetic play, a commitment to surface and to the superficial in all the senses
of the word’.4 Contemporary aesthetics departs from the superficial aloofness
with which Lyotard celebrates the death of narratives. The public resurgence
of anxiety in the face of current financial crises has shifted attention away
from the superficial to the affective.
There are multiple causes for anxiety: economic crises, the growing divide
between rich and poor, looming ecological catastrophes, rapid changes in
techno-scientific products as well as paradigms, a shrinking of public funds
for basic public requirements in education, research, medicine and security.
These causes of anxiety have an economic ingredient in common. Consider
the ecological crisis: it is at once a scientific issue (climate change) and an
economic one (how to manage growth with limited natural resources?).
Within this scientific-economic context, the humanities and arts have
increasingly been pushed to the margins. They have almost disappeared
from socio-political discussions and decisions that concern the public
state of well being. Politicians seem to have downgraded the social role of
creativity. Political discourse has relegated creativity to the status of a luxury
we have to do without in a new world order where survival is premised on the
economic application of already-created scientific goods and technological
services – this is certainly true of the current UK government who has
recently refused to fund the teaching of humanities and arts subjects at UK
As has been discussed in the introduction, my notion of literature is
broad, denoting creativity in a wide range of fields, which encompass the

Jameson, ‘Foreword’ in Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, translation
from the French by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1984), p. xviii.
22 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

arts, humanities and sciences. Scientific inquiry certainly depends on

creativity too. The arts and humanities have been charged as the main
culprits of uselessness and being useless has almost become a synonym for
being creative. The so-called ‘useless’ or creative aspect of both the sciences
and the arts resides in their unpredictable, unquantifiable, unfixable and
limitless openness to ever new questions, ever new insights, ever new forms
of knowledge and discovery. Stefan Collini has recently distinguished
university education from professional training along the lines of the
potentiality of the new, which cannot be measured or immediately be used:
‘Intellectual enquiry is in itself ungovernable: there is no predicting where
thought and analyses may lead when allowed freely over almost any topic,
as the history of science abundantly illustrates.’5 The first part of this chapter
will discuss how from C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture onwards, the term
‘science’ has increasingly been confused with applied science, professional
training and economic benefits. Collini draws attention to how intellectual
inquiry and its creativity are central to both the sciences and the arts. The
political conflation of science with its economically useful applications
undermines research and innovation. Due to the confusion of science with
commercialized goods and services, the sole target of attack has so far been
the arts and humanities (because they are, so the charge, useless or without
economic impact or benefit).
The political demotion of the humanities and arts to a socially irrelevant
or private activity brings to culmination the polemics of the two culture
debates that have haunted public discussion from the industrial revolution
onwards. The famous C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis controversy in the middle
of the last century has a heritage dating back to the end of the eighteenth
century.6 As Trilling has argued, C. P. Snow’s equation of what he calls
‘literary intellectuals’ with Luddite hostility to everything that is scientific
and technological is quite unfair, simplistic and reductive. F. R. Leavis’s attack
on Snow, however, is equally wrong because it fails to offer a valid account of
literature’s social benefit:

The early discussions of The Two Cultures [i.e. referring back to the
Victorian controversy between Matthew Arnold and T. H. Huxley] were
of a substantive kind, but the concerns which now agitate the English
in response to Dr. Leavis’s attack have scarcely anything to do with
literature and science, or with social hope.7

Collini, What are Universities For (London: Penguin, 2012), p. 55.
For a detailed discussion of this history see Stefan Collini, ‘Introduction’ in C. P. Snow’s
The Two Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. vii–lxxi.
Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, p. 405.
What Is It about Numbers? 23

The quality of the debate seems to have deteriorated and that too in a changed
socio-technological context. The scientific concern with numbers and other
forms of measurability has, by the mid-twentieth century, been elevated as
the sole criterion with which to judge all aspects of intellectual value. Trilling
speaks of a ‘revolution’ that ‘would seem to be one of the instances in which a
change of quantity becomes a change in kind – science can now do so much
more in the last century, that it has been transmuted from what the world has
hitherto known’.8 According to Snow, science indeed holds out the promise
to render human society measurable and predictable (along the lines of the
eighteenth-century concept of natural order as discussed in Harcourt’s The
Illusion of Free Markets): ‘One of the consequences of this change – to Sir
Charles [i.e. C. P. Snow] it is the most salient of all possible consequences – is
the new social hope that is now held out to us, of life made better in material
respects.’9 Following Trilling, Snow’s aversion to what he perceives to be the
snobbishness of literati can be better understood within its historical context.
When Snow delivered his Rede lecture in 1959, his approach was not
so much shaped by a contemporary setting but by that of his early days in
the Cambridge of the 1930s. During that time Snow failed to embark on an
outstanding scientific career – as Stefan Collini has put it, Snow’s ‘achievement
as a scientist had been patchy at best’.10 Snow’s scientific ambitions, however,
were not exactly encouraged by the general culture of his alma mater at the
time. Back in the 1930s, the sciences were marginalized at Cambridge: ‘In
the 1930s, half of the students at British universities were in the arts faculties;
more strikingly still, at Oxford and Cambridge the proportion studying in the
arts faculties were 80% and 70% respectively.’11 Snow and his fellow science
students constituted a minority. As shown by Collini, we need to take into
account Snow’s rather bitter and embattled position as an aspiring but not
brilliant research student in physics within the rather snobbish humanist
setting of the 1930s when we read the 1959 Rede lecture. Given that the arts
and humanities were the foundation of the ruling elites of his student days,
he blamed ‘literary intellectuals’ for mismanagement, war and poverty.
Today the situation is reversed: the humanities and arts are marginalized
and clearly in the minority and at the bottom of educational or research
priorities: ‘In 2009, those studying pure “humanities” subjects (classification
problem again) accounted only for some 11% of undergraduates and 9% of
postgraduates.’12 Funding priorities worldwide are to be gleaned from the

Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, p. 404.
Trilling, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, p. 404.
Collini, ‘Introduction,’ p. xx.
Collini, What are Universities For?, p. 32.
Collini, What are Universities For?, p. 32.
24 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

following example: ‘the combined budgets of the seven research councils in

the UK amount to some £ 3 billion, but only around 3% of this goes to the
Arts and Humanities Research Council’.13 Politicians justify this disparity
in funding by arguing that the arts and humanities are of little socio-
economic value. It is this repeated argument with ‘with which successive
governments, of whichever party, have attempted to impose an increasingly
economistic agenda on universities over the past two decades’,14 which we
find for the first time, though with different emphases, articulated in Snow’s
1959 Rede lecture. In contrast to contemporary neoliberal politics, Snow
was an egalitarian. His concern was with the elimination of hunger and
poverty: ‘Before I wrote the lecture I thought of calling it “The Rich and
the Poor”, and I rather wish that I hadn’t changed my mind. The scientific
revolution is the only method by which most people can gain the primal
things (years of life, freedom from hunger, survival for children).’15 He
goes on to call on those who have the political power to administrate the
funding of research and teaching. They should listen to the ‘practical truth
of science’:

It has been hard for politicians and administrators to grasp the practical
truth of what scientists were telling them. But now it is beginning to
be accepted. It is often accepted most easily by men of affairs, whatever
their political sympathies, engineers, or priests, or doctors, all those who
have a comradely physical sympathy for other humans. If others can get
the primal things – yes that is beyond argument; that is good.16

Here, Snow establishes the equation of science with the moral foundations of
practical life. This rather simplistic equation shapes contemporary political
and media discourse albeit without the social optimism of the late 1950s and
early 1960s. Despite the huge public support for practical sciences (medicine
and so forth), there keeps arising an ever-widening gap between the rich
and the poor, a gap that Snow attempted to redress with the quasi-magical
panacea he called ‘science’.
The current elevation of science as a moral and materialistic cure for all sorts
of social ill can be properly understood in its historical-ideological context
when we consider the two cultures argument of Snow. Snow introduced this
highly moralistic component into an otherwise crudely materialistic way of
thinking. Science ‘comradely’ creates wealth (‘freedom from hunger’, longevity

Collini, What are Universities For?, p. 32.
Collini, What are Universities For?, p. xii.
Snow, The Two Cultures, p. 80.
Snow, The Two Cultures, p. 80.
What Is It about Numbers? 25

and so forth) and thus redresses social justice. The ‘and thus’ component
has proved to be rather misleading. Nevertheless, the word ‘science’
keeps triggering associations with wealth (and conversely the humanities
increasingly with poverty and lack of funding). What Collini has written of
the radically changed economistic rationale for universities holds true for the
whole of society in the first decade of the twenty-first century: ‘universities
need to justify getting more money and the way to do this is by showing that
they help make more money’.17 Science holds out the promise of more money,
and money opens the door to everything we would otherwise do without. The
numerical value of money – as we will be analysing throughout this book –
has become the yardstick by which we are publically and officially seen to be
able to overcome all forms of limitations – from being caught in subjectivity
to being confined to mortality, the monetary usefulness of ‘practical science’
overcomes all these natural limitations. Snow’s Rede lecture of 1959 lays the
foundation for such current equation of applied or practical science with the
supposedly miracle working cure of wealth creation.
In his Rede lecture, Snow opposes literary culture’s ephemeral status with
the solidity of nature, which, he maintains, constitutes the subject matter of
science: ‘They [representatives of literary culture, of the arts and humanities]
still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of “culture”, as
though the natural order didn’t exist.’18 This statement does not take into
account the fact that philosophers and writers have shown a keen interest
in nature19 (at least from Spinoza onwards) and that science shares many
interests and pursuits with Snow’s despised literary intellectuals of the arts
and humanities. Collini has described the current understanding of what is
scientific as follows:

the activities conventionally referred to as ‘the sciences’ do not, it is

argued, all proceed by experiential methods, do not all cast their findings
in quantifiable form, do not all pursue falsification, do not all work on
‘nature’ rather than on human beings; nor are they alone in seeking to
produce general laws, replicable results, and cumulative knowledge.20

Even though there is (as Collini in this quote points out) a disconnection
between Snow’s and more advanced as well as more complex interpretations

Collini, What are Universities For?, p. x.
C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, p. 14; Collini, ‘Introduction’.
For a detailed discussion of George Eliot’s and other writers’ interest in the natural
sciences see Gillian Beer’s ‘Translation or Transformation? The Relations of Literature
and Science,’ in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 44 (1990), pp. 81–99.
Collini, ‘Introduction,’ xlv.
26 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

of what constitutes science, Snow’s denigration of literary intellectuals has

certainly influenced political decision makers. Anticipating the contemporary
demotion and marginalization of the arts and humanities, Snow accuses
literary intellectuals of being the polar opposites of scientists. The latter are
bearers of those useful traits, which, as Collini rightly points out, are not
scientific in a unique sense: quantifiable forms that are immediately useful,
the employment of natural resources via ‘scientific’ methods and replicable as
well as general laws that can be applied by industry.
Industrial use and general utility are what Snow understands by science.
Usefulness here is another word for wealth creation. Anyone familiar with
the current political discourse about education in terms of wealth creation
(from Tony Blair to Barack Obama; from George W. Bush to Mitt Romney)
will recognize in Snow not only as Collini has put it, ‘the prophet of the
consumer society’,21 but also the early spokesperson for an educational system
that is premised on profit maximization and other quantifiable and visible
measures. Science holds out the promise of profits: ‘Once the trick of getting
rich is known, as it is now, the world can’t survive half rich, half poor. It’s just
not on.’22 Thus spoke Snow in his 1959 Rede lecture. We have come to know
that the divide between rich and poor is ever increasing despite amazing
scientific advances. In Snow’s Rede lecture, science plays the quasi-magical
role of enriching everyone – rather than only a few – while deepening the
gap between wealth and poverty. The generation of money goes hand in
hand with moral appraisal, because wealth seems to be spreading throughout
society. Whatever is useful – i.e. scientific according to Snow – generates
money and whatever generates money is moral, because wealth creation here
is identical with social wellbeing.
Snow reinforces the purist modern opposition between nature (inclusive of
science and technology) and human society – here the scientist and there the
literary intellectuals – in order to foreground not only the practical and the
monetary but also the moral superiority of science: ‘The non-scientists have
a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of
man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary
intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with
their brother men.’23 This supposed lack of concern for social usefulness and
economic impact evidences for Snow the immorality of the latter and the
high moral or socio-economic worth of the former: ‘In the moral, they are
by and large the soundest group of intellectuals we have; there is a moral

Collini, ‘Introduction,’ p. xxxiv.
Snow, The Two Cultures, p. 42.
Snow, The Two Cultures, p. 5
What Is It about Numbers? 27

component right in the grain of science itself, and almost all scientists form
their own judgements of the moral life.’24 Morality and ethics turn into a form
of economistic usefulness, which can be quantified and measured like the
performance of a share on the stock market. As we shall see throughout this
book science, technology and ethics have increasingly become synonyms for
economics. How can we trace the ascendency of the pseudo-theological rule
of economics over all aspects of socio-political, ethical, technological and
scientific life? Pseudo-theological is the ever-increasing promise of a quasi-
transcendent (or magical) cure for immanent limitations. As Wendy Brown
has shown, part of the hegemonic rise of an economistic paradigm is due
to the historical fact that in contrast to Hannah Arendt’s earlier attempts
‘to reformulate the problematic of political freedom on fully non-economic
ground’, the majority of late-twentieth century progressives abandoned ideas
of equality ‘to embrace a vision involving state-administrated “economic
justice” combined with a panoply of private liberties’.25

Postmodernism after Snow: The confusion of neoliberal economics

with science
How can we explain this growing confusion of ethics as well as the sciences
with economics? It would be unfair to blame Snow for this development but,
as we have seen above, his Rede lecture lays the ground for the moralization of
science, wealth and health. As will be discussed in this section, Lyotard’s take
on the postmodern condition further radicalizes the disparity between what
Snow has called traditional or literary culture and the commercial paradigm
change of science and technology. Postmodern culture has embraced this
commercialization, as David Harvey and Fredric Jameson have shown in
some detail. Hand in hand with the celebration of the surface of brands, logos
and other standard symbols of commercial goods went a carefree, cool and
distanced attitude (far removed from Snow’s concern for the social good),
which touted dispassionate disinterest in anything that went deeper than the
flat TV or video screen. Social reality seemed to have become outmoded. The
term ‘reality’ could only be used in quotation marks. Jameson describes this
postmodern loss of reality in linguistic terms as follows: ‘reification penetrates
the sign itself and disjoins the signifier from the signified. Now reference
and reality disappear altogether, and even meaning – the signified – is
problematized. We are left with the pure and random play of signifiers that we

Snow, The Two Cultures, p. 13.


Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press, 1995), p. 10.

28 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

call postmodernism’.26 According to Jameson, Lacan is the only postmodern

thinker who ‘has shamelessly continued to talk about “the Real” (defined,
however, as an absence)’.27 An absence of affect accompanied this extreme
detachment from, or more radical still, bracketing off reality. Jameson calls
the postmodern relinquishment of both subjectivity and reality ‘the waning of
affect’.28 At the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, subjectivity, reality
and the life of emotions came home to roost.
This public distance and remove from ‘real’ or profound concerns was
slightly jolted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The events were
shown on the flat surface of TV screens. The audience knew, however, that
these were real people who were jumping out of the burning World Trade
Center in New York. New York itself was a city engulfed by disbelief, panic
and anxiety. This sense of panic and anxiety was more than surface and it
spread as affect. Some seven years later – after the Iraq War, which, taking
place at some distance, was justified as a just war for the spread of wealth
creation, democracy and the moral good – the reality of our precarious
material condition was brought home in the aftermath of the collapse
of the financial system in 2008 and 2009. After the going under of the
investment house Lehman brothers on 15 September 2008, the economic
and commercial system went into shock and paralysis: ‘A world that had
earlier appeared to be “awash with surplus liquidity” (as the IMF frequently
reported) suddenly found itself short on cash and awash with surplus
houses, surplus offices and shopping malls, surplus productive capacity
and even more surplus labour than before.’29 Reality returned emptied out of
inhabitants. The sense of deficit and loss reinforced the return of concern and
affect, shaking the public’s nervous system from a state of cool detachment to
the panicked dysfunction of anxiety.
The dreadful collapse first of the World Trade Center and then of the
financial system caused a change of feeling and perception over the last
few years (2001 to the present). This public transformation supported and
increased the impetus to critique postmodernism’s cool and commercial
surface culture and that as early as in Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism
wherein he establishes a strong connection between postmodernist
intellectuals à la Lyotard and the absence of critical engagement with real-life
events. Opposition to the status quo seems to have become ineffective if it has
not evaporated during postmodernism:

Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), p. 96.
Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Capitalism, p. 94.
Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Capitalism, p. 15.
Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (London: Profile Books,
2010), p. 5.
What Is It about Numbers? 29

Unfortunately, as it is currently constituted this opposition is fragmented,

rudderless, and lacking coherent organization. To some degree this is
the consequence of self-inflicted wounds within the labour movement,
within the movements that have broadly embraced identity politics,
and within all those postmodern intellectual currents that accord,
without knowing it, with the white house line that truth is both socially
constructed and a mere effect of discourse. Terry Eagleton’s critique of
Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, in which ‘there can be no difference
between truth, authority and rhetorical seductiveness; he who has the
smoothest tongue or the raciest story has the power’, bears repeating.30

Critiquing the postmodern coolness towards reality, Harvey goes on to warn:

‘There is a reality out there and it is catching up with us fast.’31 The catching-
up in question was the economic reality of homelessness, dispossession,
unemployment, bankruptcy and, paradoxically, an increase in the one-sided
and all-encompassing economic paradigm of wealth creation in the midst of
unprecedented wealth destruction.
This single-minded emphasis on money and economics is clearly
postmodernism’s inheritance. Andy Warhol’s pictures proudly displayed the
superficial culture of commercialized art products in the latter part of the
twentieth century. Jameson’s analysis fruitlessly looks for social critique in
Warhol’s art:

Andy Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and

the great billboard images of the Coca Cola bottle or the Campbell’s soup
can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition
to late capital, ought to be powerful critical political statements. If they
are not that, then one would surely want to know why, and one would
want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of
political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital.32

Contrasting van Gogh with Warhol, Jameson detects in postmodern culture

a ‘new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in
the most literal sense’.33 In the postmodern era, art turned into a detached
commodity highlighting the surface beauty of mass and celebrity culture
(Warhol’s pictures figure both mass market products like Campbell soup cans
and Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe).

Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 198.
Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 198.
Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Capitalism, p. 9.
Jameson, Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Capitalism, p. 9.
30 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

This indifferent or cool aloofness of culture has recently disappeared – hence

my term ‘the turn to affect’. The postmodern still forms our societal context
but our attitude to it has become more alert, more anxiety-ridden (not aloof
or ‘cool’ any longer). Postmodernism was aloof to the point that it proclaimed
the death of individual concerns and interests: everything was seen from a
detached or impersonal perspective that had done away with subjectivity. This
is not to dismiss Foucault’s intriguing critique of subject formations.
Foucault rightly takes issue with the disciplinarian, homogenizing, in short,
subjecting tendencies in various constructions of identity and authorship. The
concept of the author may be employed to support authoritarian strategy by
which we cover up, reconcile or eliminate contradictions and other forms of
multivalence: ‘The author is also the principle of a certain unity of writing – all
differences having been resolved, at least in part, by the principles of evolution,
maturation, or influence.’34 Following Foucault’s critique, the terms ‘individual’
or ‘subject’ – as used in this book – counter what Cary Wolfe has recently
called ‘normative subjectivity’.35 The notion of subjectivity propounded in this
study is not that of identity but plurality. It is an understanding of subjectivity
that has passed through Foucault’s critique of the author as an authoritarian
or ideological device that serves to preclude ‘the proliferation of meaning’.36
The figure of plural subjectivity may soon, however, return to society at large.
It certainly has a presence in this book that cannot be ignored (see Chapter 4).
Together with the subject, we witness the return of emotions.
Frederic Jameson’s demotion of affects in the name of postmodern
aloofness has recently been the butt of critique in Lauren Berlant’s Cruel
Optimism – a book that is a fine analytical as well as literary work within the
newly evolving field of affect-theory. Berlant describes Jameson’s analysis of
postmodernism as follows:

Finally, Jameson, famously, marked the shift into postmodernism via

the waning of affect in postmodern culture. To Jameson, affect equates
with ‘feeling or emotion, all subjectivity’; here ‘affect’ is not a technical
term but a coarse measure of a shift from a norm of modernist care
for the historical resonance in the represented object to a postmodern
investment in flatness and surface.37

Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ In Michel Foucault: Aesthetics; Essential Works of Foucault
1954–1984, edited by James D. Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley and others (London:
Penguin, 2000), pp. 205–227 (p. 215).
Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010),
p. xvii.
Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ In Michel Foucault: Aesthetics, pp. 205–227 (p. 222).
Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 65.
What Is It about Numbers? 31

Berlant goes on to charge Jameson with mistaking ‘the aspirationally flat

affects of a small elite sector of the aesthetic public for the experience of a
general population’.38 Might it be the case that the structure of feeling has
slightly changed within society at large? Berlant’s book testifies to this
change in the structure of feeling at a time when trauma seems to lose its
extraordinariness and when crisis has become an everyday occurrence.
Let us first return to postmodernism and its peculiar celebration of
commerce, economics, science and technology with which we are already
familiar from the discussion of Snow’s The Two Cultures at the opening
of this chapter. From Snow’s Rede lecture onwards, the term ‘science’ has
increasingly been misused to proclaim the societal uselessness of literature
(and the humanities and arts in general). We live in a time that is obsessed
with the redemptive potential of new technologies. This obsession with how
various technologies change the way we live and think has been going on
for some time. Its most noticeable theoretical manifestation can be found in
Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979). The subtitle of Lyotard’s book
highlights its heuristic and cognitive concerns: A Report on Knowledge.
According to Lyotard, postmodernism’s divergence from modernism results
from revolutions in technology – computer technology to be more precise.
The computer connects different time zones and geographies that have so
far been considered to be long distance. Within an instant the computer allows
for the flow of news from one part of the world to another. Time compresses
into space and spatial distances are to be bridged – via communication/
computer links – within seconds. This acceleration of knowledge exchanges
conditions Lyotard’s famous formulation that pronounces ‘the obsolescence
of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation’.39 Strikingly Lyotard locates
the obsolescence of meta-narratives in a time horizon that coincides with the
year in which Snow delivered his famous Rede lecture (1959).
Connections between Snow’s 1959 lecture and Lyotard’s 1979 treatise
have generally been ignored. This may be due to the fact that Lyotard
does not quote Snow. Patricia Waugh has nevertheless found a connecting
link between the two texts via Kuhn’s book on The Scientific Revolution:
‘Lyotard’s book has a crucial, though generally unacknowledged, place in
the two cultures debate in that it took Kuhn’s critique of scientific knowledge
overtly in the direction of Wittgenstein’s concept of language games and
towards a fully fledged aestheticism.’40 Lyotard indeed aestheticizes science

Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 65.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. xxiv.
Waugh, ‘Revising the Two Cultures Debate: Science, Literature, and Value,’ in Waugh
and Fuller (eds.), The Arts & Sciences of Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1999), pp. 33–59 (p. 43).
32 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

but this is part of his celebration of the new computer age where narratives
have supposedly become obsolete. Lyotard’s aesthetics of science is
precisely that of cool aloofness. His interest in aesthetics should not blind
us to Lyotard’s attack on narratives, which he deems to be anachronistic
and useless. Here we meet the congruence of Lyotard’s economistic
position and that of C. P. Snow 20 years earlier. Indeed Lyotard does not
diverge from Snow’s economist argument, which favours the sciences
and condemns narratives and literature as well as meta-narratives and
metaphysics to uselessness.
While not mentioning Snow’s name, Lyotard opens The Postmodern
Condition with a focus on the end of the 1950s: ‘Our working hyposthesis
is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as
the post-industrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern
age. This transition has been under way since at least the end of the 1950s.’41
The transition to Lyotard’s postmodern age of the computer leaves behind all
forms of narrative as an outmoded heritage of traditional or literary culture.
Narrative is the form of the inherited or ‘customary state of knowledge’
which according to Lyotard sharply diverges ‘from its state in the scientific
age’:42 ‘All that is important here is the fact that its form is narrative. Narration
is the quintessential form of customary knowledge, in more ways than one.’43
Scientific advances preclude the validity of any form of narrative and if
that eventuates in a loss of meaning then so be it: ‘Lamenting the “loss of
meaning” in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge
is no longer principally narrative.’44 The efficiency of science and technology
from the latter half of the 1950s onwards seems to have rendered redundant
any metaphysical quest for meaning. Once everything works smoothly why
ask for the reason why it is working so well?
Lyotard acknowledges that once there was a time when science needed
the arts and humanities. But this time has vanished with the astounding
technological perfections that characterize our posmodernity after World
War II. The time for not only narratives but also meta-narratives was that
of the Enlightenment. The meta-narratives of the Enlightenment helped
legitimate scientific inquiry. Lyotard concedes the historical importance of
these meta-narratives in the French revolution and in German Idealism. In
Hegel’s philosophy, for example, science and society depend on the work of
idealistic reason (knowledge) to discover its true identity: ‘In this perspective,
knowledge first finds legitimacy within itself, and it is this knowledge that
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 3.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 19.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 19.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 26.
What Is It about Numbers? 33

is entitled to say what the State and what Society are.’45 All of this radically
changed at the time when Snow delivered his Rede lecture. Then science
and technology had become so efficient and socially encompassing that
the need for any legitimacy simply evaporated. Now the humanities and
arts had begun to lose their function of legitimating scientific advances and
emancipatory promises:

The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of
unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative [i.e.
that of German Idealism] or a narrative of emancipation [i.e. that of the
French revolution]. The decline of narrative can be seen as an effect of
the blossoming of techniques and technologies since the Second World
War, which has shifted emphasis from the ends of action to its means;
it can also be seen as the effect of the redeployment of advanced liberal
capitalism under the protection of Keynesianism during the period
1930–60, a renewal that has eliminated the communist alternative and
valorized the individual enjoyment of goods and services.46

As in Snow’s Rede lecture, here we encounter the confluence of the scientific

with the economic. The triumph of both technology and capitalism no longer
needs any legitimating narrative or discussion. It is self-evident. What makes
it self-evident? – the efficient performance of economy and technology.
Economic and technological power legitimates itself through its
perfection, its perfect or efficient workings:

This is how legitimation by power takes shape. Power is not only

good performativity, but also effective verification and good verdicts.
It legitimates science and the law on the basis of their efficiency, and
legitimates this efficiency on the basis of science and law. It is self-
legitimating, in the same way a system organized around performance
maximation seems to be. Now it is precisely this kind of context control
that a generalized computerization of society may bring.47

Education ceases to be concerned with ideas but with skills. The focus on
skills is both scientific and at the same time economic. Lyotard knells the
death bell over all forms of narratives and ideas whether they are small or
grand. Postmodernism is post-industrial as well as post-metaphysical.

Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 34.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, pp. 37–38.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 47.
34 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Narratives still had a social function in the relatively long time spectrum
of the industrial age. Efficiency has done away with social antagonism and
signification. Lyotard posits the end of social antagonisms and meanings of
the industrial age. With the end of social antagonism, we also reach the end
of social meaning. As Slavoj Žižek has recently pointed out, inefficiency is
the prerequisite for the existence of meaning. Meaning depends on obstacles;
on cracks in the well-run machinery of society: ‘Meaning – allegorical
or symbolic – arises only through destruction, through an out-of-joint
experience, or a cut which interrupts the object’s direct functioning in our
environment.’48 As we have seen above, Lyotard addresses the loss of meaning
that accompanies the hoped-for perfection of technological efficiency
(writing ‘Lamenting the “loss of meaning” in postmodernity boils down
to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer narrative’).49 Literature
and narratives had a social function before Lyotard’s postmodern age of
efficiency. According to Lyotard, the post-industrial age of postmodernism
does away with social meanings and social antagonisms that had sustained
the functionality of narratives.
To be fair to Lyotard, he articulates a critique of the single-minded
concern with skills and efficiency when he cautions that such systems of self-
legitimating power might end up in regimes of terror. The computerization of
society ‘could become the “dream” instrument for controlling and regulating
the market system, extended to include terror itself and governed exclusively
by the performativity principle’.50 Lyotard holds out the promise that such
regime of computerized terror will fail if we have the choice of its more
attractive democratic alternative. He admonishes his audience: ‘The line to
follow for computerization […] is, in principle, quite simple: give the public
free access to the memory and data banks.’51 This presupposes, however, that
the free flow of information will be efficient in itself.
According to Lyotard, efficiency legitimates itself: efficiency automatically
democratizes rather than terrorizes. Furthermore, Lyotard’s postmodern
world changes with the news flow from minute to minute. Against the
background of such smooth circulation of information, narratives seem to
have lost their social validity. The technique of speedy communication has
taken the place of what had once been the location of narrative. According
to Lyotard, only those aspects of human culture are valid that can be adopted
into the short-lived format of computerized communication: ‘We can predict

Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London:
Verso, 2012), p. 492.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 26.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 67.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 67.
What Is It about Numbers? 35

that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in

this way [i.e. into the format of computer communication] will be abandoned
and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of
its eventual results being translatable into computer language.’52 Lyotard veils
his value judgement under the guise of a prediction. The computer dictates
the future shape of our lives. Lyotard therefore appraises the new hegemony
of the computer, which condemns everything that is different to a quick
death: ‘Along with the hegemony of the computers comes a certain logic,
and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are
accepted as “knowledge” statements.’53 From now on all forms of knowledge
are based on the technology of the computer rather than on the arts of
As Harvey has maintained, the hegemony of this scientific knowledge
condones capitalism’s high finance:

The rhetoric of postmodernism is dangerous for it avoids confronting

the realities of political economy and their circumstances of global
power. The silliness of Lyotard’s ‘radical proposal’ that opening up the
data banks to everyone as a prologue to radical reform (as if we would all
have equal power to use that opportunity) is instructive.54

According to Harvey it is instructive because it is nothing else but a

universal gesture without any political validity. Lyotard, however, has made
his neoliberal-democratic affiliations quite clear. He has made clear that
scientific knowledge is framed by and serves the interests of capitalist profit
maximization when he emphasizes that the standard of scientific truth is not
a long-term perspective but the quick flow of production and consumption:

The relationship of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge

they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume
the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and
consumers to the commodities they produce and consume – i.e., the
form of value. Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold; it
is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in
both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself,
it loses its ‘use-value’.55

Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 4.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 4.
Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 117.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, pp. 4–5.
36 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The new scientific knowledge of ‘postindustrial’ postmodernism turns out to

be not so much driven by science as such but by neoliberal economics: by the
command to keep increasing the margins of profit and ‘create wealth’.
Money is the value that transcends all use-values. It turns these use-
values into indifferent entities that can be exchanged with the financial
power money provides. This raises the question about what is new in post-
industrial postmodernism. It is a question that has been repeatedly raised
by Jameson and Harvey. Harvey has often argued that Lyotard’s and other
postmodernists’ attempts to deny the continuation of class divides and ever-
increasing disparities between extreme wealth and extreme poverty serve to
make consolidations of power go without critical opposition. As Harvey has
put it recently apropos the emergence of neoliberal economics in the late

My view is that it [i.e. neoliberalism] refers to a class project that

coalesced in the crisis of the 1970s. Masked by a lot of rhetoric about
individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility and the virtues of
privatization, the free market and free trade, it legitimized draconian
policies designed to restore and consolidate capitalist class power.56

Lyotard describes these economic changes while extolling the virtues of

computer technology. The computer enables the uninterrupted flow of
value or, in other words, capital within seconds from one part of the world
to another. It is this process that constitutes both scientific knowledge and
financial value.
Computer technologies have indeed helped bridge temporal and spatial
gaps between different geographies. More importantly, the new information
technologies have radically accelerated the flow of news and financial value.
This increase in the speed of financial and informational processes is, however,
what capitalism has been about from roughly 1750 onwards. As Harvey
has put it, ‘Throughout the history of capitalism much effort has therefore
been put into reducing the friction of distance and barriers to movement.
Innovations in transport and communications have been central.’57 According
to Lyotard computer technology has accelerated this process to such an extent
that we no longer have time to engage with any form of narratives.
The telling of stories takes time as well as patience. The time has run out for
such patience. Lyotard calls this shrinkage of time ‘scientific’ but, as the above
discussion has shown, in actual fact it is economic. In an unacknowledged

Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism, p. 10.
Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism, p. 42.
What Is It about Numbers? 37

way, Lyotard refers to the economics of what he proclaims to be science when

he predicts that the divide between the developed and developing world will
grow wider with every new ‘scientific’ advance:

In the postindustrial, postmodern age, science will maintain and no

doubt strengthen its pre-eminence in the arsenal of productive capacities
of the nation states. Indeed, this situation is one of the reasons leading to
the conclusion that the gap between developed and developing countries
will grow ever wider in the future.58

Here Lyotard’s ‘science’ shows its prejudicial point of view. He associates

the developing world with poverty, narrative and the lack of science. His
prejudiced predictions could not be further from the truth: indeed today it is
developing nations – like China and India – that are not only closing the gap
with developed ones but overtaking them in economic growth.
Lyotard’s claims about the efficiency of post-industrial economics have,
however, collapsed into the debris of our contemporary anxiety. This sense
of anxiety arises out of fears about the meltdown of the financial system and
the change in climate to which our carbon-heavy industrialized economies
keep contributing. Unlike Snow’s 1959 and Lyotard’s 1970s we are no longer
assured of the self-legitimating efficiencies of science in terms of economics.
Economic growth and science have become almost indistinguishable
in both Snow’s hope for a postmodern future and in Lyotard’s account of
postmodernism. According to Lyotard and his followers, the accelerated
speed of such purported scientific growth has rendered the slow pace of
literature obsolete. Has it? This question is all the more pertinent in the wake
of the financial crises that have shaken the purported scientific foundations
of the developed world.

How can literature change accustomed forms of action and

perception? Chakrabarty, Said, Amitav Ghosh

Against the background of the financial crisis, the following chapters

challenge Lyotard’s influential dismissal of narratives as obsolete and
unscientific. Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis shows how literature
is more than a narrative device by which we represent our world. Rather than
merely representing what exists, literature’s narratives create open spaces
where we can experience new forms of life. Forms of life that run counter to

Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 5.
38 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

what Lyotard has called (in the quote above) the hegemony of the computer.
Science provides infrastructures for life and so do economic practices.
Lyotard confuses the infrastructure with the pulse of life. While science
and economics lay the foundations for the channels by which information
and financial value travel, the scientific and economic perspective remains
indifferent if not disengaged from the forms of life that make use of its services.
While engaging with literature we discover how science and economics are
themselves part of a larger cultural context. By thus shifting the perspective
from questions of efficiency to those of social meaning, literature also makes
possible thought of different or new forms of socio-cultural interaction in
which already-established scientific-economic infrastructures may be still of
use but in slightly altered forms. The sciences are in need of literature as both
complementary interlocutor and critic.
Let me exemplify my argument by showing its relevance apropos
postcolonial literary studies in South East Asia. Social scientist Dipesh
Chakrabarty focuses in his work on how we can fruitfully connect cultural
inquiry, representation and imagination with the empiricist core of the social
sciences. Chakrabarty takes the socio-political force of figures of imagination
seriously. In this context, Chakrabarty critiques Benedict Anderson (social
anthropologist and author of the influential study Imagined Communities) for
having paid too little attention to the category imagination: ‘Yet, compared
to the idea of community, imagination remains a curiously undiscussed
category in social science writings on nationalism. Anderson warns that the
word should not be taken to mean “false.” Beyond that, however, its meaning
is taken to be self-evident.’59 Building on Chakrabarty’s Provincialising
Europe, Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis analyses how literary and
cultural inquiry are not marginal appendices to social science research – such
as finance and economics – but rather one of its prime preconditions.
In Chakrabarty’s account, the imagination’s primary role is that of
representation. Here Chakrabarty follows Edward Said’s famous analysis of
how European novels represent colonialism. Said has spelt out the relationship
between the seemingly autonomous or elevated sphere of culture, and the
applied, worldly and brutal practices of imperialism. In doing so, Said revises
Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture from the 1860s, according to which
culture is an Eden-like island where we live amongst ‘the best that is thought
and known’. Countering such definition of culture as the purity of various
cerebral perfections, Said maintains that culture is a mixed entity that cannot
be separated from often unsavoury worldly practices such as colonialism and

Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 149.
What Is It about Numbers? 39

imperialism. He argues that ‘Cultural experience or indeed every cultural

form is radically, quintessentially hybrid, and if it has been the practice in the
West since Immanuel Kant to isolate cultural and aesthetic realms from the
worldly domain, it is now time to rejoin them.’60 He goes on to say:

This is by no means a simple matter, since – I believe – it has been

the essence of experience in the West at least since the late eighteenth
century not only to acquire distant domination and reinforce hegemony,
but also to divide the realms of culture and experience into apparently
separate spheres.61

Unintentionally Said provides a rather homogenous view of various writers

who, he argues, were not only representing colonialism but also supporting
it through their work of representation. Criticising Said’s view of literature/
culture as a consolidator of empire, the following chapters bring to the
fore a different aspect of literature and cultural inquiry: one that helps us
change rather than consolidate harmful practises within economics, politics,
religion, medicine and society at large. Countering a long-standing tradition
that views literature in terms of representation or mimesis, Philosophy and
Literature in Times of Crisis shifts the emphasis from a focus on resemblance
to the creation of alternative and novel forms of life. It delineates how arts
and humanities help us change accustomed forms of action and perception.
How can literature change accustomed forms of action and perception?
Literature’s sphere of action may appear modest and circumscribed. Whereas
the sciences pursue large societal questions, literature seems to be introvert in
its focus on individuals and particulars. How can literature’s engagement with
the subjective and the local bring about change in society at large? In order to
address this question it is helpful to discuss Amitav Ghosh’s essay ‘The March
of the Novel Through History’. Ghosh asks how a genre like the novel, which
is concerned with particular places, could give rise to a notion of universal
literature. Ghosh describes ‘the emergence of a notion of universal “literature,”
a form of artistic expression that embodies differences in place and culture,
emotion and aspiration, but in such a way as to render them communicable’.62
This idea of universal literature may have its origins in Europe – in Goethe’s
famous term Weltliteratur (world literature) – but was most enthusiastically
embraced as practice elsewhere: ‘This idea may well have had its birth in

Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 68.
Said, Culture and Imperialism, p. 68.
Ghosh, Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the Turmoil of Our Times (New York:
Mariner Books, 2005), p. 108.
40 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Europe, but I suspect it met with much more enthusiastic reception elsewhere.’63
As we will see below, Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy consciously partakes of this idea of a
universal literature, which connects the local with the global.
How can we account for the paradox of literature: that we experience the
universal through an in-depth engagement with the local and the internal?
Intriguingly Ghosh attempts to make sense of this paradox by examining how
literary representation occurs. What makes possible a sense of place is the
loss of place in the first place: ‘Those of us who love novels often read them
because of the eloquence with which they communicate a “sense of place.”
Yet the truth is that it is the very loss of a lived sense of place that makes their
fictional representation possible.’64 Literary representation depends on a shift
away from that which is represented.
This gap between sign and signified has been bewailed in philosophical
and theoretical works on literature, from Plato to Heidegger, to Paul de Man.
Slavoj Žižek has recently attempted to do justice to the loss that is a gain.
What we lose in literature’s shift away from what it represents, we gain in
our understanding of the universal and its particular or concrete meanings.
Creatively rereading Hegel’s notion of the concrete universal Žižek writes of
‘the movement of negativity which splits universality from within, reducing
it to one of the particular elements, one of its species’.65 Literature’s site is local
and particular. The particular, however, partakes of the universal. Put more
precisely, the particular is the internal rift of the universal. We cannot think
of the universal without its stumbling block: the particular. The particular
participates in social antagonism, which is a synonym for the diversity
without which the universal would be flat, monolithic or homogenous.
Lyotard’s end of narratives could only come to fruition in a completely
efficient world of what Sylvia Plath calls ‘faceless faces’ (see Chapter 4) where
homogeneity reigns supreme and where we have lost the meaning of both
particularity and universality. In order to arrive at meanings old or new, we
need to touch the zero level of nothingness, where representations evaporate
and new configurations arise out of the gap, the null point that separates
the sign from the signified: ‘There are many worlds because Being cannot
be One, because a gap persists between the two.’66 Literature thrives in this
gap opening up between the particular and the universal. Ghosh describes
this interruption as the birth of the universal out of the loss of the particular.

Ghosh, Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the Turmoil of Our Times (New York:
Mariner Books, 2005), p. 108.
Ghosh, Incendiary Circumstances, p. 119.
Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2003), p. 87.
Žižek, Less than Nothing, p. 52.
What Is It about Numbers? 41

The zero point of the particular is, however, the recuperation of a new
particularity within the universal, within world literature. Philosophy and
Literature in Times of Crisis discovers in precisely this gap between particular
and universal, between sign and signified the space for forms of new life
that diverge from what we are already familiar within our circumscribed
daily routines hemmed in as they are by the parochial. Ghosh calls this
‘dislocation’ – this process of the literary opening from the local to the
universal: ‘In other words, to locate oneself through prose, one must begin
with an act of dislocation.’67 Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies narrates precisely this
sense of dislocation without which we would not have an understanding of
the universal and of human interconnection.
In the first part of his Ibis trilogy Ghosh moves from land, to river, to sea.
The novel’s structure performs an opening up from solid forms of empire and
colonialism to the wide seascape where trade may hit its limits being subject
to the vagaries of storms and other forms of disruptive weather. The land-
bound section of the novel frequently gives rise to the pseudo-scientific talk of
the capitalist economics of 1838 (which mirrors our contemporary neoliberal
setting). Representatives of empire emphasize the scientific advancement
colonialism and the lucrative opium trades bring to less-developed,
‘unscientific’ China. Referring to opium trade as the foundation of Victorian
wealth, the merchant trader Mr Burnham turns the trade in this drug into
the foundation of all scientific progress: ‘Why one might even say that it is
opium that has made progress and industry possible.’68 Progress means not
only addiction but also the mass starvation of Indian peasants who are bound
by British colonial rule to solely plant opium poppies rather than wheat.
Against this bleak background of the status quo Ghosh’s novel turns
the infamous Kala-Pani, or Black Water of the ocean, into a metaphor for
literature’s scope for border-crossing liberations. The violence inflicted
by the drawing of border has already been the subject matter of his earlier
(1988) novel Shadow Lines. This novel does not have much of a plot. Instead
of telling a linear storyline, it focuses on the shadow lines announced in
its title. These lines come home to roost at the end of the novel when the
narrator loses his childhood friend Tridib in the Communal Riots of 1963
in Dhaka. Borderlines divide Dhaka from the narrator’s and Tridib’s native
Calcutta. The novel tells the story of how these borderlines are shadow lines:
it unmasks the fictitiousness of these lines in the life of its protagonists. The
actual shadowy or fictitious character of these lines comes to the fore at an
utterly contingent moment: that of street riots in both Dhaka and Calcutta.

Ghosh, Incendiary Circumstances, p. 119.
Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (London: John Murray, 2008), p. 121.
42 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The narrator and his companions have crossed the border separating his
India’s Calcutta from Bangladesh’s Dhaka. It turns out that borders do
not separate opposing parties. On the contrary, they intensify violence by
turning the two geographies (separated by the border) into mirror images
of each other. Ghosh describes violence across borders in terms of Lacan’s
mirror stage. Whereas Lacan analyses the fictitious foundation of the strife
for autonomous selfhood, Ghosh discovers how supposedly separate entities
come together in the deadly and mirror-like embrace of violence. It is
worthwhile quoting the whole passage:

When I turned back to my first circle I was struck with wonder that there
had really been a time, not so long ago when people, sensible people, of
good intention, had thought that all maps where the same, that there was
a special enchantment in lines; I had to remind myself that they were
not to be blamed for believing that there was something admirable in
moving violence to the borders and dealing with it through science and
factories, for that was the pattern of the world. They had drawn their
borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping
perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two
bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic
plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland. What had they felt, I wondered,
when they discovered that they had created not a separation, but a yet-
undiscovered irony – the irony that killed Tridib; the simple fact that
there had never been a moment in the 4000-year-old history of that
map when the places we had known as Dhaka and Calcutta were more
closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines – so
closely that I, in Calcutta, had only to look in the mirror to be in Dhaka;
a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked
into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free – our
looking-glass border.69

Here we encounter the opposite of an ostensible gap where entities separate

and create new forms of being. The narrator describes the violence of a meeting
between sign and signifier, representation and that which it represents. The
mirror-like coincidence between representation and the represented creates a
Traditionally the double denotes doubt. In this way the Latin word for to
doubt, dubitare, derives from duo (two or double). Glenn W. Most has argued
that the widespread association of crisis (doubt) with the figure of the double

Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (London: Bloomsbury, 1988), p. 287.
What Is It about Numbers? 43

refers to ‘doubt about identity in particular’.70 Following Freud and Lacan,

Catherine Malabou has recently argued that the double denotes the psychic
collapse of the distinction between internal and external danger.71 The self
that sees its mirror-image in the assumed other turns violent at the collapse
of his confirmed identity. The drawing of borderlines establishes clearly
delineated identities. The collective mirror phase marks the discovery that
these identities are spurious. This recognition does not lead to greater insight
but to anger and violence. The collectives in question here turn furious at
the spurious foundation of what divides them (borderlines or the grounds of
their political, religious and ethnic identities). Ghosh describes postcolonial
violence in terms of both mirages and mirrors. Violence’s mirror scene
renders the normalcy of non-violent civil society a mirage of contingency:

It is fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent,

that the spaces that surround one, the streets one inhabits, can become,
suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood.
It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the
subcontinent from the rest of the world – not language, not food, not
music – it is the special quality that grows out of the fear of the war
between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.72

Like borders, mirrors produce two semi-identical copies of one’s body. These
two copies behave identically: here clearly being is one. The one splits into
identical bodies; the two images or bodies represent each other and desire
the same thing. It is not difference but identity that produces strife, harm and
violence. This sense of rivalry ensues from striving not for different goods but
for mutually identical ones:

We’re going to get you, nothing personal, we have to kill you for our
freedom. It would be like reading my own speech transcribed on a
mirror. And then I think to myself, why don’t they draw thousands of
lines through the whole subcontinent and give every place a new name?
What would it change? It’s a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage.73

The novel shows how this quest for freedom reduces difference to spurious –
mirage-like – sameness. Colonial India aspires to freedom from colonial rule.

Most, Doubting Thomas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 80.
See Malabou’s The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans. Steven Miller
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), pp. 121–141.
Ghosh, The Shadow Lines, p. 250.
Ghosh, The Shadow Lines, p. 302.
44 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

In the postcolonial era, India’s Calcutta fights for freedom from Bangladesh’s
Dhaka and vice versa. Each entity mirrors each other’s quest for freedom. Lines
are drawn to ensure ‘freedom’ but these lines are shadow lines because the
countries and nations they supposedly separate are identical representations of
each other. Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines narrates the violence implicit in mirrors
and full or identical representations. What is missing is the gap out of which
difference arises. Difference creates both inefficiency and meaning – two entities
missing in Snow’s and Lyotard’s pseudo-scientific understanding of science. The
two cultures’ debate itself was an attack on the difference that the arts and
humanities seem to constitute to the idealized hegemony of the free market.
Mutatis mutandis, in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy death and difference loom
within the feared nonentity of the ocean’s black water. However, the death in
question here is that of a new beginning. The ship that traverses the blackness
of water is the vehicle of true transformation. It crosses the vastness of the
ocean where we encounter the zero point of borders and lines: ‘Ibis was not a
ship like any other; in her inward reality she was a vehicle for transformation,
travelling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding
landfall that was Truth.’74 The passengers of Ghosh’s symbolic ship are all
outcasts – whether they are prisoners or indentured peasants or collies who
replace the victims of the now-illegal slave trade. Through their exposure to
the borderless Black Water, they experience the new beginning of literature,
which is precisely the interruption of institutionally (i.e. borders and other
institutional nomenclatures) produced harm.
As has been discussed above, Ghosh calls this form of salutary disruption
‘dislocation’. The Ibis indeed dislocates its passengers from the harm they were
subjected to at home: ‘Now that they were cut off from home, there was nothing
to prevent men and women from pairing off in secret, as beasts, demons and
pishaches were said to do: there was no pressing reason for them to seek the
sanction of anything other than their own desires.’75 By relying on the sanction
of their own individual forms of desire, the outcasts of the Ibis undermine
the colonialist trade with opium. How so? Sea of Poppies describes the effects
of opium consumption as precisely the death of desire. The opium-addicted
captain of the ship explains the work of the drug as follows: ‘I will tell you
then: it kills a man’s desires.’76 By answering to the authority of their individual
desires, the outcast crew of the Ibis invert the foundation of modern ethics,
which is precisely the indifference to or the overcoming of idiosyncratic,
nonconforming, non-homogenous affects or emotions.

Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, p. 440.
Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, p. 449.
Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, p. 453.
What Is It about Numbers? 45

As we will see in the following chapter modern Western ethics has been
shaped by a secularized Christian divide between fallen nature (i.e. desire)
and rational or spiritual redemption from this ‘corrupt’ natural state (ruled
by desire). The colonial judge who condemns one of the outcasts of the Ibis
to punitive work in Mauritius justifies the harshness of his sentencing with
precisely the ethical command to forgo natural inclinations and emotions in
order to reach rational forms of justice as follows:

‘The temptation that afflicts those who bear the burden of governance,’
said the judge, ‘is ever that of indulgence, the power of paternal feeling
being such as to make every parent partake of the suffering of his ward
and offspring. Yet, painful as it is, duty requires us sometimes to set aside
our natural affections in the proper dispensation of justice … ’77

Mr Justice Kendalbushe here clearly articulates ethics based on a modern

compatibalist perspective, which will be discussed in the following chapter.
His reasoning also partakes of a providential view of progress, which, as
we have seen at the opening of this chapter, keeps shaping the thinking of
twentieth-century intellectuals in different but related ways. The colonial
subject appears as a child who is in need of parental punishment and
providential guidance. The colonial child must not follow his/her desire but
obey the command of his/her colonial parent. Ghosh’s Ibis novels disrupt
this harmonious and providential construction of economics, ethics and
politics. As we shall see in the following chapter and throughout this book,
literature’s ethics of resilience confirms the value of desire. Resilience here
denotes the refusal to abandon nonconforming affects. The turn to affect in
contemporary society at large may constitute a resilient re-discovery of non-
hegemonic versions of the arts and sciences that have refused to submit to
the one-size-fits-all approach of global capitalism.

Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, p. 248.

Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics

The aim is to reach an outlook different from that of any of these theories.
It is an outlook that embodies scepticism about philosophical ethics, but a
scepticism that is more about philosophy than it is about ethics.
Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy

Introduction: The tradition of modern ethics and

its divide between nature and reason

As we have seen in the last section of the previous chapter, literature critiques
reductive approaches towards ethics. At the same time literature helps discover
a diversity of ways of conducting a good life. As Bernard Williams has pointed
out, ‘philosophy has traditionally shown a desire to reduce this diversity’.1 In
the pre-modern context philosophers reduced ethics to eudaimonia, to a
question of the well-being of the soul: ‘Well-being was the desirable state of
one’s soul – and that meant of oneself as a soul, since an indestructible and
immaterial soul was what one really was.’2 This dualistic account of the good
life has shaped Greek and Christian ethics from Socrates to Augustine (see
Chapter 5). A further reduction haunts this approach. It reduces the question
of well-being (to which it has already reduced ethics) to being disembodied:
‘If bodily hurt is no real harm, why does virtue require us so strongly not
to hurt other people’s body?’3 Pre-modern philosophical ethics reduces the
question of the good to the dualistic, immaterial issue of the soul’s well-being.
Though still clinging to a dualistic paradigm, modern philosophical ethics
attempts to separate ethical value from any form of well-being.
Within Kantian philosophy, the term ‘ethics’ denotes the divide between
the merely natural state of well-being and the rational state of the moral
good. This accustomed Kantian or modern understanding of ethics grows
out of the purported incommensurability of being and reason. The natural
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2011), with a
commentary on the text by A. W. Moore and a foreword by Jonathan Lear, p. 17.
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 38–39.
Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 39.
48 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

state of being gives rise to the sheer pleasure of being alive. As Williams has
clearly put it, ‘Kant, in particular, believed that every action not done from
moral principle was done for the agent’s pleasure.’4 Pre-modern philosophy
reduces ethics to the well-being of the soul. Modern Kantian philosophy
is equally reductive in excluding spiritual or embodied feelings of pleasure
from its conception of the moral good.
Kant’s purportedly secular approach towards ethics nonetheless adds the
religious element of dying away from the world (an overcoming of worldly
concerns). Kant constructed an understanding of what it means to be rational
along the lines of Christ’s death to the world. In traditional Christian scripture,
the fruits of this death are to be reaped in heaven. In Kant’s secular version of
this redemptive narrative these fruits are to be harvested immanently.5
As Girogio Agamben has recently pointed out, ‘ethics in a modern sense,
with its court of insoluble aporias, is born, in this sense, from the fracture
between being and praxis that is produced at the end of the ancient world
and has its eminent place in Christian theology’.6 The divergence between
being and praxis necessitates a system of rules and regulations by means of
which what is incompatible becomes compatible. The word ‘ethics’ has come to
signify such a system. Ethics in this secularized Christian or modern sense
imposes its degrees upon a fallen or imperfect world. From now on, we have
to work hard at turning fallen nature into a product of our (ethical) actions:
‘what is new is the division between being and the will, nature and action,
introduced by Christian theology’.7 Christian theology from Augustine
onwards creates the concept of providence in order to bridge the gap between
being and praxis.
Providence turns the incompatible compatible: nature – while being opposed
to reason and redemption – in the end coincides with rational and ethical
actions: ‘Providence (the government) is that through which theology and
philosophy try to come to terms with the splitting of classical ontology into
two separate realities: being and praxis, transcendent and immanent good,
theology and oiknoomia.’8 Providence transforms potentially unruly nature
into the wished-for stability signalled by the concept ‘natural order’. Via
providence – Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ – economics affects the presumed

Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 17.
For a detailed discussion of this topic see Mack’s German Idealism and the Jew: The
Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 23–41.
Agamben, The Kingdom and Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and
Government, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2011), p. 54.
Agamben, The Kingdom and Glory, p. 55.
Agamben, The Kingdom and Glory, p. 140.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 49

utopian position of equilibrium, stability and harmony. As John Cassidy

has recently shown, the supposed mathematical certainties of modern
market equilibrium theory are not objective facts but rather participate in
a hermeneutic and secularized theological tradition of intellectual history:
‘Behind all the posturing and fancy mathematics, it [i.e. market equilibrium
theory] relied on the ancient notion of the free market economy as a stable,
self-equilibrating mechanism, and ignored many of the problems and
pathologies that the history of capitalism has thrown up.’9 Pseudo-theological
is the ‘myth of natural orderliness in the economic realm’.10 The market here
assumes the mantle of theological providence, invisibly turning instability
into stability, corruption into beneficence and self-interest into social welfare.
Owing to the financial crisis we have realized that markets are far from
stable. This is, however, reality-derived knowledge by hindsight. A decade
ago various mortgage-backed securities were mathematically credited to
be risk-free. It is not mathematics but rather contingent history and affect-
ridden social reality that prove the validity of an economic theory. Market
equilibrium theory was valid as long as markets were reasonably stable:

Following the steep recession of 1981–82, the US economy went twenty-

five years without entering another prolonged downturn. When things
are going well, it is much easier to sell people on the latest exposition
of the invisible hand, and to ignore inconvenient issues, such as rising
inequality, chronic budget deficits, gaps in the health care system, the
potential for financial instability.11

Agamben does not mention reality-based economics on which Cassidy

focuses his discussion. Cassidy, however, does not refer to the secularized
theological affect of providence in economic theories of the invisible hand.
Economic theories such as those of both market efficiency and market
equilibrium assume to be rational and non-affect-ridden.
This appearance of objectivity makes them all the more attractive. The
realization of their subjective and affect-driven foundations renders those
delusive theories amenable to rational critique. This is precisely one of
the tasks of this book. Theology and economics affect the perfection of an
imperfect world with reference to a providential and teleological scheme.
Agamben seems to be aware that it is not only theology and economics

Cassidy, How Markets Fall: The Logic of Economic Calamities (London: Penguin, 2009),
p. 106.
Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Market: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 151.
Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Market.
50 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

whose functioning is premised on the concept of a predetermined order, of

providence. It is also modern science:

Modern science’s image of the world, writes Agamben, ‘has often been
opposed to the theological concept of a providential government of the
world. However, in their conceptual structure they are more similar than
we customarily think. First of all, the model of general providence is
based on eternal laws that are entirely analogous to those of modern

Agamben’s notion of modern science may be too much reliant on the work
of Adam Smith to be congruent with current scientific methodologies. As
we shall see in Chapter 5, the science of medicine does, however, displace
the denotation of the theological term mortality into the sphere of secular
immanence. Within this seemingly secular sphere notions of ill health and
mortality separate the ethically good and healthy from sin-invested diseases
of modern life (obesity, smoking and so forth). Illness here becomes not a
theological but an economic topic of modern ethics (rendering parts of the
workforce uneconomic or useless).
Agamben’s concern with the management of disorder is pertinent not
only to economics and theology but also to medicine and other modern
sciences, because ‘what is essential’ to these disciplines

is not really the idea of predetermined order, so much as the possibility

of managing the disorder; not the binding necessity of fate, but the
constancy and computability of a disorder; not the uninterrupted
chain of causal connections, but the conditions of the maintenance and
orientation of effects that are in themselves purely contingent.13

In order to manage contingency and control disorder, modern ethics relies

on providential schemes and this in different fields – not only in theology but
also where we would least expect it: in medicine, economics and other social
and natural sciences.
What, however, has this hidden concern with the management of disorder
and contingency to do with evidence-based empirical research? Evidence-
based empirical research does not take place in a sphere independent of
context and concept. It is itself shaped by questions of order, efficiency,
disorder and breakdown. Agamben’s recent work analyses points where

Agamben, The Kingdom and Glory, p. 123


Agamben, The Kingdom and Glory, p. 124.

Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 51

the theological has become indistinct from the economical. The concept of
a well-ordered and predictable future (providence) is such a point. (More
generally speaking, a similar attention to the management of life characterizes
the broad modern understanding of the term ethics, as has recently been
argued.)14 Agamben critically reflects on how such management of life
declares our contingent affect-ridden and embodied world unworthy of
reflection. Bio-politics is an extreme form of such management of life, where
life becomes synonymous with political ideologies and rules. Agamben sees
in the Christian theory of government a precursor of both bio-politics and
utopian economics: ‘The Christian government of the world consequently
assumes the paradoxical figure of the immanent government of a world that
is and needs remain extraneous.’15 By ‘extraneous’ Agamben understands
something that is irrelevant, non-essential or impertinent. Both theological
providence and economic predictability declare affect-ridden and contingent
forms of embodiment non-essential and unworthy of critical reflection. The
ethics of literature counters this Christian and post-Christian (i.e. modern)
approach to the management of life and other forms of disorder. Rather than
rendering the contingency of our world peripheral, it reconnects the word
with the world, literature with life.

Judith Butler, literature and the bridge

between nature and reason

Literature changes the way we conceive of ethics: no longer in the post-

Christian context of a divide between being and praxis, but rather in terms
of an interdependence and interaction between the two. This back and forth
between substance and subjectivity, between body and mind engages with –
rather than, in panic-ridden moves, banishes – contingency and disorder.
This book argues for a new conception as well as implementation of the
ethical. This new approach towards ethics emerges from nascent readings of
literature, science and philosophy. The ethics that emerges out of literature’s
engagement with philosophy, science and socio-political pseudo-science
does not repeat or somewhat reinstate in the slightly altered form of the
ethical as we know it from theological and philosophical discourse.
Rather than presenting philosophical ethics in a different, more accessible
form and format, the ethics of literature compliments and sometimes counters

See Simon Blackburn’s Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2003).
Agamben, The Kingdom and Glory, p. 140.
52 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

that of philosophy. It compliments some strands within contemporary

political thought about social exclusion, social performance, particularly
that of Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek. Butler is of particular interest for the
project of developing a new approach to ethics, because she combines Hegel
and Spinoza’s ethical thought, while still clinging to a Hegelian philosophy
of recognition. Her work shows that a politics of recognition and a politics
of creativity (self-determination or, in other words, what Hasana Sharp has
recently called ‘renaturalization’) are not mutually exclusive. As she has shown
in her reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit recognition is premised on
one of the prime motors of creativity: desire. ‘But what is it that the other
recognizes us as’, she asks and answers ‘as a desiring being: Self-consciousness
is Desire in general’.16 From Butler’s perspective, social recognition does not
arise from social conformity but from our creative, self-determined and highly
diverse desires.
Social recognition thus understood complements Spinoza’s conatus,
which is a distinctive life force that informs and shapes us in different and
differentiated ways. Indeed Butler interprets Hegel’s notion of force (which
preconditions his understanding of desire) as ‘Hegel’s reformulation of
Spinoza’s conatus’.17 The self receives social recognition for its creative force
through which it transforms not only the external world but through which
it also re-creates itself: ‘Desire as a transformation of the natural world is
simultaneously the transformation of its own natural self into an embodied
freedom.’18 The encounter between self and other is mutually transformative.
Butler’s Hegelianism is one that is inclusive of otherness because it is revisable.
Butler reconstructs Hegel’s philosophy along Spinozist lines. This makes
her reading of both Hegel and Spinoza highly creative. Butler opens up
Hegel’s humanism to Spinoza’s critique of humanism. By undermining the
methodologies of representation, Spinoza has led the groundwork for a new
conception of literature. This new understanding of literature and creativity, in
general, preconditions Butler’s liberating reading of social recognition not as
the result or reward for social conformity, but, on the contrary, as the realization
and appreciation of social difference and diversity. This new understanding of
literature revises our approach towards politics. It is no longer a politics of
homogeneity but of creativity, self-determination and diversity.

Butler, ‘Desire, Rhetoric, and Recognition in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1987)’
in Sara Salih with Judith Butler (ed.), Judith Butler Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004),
pp. 39–85 (83).
Butler, ‘Desire, Rhetoric, and Recognition in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1987)’,
p. 55.
Butler, ‘Desire, Rhetoric, and Recognition in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1987)’,
p. 83.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 53

Can it be one of nature or renaturalization? Butler has analysed how

‘nature’ is culturally constructed. And yet we live in a substantive, embodied
world of nature. The point is not to conflate the natural with the cultural.
The study of representation is of huge socio-political value, because it
reveals how in different contexts, the cultural becomes represented as
the natural. A politics based on representation, which defines social
recognition in terms of social conformity, does, not, however, do justice to
our diversity. Instead of representation, Spinoza’s conatus evokes the diverse
and idiosyncratic forces of creativity and self-determination. Preparing for
a new understanding of ethics, this chapter will first discuss Spinoza’s Ethics
and will then proceed to raise the question whether literature rather than
the more de-contextualized field of philosophy enables us to see the ethical
beyond the mind–body, being–reason divide. The concluding section
analyses literature’s differentia specifica from the Spinozist philosopher
Deleuze’s ideational approach.

Spinoza’s ethics of literature: His conatus and the new

approach to literature, humanities and the arts

Further developing Spinoza’s rationalist perspective on the imagination I

have recently delineated a new approach towards the ethical significance
and the social impact of literature and the arts.19 This chapter shows how
Spinoza’s thought has been helpful in formulating what I call a nascent
approach to the study of literature and the arts/humanities in general. How
Literature Changes the Way We Think attempts to place the emphasis on the
active rather than merely on the receptive aspect of humanities and arts.
Here, it creatively re-reads Spinoza’s term conatus as the striving or, in other
words, the unending attempt to act within and perceive the world in radically
new life-enhancing ways. The humanities and arts have traditionally been
associated with the imagination. The imagination, in turn, has often been
separated from the work of reason. Spinoza was the first philosopher to break
down the separation between reason and imagination as well as between
mind and body.
To better understand Spinoza’s philosophy of the conatus, we must
therefore attend to his novel approach to the mind–body problem. This will
be the task of what follows in this section. It will emerge from this discussion
that bringing together literature, humanities and the arts with medicine,
social sciences and science depends on Spinoza’s post-humanist humanism.

See Mack, How Literature Changes the Way We Think (New York: Continuum, 2012).
54 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Spinoza does not deny humanity and human rationality. His reason is,
however, that of the conatus: the striving to create and preserve ever-new
forms of life. Rationality here consists in recognizing the subjectivity and
creativity of each form of life.
This section will also discuss what I call the ethics of literature: literature
uncovers the affective and fictive ways of living, which govern our day-to-day
activities. This rationalist work of making us conscious of real fictions also
provides the impetus to change our mode of action and interaction within
society at large. The second section analyses one powerful fiction that has
shaped various attempts to find an abstract measure of what is human. This
is the fiction of bio-politics, the extreme variation of which determined the
Nazi genocide. The following section analyses the ways in which the Spinozist
thinker Gilles Deleuze comes to terms with the philosophical repercussions
of bio-politics and the Nazi genocide. This discussion will show that a
literary mode of inquiry may prove to be closer to the ethics of living than
Deleuze’s ideational discourse. The radical wager proposed in this chapter is
that literature rather than philosophical discourse à la Deleuze bridges the
gap between the mental and the corporeal, between the humanities and the
sciences. The bridging of these divides was a major concern of Spinoza’s re-
conception of the mind as the idea of the body.
There is a certain parallelism between imagination and reason, between
mind and body. What has been taken to be the receptive region of both the
body and the imagination turns out to be connected to the more active or
constructive workings of the mind. In the latter half of the twentieth century,
Spinoza’s radical revision of Descartes’s mind–body dualism was scientifically
substantiated by neurological experiments and research findings. By now
it has become common neurological knowledge ‘that the human mind
and spirituality originates in a physical organ, the brain’.20 Contemporary
neurology has thus proved right Spinoza’s materialism of the mind.21 The
mind is not separated from the body but partakes of it. The mind is itself
corporeal matter (the brain).
These neurological findings overturn the traditional divide between
body and mind, which places the latter above the former. Commenting on
Simone de Beauvoirs’s analysis of the body, Judith Butler has maintained
that this traditional divide between the mental and the corporeal ‘takes its
bearings within a cultural situation in which men have traditionally been
associated with the disembodied or transcendent feature of human existence
Eric R. Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of the Mind (London:
Norton, 2007), p. 7
For a discussion of this see Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the
Feeling Brain (London: Harcourt, 2003).
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 55

and women with bodily and immanent features of human existence’.22 The
predominance of Descartes’s res cogitans has begun to disintegrate. Descartes
res cogitans ‘gives rise to rational thought and consciousness, and it reflects
in its nonphysical character the spiritual nature of the soul’.23 Kandel rightly
claims that contemporary neurology’s critique of Descartes’s paradigm of
a mind that interacts with the body by controlling it dates back to Freud.
Freud’s starting point was the physicality of the mind (the brain):

in 1887, when Freud began his own career, he has thought to solve the
hidden riddles of mental life by studying the brain one nerve cell at a
time. Freud started out as an anatomist, studying single nerve cells, and
had anticipated a key point of what later came to be called the neuro
doctrine, the view that nerve cells are the building blocks of the brain.24

When Freud abandoned his neurological research and concentrated on

literary issues such as language, the unconscious and representation, he
always connected these seemingly immaterial linguistic concerns with the
material spheres of sexuality, mortality and the physical. Following Spinoza,
to whose work he was deeply indebted, Freud’s psychoanalysis established
the indissolubility of body and mind.25
Our contemporary Freudian or post-Freudian culture is to a large extent
shaped by the bio-medical assumptions of a materialism that has first been
advanced by Spinoza in his critique of Descartes’s mind–body divide.26
Spinoza is, however, not a straightforward materialist, because he combines
a biomedical (avant lá lettre) understanding of our humanity with an ethical
perspective. Deleuze has analysed the ways in which ethics is different from
morality. An ethical approach attempts to delineate ways of living, whereas
a moral approach is concerned with conceptual issues or with representative
models where questions of right and wrong are fixed and mutually opposed
to each other.27 Deleuze pinpoints the intellectual location of ethics within
Spinoza’s parallelism of mind and body: ‘According to the Ethics, on the
contrary, what is an action in the mind is necessarily an action in the body
as well, and what is a passion in the body is necessarily a passion in the

Butler, ‘Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault (1987)’ in Sara Salih
with Judith Butler (ed.), Judith Butler Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 21–37 (27).
Kandel, In Search of Memory, p. 117
Kandel, In Search of Memory, pp. 55–56.
For a detailed discussion of Freud’s intellectual engagement with Spinoza see the last
chapter of Mack’s Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity (London: Continuum, 2010).
On this see Mack, Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity, pp. 11–29.
On this see Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza and Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San
Francisco: City Lights, 1988).
56 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

mind. There is no primacy of one over the other.’28 The ideational name for
such understanding of ethics is what Deleuze calls ‘a philosophy of “life”
in Spinoza; it consists precisely in denouncing all that separates us from
life, all these transcendent values that are turned against life, these values
that are tied to the conditions and illusions of consciousness’.29 In How
Literature Changes the Way We Think I have shown how Spinoza’s ethics
solves the problem of a divide between art and life, which has characterized
traditional approaches to aesthetics. (As we will see, Spinoza’s, Deleuze’s
and Derrida’s ethical turn has recently come under attack in the work of
Jacques Rancière.)
Spinoza tried to delineate ways of living from the perspective of an active
and preservative principle, which he called conatus. This principle equally
informs the body and the mind as it does the imagination and reason. The
imagination is not passive or simply receptive (of images and other sense
data); it also acts upon reason in either beneficial or detrimental ways.
Spinoza appreciates both affect and reason as being compelled by the
conatus. In this way ‘desire is the very essence of man, that is, a striving by
which a man strives to persevere in his being’ and in parallel reason demands
‘that everyone should strive to preserve his own being as far as he can’.30
Spinoza relates the imagination to desire, to the affects and to the body but
also to morality – morality being determined by the concepts of good and
evil. Spinoza submerges these concepts in a material or biological/corporeal
realm. What we take to be morally good or evil varies according to what we
desire, to what affects our body as either good or evil:

And so knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or

sadness which follows necessarily from the affect of joy or sadness itself.
But this idea is united to the affect in the same way as the mind is united
to the body, that is, this idea is not really distinguished from the affect
itself, or from the idea of the body’s affection; it is only conceptually
distinguished from it. There, this knowledge of good and evil is nothing
but the affect itself, insofar as we are conscious of it.31

The concepts of good and evil denote cognition of what affects our bodies in
either a beneficial or detrimental manner. Up to this point Spinoza anticipates
our biomedical age of materialism. Spinoza is, however, concerned with the

Deleuze, Spinoza and Practical Philosophy, p. 18.
Deleuze, Spinoza and Practical Philosophy, p. 26.
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, edited and translated by Edwin Curley with an introduction by
Stuart Hampshire (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 124.
Spinoza, Ethics, pp. 120–121.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 57

discovery of a way of life where we are collectively able to reduce the politico-
social exposure of individuals and minorities to harm. At this point Spinoza
counters the partial or ideological-moral-aesthetic discussions of good and
evil or beautiful and ugly. The problem with bodily affects and perceptions or
desires is that they can mislead us: they can make us confuse our subjective
disposition with objective or universal states of affairs. In this way we take our
predilections to be universal facts rather than subjective entities.
Here we reach the point where Spinoza’s thought critiques aspects of
humanism. Out of our subjective notion of what is human, we are prone to
postulate an abstract and fixed notion of humanity in general. This form of
humanism is quite moralistic: it defines its notion of humanity in accordance
with the concepts of good and evil. As we have seen above, Spinoza removes
these terms from the exclusively mental realm of morality – the domain of
traditional humanism – and submerges them into a more fluid and less-
elevated element: that of biology, medicine and the corporeal. This is not say
that he abandons reason, intellect and the spiritual. His rationalist approach
is, however, quite idiosyncratic and marks a difference in the history of
rationalism. It is a rationalism that is aware of its dependence on as well as
exposure to the illusions and misapprehensions of bodily sensations and
Our corporeality connects us to the outside world via the senses of sight,
touch and smell. The way we interpret various sense information is, however,
culturally conditioned. The corporeal work performed by the senses, its
neurons and the transmission of this information to the neurotransmitters
located in the brain does not exist in a neutral location. The work of how
we interpret this information has to do with our culture and how we relate
to it: whether we simply repeat or copy its interpretative framework or
whether we differentiate ourselves from it. Medicine and biology cannot be
separated from culture and culture cannot be separated from the corporeal
realm of medicine. Spinoza’s thought has solved the problem of a purported
split between medicine and the humanities (the realm of culture): he argues
that the mind is the idea of the body and that we therefore live within a
parallelism of the mental and the corporeal. We inhabit the osmosis of mind
and body. This collapse of the boundary between mind and body has serious
implications for the validity of traditional humanism and associated with it
rationalism and moral thought.
Significantly, Spinoza insists on both ethics and the rationalism of his
thought. His is rationalism with a difference, however. Reason here does
not work out abstract categories that are imposed on our life. Rather than
ruling nature and the corporeal in a one-way manner, reason here listens
to the medical realm of the body. It is an interconnection that reflects upon
58 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

delusions of generality – such as the fixed notion of the human and, associated
with it, the terms of good and evil – generated by the parallelism of mind and
body that we inhabit.
Spinoza employs the term reason for the opening-up of our perspective
from our subjective lives to the larger, communal or universal map of
our world: ‘Insofar as the mind reasons, it wants nothing other than to
understand.’32 The body, its affects and desires, is what the mind seeks to
understand: ‘the object of our mind is the existing body and nothing else’.33
In How Literature Changes the Way We Think I have shown that literature
does the work of Spinoza’s reason: in different and related ways it seeks to
understand the increasingly changing body of our world. Reason’s work
of understanding operates on different levels, which are interrelated and
depend on imagination as one of its substantive parts.

Spinoza’s critique of humanistic anthropocentricism, the

Nazi genocide and the collapse of ethics

This section analyses the ways in which Spinoza’s critique of purportedly

objective views, which are intrinsically subjective, contributes to solving the
problem of humanity’s centrality in our ecological structure, where – via
industrial pollution and waste – the human has become a geological force
(changing the ecosystem of the seas and the climate of our planet). In the
following, we will first establish the larger cultural context for an examination
of the relevance of Spinoza’s thought to eco-political and medical problems
through a discussion of the imagination and literature, in particular. The
central argument focuses on an exploration of the problematic nature that
characterizes endeavours to define or ‘measure’ what it means to be human.
This is all the more important in an age where the human has become an
overweening and all-dominating force in the non-human life of our planet.
The bio-political definition of humanity in terms of species existence relies
on certain conceptions of normativity and human essence.
Recent debates about the ‘posthuman’ call these normative – or, in other
words, moral – conceptions into question. Is there a human essence and why
should there be one? Definitions of human essence have been established
with the understanding of humanity’s centrality in the cosmos. Spinoza was
the thinker who most explicitly and stringently analysed various humanistic
and theological attempts to define the human in terms of anthropomorphic

Spinoza, Ethics, p. 129.


Spinoza, Ethics, p. 40.

Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 59

conceptions of God. This and the following section (focusing on Deleuze

and Nietzsche) discuss how Spinoza’s thought is of continuing relevance in
an age that the Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen has described as anthropocene,
as a new age ‘defined by one creature – man – who had become so dominant
that he was capable of altering the planet on a geological scale’.34 Through
scientific-technological dominance, humanity is in the process of altering
the conditions of life on planet earth. In our anthropocene age, humanity
has thus become a geological force. Spinoza is helpful in a critique of
the theological and scientific-historical ideas that prepared for such a
predominance of humanity within the ecological system of our planet. As
I have shown elsewhere he attempted to remove man from the centre of the
philosophical,35 theological and scientific universe. He unmasked all grand
human teleologies as theology that equates humanity with God/nature.
In this way, Spinoza is a non-humanist thinker. This does not mean that
he is not concerned with the welfare of humanity. The following discussion
explores how his critique of theology and normative strands of humanism
may help us in a revision of current medical, theological and political
attempts at reinforcing the anthropocene nature of what our planet has
become. This analysis will shed light on how a normative conception of the
human creates inhumane fictions of monolithic dominance and single-minded
commercialism. One outcome of such developments is the anthropocene
destruction of non-human life-worlds within the ecosystem of our planet.
This shows that a normative conception of the human, which establishes
reductive accounts of what is normal, beautiful and good, does violence to
the diversity of life (both within humanity and beyond).
Normative conceptions of the human create fictions of truth, beauty and
goodness, which can have rather inhumane consequences in the embodied
world of both human society and the non-human life of our planet. A
radically reductive and intransigently normative humanism can thus result
in the collapse of the humanity that characterizes traditional humanist ethics.
The following will explore the ways in which Spinoza’s thought assists us in
solving problems associated with the collapse of humanism: the absence of
morality that can be remedied via a Spinozan re-appreciation of ethics and
Important thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Martha Nussbaum have
struggled with the collapse of traditional humanist ethics. What is missing in
Arendt’s and Nussbaum’s respective analyses is a Spinozist perspective on how
the collapse of humanism is already part of a humanist intransigence regarding

Elizabeth Kolbert, ‘The Climate of Man’ New Yorker (2005, April), p. 54.

Mack, Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity.

60 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

reductive norms, which Spinoza has famously (or infamously) unmasked

as fictions of power. Avital Ronell has recently taken issue with Arendt’s
humanist take on authority, which includes an endorsement of slavery:

One must take a closer look at the bind that tightens around the slave
and ask how this tautological event (‘the slave came under the command
of the master when he became a slave’) erases the question of violence.
So intent is she on clearing the way for an authority without violence
that Arendt refuses to recognize that there is no slavery without violent

The attempt to find a middle ground between persuasion and violence

eventuates in Arendt’s humanist justification of inequalities and authority-
structures, which, as Ronell has shown, are violent (i.e. slavery).
Arendt is of course aware of some of the problems involved here. She has
recognized how in the latter part of the twentieth century humanism has lost
some of its ethical validity. Partly as a response to disturbing bio-political
practices within the twentieth century (Nazism, Stalinism and other forms of
totalitarianism) traditional conceptions of humanity have been questioned.37
This has been the case because, as Hannah Arendt has argued, various forms
of totalitarian rule made use of certain humanistic traditions of ethics while
perverting these traditions. In her Eichmann in Jerusalem, she attempts to
describe ‘the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable
European society’.38 The Nazis corrupted Biblical, Socratic and Kantian ethics
while proclaiming to be their true heir. Here the infliction of harm, violence
and mass death has become a duty. Acting unlawfully has become a law.
Harmful acts have lost their traditional association with temptation. Instead,
harm, murder and robbery have transmogrified into the new content of an
otherwise seemingly intact morality of duty and obedience.
Arendt’s famous ‘banality of evil’ consists in the way cruelty has come to
govern the normal way of social life. Eichmann and his fellow perpetrators
were not abnormal or pathological. On the contrary, they represented
normal and respectable German society. Evil has become normalized here: it
has turned moral. Evil thus no longer denotes a temptation to break laws or a

Ronell, Loser Sons: Politics and Authority (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012), p. 31.
See Hannah Arendt’s Essays in Understanding 1930–1954: Formation, Exile, and
Totalitarianism, edited with an introduction by Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken,
1994) and her The Origins of Totalitarianism, with a new introduction by Samantha
Power (New York: Schocken, 2004).
Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London: Penguin,
1991), p. 125.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 61

transgression of norms but the fulfilment of the law and an accommodation

to the social norm:

Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people
recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis,
probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted
not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom
(for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course,
even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details),
and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from
them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.39

While breaking with the content of traditional ethics (Socratic, Biblical or

Kantian), Nazism continued and even reinforced notions of respectability
and of what is acceptable or normal. In this way Nazism’s corruption and
distortion of traditional morality both reinforced and magnified the
normative dimension of traditional humanism. Indeed the Nazis made it a
duty to rob, deport and kill minorities (Jews, gypsies, people with a disability
and homosexuals) by classifying them as abnormal, as carriers of infectious
disease and, worse still, as non-humans and therefore not morally worthy to
be alive. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and people with a physical or mental
disability were first deprived of rights.
This loss of rights prepared for the legality of their being put to death.
Rather than condoning such deprivation of rights as the establishment of
‘pure politics’ (as Rancière claims), Arendt analyses this political process that
declared certain groups of people to be outside the realm of the political and
the publicly useful. The exclusion from politics and the public good grows out
of a normative or moralistic system, which contrasts bare life, the mere fact
of existence, with that of politics as the sphere of historical signification and
public achievement. Rather than condoning such division of humanity or,
worse still, the total annihilation of certain groups of people as practised in the
Nazi-genocide, Arendt critiques the politics of normative exclusion. Rancière
conflates the substance of Arendt’s critique with her actual argument when
he suggests ‘that the radical suspension of politics in the exception of bare
life is actually the ultimate consequence of Arendt’s archi-political position,
that is, of the attempt to preserve the political from the contamination of the
private, the social or a-political life’.40 Arendt examines the perversion and

Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 150.


Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, edited and translated by Steven

Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), p. 66.

62 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

collapse of traditional politics and morality (here conflated with ethics). She
attempts to understand this process of disintegration with a view to drawing
consequences from her investigation that could promote new beginnings for
a non-exclusive approach towards politics and ethics in the post-war era.
Arendt is especially concerned with the ways in which the re-enforcement
of traditional practices of exclusion became the publicly valid form of ethical
and political life under the Nazi regime.
In order to win public approval for its murderous norms, the Nazi
propaganda machinery worked on the emotions of its audience. It provoked
one emotion in particular: that of disgust. As Winfried Menninghaus has
pointed out, ‘the fundamental schema of disgust is the experience of a nearness
that is not wanted’.41 Disgust seems to work in an immediate manner: what is
perceived as disgusting has a direct way of permeating our skin and entering
into the information-gathering mind: the brain. The experience of a nearness
that is not wanted is, however, culturally conditioned. It is not something
that comes naturally but depends on memory and learning. Emotions such
as disgust are part of our psychological constitution and ‘aspects of many
psychological problems are learned’.42
Hence, indentifying a group or groups of people with the immediate
feeling of disgust requires some training. Martha Nussbaum has shown
how disgust ‘expresses a universal discomfort with bodily reality, but then
uses this discomfort to target and subordinate vulnerable minorities’.43 The
identification of the abject body with a word denoting a group of people
is clearly a form of cultural training or conditioning. This is what Nazi
propaganda provided: it depicted Jews (and other minorities) in a way that
made the word ‘Jew’ immediately identifiable with the feeling of disgust.
How is all of this relevant for today? Martha Nussbaum has recently shown
how ‘the politics of disgust continues to exercise influence, often in more subtle
and unstated ways’.44 Whereas totalitarian societies are governed by a ‘politics of
disgust’, in liberal democratic societies disgust has ‘gone underground’.45 Being
hidden does not necessarily prevent disgust from exerting its harmful and
often lethal political consequences. To counter the open or hidden influence of
a politics of disgust, Nussbaum makes a strong case for a politics of humanity.
Whereas a politics of disgust denies the humanity of the other, the politics of

Winfried Menninghaus, Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Emotion, translated by
Howard Eiland and Joel Golb (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 1.
Kandel, In Search of Memory, p. 116.
Martha C. Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional
Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010), p. xv.
Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity, p. xiv.
Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity, p. xv.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 63

humanity acknowledges our shared human condition. The former is exclusive

and the latter is inclusive. How, however, can we cultivate inclusion? Nussbaum
argues that we can become more inclusive via the imagination: ‘Disgust imputes
to the other a subhuman nature. How, by contrast, do we ever become able
to see one another as human? Only via the imagination.’46 Here Nussbaum’s
contemporary critique meets with Arendt’s analysis of totalitarian terror. Both
see the imagination as vital for ways of diminishing social exclusion, violence
and genocide. Arendt makes a lack of imagination responsible for both
Eichmann’s lack of feeling of guilt and his inability to repent:

It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him [i.e.

Eichmann] to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was
conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man
and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank
of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he
was not promoted. […] He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness –
something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him
to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is
‘banal’ and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot
extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still
far from calling it commonplace.47

As I have shown elsewhere, Arendt does not understand by the word

‘thoughtless’ what it commonly means.48 Her usage of the term is uncommon
in order to emphasize the non-communality of what the term describes.
‘Thoughtless’ in Arendt’s usage here does not mean absent-minded or stupid
or dysfunctional. It rather denotes what its linguistic isolation performs: the
loss of communality and the denial of humanity’s interconnection. According
to Arendt, Eichmann and his fellow perpetrators enacted such loss of our
communality by declaring certain groups of people to reside outside of what
they fixed in their racist nomenclature to be human (i.e. Aryan, non-disabled
and non-homosexual).
Arendt assumes that such loss of communality goes hand in hand with
the collapse of humanism. Spinoza, however, has already shown how such a
collapse of humanism is potentially part of its normative intransigence that
can do violence to the embodied world where we encounter a diversity of
life forms that all strive to create and preserve their life (conatus). Arendt
Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity, p. xvii.
Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, pp. 287–88.
Mack, ‘The Holocaust and Hannah Arendt’s Philosophical Critique of Philosophy:
Eichmann in Jerusalem’, New German Critique (Winter 2009): 35–60.
64 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

relates the imagination to understanding. Spinoza, as we have seen in the

preceding section, defines reason as the work of understanding corporeal
reality. The reality reason seeks to grasp is in constant flux and hence cannot
be accurately depicted via static concepts of duty and obedience. Eichmann
and his fellow perpetrators refer to such static concepts – even to Kant’s
categorical imperative (in Eichmann’s case) – in order to move acts of mass
murder into a detached or intellectual realm. The imposition of subjective,
culturally determined standards of evil – the Jews according to anti-Semitism
are ‘evil’ and thus evoke the bodily sensation of disgust – onto the universe of
matter is what happened during the state-sponsored reign of Nazi terror on
the European continent.
Spinoza critiqued the fictions that come to shape socio-political reality.
The most brutal fiction is the genocidal anti-Semitism which the Nazis
enacted. Nazism thus brings to the fore the cultural or, in other words,
subjective/fictive, construction of the body: it fabricated the Jewish body as
the non-human body. This harnessing of the term ‘humanity’ in order to
exclude groups of people from the human highlights the importance of our
cultural engagement with deleterious fictions that determine the empirical
core of the social sciences and the sciences. In this way Spinoza’s analysis of
humanist or moralistic thought about good and evil highlights the ways in
which cultural inquiry – of which literature and the humanities partake –
helps us tackle issues of violence, racism and other forms of stigmatization
in debates about and formulations of public policy. The Jews were certainly
placeholders for evil in both Nazism and the quasi-scientific and quasi-
theological racism that prepared its way.49
The following section analyses the predominance of a philosophical
discourse that prioritizes an abstract sphere of norms and ideas over and above
the more fluid realm that characterizes the ethics of literature. This will be
accomplished in an exploration of how the works of twentieth-century Spinozist
Gilles Deleuze and those of the contemporary philosopher Jacque Rancière
come to terms with the collapse of humanist morality after the Holocaust.

Deleuze, Nietzsche and the turn from ethics to aesthetics

On an ideational level Deleuze takes seriously Spinoza’s critique of
humanism and its concept-based morality of good and evil. He takes it so
seriously that he decomposes the human body, which in his thought morphs
into a body without organs. His work pivots around a reflection about

For a detailed discussion of this topic see Mack, German Idealsim and the Jew.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 65

in-distinction that does away with hierarchy, with various hierarchies that
have informed the moral system of humanism and traditional theological
thought. It is important to emphasize that Deleuze’s approach towards
Spinoza’s parallelism of mind and body is technically philosophical: it
concerns Spinoza’s philosophical term ‘attributes’. This is Deleuze’s post-
humanist/idealist take on Spinoza:

Any hierarchy or pre-eminence is denied in so far as the substance is

equally designated by all attributes in accordance with their essence,
and equally expressed by all the modes in accordance with their degree
of power. With Spinoza, univocal being ceases to be neutralized and
becomes expressive; it becomes a truly expressive and affirmative

According to Deleuze, Spinoza has philosophically/ideationally done

away with the differentiations and hierarchies that characterize traditional
humanism and theology. Instead of hierarchical differentiations, we find
ourselves on an equal ideational playing field where every philosophical
attribute has a right to engage in other forms of expression. My concern is
with human equality. Deleuze’s philosophy does not bridge the divide that
still separates the ideational or mentalist world from the embodied sphere of
human equality and public policy. My argument is that literature rather than
philosophical discourse à la Deleuze bridges the gap between the mental
and the corporeal, between the humanities and the sciences. The bridging of
these divides was a major concern of Spinoza’s re-conception of the mind as
the idea of the body.
Deleuze’s post-humanism has a decidedly idealist edge. His expressionism
does not relate to the distinct individual of traditional humanism. It rather
refers to a series of expressions that are impersonal and ontological. This
emphasis on the non-distinct results in Deleuze’s rejection of personalized
representation in favour of impersonal repetition:

The world of representation presupposes a certain type of sedentary

distribution, which divides or shares out that which is distributed in
order to give ‘each’ their fixed share (as in the bad game or the way to play,
the pre-existing rules define distributive hypotheses according to which
the results of the throws are partitioned). Representation essentially
implies an analogy of being. However, the only realized Ontology – in
other words, the univocity of being – is repetition. From Duns Scotus

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 50.
66 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

to Spinoza, the univocal position has always rested on two fundamental

theses. According to one, there are indeed forms of being, but contrary
to what is suggested by the categories, these forms involve no division
within being or plurality of ontological senses. According to the other,
that of which being is said is repartitioned according to essentially mobile
individuating differences which necessarily endow ‘each one’ with a
plurality of modal significations. This programme is expounded from
the beginning of the Ethics: we are told that the attributes are irreducible
to genera or categories because while they are formally distinct they all
remain equal and ontologically one, and introduce no division into the
substance which is said or expressed through them in a single and same
sense (in other words, the real distinction between attributes is formal,
not a numerical distinction).51

Based on Spinoza’s one-substance ontology, everything is more than

interconnected or interrelated: it is univocally at one and all distinctions
are simply formal rather than numerical. Deleuze’s philosophy takes issue
with representation because representation presupposes distinct entities:
representation constructs concepts that do not do justice to the world
they claim to depict. Distinct entities cannot exist (in an absolute sense)
in a univocal world or if they do ‘the real distinction between attributes’,
as Deleuze has put in the quote cited above, ‘is formal, not a numerical
distinction’. One of the most striking distinctions is the one between good
and evil, as has been discussed above.
Whereas representation divides the world into spurious oppositions
such as good and evil, the idea that according to Deleuze most accurately
accounts for the univocal constitution of life is that of repetition. The
concept of representation is premised on a humanist understanding of our
lives being fixed in their proper place – proper according to the hierarchical
coordinates of morality and theology. Deleuze’s repetition, in contrast,
is mobile: repetitions are on the move. Deleuze’s repetitions enact infinite
series of repeating movements, which are not identical but differ as they
move. His approach to difference is thus via repetition and contrasted with
representation. Representation works through categories and concepts and
repetition operates through the movement of ideas.
Representations are fictions whereas repetitions instantiate the truth
of ideas. In contrast to Spinoza some aspects of Deleuze’s thought attempt
to do away with the imagination, which he equates with representation
(fictions, non-truth) and which he contrasts with the truth of his ontological

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 377.

Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 67

idea (repetition). Representation is the untruth of the imagination, which

violates the truth of the idea: repetition. Deleuze endeavours to propound
a philosophy of difference. In order to do so he distinguishes between
identical repetition (which is representation) and non-identical repetition.
For non-identical repetition to work in a philosophy that attempts to
combine Kantianism and Spinozism, the idea has to play a decisive role
in this philosophical system.52 Deleuze differentiates his understanding
of the idea from the norms of traditional humanism, which does its work
through representation rather than through non-identical repetition.
Identical repetition depends on a standard or a norm of which it would be
Deleuze denies that this origin of the normative exists in reality. In truth,
reality consists not of originals but of simulacra: ‘However, difference does not
lie between things and simulacra, models and copies. Things are simulacra
themselves, simulacra are the superior forms, and the difficulty facing
everything is to become its own simulacrum, to attain the status of a sign in
the coherence of the eternal return.’53 Deleuze here combines Nietzsche with
Spinoza and Kant. He affirms the primacy of the idea (idealism) by equating
the idea with the reality of the senses (Spinoza’s univocity) and then reads the
product of this equation in terms of Nietzsche’s eternal return.
As we see below Nietzsche, as Alexander Nehemas’s Life as Literature has
shown, is concerned with turning life into literature. Deleuze’s Nietzschean
background is crucial for both his approach to Spinoza and his ideational
reading of literature. Nietzsche’s eternal return may well be a response
to Spinoza but one that diverges from and warps Spinoza’s questioning of
anthropomorphism. Spinoza argues that we should not conflate our idea
of God or nature with God or nature. This conflation results from the
mind’s uncritical acceptance of information the brain receives from bodily
This confused knowledge is what characterizes the imagination. In this
sense we imagine the sun to be in close proximity to us, because our senses
are strongly affected by the rays of the sun. The mind, by representing bodily
affects, sees the sun to be in the vicinity of the earth. This representation
does not yield knowledge of the truth but, as Galileo showed, turns out to
be a fiction: ‘For we imagine the sun so near not because we do not know
its true distance, but because an affection of body involves the essence of
the sun insofar as our body is affected by the sun.’54 Spinoza does not berate
On this see Beth Lord, Kant and Spinozism: Transcendental Idealism and Immanence
from Jacobi to Deleuze (Basongstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 134–150.
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 81.
Spinoza, Ethics, p. 54.
68 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

us for our inadequacy; inadequacy here describes our proneness to believe

representations or fictions to be true. On the contrary, he understands our
representational dilemmas, writing that we ‘can hardly avoid this, because’ we
‘are continually affected by external bodies’.55 The moot point here is that we
need to be aware that our knowledge derives from bodily inputs and represents
our sense of being affected by external bodies. This awareness characterizes
reason: it is the mind’s mindfulness. Reason is the mind’s mindfulness of its
embodiment and, consequently, its imaginative tendencies. It puts our place
in the universe in perspective. The cosmos is no longer anthropocentric and
we are no longer its centre. Spinoza set out to make us love God or nature
intellectually: to make us see how we are a small but significant part of the
vast and, to us, in its totality, incomprehensible universe.
Nietzsche is not so much concerned with Spinoza’s ethical and social
thought as with the epistemological implication of a Spinozist critique of Goal
and God. What are the repercussions for our understanding of our cognitive
powers, if we are only a small part of what is to us forever in its totality an
infinite and impersonal universe, which Spinoza calls deus sive natura?
Modern science operates on the basis of the ceaselessly renewed testability
and thus reversibility and re-visibility of its findings. Its methods are those
of the unceasingly falsifiable. In this sense, it has incorporated Galileo’s and
Spinoza’s demotion of the earth and humanity as the centre of the universe
and all this implies for human omniscience. On the other hand, our age is an
anthropocene age and it is one that has been shaped by scientific discoveries
for which Galileo and Spinoza have prepared the intellectual ground. How
can we explain this discrepancy?
The welding together of our planet with the industrial waste of humanity
(plastic in the sea and so forth) has to do not so much with the practice
of science as with the ecological consequences of an ever-growing market
economy based on consumption. Slavoj Žižek has famously called Deleuze
‘the ideologist of late capitalism’.56 Deleuze’s Nietzschean idea of the eternal
return finds a striking equivalent in the material sphere of infinite serialized
production. Branding depends on the repetition not of the same but the
slightly different (in this way the advertising industry reinvents Coca Cola
and other branded products within a repetitive or serialized framework
where the same forms become repeated in infinite variations). The basis
of brand attachment is an affirmation of our worth and value we attach
to the brand and which we hope to see eternally returned to us with each

Spinoza, Ethics, p. 61.


Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and the Consequences (London: Routledge, 2003),

p. 84.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 69

purchase of the product. The point of Nietzsche’s eternal return is indeed

the immanent affirmation of humanity’s fate – amor fati – in the face of a
deserted transcendent realm, which traditionally provided such affirmation
from above.
Nietzsche doubts whether we can be satisfied with Spinoza’s, Galileo’s and
Darwin’s demotion of our cognitive status from images of God to embodied
part of the natural world. This may explain why he coined the notion of
the eternal return – in order to confirm rather than to question humanity’s
grandeur. As Nehemas has shown, Nietzsche equates life with literature. Such
conception of life as repetition of literature – and vice versa, of literature as
representation of life – is quite problematic. In Nietzsche’s case difficulties are
compounded by the fact that a rather traditional understanding of literature
as harmonious, coherent and whole underlies his concept of the eternal
Nehemas has critiqued the internal coherence of Nietzsche’s equation of
literature and life as follows:

And once we admit contents, we admit conflicts. What we think, want,

and do is seldom if ever a coherent collection. Our thoughts contradict
one another and contrast with our desires, which are themselves
inconsistent and are in turn belied by our actions. The unity of the
self, which Nietzsche identifies with this collection, is thus seriously

Nietzsche’s reading of life as literature is itself a fiction.

Whereas Spinoza critiques the fictitiousness that shapes aspects of our
lives, Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return’ encourages us to celebrate our lives as
fictions: as stylized harmonizations or even deifications of our humanity. The
point of Spinoza’s critique of revelation is precisely to question this equation
of life with an idealized concept of nature or of God. Hence, we can now
come to see how Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche’s eternal return fits into
his attempt to submerge Spinoza’s mind–body parallelism in Kantian and
post-Kantian idealism. This combination eventuates in Nietzsche’s eternal
return, where we affirm what is and what has been and eagerly await its
repetition with ever so slightly different internal constitutions. The primacy
of Deleuze’s idea of repetition sacrifices Spinoza’s embodiment as a ground
of mental information to the Heideggerian thrownness (Geworfenheit) of the
groundless as it separates memory from ideas.

Alexander Nehemas, Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,


1985), p. 180.
70 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Deleuze’s repetition does its work within a philosophical system ‘where the
ground was abolished in groundlessness, the Ideas were separated from the
forms of memory, and the displacement and disguise of repetition engaged
divergence and decentring, the powers of difference’.58 The separation of
memory from the idea, which is repetition, brings to the fore a certain lack of
remembrance, which enables the serialized differences of Deleuze’s philosophical
system. His is a repetition out of amnesia: ‘one repeats because one does not
know, because one does not remember, etc: or because one is not capable of
performing the action (whether this action remains to be performed or is
already performed). “One” therefore signifies here the unconscious of the Id
as the first power of repetition’.59 The driving force behind difference is the
Freudian dialectic of disavowal or repression – which is the repression of a
memory – and repetition. Deleuze discusses Freud with specific reference
to the role of repetition and difference in the death drive: ‘The turning
point of Freudianism appears in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: the death
instinct is discovered, not in connection with the destructive tendencies, not
in connection with aggresivity, but as a result of a direct consideration of
repetition phenomena.’60 By ‘death drive’ Freud does not understand the state
of being dead but the wish to be so. This wish for the restfulness associated
with death is part of Freud’s pleasure principle.
The pleasure principle drives us to repeat actions in different contexts and
times that bring about states of rest and certainty. According to Žižek’s recent
interpretation, Freud’s term denotes the uncanny persistence not of death
but of life: ‘The paradox of the Freudian death drive is therefore that it is
Freud’s name for its very opposite, for the way immortality appears within
psychoanalysis, for an uncanny excess of life, for an “undead” urge that
persists beyond the (biological) cycle of life and death, of generation and
corruption.’61 Emotions are highly ambivalent and the desire to be dead is no
exception for what drives such desire is the fearful wish not ever to reach the
object of desire: death.
On both ontogenetic and polygenetic levels we keep repeating certain
forms of action through which we attempt to increase our sense of certainty,
rest, respect and security, which makes us feel at home in the world. Deleuze’s
notion of the simulacrum derives from Freud’s understanding of fantasy,
which determines our psychology (not only the death drive but also the
Oedipus complex):

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 364.
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 368.
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 18.
Žižek, ‘A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a minor Pro Domo Sua),’ Critical Inquiry
32 (Winter 2003): 226–249 (245).
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 71

A decisive moment in psychoanalysis occurred when Freud gave up, in

certain respects, the hypothesis of real childhood events, which would
have played the part of ultimate disguised terms, in order to substitute
the power of fantasy which is immersed in the death instinct, where
everything is already masked and disguised. In short, repetition is in
its essence symbolic; symbols or simulacra are the letter of repetition

Here we reach the point where Nietzsche’s notion of life as literature comes to
fully inform Deleuze’s idea of repetition.
What is repeated in ever different shapes and forms is not the memory
of something that actually took place but a certain kind of fiction: in
short an imagined storyline or literature (the Oedipus complex or the
primeval scene where the sons kill the alpha-male father figure). This is
why literature (Kafka, Proust, de Sade, Pasolini, to name a few writers
who loom large in Deleuze’s oeuvre), theatre and cinema play such an
important role in Deleuze’s work. Through Nietzsche’s fascination with
tragedy, Aristotle’s Poetics shapes Deleuze’s notion of the non-identical
action of repetition that informs the world of theatre: ‘play it and repeat it
until the acute moment that Aristotle called “recognition”.’63 By repeating
the actions in a different context, we come to realize their signification and
recognize their psychic meaning. This is Freud’s approach to repetition and
Deleuze describes it as follows: ‘If repetition makes us ill, it also heals us;
if it enchains and destroys us, it also frees us, testifying in both cases to
its “demonic” power. All cure is a voyage to the bottom of repetition.’64
Deleuze does not, however, describe the ways in which such repetition of
fantasy may free us.
According to Freud, the awareness of what we are repeating frees us from
future repetitions. In this way the re-enactment of the primal scene in Moses
and Monotheism – where the Jews repeat the fantasy of the primal scene by
killing their father figure, Moses (which is of course itself a fantasy) – frees
the Jews from future repetition of such violence in different social, historical
and political contexts. This moment of the breakaway from repetition is
missing in Deleuze’s philosophical system, because it is founded on the idea
of repetition and thus cannot free itself from it. Instead his philosophy relies
on an infinite series of non-identical repetitions of simulacra, which, as we
have seen, are fantasies, storylines, in short literature.

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 19.


Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p 17.


Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 21.

72 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Deleuze has banished one of form of imagination – i.e. the concept of

representation – from the truth of his idea of repetition. Yet as we have
seen, the substance of repetition is itself imaginative: simulacra, fantasy, art
and literature. In Nietzsche’s fashion, life turns out to be literature. This is
where Deleuze diverges from Spinoza’s account of the imagination. Spinoza
does not attempt to exclude the imagination from our lives, because this
would be an impossible undertaking (given that we do not live an affectless,
disembodied sphere). He does, however, admonish us to be mindful of our
mind’s exposure to the misleading input of bodily sensations, which gives
rise to fictions of grandeur or fantasies of destruction.
This mindfulness constitutes Spinoza’s ethics. Rather than abstract and
superimposed concepts of good and evil, Spinoza’s ethics of mindfulness is
context-specific and requires ever-renewed awareness as well as alertness
in particular situations, which vary according to a given time and space.
Spinoza’s ethics admonishes us to see our self-interest as bound up with
that of others. Fantasies of one’s superiority over others are harmful to the
self, because the self relies on the communal in the same way in which
the communal depends on the self. This mutual dependence is part of our
embodied constitution, which is one of disease, neediness and mortality. In
order to avoid harm and to alleviate the prospect of illness and death, we have
to be mindful of re-enacting certain fantasies of immortality, predominance
and autoimmunity. Whereas Deleuze’s philosophy celebrates the repetition of
various simulacra, Spinoza’s (as well as Freud’s) ethics attempts to break the
circle of this and similar repetitions.
Whereas Deleuze engages with Spinoza’s critique of concepts
(representation) as fiction, Deleuze himself clings to a fiction (repetition
of simulacra), which he, in Nietzschean fashion, attempts to equate with
everyday life: ‘For there is no other aesthetic problem than that of the
insertion of art into everyday life.’65 Developing and radicalizing Deleuze,
Rancière has recently described this insertion of art into everyday life,
as the aesthetic turn, which he distinguishes from the ethical turn that
characterized the work of Derrida.66 Rancière evokes Deleuze’s Heideggerian
notion of ‘groundlessness’,67 when he attempts to do away with the ground of
ethics in the works of Spinoza and Derrida. As I have shown elsewhere,68 in
different ways, the ground of ethics in Spinoza’s and Derrida’s thought is that
of self and other. In contrast to Derrida, Spinoza focuses on the preservation
of selfhoods (conatus) and it is this preservation that depends on that of
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 365.
Rancière, Dissensus, pp. 45–61.
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 364.
See Mack’s Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity.
Playing the Numbers: Ethics and Economics 73

others. Derrida’s ethics criticises the political prioritization of the self over
and above the other. In Rancière’s aesthetic turn, we have lost all forms of
differentiation between self and other, because otherness is the principle of
democratic politics:

Derrida argues that […] democracy still holds fast to the same
unexamined power of the autos or self. In a word, democracy lacks its
Other, which can only come to it from the outside. Derrida thus set out
to break with the circle of the self by weaving a thread from the pure
receptivity of the khora to the other, or the newcomer, whose inclusion
defines the horizon of a ‘democracy to come’. My objection to this is
very simple: otherness does not come to politics from the outside, for
the reason that it already has its own otherness, its own principle of

That democracy has its own principle of heterogeneity is true within an

ideational context (a là Deleuze) but the actual politics of it may be quite
different from its idea. Literature focuses on the ethical negotiation between
ideas and the messiness of their performance in the embodied and thus affect-
ridden context that shapes our actual lives. Rather than repeating various
ideas (that of Rancière’s groundless form of democratic equality or Deleuze’s
repetition of simulacra), literature and art change the way we think about
the potentiality of ideas and the particular context in which various ideas or
scientific discoveries are applied and played out. The following chapter will
outline an alternative account of the imagination out of Spinoza’s critique
of representation. By focusing on the idea and by conflating the work of
the imagination with that of representation, Deleuze perpetuates a mimetic
account of literature from his perspective of philosophy (from Plato’s ideas
via Aristotle’s Poetics to Kant’s transcendental idealism to Heidegger’s
understanding of poetry as a mimetic ground of historical identities). What
I call the ethics of literature establishes the radical difference of creativity,
which is not so much ideational but perfomative – in short, yet another shift
of Spinoza’s conatus.

Rancière, Dissensus, p. 53.


Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers:

The Question of Literary Ethics

He thought about life. You never really got what you wanted. No matter
how hard you tried you made mistakes and couldn’t get passed them. You
could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison,
except nobody called it a prison, and if you did they didn’t know what you
were talking about, or they said they didn’t.
Malamud, The Magic Barrel

How bleak experience when only one experienced.

Malamud, God’s Grace

Malamud’s ethics: The drama of life and death

As we have seen in the preceding chapter, contemporary political and social

thought remains beholden to the implied divide between nature and human
freedom – a divide that is foundational for Kant’s philosophy of humanism.
The term ‘humanism’ describes the attempt to elevate human life over
and above that of the merely natural. On this view nature names a lack
(hence the expression ‘merely natural’): it lacks the certainty of rationality,
which distinguishes humanity. Given its characteristic divide between the
natural and the human, humanism concurs with the philosophical school
of combatibilism, which assumes that the contingent and merely natural
aspect of our existence is compatible with being ruled by its opposite: the
adjudicating and governmental human mind.
This chapter discusses how the ethics of literature differs from the context-
independent way of thinking which characterizes the compatibilist strand
of philosophical discourse. As we have seen in the preceding discussion,
Spinoza’s thought diverges from philosophies (that of Kant and Descartes)
that posit a compatibility of our naturalist tendencies with a rationalist ideal
of subduing and controlling natural urges, feelings and inconsistencies. By
departing from compatibilism Spinoza is at odds with most philosophers who
76 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

have come after Descartes and Kant. As Hasana Sharp has recently pointed
out, ‘most philosophers today maintain a “compatibilist” idea of the person,
a view of moral agency in which freedom of the will is seen to be compatible
with natural determination’.1 The view that we can exert our rational free will
despite natural determinations holds sway in social thought and thus exerts
a strong influence on politics.
For compatibility to exist between two disconnected entities there needs
to be some form of a divide between them in the first place. As we have
seen in the preceding chapter, Spinoza radically outdoes the duality between
nature and reason (or free will). There is continuity rather than a duality
between affect and concept, between desire and thought, between reason and
nature. Building on Spinoza’s thought, Hasana Sharp attempts to counter
our current form of politics with a new one of ‘renaturalization’. What does
this mean for our understanding of humanity and its social habitat, politics?
Sharp argues that Spinoza at once humbles the status of and refocuses our
attention on the value of human life. Spinoza ‘redefines human agency as
entirely natural, locating it within a system that reserves no special status
whatsoever for humans’.2 This devaluation of the eminence of humanity
within the larger context of nature of which we are only a tiny part does,
however, help alleviate human suffering.
From Spinoza’s perspective violence, hierarchy, humiliation and warfare
are the result of the human presumption to triumph over the lowly sphere
of the merely natural, of ‘mere life’. The ‘denial of human exceptionalism
serves, first and foremost, to attenuate a particular destructive passion:
hatred, directed at oneself and others’.3 Malamud’s The Fixer combines a
focus on two seemingly contradictory tendencies: hatred of and support
of the other. The fate of humanism is central to both Spinoza’s thought and
Malamud’s writing. Spinoza at once undermines traditional humanism and
revaluates it in philanthropic terms. Spinoza takes issue with what he takes
to be the supernaturalism of humanism. This may sound incongruous. Does
not humanism reject the supernatural? Spinoza argues, however, that the
very attempt to distinguish itself from nature risks turning humanity into a
supernatural entity.
Traditional humanism posits compatibility between two distinct spheres:
human freedom within the determined but not determining context of nature
from which humanity separates itself. This rise above nature endows humanity
with supernatural powers: ‘Even if humanism typically rejects a supernatural
Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2011), p. 2.
Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, p. 4.
Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, p. 4.
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 77

order in favour of human community on earth, from the perspective of

Spinozism it relocates supernaturalism within the human mind.’4 The human
mind thinks itself above the sphere of the merely natural. Other members of the
human community can become placeholders of the merely natural too. If this
happens, we witness the ideational formulation and the political perpetuation
of religious, racist, economic and other forms of hatred. Malamud’s The
Fixer focuses on one type of such hatred: anti-Semitism. How, however,
does Spinoza’s critique of supernaturalism square with Malamud’s ‘magic’ of
literature. Malamud’s work has often been associated with magic –undoubtedly,
this association springs from the title of his National Book Award-winning
short story collection entitled The Magic Barrel.5
Critics have so far overlooked Malamud’s rather ironic treatment of the
supernatural. In Malamud’s writing and thought, magic has little to do with the
supernatural or with other forms of divine intervention. ‘Magic’ is Malamud’s
term for the uncertain, the mysterious and the undecided. One could historicize
his usage of the term as belonging to a modern and postmodern way of
writing and thinking: as J. Hillis Miller has recently argued ‘undecidability’ is
a ‘fundamental formal feature of so-called modern and postmodern fiction’.6
In the Magic Barrel magic is not so much supernatural but quite natural;
the short stories gathered together within it focus on sudden insights into
life’s pleasure beyond the consumerist and careerist commandment to enjoy
status and brand symbols. In this way, Malamud employs quasi-supernatural
devices to highlight humanity’s capacity to break with harmful practices
and to transform life in intellectually and emotionally beneficial ways. Why,
however, does Malamud employ the word ‘magic’? The term is quite strong
and potentially misleading (it can give rise to confusing associations with the
supernatural). It is so rich in association that it certainly goes beyond modern
and postmodern notions of the undecided and ‘undecidable’. While containing
elements of uncertainty, magic in Malumud’s usage evokes a startling and
sometimes shocking break and disruption of homogeneity. Malamud’s is a very
human form of magic: it is what the arts and the humanities may perform if
their social and political value would truly come to light.7 The change towards
a new life is the subject matter and the form of Malamud’s very human and
natural – differentiated from supernatural – practice of literature.

Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, p. 5.
See Evelyn Avery (ed.), The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 2001).
Miller, The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 251.
I have discussed this in How Literature Changes the Way We Think (New York: Continuum,
78 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The writer Malamud shares with the philosopher Spinoza a concern for
the human in an increasingly brutal world for which humanity is largely
responsible.8 Against the background of the state-sponsored atrocities of the
twentieth century, Malamud focuses on what he calls the degradation of the
human. Who, however, degrades the human if not the human? It seems as if
humanism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has to study Spinoza’s
philanthropist critique of traditional humanism. In a Spinozist manner,
Malamud reads selfishness as self-deception. Spinoza has argued that it is
in our interest to help others, because we depend on others for our survival.
We therefore deceive ourselves when we think we could degrade others for
our benefit:

How much selfishness and self-deception, for instance, does a man have
to flush down the drain to become an effective defender of the rights
of Negroes? What is the source of morality, and how is it discovered,
of those few Germans who hid a handful of Jews away from the ovens
and concentration camps? How much regret for Hiroshima must a man
induce in himself to commit a single good deed in this world?9

Malamud here implicitly breaks with the compatibility of two distinct and,
more importantly, mutually opposed spheres: those of morality and affect,
those of reason and nature. He premises morality on both rationality and
feelings such as regret. Malamud’s famous phrase the ‘human sentence’10
points to the continuity – rather than duality – between the rational and
the affective. The phrase adumbrates language or literature as well as life: it
bridges the posited gap between life and literature, while avoiding Nietzsche’s
conflation of one with the other.
Throughout his essays, Malamud returns to the continuity between the
rational and affective. His notion of human wholeness does not describe
unity but the isomorphism of entities, which pre-Spinozan thought tends
to dualistically oppose: reason and the emotions, life and ideas, philosophy
and literature and so forth. Malamud’s notion of the whole can be best
understood along the lines of Žižek’s take on Hegel the ‘whole is the truth’:

See Eileen H. Watts, ‘Not True Although Truth: The Holocaust’s Legacy in three Malamud
Stories ‘“The German Refugee,” “Man in the Drawer,” and “The Lady of the Lake,”’ in
Evelyn Avery (ed.), The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 2001), pp. 139–152.
Malamud, ‘The Contemporary Novel,’ in Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco (eds.),
Talking Horse: Bernhard Malamud on Life and Work (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1996), pp. 191–199 (p. 193).
Malamud, ‘Introduction to The Stories of Bernard Malamud, 1983,’ in Talking Horse, pp.
5–9 (p. 9).
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 79

‘The underlying premise is that the Whole is never truly whole: every notion
of the Whole leaves something out, and the dialectical effort is precisely the
effort to include this excess, to account for it.’11 Malamud does not contrast
literature with philosophy. He argues that literary writings are about ideas.
The philosophy to be found in literature differs, however, from a notion of
the universal understood as being independent of particular contexts and
specific constitutions that the compatibilist strand – which, as we have
seen above, characterizes the majority view – of philosophical discourse
advances. The ideas we encounter in art and literature offer an alternative
to the ideational timelessness of philosophy: ‘In art, ideas were made anew,
as if for the first time again, since in art “knowledge has drama – a concrete
quality that abstract knowledge does not as a rule have” (LCII 13.10).’12 Here
Malamud critiques a lack of concrete quality, which constitutes some aspects
of philosophical and scientific writing. The refusal to engage with time-
bound narratives and concrete contexts bespeaks an unwillingness to reflect
upon the ways in which philosophy and science grasp knowledge. Neither
philosophy nor science takes place in an abstract, timeless and context-less
setting. The scientist conducts his evidence-based research within a particular
framework in which he or she addresses a particular set of questions (which
excludes of course other sets of questions). The philosopher does philosophy
within an historical and specific social context, which informs the sort of
inquiry he or she undertakes.
Let me mention an example that shows how we cannot understand
philosophy’s production of abstract knowledge without paying attention to its
time-bound historical environment. My 2003 study German Idealism and the
Jew analyses the subterranean tremors and aftershocks of certain ideational
paradigms that not only incorporate prejudices widespread in the general
public of a given time, but also shape and sharpen these prejudices into a
seemingly rational, systematic, self-consistent whole. Malamud’s notion of
drama disrupts such self-consistency by confronting abstract knowledge with
the concrete quality that characterizes the different contexts of human life.
To embark on such analytic dramatization of abstract knowledge, the critic
has to historicize philosophy, an approach that has often been interpreted
as a violation of philosophy as such. Philosophy qua philosophy seems to
reside in a realm removed from the contingency of historical events. It is
important to understand, however, that this enforced separation from the
unpredictability of various historical realities sets the stage for the violent
Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London:
Verso, 2012), p. 523.
Philip Davies, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2007), p. 231.
80 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

imposition of predictable, therefore ‘rational’, schemata onto the infinite

diversity of both individual actors and anthropological communities.
Philosophy often seems unwilling, if not unable, to bear the thought of
that which could potentially unhinge the pure, stable and unchangeable
order established by reason. The diverse changes brought about by the drama
of life and by history seem to shake philosophical cohesion at its foundations.
As Berel Lang has pointed out, ‘the image of philosophical thought as
atemporal and undramatic, as itself non-representational, has been taken for
granted in the historiography of philosophy since the nineteenth century;
it has in certain respects been part of the profession of philosophy since its
origins’.13 In his essays Malamud develops a philosophy of literature that not
only illuminates the philosophical content of his novels and short stories,
but also establishes a dialogue with philosophers such as Berel Lang who
are engaged in the pursuit of a different kind of philosophy – in the words of
Lang a ‘literary philosophy’ that has opened up to the concrete quality of the
dramatic structure of history and life.
Malamud’s philosophy of literature as well as his literary philosophy
introduces the life of the affects into the realm of idea. Malamud’s concern
is not, however, completely absorbed by philosophy. He attempts to let us
see literature as an open field that extends into and expands different ways
of seeing the world, be they economic, philosophic, scientific or legal. His
essayistic and literary work broadens the scope of these disciplines in order
to achieve new realms of creativity and possibility for humanity as a whole. In
accordance with his critique of timeless knowledge, he does not perceive the
human as static. Like Spinoza, he clearly departs from traditional humanism,
which, in a compatibilist manner, insists on humanity’s autonomy from
contextual or natural conditions. Rather than being traditional, Malamud’s
approach towards reason and human nature ‘is strategic and revisable’.14
From both Spinoza’s and Malamud’s perspective, the philosophical terms
‘morality’, ‘freedom’ and ‘rationality’ have changed their traditional meaning
due to one significant change: morality, freedom and rationality are no longer
opposed to natural affects but are rather working in continuity with them.
Both Spinoza and Malamud envisage freedom in terms of the rational
love of self and other. According to Malamud love enacts freedom: ‘In freeing
ourselves to love we broaden the freedom of others, and create the conditions
of living together that we call morality, which is a further means of making
us free and releasing in ourselves, instead of anxiety and fear, the creative

Berel Lang, The Anatomy of Philosophical Style: Literary Philosophy and the Philosophy of

Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 22.

Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, p. 112.
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 81

power to live meaningfully.’15 The term ‘meaningful’ in this context has only
a tenuous connection to making sense of what already exists via literary
representation. More importantly, in Malamud’s idiosyncratic usage the term
‘meaningful’ describes the power of creating new forms of meaning.
The freedom of the imagination is literature’s and art’s way of discovering
new forms of knowledge that are not so much atemporal and undramatic,
but open up new perspectives on how to cope with change as well as on how
to transform current harmful social practices. The quest for literature’s and
art’s new forms of knowledge does not exclude emotions:

emotions lead man to man, the writer to a subject worthy of his art, and
therefore to the creation of the conditions of his own acceptance in our
culture. It will be his task to scout the area of hope, explore possibility,
and in so doing, create a vision of life, so dignified, so whole, and lovely
that it will lead humanity to a changed conception of itself. This I
conceive to be the true function of the writer and his art.16

In this manifesto-like statement, Malamud elaborates on his understanding

of a strategic and thus revisable approach to what it means to be human.
He sees it as the writer’s task to revise our view of humanity: to change our
apprehension of what it means to be human in order to transform traditional
humanism in a philanthropic manner. Literature’s ethics articulates new
conceptions of what we are. The term ‘whole’ in this quote may mislead
some readers. It may invoke notions of totality and unity. As is clear from
the context of this quote Malamud employs the word ‘whole’ to describe the
vastness and complexity of our condition, which cannot be narrowed down
to the deceptive focus on one set of issues.
Malamud’s term ‘whole’ denotes a holistic approach that conceives of
the human as part of a larger universe. It also adumbrates Spinoza’s notion
of nature, which is not a norm or standard according to which we should
conduct ourselves (in this way heterosexuality has been taken to be a
natural norm or gender roles have been justified with reference to ‘nature’),
but ‘names the necessity of ongoing mutation and the inescapability of
dependence among finite beings’.17 Malamud’s wholeness describes relational
dependence and, more importantly, the infinite vastness of such relations. In
order to do justice to the wholeness of our lives we need to engage with the
arts and literature. Here we engage in an activity that is neither exclusively
abstract nor exclusively concrete but combines various shades of both.

Malamud, ‘The Writer in the Modern World,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 200–214 (p. 214).

Malamud, ‘The Writer in the Modern World’.


Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, p. 8.

82 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

From a literary vantage point, Malamud’s wholeness of humanity grows

out of Keats’s negative capability. Malamud describes this topic as follows:

Negative Capability: the ability to deal with, handle, operate what is

not yet there; to function as an artist without knowing final answers,
therefore temporarily remaining content with partial knowledge and
still being able to work in the dark until something is thought out, flashes
on, or thinks itself out and communicates itself to the artist.18

According to Malamud, Keats’s term ‘negative capability’ describes the creative

act. It is another term for magic. As has been discussed above, magic within
this context does not have a supernatural connotation. Rather than referring
to a realm above nature, the uncertainty that accompanies artistic creation
partakes of nature’s and life’s lack of certainty. Malamud puts it as follows:

One, therefore, must learn to function in uncertainty. In one of his

wonderful letter John Keats uses the term ‘negative capability,’ which he
defines as the state of ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without
an irritable reaching after fact and reason,’ or ‘of remaining content with
half knowledge’. I would add ‘remaining content’ as one seeks beyond
‘half knowledge’ for that knowing which is needed. Keats may be saying
life is uncertain because we can’t see the next minute of the future; but
one must have faith in his talent to foresee. Although his hand and the
ground are shaking the artist goes on working. A certain courage is
called for.19

This is the courage to live and the courage to create. The two go hand in hand.
The ambiguities of life reflect the uncertainties that characterize creative work.
Neither life nor literature nor art is predictable. And neither is science or
philosophy. Malamud’s addition to Keats’s definition of negative capability –
the ability to remain content with the uncertain and the non-predictable – harks
back to Spinoza’s famous notion acquiescentia (contentment) at the end of
Ethics (Book V, Proposition 36).
We should remain content with the contemplation of our limited
capacities: Malamud warns against the temptation to choose simple,
totalizing and seemingly predictable ways of engaging with life, literature,
art, philosophy and science. This is all the more relevant today when science

Malamud, ‘Bennington College Commencement Address, June 12, 1981,’ in Talking


Horse, pp. 172–178 (p. 177).

Malamud, ‘Bennington College Commencement Address’.
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 83

(genetics is a striking example) has become associated with clear, certain

and predictable solutions, which are valuable because they can be applied
and are thus economically useful. Scientists of course know that science is
too complex and complicated to be predictable, risk-free and certain in its
applications and outcomes.
Politicians (at least in the United Kingdom and in the United States),20
however, fabricate the myth of science’s certainty and disparagingly contrast
scientific facts with the uncertainty of the arts and humanities. Against
the contemporary background of the obsession with certainty and the
predictable in politics and contemporary culture, it is incumbent upon us
to keep in mind that ‘life is uncertain’. Spinoza explains this uncertainty by
the vastness of nature of which humanity only forms a tiny part. As a tiny
part of an infinitely vast sphere that goes under the name nature (or God)
our capacity of understanding is too limited to grasp the laws that govern
our environment. We are of course able to grasp some laws of nature, but we
will never be able to grasp them in their totality. We could predict life and
live certain lives only once we had found the key to understanding the huge
cosmos of which we are an infinitesimal component.
By making us aware of our uncertain and rather precarious position
within the world at large, Spinoza’s thought and Malamud’s literature help
counteract illusory ideas of having attained immutable positions of certainty
and predictability. Consider delusions of certainty and predictability in
financial markets:

In finance, the representativeness heuristic leads people to predict short-

term trends in the markets will continue and to underrate the prospect
of a major reversal. This can lead to very bad outcomes, especially when
it is combined with one of the mental traits that Adam Smith identified
and which Kahnemann and Tversky confirmed: overconfidence. Once
people are convinced that a small sample is representative of reality, they
place unwarranted faith in their ability to forecast the future, ‘with little
or no regard for the factors that limit predictive accuracy,’ Kahnemann
and Tversky noted.21

The very strength for which mathematics is prized within economics –

pseudo-scientific certainty and absence of risk – may turn into a springboard
for social calamities. Social life – of which economics partakes – cannot

For a discussion of the UK and US contexts, see Martha C. Nussbaum’s Not For Profit:
Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
Cassidy, How Markets Fall: The Logic of Economic Calamities (London: Penguin, 2009),
p. 198.
84 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

be certain or predictable, precisely because society cannot be conceived

independently from its affective foundations.
The ideal of certainty and predictability is itself an affect. Spinoza’s philosophy
has an ethical and political focus. Instead of attempting to find the key to the
totality of the laws of nature, Spinoza admonishes us to conduct our socio-
economic and political life in a mutually supportive manner: ‘men who are
governed by reason – that is, men who, from the guidance of reason, seek their
own advantage – want nothing for themselves which they do not desire for
other men’.22 In order to preserve ourselves we have to preserve others because
the success of our undertaking depends on the support of others. Were life
certain and predictable we could go our own way without caring for others. The
very uncertainty and unpredictability of our condition demand of us sensitivity
towards Keats’s literary uncertainty and inconsistency while conducting our lives.
Malamud’s term ‘magic’ denotes precisely the uncertainty, the sudden reversals
and inconsistency, which are the subject of both life and literature.
To do justice to the complexity of life, Malamud allows for the magic not of
illusion but of disruption and non-predictability. The wholeness of humanity
and nature includes its uncertainty and openness towards disruption as well
as transformation. In terms of a literary philosophy, Malamud’s wholeness
of humanity adumbrates the idea and practice of the symbol. Malamud
first explicates what he means by symbol in his discussion of the The Magic
Barrel. He does so in an attempt to distinguish his way of writing from one
that is flatly mimetic: ‘Sometimes this material, of present time, can become
journalistically thin if it is not handled with some reference to symbol and
archetype in history, personal or cultural; that is to say if it is handled without
imaginative plumbing for depth, or with little awareness of the complexity
of human existence.’23 He goes on to distinguish literature from the quasi-
certain or quasi-documentary work of a certain form of memory:

If memory is practically all, the writer becomes a sort of recording device,

in much the way Thomas Wolfe was, and Proust was not. Memory, when
too strongly relied on, destroys a necessary invention; and it slows
objectification and symbolism. As a matter of fact, it is the purpose of
the symbol to fight memory: to reduce experience to its essentials at the
same time as it derives all the meanings (and contains them) that it can.
It is, let me call it, the quickest route out of the self into the past, the lives
of others, and into universal experience generally.24

Spinoza, Ethics, translated by Edwin Curley with an introduction by Stuart Hampshire
(London: Penguin, 1996), p. 126.
Malamud, ‘The Magic Barrel,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 62–85 (pp. 62–63).
Malamud, ‘The Magic Barrel,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 62–85 (p. 63).
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 85

In this dense quote, Malamud seems to contrast the universalism of the

symbol with the particularity of memory. On a closer reading, however, it
emerges that Malamud does not intend to denigrate particularity: literature
brings to light the particular otherness of the past as well as the lives of
others. His main concern is with a critique of what I have elsewhere called
‘flat mimesis’:25 he distinguishes literary creation from the replicating process
of representation. The imagination has traditionally executed the task of
As Paul Ricoeur has shown, from antiquity onwards, representation
has been closely bound up with the memory of the past. The work of
memory is that of the imagination. The imagination attempts to make
present what is past. Memory engages in a quasi-magical undertaking: it
tries to produce a faithful copy of bygone people and things.26 Malamud’s
magic of literature also attempts to redeem the loss of past life. He explains
this undertaking, however, by differentiating his methodology from
that of mimetic replication. The expression ‘to reduce experience to its
essentials’ may give rise to the suspicion of reduction and essentialism.
This interpretation is not borne out by the context of the quote. Malamud
does not argue that literature does away with the diverse and particular
through the employment of all-encompassing symbols. On the contrary,
the symbolic method aims not to achieve the illusion of a clearly reduced,
certain and thus definable or representative character, but to create a vast
force field of diverse meanings.
By evoking a diversity of meanings about the concrete quality of past
and present lives, the ethics of literature unsettles a pseudo-scientific sense
of certainty and predictability. According to Malamud, the literary method
of symbolism is most capable of achieving such disruption of the illusory
certainties that sometimes keep our real lives enthralled. He establishes three
literary methodologies, which he illustrates via three different historical
styles of writing. The first is the Victorian quasi-realistic novel, which aligns
straightforward meaning to a character or event: ‘this is my meaning – that
villainy, for instance, never succeeds and good triumphs in the end’.27 The
second is the modernist-experimental way of writing, where the reader
has to discover the meaning: ‘the second is to present a story or narrative,
without comment of any kind – as a matter of fact with great restraint – and
expect the reader to dig under all that is said and done in order to discover

See my How Literature Changes the Way We Think, pp. 16–28.
For discussion of this point see Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting, translated by
Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
Malamud, ‘Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 130–135
(pp. 130–131).
86 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

meaning’.28 The third is the method of what could be called the symbolist
novel of modernism, where the meaning of a character, object and event is
so diverse that it disrupts our sense of certainty and predictability. Malamud
refers to Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers to illustrate this method:

For instance, in Thomas Mann’s Joseph story, the well into which Joseph
is thrown by his brothers is of course a well, but it must also be read as
a womb; and the point of the incident is that Joseph will be reborn – he
will be a different kind of person – when he emerges from the well. In
the first way of presenting a meaning the writer says ‘this is it’; in the
second he says ‘come and get it’; in the third he says ‘look into the well,
if it is a well’.29

The point of symbolism is therefore not to find one meaning but to deliver
a superabundance of meanings, which cast into doubt homogenous ways of
seeing us and our environment. Malamud’s example here is Thomas Mann.
A more striking case of a diversity of conflicting meanings are the novels and
short stories of Franz Kafka: ‘There is more than one way to interpret Mann’s
Joseph story, his Magic Mountain, Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle, and to
include a poet, T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets”.’30 Malamud’s
version of symbolism complicates homogeneity. The more diverse meanings
a seemingly simple object has, the more symbolic is it: ‘Mr Eliot doesn’t care
how many meanings you come up with. He expects you, within his universe,
and subject to his architecture, his language, to find whatever meanings you
can.’31 Malamud’s symbolic reduction is not one to homogeneous essentialism
but to the essentials of a vast diversity of meanings, which it is our task to
do justice to in both life and literature. Rather than reducing a variety of
meanings to one symbolic content, literature disrupts the homogeneity to
which we are subjected through some economic, social and health policies.
This disruption of homogeneity enacts literature’s ethics. The ethics
of literature outdoes the conceptual work of a dualistic divide between
reason and the affects, which takes place in compatibilist philosophy (see
opening of this chapter). Instead of subduing or controlling the affective
and embodied aspects of our lives, literature negotiates between ideas and
their transformation within the unpredictable and inconsistent context of
our internal and external ambience. The ethics of literature does its work
not so much through representation – as has been argued from Aristotle to
Malamud, ‘Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 130–135 (p. 131).
Malamud, ‘Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism.’
Malamud, ‘Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism,’ p. 133.
Malamud, ‘Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism’.
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 87

Heidegger and Deleuze – but by various movements that traverse the subjective
(the affective) and the substantive spheres that constitute our political, economic,
social, cultural and medical activities. Literature’s ethics performs acts of both
transformation and preservation: it preserves life by transforming it.
Paraphrasing Albert Camus’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Malamud
argues that it is the task of the writer and of society at large ‘in keeping the
world from destroying itself ’.32 Malamud’s philanthropic transformation of
traditional humanism is not human-centred: it adumbrates and includes the
non-human world too. Indeed his late novel God’s Grace tells the story of a
future world that has been devastated by human destructiveness. Malamud’s
God pronounces the immanent state of catastrophe as follows: ‘The present
Devastation, ending in smoke and dust, comes as consequence of man’s self-
betrayal.’33 To prevent humanity’s self-degradation, we are in need of literature,
the humanities and the arts, given that the preservation of life depends on its
transformation. In How Literature Changes the Way We Think I have called
‘philosophy of birth’ this dialectic between invention and preservation.
Birth literally describes the creation of new life. The invention of the
new preserves what lived in the past. Aspects of the old resurface in new
life forms. Literature’s philosophy of birth thus unravels the duality
between preservation and creation. Malamud’s concern with the human
is an unceasing questioning that gives rise to forms of creation: ‘Literature
is concerned with man, with what is human, and why, and how to create
humanity.’34 The human is not something given. If we do not invent it, we
degrade it and its possibilities. According to Malamud this degradation is
the tragedy of our time: ‘The true tragedy of our time is the degradation of
the human being.’35 Why does the absence of the invention of the human
eventuate in its degradation?
The terms creation and invention of humanity describe a movement
between the subjective (the idea or affect of the human) and the substantive
(the embodied human). There is a plurality of subjectivities as there are
many forms of creation and many types of substance. The degradation of
humanity is premised on the imposition of certainty and predictability on
the diversity of our ideas, affects and embodied lives. Literature disrupts the
certainty of death. Literature’s ethics insists on the irrevocable uncertainty
and inconsistency of what it means to be human. This is what Malamud
understands by mystery. The writer reveals in literature the inconsistent

Malamud, ‘Beginning the Novel,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 95–106 (p. 100).
Malamud, God’s Grace (London: Penguin, 1983), p. 12.
Malamud, ‘The Contemporary Novel,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 191–199 (p. 193).
Malamud, ‘The Contemporary Novel’.
88 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

uncertainty not of our illusions but of our substantive life: ‘In recreating the
humanity of man, in reality his greatness, he [i.e. the writer] will, among
other things, hold up the mirror to the mystery of him, in which poetry and
possibility live, though he [i.e. man or humanity] has endlessly betrayed
them.’36 Malamud here refers to a famous quote about literature’s mimetic

Hamlet’s signature

Hamlet (in Shakespeare’s play of the eponymous title) gives the actors the
following instructions:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special
observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so
o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and
now, was and is, to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature.37

Hamlet first insists on the isomorphism between life and literature, between
word and action. He then goes on to ground such connection between world
and word in a theory of representation: the word represents the world,
literature holds up the mirror to nature. Hamlet emphasizes the traditional
quality of literature’s mimetic conception: ‘whose end both at first and
now, was and is, to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature’. Malamud treats
this quote ironically when he says that the writer holds the mirror not to
humanity’s nature but to its mystery.
From Malamud’s vantage point, mystery denotes the uncertain, not-to-be-
pinned-down nature of our humanity. Does this ironic treatment of Hamlet’s
famous account of the traditional and contemporary validity of mimesis
depart from Shakespeare’s take on literature? The play within the play does
not imitate the deception practised by Hamlet’s uncle (Claudius). Rather
than offering a mimesis of the fiction that is the subject of the play – i.e.
Claudius’s show of his legitimate hold on power after having killed his brother
and Hamlet’s father, the legitimate king – the play within the play unmasks
the ‘seeming’ – ‘in censure of his (i.e. Claudius’s) seeming’38 – performed by
the stage character. Claudius admits to Polonius the ‘heavy burden’ of ‘my

Malamud, ‘An Idea that Animates My Writing,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 215–216 (p. 216).
Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, edited by Philip Edwards (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 153.
Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 156.
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 89

most painted word’.39 So Hamlet’s metaphor of holding the mirror to nature

is rather misleading. The mirror would reproduce the image of seeming, of a
painted word, of a lie.
What then is ‘nature’? Shakespeare casts into doubt the certainty of what
we take to be natural. Hamlet Prince of Denmark confuses our sense of what
are sovereignty, reality, fiction, nature and legitimacy. Who is the legitimate
king? The audience comes to know that it is not the ruling king, Claudius,
given that Claudius is quite outspoken, when left alone, about his feelings
of guilt vis-à-vis fratricide and patricide. Claudius describes the guilt of his
ruling hand, calling his own legitimacy in question:

What if the cursèd hand

Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens,
To wash it white as snow?40

Here Claudius links his individual misdeed to the endless betrayal of

humanity’s potential or mystery which is one Malamud’s main literary

Oh my offence is rank, smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder.41

This refers to Cain’s killing of Abel in the book of Genesis.

Shakespeare’s play is about the endless perpetuation of this crime from
humanity’s beginnings – b’reshit or in the beginning is the Hebrew title of
the book of genesis – to the present. A mere mimetic representation, which
holds the mirror up to nature, does not do justice to this unmasking of the
abyss and confusion that unfolds during the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
The abysmal confusion about human nature turns out to be perpetual in its
mythical repetition from biblical times to Hamlet’s Denmark. Malamud’s
notion of the symbol tries to do justice to the mystery of our human potential
and its repeated betrayal from Cain onwards. A mirror that reproduces the
visible hand in its natural form distorts rather than reveals the truth about
Claudius’s not to be mirrored invisible hand of blood, which natural rain proves
incapable of washing away.

Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 146.


Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 171.


Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 171.

90 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Malamud’s ironic reference to Hamlet’s quote about holding the mirror to

nature points to the way in which Shakespeare contextualizes this and other
quotations about ‘nature’ within the most ‘unnatural’ or brutal context of ghostly
visitations and their unhinged causations. The most striking term for such
unhinging is the highly ambiguous or superabundant meaning of the word
‘thing’. ‘Thing’ in Hamlet Prince of Denmark denotes the uncertainty as well as
inconsistency of conflicting significations and their referents. First the ghost is a thing
(‘What, has this thing appeared again tonight’?).42 Casting his straightforward
assessment of theatre as holding the mirror up to nature into doubt, Hamlet calls
the play an indefinable ‘thing’ with ‘which to catch the conscience of the king’
(i.e. Claudius).43 After having been exposed to the mysterious thing-likeness of
the play within the play, the king himself turns into a thing:

HAMLET:The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body.
The king is a thing –
GUILDENSTERN:A thing my lord?
HAMLET:Of nothing.44

As Philip Edwards points out in his commentary, this passage alludes to the
two bodies of the king: the natural and the body politic, of which the king is
a representative.45 In his exchange with Guildenstern Hamlet denies the two
bodies of the reigning sovereign: not only does Claudius’s body fail to represent
the body politic, it has turned into a ghostly, ephemeral thing of nothing.
Without validating or de-validating the real presence of Hamlet’s father
as non-substantial ghost, the play discloses how our substantive lives are
sometimes driven and shaped by ghostly, subjective, ephemeral and dream-like
occurrences. These ephemeral things are the play within the play whose effect
on Claudius’s conscience convinces Hamlet of the substantive validity of the
non-substantive thing, which is the ghost of his father with its command
to remember (‘remember me’) past lives and past crimes. The airy and
eerie connotations of ghostliness become substantiated with yet another
abstracted form of life – money – once the impact of the play within the
play on Claudius’s substantive behaviour convinces Hamlet of the ghost’s
validity: ‘O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound.’46

Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 76.
Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 143.
Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 187.
For discussion of this topic as a leading trope with medieval political theory see Ernst
Kantorowicz’s famous book The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).
Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 165.
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 91

While supposedly acting mad, Hamlet manages to describe the complex

interchange between the subjective and the substantive, between the fictional
and the real in illuminating ways. First, he states a famous maxim of cognitive
relativism: ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’47
Then, however, he invokes not embodied reality but dreams as the measure
of real feelings about life: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’48 These two
quotes have made a huge contribution to what Joel Fineman has called the
‘subjective effect’ in Western writing and thought.49
Yet Hamlet allows for something else than subjectivity. He clearly
encounters some substantive force that reigns in the free range of thinking’s
sovereignty. This is not, however, real substance but the substance simulated
by dreams. We cannot think as we please, because the neurotic life of dreams
limits our capacity to be detached from our experience of substantial issues
in an unaffected way. The lines between substance and subject here become
blurred to the extent that the non-substantive (the ghost, the fiction of the
play within the play, Hamlet’s bad dreams) has a greater impact on real life
than any material manifestations could ever have. As Stephen Greenblatt
has brilliantly shown, part of this blurring between substance and subject
is due to the theological unmasking of Catholic ways of life as being based
on fraudulence or, in English Renaissance terms, poetry: ‘In early-sixteenth-
century England, there was nothing gossamer-like about Purgatory. The great
imaginary construction had produced highly tangible results. Hence at other
moments, what is most startling is not the fraudulence of the imaginary place
but its power.’50 In Hamlet and throughout his oeuvre Shakespeare depicts the
ways in which the imaginary produces or sometimes brings to light the existence
of so-far-ignored substantive realities.
In doing so Shakespeare illuminates not literature’s escapism or illusion
but aspects of its work of discovery and creation. It is not the fraudulence
of our dreams, aspirations, ideas, actions and fears – what Spinoza has
called the affects – but their power over our lives. The ghost is the invisible
and perhaps inexistent driver of the actions of Shakespeare’s play. Citing
Prosperous’s famous lines from The Tempest – ‘We are such stuff/ As dreams
are made on, and our life/ is rounded with a sleep’ – Greenblatt comments
on the Shakespearean parallelism between life and play (i.e. literature):
‘Here the dreamlike emptiness long associated with the transitory illusions

Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 129.
Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 129.
See Fineman’s The Subjective Effect in Western Literary Tradtion (Cambridge, MA:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991).
Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 38.
92 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

of the theatre is carried over into all that lies beyond the boundaries of the
stage.’51 Building on Greenblatt’s analysis, one could argue that Shakespeare
breaks with an Aristotelian tradition of mimesis according to which
literature imitates human actions and thereby expresses the universal
truths of nature and humanity (whereas history, according to Aristotle, in
a non-philosophical sense remains stuck with the particular).
As we have seen, on Shakespeare’s stage nature has been called into
question. In Malamud’s words, it turns out be a mystery. The parallelism
between dreams, literature and life does not mean that literature represents or
imitates life. On the contrary, literature’s dream-like aspects help discover the
ways in which our lives are often formed and shaped by fantasies and ghost-
like visitations. There is of course no equation between life and literature and
one is not representative of the other. This tension between the two does,
however, increase rather than attenuate their vital relationship. Literature’s
non-mimetic qualities interrupt rather than consolidate or perpetuate the
harmful effect of deleterious fictions that have shaped and are shaping our life.
Malamud’s ironic reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet quotation elucidates a
Shakespearean break with the Aristotelian dictum according to which literature
has to imitate an asserted truth of human nature via the representation of
purportedly universal actions. Rather than positing the unity of human
nature, Shakespeare and Malamud’s literary work shows us how homogenous
conceptions of humanity are fictions that rule societal reality with deleterious
effect. Here literature – similar to the play within the play in Hamlet – exposes
rather than imitates or represents the myths or fictions that we have turned
into a substantial part of our socio-economic and socio-political existence.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet reveals the ways in which non-substantive or perhaps
even non-existent entities like the ghost can drive the actions and our lives
into abyssal confusion.
Hamlet’s problem is that – even though he comes to question universal
and sacred truths – he does not question the ways in which his own selfhood
is constituted by both substance and subjectivity. He takes his subjectivity
to be all there is to the substance of life in his time. First he assumes the
role of a redeemer: ‘The time is out of joint: O cursèd spite,/ That ever I
was born to set it right.’52 Then, in the later part of the play, he turns the
subjective perception of an assumed providence or universal harmony into
the substance of all there is, whereas the actual events – the substance of what
is happening on stage – proves the contrary. During the last scene Hamlet
imposes his changed subjective outlook onto a reality that clearly contradicts

Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory, p. 260.


Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 114.

Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 93

his meaning-making strategies. First he proclaims an Aristotelian teleology

in the form of theological providence: ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our
ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.’53 Where he saw arbitrariness before,
he now sees a purpose, an end ordained by a higher, divine authority: ‘There
is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’54 His trust in such special
providence makes Hamlet willingly undergo the mayhem with which the
play ends. He thereby wilfully accepts his own death and those around him.
Once again the subjective disposition cannot be separated from what
it promotes or accepts to occur in the substantive space of socio-political
life. Literature alerts us to this exchange between subjectivity and substance
that characterizes our real life. Hamlet is a tragic figure not merely because
he does not perform the right actions at the right time.55 More importantly,
Hamlet’s failure to interact beneficially with his environments is premised on
his inability to separate his subjective perception from the substantive otherness,
which is the outside world.
The back and forth between subjective and substantive brings about
changes that renew our personal and social lives. Literature’s ethics activates
inter-subjectivity, given that the term ‘inter-subjective’ denotes the inter-
action not only between subjects but also between forms of substance that
are continuous with forms of subjectivity. Spinoza’s philosophy establishes
the continuity between affect and idea, which literature performs. The
performance of this continuity results in new forms of knowledge wherein
we discover ways of avoiding deleterious deceptions to which we are exposed
in real life. Shakespeare’s Hamlet depicts the mayhem that results from claims
to power and a dithering revenge plot. The ghost may be a fantasy but it
exerts an overwhelming impact on the action and inaction on stage.

Lucretius, Shakespeare, Spinoza and Malamud’s Fixer

In the following, we will see how Malamud refers to Spinoza’s Ethics in order
to highlight a Shakespearean analysis of fictions that shape the raw realities of
socio-political life. How can we explain the historical curiosity of a meeting
point halfway between Spinoza’s philosophy and Shakespeare’s literature?
For one thing, Shakespeare and Spinoza were near contemporaries. This

Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, pp. 225–226.
Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark, p. 234.
For a detailed discussion of this point, see Jacques Lacan’s ‘Desire and the Interpretation
of Desire in Hamlet’ in Shoshana Felman (ed.) Literature and Psychoanalysis: The
Question of Reading: Otherwise (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982),
pp. 11–52.
94 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

historical fact does not, however, explain similarities between their respective
intellectual outlooks. More important is their mutual exposure to a form of
ancient philosophy that was suppressed, repressed and nearly eliminated
during the Middle Ages but fortunately rediscovered and preserved at the
dawn of the Renaissance: the Epicureanism of Lucretius’s masterpiece De
Rerum Natura combines poetry with both science and philosophy. In 1417,
the humanist Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered one remaining copy of the
book in a German monastery (located in the town Fulda). The book hunter
had every reason to be enthusiastic about his catch: ‘He had encountered
a poem that conjoined “brilliant genius” in philosophy and science with
unusual poetic power. The conjunction was as rare then as it is now.’56
The significance of Poggio’s discovery is remarkable. It helped bring about
a certain form of non-teleological modernity. Lucretius’s philosophical-
scientific poem unmasks providence and other forms of teleology as fantasy,
as fiction:

The universe has no creator or designer. The particles themselves

have not been made and cannot be destroyed. The patterns of order
and disorder in the world are not the product of any divine scheme.
Providence is fantasy. What exists is not the manifestation of any
overarching plan or any intelligent design inherent in matter itself. […]
There is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and
destruction, governed entirely by chance.57

Rather than being structured or driven by a single goal or homogenous

plan, the universe keeps giving birth to an infinite diversity of different
new beginnings – swerves – which occur not in a providential but random
fashion: ‘The swerve – which Lucretius called variously declinatio, inclinatio,
or clinamen – is only the most minimal of notions, nec plus quam minimum.
But it is enough to set off a ceaseless chain of collisions. Whatever exists in
the universe exists because of these random collisions of minute particles.’58
The randomness of the world does not, however, give rise to cynicism or
nihilism. Instead, the absence of a grand goal or purpose entices contended
contemplation. Unpredictability and purposelessness enhance rather
than diminish life’s marvellous complexity. The complexity of random
arrangements encourages the contemplative desire for understanding rather
than wilful domination or rule:

Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World became Modern (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 51.

Greenblatt, The Swerve, pp. 187–188.


Greenblatt, The Swerve, p. 188.

Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 95

Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder. The

realization that the universe consists of atoms and voids and nothing
else, that the world was not made for us by a providential creator, that
we are not the center of the universe, that our emotional lives are no
more distinct than our physical lives from those of all other creatures,
that our souls are as material and as mortal as our bodies – all these
things are not the cause for despair. On the contrary, grasping the way
things really are is the crucial step toward the possibility of happiness.
Human insignificance – the fact that it is not all about us and our fate –
is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.59

Spinoza takes up Lucretius’s argument about human insignificance. He does

so while adding an important element. Our insignificance in the face of a
vast cosmos of which we are only a tiny part strengthens rather than weakens
the case for our collective self-preservation. He cautions against buying
into ideologies, because ideologies give rise to violent conflict. Against this
socio-political background, Spinoza’s Ethics deepens and develops Lucretius’s
critique of teleology, theology and anthropocentricism. The absence of either
natural or supernatural mechanisms that would guarantee the victory of
different ideologies – whose glorious endpoints are the point of various
religious, economic, philosophical, moralistic and military ideologies –
contributes to peace and blissful contemplative understanding: what Spinoza
famously calls acquiescentia or the intellectual love of God in Book V of
his Ethics. In a true Epicurean manner, Spinoza associates truth not with
epistemology – complete and total insight into what is – but ethically as
well creatively – as the preservation of what is through change – in other
words, through the transformative desire to persevere in an ever-changing
contingent universe. Building on Lucretius Spinoza rediscovers truth as
avoidance of violence. To circumvent harmful political actions he exposes
various socio-political fictions that give rise to violent actions.
Further developing Spinoza’s and Shakespeare’s Lucretean conception of
truth, the ethics of literature helps us circumvent the infliction of pain. It does
so by pinpointing where socio-political life falls prey to the lure, illusions
and delusions of violence and stereotyping. This is the subject matter of
Malamud’s The Fixer. Racism is a fantasy that has shaped socio-historical
reality with horrendous consequences in the preceding century. Malamud’s
novel The Fixer describes one form of racism – i.e. anti-Semitism – with
Spinoza as a philosophical point of reference. The name ‘Spinoza’ permeates
Malamud’s The Fixer like a leitmotiv. One reason for this prominence has

Greenblatt, The Swerve, pp. 198–199.

96 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

to do with Spinoza being the first modern Jewish philosopher. Even though
he was not the first Jew to break tradition, he was certainly the first to do so
without repenting for his actions.60 Moreover, after he was banned (herem)
from contact with the Amsterdam Jewish community, Spinoza proceeded
to put down his non-traditional ideas in a philosophical and philological
critique of the socio-political uses of the Bible (the Theological-Political
Treatise). The publication of this book caused a scandal and made the name
Spinoza synonymous with Epicureanism: atheism and a complete lack of
Yakov Bok, the main protagonist of Malamud’s The Fixer, is a poor jack of
all trades in the Jewish settlement of Russia (the Pale). He attempts to leave
the misery of the Pale behind. One way to do so is through education.61 He
is an autodidact whose learning is very selective. He singles out Spinoza’s
writings as his sole textual source: ‘What little I know I learned on my own –
some history and geography, a little science, arithmetic, and a book or two of
Spinoza’s. Not much but better than nothing.’62 There is an almost exclusive
focus on one thinker, which may strike us as odd. Reading Spinoza turns
Yakov Bok into a freethinker, one of the later-day Russian haskilim. He leaves
the Pale for the idea of a better life in modern-day Russia. He attempts to
make his fortune in the Kiev of 1911. What he encounters there is not what
the idea of modernity promises: it is not equal opportunities he meets but
the modern revival of the fantasies that determine medieval anti-Semitism.
Here we witness how ideas demand a substantive context in which they
can come to life. Yakov Bok, however, encounters a socio-political setting
that smothers the philosophical ideas of universal human rights. Similar to
Hamlet’s Denmark, the Kiev of 1911 is not shaped by a politics of humanity
but by a politics of disgust.63 The object of disgust is ‘the Jew’.
One way of reading the novel is to see it revolve around the promise of
as well as the disappointment with what the name Spinoza may signify to
Yakov Bok: modernity and its notions of equal human rights. This may be
true to a certain point but such reading ignores that the main protagonist of
The Fixer never voices misgivings about Spinoza and his social thought. On
the contrary, as Yakov Bok undergoes torture and torment in his jail cell, into

For a detailed discussion of this point see Jonathan I Israel’s Radical Enlightenment:
Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001) and Shmuel Feiner’s The Jewish Enlightenment, translated by Chaya Naor
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).
Feiner’s The Jewish Enlightenment emphasizes the quasi-erotic attraction of secular
knowledge for the haskilim.
Malamud, The Fixer (London: Penguin, 1967), p. 10.
See Matha C. Nussbaum’s From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional
Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 97

which he has been forced under the fantasized accusation that he had ritually
slaughtered a Christian child, he steadfastly clings to Spinoza’s thought. At
the end of the book he invokes Spinoza in order to destroy the fantasy not
of literature but of political actuality. The fantasy is anti-Semitism, which
fabricates real evidence in order to turn its politics of disgust into the force
that corrupts society: ‘What is it that Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that
are abhorrent to human nature it’s the lesser evil to destroy it.’64 Malamud’s
The Fixer invokes Spinoza in order to question the ways in which harmful
fantasies (in this case anti-Semitism) turn actual in history and politics. The
fantasy of anti-Semitism is medical, moralistic and religious: it turns the
Jew into a representative of disease, evil and the demonic. Reflecting upon
Spinoza’s thought, we may come to see literature not as repetition of fantasy
but as a form of mindfulness that changes the way we think about the various
deceptions that have shaped our socio-economic, cultural and political lives.
Rather than evoking Spinoza’s philosophy as the culprit for the attempt
of an impoverished Russian Jew to change his dismal circumstance by
becoming part of a modern cosmopolitan world, Malamud’s novel weaves
the name of the seventeenth philosopher into its texture as a counterpoint to
a world in which one subjective view (that of anti-Semitism) via deception
and brute force turns into an all-determining socio-political reality. The
name Spinoza opens up a world of diversity and adventure. Yakov wants to
leave the Pale ‘to get acquainted with a bit of the world’.65 Spinoza functions
as the ghost of modernity’s open, diverse and worldly promise. To his
father-in-law’s admonishment to be faithful to God’s transcendence, Yakov
responds with: ‘Today I want a piece of bread, not in Paradise.’66 Spinoza’s
Epicurean philosophy of immanence promises worldly fulfilments that are
not only material but also intellectual as well as socio-economic: the end of a
discriminatory society and the beginning of a democratic, modern state that
offers equal rights and the transformation of warfare into mutual support,
rivalry into solidarity. Yet the historical substance of the Ukraine continues to
be haunted not by the promises of the future but by the ghosts of traditional
harmful practices: ‘The steppe was a black sea full of strange voices. Here
nobody spoke Yiddish. […] Ghosts rose like smoke in the Ukraine.’67
Yakov’s crossing of the river Dnieper reads like a descent back into
infernal time of bigotry. The crossing of the Dnieper is his entry to the shore
of Kiev. The city Kiev represents modernity to the exile from the shtetl.
Representations are sometimes deceptive. The reality of Kiev does not live
Malamud, The Fixer, p. 299.
Malamud, The Fixer, p. 14.
Malamud, The Fixer, p. 19.
Malamud, The Fixer, p. 26.
98 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

up to Yakov Bok’s representation of it. Instead of an inclusive modernity, the

ferryman proclaims the misanthropy of anti-Semitism:

‘God save us all from the bloody Jews,’ the boatman said as he rowed,
‘those long nosed, pock-marked, cheating, bloodsucking parasites.
They’d rob us of daylight if they could. They foul up earth and air with
their body stink and garlic breaths, and Russia will be done to death by
the diseases they spread unless we make an end to it. A Jew’s a devil – it’s
a known fact – and if you ever watch one peel of his stinking boot you’ll
see a split hoof, it’s true. I know, for as the Lord is my witness, I saw one
with my own eyes. He thought nobody was looking, but I saw his hoof
as plain as day.’68

The boatman’s hate-filled speech anticipates the peculiar combination of the

modern and the medieval, the pseudo-theological and the pseudo-scientific,
which constitutes the anti-Semitism to which Yakov will be subjected to
in the heart of Kiev. The boatman insists on the empirical evidence of his
pseudo-theological equation of the Jew with the devil (‘it’s a known fact;
I saw one with my own eyes’). He marshals medical authority in order to
represent Jews in terms of a health risk (the diseases they spread).
This lethal combination of the pseudo-medical or pseudo-scientific with
medieval pseudo-theological stereotypes has informed the anti-Semitic
propaganda of the Nazis in which Jews were represented as satanic forms
of bacteria and other causes of disease. The boatman goes on to spell out
the genocidal anti-Semitism, which the Nazis enacted: ‘and the only way
to save ourselves is to wipe them out. I do not mean kill a Zhid now and
then with a blow of the fist or kick in the head, but wipe them all out, which
we’ve sometimes tried but never done as it should be done’.69 As has been
intimated above, the boatman evokes the mythical ferryman who transports
his clients into the dark regions of inferno. He is associated with a mythical
figure and yet his hate-filled speech has the concrete quality of historical
Malamud’s conjunction of history and myth brings to light the ways in
which the historical enacts the mythical. Literature’s ethics makes us see the
ways in which history and life have frequently been imprisoned by the forces
of myth. What is myth? According to Walter Benjamin as well as Malamud,
myth denotes the quasi-ritualistic repetition of harmful practices in ever-
new forms and new combinations. As Malamud has made clear The Fixer

Malamud, The Fixer, p. 28.


Malamud, The Fixer, p. 28.

Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 99

shows us how socio-historic reality has sometimes been fixed into a mythical
structure of harm, bigotry and state-sanctioned murder or genocide:

I was now looking for a story that had happened in the past and
perhaps would happen again. I wanted the historical tie-up so I could
invent it into myth. In other words, I wanted to show how recurrent,
almost without thought, almost ritualistic, some of our unfortunate
historical experiences are. I considered basing a fiction on the life of
Caryl Chessman, and then on the Dreyfus case, but for different reasons
neither idea suited me.70

Once in Kiev, Yakov Bok’s trial will re-enact not only that of his direct
historical precedent – that of Mendel Beilis – but also that of the fin-de-siècle
high-ranking French general Dreyfus who, on account of being Jewish, was
accused of espionage.
Like Beilis and Dreyfus, the proof of Yakov’s crime is the accusation.71
The legal, scientific and theological as well as historical evidence of Yakov’s
crime is already borne out by having been accused of the crime. As Malamud
has put it: ‘I settled for a combination of a blood ritual incident in pre-Soviet
Russia, plus something like the Dreyfus incident. A man is put in prison,
and there he must suffer out his existence with what he has and, in a sense,
conceive himself again.’72 The rebirth, at least, in Dreyfus’s case is pathological.
As Sander L. Gilman has shown, ‘In the course of his [i.e. Dreyfus’s]
autobiographical account, Dreyfus’s body metamorphoses from the body of
the French soldier to that of the imaginary diseased Jew.’73 Dreyfus’s trial
and imprisonment on Devil’s Island makes his mental and physical health
conform to the anti-Semites’ imagined representation of the Jew: a sick and
infectious body that spreads its contagion. The Dreyfus case horrendously
shows how historical reality is capable of enacting practices that turn real
embodied human beings (Dreyfus and, later under Nazi rule, European
Jews) into the living embodiments of deleterious representations borne out
of hatred and pseudo-science. The power of fraudulent forms of mimesis
holds sway not only in Hamlet’s Denmark but also in early twentieth-century
France and Russia. We have lost but we may rediscover from Shakespeare’s
Renaissance ethics and aesthetics an awareness of literature’s vital social
role in making us aware of how what we take to be substantive or objective

Malamud, ‘Sources of The Fixer,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 88–89 (p. 88).
For a discussion of the Mendel Beilis context see Davis, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s
Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 240–243.
Quoted from Davis, Bernard Malamud, p. 240.
Gilman, Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 80.
100 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

socio-political and socio-economic reality is frequently driven by fantasized

representations created by pseudo-science, pseudo-medicine and pseudo-
theology. Literature’s ethics makes us alert as to how historical experiences are
re-enacting a mythic structure of exclusion, violence and murder. Foucault
has advocated the employment of an archaeological method in order to
unearth the different forms such repetition of harm, discipline, homogeneity
and exclusion may take over the course of modernity. Radicalizing Foucault’s
approach, Agamben has recently proposed what he calls the methodology of
Agamben recommends ‘an ontological anchoring’ where repetition
pervades history in its entirety (and not only modernity as in Foucault’s
account).74 Agamben’s notion of signature is remarkably close to Malamud’s
understanding of the symbol: it is a pervasive force where past violence
already foreshadows the modern, more advanced horror to come. The past
of Foucault’s archaeological method partakes of the present and future.
Yakov’s pain in Kiev at the beginning of the twentieth century symbolically
reaches backward to the preceding suffering of Dreyfus at the fin de siècle
as well as anticipates the future horrors of the Nazi genocide. Malamud’s
symbol and Agamben’s signature resemble a time machine where we
come to see the past in terms of being a signature of the future: ‘It is the
past that will have been when the archaeologist’s gesture (or the power of
the imaginary) has cleared away the ghosts of the unconscious and the
tight-knit fabric of tradition which blocks access to history.’75 Strikingly
Agamben associates archaeology with the imagination and the imagination
is arguably a prime feature of literature. The way to find truth is via
literature’s imagination. The imaginary is a heuristic device that enables
us to see through the deceptions that characterize what we have come to
accept as accurate according to the standards of received, conventional
teaching (the tradition).
The ethical component of literature insists on there not being a necessity
by which past and current states of affairs have to be like this – flatly mimetic
copies of figures of a deleterious imagination. This is why Malamud holds out
the promise of freedom even in the torturous and tormenting environment
of a jail cell. The wrongly accused, falsely imprisoned and tortured Yakov
Bok refuses to buy into the demands of yielding evidence – via a confession
of his crime – which would yet again prove the bloodguilt of the Jewish
community at large. Through this refusal, Yakov does his part to interrupt

Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, translated by Luca D’lsanto with

Kevin Attell (New York: Zone Books, 2009), p. 111.

Agamben, The Signature of All Things, pp. 106–107.
Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 101

the repetitive working of history, which has become mythic in its ritualistic
repetition of a bigoted plot.
‘Mythos’ is the Greek term Aristotle employs to delineate the plot of Greek
tragedy. According to Aristotle’s mimetic paradigm, the plot of Greek tragedy
imitates actions that are universal (rather than particular as in historical
writings). The universality of tragic plots describes their repeatability. The
mythic truths of Greek tragedy are repetitive: they reinforce in different ways
and contexts the hierarchical divide between mortals and immortals. Malamud’s
aesthetics and ethics break the mimetic paradigm that has shaped the approach
to literature from Aristotle onwards. This is not to say that Malamud abandons
representation. His novel evokes quite a realistic sense of what it means to
be imprisoned in Tsarist Russia. As has been discussed above, the realism of
The Fixer involves universal references too: ‘To his [i.e. the historical figure
Mendel Beilis on which the literary Yakov Bok is based] trials I added some
something of Dreyfus’s and Vanzetti’s, shaping the whole to suggest the quality
of the affliction of the Jews under Hitler.’76 The historical references of the plot,
however, hardly evoke the affirmation of what they represent.
In Malamud’s The Fixer representation does not celebrate or endorse what
it represents. Rather than affirming the validity of history’s quasi-universal
and mythic repetition of harmful socio-political and socio-economic policies,
the mimetic content of the novel turns against itself. Here representation
aims at interrupting itself: the unfortunate and saddening as well as repetitive
reality the novel presents. One reason why Yakov Bok turns to Spinoza is his
dissatisfaction with the socio-political state of affairs. His dissatisfaction with
history is a rejection of the socio-political realty of violence, bigotry and
superstition: ‘From birth a black horse had followed him, a Jewish nightmare.
What was being a Jew but an everlasting curse? He was sick of their history,
destiny, blood guilt.’77 What does the word ‘Jew’ signify here? Not the Jew
as an individual human being but the representation of the Jew in terms of
bloodguilt throughout the history of Christian Europe. Yakov’s jailors are
able to make his outward image conform to the anti-Semitic fantasy of what
a Jew looks like. When his former wife visits him in prison, she notices how
Yakov’s changed body conforms to the representative image of ‘the Jew’:

‘How strange you look in earlocks and long beard.’

‘That’s their evidence against me.’
‘How thin you are, how withered,’78

Malamud, ‘Sources of The Fixer,’ in Talking Horse, pp. 88–89 (p. 89).

Malamud, The Fixer, p. 206.


Malamud, The Fixer, p. 255.

102 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Yakov’s changed appearance flatly coincides with the pseudo-theological as

well as pseudo-scientific representation of ‘the Jew’ in anti-Semitic writing and
visual culture. His earlocks and his long beard denote his presumed religious
orthodoxy – as Spinozist, Yakov is, however, anything but orthodox. His thin
and sick physique (withered) provides fake, or rather fabricated, evidence and
yet the fabrication becomes represented as substantial proof of the pseudo-
scientific image of the diseased Jew. In this way, Yakov’s changed appearance
turns him into a mimetic figure and at the same time the spurious nature of
what is mimetic here highlights the falsity of the ‘embodied’ corroboration of
anti-Semitic fantasies. Representations – whether in dreams or fantasies (see
the above discussion of Hamlet) or in political, pseudo-scientific or pseudo-
theological treatises – do, however, exert a power that manifests itself in the
socio-historical reality of pogroms, lynching, genocide and other forms of
hate crimes.
The current state of Russian society is a repetition within history of past
forms of harm. History is repetitive to the extent that it has turned mythic –
repeating the tragic plot of hate and its crimes. In the novel, Spinoza figures
as break with the exhaustion of historical repetition: ‘Fatigued by history, he
went back to Spinoza, rereading chapters on biblical criticism, superstition,
and miracles which he knew almost by heart.’79 Spinoza’s Theological-Political
Treatise analyses the fantasies that have shaped socio-political reality in
theological ways. Spinoza unmasks the anthropomorphic construction of a
God who serves to make one political group triumph over another.
Malamud’s The Fixer not only evokes Spinoza’s rationalist critique of
superstition and bigotry. It also summons the ideas of the seventeenth-
century philosopher in order to interrupt the mythic repetition of superstition
and bigotry within both history and the plot of the novel. As we will see The
Fixer closes with the evocation of such interruption of the flow of mimesis.
Having been arrested and imprisoned on charges of having killed a Christian
child (thus repeating the medieval accusation against the Jews as child as
well as Christ killers), Yakov re-encounters Spinoza through the attorney
Bibikov. Invoking Spinoza, Bibikov validates the possibility of a modernity
that is diverse rather than homogenous. During their first meeting, Bibikov
asks Yakov about the meaning of Spinoza’s philosophy. He makes clear that
his intentions are not hostile when he raises this question, ‘because Spinoza is
among my favourite philosophers and I am interested in his effect on others’.80
In his response to Bibikov’s enquiry, Yakov singles out Spinoza’s interruption
of historical repetitions. Such interruption frees us to perceive the complex

Malamud, The Fixer, p. 58.


Malamud, The Fixer, p. 71.

Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 103

ways in which we are in truth interconnected rather than violently opposed

to each other in socio-economic or socio-political hostility. The book to
which Yakov refers to here is Spinoza’s Ethics:

‘In that case,’ said the fixer, partly relieved, ‘I tell you that the book means
different things according to the subject of the chapters, though it is
all united underneath. But what I think it means is that he was out to
make a free man out of himself – as much as one can according to his
philosophy, if you understand my meaning – by thinking through and
connecting everything up, if you’ll go along with that, my honour.’81

Freedom goes hand in hand not with withdrawal or separation from –

negative freedom as freedom from something – the socio-political but, on the
contrary, with the insight into social commonality and interdependence. First
Yakov refers to the supposed determinism of Spinoza’s philosophy and then
he argues that it gives way to the freedom of interconnection. Living up to this
Spinozan view of an interconnected universe, Bibikov later, before his tragic
death in a jail cell next to Yakov’s, explains the conatus-like, self-preserving
character of his legal assistance: ‘Keep in mind, Yakov Shepsovitch, that if
your life is without value, so is mine. If the law does not protect you, it will
not, in the end, protect me. Therefore I dare not fail you, and that is what
causes me anxiety – that I must not fail you.’82 From Spinoza’s perspective
we are determined to see our own self-interest realized by caring for others,
because without the assistance of others we would not be able to survive and
thrive. Spinoza’s holistic or trans-individual determinism of an interconnected
universe furthers freedom, life and creativity. We are determined not by
supernatural forces but by the actions through which we interact with our
environment. Spinoza’s world is free from repetition and immutability. His
philosophy analyses superstition and bigotry as fictions that have shaped
unfortunate aspects of history. In his last legal defence of Yakov’s case, Bibikov
turns the table on the charge of Jewish immutability: it is not the Jews who
are immutable but the history of a civilization that has been determined by
fictions of hate and stigmatization. Similar to Benjamin’s Angel of History
Bibikov sees progress as the piling-up of endless ruins of destruction:

The French have a saying, ‘The more it changes, the more it remains the
same.’ You must admit there may be a certain truth to that especially
with reference to what we call ‘society’. In effect it has not changed in its

Malamud, The Fixer, p. 71.


Malamud, The Fixer, p. 159.

104 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

essentials from what it was in the dim past, even though we tend loosely
to think of civilisation as progress. I frankly no longer believe in that

The term ‘progress’ loses its progressive connotation when it describes

the accumulation or repetition of bigotry and murder. Spinoza’s idea of a
trans-individual and interconnected society breaks with the social history
of violence and stigmatization that has shaped traditional history. Spinoza,
whose image served to represent Satan in the social imagination of the
seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century, is of course an apt reference point for
a suspension of the traditional form of humanism.
At the end of the novel the sad reality of history gives rise to art’s
interruption of mimesis, representation, repetition and stigmatization. It
does so by providing space for Yakov’s striving for freedom. Here literature’s
ethics enacts politics as cessation of the status quo. By killing the Tsar,
Yakov renders a corrupt but real political, social and economic system
inoperable. He proclaims the birth of a true form of politics, which has been
obliterated by the actually existing history of stigmatization and exclusion.
By interrupting the mimesis of historical events, Yakov reverses the mythical
history of misanthropy:

As for history, Yakov thought, there are ways to reverse it. What the Tsar
deserves is a bullet in the gut. Better him than us. The left rear wheel of
the carriage seemed to be wobbling. One thing I’ve learned, he thought,
there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can’t
be one without the other, that’s clear enough. You can’t sit still and see
yourself destroyed. Afterwards he thought, Where there’s no fight for it
there’s no freedom. What is it Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that
are abhorrent to human nature it’s the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to
the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!84

The ending of the novel rewrites history. Significantly, Yakov does not say
‘Long live the revolution’ but ‘Long live revolution!’ Art’s reversal of history is
‘revolution’, which cannot be tied down to the corrupt instance of a historical
event, which would be ‘a revolution’ or ‘the revolution’.
Writing opens up vistas of potentiality in Malamud’s oeuvre. It does
so perhaps most strikingly in his late novel Dubin’s Life. There the ageing
biographer Dubin contrasts Augustinian memory as a blissful return to God

Malamud, The Fixer, p. 157.


Malamud, The Fixer, p. 299.

Certainty and the Predictability of Numbers 105

with his own experience of an ‘active remembrance of the sadness of the past’.85
Writing offers a way out of the monolithic track that binds the self to the past.
Life without writing is a form of imprisonment. Dubin’s inability to continue
with the writing of his new biography of D. H. Lawrence precludes a break
from prison (as it were): ‘He could not escape the imprisoning consciousness,
the fixed self nailed to the past.’86 Yakov escapes his imprisonment by rewriting
history. The assassination of the Tsar symbolizes the end of stereotyping and
anti-Semitism. How can we reconcile philanthropy with having the Tsar
shot in the guts? The shooting at the Tsar symbolically destroys a societal
setup that almost ritualistically perpetuates stigmatization and other forms
of violence. The end of such a political system coincides with humanity’s
self-preservation. The reference to politics emphasizes this point: it evokes
Spinoza’s vision of communality and interdependence within a modern,
diverse society.87 Crucially, literature opens up new horizons where we find
ourselves unbound from the chains that otherwise tie us to the monolithic
past of our present.

Malamud, Dubin’s Lives (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), p. 311.
Malamud, Dubin’s Lives, p. 317.
Without referring to Spinoza, Davis has described the meaning of politics at the end
of The Fixer as follows: ‘This is the wider, ancient meaning of political: that there is
nothing human that can be sure of being wholly separate, safely unaffected, or utterly
unimportant.’ Davis, Bernard Malamud, p. 258.

A Disenchantment with Numbers:

Philosophy and Literature

To treat their [confessional poets] poems mainly as documents of personal

experience is not just to diminish their achievement, but to ignore their
unanimous disdain for the idea of confessional poetry.
Adam Kirsch, The Wounded Surgeon

So even as governmental tactics give rise to this sovereignty, sovereignty

comes to operate on the very field of governmentality: the management
of populations. Finally, it seems important to recognize that one way of
‘managing’ a population is to constitute them as less than human without
entitlement to rights, as the humanly unrecognizable.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life

Agamben’s and Foucault’s critique of political theology

As we have seen in the previous chapter the ethics of literature uncovers the
partiality of the purported impartiality (or non-subjectivity) of publically
acclaimed truths. Public representations of justice and law, of what is human
or non-human, and associated with these, of what is normal or abnormal,
healthy or pathological, innocent or guilty, harmless or accused, may be false
or fictitious. Yet these representations, once they have governmentally and
socially been approved, come to precondition our understanding of what
is ethically acceptable. The way we represent the world may be subjective.
The subjective turns substantive, however, once it has received public or
governmental approval as well as acclamation. Acclamation marks the point
where politics and modern media meet theology.
What kind of theology? A theology that appraises, that glorifies either
transcendent (God or gods) or secular power (the sovereign, the ruling
party and so forth, the ruling class of managerial power and so forth).1 It is

The theology of approval and acclamation contrasts with Mark C. Taylor’s theological

vision. See Taylor’s Nots (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

108 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

a theology of glory that constitutes, as Giorgio Agamben has recently put it,
‘the secret point of contact through which theology and politics continuously
communicate and exchange parts with one another’.2 Agamben argues that
modernity does not constitute a rupture with the theology of pre-modernity,
but that it merely displaces the theological imprint of power from a Trinitarian
sacred location to a secular and immanent one of management, the economy
and (secular) politics – issues with which the Butler quote is concerned at
the opening of this chapter: ‘Modernity, removing God from the world, has
not only failed to leave theology behind, but in some ways has done nothing
other than to lead the project of the providential oikonomia to completion.’3
Here Agamben clearly positions himself within the famous debate about the
secular between Hans Blumenberg and Carl Schmitt. Blumenberg defends
the legitimacy of modernity against Schmitt’s political theology, which
proclaims that all secular terms are but translations of theological ideas.
Agamben is, however, not a follower of Schmitt. Here it is worth noting that
Agamben speaks of modernity’s failure to leave theology behind. According
to Schmitt this is not a failure but a triumph. Similar to Walter Benjamin’s
approach in the 1920s, Agamben engages with the conservative political
theology of Schmitt (and also that of Erik Peterson) not in order to affirm the
repetition of theological patterns within modernity but to hold modernity to
account for precisely such repetition.
In what ways does Agamben’s critique of theology’s persistence within
secular practices of politics and economics pertain to the development of a
new ethics borne out of the sources of literature? Strikingly modern literature
often alludes to as well as works through theological themes and images.
Kafka has done so as has one of the most important twentieth-century poets:
Sylvia Plath. A recent study has a chapter dedicated to ‘Plath’s Theology’.4 Does
Plath have a theology? Or rather, does her work struggle with the theological
structure – albeit emptied out of transcendent content – of the world we are
facing within modernity? Agamben makes a strong case that our predilection
for what achieves the greatest number of sales or the greatest number of clicks
or views (the internet or television and media – internet channels like YouTube
for instance – in general) or the greatest number of approval/acclamation
ratings is not as secular or immanent as it seems but rather instantiates the
displacement of theological hierarchies onto a different location:

Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and
Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa (with MatteoMandarini) (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2011), p. 194.
Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p. 287.
See Tim Kendall’s Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study (London: Faber and Faber, 2003),
pp. 111–127.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 109

As should be evident today, people-nation and people-communication,

despite the differences in behaviour and figure, are the two faces of doxa that,
as such, ceaselessly interweave and separate themselves in contemporary
society. In this interlacing of elements, the ‘democratic’ and secular
theorists of communicative action risk finding themselves side by side
with conservative thinkers of acclamation such as Schmitt and Peterson:
but this is precisely the price that must be paid each time by theoretical
elaborations that think they can do without archaeological precautions.
That ‘government by consent’ and the social communication on which, in
the last instance, consensus rests, in reality harks back to acclamations is
what can be shown even through a summary genealogical quest.5

Agamben here analyses the delusions of progressive thinkers such as

Habermas, which consist in establishing consensus as a liberal rather than
conservative strategy. The delusion in question derives from the ignorance of
the ways in which history repeats itself in different disguises. Agamben refers
to Foucault’s method of inquiry when he evokes terms like ‘genealogical
quest’ and ‘archaeology’.
The invocation of Foucault is significant, because it was he who has shown
that concern for population growth and, associated with it, the marketability
of huge quantities of goods become the measure of what matters and what
not from the eighteenth-century onwards. According to Foucault, from the
eighteenth century onwards those who achieve the greatest number of sales
or popular approval measures (such as fame or electoral success) become
arbiters of both power and truth (rather than philosophical or theological
notions of metaphysical accuracy, as was the case during the scholasticism
of the Middle Ages).
In contrast to Foucault, Agamben argues that such modern strategies
of public approval, marketability and public consensus are not something
new but rather a displacement of Church theology that glorifies as God’s
representatives those who govern through public displays of acclamation.
According to Agamben, within medieval theology there is already a clear
point of coincidence where politics, economics and theology have become
indistinct. Ernst Kantorowicz’s famous The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in
Medieval Political Theology substantiates Agamben’s argument about the
blurring of the distinction between the economic, the theological and
the political within traditional Church thinking: the King represents at once
the otherworldly and the worldly and this simultaneity makes mundane
issues such as people, management and popular (quantitative, or, in other

Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p. 259.

110 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

words, what is based on the greatest number of people) acclamation

indistinct from theological doxa.6
Agamben’s concern is with the dark aspect of theology: a region where it
has become indistinct from oppressive political and economic management.
While employing Foucault’s archaeological methodology, Agamben
nevertheless begs to differ when it comes to the question of modernity’s break
with what preceded it. His genealogy of modernity diverges from that given
by Foucault. For Agamben the origin of modern economics and politics is
ironically non-modern, early Christian and Medieval, whereas for Foucault –
here sharing the progressive thinking of Blumenberg and Habermas – it is the
break with pre-modernity. I think both versions of modernity’s origin help
explain how and why we live the way we live today. Genealogical inquiry is a
method Foucault has inherited from Nietzsche. As Judith Butler has recently
argued, it is a methodology that allows for a plurality of truths:

Indeed, it may be that to have an origin means precisely to have several

possible versions of the origin – I take it that this is part of what
Nietzsche meant by the operation of genealogy. Any one of those is a
possible narrative, but of no single one can I say with certainty that it
alone is true.7

Once we are able to read Foucault’s and Agamben’s respective accounts

as partial truths that complement each other, we grasp that modernity is
paradoxically both a break with and a continuation of pre-modern thought,
myth and social practice. What for Foucault is a non-theological modern
fabrication of markets and other quantitative measures, Agamben sees as
being part of a genealogy that connects the pre-modern with the modern.
The doxa of purported pre-modernity already delineated as well as supported
the activity of secular economics and politics.
Qualifying Agamben’s argument by complementing it with Foucault’s,
we could say that modernity intensifies within an imminent and immanent
realm the operations of power and oppression, which in pre-modernity were
shared and somewhat postponed (far off in another supernatural context)
between this world and the world to come (a transcendent realm). The way
power and oppression work remains, however, the same. Its operations are
premised on acclamation, on the will of the majority, on the power of the
sheer quantity of those who acclaim the ruler.
For a discussion of this see Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval
Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005),
pp. 37–38
A Disenchantment with Numbers 111

What characterizes the working of oppressive power? The simultaneity of

the quantitative and the uniform (conforming to the rule laid out by the ruling
party) reinforces the impression that the operations of oppressive power depend
on homogeneity. According to the OED the first English usage of the term
‘homogeneity’ (N. Carpenter 1625) denotes both harmony and communion. The
ruler who has the power to oppress certain groups of people has a harmonious
relationship of acclamation with the majority of the people who uphold his rule.
The sovereign’s subjectivity assumes the objectivity and substantiality of the
population as a whole. The ruler thus has two bodies: representing both God
and the people as a homogenous unity. Law, justice and the ethics associated
with the legal system serve to enact and reinforce ‘the one size fits all’ motto that
characterizes homogeneity. Public images of law and justice have the horrific
function of facilitating not only acceptance but also acclamation of forms of
activity that have been instituted by managerial authority. Through the public
approval of homogenous rule, subjectivity becomes at one with substantiality.
Let me unpack this dense argument. The ruling party that makes its rule
uniform and homogenously applicable in actual fact represents its partiality
or subjectivity as if it were universal and substantive. The representation of the
partial as the universal, of the subjective as the substantive is precisely what takes
place in displays of public approval, or, as Agamben puts it, acclamation.
When it comes to the interruption of homogeneity literature plays a crucial
role, precisely because literature foregrounds the subjective against the background
of its public representation where it appears under the disguise of substantiality.
By unmasking the deceptive display of substantiality (during the acclamation
of a ruler or during the public marketing of a political or economic idea or
procedure), literature performs a form of heuristic or detective work. It does so
by delineating how the purported substantiality of an ideology or an economic
system or of a medical assessment is in actual fact a fantasy that grows out of the
longing for a world in which we all cohere and are identical tools for a greater
teleological or providential good. The ethics of literature disrupts the governmental
blurring of the subjective and the substantive. In other words, literature’s insistence
on subjectivity is not a subjective but a public matter: it counters the one-size-fits-
all approach in public policies by articulating the infinite variety of subjective
voices that do not fit into the homogenous call of the ruling discourse.

Sylvia Plath and the disruption of ‘confessional poetry’

For a critique of homogeneity, Sylvia Plath’s work is highly relevant because

it foregrounds subjectivity. This is why it is purported to be ‘confessional
poetry’. Her poetry has frequently been accused of being excessively
112 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

subjective – subjective to the point of being egotistic. In this way the poet
(and one of Sylvia Plath’s numerous biographers) Anne Stevenson demotes
the intensity of Plath’s poetry as ‘egoistic fantasizing’ and refers to ‘her gift for
romantic self-aggrandizing’.8 The main title of Stevenson’s biography Bitter
Fame is quite ambiguous and the ambiguity derives from a highly moralizing
assessment of Plath’s work from the perspective of her life and personality
shaped as it was by so-called ‘madness’ or ‘mental illness’: ‘She was indeed
cursed. Desperately she struggled in the bonds of selfhood; through her
writing she must find a way out!’9 Too bad, then, when her poetry does not
seem to find a way out of subjectivity, of selfhood.
Critics have recently discovered a more public aspect to Plath’s and
confessional poetry in general. As Deborah Nelson has put it:

At the time of their emergence, the confessional poets were taken

to be an extreme instance of romantic self-absorption. However,
their significance in literary history and to the changing culture in
privacy lies in their exposure of limitations on lyric autonomy and
constitutional sovereignty that we had not perceived the lyric subject or
the constitutional citizen to suffer.10

As we shall see, in her poetry Plath strenuously and unceasingly strengthens

her selfhood. This act of strengthening selfhood highlights the precarious
existence of the individual or constitutional citizen. The poetic voice touts
subjectivity precisely because lyric autonomy and the individual difference
of constitutional citizen are threatened by the homogenous forces of
As Michael W. Clune has recently argued apropos a reading of her only novel
The Bell Jar, Plath withdraws from intersubjective recognition (and in doing
so joins the antipsychiatry movement of P. D. Laing and Gregory Bateson)11 –
from what constitutes our sociality in social thought from Hegel via Lacan to
Martha Nussbaum, Gayatri Spivak and Charles Taylor: ‘Plath’s understanding
of the separability of subjectivity from recognition underlies a dimension of
her work that has remained invisible to the critics.’12 By separating cognition
from social recognition Plath emphasizes her difference – her deviation from

Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. With a New Preface, 1998 (London: Penguin,
1998), p. 32.
Stevenson, Bitter Fame, pp. 32–33.
Nelson, Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (New York: Columbia University Press,
2002), p. xvii.
Clune, American Literature and the Free Market, 1945–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000), pp. 34–38.
Clune, American Literature and the Free Market, 1945–2000, p. 31.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 113

societal rules, roles and regulations. According to Plath the social ‘dialectic of
recognition is evil’,13 because it paves the way for the totalitarian equation of
one particular subject or idea with substance, with the totality of all there is in
an actually diverse world. Clune discusses the asocial aspect of Plath’s work.
This is an important and potentially innovative approach but Clune may
highlight Plath’s hostility to intersubjective recognition while not considering
the reasons for her poetic withdrawal from society.
Most importantly the reason d’être behind Plath vacating the sphere of
the social is itself socio-political: it constitutes an affront to the politics of
homogeneity. As has been intimated above, her insistence on the individual
difference of her poetic voice has provoked outrage in the public sphere.
Far from finding a way out of her selfhood, Plath’s poetry creates and also
preserves the life of subjectivity that refuses to meet moralistic rules and
standards that a biographer á la Stevenson imposes upon not only her life
but also her literary work. Crucially, this refusal to budge and stifle the
idiosyncrasy of selfhood constitutes a public act. It is indeed the scandal of
Plath’s poetry.
Some of Plath’s most notorious poems – most famously ‘Daddy’ –
ostensibly do not achieve a transcendence of selfhood as demanded by
Stevenson and others. While introducing her poem for a reading on the BBC,
Plath highlights the idiosyncratic and subjective ground of the poetic voice:

Here the poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father
died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact
that her father was a Nazi and her mother possibly part Jewish. In the
daughter or in her imagination, the two strains marry and paralyse each
other – she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she
is free of it.14

As Tim Kendall has noted this description of the poem emphasizes a critical
or almost clinical distance: ‘having been portrayed as the passive victim of
a disordered psyche, Plath now becomes a manipulator, using her wide and
detailed knowledge of psychoanalytical literature to mould her persona,
rather too blatantly, according to pre-existing Freudian models’.15 Plath’s
persona is certainly not autobiographical. Her mother was not Jewish and
her father was not a Nazi. The poem is not confessional in the sense of

Clune, American Literature and the Free Market, 1945–2000, p. 32.
Quotation from Elisabeth Bronfen’s Sylvia Plath (Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers,
2004), p. 82.
Kendall, Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. 150.
114 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The poem vibrates in the tension between distance and closeness, between
the histrionic and the sincere, between the factual and the imagined, between
the deftly calculated and the rawness of experience. George Steiner has
appraised the poetic acumen and emotive force of ‘Daddy’ in terms worth

In ‘Daddy’ she wrote one of the very few poems I know of in any language
to come near the last horror. It achieves the classic act of generalization,
translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain
statement, of instantaneously public images which concern us all. It is
the ‘Guernica’ of modern poetry. And it is both histrionic and, in some
ways ‘arty’, as is Picasso’s outcry.16

Steiner here describes how supposedly private or subjective experience

comes to turn public, how via poetic rationale it ‘concerns us all’. The poem
voices an imagined subjectivity, which becomes overwhelmed by substantive
reality. Subjectivity here is passive, that of victimhood. The oppression of the
outside reality, of substance, of all there is, goes under the name of father.
The starting point is subjectivity that is being crushed by a force that is
taken to be that of all there is: the universe, the world, in short, God. Plath’s
use of the word ‘complicated’ evidences her detached position. For what does
it mean that God here is a Nazi, a Panzermann? God as Nazi is a travesty
of traditional notions of a benevolent deity. The way Plath reads the poem
emphasizes this ridiculous aspect. The poem’s tone is infantile and absurd.
Take its title, which is quite childish: ‘Daddy’. Kendall has astutely drawn
attention to the interrelation between vowel repetition – the silly messiness
that jumbles together shoe and Jew – and the Freudian context that Plath’s
poem re-enacts as well as parodies:

This repetitive pattern of disappearance and return represents Plath’s

version of the fort-da game as famously described in Beyond the Pleasure
Principle, where the child’s repeated and long drawn out ‘o-o-o-o’ is only
a slight vowel modulation away from the ‘oo’ repetition of ‘Daddy’. The
father-figure is a ‘contemporary experience’, not a memory; and, as Freud
explains, the reason for his continuing presence lies in the speaker’s
‘infantile sexual life’. The father’s early death ensures that she cannot
progress, and her sense of selfhood is stutteringly confined within a
compulsion to repeat.17

Steiner, ‘Dying is an Art,’ in Steiner Language and Silence: Essays 1958–1966


(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), pp. 183–190 (p. 189).

Kendall, Sylvia Plath, p. 152.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 115

The persona of the poem had to kill her father or god figure before in order
to avoid having her subjectivity crushed by him. At the opening of the second
stanza the voice admits this compulsion for a liberating kill:
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
The penultimate stanza doubles this act of murder before closing in the hard-
to-believe closure of ‘I am through’:

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two –

The vampire who said he was you
And drunk my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I am through.18

The two acts of murdering the father figure hark back to Freud’s primal scene
where the angry and jealous sons kill their father who has had a monopoly
on sexual intercourse and procreation. According to Freud, the Jews repeat
the primal scene by killing their overbearing, monopolizing and rather strict
as well as homogenous leader: Moses.
Patricide gives not only rise to a feeling of guilt. More importantly,
it makes possible a break from sovereign power, which prevents the
flourishing of diverse forms of life. Plath’s poem in a tongue-in-cheek tone
performs the liberation of a subjective voice from the oppressive subject
of the father. The subject of the father, at least in the eyes of the daughter,
denies his own limited subjectivity: he was God, the substance of all there
is. The poem bores holes into such pretentions. Admittedly it does so in a
scandalous and offensive way. It attaches the category of Nazi to overbearing
and homogenizing authority figures and equates victims of such regime
with victims of the Nazi genocide. There is, however, a so far undetected
connection between Plath’s juxtaposition of the silly, the thoughtless,
the banal and the extraordinary criminality of the Holocaust. As Berel
Lang has shown this tension between banal or ordinary violence and the
unprecedented systematic as well as industrialized planning of the Nazi
genocide has in different but related ways informed Jewish thought in the
post-Holocaust period:

Plath, Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes (New York: Harper Collins, 1981), p. 224.
116 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The ‘YetzerHa’rah’ introduced in Genesis had the function of asserting

the lure of evil (not necessarily its triumph, but its presence) even in
the presence of understanding and thinking, which would always be
options. The problem for this juxtaposition, we saw, concerned the
imposed resolution of theodicy – that whatever happens in history, up
to and including the Holocaust, was ultimately the best, with God and
man in some sense collaborative agents. Arendt would certainly reject
this verdict on history – on world history, on Jewish history, and on
Eichmann’s history. But the terms that she herself sets for the problem of
Holocaust-evil by insisting at once on its banality and its extraordinary
criminality afford her no ready way of reconciling the two sides of that
tension. She is, of course, not alone in facing this difficulty, and no doubt
Jewish thought in the post Holocaust will continue to wrestle with it.19

The complexity of ‘Daddy’s’ poetic voice may do justice to complex, paradoxical

and contradictory ways of thinking through the rationalized, industrialized
and systematically ‘managed’ violence perpetrated in the Nazi genocide.
Plath’s poetry has certainly a direct intellectual point of reference in
Freud’s psychoanalysis. The point of Freud’s psychoanalysis is to validate
the subjectivity of his patients and to prevent the repetition of harm, which
results from desire or drive (Id) as well as authority (superego)-driven forms
of homogeneity: where Id was, subjectivity shall be. I would argue that Plath’s
poem performs such a break through its appalling and offensive offerings.
There cannot be any doubt that ‘Daddy’ has offended if not outraged
many readers from Joyce Carol Oates via Hugh Kenner and Marjorie Perl
off to Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney. In her defence of Plath’s poem
Jacqueline Rose has argued that it ‘addresses the production of fantasy as
such’.20 Although potentially insightful, this is a rather general point. Where
does this production of fantasy take place? Of course, the whole poem is
a fantasy or fiction, but how precisely is it concerned with the mechanism
of the production of fantasy? The speaker endows the father figure with a
substantive power to represent God or the whole universe. This fantasy of the
almighty father collapses at the point of its enunciation in the poem:

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.21

Berel Lang ‘Evil, Suffering, and the Holocaust,’ in Michael L. Morgan and Peter Eli
Gordon (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 277–299 (p. 295).
Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991), p. 230.
Plath, Collected Poems, p. 223.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 117

The God-like figure of the father collapses into the brute force of Nazism. The
poem performs this deflation of the inflated. In doing so it not only breaks
the myth of quasi-divine patriarchy but also deflates and interrupts its own
inflations in infantile babble. The poem swerves away from the voice that
articulates its lines. It puts an end to the fantasies from which it has derived its
oppressive, stifled and infantile existence. No wonder that Plath read ‘Daddy’
aloud to a friend ‘in a mocking and comical voice that made both women
fall about with laughter’.22 Its poetic voice is ridiculous. It cancels itself out to
make room for something else.
‘Daddy’ is not the only poem that enacts as well as witnesses the death
of a self who has been confined to the stifling stasis of conformity and
homogeneity. ‘Ariel’ opens in the oppressive darkness of stasis and at its close
turns into the shape and speed of an arrow:

And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.23

The image of the arrow denotes freedom from oppression. It validates

subjectivity and frees it from being subservient to homogenizing forces. Does
not the ending of ‘Ariel’ return to the homogenous darkness with which it
opens (‘Stasis in darkness’)? It closes with ‘morning’. We associate morning
with light. The spelling and the pronunciation of the word, however, also
evokes ‘mourning’. Furthermore, the image of a cauldron may give rise to
an association with witches and other prejudicial representation that mark
women as dangerous. These possible dark images and evocations, which
return the ending of the poem to its beginning, are nevertheless put to rest
by the promise of endless transformations in which we move from suicide to
a new beginning, a new morning. Ariel’s arrow-flight is suicidal, but this is a
suicide of an angel that is capable of re-birth, of unceasing metamorphoses
of subjectivity.
As we will see, throughout her writing Plath takes issue with conformity
and homogeneity. In Steiner’s words, her poems are ‘unique in their implacable,
harsh brilliance’.24 She sets out to develop a tough style of poetry that does not

Stevenson, Bitter Fame, p. 277.


Plath, Collected Poems, pp. 239–240.


Steiner, ‘Dying is an Art’.

118 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

conform and please but one that appals (as is clearly the case with ‘Daddy’).
Her struggle with homogeneity is feminist. The arrow into which the speaker
of ‘Ariel’ transforms has an intertextual point of reference in Plath’s The Bell Jar.
This reference illuminates the context of patriarchal homogeneity and societal
stasis from which the persona of the poem breaks free. Apropos established
gender relations Esther Greenwood rejects the lack of subjectivity that goes
with the traditional role of women as selfless servants who sacrifice their
subjectivity for the life of their male companions: ‘The last thing I wanted was
infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change
and excitement to shoot of in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows
from a Fourth of July Rocket.’25 Rather than being the place from where an
arrow shoots of from, Plath’s persona wants to turn, in Ariel-like fashion, into
the arrow itself. The place that is a launch pad for an arrow is passive and static,
recalling the opening of ‘Ariel’: ‘Stasis in darkness’. In Plath’s poetry, stasis is
a state of mind imposed upon individuality: it is a straight jacket, a form of
imprisonment. Movement concerns the free space granted to subjectivity.
This implies that the subjective cannot be separated from what may
sometimes stifle and oppress it: the stasis or darkness into which it may find
itself placed as in the opening and closing of ‘Ariel’. Those of Plath’s poems
that are not about the self are often concerned with the social and economic
pressures to hide or to be deceptive through misleading representations that
veil aspects of our lives deemed unacceptable. As Steiner has put it, ‘Sylvia
Plath had mastered her essential theme, the situation and emotive around
which she was henceforth to build much of her verse: the infirm or rent body,
and the imperfect, painful resurrection of the psyche, pulled back, unwilling,
to the hypocrisies of health.’26 Plath’s poetry cries foul of the normative and
acceptable. Her poems open up what society represses. They render glaringly
visible what has been confined to darkness. Plath’s poetry creates a new public
space where what has been drowned in darkness and stifled by stasis shoots off
like an arrow. In one of her earlier poems, ‘Tale of a Tub’ (1956), Plath focuses
on the ways in which we lie and deceive others as well as ourselves about
ourselves in order to conform to the roles we have to display day in and day
out. Instead of acknowledging the stark nakedness of what is our subjective
substance, we acclaim the fabrications of representations that cover us like
clothes in our social actions and interactions, which turn out to be role acting:

Yet always the ridiculous nude flanks urge

the fabrication of some cloth to cover

Plath, The Bell Jar (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 79.

Steiner, ‘Dying is an Art’.

A Disenchantment with Numbers 119

such starkness; accuracy must not stalk at large:

each day demands we create our whole world over,
disguising the constant horror in a coat
of many-colored fictions, we mask our past
in the green of eden, pretend future’s shining fruit
can sprout from the navel of this present waste.27

Our embodied self is demarcated by ‘nude flanks’ that we have to cover

with fabrications, with clothes. Plath’s ‘Tale of a Tub’ does not reduce the
truth of the self to the materiality of ‘nude flanks’ but its intensity derives
from the pressure to hide aspects of one’s sheer existence. An enjambment
emphasizes the verb ‘urge’ and the urging in question then falls on the verb
‘cover’, which closes the following line until we face the alliterating and
rather grave statement: ‘such starkness; accuracy must not stalk at large’. The
hiatus (marked by the colon) between starkness and accuracy establishes a
parallelism between two different semantic fields: between the harsh rigidity
of starkness and the truthfulness of accuracy. What is harsh, unpleasant is
nevertheless true or accurate. And yet this harsh, ugly truth must not enter
public consciousness: it must not stalk at large.
We have to hide or to repress – Plath was an avid reader of Freud and
thought about entering a Ph.D. program in psychology – aspects of our lives
that are rigid or otherwise unpleasant. Strikingly, the point of and for offense
here is not some inner subjective issue – or an embodied form of a mental
issue such as a tic – but the sheer rigidity of the body’s demarcation (nude
flanks). We all share such nude flanks in different but related ways. Hence,
the nude flanks denote the point where subjectivity turns substantive in at
least two ways: (1) as the material form of our subjectivity (i.e. our body) and
(2) as the shared constitution of life that is the substantive or objective fact of
our existence (the conditio humana).
What Plath’s ‘Tale of a Tub’ uncovers is the cultural, social, economic or
political conformity that is imposed on the appearance of the merely material
so that the materiality of our embodied life is itself not something natural
but a fabrication. While being ostensibly concerned with the subjective –
the nude flanks that pertain to the poetic voice and on whose starkness the
poetic voice reflects enjoying a bath – ‘Tale of a Tub’ has a public dimension.
A two-staged covering takes place. First the poem masterly downplays the
public dimension of this so private bath by calling itself not ‘Tale of the Tub’
but rather, more partially, more subjectively, ‘Tale of a Tub’. Then there is of
course the uncovering of the public coverings and deceptions for which the

Plath, Collected Poems, p. 25.

120 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

privacy of the bath becomes the privileged place of inquiry. The title ‘Tale
of a Tub’ also establishes an intertextual reference to Swift’s 1704 satire on
society and religion entitled A Tale of a Tub. Whereas the content of Plath’s
poem includes the taking of a bath, Swift explicitly plays with the non-literal
meaning of his title. He makes clear that the title of his satire describes not
what it ostensibly denotes (a tub or bath) but the condition of the society it

And to render all complete I have, with much thought and application of
mind, so ordered that the chief title prefixed to it (I mean under which
I shall design it shall pass in the common conversations of court and
town) is modelled exactly after the manner peculiar to our society. I
confess to have been somewhat liberal in the business of titles, having
observed the humour of multiplying them to bear great vogue among
certain writers whom I exceedingly reverence.28

Plath does not choose and use the title of her poem in Swift’s liberal manner
but her concern is social and public too. There is also a satirical component
to ‘Tale of a Tub’: it ridicules the pretensions of various social performances
and the deception of our public roles.
The social focus of the subjective is a topic that the social sciences – at
the time at which Plath was writing ‘Tale of a Tub – were in the process of
discovering. Commenting on Mary Douglas’s groundbreaking analysis (in
the late fifties and early sixties of the last century) of the convergence between
seemingly subjective parts and practices and the normative dimension of the
socio-political, Judith Butler analyses the public codification of the individual’s
body: ‘Her (i.e. Mary Douglas’s) analysis suggests that what constitutes the
limit of the body is never merely material, but that the surface, the skin, is
systematically signified by taboos and anticipated transgressions; indeed the
boundaries of the body become, within her analysis, the limits of the social
per se.’29 She goes on to say that analysis shaped by the post-structuralism
of Foucault and Derrida attempts to unseat the hegemony that shapes the
societal structure Douglas investigates: ‘A poststructuralist appropriation of
her (i.e. Douglas’s) view might well understand the boundaries of the body as
the limits of the socially hegemonic.’30 As we have seen, Plath’s ‘Tale of a Tub’
goes further: it delineates how the body (the ‘nude flanks’ of the body) is itself

Swift, A Tale of a Tub and other Works, edited with an introduction by Angus Ross and
David Wooley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 33.
Butler ‘Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversion (1990)’ in Sara Salih with Judith
Butler (ed.), Judith Butler Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 90–118 (p. 106).
Butler, ‘Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversion (1990)’.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 121

taboo. Hegemony cannot accept the harsh and stark differences between
our bodies (as well as minds) and demands that they be hidden, masked
and covered through fabrications. In contrast to Butler’s post-structuralist
approach, Plath insists on the unbending, rigid kernel of subjectivity that will
not budge. The nude flanks remain there and they cannot be wished away
through the streamlining process of homogeneity; they can only be covered
with homogeneous fabrications.
Refining and revising her poetic voice, throughout her literary life, Plath
keeps uncovering the raw starkness of the idiosyncrasy that marks each
of our lives in different but related ways. Throughout her writings, Plath
attempts to uncover the universal truth of the idiosyncratic, the subjective,
the excluded, the clothed over and covered harshness of selfhood: ‘to wrestle
through slick shellacked façades to the real shapes and smells and meanings
behind the masks’.31 Poetry makes us see the public truth that the public
hides. Plath’s word for the public is ‘façades’. The façades that constitute
the architecture of the public are shellacked. In American slang the word
‘shellacked’ means intoxicated, ‘plastered’. Intoxication reigns in the public
sphere. Poetry’s sobriety contrasts with the intoxicated deception of socio-
political conformity. The romantic German poet Hölderlin employs the term
‘the holy sober’ to describe the elevated truth of poetry. This is not to say that
Plath read Hölderlin or that her poetry bears similarity to his. It is to make
you aware of the sombre and coldly calculated fabric of Plath’s sometimes
seemingly emotive and subjective poetry.
Plath’s poetry is sober also with respect to its reflective background.
Plath was determined to find her individual voice in a tough and truthful
harshness that goes beyond and sometimes offends conventional niceties.
This is more than just the ambition to become America’s greatest female poet
as she famously puts in her Journals: ‘I have the joyous feeling of leashed
power – as I am not all now, though I sit on poems richer than Andrienne
Cecil Rich.’32 This ambition has perhaps less to do with outward recognition
than with the reflective desire to create a new style of writing, a new style that
cannot be reduced to anything else past or present in its tough truthfulness.
The frenzy of Plath’s writing goes hand in hand with her calculated aims and
objectives as she makes clear in her Journals:

I was taken by a frenzy a week ago Thursday, my first real day of vacation,
and the frenzy continued ever since: writing and writing: I wrote eight

Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950–1962, edited by Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber

and Faber, 2000), p. 352.

Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 371.
122 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

poems in the last eight days, long poems, lyrical poems, and thunderous
poems: poems breaking open my real experience of life in the last five
years: life which has been shut up, untouchable, in a rococo crystal cage,
not to be touched (Friday afternoon: March 28, 1957).33

What is that which is not to be touched? It is what society has put under
taboo. Taboo concerns that which is dangerous, which is untouchable for
certain groups of people, especially women.34 Taboo denotes what society
perceives to be dangerous and which it puts out of reach, hides and covers. In
the quote above, Plath locates her poetry on the side of precisely that which
is untouchable, outcast, dangerous, tabooed.
Could it be that those entities that have become untouchable are not only
certain facets of life but that they ground life in its entirety? What precisely
puts life under taboo? In my reading of Plath’s poetry we encounter received
forms of not only ethics but also aesthetics as instruments of oppression.
Plath focuses on aesthetics: ‘on the rococo crystal cage’. The term ‘rococo’
designates the ornamental style of the late baroque, which emphasizes
normative propriety and social niceties. (Goethe attempted to overcome
such a style as part of his early poetic development in an attempt to capture a
poetry that is true to lived experience rather than to social rules). Plath does
not have the period (late baroque) in mind but the word ‘rococo’ denotes for
her homogenous poetry, a poetry that is not subjectively sober and sombre
but one that attempts to live up to the standardized pleasantries ‘good society’
expects of us.
Plath’s usage of the term ‘neatness’ is another word for poetry, not of truth
but of social conformity. She thus abrades herself for being ‘fixed, fixated
on neatness’ (July 19, 1957).35 The fixity of social and stylistic conformity
contrasts with breaking open into life’s true and idiosyncratic experience
of the quote above. Fixed and fixated does not refer to being closed in on
oneself but to being put into a preformed social cage of rococo aesthetics
and ethics: as denoted by the word ‘neatness’. To break out of such a societal
cage, Plath radicalizes her subjectivity. She goes on a quest to find her
distinctive voice: ‘But to make my own voice, my own vision, that’s another
matter: do I must.’36 From the early 1950s onwards, the quest for an inner
self always comprises a public concern; one which includes different and

Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 356.
For a detailed discussion of taboo, danger and power see Mack’s Anthropology as
Memory: Franz Baermann Steiner and Elias Canetti’s Responses to the Shoah (Tübingen:
Niemeyer, 2001).
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 409.
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 327.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 123

often marginalized identities. This inclusion of the socially excluded takes

place while reading literature and poetry. The early Plath admonishes herself:
‘Read widely of others experiences in thought and action – stretch to others
even though it hurts and strains and would be more comfortable to snuggle
back in the comforting cotton-wool of blissful ignorance!’37 Whether the
reading or the writing of poetry, literature combines one’s own subjectivity
with the multiplicity of selfhood that forms the universal substantiality of
what is humanity. From early on Plath’s self has been premised on literature’s
inclusion of so many selfhoods. Plath’s appetite for different lives seems to
be enormous: ‘I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the
people I want and live all the lives I want.’38 The self here emerges not as a
single but as potentially a universal entity.39 The covering of selfhood implies
the exclusion of so many selves. What demands such exclusion is the ‘one
size fits all’ approach that reigns not only in the social conformity of rococo
aesthetics, but also in various political, medical, economic and, for Plath
most significantly, gender policies.
There is in fact a parallelism between Plath’s search for a non-conventional
style and her revulsion with established norms about womanhood. Gender
norms were still unquestioned in the early 1950s. In her journal entry of 29
March 1950, Plath reports and vehemently rejects such norms:

Perry said today that his mother said ‘Girls look for infinite security;
boys look for a mate. Both look for different things.’ I am at odds. I
dislike being a girl, because as such I must come to realize that I cannot
be a man. In other words, I must pour my energies through the direction
and force of my mate. My only free act is choosing or refusing that mate.
And yet, it is as I feared: I am becoming adjusted and accustomed to that

This quote brings to the fore how deeply conceptions of selfhood contend
with as well as succumb to preordained gender roles in Plath’s writing and
thinking. As a girl, she has been relegated to a passive role through society’s
ethical norm system. Were she not to play the role of the passive female who
merely follows the male lead, she would become ethically suspect. The only
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 47
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 43.
I think it is more accurate and insightful to read the multiplicities of Plath’s persona
not in pathological terms but as an innovative opening-up of marginalized subjectivities
to public sight and public esteem. For an almost clinical account of Plath’s divergent
persona in terms of hysteria see Elisabeth Bronfen’s Sylvia Plath (Tavistock: Northgate
House, 1998).
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 54.
124 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

active role she is allowed to initiate is that of judging who the man is whose
actions she will merely reiterate.
There is a sense of inevitability. Whether she likes it or not, she cannot
vacate the ethical sign system of society and step out of her prescribed passive
role of girl and woman: ‘And yet it is as I feared: I am becoming adjusted
and accustomed to’ the idea of what societal ethics expects of a girl or a
woman. Against this background of inevitability within society at large,
poetry emerges as free space that is not subject to societal rules and regulations
delineating the conduct of gendered selfhood. It is a space you could figure
either beyond or below the straight line of social homogeneity. Here selfhood
can flourish in idiosyncratic ways, in ways that would be precluded within
the homogenous fabric of the socio-political. The act of stepping out of the
socio-political is, however, itself a public one. Its publicity may manifest itself
in so-called scandals. Conduct that deviates from a given norm or gendered
role occasions scandal. Plath’s poetry is more radical than being merely
scandalous: it not only offends against the norms and roles of society but calls
into question their very ground of existence. A turning of table takes place:
poetry becomes the measure of truth and reality, and under this heuristic
gaze society’s flat or homogenous operations come to light in their fabricated
The many coloured fictions are those where we try to cover or to hide
our specific subjective experiences in order to fit into one of the prearranged
pigmentations of governmental rationality. Plath takes issue with conformity
and unmasks conformity as deception, as cover of a disturbing truth that
may be ugly or beautiful or both at once. In the long poem Three Women
(1962) the second voice articulates her revulsion with conformity in society,
politics, economics and gender relations. Those who rule and govern impose
the homogeneity of their flat faces on us:

And then there were other faces. The faces of nations,

Governments, parliaments, societies,
The faceless faces of important men.
It is these faces I mind:
They are so jealous of anything that is not flat! They are jealous gods
That would have the whole world flat because they are.
I see the Father conversing with the Son.
Such flatness cannot be holy
‘Let us make a heaven,’ they say.
Let us flatten and launder the grossness from these souls.41

Plath, Collected Poems, p. 179.

A Disenchantment with Numbers 125

There is a certain continuity between ‘Tale of a Tub’ and Three Women. The
latter belongs to Plath’s later poems. Here the focus has shifted from the
outwards (the ‘nude flanks’) to the inner, to the psychology of power and
subjection with which we are already familiar from the discussion of some
of the entries in Plath’s Journals. The oxymoron ‘faceless faces’ describes
homogeneity’s constitution: it cannot endure the presence of subjectivity, of
a distinctiveness the term ‘face’ describes – hence its face is faceless. The lines
establish a tension between the idea of the sacred or holy and the reality of
political theology and economy that is oppressive.
The oppression of this theological, political, societal and economic power
is the flatness into which it forces everyone and everything. Homogeneity is
flat. It is a flatness that pertains to the whole of society, including religion.
The poetic voice articulates its consternation about the all-encompassing
force of society’s homogeneity. How can even religion be flat? The word ‘holy’
marks something that stands out (in Hebrew quodesh), that is dangerous,
not-to be-touched, that is tabooed. The holy cannot be flat: ‘Such flatness
cannot be holy.’ The oxymoron of holy flatness pertains to the conformity
of traditional Christian theology, centred as it is on the Trinity and the
interaction between Father and Son. This interaction is flat and therefore
cannot be holy. Plath takes issue with a religion and theology that does not
endow the world with difference, with holiness. On the contrary the heaven
created by the theology of Three Women is premised on plastering over
The violence of such theology that flattens everyone and everything into
an image of its faceless face has ethical connotations. Ethics cleans society of
conduct that is improper. Here ethics seems to justify the agreement between
Father and Son to ‘Let us flatten and launder the grossness from their souls.’
Similar to the nude flanks of the ‘Tale of a Tub’ grossness embodies that
which stands out, which cannot be flattened, assimilated or accustomed to
prearranged norms and roles. Grossness will not conform. Plath’s poetry is
gross in this sense, in the sense of nonconformity.
As her Journals make clear Plath takes issue with the conformity of
consumer society and sees it as threat to both poetry and life:

What do they want? Concern with a steady job that earns money, cars,
good schools, TV, iceboxes and dishwashers and security First. With us
these things are nice enough, but they are second. Yet we are scared. We
do need money to eat and have a place to live and children, and writing
may never and doesn’t give us enough. Society sticks its tongue out at us.’42

Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 437.

126 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The quote from Three Women focuses on the theology of flatness. In this
Journal entry Plath discusses economic pressures that endanger writing
and the survival of poets. Whereas homogeneity finds its endpoint in the
repetition of the same or similar kind of products (dishwashers) and services
(good schools), poetry is life, is the kernel of ever-different and ever-renewed
life. Society with its established gender roles stifles, smothers, in short,
flattens the life on which poetry feeds. The image of the mother, of a past
where the child becomes trained to conduct herself properly, resembles that
of the conforming pressures in society at large.
Plath reflects upon the anger that such threats to the writing of poetry
provoke. She starts with her selfhood and then realizes that the self has to be
rediscovered, has to be differentiated from the mother:

If you are angry at someone else, and repress it, you get depressed. Who
am I angry at? Myself. No, not yourself. Who is it? It is my mother and all
the mothers I have known who have wanted me to be what I have not felt
like really being from my heart and at the society which seems to want
us to be what we do not want to be from our hearts: I am angry at these
people and images.43

The pressure to live a conforming life as economically measured by money

earned has its symbolic equivalent in the figure of the mother. What is crucial
here is that this is a literary figure but not necessarily the autobiographical
mother. The terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ have entered another realm – that
of literature and its various constructions where we encounter a world that
relates to but also utterly changes the way we think and interact with the social
world. Literature counters the societal oppression of our distinctiveness, of
what each of us in quite different and often contradictory ways could be.
In Plath the word ‘mother’ evokes the smothering of societal demands,
especially as they relate to gender.
As has been intimated above, Plath attacks gender identities and roles as
one of the most glaring and violent forms conformity has taken. She at once
feels obligated to conform to the role as daughter, wife and mother and at
the same time rebels against such conformity. Here poetry emerges as an
alternative to the promises of social harmony and homogeneity. Her Journals
frequently juxtapose the lively prospect of having babies and being a good
mother and wife with the new life, the birth that occurs through the writing
of poetry. Writing poetry is for Plath not only a life-enhancing but more
importantly a life-generating activity that is more fecund than the fecundity

Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 437.

A Disenchantment with Numbers 127

of conception and motherhood, precisely because it resides outside the

reglementary structure of roles. In this way writing is the precondition for life.
The mother acts as the conforming force that not only stifles but also steals
or expropriates the writing of Plath, who tries to commit suicide in her teens:

How, by the way, does mother understand my committing suicide? As

a result of my not writing, no doubt. I felt I couldn’t write because she
would appropriate it. Is that all? I felt if I didn’t write nobody would
accept me as human being. Writing, then, was a substitute for myself: if
you don’t love me, love my writing & love me for my writing. It is also
much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.44

Writing preconditions life because it confers distinctiveness – if not

distinction – which characterizes the interface between public and private.
It is one way of connecting one’s subjectivity to the public arena shared
by humanity at large. Distinctiveness and distinction does not necessarily
involve hierarchy. We are all distinctive in our different ways and one way may
not be superior to another. In the quote above, Plath writes from the position
of weakness: writing compensates for a lack, for a lack of social recognition
and appreciation. It not so much puts the self front and centre but substitutes
for selfhood via literary constructions. These literary constructions change
social reality by creating a new world that is not flat but one that is truly holy
in a non-theological sense. It is holy in its dedication to the ordinary, the
messy, the gross; in short, poetry sanctifies the profane and elevates what has
been labelled gross and impure in proper theological, economic, ethical and
political discourse.
Far from being theological or based on a set of creeds (doxa), poetry is
nevertheless sacred and its conception and composition deserves a dedication
that is associated with the religious:

Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning

and reloving of people and the world as they are and as they might be.
A shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of
teaching. The writing lasts: it goes about its own in the world. People
read it: react to it as to a person, a philosophy, a religion, a flower: they
like it, or do not. It helps them, or it does not. It feels to intensify living:
you give more, probe, ask look, learn and shape this: you get more:
monsters, answers, color and form, knowledge.45

Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 448.


Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 436.

128 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The roots of the word ‘religion’ have two mutually exclusive meanings,
signifying the act of both binding and unbinding.46 Plath may be referring to
the second connotation when she defines the religious act of poetry in terms
of ‘a reforming, a relearning and reloving of people and the world as they
are and as they might be’. The prefix ‘re-’ highlights the change poetry brings
about. Plath underscores the significance of poetic change: it remains; it does
not pass away as so much else that partakes of societal work (teaching, typing,
etc.). Poetry is different, it is not a copy or a vision of what exists but redoes our
life and world. Poetry unbinds us from the flatness of societal existence and
this form of unbinding is binding: it lasts, it does not pass away. Its endurance
manifests itself in the different actions and reactions it occasions. According
to Plath not just the writing but the long life of poetry is an activity that marks
our world, precisely because the flatness of this world is undone within it.
Poetry unbinds us from societal or economic or theological or gender
structures and the act of this unbinding binds us into a new public space of
intensified, heightened life. Its religious dimension consists in the creation
and also preservation of new forms of being. To be sure the life in question
here is utterly unlike what we live when we conform to social roles and rules.
Plath does not equate the act of physical conception with the composition
of poetry. She juxtaposes the two in order to highlight the contrast between
Babies are born into a world in which sooner or later they have to conform
to gender roles and other structures through which the socio-cultural sign
system conceptualizes their bodies and minds. The conception, in contrast,
that takes place in the birth of poetry opens up a new space in which we
are free to vacate the homogeneity that shapes much of our socio-economic
and political existence. This is the unbinding performed by poetry: it works
through a reshaping of our accustomed societal role. Plath argues that the life
of poetry runs counter to the economic imperatives that reinforce the force of
social conformity. Economics does so with the veiled but nevertheless clear
threat of death: earn your money by conforming to social roles and rules or
else you face hunger, homelessness and social death.
Plath sees her life with Ted Hughes as an open scandal, as insult to such
economic hegemony where making money is the only excuse for writing
poetry: ‘Images of society: the Writer and Poet is excusable only if he is
Successful. Makes Money.’47 The problem is of course that it is quite difficult to
make enough money with poetry. Plath and Hughes offend not only economic
For a detailed discussion of the etymology of religion see Mack’s Spinoza and the Specters
of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment from Spinoza to Freud (New York: Continuum,
2010), pp. 152–167.
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 438.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 129

commands of conformity but they also disrupt the hegemony of gender roles:
‘he isn’t earning “enough bread and butter” in any reliable way, I am not “sewing
on buttons and darning socks” by the hearthside. He hasn’t even got us a hearth;
I haven’t even sewed a button.’48 While Hughes does not fulfil the gender role of
the husband – earning money and providing for household necessities presided
over by the wife – he nevertheless expects Plath to conduct herself in accordance
with the rules of a homogenous female identity. Plath’s Journals record fights
‘about his deep-rooted conventional ideas of womanhood, like all the rest of
men, wants them pregnant and in the kitchen’.49 The conventionality of Hughes’s
ideas contrasts with the non-conventional, nonconforming life of poetry that
reshapes the life of the couple – making it insecure and intense. The life reshaped
by poetry contrasts with the figure of the mother, which literarily embodies the
longing for a security: financial security, societal security, the security of firm
and clear gender roles, the security of clear targets and goals, the security of ‘final
answers’: ‘Her (i.e. the mother figure’s) information is based on a fear for security
and all advice pushes toward the end and goal of security and final answers.’50
As we have seen, Plath’s poetry attempts to unbind us from such moral
panic by revealing security and final answers as delusions and deceptions
that nevertheless shape our societal existence in its wish to find a safe home
in a common lot. By denuding the deceptions that go with our public
representation of ourselves, poetry overcomes the representational structures
through which it works by performing a new – radically subjective in the
sense of nonconformist – form of life. In one her last poems, Plath celebrates
the nascent life of poetry by closing her poem ‘Kindness’ with the following
three lines:

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it
You hand me two children, two roses.51

It is almost as though Plath were here conflating word and deed, world and
poetic word, life and poetry’s letter. In the religious context of Biblical writing
blood symbolizes life. The poem ‘Kindness’ closes with the connection between
blood and life – rather than the destruction of life, which could also be evoked
here – with the parallelism of ‘two children, two roses’. The roses point to the
redness of blood. The two children appear within the context of poetry and
not that of actually giving birth within the social setting of family or hospital.

Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 445.
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 444.
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 450
Plath, Collected Poems, p. 270.
130 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The blood jet alludes to the gushing forth of blood, which also accompanies
conception. It is an allusion, however, that diverges from what it alludes to,
because the reference point is not that of an emergent new child but that of
poetry. The blood jet does not go with actual birth but with the continual birth
and rejuvenation of poetry: ‘The blood jet is poetry.’ ‘There is no stopping it’
harks back to the religious image of life without end, of a form of eternity that
goes beyond mortality. The kindness of the title of the poem has, according
to the OED, its etymology in the old English word for generation. In its early
fifteenth-century usage, kindness referred to natural affection but also to
natural right, a kind of birthright. Plath investigated the etymology of the
words with which she worked in her poetry. The very opening of the poem
evokes an allegorical medieval personification of kindness as ‘Dame Kindness’.
The allegory of this dame invokes and evokes a sphere of nature that is
beyond social forms of deception into which we are born when we enter an
already-established system of signs, roles and regulations. This beyond is the
non-theological religious dimension of poetry. It is religious in the sense of
an unbinding that binds us to the new public of literature and poetry where we
go without the various deceptions and homogenous roles that language and
society otherwise impose on us. The subjective and idiosyncratic kernel of
our respective lives is the blood jet that is poetry: it unbinds or liberates us
from societal conformity. Poetry performs a redemption of sorts: it creates
Paul’s messianic life, which, in Agamben’s intriguing interpretation, ‘is the
impossibility that life might coincide with a predetermined form’.52 Literature
disrupts the identity between life and the homogeneity of a predetermined
form that supposedly fits all. Literature confounds this rationality in such a
way that it makes it appear inadequate, Panzermann-like, subjective, desire-
trenched, fantasy-driven, obscene.

Kafka’s and Plath’s struggle with Augustine’s eternity and

the inadequacy of traditional ethics

Plath’s work at a poetry that is forthright in its raw starkness of heterogeneity

has a point of support in Kafka’s rough parody of the substantive realms of
law, order, economics and government. The representative picture of a judge
within Kafka’s The Trial depicts not fair disinterest but impassioned fury:

The unusual thing about it was that this judge was not sitting in tranquil
dignity but was pressing his left arm hard against the back and side of the

Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p. 248.

A Disenchantment with Numbers 131

chair and had his right arm completely free and just held the other arm
of the chair with his hand as if his intention was to spring up at the next
moment with a violent and perhaps outraged gesture to utter something
decisive or even pronounce judgment.53

Ethics, justice and violence here become indistinct. We see the judge in action
as a violent and highly biased man. The Law should, however, be unbiased. At
the point where law and ethics attempt to punish nonconformity, the ethical
and the juridical turn violent.
With reference to Kafka’s writing, Judith Butler has recently critiqued the
violence of ethics: ‘Condemnation becomes the way in which we establish
the other as nonrecognizable or jettison some aspect of ourselves that we
lodge in the other, whom we condemn.’54 The crucial point in Kafka and also
in Plath’s literary critique of ethical violence is how in their writings societal
norms, which we tend not to question otherwise, are represented in a way that
turns representation against itself. Strikingly, The Trial represents the allegory
of Justice as the contradiction of the just and the fair: as triumphalism, hunt and
kill. K.’s incredible ‘Ah, now I recognize it’ follows upon the painter’s revelation
that the figure represented in his painting is Justice. The recognition of what
may be just in the representation of justice quickly reverses into its opposites.
K. first seems to see symbols of impartiality and fair, non-violent judgement:
‘here’s the bandage over the eyes and these are the scales.’ Immediately this
image of patience and measure turns into one of fear-inducing movement:
‘But aren’t these wings on the ankles and isn’t this figure running?’ The painter
replies that he is not allowed to paint as he likes but that he has to follow societal
norms as they are dictated by the court of law’s strict commission. He has been
commissioned to paint Justice in terms of Violence, Hunting and Victory:

‘Yes,’ said the painter, ‘I was commissioned to paint it like that. Actually
it is Justice and the goddess of Victory in one.’ ‘That’s hardly a good
combination,’ said K. with a smile. ‘Justice has to be motionless or the
scales will waver and there’s no possibility of correct judgement.’ ‘I’m
only following the instruction of the person who commissioned me,’ said
the painter. ‘Yes, of course,’ said K., who had not wished to cause offence
with his remark.55

This indistinction between justice and victory points to the triumphalism

prevalent in warfare. Indeed later on, we learn that the painting that purports

Kafka, The Trial, translated by Idris Parry (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 85.

Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 46.


Kafka, The Trial, pp. 114–115.

132 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

to represent Justice depicts the opposite, namely the violent act of hunting:
‘it was scarcely reminiscent of the goddess of Justice any more, nor of the
goddess of Victory either; now it looked exactly like the goddess of the Hunt.’56
Hunting is an act of victimization that ethics and the law are supposed to
preclude or, in case it has already occurred, rectify.
In The Trial the law hunts and victimizes. One of the wardens who come
to arrest K. says as much: ‘Our authorities, as far as I know them, and I know
only the lowest grades, do not go in search of guilt in the population but
are, as it says in the law, drawn to guilt and must send us wardens out. That
is law.’57 In Kafka’s writing the law has abandoned any cultural or historical
conditioning and has turned into a quasi-scientific force of nature. A pseudo-
scientific law of attraction governs the working of the law.
This quasi-natural aspect of the legal system truly turns obscene. The
obscenity of the law reinforces the already-established sense of its extreme
inadequacy and dark ridiculousness: the court of law ‘is composed almost
exclusively of lechers’.58 K. goes on to provide a striking example where
yet again animalistic hunting constitutes legal procedure – ‘Just let the
examining magistrate see a woman in the distance and he’ll dive over the
table and the defendant to get there in time to catch her.’59 Different but
similar to the self-parodying tone of Plath’s ‘Daddy’, representation turns
against itself. The dive of the judge resembles that of a tiger rather than
that of a professional lawyer. Or rather the professional lawyer appears as
a rapacious tiger and the conflation of the two makes us feel ill at ease with
societal systems such as the legal/ethical one. Here representation does not
represent a copy of something but rather exposes the inadequacy of the thing it
represents. The daddy of Plath’s poem deflates from being ‘God’ to the ‘brute
force’ of a Panzermann. Representation turns against itself: it hollows out,
exposes as obscene the represented.
Plath was fascinated by Kafka’s writing, by how he commingles the familiar
with the uncanny, the realistic with the symbolic. In a Journals entry of 15
July 1957 she puts it as follows: ‘like Kafka, simply told, symbolic, yet very
realistic.’60 The yet is quite perceptive: there is indeed a clash between the
symbolic and the realistic in Kafka’s writings. The reality that Kafka’s short
stories and novels describe calls into question, even into ridicule, what they
purport to represent or to symbolize. Plath enacts a similar split between a
symbol or concept and the reality described. She does so most strikingly when

Kafka, The Trial, p. 115.
Kafka, The Trial, p. 5.
Kafka, The Trial, p. 165.
Kafka, The Trial, p. 165.
Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, p. 283.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 133

she exposes the inadequacy of traditional ethics at the end of her late poem
‘Burning the Letters’ (1962):

The dogs are tearing a fox. This is what it is like –

A red burst and a cry
That splits from its ripped bag and does not stop
With the dead eye
And the stuffed expression, but goes on
Dyeing the air
Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water
What immortality is. That it is immortal.61

In keeping with Plath’s reputation as a confessional poet, the poem has been
read in terms of her marital breakup with Ted Hughes.62 Although it is beyond
doubt that, at one level, the subject of the poem refers to the realistic and
quite physical act of burning the letters of Hughes, there is quite clearly also
another level that comes to the fore in the lines quoted above. The co-mingling
of an animalistic image with a symbol or concept that has been foundational for
the Western tradition of ethics: immortality.
The closing lines of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ provide a stark contrast
to the traditional conceptions of ethics, metaphysics and, associated with
it, immortality. Within a traditional system of ethics, theology sustains the
continuity of the just and the good by guaranteeing – via belief in a benevolent
and personal God – the absence of eternal death. According to Paul, and
following him, Augustine, there exists a dialectical relationship between
change, trauma, death and sin. As we will see in the following chapter,
modern as well as pre-modern medical discourse in different but related
ways establishes a reciprocal connection between sin or unhealthy living and
mortality. In Augustine’s and Paul’s pre-modern context, death is a question
of eternal death versus eternal life, and in modern medicine it concerns the
secular extension of life in a quasi-eternal domain: the biomedical promise of

Plath, Collected Poems, p. 205.


Recently Adam Kirsch has in an intriguing book about confessional poetry taken issue

with ‘Burning the Letters’ as a poem that is indeed all-too confessional and self-centred:
That is the lesson of ‘Burning the Letter,’ in which an actual episode – Plath’s vengeful
burning of Ted Hughes’s papers in the summer of 1962 – can be all too easily discerned.
Plath herself seems to acknowledge her failure of art: ‘I am not subtle,/Love, love, and
well, I was tired … ’ There is still a movement toward magical thinking in this poem –
with the husband’s letters gone, Plath writes, ‘at least it will be a good place now, the attic,’
as though by burning them she had performed an exorcism. But the underlying motives
of revenge and jealousy seem all too human, leaving the poem finally just a record of
sordid domestic sabotage. Kirsch, The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation
in Six American Poets (New York: Norton, 2005), p. 264.
134 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

longevity that denotes the absence, not of eternal death, but of its secularized
version: the retreat of ageing and decay.
Sander L. Gilman has recently used the term ‘moral panic’ to describe the
secularized reaction to ways of living (obesity, smoking and so forth) that may
cause premature death in our contemporary culture, which has been shaped by
the biomedical prospect of an ever-more extended longevity. Moral panic vis-
à-vis disease and mortality evidences the link between medicine and culture
(whether it is theological or secular, pre-modern or modern): any given illness
‘is culturally, not scientifically, limited and its centrality in the mental universe
of any given individual is heavily dependent on the role of anxiety associated
with it’.63 The closing section of this chapter prepares for the following chapter
by analysing how our secularized anxiety in the face of mortality refers back
to a theological-ethical approach towards the absence of eternal death that
characterizes the writings of Paul and Augustine. As Gilman has shown, in
the pre-modern context ‘science is part of religion, as it is seen as means of
understanding the complexity of human health and illness within a world view
that does not separate the human from the divine’.64 In the wake of modernity
science increasingly partakes of the immanent sphere of politics, economics
and government. Whether it is theological and pre-modern, or whether it is
secular and biomedical, our anxiety about disease and mortality gives rise to
forms of moral panic through which we establish various delusions of ethics.
The lines above from Plath’s poem attempt to unmask pre-modern as
well as modern fantasies about the way out of eternal death: immortality
or longevity. Paul proclaims the redemption from eternal death through
the sacrifice of Jesus who absolves those who believe in him and follow his
example (the Greek dogma derived from the Hebrew dugmah) from the sin
incurred by the old Adam. So from Paul onwards, the finality of death results
from the sin incurred at the origin of sinfulness: what Augustine calls original
sin. In Augustine death is a symptom of the corruption or the illness that
characterizes the earthly city of fallen humanity where we encounter ‘the death
in which God forsook the soul’.65 Here death has an ethical significance. It is an
inevitable punishment for original sin: the whole of humanity is subject to the
fall and thereby to disease and death. In this way everyone undergoes death
but the question is whether death is momentary or momentous – whether it is
a brief interlude paving the way to eternal life in the city of God or whether it
defines the eternity of life after death in terms of eternal death.

Gilman, Obesity: The Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. xiii.
Gilman, Obesity, p. 37.
Augustine, Confessions, translation by Henry Chadwick(Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1991), p. 524.
A Disenchantment with Numbers 135

The lines by Sylvia Plath make a strong case for the immortality not of life
but of death. In Paul and Augustine – and as we will see in our biomedical
society of the twenty-first century – there is an alternative to death. In a
world where death is not inevitable but avoidable, the fact that we all face the
prospect of dying functions as a moral warning. The warning may give rise to
what Gilman has called the ‘moral panic’ of contemporary medico-political
policy. According to Augustine death and disease are not something we need
to panic or fret about. Augustine puts it as follows:

We may therefore take it that this was the death God meant when he
gave the warning ‘On the day that you eat from that tree you will die by
the death,’ this being tantamount to saying, ‘On the day that you forsake
me in disobedience, I shall forsake you with justice.’ But even so, he
certainly gave a warning in this death, of the other deaths also, which
without doubt were destined to follow.66

Death works as a warning in our contemporary biomedical society too. The

warning may give rise to moral panic where we see death as the fruits of either
theological or medico-political sins of our lifestyle. Pre-modern theology
and modern biomedicine attempt to come to terms with the inevitability of
our mortality in different but related ways: the former proclaims resurrection
in the eternal life of the city of God for those who conduct their lives in
the proper theological manner and the latter promises the ever-increasing
deferral of the moment of death via the consumption of biomedical cures
allied with what it considers a ‘healthy life-style’. Both demand forms of
Within a pre-modern context, humanity’s refusal to follow divine instruction
constitutes sin. The fruit of sin is eternal death. Here clearly death works as part
of an ethical system where a theological hierarchy prevails. It is a hierarchy
that informs Augustine’s politics. His politics divides the universe into either
an earthly city – represented by Cain’s murder of his brother Abel – or that of
God where we encounter immortality as the absence of death and bloodshed.
The ending of Plath’s poem ‘Burning the Letters’ (see the quote above), in
contrast, unmasks as delusion this ethical system that differentiates between
immortal life and lack of virtue, grace and death, sin and just punishment.
The ways in which Plath illuminates a conflict between the aesthetic and the
ethic – rather than a reconciliation between the two, as the critical consensus
holds – have not sufficiently been recognized. In this way Adam Kirsch has
recently faulted poems such as ‘Daddy’ or ‘Burning the Letters’ for allowing

Augustine, Confessions, pp. 523–524.

136 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

‘the ethical to intrude on the aesthetic.’67 Instead of letting the ethical intrude
on aesthetics these poems disrupt our current understanding of ethics by
hollowing out what they claim to represent. Plath describes immortality not
as the blessing of more life but rather as the eternity of death.
How can we come to see immortality not in terms of life but in terms
of death? In order to address this question let me briefly engage more
minutely with the lines quoted above from Plath’s poem ‘Burning the
Letters’. At the beginning we encounter not the eternal but the momentary,
which becomes momentous in a metaphysical and poetic sense. The transition
from the momentary to the momentous re-enacts the pre-modern conception
of eternal death: mortality not as a stepping stone to eternal life but as
constituting a lifeless form of eternity where eternity turns into nothingness.
The poem depicts the moment of dying in an image – that of a fox who is
being torn to pieces by dogs: ‘The dogs are tearing a fox.’ Plath’s usage of the
gerund (‘tearing’) reinforces a sense of the instantaneous. The lines then,
however, break from the momentary to the momentous with the phrase
‘This is what it is like’. The likeness bears full bloom in a metaphysics of
sorts: a new metaphysics of immortality with which the poem closes:
‘What immortality is. That it is immortal.’ The image of the kill ceases to
remain singular and momentary. Through Plath’s evocation of likeness
the physicality of the tearing to pieces turns metaphysical. It becomes a
simile for a new type of immortality. The momentary transmogrifies into
the momentous event of apocalypse. Plath’s poem disrupts and corrupts the
traditional connotations of apocalypse: the apocalyptical is not final but
eternal and its purpose is not, as theology has it, the redemption from the
endless perpetuation of pain.
Nevertheless, violence in the sense of tearing and disrobing appertains
to the traditional usage of the word ‘apocalypse’. True to its Greek origins,
the term ‘apocalypse’ denotes a denuding, an unclothing. In Augustine’s
theological tradition apocalypse uncovers the revelation that redeems
us from death. Against the background of this tradition, Plath redefines
apocalypse as a poetic uncovering of delusions. The delusions in question
here are those of traditional ethics. This may sound odd. Ethics seems to
be far removed from the action taking place here. The actors are animals.
Ethics is, however, the privilege of those who are rational as opposed to
animalistic – or, in a theological context, those who have been created
in God’s image of benevolence. Moreover, the action itself seems to have
nothing to do with ethics: it is that of either a gratuitous or a hunger-driven

Kirsch, The Wounded Surgeon, p. 267.

A Disenchantment with Numbers 137

The poetic voice indeed lingers on the violence of the act. The ‘what it
is like’ expression first unfolds as empathy with the victim. This is what it
is like: put yourself into the place of the fox that is being torn to pieces. We
are thus undergoing what Keats has called poetry’s negative capability  –
its capacity to leave the self behind and live the life of others. The other
in question here is quite alien to our sense of humanity: it is an animal,
a fox. A fox that is violently taken apart and the poem enacts this taking
apart by splintering into ‘A red burst and cry’. The fox has left behind the
physicality – or, may we say, the animal nature? – of being a fox and has
become a voice – the voice of a cry. The distress that gives voice to the
cry both accelerates and universalizes its core of pain. It splits away from
the ripped physicality of the lung and then unceasingly imparts its tone
into the universe. The cry does not stop ‘but goes on/dyeing the air.’ Here
the gerund has transformed its syntactic function. No longer does it focus
on an instant – the kill of the ‘tearing’. Instead, it describes the process of
staining or colouring. A synchrony of colour and sound takes place: the
cry carries the redness of blood and thereby translates a singular death
into the universality of its environment. Given the emphasis placed here on
acoustics, it is worth noting that the verb dye bears an acoustic resemblance
to the verb die. The dyeing of the red spreads and perpetuates the act of
dying of which it is the symptom.
In rapid spasms of both metaphor and metamorphosis, the symptom of pain
then morphs into the symbol of immortality. The rapidity of poetic movement
performs the revolutionary upheaval that overturns both the metaphysics
and ethics of a philosophical-theological tradition that Augustine has helped
inaugurate. The message of death and pain quasi-metaphysically informs us
of immortality’s truth while forming the physicality of our universe:

Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water

What immortality is. That is immortality.

The move from the physical (clouds, leaves, water and so forth) to the
metaphysical is in keeping with a traditional methodology of ethics. A
metaphysician does not need to be hostile to the physicality of particles. As
Peter Brown has clearly shown, in contrast to the radical Platonism of Origen,
Augustine – as his career developed – increasingly attempted to include the
body’s physicality within his ethical and theological metaphysics:

The agenda that Augustine brought with him from Ambrose’s Milan
changed subtly and irrevocably in his first decade as a bishop in the
African Church. By 400, Augustine was no longer the convert who had
138 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

broken, so suddenly and with such evident relief, from his need for a
physical relationship with a woman.68

Instead of condemning the needs and longings of the body, Augustine

appraises corporeal sacrifice through which the early Christians both lay
claim to and witness the validity of Augustinian ethics. They forsake the
mortal pleasure of body and mind for the immortality of the City of God. The
resurrection into the City of God is corporeal. Augustine does not disapprove
of the body. Instead he censures mortality.
Death by martyrdom helps confirm belief in immortality. Hence,
martyrdom tests ethics: ‘For Augustine, martyrdom always represented the
highest peak of human heroism. To have triumphed over the bitter fear of
death was a far greater sign of God’s grace than to have triumphed over the
sexual urge.’69 The sexual urge partakes of mortality – indeed Freud would
later conceptualize sexuality as death written small (as death drive) – and
we could say that for Augustine it is a symptom rather than the cause of
transience. The bliss of Augustine’s heavenly city thus incorporates the notion
of an incorruptible or immortal body:

The conclusion is that it is not necessary for the achievements of bliss

to avoid every kind of body, but only bodies which are corruptible,
burdensome, oppressive, and in a dying state; not such bodies as the
goodness of God created for human beings, but bodies in the condition
which the punishment for sin has forced upon them.70

The ending of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ denies the goodness of God while
evoking Augustine’s notion of immortality in an entirely different context.
Here too immortality does not exclude the corporeal. Plath, however,
turns upside down the dialectical relationships between corruptibility and
mortality, between the incorruptible and the immortal. Instead of testing
and thereby proving the goodness of God, death and bloodshed unmask the
inadequacy of traditional ethics. Traditional ethics has been built upon the
axiom of God’s goodness.71 As we have seen in our discussion of Augustine’s
theology of an incorruptible body, Augustinian ethics establishes a causal
relationship between goodness and immortality. While referring to the

Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early
Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 396.
Brown, The Body and Society, p. 397.
Brown, The Body and Society, p. 397.
See Janice Soskice’s The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
A Disenchantment with Numbers 139

parameters of traditional Christianity Plath’s poem ‘Burning the Letters’

corrupts and disrupts precisely such dialectics that Paul and Augustine
have established between the immortal and the non-deadly or non-violent.
‘Burning the Letters’ depicts immortality in terms of the eternal perpetuation
of violence and death. This suffusion of turbulence not only works on a
temporal axis but also determines the nature of space and the cosmos at large.
Here pain (the cry) floats oblong throughout the cosmos. Rather than God’s
goodness, pain infuses the universe. The act of killing a fox questions what
this violent act functions to represent in Plath’s poem. Representation turns
against itself and exposes the hollowness of grand concepts that may grow out
of theology but still hold sway over our secular approach towards ethics. As we
will see in the following chapter, works of literature (novels by E. L. Doctorow
and Philip Roth) help us discover how scientific endeavours – such as the
medical quest for longevity – are in actual fact mutations of economic and
secularized theological paradigms.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers

But the line between science and pseudo-science is smudged and shifting;
where it lies seems clear only in retrospect. There is no pristine science
untouched by the vagaries of faith.
John Gray, The Immortalizing Commission

Introduction: The neoliberal obsession

with life’s immortality

Continuing the preceding discussion, this chapter investigates how, within

contemporary literary and medical thinking about topics of health and
longevity, signatures re-emerge of apparently outdated theological as well as
philosophical ethics. This traditional ethical discourse closely affiliates the
pursuit of goodness with the promise of eternal life. How can we account for
the resurgence of a nineteenth-century obsession with the long life in a short-
lived society shaped as it is by the short-term rationales of neoliberalism?
Neoliberalism has helped enact the social practice of a new ethics; one that
is short term rather than long term. This contemporary neoliberal ethics
is founded upon the performance of the markets. Markets are volatile;
they are quick to change: ‘The greater the geographical range (hence the
emphasis on “globalization”) and the shorter the term of market contracts
the better.’1 As we have seen in Chapter 1, David Harvey establishes a
parallel between the market practices of neoliberalism and Lyotard’s famous
characterization of the postmodern as the temporary and ever changing. The
culture of postmodernism and the economic ethics of neoliberalism have
both abandoned the grand scheme of social utopias and promising goals
(teleology) for the future of humanity. They seem to be concerned not with
the collective but the particular. Indeed Lyotard has declared the death of
goals and meta-narratives the most striking feature of postmodern theory
and practice (see Chapter 1).

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005),

p. 4.
142 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

A return to an ethical concern with longevity seems to contradict the

neoliberal as well as postmodern embrace of the fragmentary, the quick
trade, the instantaneous and open-ended. As Harvey has convincingly
shown, neoliberalism is riddled with contradictions between theory and
practice. These contradictions help account for a resurfacing of the traditional
preoccupation with the long life within the contemporary culture of apparent
postmodern instantaneity. These contradictions also highlight how we are,
at least unconsciously, reawakening seemingly dead or outmoded models of
health, ethics and politics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In various historical novels contemporary writers such as E. L. Doctorow
and Philip Roth make us aware of the repetition of harm in what we may
take to be reparative breaks with the old and outdated. On closer scrutiny,
neoliberalism intensifies and resurrects an older model of capitalism.
Although neoliberalism celebrates the freedom of individuals and denies
the validity of social solidarity – in the famous words of Margaret Thatcher
‘There is no such thing as society, only individual men and women’ – it has
nevertheless always relied on state activism and state coercion in order to
guarantee the stability of the monetary system (as has become most obvious
during the recent financial crisis of 2007 through to 2012), which is its very
foundation. There is also another dark side to the ‘freedom’ of economic
interaction. While the state apparently refrains from interfering in market
transactions, the government plays an all the more pronounced role in
punishing members of a neoliberal society. As Bernard Harcourt has recently
shown in many American states, ‘annual budgets allocate more funding for
prisons than for four year colleges’.2 In this way the overweening moralism
that characterizes neonconservatism emerges as the flip side of neoliberalism.
Neoconservatism ‘seeks to restore a sense of moral purpose, some higher-
order values that will form the stable centre of the body politic’.3 This search
for moral purpose reintroduces a seemingly outdated ethics, which makes
longevity the premise as well as the promise of virtue.
The question of long life has a strong medical component. Faced with the
erosion of public health care in the wake of neoliberal reforms, the emphasis
conveniently shifts from social responsibility to that of the individual.
Someone’s illness or early death thus becomes a moral issue, providing proof
of the failing of the person concerned – rather than the society in which
this could happen: ‘The social safety net is reduced to a bare minimum in
favour of a system that emphasizes personal responsibility. Personal failure

Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 199.

Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 83.
Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 143

is generally attributed to personal failings, and the victim is all too often
blamed.’4 In contrast to the approach towards and treatment of such topics by
modernist writers (Canetti, Kafka and Sylvia Plath; see preceding chapter),
health, survival and longevity here serve as ‘evidence’ for an ethical way of life
rather than as instances of privilege, luck and class power: in an increasingly
neoliberal society where everything has become financialized, wealth has an
intricate connection with health (see the discussion of US-style managed care
in the following chapter). Grand moralistic thinking turns the contingency of
wealth and health into the non-contingent foundation of ethics.
In his historical novel Ragtime Doctorow brings to the fore how the
modern upper classes grow dismayed about forces that helped accumulate
money in the first place: financial transactions of the short-lived presence.
Doctorow has the famous banker J. P. Morgan invite the inventor of the
industrialist line production Henry Ford in order to discuss with him the
prospect of the immortality of the ruling class. Morgan’s most extensive
collection of historical books serves to establish proof of his previous life
as well as of his future eternal existence. Doctorow evokes the theological
promise of immortality within the historical collection of the world’s most
renowned emperor of finance: Morgan ‘fingered the illustrated texts of rare
Bibles of the Middle Ages as if to pick up dust from the City of God’.5 Theology
returns via the backdoor.
J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford share the pseudo-theological belief in the
immortality of their class – the wealthy. ‘My money brought me to the door
of certain crypts’, Morgan expostulates to Ford, ‘the deciphering of sacred
hieroglyphs. Why should we not satisfy ourselves of the truth of who we
are and the eternal beneficent force which we incarnate?’6 Here immortality
renders the accumulation of wealth benevolent. Immortality guarantees a
transcendence of mortality. After Darwin mortality is the condition of all
animals – humanity included. Darwin’s tracing of human origins to the life
as well as death of apes has turned traditional ethics into a deadlock where
its reliance on the eternity of the good has rather lethal consequences. This
traditional dependence of ethics on the enduring or everlasting does not rely
only upon the Christian idea of an eternal life in Augustine’s City of God. This
tradition reaches much further: namely to the ancient Greece of Homer and
beyond – to ancient Egypt to whose cult of mummies J. P. Morgan and Henry
Ford are enthralled. As Jasper Griffin has shown, in Homer’s ethical universe,
a virtuous and heroic life promises the longevity of fame: ‘This status of

Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 76.


Doctorow, Ragtime (Macmillan, 1974), p. 108.


Doctorow, Ragtime, p. 115.

144 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

being memorable and significant after death, the status which Homer’s own
characters have for him, is achieved by great deeds and great suffering.’7 In
contrast to the immortals, the mortal hero earns his immortal fame through
an exemplary ethical life:

If the hero were really god-like, if he were exempt, as the gods are, from
age and death, then he would not be a hero at all. It is the pressure of
mortality which imposes on men the compulsion to have virtues; the
gods, exempt from that pressure, are, with perfect consistency, less
‘virtuous’ than men. They do not need the supreme human virtue of
courage, since even if they are wounded in battle they can be instantly
cured; and since they make no sacrifice for each other, as Hector does for
his wife and Odysseus for his, their marriages, too, seem lacking in depth
and truth of human marriage.8

Doctorow’s heroes of industrial capitalism and neoliberalism do not sacrifice

themselves, but they have others – the working classes – make sacrifices for
their infamous accumulation of wealth. Morgan sees in Ford’s use of men as
superfluous and de-individualized entities ‘a reincarnation of pharaohism’.9
It is as though their enormous accumulation of wealth provides Ford and
Morgan with pseudo-theological reassurance of their immortality. Wealth
reinstates eternity and thereby the indestructibility of the good.
As we have seen in the preceding chapter, Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’
reverses the semantics here: the immortal is the harmful; far from being
good, immortality is violent. Plath’s subjective inversion of the official role of
benevolence highlights the material truth of Morgan’s and Ford’s quest for
immortality: its foundation in the misery of the working classes on the back of
which modern industrial wealth accumulates similar to the way in which the
Pyramids of the Pharaoh’s were built by slave labour. Doctorow’s novel makes
us realize how such outdated equation of the benevolent with the eternal
could re-emerge in the finance-dominated societies such as our neoliberal
one (and earlier that of J. P. Morgan). Ford concurs with Morgan’s conviction
of their immortality and that of their class: ‘Reincarnation is the only belief
I hold, Mr Morgan. I explain my genius this way – some have lived more
times than others.’10 A neoliberal ethics emerges that incorporates aspects
of outdated theological ethics. As we have seen in the preceding chapter,
this indistinction of the theological and the economic-scientific makes

Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 96.
Griffin, Homer on Life and Death, pp. 92–93.
Doctorow, Ragtime, p. 109.
Doctorow, Ragtime, p. 116.
Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 145

Augustine’s City of God fall amenable to pseudo-theological interpretations.

Through his industrial line production, Henry Ford has rendered ordinary
citizen superfluous: ‘From these principles Ford established the final
proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture – not only that the parts
of the finished product are interchangeable, but that the men who build the
products be themselves interchangeable parts.’11 Merely ordinary life has lost
its uniqueness, having become interchangeable and superfluous. Human
uniqueness and longevity are now the domains of the wealthy. It is this class
that sponsors research into immortality. The obsession with the ethics of the
long life finds, however, its imitators beyond the boundaries of class. How
could it not? The predilections and the so-called glamour of the wealthy
partake of capitalism’s public attractions.
It is as though the confrontation with highly volatile and forever shifting
economic and ecological realities gives rise to obsessions with changelessness,
stability and longevity. Contemporary writers like Doctorow and Roth
turn to the historical novel in order to grasp both our lives’ unstable sense
of finitude and the concomitant re-emergence of the outdated within the
new. As we will see in this chapter, the traditional blurring of the distinction
between the medical and the theological drives much of the narrative of Philip
Roth’s recent novel Nemesis. Whereas Roth brings to light the signature of
the theological within the modern and secular discourse about medicine,
the seemingly subjective voice of Plath’s poetry tries to disrupt the continuity
between tradition and modernity. Such disruptions of public ethics are
warranted, because an outmoded model of the ethical no longer makes sense in
the ordinary life worlds of modernist subjectivity.
In Plath’s poetry subjectivity becomes the site where we witness the
transformation of the public sphere. The transformation in question is one
of crisis: it the crisis-ridden collapse of a traditional system of ethics that has
been premised on the infinite endurance of the good rather than that of harm
and violence. As we have seen at the end of the preceding chapter the poetic
voice of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ debunks the traditional link between the
promise of immortality and the social validity of good deeds.
The ‘letters’ of the title of the poem may refer to the private sphere of
Ted Hughes’s letters to his now-estranged wife. The poetic voice is, however,
not that of Hughes’s spouse.12 The subjective or private realm of ‘letters’
written from one person to another opens up to the wider field of letters that

Doctorow, Ragtime, p. 104.


Critics have so far focused on ‘the facts of Plath’s myth. That is the lesson of “Burning the

Letters,” in which an actual episode – Plath’s vengeful burning of Ted Hughes’s papers
in the summer of 1962 – can be all too easily discerned’. Kirsch, The Wounded Surgeon:
Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets (New York: Norton, 2005), p. 264.
146 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

constitute the history of ideas and their impact on social, moral, economic,
theological, scientific and political life at large. The drawn-out ending of the
poem highlights this sense of opening from the singular to the universal:
its penultimate sentence spans out over eight lines; its closing sentence, in
contrast, consists of only four words, providing the sententious brevity of a
universal or general truth.
The poem closes with an image that breaks the traditional understanding
of immortality as well as ethics. In antiquity immortality referred to the
possibility of being raised from the dead. It described a form of bodily
resurrection. As John Gray has recently argued, Paul and Augustine created
Christianity by reinventing immortality as a Platonic, ethical spiritual issue;
as reward and recognition for a spiritually and ethically embodied life
here on earth: ‘In the Christian religion invented by Paul and Augustine,
which was strongly influenced by Plato, immortality meant something
quite different – a life out of time, enjoyed by the “soul” or “spirit” of the
departed.’13 The ending of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ evokes this spiritual
dimension only to turn it upside down. As we have seen, the closing
lines of Plath’s poem perform a shift from the physical to the spiritual or
metaphysical. The red burst of blood and the accompanying cry turn into
an all-pervasive universal element that dyes the ephemeral substance of
the air. This universal principle that informs the whole of our world – the
clouds, the leaves, the water – is not that of traditional ethics (goodness,
charity, duty, work, service or kindness) but that of pain. Immortality is the
everlasting cosmic pique of pain.
Pain appertains to a medical vocabulary and so do Augustine’s notions of
decay and the corruptible body. The body registers a threat to its existence
or a crisis point within its existence via the sensation of pain. The intrusion
of an object or outside force may trigger the feeling of pain. The intrusion
results in a wound, in a trauma (‘trauma’ being the Greek word for wound).
Pre-modern as well the modern and contemporary biomedical versions of
medicine are premised on the healing of trauma and the extension of the
duration of our life. Medicine in its theological as well as in its secular forms
attempts to reduce death and decay.
This brings us to the question whether medicine works to bring about
longevity and in so doing sacrifices the alleviation of pain for its quest for
the long life. As we shall see in the following section, Dr. W. Sartorius of
Doctorow’s historical novel The March helps us grasp the ethical as well as
practical consequences of this question.

Gray, The Immortalizing Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death

(London: Allen Lane, 2011), p. 33.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 147

Is not medicine traditionally concerned with the relief of suffering? As

Norelle Lickiss has recently pointed out, ‘the issue of suffering and its relief is
central to the medical tradition’.14 Despite the centrality of pain and suffering
to the practice of medicine from antiquity onwards, suffering and pain, as
E. J. Cassell has noted, are marginalized if not completely absent topics of
contemporary medical education. Cassell sees the reason for this neglect in the
subjective nature of pain and suffering.
The science of medicine tends to keep a distance from anything that is not
quantifiable and may give rise to the suspicion of being ‘merely subjective’.
Cassell takes his own discipline to task for (1) ‘a continuing failure to accord
subjective knowledge and subjectivity the same status as objective knowledge
and objectivity’ and for (2) ‘an increasing denial of the inevitable uncertainties
in medicine and a quest for certainty’.15 Medicine’s scientific quest for
objective certainties has rather detrimental implications for medical practice,
because medical practitioners have on an everyday basis to interact with the
uncertainties of subjectivity when they treat patients. As Lickiss has shown
there arise severe problems with medicine’s prioritization of (measureable
or ‘objective’) longevity over and above the alleviation of (subjective) pain.
Lickiss analyses how this single-minded concern with the objective and
quantitative prolongation of life frequently occasions failings ‘in the core
business of relieving human suffering’.16 In order to redress these failings,
Lickiss makes a strong case for seeing medicine not only in scientific but
also in cultural terms: ‘At the very least, the significance of the historical
and the subjective, and the dimension of human values and experience
(and narratives concerning these things) may begin to gain a status equal to
quantifiable objective biological tests as tools for diagnosis and of evaluation
of the worth of clinical intervention.’17 Medicine does its work within specific
historical and cultural contexts. These contexts have a substantial bearing
on certain scientific and theological continuities that surround the medical
quest for longevity.
To better understand this complex topic, it is worth referring to the work of
Sander L. Gilman. Gilman has shown how medicine shapes culture and how
culture shapes medicine from the pre-modern to the modern to our current
politics of biomedical perfection. Heavily influenced by both Paul and Plato,
Augustine’s eternal life is at one with the immutability and incorruptibility

Lickiss, ‘On Facing Human Suffering’ in J. Malpas and N. Lickiss (eds.), Perspectives on
Human Suffering (London: Springer, 2012), pp. 245–260 (p. 245).
Cassell, The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004), p. xii.
Lickiss, ‘On Facing Human Suffering,’ p. 250.
Lickiss, ‘On Facing Human Suffering,’ p. 258.
148 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

of Platonic ideal forms, which are emptied of any association with decay:
‘Augustine makes the ideal body the body divine, much as in the Platonic
notion of beauty it is beyond the material. In his City of God, Augustine
links carnal pleasures of the flesh with sins of the soul. They are the same.’18
Gilman here describes the osmosis between the medical and the theological
that characterizes not only Augustine’s approach but also early Christianity
and its proximate religions: ‘The notion that our bodies are God’s temples
was also part and parcel of Western Christianity, beginning with Paul (who
demanded that we control our venal appetites). (It thus also became part of
both rabbinic Judaism and Islam).’19 Early Christianity plays a key role for
the increasing rise of medicine’s larger societal significance: ‘Health becomes
one of the powerful metaphors in early Christianity, especially in terms of
the relationship between the newly healthy body of the Christian and the
sick body of the Jew. Jesus’s cures are his most powerful miracles.’20 In a sense
medicine took over the mantle of redemption, which in medieval society
belonged to theology (theology included or subsumed medicine then).

E. L. Doctorow, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions,

Augustine’s City of God and the science of eternal life

In pre-modernity, the theological and the medical were closely related. In

the wake of modern scientific advancements – most strikingly the rise of
biomedicine in the twentieth century – the bio-political management of life
increasingly holds out the promise of health and longevity. Here, however, the
absence of decay is not due to belief in God but due to a certain politics of life:
the individual’s management of his or her health according to strict regulations
and obedience to health rules – the taking of medication, the abstinence from
toxic substance and an unhealthy lifestyle and so forth – forms the lynch pin
by which we may now believe in a secular form of goodness as the absence of
death. The ethics of neoliberalism and contemporary medicine converge in
their emphasis on self-reliance and human autonomy.
There are those who welcome what they see as a benign and benevolent
form of bio-politics. Nicholas Rose approves of governmental and business
involvement in the management of health. According to Rose, we should
embrace a managerial politics of life. He argues that such novel types of
bio-politics alleviate the symptoms of stress and promote hope rather than

Sander L. Gilman, Obesity: The Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 33.

Gilman, Obesity, p. 32.


Gilman, Obesity, p. 32.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 149

fatalism or despair: ‘Crucially, it is a biopolitics in which references to the

biological do not signal fatalism but are part of the economy of hope.’21
Biopower’s economic regiment turns out to be one of hope and optimism.
This may to some extent be the case. Optimism may, however, be cruel rather
than innocuous. Rose deliberately glosses over any forms of cruelty. Our
contemporary neoliberal economy, he maintains, is one of hope rather than
ruthlessness. In doing so he ignores, however, the long history of medicine’s
involvement with theological and economic hegemonies of power.
It is delusional to proclaim that contemporary medical discourse and
practice are ‘pure’ or completely cut off from the economic, social and cultural
contexts to which they are intricately linked. In pre-modernity, this context
was heavily informed by a theological framework that no longer exists. In
modernity too, however, ‘purity’ is illusory, because, as Giorgio Agamben has
shown, the old theological ideas may still exert their influences as signatures
in a completely secular world. As Lauren Berlant has recently pointed out,
capitalist attacks on ideas of a public and interconnected society go hand in
hand with governmental and normative regulations of health. Capitalism,
Berlant argues, ‘also involves the more normative and informal (but not
unpredictable) modes of social capital that have so much to do with the
shaping of managed and imagined health’.22 Rather than proclaiming that the
contemporary politics of life simply assists the health of every citizen, Berlant
alerts us to the hegemony of both neoliberal and bio-political policies:

Biopower operates when a hegemonic bloc organizes the reproduction

of life in ways that allow political crises to be cast as conditions of specific
bodies and their competence at maintaining health or other conditions
of social belonging; thus this bloc gets to judge the problematic body’s
subjects, whose agency is deemed to be fundamentally destructive.
Apartheid-like structures from zoning to shaming are wielded against
these populations, who come to represent embodied liabilities to social
prosperity of one sort or another. Health itself can be seen as a side effect
of successful normativity, and people’s desires and fantasies are solicited
to line up with that pleasant condition.23

Biopower turns ideological structures of crisis into conditions of life.

Without these structures life becomes demoted as already dead or non-valid.
A crisis describes a turning point; a point where we have to decide between at
Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First
Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 167.
Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 104.
Berlant, Cruel Optimism, pp. 105–106.
150 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

least two options. In order to decide between these options we need to judge
which option is better or worse. A hierarchy of meaning evolves. Bio-political
operations feed on crises because it is in times of crisis when it can best impose
its conditionality upon life.
Politics here denotes the opposite of an interconnected and diverse public.
Here it describes the working of hegemony, which streamlines whatever
does not fit its one-size-fits-all rule. It does not need to exert power through
violence or the threat of violence. It can rule through forms of signification,
demarcating health from pathology, the normal from the unhealthy. The
Contemporary German philosopher Byung-Chul Han has recently described
the streamlining of homogeneity in terms of a move from Foucault’s
disciplinarian society to a competitive society (Leistungsgesellschaft).
According to Byung-Chul Han we live in a society where we lack both
power and discipline. The absence of power and discipline is the lack of
‘negativity’. Instead we are overwhelmed by ‘positivity’. This positivity is the
new competitive society (the German Leistungsgesellschaft) where we have
to keep excelling in terms of healthy lifestyle, financial performance, social
presentation and so forth. It is this excess of ‘positivity’ that causes depression
and other forms of illness wherein the self turns against itself. It is no longer
an external but internal form of governance. Power no longer operates in
disciplinarian but in normalizing terms.24 This begs the question whether
there is indeed a difference between a disciplinarian and competitive
society? Is it not the case that competition exacerbates and exhilarates the
disciplinarian elements that Byung-Chul Han finds lacking in contemporary
societies of competition? In this way health becomes an effect of normality
within the working of bio-politics. Biopower operates hierarchies of meaning
and significance where health turns into the opposite of illness.
This is not to deny that there are real, embodied states of health and
illness. The crucial point is that the perception of these visible and measurable
states is already determined by registers of signification. The bio-political
determination of life’s meaning causes normative violence, which divides the
diversity of human life into either ethical worth or the foreclosure of what
does not fit this notion of worthiness. Here the socio-political register of
signification has deadly effects: as Judith Butler has put it, ‘I also came to
understand something of the violence of the foreclosed life, the one that does
not get named as “living,” the one whose incarceration implies a suspension
of life, or a sustained death sentence.’25 Death here is a social death. Social

See Han’s Topololgie der Gewalt (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2012), p. 110.

Butler ‘Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversion (1990)’ in Sara Salih with Judith

Butler (ed.), Judith Butler Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 90–118 (p. 98).
Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 151

deaths result from bio-political systems of signification, which endow the

normal with life or eternal life and deny any form of value to those who are
classified to be pathological or otherwise abnormal (in this way homosexuality
has been registered as pathological in medico-political registers until roughly
the sixties of the preceding century).
There are, however, gradations – ranging from the rational to the
irrational, from the bio-political to the non-discriminative, from the
scientific to the pseudo-scientific – in the way in which normative signatures
of the theological concept of eternal life have become a question of managing
health. Taking medication for medical conditions is of course a rational
course of action. It only delays and does not erase the prospect of mortality,
though. The persistence of death and decay continues to give rise to a sense
of ethical crisis, which, as discussed above, plays into the hands of bio-power.
Although biomedicine keeps working on ways in which to increase
longevity, contemporary literature focuses not only on the impasse
that continues to be death but also on how the de facto impossibility of
immortality spurns a concord between normality and madness rather than a
mutual opposition between the two as proclaimed by the hierarchical register
of the bio-political. Undoubtedly, scientific advances help increase longevity
but the belief in one’s immortality is certainly delusional. The public and
normative desire for the long life may further the delusional prolepsis of a
life beyond death. Strikingly, contemporary literature turns to the nineteenth
century while evoking the public and still ever-present crisis of traditional
ethics – which is the subject matter for Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’.
The ethical crisis that we continue to inhabit has crystallized as response to
Charles Darwin’s evolutionism, which located the origins of humanity not in
a spiritual or transcendent sphere, which traditionally held out the promise of
eternal life. Rather than being created in His image, we contingently develop
from apes. Similar to apes and other animals we are subject to the arbitrary
workings of decay and death. Scientific improvements prove powerless in the
face of the impasse of mortality. The remaining impasse of death – without
a genuine escape route via belief in a transcendent guarantee of eternal life –
triggers a sense of crisis out of which grow demands for decisive change. The
ethical transformation demanded is that of human nature: the hierarchical
uplift of humanity’s state of affairs from mortality to visible and measurable
Science should perform such shift from a mortal to an immortal species.
Clearly science here turns into pseudo-science. As John Gray has pointed out,
the distinctions between the scientific and theological continue to remain
porous and are only clear from a reflective or retrospective point of view: ‘But
the line between science and pseudo-science is smudged and shifting; where
152 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

it lies seems clear only in retrospect. There is no pristine science untouched

by the vagaries of faith.’26 Its intrinsic concern with questions of life and death
makes the discipline of medicine liable to extend its reach into the theological
as well as philosophical field of ethics. The famous Victorian moral philosopher
Henry Sidgwick could no longer conceive of ethics with theological but rather
with modern scientific – or, in other words, medical – guarantees of eternal
life: ‘Sidgwick’s search for evidence of survival was intertwined with his work
in ethics. Unless human personality survived bodily death, he believed,
morality is pointless.’27 As Gray has argued Charles Darwin was reluctant too
to abandon the idea of immortal progress on which traditional ethics in either
a theological or modern philosophical sense has been premised:

‘Progress towards perfection’ – as this formula demonstrates, Darwin

never fully accepted the implication of his own theory of natural
selection. He knew that evolution cares nothing for humans or their
values – it moves as he put it, like the wind – but he could not hold on
to this truth, because it means evolution without a goal. Progress implies
a destination towards which one is travelling, whereas natural selection
is simply drift.28

Darwin did not develop the hierarchical and highly goal-oriented creeds of
social Darwinism and yet, as Gray clearly shows, he would not abandon the
lynch pins of traditional ethics: ideas of a never-ending progression of life
towards either a transcendent or modern secular goal. Robert J. Richards has
recently argued for a teleological understanding of Darwinian evolutionism
where the good is immortal and in a state of continual perfection: ‘out of
death and destruction comes life more abundant, life transformed. And this is
exactly the resolution that nature, in Darwin’s divinized reconstruction offers:
out of struggle and death comes the greatest perfection, the higher creatures.’29
Popular and vulgarized pseudo-scientific versions of Darwin’s evolutionism
gave rise to social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer coined the expression ‘survival
of the fittest’. He, Lamarck and others formulated a pseudo-scientific version
of evolutionism, which would severely shape twentieth-century politics:

For Spencer and Lamarck, as at times for Darwin, evolution moved from
lower to higher forms of life. There is nothing in the theory of natural

Gray, The Immortalizing Commission, p. 5.
Gray, The Immortalizing Commission, p. 25.
Gray, The Immortalizing Commission, p. 40.
Richards, The Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 538.
Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 153

selection to support this notion. Yet it has proved irresistibly appealing,

for it has the effect of reinstating humans (supposedly the highest life-
form) as the pure purpose of the universe.30

Contemporary literature’s concern with this Victorian obsession of the

everlasting progression of human life indicates that the idea of immortality
still remains irresistibly appealing. Indeed, in an article of 8 March 2012 the
Daily Telegraph reports that there are renewed hopes for the creation of an
immortal human species via the study of self-renewing flatworms.
The goal to overcome human mortality may, however, give rise to
extreme measures. Doctorow examines one such measure in his historical
novel Waterworks. The doctor and scientist Dr Sartorius plans to produce
what Augustine held out as an ethical-theological promise in his City of God:
eternal life. Sartorius’s quest for scientific immortality blurs the distinction
between normality and madness. He works as an eminent scientist and
ends his career trajectory in a mental asylum. The motivations of Sartorius’s
pseudo-scientific endeavours are the same as that which drives the sense
of certitude in the sermon of the Episcopal preacher, the Reverend Charles
Grimshaw. The so-called scientist and the man of God are both piqued by
the implications of purposelessness, by the absence of teleology in Darwin’s
theory of natural selection. ‘For how can anyone imagine that – everything
we study, from the depth of the oceans to the constellated stars, in its chemical
composition, in its taxonomy, and in its … evolution … is the happenstance
of chaotic event?’31 – Grimshaw exclaims in one of his sermons. The defence
of univocal taxonomies responds to Darwin whose, as Gillian Beer has
shown, ‘struggles with categories break open settled taxonomies’.32 Human
mortality offends those who attempt to see humanity as pinnacle of a
divine design for the entire universe. Faced with Darwin’s theory of non-
teleological or random natural selection there have been numerous attempts
to restore pseudo-theological notions of biologist design (which resurfaced
in contemporary genetics) and ‘historical design, a design which reaches its
point of satisfaction in the present’.33 Humans are as much subject to the
contingent forces of illness and mortality as the apes from which Darwin
traces their descent.
Mortality deprives humanity of ethics – this at least according to the
prominent Cambridge ethicist Henry Sidgwick. In a letter to his friend

Gray, The Immortalizing Commission, p. 41.
Doctorow, The Waterworks (London: Macmillan, 1994), p. 139.
Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plot: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and
Nineteenth Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. xvii.
Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plot, p. 14.
154 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Roden Noel, Sidgwick makes clear that he bases his belief in immortality not
on religion but

on Ethics … in the face of the conflict between Virtue & Happiness, my

own voluntary life, and that of every other man constituted like me, i.e.
I believe, of every normal man is reduced to hopeless anarchy … The
only way of avoiding this intolerable anarchy is by the Postulate of

From Darwin’s scandal of our likeness not of God but of mortal apes onwards,
various attempts have been made to turn the postulate of human immortality
into a scientific or medical fact – from telepathy to the contemporary work on
gleaning the stem of future immortality from the renewing cells of flatworms.35
The quote from Sidgwick’s letter is a historical document. In order to defend
the traditional order of ethics, we have either to believe in immortality as a
scientific postulate or, better still, to establish it as a scientific fact.
The medical protagonist of Doctorow’s historical novel attempts to do
precisely this. Sartorius reduces the practice of medicine to one single goal:
the quest for eternal life. His utter disregard for the well-being of his patients
betrays the Hippocratic Oath:

So everything was Sartorius’s triumph. Though he scrupulously fulfilled

his part of the contract, he was entirely without care or concern for his
patients except as they were the objects of his thought. What he warranted
was only his scientific attention. But this was all! And from it he was
recomposing their lives piece by piece, swaddling them like infants,
riding them, dancing them, schooling them in an assemblage of life’s
cycles, and with his emollients, and powders, and fluid injectants from
the children, reconstituting them metempsychotically as endless beings.36

Here ‘scientific’ attention targets the renewing cells of young children.

Sartorius inserts pieces of their bodies into his elderly patients from New
York’s wealthy classes. This insertion of the renewing young cells into the
bodies of the older generation promises immortality. The promise of
immortality gives rise to ‘mindless happiness’ in the wealthy clientele who

Quoted from Gray, The Immortalizing Commission, p. 57.
For a detailed and fascinating discussion of this quest for a scientific form of immortality
ranging from Helmholtz to the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, see
Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
Doctorow, The Waterworks, p. 193.
Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 155

believe that they are ‘being rejuvenated for … eternal life’.37 Sartorius’s science
turns out to be pseudo-science. Nevertheless, it has been granted the status
of being scientific on account of the cultural context of the time. As we have
seen, Victorian society demanded a scientific remedy to the perceived ethical
chaos left behind by Darwin’s discovery of our descent from merely mortal apes.
Sartorius is a fictional character and yet what he does in the novel is to some
extent true to the enhanced public recognition of scientific achievements
which – so captivated public opinion hoped – could fulfil longings for eternal
life via immanentist rather than theological means.
The outcome of such scientific work is death rather than eternal life. This
proves the pseudo-science of the purported scientific endeavour to produce
immortal human bodies. The lethal end of Sartorius’s scientific operations
also demonstrates that he has not been a doctor: ‘Dr. Sartorius is not a
doctor … except as medicine engages with the workings of the world.’38 The
workings of the world refer to ‘the limbo of science and money’39 in which
Sartorius lives. The workings of the world are, however, also the cultural
contexts that medicine and the economy inhabit. New York’s wealthy provide
the money for Sartorius’s experiments with eternal life. In other words, there is
a general, culture-generated wish for immortality, which creates a market for
Sartorius’s pseudo-scientific and deadly work. In the mental asylum, it becomes
obvious that this societal wish for eternal life constitutes the location where
the medical and the theological meet in the murky zone of delusions, of the
pseudo (i.e. the pseudo-theological and the pseudo-scientific). As inmate of
the mental asylum Sartorius keeps dreaming of immortality, but now not in a
pseudo-medical but pseudo-theological vein: ‘he says … in his city of God they
have the secret of eternal life … and when he returns to it he will be anointed
to live forever’.40 Sartorius’s city of God has an intertextual point of reference in
Augustine’s City of God, which promises eternal life not in the immanent realm
of science but in the transcendent sphere of a supernatural beyond.
The German doctor reappears in Doctorow’s historical novel about the
American Civil War, The March. Here, Dr. Wrede Sartorius does not go to
extremes as he does in The Waterworks. Here again, the lines between the
pseudo-theological and the pseudo-scientific are blurred. He appears as a
divine presence bridging the lines of warfare: ‘He seemed above the warring
factions, Wrede Sartorius. He was like some god trying to staunch the flow
of human disaster.’41 This perception of God-like powers is that of the culture

Doctorow, The Waterworks, p. 224.
Doctorow, The Waterworks, p. 190.
Doctorow, The Waterworks, p. 217.
Doctorow, The Waterworks, pp. 237–238.
Doctorow, The March (London: Abacus, 2006), p. 58.
156 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

in which Sartorius does his work. He is not a quack. His scientific credentials
are impeccable. His European education proves the advancement of his
research skills:

But as a European, with a medical degree from the University of

Göttingen, he had from the beginning found himself apart. If there was
any compensation for the barbarity of war, it was enriched practise. The
plethora of causalities accelerated the rate of learning. Apparently he was
alone in considering this American civil war as a practicum.42

In his quest for scientific advancement, Sartorius sets himself apart not
only from his American environment but also from traditional medicine:
‘But he had become intolerant, passionately intolerant, of traditional
medical thinking.’43 The tradition is not so much scientific as it is ethical:
‘The first ethical commandment for doctors was to do no harm.’44 According
to Sartorius the interdiction of doing harm interferes with the research
interest of scientific progress in medicine. Instead of alleviating suffering, he
prolongs it in order to observe the itinerary of lethal inflictions. The outcome
of such observation could then improve medical knowledge for the future.
Ruthlessness characterizes Dr Sartorius of The March and The Waterworks. It
is scientific ruthlessness that turns pseudo-scientific at the point at which it
foregoes the traditional medical ethics of abstaining from doing harm in the
here and now. Sartorius sacrifices the here and now for the greater good of
working towards eternal life by dint of promised scientific progress. For this
goal the war is an apt practicum.
Doctorow’s historical novels bring to the fore how at the point at which
modern science overturns the traditional ethics of medicine, the scientific
turns pseudo-scientific and in actual fact increases rather than alleviates
harm. The Sartorius of The March thus rationalizes and condones the
horrific injuries inflicted on the battlefields of the American civil war
(arguably the first war perpetrated via modern-mechanical weaponry). He
substantiates his rationalization of pain with the scientific value for medical
experimentation – experimenting how to prolong life – which the war
wounded provide. In The Waterworks the high demand for Dr Sartorius’s
ruthless work towards producing eternal life shows how the culture that
medicine inhabits is capable of pushing it towards a foreswearing of the
Hippocratic Oath; the latter forms precisely the traditional medical thinking
with which Wrede Sartorius of The March takes issue.
Doctorow, The March, p. 276.

Doctorow, The March, p. 276.


Doctorow, The March, p. 274.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 157

From the perspective of Doctorow’s historical novels modern medicine

seems to be in danger of bowing to cultural pressures, which demand easy
solutions for complex and longstanding problems. The encroachment of cultural
expectations on medical practice is also the theme of Roth’s historical novel
about the impasse faced by the polio outbreak in the Newark of the 1940s (as
will be discussed later in this chapter). Here it is crucial to show how literary
works make us alert to the miracle-like virtues our culture invests in medical
practice and a healthy lifestyle. In this context of cultural expectations,
literature features not only extraordinary doctors but also ordinary patients.
A satirical treatment of the modern virtues as embodied in the virtuous
patient is Mr Pivner of William Gaddis’s mid-1950s’ novel The Recognitions.
Pivner recognizes the ethical promises held out by modern medicine:
‘Diabetes is a serious disease. No one can afford to take chances; there is no
reason to take them, when the marvels of medical science are worked out to
the most minute point, making the notion of hazard contemptible, if only one
follows the direction of the bottle.’45 The bottle is quite an ironic expression,
because it is polyvalent, potentially referring not only to the medicine of
the virtuous patient but also to the bottle of the non-virtuous alcoholic who
engages the delusions of an alcohol-enhanced trance. The quote thus invokes
the co-presence of cure and poison, which is encapsulated in the Greek word
for medicine: pharmakon. As such, medicine might heal us from delusions
but it can also work like alcohol or like a narcotic and thus blind us to the
delusionary state it sets free and calls forth in us. In one respect modern
medicine might fit the description Karl Marx has reserved for religion: it
might work like an opiate that alleviates pain but it does not cure us from it.
The ending of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ evokes this persistence of pain.
Here the persistence of distress outdoes the alleviation of pain: in reality, pain
is the immortality of the universe and any extenuation of this perception
is nothing but a delusion. What Marx has called religion morphs into the
tradition of ethics, which derives from Augustine’s theory of the world’s
goodness. Goodness in Augustine’s work is a philosophical and theological
category rather than a physiological or psychological or even ethical term.
Augustine does, however, frequently use terms related to health (such as
well-being/salus) in order to describe the societal impact of his theological-
philosophical discourse. As Gilman has shown, ‘for Augustine it is the body,
in which all desires seem confused and interchangeable. It is the body most
at risk from inaction and desire’.46 In its societal repercussions goodness –
in terms of an absence of violence and death – does, at least from Plath’s

William Gaddis, The Recognitions (London: Atlantic City, 2003), p. 287.


Gilman, Obesity, p. 34.

158 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

perspective, the work of delusion insofar as it theologically promises the

overcoming of eternal death.
Against this background of traditional theology and contemporary
medicine, the title of Plath’s poem gains in metaphysical valence. ‘Burning
the Letters’ puts to the scorch the delusions of both the pre-modern and the
modern, of theology and medicine. By associating immortality with death,
Plath sets out to unmask the delusion of immutability that holds sway in
theological as well as in some strands of medical thinking where medicine is
monolithic and thus violates human diversity (clinging to one conception of
health that condemns as pathological and immoral forms of human behaviour
that are not necessarily harmful). Following Plato’s understanding of God
as belonging to the eternity of the idea, Augustine equates truth with the
immutable. In his Confessions he proclaims, ‘That which truly is is that which
unchangeably abides.’47 Here the epistemological (truth) and ethics (God’s
goodness as unmoved mover) meet in a notion of immortality conceived
as absence of change. Modern medicine replicates the philosophical and
theological idea of changelessness at the point where it constructs an
immutable notion of health, which disregards cultural diversity and does not
take into account various forms of frailty and disability, which do not fit the
healthy body and mind into a monolithic account.
A monolithic conception of corporal and mental well-being within modern
medicine is premised upon the axiom of immutability. Immutable health
as the prearranged path of a perpetually healthy lifestyle would – so Rose’s
account (in his The Politics of Life) of contemporary medicine propounds –
further longevity – the secular version of Augustine’s immortality. Within the
context of traditional ethics and theology, the coexistence of truth with the
non-changeable results in the famous Augustinian understanding of evil as
the deprivation of the good: ‘Accordingly whatever things exist are good, and
the evil into whose origins I was inquiring is not a substance, for if it were
a substance, it would be good.’48 Being non-substantial, evil is nothing but a
deception or delusion.
Indeed the first parts of Augustine’s City of God attempts to prove the
deception of pagan deities. Pagan deities, so says Augustine, did not protect
Rome from defeat and decay. Sin does its work as a lie: ‘Hence we can say
with meaning that every sin is a falsehood. For sin only happens by an act of
will; and our will is for our own welfare, or for the avoidance of misfortune.’49

Augustine, Confessions, a new translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1991), p. 125.
Augustine, Confessions, pp. 124–125.
Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, a New Translation by
HenryBettenson with an introduction by John O’ Meara (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 553.
Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 159

Sin wilfully distorts God’s creation in order to enhance the earthly prospects
of humanity. In keeping with the alignment of truth (epistemology) with the
good (ethics), Augustine argues that sin manifests itself as a lie that violates
God’s order as well as command. Sin operates on the grounds of heresy,
of disobedience. The disobedience consists of putting humanity’s interest
(those of mortality) over and above those of God’s and God’s creation (which
overcome the eternity of death):

And hence the falsehood: we commit sin to promote our welfare, and
it results instead in our misfortune; or we sin to increase our welfare,
and the result is rather to increase our misfortune. What is the reason
for this, except that well-being can only come to man from God, not
from himself? And he forsakes God by sinning, and he sins by living
by his own standards. I have already said that two cities, different and
mutually opposed, owe their existence to the fact that some men live by
the standards of the flesh, others by the standards of the spirit. It can now
be seen that we may also put it that way: some live by man’s standard,
others by God’s.50

In this salient quote Augustine arranges his theology around the term of well-
being (salus): we are truly in a state of well-being or health as long as we are
oriented towards God rather than focused on our own desires and longings.
In different but related ways the discourse about well-being is also central to
contemporary medicine and health care.51 The traditional understanding of
‘goodness’ re-emerges in modern medicine with the ideal of a healthy body
and mind. The ever-increasing longevity of those who cultivate a healthy
body and mind holds out the secular and immanent promise of scientific
immortality. Medicine’s promise to evade and avoid the corruption of time
moves the medical into the regions of Augustine’s struggle with decay and
transience. Gaddis’s The Recognitions satirizes this coincidence of theological
immortality and medical longevity: ‘Men might live to be two hundred
years old, unclothed perhaps and unfed since there would be so many, but
Science took care of the details when they arose.’52 Modern medicine turns
biblical longevity into a secular reality; albeit with disregard to the quality –
‘unclothed’ and ‘unfed’; a truly bared, apocalyptical immortality in Gaddis’s
quote – of life it attempts to perpetuate.

Augustine, Concerning the City of God.
For a brilliant critique of contemporary medical discourse see Charis Thompson’s
Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies (Cambridge,
MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2007).
William Gaddis, The Recognitions, p. 287.
160 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

In this way biomedicine promises to leave behind theology’s fideistic

connotations. It turns from the promissory to the performative in the
contemporary practice of cosmetic surgery. Through cosmetic surgery we, so
we are told, come closer to the ethical ideal of immortality, of the absence of
decay and corruption. To reach this ideal we have to submit to pain. The knife
of the cosmetic surgeon hurts us physically, but it also confronts our psyche
with the prospect of risk that accompanies every surgical intervention. It is,
however, not only the momentary violence of surgery that we have to endure.
We also have to submit to an ascetic – monastic if you wish – way of life
where we abstain from indulging our inclinations.
It is our individual duty to avoid risks to our health. The pathological is the
abject; as opposed to the state of well-being (or flourishing), which is the new
norm that promises prosperity and longevity. Well-being in contemporary
health care takes issue with what Augustine calls ‘the flesh’. As Lauren Berlant
has recently put it, neoliberal forms of exploitation ‘also involve the more
normative and informal (but not unpredictable) modes of social capital that
have so much to do with the shaping of managed and imagined health’.53
The spirit–flesh opposition harks back to Paul ‘who crammed into the notion
of the flesh a superabundance of overlapping notions’.54 In Paul the flesh
embraces not only the promiscuity of the sexual drive but all such aspects of
our embodied existence that are subject to harm, illness and death:

A weak thing in itself, the body was presented as lying in the shadow
of a mighty force, the power of the flesh: the body’s physical frailty, its
liability to death and the undeniable penchant of its instincts toward sin
served Paul as a synecdoche for the state of humankind pitted against
the spirit of God.55

Augustine retains Paul’s notion of the flesh while highlighting its latent
medical connotations.
The flesh has become everything that endangers an immutable reality
of well-being. We could say the flesh is the cry of pain with which Plath’s
‘Burning the Letters’ closes. From Augustine’s perspective, the cry is deceitful
because it distorts the theocentric view of the world as having been created
by a benevolent God. It is deceitful as well as harmful because it calls into
question the sustained well-being or health (salus) of our existence as
preliminary to our immortality in the City of God. Pain and evil are here
Berlant, Cruel Optimism, p. 104.
Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early
Christianity, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 48.
Brown, The Body and Society.
Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 161

falsehoods that are ‘ours’56 whereas truth and well-being are changeless and
are thus ‘God’s’.57 Theological ethics operates like medicine – healing us from
illness and deceit. Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ detects immorality not in well-
being but in the change that accompanies pain and death. What emerges
as truth is the immortality of moments of vulnerability and mortality.
Immortality remains, but what is gone is well-being and flourishing.
Contemporary medicine and health care has a greater affinity with
Augustine’s theology of the true, the good and the changeless than with
Plath’s putting the torch to such theological ethics where the ethical appears
to be a deceit of truth. Medicine attempts to counter changes in order to
preserve a posited state of well-being. There is, however, a third practice
that also cooperates with a secular version of immortality and ethics as
well as attempts to offer an alternative form of non-theological longevity.
In the wake of an increasing shift towards the secular, art holds out the
promise to guard mortal life against the ravishes of time. Poetry and art
proffer the prospect of immortalizing our life by preserving it in a quasi-
changeless form.
Contemporary forms of medicine – such as cosmetic surgery or
bioengineering – subscribe to classicist aesthetics of immutable and immortal
beauty or perfection.58 Medicine attempts to perfect our human nature and
move them closer to the perfection and timelessness of Augustine’s City of
God. Here, medicine meets art on the grounds of a secularized theology,
which has been shaped by Augustine’s Platonist and Pauline understanding
of ethics. Against this background it is not surprising that many practitioners
of medical science ‘see themselves as artists’.59 Plath’s poem ‘Burning the
Letters’ does not only burn the letters of immortality as found in Augustinian
theology and its associated ethics but also warps classicist aesthetics, which
upholds the ideal of a timeless form of beauty.
Thus, Plath’s poem implicitly propounds a new poetics that swerves away
from traditional notions of beauty and goodness. The questions it raises are
to do with how we can live in a world that turns out to be delusory in its
traditional form, a world that is not grounded in the Augustinian immortality
of goodness, beauty and well-being but in the raw rush of aching, pain and
hurt, which – and this is the revelatory or quasi-apocalyptical point – reveal
the unethical as the eternal or immortal.

Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, p. 553.
Augustine, Concerning the City of God.
Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2000).
Wendy Steiner, The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 182.
162 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Medicine, ethics and the delusions of

representation in Philip Roth’s Nemesis

Nevertheless, the question persists of how to live in a world in which

traditional ethics (as propounded in various theological and philosophical
works from Augustine onwards) seems to have lost its validity: What is
the place of medicine, theology and art in a universe that is infused with the
eternity not of goodness and beauty but of violence? This question confronts
Augustine’s ethics in contemporary society, which is marked by the
catastrophes of the twentieth century and the fear of even greater forms of
destruction in the future: the apocalyptical riders of climate change, nuclear
disasters, the collapse of financial markets and the rise of different kinds of
Within this context Philip Roth’s recent novel Nemesis reads the medical,
the ethical and the theological in ways that mediate between Plath’s poem
‘Burning the Letters’ and Augustine’s theological ethics. The setting of the
novel is the devastating polio outbreak in 1942 in Newark. The physical
education teacher Mr Cantor first remains unshaken by the outbreak and
refuses to leave the city for the supposed safety of the mountains. When he
eventually leaves – on the insistence of his fiancée – he has already caught the
polio virus. In the mountains, he witnesses the unsuspected polio outbreak
amongst the children who have been evacuated there only to find out that he
may be the carrier and originator of the virus.
At first sight, the state of fear about polio grows out of the recognition that
faced with this virus medicine has failed to keep intact the equilibrium of
health or well-being. In the forties of the previous century the causes of polio
were unknown and hence it was not possible to treat it effectively or to develop
a vaccine against it: ‘Concern for the dire consequences of falling seriously ill
from polio was compounded by the fact that no medicine existed to treat the
disease and no vaccine to produce immunity.’60 The helplessness in the face
of an incurable, life-deforming and potentially deadly illness transcends the
orbit of medicine. It raises questions of life’s fairness and, associated with it,
theological concerns about justice and theodicy. Parents who did everything
they could for their offspring are confronted with their sudden death.
The decay and the passing away of the body thus raise intellectual and
spiritual questions that are akin to the discussion in the preceding section of
the relationship between the medical, the ethical and the theological. Roth’s
novel focuses on the Jewish community in Newark. One of his theological
templates is the testing of Job. Like Job, Jewish families at the centre of the

Philip Roth, Nemesis (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010), p. 3.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 163

polio outbreak in Newark feel betrayed by life and potentially by the creator
of this life.

What is there to do? What should we have done? I rack my brain. Can
there be a cleaner household than this one? asks Mr Michaels. Can there
be a woman who keeps a more spotless house than my wife? Could there
be a mother more attentive to her children’s welfare? Could there be a
boy who looked after his room and his clothes and himself any better
than Alan did? Everything he did, he did right at the first time. And
always happy. Always with a joke. So why did he die? Where is the
fairness in that?61

In his reply to Mr Michael’s questions Mr Cantor denies that there is any

fairness in life. This response is more sympathetic than the responses Job has
to endure from his friends. The matter of fact statement ‘There is none’ is,
however, quite removed from the empathetic sense of an all-pervasive pain
that permeates the ending of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’. The denial that
there is any fairness in life could still hold out the promise of some form of
theodicy. Roth’s novel tests this question.
As the novel unfolds the main protagonist loses his matter of fact sense
of calm. This loss occurs unexpectedly. The novel emphasizes Mr Cantor’s
discernment of propriety, his excellent judgement and his clear perception
of the world at large and his environment. When his fiancée’s father – Dr
Steinberg – urges him to leave the polio-ridden Newark for the safety of the
mountains, he counters with a voice of calm-headed reason: ‘I am against the
frightening of Jewish kids. I am against the frightening of Jews, period. That
was Europe, that’s why Jews fled. This is America. The less fear the better. Fear
unmans us. Fear degrades us. Fostering less fear – that’s your job and mine.’62
The doctor (Steinberg) and the physical education teacher (Cantor) are both
concerned with the well-being of the body and in a classical sense the body’s
health seems to be intimately connected with that of the mind. The continued
practice of medicine as well as physical outdoor sports counters fear in the
face of an overwhelming and unidentifiable threat (the polio virus). The issue
of mental and corporeal well-being seems to be related to politics and ethics.
Fear of destruction and devastation is part of the politics that characterizes
European anti-Semitism. America differs. It seems to guarantee the carefree
pursuit of an ethically fulfilled life where we encounter the goodness and
beauty of the world unencumbered by prejudice, stigma and stereotyping

Philip Roth, Nemesis, p. 47.


Philip Roth, Nemesis, p. 106.

164 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

(which seem to be the domain of a violent Europe, but as we know from

Roth’s hypothetical account of a fascist US government in The Plot Against
America, this is not exactly the case).
As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Mr Cantor’s vision of an ethically,
politically and medically secure America evokes a theological ground ex
negativo. With the intensification of the polio outbreak, the family of victims
increasingly blame Mr Cantor for recklessness – his fearless, rational and
also ethically motivated business-as-usual approach to physical education.
A moral panic develops in the face of disease and death. The community
charges the medical practice of Dr Steinberg with incompetence (because of
the lack of a vaccine and cure for the disease). At precisely the point where
the pressure of the community bears down on Mr Cantor, we hear of how
he hates God and how he gradually gives in to his fiancée’s demands to leave
Newark for the presumed safety of the mountains.
The father of his fiancée (Dr Steinberg) attempts to persuade him to
forsake his seemingly uncompromising sense of ethics: ‘A misplaced sense of
responsibility can be a debilitating thing,’63 he admonishes him. However, Mr
Cantor defends his position from an empathically ethical stance: ‘What would
the boys do if they couldn’t come to the playground? Stay at home? No they
play ball somewhere else – in the streets, in the empty lots, they’d go down to
the park to play ball.’64 He is thus not concerned so much with his own well-
being as with that of others (the boys). When he gives in to the demands to
look for his own interest and to escape the risk of contracting the disease – ‘to
flee from the unceasing awareness of the persistent peril’, as Marcia Steinberg
‘wanted him to’65 – his ethical stance seems to turn out to be delusionary.
At precisely this point of coincidence of ethics with delusions, Mr Cantor
evokes a theme with which we are familiar from the previous discussion of
early Christian thought: that of the supposed goodness of God. In Plath-like
fashion, Mr Cantor refers to this theme in order to turn it upside down.
Against the background of the preceding chapter’s discussion of the
closing lines of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Burning the Letters’, we could argue that
Mr Cantor comes to burn the letters of ethics, providence and theodicy only
to supplant them in a negative way. Suddenly his whole life falls into pieces
under the auspices of a violent form of immortal providence:

After all this time, it had suddenly occurred to Mr Cantor that God
wasn’t simply letting polio rampage through the Weequahic section but

Philip Roth, Nemesis, p. 102.


Philip Roth, Nemesis, p. 105.


Philip Roth, Nemesis, p. 115.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 165

that twenty-three years back, God had also allowed his mother, only
two years out of high school and younger than he was now, to die in
childbirth. He’d never thought about her death that way before. Previously
because of the loving care that he received from his grandparents, it had
always seemed to him that losing his mother at birth was something that
meant to happen to him and his grandparents’ raising him was a natural
consequence of her death. So too was his father’s being a gambler and a
thief that was meant to happen and that couldn’t have been otherwise.
But now that he was no longer a child he was capable of understanding
why things couldn’t be otherwise was because of God. If not for God, if
not for the nature of God, they would be otherwise.66

This important quote marks the turning point of the novel. Here we witness
how Mr Cantor abandons his open-minded and rational approach to life’s
fearful uncertainties. Instead of being open-ended and therefore uncertain,
the course of events has already been established. They have been fixed by
some higher force. Irony vis-à-vis Augustinian and other Christian themes
pervades the quote. First there is the theme of a transition from being childish
to being wise with which we are familiar from the letters of Paul, where a
state of faithless and unknowing childhood contrasts with the growth of
redemptive wisdom (of Christ’s resurrection in this case). Then there is the
issue of predestination, which, as H. R. Niebuhr has pointed out, led Augustine
‘to embrace a dualism more radical than that of Paul and Luther’.67 The quote
treats these theological topoi not so much in a theoretical vein but as literary
concerns – to be more precise as concerns of and for representation.
Pondering over Mr Cantor’s reflections, we may realize that we come to
terms with various shocks in our lives via representational techniques. In this
way the early loss of his mother and the abandonment by his unfortunate
father are accompanied by the way these traumatic events are translated
into representations: here they appear in the soothing image of a peaceful
childhood, thanks to the good care his grandparents bestowed upon Mr
Cantor. We make sense of the traumatic via techniques of representation.
These techniques of representation are secular: they do not necessarily evoke
a relationship to a transcendent realm. They nevertheless operate as notions
of fixity, if not immutability. We come to terms with the impermanence of
our existence by constructing representations of permanence and inevitability.
The loss Mr Cantor endures in early childhood thus represents to himself a
meaningful event.

Philip Roth, Nemesis, pp. 125–126.


R. H. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Torchbooks, 1956), p. 206.

166 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

The invocation of God radicalizes this embracing of meaning that

motivates the otherwise secular techniques of representation. The supposition
of God as arbiter and creator of mishap and suffering further develops the
desperate search for meaning and certainty. There is thus a certain growth
involved here, which Mr Cantor attempts to define with the move from
childhood to theological wisdom. Ironically, he seems to be unaware of
both its Pauline and Augustinian connotations. The secular ‘it could not be
otherwise’ representation now transmutes into the Augustinian theology of
predestination. Now the absolute power of God guarantees that things can
indeed not be otherwise.
God figures as the omnipotent and omniscient source of how our world
and our lives develop. According to Augustinian ethics this transcendent
source guarantees the immortality of the good. The world cannot be but good
and immortal – everlasting without end – and it cannot be disrupted in its
ethical eternity. This statement needs to be qualified. Early Christian thought
envisaged the destruction of our world, which is subject to the decay and death
emanating from the original sin. Augustine’s notion of goodness is primarily
philosophical and theological. As such, it is premised on eschatology and
apocalypse: the destruction of the corrupt through transcendent redemption.
However, the destruction of the world in its corrupted form paves the way
for the true realm of an eternal and unchanging life. As Jacob Taubes argues,
Augustine’s eschatology is not politically subversive, because it establishes a
distinction between the city of men and the city of God.68 It is not a political
eschatology but one of and for the individual who gradually disengages from
the temporary abode: the earthly and impermanent city of men.69 The main
protagonist of Roth’s Nemesis retraces this retreat and disengagement from
politics and the world. Mr Cantor refers to categories of the early middle ages
within a modern context of immanence. According to both the closing lines
of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ and Mr Cantor’s ironically growing theological
wisdom, the world cannot be otherwise too. Here, however, the ‘otherwise’
would not be unethical but the performance of ethics. ‘Otherwise’ in this
context would be redemption from harm and pain; harm and pain that the
closing lines of Plath’s poem ‘Burning the Letters’ as well as Roth’s Mr Cantor
posit as the permanence of the impermanent, the traumatic and the violent.
Mr Cantor’s consequent anger ‘against the source, the creator – against
God, who made the virus’70 may be in keeping with a certain Jewish tradition
of being outraged with God, to which Job’s lamentations clearly belong.

Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie (Munich: Matthes & Seitz, 1991), p. 79.


Taubes, Abendländische Eschatologie, p. 80.


Roth, Nemesis, p. 127.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 167

Perhaps more pertinently Roth defines his sense of Jewish identity in terms
of indignation and a refusal to obey traditions and rules. He reflects on his
schooling in a Hebrew school not as the following of commandments and
their representation but as an unruly break with them:

In those after-school hours at the dingy Hebrew School – when I would

have given anything to have been outdoors playing ball until suppertime –
I sensed underlying everything a turbulence that I didn’t at all associate with
the airy, orderly, public school where I was a bright American boy from nine
to three, a bubbling, energetic unruliness that conflicted head-on with all
the exacting ritual laws that I was now asked to obey devoutly. In the clash
between the anguished solemnity communicated to us by the mysterious
bee-buzz of synagogue prayer and the irreverence implicit in the spirit of
animated mischievousness that manifested itself almost daily in the little
upstairs classroom of the shul, I recognized something far more ‘Jewish’
than I ever did in the never-never-land stories of Jewish tents in Jewish
deserts inhabited by Jews conspicuously lacking local last names like Ginsky,
Nussbaum, and Strulowitz.71

Mr Cantor’s anger with God is irreverent too. He asks his fiancée ‘But how
can a Jew pray to a god who has put a curse like this on a neighbourhood
of thousands and thousands of Jews?’72 The year of the polio outbreak,
1942, more poignantly points to the Nazi genocide, which saw the killing of
millions of Jews on the European continent. Mr Cantor’s question ‘But how
can a Jew pray’ has shaped much of Jewish theology and literature in the post
Roth’s novel frequently refers to anti-Semitism but it does not mention
the Nazi genocide. Its focuses not on world history but on a small
community: the Weequahic Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey.
From this circumscribed perspective, Nemesis’s attention rests on one
individual’s decision: the decision to leave Newark for the supposed safety
of the mountains. Mr Cantor gives in to the demands of his fiancée and
her father. Nemesis will revisit this decision for the rest of his life. Once
out of Newark, Mr Cantor only belatedly succumbs to the polio virus. His
main suffering is not physical but mental. It is an ethical form of pain: ‘what
he no longer had was a conscience he could live with’.73 Here we witness
the divide between ethics and the transcendent. No longer confirming in

Roth, The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (New York: Penguin, 1988).


Roth, Nemesis, p. 171.


Roth, Nemesis, p. 174.

168 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Augustinian fashion the goodness of the world, transcendence has ceased to

ground and support ethics. A complete reversal has taken place. God has
become the antagonist of ethics and longevity (or immortality). As we have
seen, according to Mr Cantor God is the source of suffering, decay, death
and gratuitous violence. The disappearance of a benevolent God does not,
however, override the existence of an immanent ethics – of a conscience.
This immanent force of Mr Cantor’s conscience is precisely the Nemesis
which is the title of Roth’s novel.
At the point where Roth’s Nemesis touches upon Mr Cantor’s pangs of
conscience, the novel embarks on a journey to another point of view. As we
have seen the anger against God in the face of catastrophes and illness may be
justified and that especially within the context of post-Holocaust writing and
thought. By focusing on Mr Cantor’s rage against God – a sense of outrage
that is accompanied by a strong sense of conscience – Roth’s novel tests the
validity of ethics in a catastrophe-ridden age of immanence.
Let me explain. The collapse of an ethically valid transcendence goes hand
in hand with the overbearing force of nemesis turned both immanent and
inward: taking the form of what goes under the notion of ‘conscience’. As the
novel draws to its end we witness the power of this self-inflicted wound that
is not so much physical (Mr Cantor’s physical disability as a result of his polio
infection) but mental:

By and large he had the aura of ineradicable failure about him as he spoke
of all that he’d been silent about for years, not just crippled physically by
polio but no less demoralized by shame. He was the very antithesis of the
country’s great prototype of the polio victim, FDR, disease having led
Bucky not to triumph but to defeat.74

It is not the physical consequence of his polio infection that ruins Bucky
Cantor – this is what the contrast with Roosevelt emphasizes – but the
mental devastation brought about by conscience: his debilitating sense of
shame, which turns out to be his self-inflicted nemesis.
In its traditional or classical context, nemesis denotes the ethical work
of transcendent forces: it is the ethics of divine providence. In Roth’s novel,
however, it has turned completely immanent. It has become the domain
of Mr Cantor’s conscience. His conscience assumes the omnipotence and
omniscience that has traditionally been the prerogative of God. Out of his
inflated sense of conscience – or, in other words, an immanent self-inflicted
form of nemesis – Mr Cantor turns down the prospect of marriage. Polio has

Roth, Nemesis, p. 246.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 169

crippled him. This does not matter for either Marcia Steinberg or her family.
She is keen to marry him.
Mr Cantor nevertheless remains adamant. He refuses marriage on the
grounds of conscience, insisting: ‘Marcia, marry a man who isn’t maimed,
who’s strong, who’s fit, who’s got all that a prospective father needs.’75 Mr
Cantor clearly fears the prospect of a future engaged with the world. Indeed
the novel closes with his retreat from any form of human community.
How can we best understand this refusal to engage with others? How can
we explain this retreat from a shared and anxiety-ridden public sphere that
might give rise to unknowable and uncontainable disasters such as the polio
contagion of 1942? Roth’s novel is a seemingly plain and highly contextualized
account of a common man, in a sense of everyman. To understand the
critical as well as transformative aspect of this seemingly simple account,
we need to take seriously its references to both ethics and theology. From
this perspective, it becomes increasingly clear that Nemesis is as much about
human hubris as it is about conscience.
Indeed at the end of the novel conscience has turned hubristic. Marcia
Steinberg emphasizes this point when she says that his conscientious refusal to
marry her appears to be noble but in fact instantiates the hubristic conflation
of selfhood with divinity: ‘You’re always holding yourself accountable, she
explains, when you’re not. Either it’s terrible God who is accountable, or
it’s terrible Bucky Cantor who is accountable, when in fact, accountability
belongs to neither. Your attitude toward God – it’s juvenile, it’s just plain
silly.’76 As his former fiancée recognizes, Bucky Cantor’s self-performance of
nemesis and his absolute refusal to engage with both the diversity and the
unpredictability of humanity characterize his hubris. He aligns himself not
with the human but with the divine. Marcia emphasizes this point when she
takes issue with his assumed knowledge of what God is:

You have no idea what God is! she exclaims. No one does or can! You
are being asinine – and you’re not asinine. You sound so ignorant – and
you’re not ignorant. You are being crazy – and you’re not crazy. You were
never crazy. You were perfectly sane. Sane and sound and strong and
smart. But this! Spurning my love for you, spurning my family – I refuse
to be party to such insanity.77

How does Mr Cantor’s insanity manifest itself? He spurns his fiancée’s love,
that of her family and that of the human family at large.

Roth, Nemesis, p. 259.


Roth, Nemesis, p. 260.


Roth, Nemesis, p. 261

170 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

This refusal to engage with others has a theological and, associated with it,
uncompromisingly ethical source that has here turned immanent. The most
devastating aspect of this immanent nemesis is that it still retains the absolute
authority of a transcendent God whom it claims to know. Mr Cantor’s
presumed knowledge and consequent alignment with God makes for the
paradox of his sane insanity. He is not mentally ill and has no predisposition
to mental illness – ‘you’re not crazy. You were never crazy’ Marcia Steinberg
notes. The narrator attempts to fathom this medical paradox, which turns
out to be medico-theological as well as ethical. ‘God the great criminal’ the
narrator provokes Cantor and then further questions, ‘Yet if it’s God who’s
the criminal, it can’t be you who’s the criminal as well.’78 To which Cantor
responds ‘Okay, it’s a medical enigma. I’m a medical enigma.’79 How can we
explain this shift from God to medicine, from the theological to the medical?
The narrator is confused:

Did he mean perhaps that it was a theological enigma? Was this his
Everyman’s version of the Gnostic doctrine, complete with an evil
Demiurge? The divine as inimical to our being here? Admittedly the
evidence he could call from his experience was not negligible. Only a
fiend could invent polio. Only a fiend could invent Horace. Only a fiend
could invent World War II. Add it all up and the fiend wins. The fiend
is omnipotent. Bucky’s conception of God, as I thought I understood
it, was of an omnipotent being whose nature and purpose was to be
adduced not from biblical evidence but from irrefutable historical proof,
gleaned during a lifetime passed on this planet in the middle of the
twentieth century.80

Roth’s novel shows how Mr Cantor’s lifetime experience is premised upon how
he represents his life to himself as well as to others. In Conrad (or Conrad’s
Marlowe)-like fashion Roth’s narrator makes problematic what the novel and
its main protagonist attempt to represent. It shows how the way we represent
ourselves and our world spurns delusions of eternity and immortality. At first
sight literature here seems to bear witness to the power of ideas. The ideas in
question are medico-theological: the domains of theology and medicine in
an Augustinian way are yet again united even though in a constellation that
questions Augustine’s normative account of God’s and the world’s unworldly

Roth, Nemesis, p. 265.


Roth, Nemesis, p. 265.


Roth, Nemesis, p. 264.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 171

More importantly, this inversion of the normative calls into question the
content of the ideas propounded in a pre-modern as well as modern context.
Roth’s Nemesis shifts the focus from the normative content of ideas to their
persuasive force that disregards the ethical as ethical and instead focuses on
the representational mechanism inherent in the structure of the ideational.
This structure is the allure of permanence, perpetuity, stability, in short
the ground of and reward for goodness: immortality. The content of the
foundation of this ground shifts at the closing of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’.
Here it is not goodness but the immortality of violence and distress. Mr
Cantor’s self-inflicted nemesis coincides with a similar immutability of pain
and evil of which the only cure – the question of medicine – appears to be a
retreat from the world. The ultimate question is thus not that of the validity of
the idea but of representation. Representation works by fixing the flux of life into
the immutability of the image or preordained sign. Representation emerges as
an immanent version of Augustine’s transcendent predestination. It turns the
movement of life and the diversity of particular actions into a concept that
serves to ossify and thus manage the unruliness of anger and outrage at the
world’s injustices. So Mr Cantor’s self-inflicted nemesis turns out to be what
the Greek’s called hubris; and hubris has nothing in common with the unruly
recognition of unknowing pain, which is the anger of Job.
The flux of life cannot be predicted or conceptualized in representations
that are commonly called ideas of God, guilt or nemesis. Mr Cantor does
precisely this. As the narrator of Nemesis points out: ‘Any biography is chance,
and beginning at conception, chance – the tyranny of contingency – is
everything. Chance is what I believe Mr Cantor meant when he was decrying
what he called God.’81 Contingency is the persistent inconsistency of life.
As I have shown in How Literature Changes the Way We Think, literature’s
truth consists in its consistent inconsistency. Literature meets life not by
representing it but by dint of reconciling our thoughts and actions to what
disrupts the deceitful mechanisms of representations, which turn our lives
into ethical and conceptual lies. In Nemesis Roth disrupts the deceitful concept
of nemesis as an outside force by unmasking it as the power of representation:
of how the main protagonist creates his own nemesis by turning his life and
that of this environment into a representation of static images and categories.
The flux of life’s contingency thus morphs into a representation of God,
which inverts the traditional content but clings to its allure of immutability
and immortality. The narrator analyses how such coincidence of pre-modern
notions of immortality and Mr Cantor’s modern medico-theological approach
to immutability shares a troubling – if ridiculous – loss of life and action:

Roth, Nemesis, pp. 242–243.

172 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

To my atheistic mind, proposing such a God was certainly no more

ridiculous than giving credence to the deities sustaining billions of
others; as for Bucky’s rebellion against Him, it struck me as absurd
simply because there was no need for it. That the polio epidemic among
children of the Weequahic section and the children of Camp Indian Hill
was a tragedy, he could not accept. He has to convert tragedy into guilt.
He has to find a necessity for what happens. There is an epidemic and he
needs a reason for it. He has to ask why. Why? Why? That it is pointless,
contingent, preposterous, and tragic will not satisfy him. That it is a
proliferating virus will not satisfy him. Instead he looks desperately for
a deeper cause, this martyr, this maniac of the why, and finds the why
either in God or in himself or, mystically, mysteriously, in their dreadful
joining together as the sole destroyer. I have to say that however much I
might sympathize with this amassing of woes that had blighted his life,
this is nothing more than stupid hubris, not the hubris of will or desire,
but the hubris of fantastical, childish religious interpretation.82

Clearly, this is not a moralistic condemnation of Mr Cantor. Instead of

condemning Mr Cantor’s inclinations, his desires or his will, the narrator
takes issue with the preponderance of interpretation – or, in other words,
representation – to the detriment of an active engagement with the
world, despite its often tragic contingency and therefore ever so shocking
unpredictability. This retreat from the world grows out of the supposed
safety of interpretation where we come to fix the flux of the contingent into
representations that are by their very nature fixed into signs or images. In
this way Mr Cantor turns the fluent and the active and thus intrinsically
unrepresentable into immutable notions of representation and interpretation:
contingency represents God, and the tragedy of contingent life is nothing but
representative of unmovable and unmoving ‘guilt’.
The narrator takes Mr Cantor to task for being imprisoned in the
representational framework of quasi-ethical interpretation. We can thus read
Roth’s Nemesis as a critique of both pre-modern delusions of ethics and their
inverted modern representations. A striking example of such inversion is the
closing of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’. ‘Burning the Letters,’ however, moves
representation into a force field of its own undoing. It does so when it represents
immortality by what is the opposite of the immortal: violence, killing and death.
Here we encounter what I call literature’s consistent inconsistency. Literature’s
consistent inconsistency performs a transformation from the scriptural to
the living – the living of contingency that we encounter in everyday life. The

Roth, Nemesis, p. 265.

Medicine and the Limits of Numbers 173

attempt to control contingency via various means – predicting its occurrence

through pseudo-scientific formulas for example  – is a quest for rendering
permanent exploitation and violence. As we have seen this is precisely the
concern of Doctorow’s historical novels about the wealthy class’s obsession
with immortality. Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ makes us both painfully and
beautifully aware of the perpetual repetition of violence throughout history
from the Pharaohs to Henry Ford in whom J. P. Morgan sees a reincarnation of
slavery in ancient Egypt. Whereas Roth’s Nemesis focuses on ordinary citizens
longing for a providential and ethically guided eternal universe – a longing
that ends in bitter frustration and withdrawal from the world – Doctorow’s
historical novels reveal the brutality of a seemingly benign attempt to outdo
the common human contingency of mortality. Doctorow focuses on the
gap between representation and reality that characterizes life in capitalism
(applicable to both the end of the nineteenth and the end of the twentieth
centuries). The painful beauty of Plath’s ‘Burning the Letters’ precisely resides
in the tension between the ethical promise of immortality and its brute,
ruthless reality of everlasting exacerbation and exploitation.
As we have seen in this and the preceding chapter, Augustine’s interpretation
of immortality has shaped the representation of ethics from the pre-modern
to the modern medico-theological paradigm of longevity (as practiced in
cosmetic surgery and bioengineering). We represent immortality by the
absence of death. Augustine is pertinent here, because he defined immortality
not simply as the absence of death but, more importantly, by the absence
of change. Absence of change is exactly what literature takes issue with. It
confronts our various preconceived representations of the world with the messy
changefulness of embodied life. Plath disrupts representation by confounding
the immortal with the lethal. Roth’s Nemesis engages in a similar disruption
not only of traditional representations or interpretations but also of forms of
representation that rebel against the tradition. As we have seen, he disrupts
the mechanisms of representation by insisting on life’s contingency. Life’s and
literature’s consistent inconsistency may thus prove capable of guarding against
medical, theological representations that either retreat from or violate the
contingency of our ever so worldly condition. This is not meant to be a critique
of Augustine’s theology nor does it reject contemporary biomedical creeds and
practices. As I have pointed out – via Peter Brown’s work – Augustine does not
completely retreat from the world (as Mr Cantor does at the end of Nemesis).
Literature’s disruption is not aggressive, destructive or dismissive. It questions,
however, certain presuppositions of immutability and changelessness in
both Augustine’s notion of immortality and current biomedical ideals of the
virtuous patient who sacrifices worldly inclinations towards the attainment of
the now immanent promise of changeless health and longevity.

Towards a Numerical Ambiguity

Under modern conditions, not destruction but conservation spells ruin

because the very durability of conserved objects is the greatest impediment
to the turnover process, whose constant gain in speed is the only constancy
left wherever it has taken hold.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Introduction: Overview of the preceding discussion,

neoliberalism and Doctorow’s public literature

As we have seen in the preceding two chapters, Augustine’s interpretation of

immortality has shaped the representation of ethics from the pre-modern
to the modern medico-theological paradigm of longevity (as practiced in
cosmetic surgery and bioengineering, for example). We represent immortality
by the absence of death. Augustine is pertinent here, because he defined
immortality not simply as the absence of death but, more importantly, by the
absence of change. Literature takes issue with the delusion and deception of
an ethics of changelessness, according to which the eternal or the frequently
returning is representative of the benevolent. In a Nietzsche-like fashion, we
associate the eternal return with well-being. Stability all too often turns into
a synonym for everything that goes well.
The preceding chapter has analysed the way in which our contemporary
neoliberal society bears an eerie resemblance with the brutal economic
practices prevalent at the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth
centuries. We have seen how Doctorow turns to this historical period in
order to highlight our current obsession with the health of the individual
and the long life of those who can afford it. Doctorow’s novels make us see
how the intense interest in immortality is a class issue. From the vantage
point of a capitalist government that has abolished the welfare state, wealth
not only seems to go hand in hand with health. More radically, the power
exerted by wealth promises the emergence of a new species: the immortality
of the wealthy. How can we explain this affiliation between capitalism and the
intense insistence on immortality? Mortality imposes a limit on humanity:
176 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

comparable to apes from whom (as Darwin showed in the middle of the
nineteenth century) we derive, we are bound to die and are thus bounded
or limited by death. Capital accumulation has, however, abolished all limits.
It thrives in being accumulated in a seemingly eternal and limitless manner.
David Harvey describes Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s impatience with the
limited realm of material or embodied life as follows:

He [i.e. Marx] contrasts the potential limitlessness of monetary

accumulation on the one hand, with the potentially limiting aspects
of material activity (production, exchange and consumption of
commodities) on the other. Capital cannot abide, he suggests, such
limits. ‘Every limit appears’, he notes, ‘as a barrier to be overcome’. There
is, therefore, within the historical geography of capitalism a perpetual
struggle to convert seemingly absolute limits into barriers that can be
transcended or circumvented.1

Amongst the most challenging limits are entropy and mortality. In Doctorow’s
Ragtime, J. P. Morgan – the king of finance – obsesses with the idea of a capitalist
class that is different from merely mortal humans: a class that has done away
with mortality perpetuating its class rule in the form of infinite reincarnations.
In this way, Morgan sees in the founder of industrialist-line production, Henry
Ford, a reincarnation of ancient Egypt’s ruling class: the Pharaohs.
Doctorow highlights the issue of class in a country whose contemporary
neoliberal pathos has seemingly abolished class differences. American media
may present contemporary society in terms of being completely removed
from the harsh economic realities of late-nineteenth-century capitalism.
In the face of such public deceptions and delusions, Doctorow turns to an
austere past in order to accentuate the austerity of the present. In his 1993
preface to a collection of essays, Doctorow brings back the issue of class and
addresses the resurgence of nineteenth-century economic practices at the
end of the twentieth century:

In this final decade or so, with the mandate of a populace compliant with
ruling circumstances, the last administration of the cold war conflated
its ideology with the capitalist principle of the nineteenth century.
Deregulating industry, dismantling social legislation of benefit to anyone
but their core constituencies, abjuring law enforcement where their law
was not to their liking, and politicizing the courts, they distributed the

Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (London: Profile Books,

2010), p. 47.
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 177

enormous costs of the cold war democratically among all the classes
of society except the wealthiest. The effect on our national standard of
living was as a vampire’s arterial suck.2

The vampire’s arterial suck evokes Dr Sartorius of The Waterworks, who

drains blood from impoverished children in order to rejuvenate the old
members of the upper class. The present repeats the brutality of the past in
modernized forms. Here we have another form of immortality: the endless
repetition of social injustice and violence, which has been the focus of Plath’s
‘Burning the Letters’ too.
Doctorow’s contemporary concerns are thus embroiled in the economic
and social turmoil of a seemingly bygone form of capitalism: the wild,
speculative capitalism of industrialization. Social scientists tend to define
contemporary capitalism as neoliberal. It is by reading the literary work of
Doctorow that we come to realize that the ‘neo’ in question here has little
to do with freedom or liberty but with ruthless principles that shaped the
economic practices of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Doctorow’s novels let us experience intellectually as well as emotionally
the repercussions of such class exploitations, making us undergo the present
as repetition of past horrors. Harvey formulates the problem in a social
scientific way – the persistence of class exploitation in a world that denies
its existence. Doctorow’s authoritarian Dr Sartorius indeed reappears in the
political authoritarianism of neoconservative dogma that has been employed
to impose neoliberal economics:

The further turn to neoconservatism is illustrative of the lengths to which

economic elites will go and the authoritarian strategies they are prepared
to employ in order to sustain their power. And all of this occurred in
decades when working class institutions were in decline and when many
progressives were increasingly persuaded that class was a meaningless or
at least long defunct category. In this, progressives of all stripes seem to
have caved in to neoliberal thinking since it is one of the primary fictions
of neoliberalism that class is a fictional category that exists only in the
imagination of socialists and crypto-communists.3

Contrasting with some aspects of postmodern constructionist thinking,

which insinuate that we were inevitably imprisoned in our private fantasy

Doctorow, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays 1977–1992
(New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. xiv.
Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp.
178 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

world as, in Zizek’s words, ‘substanceless subjects’, Doctorow insists on the

public significance of what is seemingly private. Literature has become rather
marginal to political or social life; it appears to have lost its public role.
Against this trend of privatization in literary studies, Doctorow proclaims
and reclaims Shelley’s famous definition of the poets as unacknowledged
legislators of the world. According to Doctorow the writer is the foundation
of politics. The writer is ‘an unacknowledged legislator’ who offers an
alternative State of the Union address: ‘I am giving you not a State of the
Union address but a State of the Mind of the Union address.’4 What is the
political texture of literature? According to Doctorow it is its closeness
to the state of ordinary life in a given society. This makes for literature’s
broad interdisciplinarity, because the ordinary includes the geography, the
psychology, the state of health, the economic state, the ethical state and
so forth of common men and women: ‘We conceive the work of art as the
ultimate act of individuation, but it may also be seen as the production of
community.’5 Here Doctorow moves beyond issues to do with mimesis,
interpretation and representation.
The function of the writer is not that of a mimetic mirror: representing
society as it is. As a legislator, the writer does not create representations that
are private. Contrary to received opinion, representation and interpretation
do not lie at the heart of literature. Representations and interpretations are
rather forms of producing new communities. Doctorow goes on to say that
‘narrative is the art closest to the ordinary daily operation of the human
mind’.6 Literature produces narratives where we may see our ordinary lives
in disturbingly new ways. We may see in the narrative of The Waterworks a
reality of neoliberal economics that economists deny exists any longer: that
of class warfare. Literature counters such denials, delusions and deceptions.
A brilliant social scientist of the stature of Harvey has perceptively analysed
the ‘widening gap between rhetoric (for the benefit of all) and realization
(the benefit of a small ruling class)’7 within neoliberal economics. That this
ever-widening gap ‘is now all too obvious’8 does not mean that it has gone
under our skin. We may well perceive problems and yet remain reluctant
to face them, because they seem to be too removed from our immediate
circumstances. Literature does not only make us perceive issues we would
otherwise ignore. More importantly, it has the capacity to involve our heart and
soul and not solely intellectually.

Doctorow, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, p. 87.
Doctorow, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, p. 114.
Doctorow, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, p. 114.
Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 203.
Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 203.
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 179

Introducing Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity

One of the most emotionally engaged contemporary writers is the Australian

Elliot Perlman. From his first novel Three Dollars to his recent novel The Street
Sweeper Perlman brings issues that are historically removed (the Holocaust
as well as the civil rights movement in The Street Sweeper) or social scientific
in their complexity and abstraction (neoliberal economics and the stock
market in Seven Types of Ambiguity) – home to the level of the every day, the
ordinary and at this level his writing interacts with the chemistry of affect.
This chapter discusses the relationship between literature, subjectivity
and commoditization in Perlman’s second novel Seven Types of Ambiguity.
First it introduces the reader to the novel’s specific Australian context. It
then proceeds to analyse the relevance of Seven Types of Ambiguity for an
accurate understanding of global societies at the dawn of the twenty-first
century. In his second novel Perlman raises the question of how it is that the
neoliberal economic destruction of society in the name of individual freedom
paradoxically paves the way for the systematic abolition of singularity. The
novel thus pivots around the ever-widening gap between rhetoric (promising
freedom and securing individualism) and practice (enforcing conformity and
hegemony via various threats to the social standing of any given individual
in the form of dispossession and social death). Analyzing Seven Types of
Ambiguity, this chapter unveils the dogmatic foundations that constitute the
assumed pragmatism of the neoliberal free market. Its concluding section
discusses Perlman’s view of literature as a critical force that disorders the
order of faith, be it a quasi-unshakable belief in a religious creed or in a
political/economic way of organizing society.
Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity could be read as a sequel to his award-
winning novel Three Dollars.9 Both works of fiction attempt to depict the
social, cultural and economic state of contemporary Australian society.
Perlman’s second novel focuses on the introduction of economic rationalism
and globalized corporate managerialism into Australia. Seven Types of
Ambiguity is thus specifically located in time and place. Yet its concern with
the relationship between literature, subjectivity and commoditization is
not just specific to an Australian context. The novel’s plea for the retention
of ambiguity as a counter to neoliberal economics of hegemony and
consumerism has a global resonance at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Perlman’s novel Three Dollars received the 1998 Age book award, the 1999 UK Betty

Trask award, the 1999 FAW Book of the Year award and was shortlisted for the 1999
Miles Franklin Award. Perlman also co-wrote the screenplay based on Three Dollars. See
Elliot Perlman and Robert Conolly, Three Dollars (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005).
180 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Seven Types of Ambiguity is thus a work not only of Australian literature but
also of world literature. This statement has certain ramifications. It means that
even though the novel represents contemporary Australia, this representation
can be put out of its immediate context. Decontextualized, it would then yield
an account of the intellectual and social history of the twenty-first century. To
be sure, decontextualization of this kind does not constitute an intrinsic part of
the novel. However, Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity has such a compelling
force for a critical reader, because it provokes the discursive dislocation of
themes out of the Australian context into the wider decontextualized and
deterritorialized arena of global market economics.
Within this framework, it sheds light on the fate of singularity within the
global society of the twenty-first century. This engagement teases out of the
novel not only themes but also a critical line of argumentation that resides
invisibly within its texture as part and parcel of its confrontational potential.
Perlman does not explicitly state his critique: he does not advance ‘unambiguous’
statements of truth, precisely because he is a novelist and not a philosopher,
sociologist or political scientist. Instead he embarks with his readers on a
complicated passage of narration where the critical issues that concern our
contemporary global society are rendered palpable. In this way the novel not
only produces intellectual effects but also transforms our affective capacities.
The novel engages with our chemistry of affect. Rather than articulating his
critique in an abstract (i.e. non-contextual) mode, Perlman explicates the social
consequences of market economic rationalizations in and through the different
narrative perspectives that constitute his novel. He represents in tangible form
the ‘life’ of capital in the otherwise virtual world of postmodern commodity
exchange. Perlman thus materializes the ‘immaterial virtual order which’,
according to Slavoj Zizek, ‘runs the show’10 of economic rationalism.11
In this way, Perlman’s novel presents specific narratives that represent the
social consequences of a seemingly virtual economy: the particularity of his
narration relates to larger issues. The particular storyline of Seven Types of
Ambiguity invites spatial and temporal dislocations, while remaining firmly

Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), p. 103.


Zizek focuses on the virtualization of capitalism in the age of globalization as follows:


This shift towards electronic money also affects the opposition between capital and
money. Capital functions as the sublime irrepresentable Thing, present only in its effects,
in contrast to a commodity, a particular material object which miraculously ‘comes to
life’, starts to move as if endowed with an invisible spirit. In one case, we have the excess
of materiality (social relations appearing as the property of a pseudo-concrete material
object); in the other, the excess of invisible spectrality (social relations dominated by
the invisible spectre of Capital). Today, with the advent of electronic money, the two
dimensions seem to collapse: money itself increasingly acquires the features of an invisible
spectral Thing discernable only through its effects. (Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, p. 103).
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 181

rooted in one specific place (i.e. Melbourne, Australia). One of the main
protagonists and narrators of Seven Types of Ambiguity describes literature’s
ability to dislocate itself in terms of timelessness. Writers such as Kundera,
Steinbeck and Dickens did not write for their time but for the truly universal
audience of all times and places:

Kundera, whether you like him or not, […] you cannot say Kundera was
the eighties. Steinbeck wasn’t the thirties and Dickens wasn’t the eighteen-
hundreds. They were of their times but for the ages. Their writings are
not products marketed for a brief time until they’re out of vogue and
discarded on the scrap heap. They are not silver scooters or hoola hoops,
slinkies, Rubic cubes or breast implants. They’re not trivial pursuits to be
enjoyed when you think you need something new and amusing to fill the
emptiness of your pointless job and your sham of marriage.12

Like Doctorow, the narrator of Seven Types of Ambiguity highlights literature’s

public function. Writing is not a private activity: it addresses the universal
audience of all times and places. Perlman’s style could be called pedestrian. It
is certainly not removed from ordinary language (hoola hoops, slinkies and
so forth). It does, however, not simply represent the ordinary. Rather it shows
how we may find new ways of living or different lives that are not part of the
hegemony of our economic and trivial pursuits.
In a review of The Street Sweeper, Jay Parini has recently described
Perlman’s way of writing as follows: ‘Although no literary stylist – his prose is
rarely more than functional – Perlman obviously cares about his characters
deeply.’13 Perlman’s care for his characters embroils his readers. Through this
affective network between writer and reader, specific concerns and particular
situations become dislocated from their local position. A remapping takes
place, where the subjective turns public and where the local turns universal
(see Chapter 4). This relocation from the specific time of its conception
to a contemporary setting enables the survival of traditional works of art.
It is, however, equally true that within a synchronic framework, a similar
process of dislocation can be undertaken not so much in terms of time but
in terms of space. Australian society as depicted in Seven Types of Ambiguity
represents the hostility towards ambiguity that characterizes the political as
well as the business strategies, which, on an all-encompassing global level,
shape the public sphere of the twenty-first century.

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity (Sydney: Picador by Pan Macmillan, 2003), pp. 419–420.

Parini ‘The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman – review: This Subtle meditation on the

healing powers of storytelling is impressive,’ The Guardian Friday, February 2012.

182 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Criticism thus extends the workings of the work of art. It makes it prosaic.14
It focuses on its content or, as Walter Benjamin would say, on its truth value.15
The work of criticism searches for the subject matter of the novel not by
attending to the immediate surface of its narration but by working through its
particular makeup. The question of literary form and the analysis of literature’s
truth value in terms of larger, decontextualized references and issues are thus
not self-exclusive. Neither are these analytical activities to be followed up in
separated attempts of critical engagement. Discussing Perlman’s novel, this
chapter sheds light on the dogmatic foundations that constitute the assumed
pragmatism of the market economy. Seven Types of Ambiguity unfolds this
decontextualized problematic as the defining moment of the twenty-first
century. At the same time the novel develops a specific and highly contexualized
storyline in the seemingly antiquated manner of the nineteenth- and early
twentieth-century novel. In this way, Perlman’s authorial intentions emerge
from a close reading of the different narrative perspectives that constitute his
novel. (To be sure, many nineteenth-century novels have multiple narrators –
such as Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White – though not in the Rashomon-like
way to which Perlman refers in Seven Types of Ambiguity).
The technical set-up of the novel appears to be a revamp of nineteenth-
century narrative prose. In a contemporary literary context, the length
of the novel – some 600 pages – might raise the immediate suspicion of
facing an anachronistic undertaking. This impression distorts, however,
the specific narrative parcours that Seven Types of Ambiguity performs and
that marks the course of the reader’s critical engagement. The back cover
of the paperback edition describes the novel as ‘reminiscent of the richest
fiction of the nineteenth century in its labyrinthine complexity’. This might
very well be true as far as issues of complexity are concerned. However, this

Here I am extending Andrew Benjamin’s recent discussion about the relationship
between art criticism and painting to a discussion of Perlman’s novel. Following Walter
Benjamin’s reading of German romantic Friedrich Schlegel’s work on criticism as poetry
and vice versa, Andrew Benjamin argues that the critic continues the work of the artist.
Art’s difficulty resides in its incompleteness. A work of art, if it is truly art, can never
be completed. It remains incomplete. Therein exactly lies its potentiality. The potential
must not be confused with the teleological. Rather having one determined route toward
that which makes it more complete, there are many ways in which the critic can extend
the work of art. Furthermore, a state of full completion remains ever elusive and illusive.
Completion thus does not refer to full presence but denotes the art of ruination: ‘Modernity
has little to do with what art “looks like”. A fetishisation of style – which conflates style
with appearance – refuses what is central. The lynchpin, rather, is the recognition that,
as Walter Benjamin argues, criticism completes the work. It completes is by “ruining” it.
The key point of departure here is Benjamin’s early dissertation on Romantic criticism.’
Benjamin, Disclosing Spaces. On Painting (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2004), p. 84.
For a detailed discussion of Benjamin’s approach to reading see Mack, How Literature
Changes the Way We Think (New York: Continuum, 2011), pp. 100–126.
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 183

characterization fails to take into account the particular arrangement of the

novel’s technical manoeuvres.16 To neglect the particular way in which a
novel presents its content is to miss much of the content itself. In contrast to
a nineteenth-century novel à la Dickens, Seven Types of Ambiguity does not
evolve out of the mouth or pen of one central narrator. Instead, it is divided
into seven parts. Each presents the version of a specific protagonist.
The content of the novel partakes of the technique by which it narrates its
plot. Seven Types of Ambiguity profiles its particular literary form through the
presentation of different points of view. Each evolves from the perspective
of its specific narrator. However, technique is not an end in itself. It would
certainly be banal and would of course also be far from innovative if the
point of these differing perspectives provided by different narrators were to
show that each of our life worlds constitutes a unique entity. Rather a critical
reading of the narrative technique employed in the novel yields insight into
the societal truth value of the content depicted in Seven Types of Ambiguity.
The idea of these different points of views as offered by the main protagonists
who have thus become narrators has nothing to do with factual statements
about the relativity of perception. Instead the technical arrangement through
which the story tells itself by being split up into differing accounts of its plot
enables recognition of how and why contemporary society does not allow for
an adequate understanding of the singular context that shapes the specific
agency of a given agent. This refusal to take into account the contextual
breeding ground of both thought and action goes hand in hand with the
elimination of ambiguity. The novel, in contrast, creates ambiguity precisely
through its narrative technique, which allows the reader insight into the
complexity of each protagonist’s interiority.

Serial humanity and the ideology of neoliberal economics

The rest of this chapter does not offer a comprehensive account of Perlman’s
novel.17 Instead it focuses on two central themes: (1) the introduction of
private health care into Australian society; (2) the relation between forms

As Steven Poole has lucidly pointed out, Seven Types of Ambiguity is not, as might at
first glance appear, a novel that lacks innovative narrative techniques: ‘Not only is each
of the novel’s seven sections narrated by a different character in the story, some are also
addressed directly to another character. So the reader is challenged to perform a sort
of dual identification – the traditional one with the narrator, and another one with the
addressee’ (Poole, ‘Seven Types of Moralising,’ The Guardian, 11 December 2004).
For a comprehensive plot summary see Kate Kellaway’s ‘Unreliable Witnesses,’ The
Observer, 8 August 2004.
184 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

of market economics that are indifferent to human singularity and a dogmatic

approach to literature. The latter turns out to be the flip side of an economic
reality that is hegemonic in its ‘one size fits all’ approach to human diversity.
That is to say, the dogmatic approach to literature exclusively allocates
ambiguity to poetry while denying its validity in the sphere of everyday
While not reducing the novel to its narrative core, for preliminary
purposes, it is worthwhile to provide a brief account of its plot in relation to
the two issues discussed in this chapter. Seven Types of Ambiguity describes
how an unemployed schoolteacher, Simon Heywood, ends up in a maximum
security prison, isolated in solitary confinement, because he attempted to
help someone else. This state of affairs seems to be the direct result of his
apparent altruism. One could call this short description an in nuce account
of its main plot.
Significantly, the topic of the prison gives rise to a wealth of associations
within the context of Australian history and literature. In the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, Australia was the destination of European
prisoners. Australian history thus strikingly illustrates that global mobility
can resemble the movement into the place of captivity. As Nicholas Birn
has recently pointed out, ‘Australia has historically been the prison dilated’:
it ‘has resembled what we would today call a “virtual prison”’.18 The role of
the prison within Perlman’s novel is thus to underline the darker aspects of
globalization. Simon’s narrative, which preliminarily terminates in prison,
also signals a pre-eminent theme of the novel, namely, that of the fate of
concern for the other in the twenty-first century: like Simon it seems to end
up incarcerated. On a less superficial level, Simon kidnapped Sam, the son
of his ex-girlfriend (going back to the time of his student days) Anna – with
whom he is still obsessively infatuated – in order to draw attention to the
intensity of his love. Is Simon as selfless as he pretends to be? Certainly not
and yet his desire to save the 6-year-old boy Sam from the psychological
turmoil of a collapsing marriage lays as much claim to certainty as the
statement about Simon’s selfish interest. This clash of a variety of different
certainties marks the workings of ambiguity.
By the time at which the different narrative accounts of the novel are
unfolding, Simon’s ex-girlfriend has become the wife of the stockbroker Joe
Geraghty. Their marriage introduces us to the heart of market economic
transactions. Joe, together with his colleague Mitch, whose nickname simply
represents an abbreviation of his surname Mitchell, is about to facilitate a big

Birn, ‘Receptacle or Reversal? Globalization Down Under in Marcus Clarke’s His Natural

Life, College Literature,’ 32.2 (2005): 127–145 (p. 129).

Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 185

share transaction, which, if successful, would enable the market economic

transformation of the Australian public health-care system into US-style
managed care. This deal will fall through, if only for a brief moment, but it
will leave both Joe and Mitch unemployed. The neoliberal privatization of
public health care will, as prophesized by Joe and Mitch, pass parliamentary
opposition eventually. Ironically, it will do so briefly after the failed share
deal, which the two stock market employees were instrumental in bringing
about. This failure will cost them their employment.
Significantly, Joe and Mitch do not believe in the market economic
‘reform’ of public health care. Why are they then risking their employment
for something about whose intrinsic merit they are not convinced? They put
their career lives at risk in order to reap the reward of financial remuneration
that would promise them security for life. In this way, the survival instinct
seems to dictate the unconscious commitment to something resembling
suicide. Indeed the word ‘career suicide’ often appears in the novel within
the context of the risk and reward system that characterizes the stock market
Various characters in Perlman’s novel perceive economic power as a
potential danger to those who might not succeed in the task allotted to them.
The losers are effectively killed, or in other words, they have to kill themselves
to complete the job of losing: ‘When something like this happens [i.e. loss
and losing], there is usually at least one person in a firm like ours who will
come as close as a human can to breaking apart without the application of
physical force. […] Laffenden was finished.’19 The human body turns into a
machine, into a computer. If it fails to work it has to be ‘terminated’: ‘ “It’s
what they say, when you’re iced, when you are terminated. “Control” plus
“Alt” plus “Delete”, like on a computer” ’.20 As Mark Seltzer has pointed out,
serial killers are a product of capitalist modernity, not least because of the
machine-like non-personal character of their undertakings: ‘The complete
yielding to nonpersonality is one of the serial killer’s signatures, the proper
name of the minus man. Or, as Bundy, “a type of nonperson” who was also
such a verbal person, expressed it: “Personalized stationary is one of the
small but truly necessary luxuries of life”.’21
As professionals, Joe and Mitch act like non-persons, resembling
machines that are strictly programmed to perform a mechanical task without
any concern about its content. They must not believe in anything they are

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 87.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 273. Thus employees are asked to commit ‘career
suicide’ (p. 286). See also 300 and 304.
Seltzer, Mark Serial Killers. Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (New York:
Routledge, 1998), p. 12.
186 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

undertaking apart from its statistical, that is to say, economic-numerical

aspect. To be sure, both are convinced that US-style managed care will be
introduced sooner or later and both are, as the narrative development of the
novel proves, certainly right about this. They do not, however, hold this belief
because of some personal insight or thinking on their part. Instead, they are
simply reaffirming market economy’s claim to homogeneity – according
to the motto: ‘History has proven that nothing works as well as neoliberal
capitalism.’ ‘The appeal of liberty’, as Bernard E. Harcourt has recently shown,
‘is indeed a powerful force – especially if it is tied, as it has been since the
Physiocrats, to the notion of orderliness.’22
Some anachronistic intellectual like Simon Heywood’s psychiatrist Alex
Klima might raise objections. He might go so far to send letters to a daily
newspaper and these letters might even be published. But all of this will not
hinder the inevitable course of the progressive absorption of society in its
totality by ‘market economic efficiency’. Alex’s letter about the opposition’s
secretive deal with the government that would give the green light to the
introduction to US-style managed care only causes a short-lived annoyance.
As a result of this intervention, the oppositional party has to delay their
approval of the so called health-care reform. After a brief lapse people will
have forgotten about it. Time will thus allow for a clandestine or rather, quiet
introduction of neoliberal economic reform into the lifeline of Australian
hospitals. This time it will work, because no one will have realized it. Alex
Klima’s critical letters raised public awareness of the issue. Public awareness,
however, would later be drowned out by other more grabby scandals like the
capture of the so-called child kidnapper Simon Heywood.
Joe and Mitch will have lost their employment, because they were
dependent on someone else for whom they did the stock acquisition of Sid
Graeme’s insurance National Health. Once the reform bill would have gone
through the opposition party, Graeme’s company would be owner of almost
all so far public Australian hospitals. His company would thus hold a double
monopoly: one in the primary care sector and one in the insurance sector.
The big investor, Donald Sheere, whom Joe Geraghty advises on the value of
specific share deals and does stock transactions for, agrees for the time being
to pump millions of dollars into National Health that would thus enable
Graeme’s acquisition of the Australian public health-care sector. But he does
so under the condition that Joe and Mitch’s investment firm underwrite
his undertaking. This means that their employer will bear the costs of the
financial loss, should Sheere decide to pull out of the transaction. This is

Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order

(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 241.

Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 187

exactly what will take place after Alex will have published his letter about the
opposition party’s clandestine agreement on US-style managed care.
Joe and Mitch’s lack of personal commitment make them all the more
committed to pushing the deal through without considering the risks it
might pose to their personal life as employees in a huge investment firm. This
defines them as non-persons, which they have to be in order to perform well
as programmed by the command to achieve success in the free market.23 They
have to yield to non-personality in order to push through deals that hold out
the promise of wealth and thus life security. A certain serial character thus
defines the single-mindedness of their struggle for societal success.
Although this is not the place to enlarge on the details of the failed share
deal, an analysis of the way in which Sid Graeme, the head of the insurance
company National Health, advertises the benefits that would accompany his
privatized possession of almost all Australian hospitals brings to the fore the
substitution of human ambiguity with the straightforwardness of statistical
or numerical illusions of certainty that, as the novel reveals, drives the
unacknowledged ideology of neoliberal economic praxis. A critical reading
of Perlman’s novel is thus vital for an analysis of contemporary society.
Such critical engagement illuminates how the fate of human singularity
goes hand in hand with the marginalization of literature as an art form that
sensitizes its audience to the ambiguities of human character. Both human
singularity and the literary are, due to their multivalence, far from being
adequately understood in a single-minded manner.
As has been discussed above, the literary technique that constitutes the
specific texture of the novel highlights the need to see a given individual’s
deliberations, altercations and actions in their specific contextual setting.
Why does context matter? It would certainly not be significant, if human
agency were that of computerized numbers, that is to say, programmed and
thus knowable. The human, however, as Judith Butler has recently pointed
out, ‘comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know’.24
The human is revisable because the universalist notion of humanity embraces
diversity, which cannot be fixed into homogenous frameworks. The openness

As Jessica Winter has pointed out,


Joe, for one, is by any objective standard an inwardly deformed monster misbegotten of
The Market, a muscle-bound, violence-prone slickster capable of networking at a SIDS
support group. Yet he’s also a uniquely piteous creature, embittered by a despondent
childhood, humiliated by what he assumes to be his wife’s adultery, and paralyzed with
guilt over his lonely, declining mother – a bag of boiled sweets that she gives to Sam
acquires near-talismanic qualities of pathos and indelible regret. (Winter ‘Money Shot,’
The Village Voice, 13 December 2004)
Butler, Judith Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso,

2004), p. 49.
188 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

of the term ‘human’ does not preclude universal rights, but on the contrary
extends these rights to excluded or marginalized people (the mentally ill,
ethnic minorities and so forth). By presenting us with the complexities of
psychic interiority, which turns out to be the opposite of context-indifferent
numerical programming, the technical arrangement of Perlman’s novel
evokes this horizon of the unknown, delineating the lines that separate both
soul and body from the ‘efficiency’ of neoliberal economics.
The introduction of US-style health care, on the other hand, demands
of patients the predictable and unambiguous constitution of programmed
numbers. Significantly, at the utmost point of vulnerability, namely, in the
state of illness, human bodies have to conform to the prearranged order of
statistical probabilities. The reform of health care promises to bring about
a 100% increase in efficiency precisely through the pellucid sight into the
future that shapes the fate of every patient. This clairvoyance comes of course
at the cost of a radical distancing to the singularity and thus possible severity
of any given patient’s particular illness.
Here we encounter numerical homogeneity as applied to social contexts:
the same procedure has to be brought to bear on everyone. At this point, the
true character of neoliberal economics emerges. It becomes clear that the
praxis of neoclassical liberalism belies its theoretical espousal of individual
freedom. At a crucial moment in their conversation about the details of US-
style managed care, Joe questions the foreseeable nature of medical decision-
making. ‘But how’, he asks, ‘does the health-care insurer [i.e. Sid Graeme
as boss of National Health that would then have also become the primary
provider of heath care] know in advance which procedures are necessary in
any given case?’25 In response to this ‘good question’ Sid Graeme explains
how human unpredictability can be overcome through the efficiency of
economic programming: ‘It is not a stab in the dark for us.’26 What makes
for this triumph of foresight? Medical diagnosis certainly falls outside the
domain of the efficient functioning of health care, which alone would be
compatible with the smooth perfection of market economic transaction.
A doctor’s examination focuses on the singular illness of his or her
patient. As such, it violates the economically prescribed indifference to
singular needs and contextualized concerns. Indeed Sid Graeme praises US-
style managed care, because ‘it would transcend the relationship between a
patient and his [sic] doctor’.27 By which technological means, however, does a
reformed health system achieve compatibility with the demands of neoliberal

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 95.


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 95.


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 94.

Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 189

economics? Through the numerical technique that propels persons into non-
persons, through the process that transmogrifies individual contexts into the
serial scheme of the numerical, in short, through statistics.28 As Sid Graeme
explains: ‘By rigorous use of statistics, we can actually know what is likely
to be necessary for the treatment of any particular illness or injury and also,
how long we can reasonably expect a patient to need to be in hospital.’29 This
likelihood turns out to be a numerically programmed certainty.
Should a patient’s illness contradict the reasonable timetable, as measured
statistically through the generality of numbers, he or she ‘can either go
somewhere else or else pay out of their own pockets’.30 Here we encounter
the assumed pro-choice individualism as proclaimed by neoliberal ideology.
How can one go somewhere else, if the point of the reform consists of the
all-embracing transformation of public hospitals (which are still revolving
around the patient–doctor relationship) into privatized intuitions that
operate along the statistical principle? The statistical principle precisely
enacts indifference to context and thus to human singularity. This indifference
endorses disregard for anyone who lacks the means to ‘pay out of their own
Seen from this perspective, pragmatism functions to justify the cruelty
that accompanies a lack of concern for the specific vulnerability of the other.
The plea for the transcendence of ideology and the concomitant approval
of the reasonable (i.e. of common sense) serves to preclude any critical
engagement with the violence that underlines the statistical rendering of
persons as non-persons. Here neoliberal thought meets the neoconservative
refashioning of a philosophy of history, which proclaims the inevitability
of redemptive developments (the arrival of freedom through the course of
history and so forth).
Signatures of supposedly bygone theologies inform a completely secular
and immanent social scientific way of thinking in both economics (neoliberal)

Here again the psychology of the serial killer illustrates the conformity of humans to the
indifference of machines as propounded by the so-called ‘pragmatics’ of the free market:
‘The type-profiling system devised in serial murder investigations posits the serial
killer as one of the ideal typical inhabitants of machine culture: the statistical person.
But it is the intimate experience of self-gerneralization – again, the at once alluring and
insupportable experience of a sort of hyper-generalization in typicality – that seems
to define the case-like-ness of the these cases. As one of the most influential popular
surveyors of the serial murder scene expresses it, the serial killer is a simulated person,
“a type of nonperson”. As the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas puts it, “a person was a blank”.
Or, as the serial killer Ted Bundy experienced such a statistical identity in typicality:
“Personalized stationary is one of the small but truly necessary luxuries of life” ’ (Seltzer,
Mark Serial Killers. Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, p. 41).
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 95.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 95.
190 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

and foreign relations (neoconservative). According to John Gray, the goals or

teleologies of both neoliberalism and neoconservativism repeat Christian as
well as Enlightenment narrative of a better future: ‘Modern Politics is a chapter
in the history of religion. […] It continued in neo-conservative theories that
claimed the world is converging on a single type of government and economic
system – universal democracy, or a global market.’31 In polemical spirit Gray
goes so far as to say that the utopian elements of neoliberal and neoconservative
pseudo-scientific certainties about the future depend on their apparent
opposite: ‘Neo-conservatives are noted for their disdain for Europe but one
of their achievements is to have injected a defunct European revolutionary
tradition into the heart of American political life.’32 Harvey has rejected ‘the
conservative political philosopher’ John Gray’s assessment of neoconservative
as well as neoliberal ideology as ‘a case of senseless pursuit of a false utopia’.33
Instead Harvey sees solid material interests at work in neoliberalism: the
strengthening or (in China’s case) the restoration of class power.
Reflecting on the economic drama unfolding in Seven Types of Ambiguity’s
plot about the privatization of health care, we may realize that the struggle
for economic and class superiority is always already part of an ideology into
which protagonists buy at their peril. The material interests of class are part
and parcel of ideological narratives by which they justify themselves. The
idea of inevitable progress and unpreventable increases in efficiency and
economic rationalization is of course a question of belief or sound scepticism.
Money too depends on some form of trust. We need to believe in its exchange
value in order to take it seriously. To further this belief or trust, neoliberalism
relies on the grand story of something better to come: an increase in surplus
value, ‘wealth creation’, the spreading of neoliberal freedoms and so forth.
Similarly, Joe Geraghty tries to convince his VIP client Donald Sheere of
the inevitable imperiousness of the health reform to any critical engagement.
Inevitability – the posited impossibility of an otherwise (see previous chapter) –
denotes a secular type of faith that silences doubt and critique. Doubt and
critique are part of the drama that Perlman’s novel performs. The dramatic
is not fixed, it allows for change brought about by critical engagement with
harsh aspects of socio-political life. Neoliberal ideologies label those who
question the inevitability of privatizations ‘ideological’, thus refusing to
acknowledge the ideology of their own position. Pragmatism, on the other
hand, denotes the inevitable triumph of market economic reasoning. The
opposition party thus has to give way to that which it opposes: ‘Ideologically’,
Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptical Religion and the Death of Utopia (New York: Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 1.
Gray, Black Mass, p. 33.
Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 152.
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 191

Joe explains, ‘the party has always held that medical care is not rightly a for-
profit industry, a state of affairs that managed care is designed to facilitate.
It is only recently that … well, how can I say it? Pragmatism has begun to
prevail over this view and in favor of managed care’.34 Market economic reason
thus denies its position as a point of view.
The view which the paintings in the mansion of the financial facilitator
(i.e. Donald Sheere) of US-style managed care opens up to describes however
the ruthless abuse of bodily vulnerability, which the touted pragmatics of
market economic reforms seeks to hide. One oil painting depicts a bear
‘being torn apart by five or so wolf-like dogs, with some seventeenth century-
looking men thrusting spears into the bear for good measure, all of it encased
in a thick baroque frame’.35 Another painting celebrates ‘the dismemberment
of a large furry mammal somewhere in Europe’.36 Donald Sheere adorns his
living space with artwork that assures us, him and his guests that violence
instantiates nothing else but normality. The paintings represent a reality that
is inevitable, unchanging, eternal or, in Plath’s words, immortal. Rather than
affirming the inevitability of the endless or eternal repetition of harm and
violence, Seven Types of Ambiguity encourages readers to see what it represents
from a different, non-replicating, ambiguous point of view. The paintings
depict the dismemberment of bodily vulnerability as common practice that
runs like a red thread throughout the ages – be it the seventeenth or the
twenty-first century – as well as throughout different geographical locations
(Europe and thus not only Australia). The serial machine-like perpetration of
violence seems to constitute the anthropological kernel of humanity. Human
bodies appear as timeless killing machines.37
The artwork displayed in the interiors of Sheere’s house seems to highlight
the potential for discovery yielded by processes of polyvalent readings that
Seven Types of Ambiguity evokes. The crucial difference between art as
mimetic surface and ornament (i.e. the paintings in Sheere’s possession)
and Perlman’s novel has to do with the affective space the latter opens up
into each character’s entanglement with other characters. This insight into
interiority reveals mutilation as self-mutilation. In contrast to the subject
matter depicted by the artwork as encountered in Sheere’s mansion, Seven
Types of Ambiguity describes not so much the killing of animals, but the
destruction and self-destruction of human life. The numerical indifference

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 124.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 111.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 111.
For a critical discussion of satirical depictions of the human body as a killing machine,
see Mack, Anthropology as Memory. Elias Canetti’s and Franz Baermann Steiner’s
Responses to the Shoah (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001), pp. 3–98.
192 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

to the vulnerability of bodily existence in fact renders some life superfluous

or valueless. The ill human body indeed figures as nothing else but a bear that
is being torn apart by wolves and seventeenth-century-looking men.
The application of the serial and the general to the medical assessment
of a hospital patient serves as a device of selection, which separates valuable
life from existence that should not be. The efficiency of neoliberal economics
thus subjects bodies who cannot afford privatized managed health care
to the indifferent and at the same time judgmental criteria of statistical
perfection. Only those who are either wealthy or healthy do not need to
question the validity of their existence. One may fall ill, but this only on
condition that one has accumulated as much capital to pay for the costs of
this calamity. Joe and Mitch thus desperately try to enable the introduction
of US-style managed care into Australian society in order to reach the
financial position that would render their lives safe and quasi-invulnerable.
Their long-term existence would then not be called into question by the
indifferent statistical guidelines that draw a line between what is affordable
and what is not.
Focusing on bodily as well as mental vulnerability, Seven Types of
Ambiguity reveals the mechanistic hostility to imperfection (imperfection
being another word for the unsettling multivalence of the ambiguous) as
the social organization of violence.38 Types of behaviour or medical states of
affairs, which do not live up to the predictable mechanism of programmed
numbers, require financial remuneration in order to be tolerated. What about
those who cannot afford to pay for ambiguity, or in other words, for cracks
in their bodily and mental constitution? Their lives then become non-livable.
Life has become precarious. It depends on public help. The privatization of
the public health-care system, however, enacts the abolition of support.
Perlman links this decline of a concern for the vulnerability of the other
to the larger context of twentieth-century history. This is why he uses Alex
Klima, a Central European character, for the role of articulating a critique
of neoliberal economics. What precisely is the background of Alex Klima?
He is a Czech-Jewish refugee and a psychiatrist. His family was a victim ‘of
the nightmares of twentieth-century Europe’.39 His parents ‘miraculously’40
survived the Holocaust. After the war, they returned to Prague – Alex’s
birthplace. As Jews, they were again vilified by the new regime: ‘Those most
at risk from the regime’s caprice were the intelligentsia, non-communists

See Michael Sandel’s Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 553.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 552.
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 193

leftists – seen as bourgeois class enemies – and the Jews.’41 Eventually in the
mid-1960s they were able to emigrate from Czechoslovakia to Australia.
Australia, as a place of refuge, does not offer a haven that would protect
Alex Klima from the nightmares associated with his Central European
background. Why does he so energetically fight the introduction of US-
style managed care into Australian society? In order to address this question
it is worth asking why he put so much effort into freeing Simon from his
confinement in prison. As he makes clear in his conversation with Anna, the
wife of the stockbroker Joe Geraghty, the refusal to help someone in a life-
threatening predicament, such as Simon faces through a prolonged prison
sentence, brings to the fore the dismal state of contemporary society.
After Anna refuses to help Simon in his court case, Alex replies: ‘So this
is where we are now – all of us separate people.’42 In his new novel The Street
Sweeper Perlman establishes an interconnection between memory, care
and a sense of social responsibility. The question of remembrance cannot
be separated from socio-political concerns. The remembrance of the other
establishes a sense of solidarity. The refusal to help the other grows out of a
denial of remembrance. It is this denial that causes isolation, separation and
ultimately aphasia. This state of separation marks the absence of an awareness
of the common good. Alex Klima vigorously fights the introduction of US-
style managed care because it is the symptom of both the complete neglect
of social interconnection and the refusal to remember past injustices
meted out to others. Briefly before committing suicide Alex Klima reflects
in his diary not only on the fact that an institution for the mentally ill was
allowed to fall prey to fire but also on how this event is being portrayed in a
newspaper clipping. The media makes government neglect responsible for
this accident. This depiction concurs with the characterization of market
economic mechanisms as inevitable: things happen, people die but there
is neither an intention nor a system behind these unfortunate happenings.
They are accidents due to the non-calculating nature that seems to describe
the workings of neglect.
Alex Klima, in contrast, detects behind the ‘inevitability’ of the neoliberal
market a system and an ideology that equally destroys literary ambiguity as
it hands over bodily vulnerability to the forces of decay: ‘It wasn’t neglect.
Governments have relinquished their responsibility for the provision of
health and welfare and education to the user. It is ‘user pays’, and so these
users paid.’43 This crucial excerpt from Alex’s diary sheds light on the

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 553.


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 494. Italics in the original


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 604.

194 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

conversation between Joe and Sid Graeme about the economic advantages
of US-style managed care, which has been discussed above. The wordplay
on pay has a significant bearing on an adequate understanding of the
idealization of the machine that drives the unacknowledged ideology of
neoliberal economic reform. Pay denotes the objective, statistical and thus
machine-like indifference to the vagaries of human vulnerability.
‘Payment’ is exactly the element that distinguishes life worth supporting
from that which is not. Those who cannot pay with anything external to
the value of their life have to pay with their lives. The seemingly detached
and numerical indifference of market economic ‘pragmatics’, which
is supposedly never personal but always business, turns out to be the
systematic perpetration of violence on a non-personal and thus serial scale.
The abrogation of responsibility in the face of human vulnerability constitutes
violence: ‘The condition of primary vulnerability, of being given over to the
touch of the other, even if there is no other there, and no support for our
lives, signifies a primary helplessness and need, one to which society must
attend.’44 According to Judith Butler, gender and race determine whether life
becomes classified as either worthy or worthless. In this way ‘certain lives
will be highly protected, and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be
sufficient to mobilize the forces of war’.45 Butler here discusses the hierarchy
of values attached to human life, as manifested in the public attention given to
Western casualties of war as opposed to the silencing of death and suffering
on the part of the Afghan and Iraqi populations.
Perlman’s novel describes how such distinction between the valuable and
the valueless shapes the internal societal constitution of the developed world
and not only (but of course also) the latter’s overbearing domination over
developing countries. The ideology of neoliberal economic reason demands
the hierarchical division between those who can afford bodily vulnerability
and those who cannot. Disease denotes the lack of ease that accompanies the
smooth cashing in of a cheque that does not bounce back. Seven Types of
Ambiguity traces the ways in which economic rationality’s destruction of
society in the name of individual freedom paves the way for the systematic
abolition of singularity.
The novel’s thematic focus on the seemingly mutually exclusive freedom
of the market and on the confinement of the prison brings to the fore the
illusions of free markets. Harcourt has recently analysed the deception
‘of this dominant rationality that enables us to look at a situation and see

Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004),

pp. 31–32.
Butler, Precarious Life, p. 32.
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 195

order but not the web of regulatory threads that beget and maintain that
order’.46 This illusory rationality of ‘free efficiency’ has also ‘enabled the
growth of the penal sphere by naturalizing and legitimating government
intervention in criminal matters’.47 Perlman’s novel depicts a society in which
everyone has to function like programmed numbers. Everyone has to keep
winning. Winning here means the endless accumulation of wealth, which
alone would ensure survival facing the odds of the body’s vulnerability (i.e.
illness). Those who fail in doing so have lost their numerical predictability
and homogeneity. They are damaged goods: ready for incarceration in either
prisons or psychiatric places of confinement. These are the losers. Winning
represents the unambiguous. As will be discussed in the concluding section,
literature emerges as the critique of this idealized lack of ambiguity.

The loss of ambiguity: Literature as dogma

Nothing, it seems, avoids being drawn into the vortex of the non-ambiguous.
SimonHeywood combines his passion for literature with the idealization of
his ex-girl friend Anna Geraghty. He radically separates the sphere of the
literary from the real, allocating ambiguity to the one and the certainty of
one-dimensional meaning to the other. He denies that fiction cannot be
judged as either true or false, because, from his point of view, literature does
not have any relation to everyday life. To this proposition, his psychiatrist
and friend Alex Klima counters: ‘After all, fiction is usually anchored to at
least elements of reality to give it verisimilitude. And insofar as these real
elements are concerned, surely their representation can be said to be true or
false even if the work of fiction as a whole can’t be said to be true or false?’48
Provoked by Alex’s questioning of literature’s truth value, Simon descends
into a furious rage at postmodernism and deconstruction.
What exactly connects this anger at deconstruction with the radical
separation between literary ambiguity and the posited certainty of texts that
are part and parcel of everyday life? Simon inveighs against the postmodernist
attempt to accord to texts that are bound up with quotidian usage a similar
degree of ambiguity as has traditionally been reserved for works of poetry.
This non-hierarchical approach distinguishes Derrida’s deconstruction from
William Empson’s practical criticism as exemplified in his groundbreaking
book Seven Types of Ambiguity. Perlman’s novel adopts Empson’s title in

Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets, p. 241.


Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets, p. 241.


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 380.

196 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

ironically (Empson after all reappears as Simon Heywood’s dog). It is a

work of fiction and not an analytic account of literary criticism. As fiction,
however, it depicts, in admittedly a highly contrived and constructed manner,
aspects of contemporary Australian society. The sense of multivalence it
generates as a narrative work – through a focus on both the interiority and
the interconnectedness of its protagonists – makes the critical reader aware
of the repressed ambiguity of everyday life.
Simon Heywood, on the other hand, condemns deconstruction for
the seriousness it accords to the multidimensionality of issues connected
to the quotidian. Empson, he maintains, ‘was only talking about poetic
language’.49 Derrida and the deconstructionists differ: ‘Empson merely
suggested that what separates much of the best poetry from the rest is the
latent ambiguity within it. He was only talking about poetic language. He
didn’t claim that literature, let alone all texts, were riddled with ambiguity.
For Christ’s sake, don’t ever confuse Empson with Derrida.’50 Alex Klima
does precisely this: he does not radically separate between poetry’s
ambiguity and the complexity of social as well as private life. In this way,
he questions the common assumption that devalues the social validity of
literature by demoting it as escapist and thus as a form of entertainment
that cannot impact agency and self-reflection in everyday life: ‘Not all
novels are purely escapist, to be read only for entertainment. Fiction, at
least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise
never have encountered. It can provide us with insights we could never
have gained elsewhere.’51 Rather than offering an easy escape from reality,
literature confronts us with oblique, suppressed or repressed truths that are
pertinent to problem solving in society at large.
Simon, who claims that lived experience lacks poetry’s ambiguity,
reserves change and complexity exclusively for the realm of the poetic. This
is why his aestheticism uncannily mirrors the automated response system
favoured by the ideology of the market economy. Herein resides the irony of
the all too passionate onslaught he wages against what he labels the ‘army of
ideological storm-troopers’.52 The ideology he projects onto deconstruction
might very well be his own. His radical separation between the poetic and the
quotidian certainly backs up market economic claims apropos the pragmatic
inefficiency of a literary and intellectual culture of critique.
As a result of his division between the fluid realm of poetry and the static
world of embodied social interaction, Simon does not realize how he himself
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 381.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 381.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 14.
Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 383.
Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 197

falls prey to a dogmatic reading of poetry. He transfers the theme of love’s

constancy, which Shakespeare’s ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’
problematizes rather than simply confirms, to his idealization of Anna.
Deaf to Alex’s characterization of her as changeable and ambiguous, Simon
reaffirms her ‘essential constancy’.53 In this context Alex as friend as well as
psychiatrist confronts Simon with the suppressed and repressed truth of his
infatuation. This is exactly what distinguishes literature’s critical potential
from the consumerism of capitalism, in which perceiving images and texts
means escaping from reality. Alex tries to make Simon aware of the quasi-
religious, i.e., dogmatic character that makes up his relationship with Anna:

You hold on to this memory of her [i.e. Anna] the way a religious person
holds on to his faith. There’s no test for a theist that can displace his faith
in God. If God fails there must be something wrong with the test or else
with the theist’s interpretation of the results. It is the same with a political
ideologue too, a communist or an evangelical free marketer. It’s not ever
possible to displace an article of faith.54

Literature disorders the order of faith, be that quasi-unshakable belief

in a religious creed or in a political-economic way of governing society.
Theism, communism, free market capitalism and neoconservatism do not
allow for ambiguity in everyday life. They do so precisely because awareness
of the ambiguous could question the societal appeal of a static societal
order, based on the intransigence of class interests. Epistemological stasis
shapes the self-recognition of the quotidian, which has been placed on a
Procrustean bed where it has to conform to the kernel of a given dogma.
Belief thus becomes unquestionable not because it poses as faith as such
but because it purports to represent reality. Anything that impedes this
dogmatic construction of the real has to be bracketed off as ideological. In
this way ideology proclaims itself as ‘realistic’ or, as in the case of neoliberal
market economy, ‘inevitable’.
Simon’s radical separation between the literary and embodied life,
ironically, affects the nature of his relationship with those he loves. He does not
realize that his dogmatic approach to literature prevents him from noticing
the complex, changeable and ambiguous character of his ex-girlfriend
Anna. In the same way, he refuses to recognize how his literary orthodoxy
contributed to the break-up of their relationship. Anna increasingly realizes
the loss of reality that accompanies Simon’s aestheticism:

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 364.


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 365.

198 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Here was Simon, ever the champion of skepticism and independent

critical thinking free of the tyranny of intellectual fashion, and for
around two and a half year’s I had been agreeing, accepting every word
of his gospel. And there lay my problem. It was a gospel, the gospel
according to St. Simon. He had created his own orthodoxy.55

The orthodoxy of Simon’s private religion of literature reflects the ideology

of the free market, because both revolve around a hierarchical and
discriminatory structure. He clearly perceives this hierarchy in the life of his
father: ‘Risibly, my father’s insistence on the distinction between these people
and us has been the closest thing he had ever had to a calling, to a religion.’56
Yet Simon refuses to recognize that he himself employs literary culture as
a device of selection, marking the worth of his life off from ‘these people’,
which ironically include his father. The father confronts his son with this
state of affairs. ‘You read poetry’, he angrily avers, ‘and looked down on the
rest of the world, on your bothers and on me, and now look at you’.57 Here
the father reaffirms his triumph over the son, while at the same accusing the
latter of having attempted to do the same. The phrase ‘and now look at you’
refers to Simon’s position in a high-security prison. The son set out to beat
his father at his own game but he miserably failed. Literature did not secure
for him the social distinction his father aimed to achieve through the quasi-
religious assembly of consumerist status symbols.
The novel ends, however, with Simon Heywood’s rehabilitation into
mainstream society and with his prospect of embarking upon a respectable
academic career. The true victim of hostility towards ambiguity in all aspects
of social and cultural life is someone else. It turns out to be Alex Klima who
failed to prevent the introduction of US-style managed health care into
Australian society. His persistent and focused help saved Simon from being
sentenced to prolonged imprisonment for his kidnapping of Anna’s 6-year-
old son Sam. He failed, however, on another account. Alex does not convince
Simon of the equal respect for ambiguity in literature as well as in embodied
social life. In this way Simon does not recognize the need for help as regards
Alex who has saved him from personal disintegration that a prolonged
prison sentence would surely have brought about. At this point Alex despairs
at the thought of the futility that characterize his well-meant attempts at
enlightening society about the self-destruction implicit in the undertaking to
live in contempt of ambiguity:

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 454.


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 374.


Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 370.

Towards a Numerical Ambiguity 199

The Enlightenment is over. […] Fundamentalism, be it religious or of

the market variety, is everywhere and everywhere there is a reaction to
complexity, an attempt to ignore the contradictions and conundrums
of our existence. People crave the simplicity of easily assimilable black
and white paradigms and any blurring, any ambiguity, is viewed with

Simon’s denial of ambiguity within embodied social life and his concomitant
literary orthodoxy seems to testify to the omnipresence of fundamentalism
that permeates all kinds of hostility to the complex and thus the ambiguous.
Adorno’s dictum about the impossibility of the good life within the false
emerges as intrinsically bound up with the fate of literature in the twenty-
first century, as depicted in Perlman’s novel.59 Seven Types of Ambiguity
narrates how the intolerance towards ambiguity, towards that which is not
straightforward but requires contextualization – i.e. putting one’s self into
someone else’s skin – ruins not just personal relationships and the seemingly
private appreciation of literature. As the discussion of this chapter has shown,
it also sheds light on how society’s self-absorption with fundamentalism
marks the point of its disintegration into isolated selves that have become
utterly hostile to helping each other and themselves.

Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 603.


See Adorno’s Negative Dialektik/ Jargon der Eigentlichkeit (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche


Buchgesellschaft, 1998), p. 359.


Conclusion: From Numbers to the

Individual – A New Ethics of Subjectivity

Much of the discussion in this book has been about medicine and economics.
Medicine partakes of the life sciences (biomedicine and biochemistry) and
the discipline of economics belongs to the social sciences. Part of the aims of
this book has been to question the often assumed of irrationality of literature
and culture. The concluding chapter focuses on ethics in the post Holocaust
in order to critique the dismissal of what we are reluctant to contemplate:
the unsavoury aspects of our lives that we tend to isolate and marginalize
as ‘irrational’ or non-numerical. The first section analyses two recent novels
about the Holocaust in order to foreground the scientific, social and cultural
validity of memory in our time; a time that seems to be premised on the quick
drift of algorisms, amnesia, panic and various forms of societal separation
and disconnection (such as zoning).1
The social sciences and the life sciences meet in the late Derrida’s
application of the medical term ‘autoimmunity’ to the body politic in times
of terrorism and the so-called ‘war on terror’. Strikingly the medical notion of
immunity derives from a legal-political or social scientific context. As Arthur
S. Silverstein has shown, ‘the Latin words immunitas and immunis have their
origin in the legal concept of exemption’.2
One’s body’s immunity exempts one from catching a disease.
Autoimmunity, however, denotes not the invasion of a virus – against which
the immune system turns – but the body turning against itself. Here the
immune system attacks its own as if it were an invader coming from outside.
In autoimmune reactions defence has become suicidal – the self engages in
internal warfare.
This chapter extends the discussion about remapping the mental
perceptions of self and society, of cultural particularity and scientific
standards, of borders and the crossing of borders, of our shared mortality and
divisive hierarchies, of individuality and social interconnection – themes and
topics that have been subtending the entirety of this book. The first section

For a detailed discussion of the current increase in social segregations and the
ordinariness of crises in contemporary society see Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
Silverstein, A History of Immunology (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1989), p. 1.
202 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

will briefly discuss two recent novels about war, genocide, racism and violence
in the twentieth century: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones and Perlman’s
The Street Sweeper. These two novels could not be more different from each
other. The narrator of Perlman’s Street Sweeper writes in a compassionate and
intensely emotional tone, whereas Littell has a gay SS officer narrate the most
disturbing and offensive reality of the Nazi genocide in a detached and cold or
camera-like manner. In quite different ways both novels present the equality
of our shared vulnerability in the face of pseudo-scientific constructions of
racial divides, nationals borders, the perpetuation of economic inequalities
and the violence of an ethical system that violates ethics when it silences or
annihilates individual life forms.
In the previous chapter we have seen how Perlman’s Seven Types of
Ambiguity depicts a global society entrapped by the homogeneity of an
economic paradigm, which makes individuals chose their self-destruction.
Based on a reading of Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, Adriana
Cavarero has recently shown how the death of the individual is the purpose
of horrendous forms of terror. Horror ends in death, but its ultimate aim
is to eradicate the possibility of both at the same time, the singular and
the plural: ‘What is at stake is not the end of a human life but the human
condition itself, as incarnated in the singularity of the vulnerable body.’3 The
singularity as well as the plurality of our shared vulnerability has rarely been
the concern of science, the social sciences and philosophy. Literature and the
arts, in contrast, operate through the singular usage of common or shared
material, concepts, images and notions. Their idiosyncrasies foreground our
vulnerability in different ways (some will be discussed in the chapter).
This chapter discusses Benjamin’s hope for as well as Sebald’s and Derrida’s
despair about the fate of the singular within the economic and military
fortifications of capitalist modernity. This introductory section discusses
how after postmodernism we may come to realize literature’s and art’s
promise to fulfil Benjamin’s hope for the hopeless. Through both an affective
(Perlman) and coldly removed (Littell) encounter with disturbing subjects
and subject matters we may come to encounter an ethics that has so far been
marginalized in the now-predominant philosophical ethics shaped as it is
by the ‘deontological, anaemically post-Kantian sense of duty, law, obligation
and responsibility’.4 In this context Terry Eagleton has recently compared
post-Kantian de-ontological ethics with what he sees as the virtue ethics of

Cavarero, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, trans. William McCuaig (New


York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 8.

Eagleton, The Event of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 59.
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 203

Like virtue ethics, the object of moral judgment in a poem or novel is

not an isolated act or set of propositions but the quality of a form of life.
The most effective kind of moral inquiry, from Aristotle to Marx, asks
how human beings are to flourish and find fulfillment, and under what
practical conditions this would be possible. It is within this framework
that judgments of individual actions or propositions play their part.
Literary works represent a kind of praxis or knowledge-in-action, and
are similar in this way to the ancient conception of virtue. They are forms
of moral knowledge, but in a practical rather than theoretical sense.5

Eagleton not only takes issue with the emphasis on context-independent

norms in post-Kantian philosophical ethics but also criticizes philosophers
of literature for their demotion of form. He rightly berates Peter Lamarque,
Stein Haugom Olsen, David Novitz and Richard Gale for their hostility to
literature’s literary form, its artistic sophistication. Eagleton points out that
literature’s formal qualities bring about its qualitative moral texture and
vision: ‘A work’s moral outlook, in short, may be as much a question of form
as of content – a parallel between plots, for example, a way of handling a
storyline or a two-dimensional mode of depicting character.’6 Literature’s
ethics is certainly closer to Alasdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics than it is to
post-Kantian philosophical ethics of duty.
However, if literature turns for us into an ethical laboratory where
we can practice and review various forms of virtue, we risk becoming
reductive. Eagleton attempts to avoid reducing literature to only one of its
rich characteristics. That is why he criticizes philosophers of literature for
ignoring issues of form. He goes on to accuse literary theorists for being
not only reductive in method but also negative in content. Eagleton argues
that structuralism, response theory, Russian formalism, hermeneutics
and deconstruction only allow for ‘a largely negative function for literary
studies, involving as it does a criticism of the actual rather than an image
of the possible’.7 This focus on the subversive or negative aspect of mainly
continental theories about literature may itself be tested as to whether it
reduces intellectual critique to being merely dissenting.
Avoiding the reductive tendency either to stress literature’s negative
function of critique or a similar narrowing down to its ideologically affirmative
potential – which Said has argued Austen and the whole of eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century English literature practiced supporting (according to

Eagleton, The Event of Literature, p. 64.
Eagleton, The Event of Literature, p. 65.
Eagleton, The Event of Literature, p. 104.
204 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Said) colonialism8 – this book has established a new form of ethics, which is
at the same time an aesthetics. Implicitly criticizing Said’s view of literature/
culture as a consolidator of empire, this book has highlighted a different
aspect of literature and cultural inquiry: one that helps us change rather than
consolidate harmful practices within politics, religion, medicine and society
at large. Here literature and cultural inquiry perform an ethics of resilience,
which resists the repetition and thus consolidation of harmful practices.
Literature and cultural inquiry as a whole has the potential to intervene in
the violence and denigration of the past and the present. Broadly understood,
literature intervenes in and interferes with the status quo. Being neither single-
mindedly negative nor single-mindedly affirmative (supporting colonialism
and other forms of exploitation and discrimination), literature does not so
much represent and consolidate past and current harmful practices, but
instead it scoops out the mental space in which we can rethink what it means
to be human and to live in our world.
As has been intimated above resilience here does not denote the
survival of the fittest. Instead, my notion of resilience goes back to Spinoza’s
conatus – a term that denotes the common nature of every living form to
persist and enhance its being. In this Spinozan understanding of resilience
aesthetics is already partaking of ethics. It is an inclusive ethics of aesthetics,
because every living form is intrinsically valuable and thus equally beautiful
or perfect. Resilience describes the attempt to counter the continual
denigration, demotion or, worse still, destruction of human beings who do
not fit into predetermined norms or quasi-scientific, quasi-religious or other
ideological and economic rubrics, categories and standards. Being resilient
is to resist the divisive categorization of beauty and ugliness, perfection and
Here literature clearly has a negative function – critiquing and disrupting
stigmatization of minorities and other forms of violent social practice – but
it also affirms singular as well as plural forms of politics, technology, law
and medicine, which enhance our understanding of our world’s diversity.
Violence attacks both singularity and plurality. A literary work like Littell’s
novel The Kindly Ones alerts us to the ethical and, at the same, aesthetic
foundation of human diversity.
In order to kill we have to forget about our shared vulnerability and our
shared mortality. Our interdependency resides in our collective state of
precariousness. As Judith Butler has recently put it, ‘Of course, it is possible,
even actual, to try to allocate death to others and reserve life for oneself, but
that is to fail to understand that the one is bound to the life of the other, and

See Said’s, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994).

Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 205

that basic social obligations emerge from this most basic social condition.’9
She goes on to clarify that even though these conditions and obligations are
‘basic’, they have not been included into normative ethics: ‘Such apprehension
takes place at the limits of established norms of recognition, especially when
those norms are in the service of war waging.’10 A good way to forget about our
precarious physical, as well as mental, condition is to have a single-minded
focus on categories, rubrics, statistics and standards. Max Aue – the narrator
of Littell’s The Kindly Ones – records a conversation between the chief of the
Gestapo Heinrich Müller and Eichmann, the organizer of the ‘Final Solution
of the Jewish Question’, in which Müller enthuses about mass murder via

Eliminating the Jews but leaving the Poles makes no sense. And here too
in Germany. We’ve already begun but we have to follow it through to the
end. We also need an Endlösung der Sozialfrage, a ‘Final Solution of the
Social Question.’ There are far too many criminals, asocials, vagabonds,
Gypsies, alcoholics, prostitutes, homosexuals. We have to think about
people with tuberculosis, who contaminate healthy people. About the
heart patients, who pass on defective blood and cost a fortune in medical
care: them at least we can sterilize. We have to take care of all of them,
category by category.11

The reduction of the human into a category removes humanity from being
singularly alive. Having already been turned into a dead object – i.e. a
category – renders the act of killing tautological, a foregone conclusion.
Or so it seems. Through the reading of a novel like Littell’s The Kindly
Ones we palpably experience and mentally discover that this is not the case.
The most strenuous passages in Littell’s novel highlight how being singularly
alive constitutes a not to be eradicated feature of the whole of mankind. How
does the novel bring about this experience of discovery? By confronting us
with a reality that we would otherwise shirk to reflect upon: the perspective
of the coldly reflective mass murderer who is also a hidden outsider (being
covertly homosexual). Susan Rubin Suleiman has analysed the literary as well
as ethical innovation of Littell’s novel as follows:

Littell, in making his SS narrator into a reliable historical witness – that

is, one who functions as a witness informed by retrospective historical

Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010), p. xxx.

Butler, Frames of War.


Littell, The Kindly Ones, trans. Charlotte Mandell(London: Chatto & Windus, 2009), p. 768.
206 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

knowledge – accomplishes something completely new. For here the

historical truth – which includes not only the facts but also an attempt
to grapple with their ethical and psychological implication – comes out
of the mouth of one who was part of the very system responsible for the
horrors he is recounting, a system whose functioning he describes in
detail. This procedure which lacks plausibility historically, is extremely
effective in fiction.12

According Suleiman it is effective in fiction because it produces a degree of

‘derealization’. She argues that Littell’s novel is a postmodern narrative that
alerts us to its constructed rather than realist nature. Yet she also makes the
pertinent point that literature provides realistic details that are absent in the
more general and archival discourse of the historian: ‘A novel can allow itself,
must allow itself, such detail if it is describing what happened at Babi Yar,
where more than thirty-thousand Jews were murdered in two days – and it
is all the more striking when these details are recounted in the first person,
by one of the murderers.’13 As Eagleton has pointed out fiction in general –
and not only Littell’s and postmodern fiction – involves keeping reality at a
remove: ‘the paradox of fiction is that it refers to reality in the act of referring
to itself ’.14 I would argue that rather than making the Nazi genocide less
real, literature – through its detailed evocation of historical circumstances –
confronts us with a reality we would otherwise ignore or want to forget. The
hyperreality of Littell’s novel is of course not that of nineteenth-century
realism, but it is certainly removed from the playful accounts of fantasy
and bricolage that characterize much of postmodern theory. Rather than
indulging in mental games that are socially inconsequential, Littell’s novel
confronts us with the stark reality of what happens when real human beings
are reduced to non-human categories and rubrics.
The consequences of such reduction come graphically to the fore when
the narrator of the novel participates in the actual killing of Jews. He and
his fellow perpetrators are enraged by the fact of the shared humanity of the

If they suffered, as I had suffered during the Great Action (i.e. the mass
killings at Babi Yar), it wasn’t just because of the smells and the sight of

Suleiman, ‘When the Perpetrator becomes a Reliable Witness of the Holocaust: On
Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillantes’, New German Critique (Winter, 2009), pp. 1–19 (pp.
Suleiman, ‘When the Perpetrator Becomes a Reliable Witness of the Holocaust: On
Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillantes’, p. 10.
Eagleton, The Event of Literature, p. 138.
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 207

blood, but because of the terror and the moral suffering of the people
they shot; in the same way, their victims often suffered more from the
suffering and death, before their eyes, of those they loved, wives, parents,
beloved children, than from their own deaths, which came to them in
the end like a deliverance. In many cases, I said to myself, what I had
taken for gratuitous sadism, the astonishing brutality with which some
men treated the condemned before executing them, was nothing but
a consequence of the monstrous pity they felt and which, incapable
of expressing itself otherwise, turned into rage, but an impotent rage,
without object, and which thus almost inevitably had to turn against
those who originally provoked it. If the terrible massacres of the East
prove one thing, paradoxically, it is the awful, inalterable solidarity of
humanity. As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none
of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife,
his sister, or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own
children in front of him in the pit.15

In this important quote the SS narrator calls the recognition of shared

vulnerability ‘awful and unalterable’. For the perpetrators of the Nazi
genocide it is awful because it violates their ideology: that only certain
‘healthy racial groups’ are human whereas others (Jews above all) do not
belong to humanity but are stillborn as vermin or bacteria. Littell’s novel
brings us face to face with a reality that confounds categories of race and
health. Through this paradoxical account of the violent and ‘monstrous pity’
of the perpetrators, we experience human and social interconnection at the
point where it is most starkly violated and ceases to exist (in mass murder
and the Nazi genocide).
As the discussion in the previous chapter has shown, Perlman’s Seven
Types of Ambiguity creates a space for social interconnections that has
come increasingly under threat in an economic system that privatizes
what has once been public – education, health, basic resources like
water and security (privatizing police and military services as has been
done in Iraq). In his new novel The Street Sweeper, Perlman discovers
how social interconnections and responsibilities are premised on acts of
remembrance. The novel tells narratives about different people in different
locations and times. Nothing seems to connect these different particular
individuals, geographies and times. The work of remembrances establishes
connections between what, on the surface, seems to be disconnected and

Littell, The Kindly Ones, p. 147.

208 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Perlman’s The Street Sweeper establishes the encounter between an African

American ex-convict (who has been wrongly imprisoned) and a Holocaust
survivor. William Lamont, taking part in a trial scheme for newly released jail
inmates and working on probation in a New York cancer treatment centre,
befriends the patient Henryk Mandelbrot (the character is based on the historical
Henryk Mandelbaum), who urges him to remember his story of survival
as a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. The Sonderkommando
was forced to carry and burn the millions of corpses of the Nazi genocide.
Mandelbrot’s account is truly upsetting and disturbing. Perlman’s novel shows
how the remembrance of such horrific crimes committed in the early 1940s are
of vital importance for social well-being here and now.
Some readers might ask why this may be so. The act of listening and
remembering bridges the divide between oneself and others. As such, it
is constitutive of social interconnection. Perlman illustrates this through
a twist in one of the plots that run through and across each other in The
Street Sweeper. Before he dies of cancer, Mandelbrot insists on giving Lamont
his candelabra as a sign of remembering the story of his survival in the
Nazi genocide. His family brought it to him in hospital. Lamont takes the
candelabra home. After the death of Henryk Mandelbrot, the family accuses
the hospital of theft. The hospital’s Human Resources department calls on
Lamont, who is ready to admit that he took the candelabra as a gift of the
deceased. As a result of his supposed theft Lamont loses his job. Lamont does
not give up, however. He tries to speak with the African American oncologist
Dr Washington, who treated Mandelbrot. Lamont now asks Dr Washington a
question that Mandelbrot has often asked Lamont: ‘“Do you remember?” The
question hung frozen in the air.’16 Hanging in the air describes the moment
before something is going to change. ‘“I think I do,” she [i.e. Dr Washington]
said, now looking him into the eye. “But even if I do what difference does
it make?”’17 Lamont responds that she could act as witness and testify to
Human Resources about his friendship with Henryk Mandelbrot.
The act of remembering and witnessing is one of direct and practical
social support as the novel here illustrates. Another meeting follows in the
Human Resources department of the hospital. At this meeting Lamont gives
a detailed account of Mandelbrot’s story of his work in Auschwitz:

He told how human beings with memories, affections, ambitions,

relationships, opinions, values and accomplishments all sunk into a
tangled phalanx of human beings a metre deep covered in their own

Perlman, The Street Sweeper (London: Faber and Faber), p. 515.


Perlman, The Street Sweeper.

Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 209

fluids, all of them gasping, their bodies jerking, their faces distorted by
their agony till they were no more. Williams Lamont left nothing out.18

Lamont tells the story of the well-calculated and efficient machinery of the
Nazi genocide in a place – Human Resources – which puts a premium on
The Nazis took one of the prime achievements of the industrial
revolution  – the factory – as a model for the smooth workings of what is
undoubtedly monstrous and horrific: ‘It worked like a factory, smooth like
a factory, a factory that turned living people into corpses’,19 Mandelbrot
tells Lamont earlier in the novel. Lamont is perhaps the only person who is
willing to listen to and remember what Mandelbrot has to say. Mandelbrot
is isolated in his own family. ‘And don’t ever have grandchildren’, he advises
Lamont, ‘your death will only interrupt them. Their whole life is a party.
They don’t listen to me when I’m alive. They understand suffering like they
understand … like … like they understand Chinese.’20 This refusal to engage
with past as well as present suffering exacerbates hurt and pain.
The family and the familiar become strange and estranged and who is
a stranger like Lamont turns into friend. The account of literature that has
been presented in this book combines negativity – which Eagleton and the
Anglo-Saxon tradition of common sense associate with the work of intellectual
critique – and the affirmation of the singular and at the same time diverse.
From this perspective, literature in Russian Formalist and Frankfurt
School manner defamiliarizes the familiar but the act of defamiliarization
is only a first step towards the establishment of a new relationship with the
world. The second step is the foundation of new friendships: Mandelbrot’s
friendship with Lamont of which the gift of his candelabra is a symbol.
What Eagleton calls literature’s ‘negative function’ (see discussion above)
and berates literary theory for having as its obsession or fetish, could be
called a border crossing act, which is not self-sufficient but dependent upon
the constructive work of establishing new connections between what we
would otherwise be led to perceive as irreconcilably opposed. As a result,
the homely meets the strange, the past meets the present and borders turn
The work of memory dissolves borders between the present and the
past, between stranger and friend, between victim and survivor. We may
mistakenly call autoimmunity the turning porous of what has been separate.
Autoimmune reactions are, however, not concerned with a relationship to the

Perlman, The Street Sweeper, p. 539.


Perlman, The Street Sweeper, p. 377.


Perlman, The Street Sweeper, p. 426.

210 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

outside. Here borders between inner and outer are certainly not crossed. On
the contrary, the self turns inward against itself without being provoked into
doing so by an outside force. The antidote to the self-destruction of immunity
in autoimmune processes is the work of memory, because memory establishes
salutary forms of bonding between self and society, between the internal and
the external. Autoimmunity, however, instantiates paranoia in the extreme:
everyone has become an enemy, even the immune system itself, which thus
turns against itself. As W. J. T. Mitchell has recently put it:

The most dangerous threat to the immune system, then, is amnesia, the
forgetting of what it has learned: forgetting for instance, that today’s
terrorists (al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden) were yesterday’s allies, trained as
antibodies against Soviet military power in Afghanistan; forgetting, even
more dangerously, that yesterday’s terrorists are often tomorrow’s heroes
of national liberation, and that moral absolutes are not just useless, but
positively dangerous in any counterterrorist strategy.21

In a different but related context, Perlman’s The Street Sweeper describes

the role of memory and remembrance for the praxis of social well-being in
the present. Towards the end of the novel, Perlman calls upon neurological
research to substantiate its central theme – that of memory’s actuality and
socio-political urgency: ‘What is memory? It is the storage, the retention and
the recall of the constituents, gross and nuanced, of information. How is it
called upon?’22 Retention depends on recall, on activity in the here and now.
It requires energy and effort similar to that which goes into the production of
electric light or the performance of music:

A certain protein in the brain, an enzyme, acts upon one neuron after
another in rapid sequence as if to light them up in such a way as to paint
a picture or spell a word, as if to cause an arpeggio of cellular stores
of data to suddenly ring out some long stored melody in your mind
and you remember her face, her voice, her laugh, the way she moved,
something she said, her views, her tastes, until you remember the way
her eyes widened with the pre-rational wonder of a child when watching
a wildlife documentary or the way they move slowly downwards when
her frustration with someone she loves starts to leak sympathy. When
she is gone, that cascade of cellular data is all you have. Each neuron

Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 2011), p. 51.

Perlman, The Street Sweeper, p. 529.
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 211

holds some pixel, some datum, and if even one is lost, the sequence is
interrupted. Then you have started to forget.23

Strikingly in a novel concerned with disturbing political and historical

topics – the Holocaust and African American history – this quote centres
on recalling the memory of an individual. It does so in order to highlight
how the practice of remembrance is vital for the inter-subjectivity of family
and private life. This quote refers back to William Lamont remembering
and retelling what Henryk Mandelbrot had told him about the murder
of European Jews in the Nazi genocide. Lamont leaves ‘nothing out’. As
the quotation above makes clear, Lamont’s act or remembrance depends
on the frequent activation of neurons without which memory could
not function. Here the neurological and the socio-cultural truly meet.
One cannot work without the other. For there to be neurological energy,
we require the affective as well as intellectual commitment to remember
someone or something else.
The engagement with and the remembrance of someone who is different
from oneself may be an undertaking fraught with risk. Perlman’s The Street
Sweeper makes a strong case for courting this risk. As he points out in the
‘the author’s note’:

In the writing of this book I was conscious of the possibility of causing

offence by employing the idioms of cultures other than my own. It is
my hope that no offence has been caused. On reflection, I think this
possibility, in a general sense, is a risk more or less inherent in writing
about anyone other than oneself.24

By establishing relationships with others, literature stretches the acceptance

level of our nervous system. It is our nervous system rather than our immune
system that is currently in dire need of diagnosis and therapy. We live in
an age of panic, governed by fear of private and national bankruptcies and
the associated collapse of our economic system. This panic about medical –
obesity, depression and global epidemics – social, economic, ecological and
other forms of collapse has been figuratively and literally prefigured in the
collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.
The media does not tire of re-airing images of such collapse. As Mitchell has
argued, terror works via such images that trigger panic, debilitating not our
immune but our nervous system:

Perlman, The Street Sweeper, p. 529.


Perlman, The Street Sweeper, p. 545.

212 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

In short, the attack was not immediately on the immune system, but on
the nervous system. And it was carried out by a fabricated, produced
image, an ‘impression’ or ‘spectacle’ staged for the world’s cameras by
the terrorists, exploited by a political fraction to declare an indefinite
state of emergency, of exemption – that is, of immunity – from all the
normal niceties of civil liberties and international law, not to mention,
from all the legitimate, well-established institutions of its own immune
and nervous systems, in the form of its own intelligence services,
diplomatic and military experts, and the work of scholars who actually
know something about the nature of the threat.25

An attack on the public’s nervous system produces nervousness and panic

about those who attack and who are figuratively or metaphorically associated
with the attackers (Middle Easterners, Arabs, Saddam Hussein, Muslims
and so forth). Mitchell sees in the production of panic the causes of socio-
political autoimmunity: ‘It is the “nervousness” of the nervous system, then,
that is producing the ‘autoimmunity’ of the immune system.’26 Literature
works against such conflation of the other with paranoid hallucination of
evil and destruction. It does so by crossing boundaries between the self and
the other by making us experience our shared vulnerability while safely
residing at a remove from reality – a position where we can take such panic-
reducing risks that Perlman refers to at the end of his ‘author’s note’ to The
Street Sweeper. To help alleviate present harm, injustice and violence we have
to call upon literature’s energy through which we can recall the sufferings
and experiences of others. One of the provocative points of Perlman’s novel
is to establish a parallel between the African American experience and
that of European Jews. Different geographies, different times and different
people are interconnected rather than opposed with each other. The recall of
memory establishes these interconnections in the present.

Capitalism’s abolition of time in space

or memory’s reason d’être:
Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald

The narrator of Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for Child Unborn is a Holocaust

survivor who – similar to Henryk Mandelbrot – insists on contemporary
society’s obligation to not only recall but also explain the horrific and

Mitchell, Cloning Terror, p. 52.


Mitchell, Cloning Terror, p. 52.

Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 213

yet smooth working operations of the Holocaust. The past is never only

[…] the only facts that cannot be explained are those that don’t or didn’t
exist. However, I most likely continued my train of thought, Auschwitz
did exist, or, rather, does exist, and can, therefore, be explained; what
could not be explained is that no Auschwitz ever existed, that is to say,
one can’t find an explanation for the possibility that Auschwitz didn’t
exist, hadn’t occurred, that the state of facts labeled Auschwitz hadn’t
been the materialization of a Weltgeist […].27

With these words the narrator of Kertész’s Kaddish for a Child not Born reflects
on the disturbing historical and metaphysical affiliation between Auschwitz
and Hegel’s philosophy of history. Interpreting Hegel’s famous equation of
the real/historical and the rational, the narrative voice of Kertész’s Kaddish
for a Child Not Born puts the Nazi genocide squarely within the context of the
historical realization of Hegel’s World Spirit.
In a related but different manner, W. G. Sebald’s genre-crossing writings
reflect upon the disconcerting concordances between the rationality of
modernity and the modern phenomena of colonialism and genocide. Given
the bleak subject matter, Eagleton has recently wondered as to why Sebald
enjoys such critical and popular acclaim: ‘W. G. Sebald is one of the most
stunningly accomplished of all English-language writers (sic.), and as such
the subject of remarkably little negative criticism; but one might wonder
even so whether his unremittingly bleak portrayal of modern history is not
seriously one-sided.’28 It is due to the enormous success of Sebald’s work
in the English-speaking world that Eagleton takes him to be an English-
language writer. In fact, Sebald’s novels and essays have been translated from
the German. In translation they seem to have become part of the modern
English canon. This is surprising not only in the light of the language barrier
but also regarding the bleak views – as noted by Eagleton – they seem to put
forth. Eagleton may call it too negative; nonetheless, Kertész’s and Sebald’s
respective critiques of modern rationality are not necessarily irrational. On
the contrary, a critical working through of the darker site and sight of the
Enlightenment is part of an enlightening project. This project is generally
associated with the work of Walter Benjamin and with the Frankfurt School
in general.

Imre Kertész, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, trans. Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina

M. Wilson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997), p. 28.

Eagleton, The Event of Literature, p. 127.
214 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Against this background it is not surprising that critics have so far focused
their attention on how Sebald has creatively reworked Walter Benjamin’s
writings on architecture, photography29 and natural history in his novels and
essays. In this way, Eric L. Santner has recently analysed how the

link between Benjamin and Austerlitz, and more specifically between

Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Austerlitz’s own monumental work of
architectural and cultural history, is sealed by the connection Austerlitz
finally acknowledges between his research and the forces of political
violence that would destroy his sense of home and of belonging (the
very forces that of course, pushed Benjamin to suicide).30

Austerlitz, the main protagonist of Sebald’s eponymous novel, is indeed

modelled on the German Jewish writer Benjamin and, as Santner points out,
both are fascinated by the architecture of nineteenth-century Europe – Paris
in particular, which is the focus of Benjamin’s Arcade Project – and both see
in the buildings of the bourgeois epoch the foreboding of the unprecedented
violence that was to come in the twentieth century. It is this violence that
causes Austerlitz homelessness and Benjamin’s suicide during his attempted
escape from the Nazis on the French-Spanish border.
Both Sebald’s Austerlitz and the cultural critic Walter Benjamin see in
capitalism a religion of despair. In his 1921 aphoristic essay ‘Capitalism as
religion’ Benjamin radicalizes Max Weber’s thesis, according to which the
bourgeoisie has emerged from a Protestant work ethic. Benjamin does
so by arguing that capitalist economic practices are in fact, rather than
simply developing from, the religious ceremonies of Christianity after the
reformation: ‘The Christianity of the Reformation did not favor the growth
of capitalism; instead it transformed itself into capitalism.’31 Benjamin makes
clear that this religious formation is unprecedented, because it lacks any

Amir Eshel establishes a direct correspondence between Sebald’s use of photographs and

what Benjamin understands by ‘dialectics at a standstill’ as follows:

Sebald’s photographic images are thus hardly an artful ornament to textual images,
hardly a means to enhance aesthetic pleasure, but rather ‘genuine images’ in Walter
Benjamin’s sense, devices that relate the reader to what is and will remain absent – the
events and the protagonists of the past. Sebald’s photos are indeed Benjaminian images,
‘dialectics at a standstill,’ or, in Benjamin’s words: ‘what comes together in the flash with
the now to form a constellation.’
Eshel, Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
In: New German Critique 88 (Winter 2003), pp. 71–96, p. 94.
Santner, On Creaturely Life. Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2006), p. 54.
Benjamin, ‘Capitalism as Religion’, trans. Rodeney Livingstone in Benjamin, Selected
Writings. Vol. 1, pp. 289–290, p. 290.
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 215

form of transcendence that could offer a way out of immanent despair and

Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which

offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the
expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world
in the hope that this will lead to salvation. God’s transcendence is at an
end. But he is not dead; he has been incorporated into human existence.32

Significantly, Sebald’s Austerlitz is ‘seized by a sense of being beyond the

profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade’33 when
he steps into the entrance hall of Lucerne’s nineteenth-century railway
Austerlitz sees in the architecture of the Antwerp station ‘a logical stylistic
approach to the new epoch’,34 which Benjamin has described as being
governed by the unprecedented religion of capitalism. Here he encounters
the divinities of trade and transport and so he argues that it is only fitting
that ‘in the Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked
down on visitors on the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical
order, the deities of the nineteenth century – mining, industry, transport,
trade and capital’.35 According to both Austerlitz and Benjamin, this religion
of capitalism celebrates ‘the principle of capital accumulation’.36 Austerlitz,
however, introduces an aggravating element into what Benjamin has
previously analysed as capitalism’s religion: ‘time, said Austerlitz, represented
by the hands and dial of the clock, reigns supreme among these emblems’37
of capital accumulation.
Why is time an aggravating factor in the despair that Benjamin first detected
in the religion of capitalism? First of all time introduces the element of speed:
it increases the process of destruction. There is, however, another aspect to
Austerlitz’s focus on temporality. In his account the modern synchronization
and accompanied acceleration of time not only affect an obvious temporal
dimension, but also have major implications for our relationship to space.
The synchronization of the railway timetables towards the middle of the
nineteenth century increases not only the speed of travel but also the degree
of distance that separates people from each other geographically: ‘It was only

Benjamin, ‘Capitalism as Religion’, p. 289.
Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 12.
Sebald, Austerlitz.
Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 12–13.
Sebald, Austerlitz, p. 13.
Sebald, Austerlitz, p. 13.
216 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the
gigantic spaces separating us from each other.’38 Sebald’s work of memory
counteracts the distancing devices that are part of the economic destruction
of human interdependence. Quick travel through extended space does not
enhance human and societal interconnections. On the contrary, rapid means
of transportation paradoxically confines the traveller to what is familiar:
‘And indeed, said Austerlitz after a while, to this day there is something
illusionistic and illusory about the relationship between time and space as
we experience it in travelling, which is why whenever we come home from
elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad.’39 Strangely
enough, the speedy bridging of huge distances precludes rather than
facilitates the experience of our shared vulnerability. As this book has shown,
it is an experience we discover in literary and other artistic forms of inter-
subjectivity and memory – however bleak those memories may be. Indeed
the bleaker they are, the more likely it is that we want to forget – all of this
speaks for the social validity of Perlman’s, Littell’s and Sebald’s literary and
neuroscientific encounter of others across the borders of time and space.
The increasing speed of travel enhances rather than diminishes the shock
of despair that overwhelms isolated individuals over the course of processes
of decay and entropy, because these processes are marked and constituted
precisely by the rapid movement of time. J. J. Long has shown how Sebald’s
description of history ‘is characterized by a negative teleology [i.e. what
characterizes the Kertesz quote above] in which entropy, both literal and
metaphorical, results in the decline of cultures, the diasporic scattering of
peoples, environmental destruction, and the inexorable decay of matter’.40
This pervasiveness of a negative teleology in Sebald’s work contrasts with
a weak messianism that subtends Benjamin’s writing and thought, even in
passages where he seems to be full of despair.
Moreover, Benjamin questions whether we can adequately understand
history in terms of teleology: his notion of the modern radically breaks with
teleological conceptions of history and time. The presence of messianism in
Benjamin’s thought indicates that he has not completely abandoned a concern
for the construction of a better future. This messianic element is, however,
part of an unpredictable realization. It manifests itself in what Benjamin
understands by the term ‘awakening’. The awakening breaks with historical
continuity: it is an interruption. Benjamin’s conception of interruption
is significant because it offers an alternative to teleological thought. If one
Sebald, Austerlitz, p. 14.
Sebald, Austerlitz, p. 14.
Long: History, Narrative, and Photography in W. G. Sebald Die Ausgewanderten. In
Modern Language Review 98:1 (January 2003), 117–137. (p. 137)
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 217

can speak of teleology in Benjamin’s work then it is a teleology that outdoes

itself: it does not know what it is truly about; one simply cannot force or even
foresee the coming of the Messiah. The presence of messianism in Benjamin’s
writing and thought endows it with a certain trust in a better future that is
conspicuous by its absence in Sebald’s entropic view of history.
Hence, it is not surprising that despite the despair that characterizes much
of Benjamin’s work,41 Sebald has struck some critics as far more despairing
than his predecessor Benjamin.42 As Santner has put it, ‘for Benjamin the
saturnine gaze on the detritus of the capitalist universe is sustained by a
vision of political acts that would interrupt the course of history (understood
as that of capitalist globalization), whereas for Sebald it remains unclear if
there is any space left for such a vision’.43
It seems Sebald represents what a sociologist à la Max Weber would call
the ideal type of literature’s negative and non-scientific irrationality.

For a detailed discussion of the despair implicit in what I have called Benjamin’s
transcendental messianism see Mack, German Idealism and the Jew. The Inner Anti-
Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2003), pp. 155–167.
In this way Graham Jackmann writes:
Sebald’s melancholy understanding of history permits not even the faint messianic hope
which Benjamin sought to maintain in face of the apparent triumph of Fascism; he
appears, however, to share with Benjamin the view that the dead have a claim upon the
living, not perhaps for a ‘Rettung’ in Benjamin’s sense, but at least that they should be
remembered and that some kind of memorial be raised in their memory.
Jackmann: ‘Gebranntes Kind?’ W. G. Sebald’s ‘Metaphysik der Geschichte’. In: German Life
and Letters 57:4 (October 2004), pp. 456–471, p. 468. In a related manner, Amir Eshel has
criticized Sebald propounding a ‘questionable teleology’: ‘Like his pendantic critique of the
new Paris Bibliothèque Nationale and other elements of the book, Sebald’s kulturkritische
notions amount to a questionable teleology in which modernity is all too clearly
configured as necessarily leading to Theresienstadt.’ Eshel. Against the Power of Time,
p. 88. Eshel does, however, refrain from accusing Sebald of either apocalyptic outlook or
from falling prey to necrophilia: ‘Sebald’s work is more concerned with reflecting on life
after the catastrophe, with living in the face of destruction, than with death itself.’ Eshel.
Against the Power of Time, p. 95.
Santner, On Creaturely Life, pp. 61–62. Later on in his book Santner revisits this topic
of a form of despair in Sebald’s work that does not allow a space for political action. He
questions whether this is really the case: ‘The relevant question with respect to Sebald
is whether his way of constructing our historical situation leaves open the possibility
of an event, a radical shift of perspective whereby something genuinely new could
emerge.’ Santner, On Creaturely Life, p. 133. Santner replies to this question when he
argues that there is an ethical stance in Sebald that is capable of inspiring something
like hope that might be a crucial prerequisite for political action. Sebald’s ethical stance
consists of the bearing witness to the life of his traumatized neighbours:
We see, then, that Sebald takes considerable pains to dramatize the complex process
of ‘inheriting,’ of taking responsibility for, the various symbolic and ‘proto-symbolic’
transmissions from his various ‘neighbors’. Sebald inscribes himself in this complexity as
a crucial locus of ethical action with respect to those whose very way of being – whose
‘angle of inclination’ – bears witness to traumatic histories.
218 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Polyphony and the discovery of different times within space

Sebald’s work consists of a polyphonic texture that commingles different

genres and also disciplines. His writing often centres on reflections and
events that reveal the coexistence of seemingly mutually exclusive opposites.
In this context, Derrida’s recent discussion of autoimmunity is pertinent
to a better understanding of polyphony in Sebald’s work. According to

the autoimmune consists not only in harming or ruining oneself, indeed

in destroying one’s own protections, and in doing so oneself, committing
suicide or threatening to do so, but more seriously still, and through this,
in threatening the I [moi] or the self [soi], the ego or the autos, ipseity
itself, compromising the immunity of the auto itself: it consists not only
in compromising the self, but the autos – and thus ipseity.44

Polyphony compromises the autonomy, the presumed freestanding

existence of various entities, such as the speed of travel, which Sebald’s
Austerlitz links to its supposed opposite: to spatial isolation. Austerlitz
is fascinated by the destructive aspects of presumably productive and
life-enhancing inventions. He focuses his critical gaze on various double
binds, on the polyphony of voices, which, while being opposed to each
other, nevertheless form a cohesive unity. In this way the speed of modern

Sebald, On Creaturely Life, p. 166. In one of his essays ‘Constructs of Mourning. Günter
Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer’, Sebald indeed emphasizes that the way out of the
German inability to mourn the dead is the empathy or rather identification with the
As a result, in most literary works of the 1950s, which are quite often decked out with a
love story in which a good German man meets a Polish or Jewish girl, the incriminating
past is ‘reappraised’ sentimentally rather than emotionally, and simultaneously the
author extensively and successfully avoids – as the Mitscherlichs note in the case history
appended to their essay – saying any more about the victims of the Fascist system. If
in individual psychological cases this course of action serves ‘to keep signs of affection
that are in short supply anyway within the pattern of family roles,’ then in literature it
maintains traditional narrative forms which could not convey an authentic attempt to
mourn by identifying with real victims.
Sebald, Campo Santo, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Penguin, 2006), pp. 106–107. For
a critique of Sebald’s identification with the victims on account of Sebald’s German
ethnicity (and thus his genetic as well as cultural affiliation with the perpetrators and not
with the victims) and for a critique of Sebald’s universalist perspective see Brad Prager’s
The Good German as Narrator. Sebald and the Risks of Holocaust Writing. In: New
German Critique 96 (Fall 2005), pp. 75–102.
Derrida, Rogues. Two Essays on Reason trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michel Naas
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 45.
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 219

travel purports to facilitate reunions between separate people and yet, as

Austerlitz’s reflections on the synchronization and acceleration of time
show, it only increases a sense of isolation.
Without explicitly pre-announcing the precise development of his
argument, Austerlitz’s Benjaminian discussion of the religion of capitalism
takes his train of thought further to an analysis of the self-destructive forces
of modern inventions (like the synchronization of time). Meanwhile the
narrator is struck by ‘the way in which, in his [i.e. Austerlitz’s] mind, the
passing on of his [i.e. Austerlitz’s] knowledge seemed to become a gradual
approach to a kind of historical metaphysics, bringing the remembered
events back to life’45 – and indeed Austerlitz moves back in history while
further developing his critique of capitalism in particular and modernity in
general. The topic of an increase of isolation through the synchronization
and accompanied acceleration of time eventuates in a discussion of ‘star
shaped fortresses which were being built and improved everywhere during
the eighteenth century’.46
In this context it is worth drawing attention to an eighteenth-century
English novel in which fortifications in fact play a prominent role: in
Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy uncle Toby gives
an extensive account of how the building of fortifications has progressed in
recent times to which Tristram Shandy’s father replies: ‘but I wish the whole
science of fortifications, with all its inventors, at the devil; it is has been the
death of thousands, – and it will be mine, in the end. – I would not, brother
Toby, have my brains so full of saps, mines, blinds, gabions, palisadoes,
ravelins, half-moons, and such trumpery, to be proprietor of Namur, and
all the towns in Flanders with it’.47 Austerlitz and the narrator of the titular
novel will indeed focus their respective discussions on fortress Breendonk
in Flanders. The quote from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy in a
light-hearted manner centres on the dark side of fortifications: on how they
do not ward off but on the contrary invite destruction on a mass scale. This is
a prominent theme in Sebald’s Austerlitz.
Sterne’s novel has much else in common with Sebald’s literary project:
the Tristram of Tristram Shandy denotes the melancholy that pervades the
various modes and moods of Sebald’s way of writing and this eighteenth-
century text incorporates a variety of visual materials that anticipate, as J. J.
Long has recently put it, ‘the ontological hide and seek that Sebald plays with

Sebald, Austerlitz, p. 14.
Sebald, Austerlitz, p. 19.
Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Gentleman, ed. by Graham Petrie with
an introduction by Christopher Ricks (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 130.
220 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

its readers’.48 This brief discussion of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram
Shandy prepares for analysis of warfare, immunity as well as autoimmunity,
which the image of the fortification epitomizes in Sebald’s work.
In contrast to Sterne’s satirical novel, the narrator of Sebald’s prose works
identifies with both the dead and the living. Sebald’s narrators turn borders
porous. In The Rings of Saturn the narrative voice almost assumes the life
world of the English poet Michael Hamburger who left Germany to escape
persecution when he was a child in the late 1930s. In this way the narrator
dwells on his state of puzzlement when confronted with his mutation into the
life and world of Michael Hamburger: ‘But why it was that on my first visit to
Michael’s house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every
respect precisely as he does, I cannot explain.’49
In The Emigrants this identification with the other goes one step further:
here it clearly includes the dead. This becomes amply clear in the narrator’s
account of his visit to the Jewish cemetery in Bad Kissingen when he recollects
how ‘I was touched in a way I knew I could never quite fathom, by the symbol
of the writer’s quill on the stone of Frederike Halbleib, who departed on the
28th of March 1912.’50 Once again we are confronted with the inexplicability
of such identification, as if it were a miracle of sorts. This empathy with the
dead and the victims of history represents the work of mourning, which
Sebald misses in his native Germany.
The coincidence of empathy and mourning – it is a coincidence that is
related to Roland Barthes’s discussion of photography and the experience
of loss – comes to the fore in the Bad Kissingen cemetery scene when the
narrator first identifies with the hand of the dead and then goes on to be
devastated by the death of this same hand: ‘I imagined her pen in my hand,
all by herself, bent with bated breath over her work; and now, as I write these
lines, it feels as if I had lost her, and as if I could not get over the loss despite
the many years that have passed since her departure.’51 Here the imaginative
work of identification results in the real experience of loss and memory.

Long: Histotory, Narrative, and Photography in W. G. Sebald Die Ausgewanderten,


p. 117. Christopher Ricks has analysed the way in which Sterne plays ontological hide
and seek with his readers as follows:
So Instead of the omniscient, omnipotent narrator humorously deployed by Fielding, Sterne
substitutes the vague half-knowledge and frustrated impotence of Tristram. Of course the
result is very funny and not all despairing; the book has an unquenchable optimism and
vitality, despite the sufferings of Sterne’s own life. But all the same the limits of a novelist’s
(and indeed any man’s) knowledge and power are wittily, and resolutely, insisted on.
Ricks: Introduction in Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, pp. 7–28, p. 13.
Sebald’s work does of course not necessarily emit an ‘unquenchable optimism and vitality’.
Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 183.
Sebald, The Emigrants, trans. Michael Hulse (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 224.
Sebald, The Emigrants, pp. 224–225.
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 221

Sebald’s narrator as well as reader discovers what Roland Barthes has

called the punctum. In his analysis of photography – and Sebald’s novels are
filled with the reproduction of photographs – Barthes distinguishes between
the studium and the punctum. Whereas the studium approach takes the
photograph as a document by means of which we can learn something about
a given historical period or given cultural or personal formation, the punctum
denotes the immediately moving experience of cultural or personal loss.
More precisely, Barthes’s notion of the punctum describes the death or the
absence of what is documented (which is the subject of the calm and learned
approach that characterizes the studium):

The photograph is handsome as is the boy: that is the studium. But the
punctum is: he is going to die. […] the photograph tells me death in the
future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of
the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she going to die:
I shudder like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which
has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every
photograph is this catastrophe.52

In the introductory section to this chapter, we have seen how, even the highly
dubious and cold narrative voice of Littell’s The Kindly Ones stresses the
experience of an event (what Barthes calls the punctum) over the historical
statement of fact (what Barthes calls the studium). The punctum of literature,
of photography and the arts, in general, retrieves the discovery of human
interconnectedness in a world that keeps establishing divides or war-like
fortifications between different communities. Sebald emphasizes what
Barthes calls the punctum when he puts in italics the ‘I’ that cannot get over
the loss.
Sebald appears to argue that we can only experience a sense of community
if we bridge various distances that separate ourselves from others. Similar
to the effect of the narrator of Littell’s The Kindly Ones the empathy and
sometimes identification with the victims of history in Sebald’s writings
disturb rather than assure or calm the reader. What causes this moment of
disturbance? It is precisely a certain rational force that crosses the limitations
and boundaries imposed on our perception of reality by a common sense
Derrida has analysed the rationality that characterizes Sebald’s famous
criss-crossing of the divide that separates the dead from the living, that

Barthes, Camera Lucinda. Reflections on Photography trans. Richard Howe (New York:

Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 96.

222 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

differentiates ‘a nation’s literature’ from expatriate writing and that marks the
‘spectral’ and ‘haunted’ quality of his style: ‘It is rational’, Derrida writes,

for example, at the very moment of endorsing, developing, perfecting,

and determining human rights, to continue to interrogate in a
deconstructive fashion all the limits we thought pertained to life, the
being of life and the life of being (and this is almost the entire history of
philosophy), between the living and the dead, the living present and its
spectral others […].53

The narrative of voice of Sebald’s prose works gives an account of various

border-crossing activities – both literal as the crossing of national boundaries,
which defines his writing as expatriate – residing in England while writing in
his native German – and also metaphorical/metaphysical as a crossing of the
boundaries that divide the living from the dead.
We can better understand the rationalism of Sebald’s avoidance of both
meaning and rationalization when we attend to Derrida’s notion of an
Enlightenment that is deeply enmeshed in the ‘idea’ of psychoanalysis. Derrida
reminds us that ‘we must sometimes, in the name of reason, be suspicious of
rationalization’.54 He sees this suspicion of rationalization in Freud’s notion
of the unconscious. Derrida links his understanding of ‘the Enlightenment
to come’ not to a doctrinal understanding of psychoanalysis as the key to
psychological meanings but, on the contrary, to the contradictoriness
of the unconscious that resists both meaning and rationalization: ‘the
Enlightenment to come would have to enjoin us to reckon with the logic of
the unconscious, and so with the idea, and notice I am not saying here the
doctrine, arising out of a psychoanalytical revolution’.55 As has been pointed
out by several critics, Sebald’s narratives are Freudian in so far as ‘they retrace
the past and explore the inescapability of the past in the present’.56 Freud sees
this inescapability located in what Derrida understands by the ‘idea’ of an
‘Enlightenment to come:’ namely in the unconscious or more precisely in the
workings of dreams.

Derrida, Rogues, p. 151.
Derrida, Rogues, p. 157.
Derrida, Rogues, p. 157.
J. J. Long and Anne Whitehead, Introduction. In Long (ed.) W. G. Sebald – A Critical
Companion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp. 3–14, p. 8. For a
detailed discussion of Freud’s influence on Sebald see Maya Barzilai’s: Facing the Past
and the Female Spectre in W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants in Long (ed.) W. G. Sebald –
A Critical Companion, pp. 203–215 and John Zilcosky’s, Sebald’s Uncanny Travels:
The Impossibility of Getting Lost in Long (ed.) W. G. Sebald – A Critical Companion,
pp. 1102–1119.
Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 223

Via dreams we may scientifically determine what otherwise escapes

our grasp of reality. Dreams yield the knowledge of repressed or unwanted
memories. Dreams in fact proffer the material with which the new scientist
and new enlightener Freud debunks the concept of the ‘irrational’. The
supposed irrationality of dreams confirms the illusory claim advanced by
the old scientists about reason’s autonomous independence from nature’s
unsavoury aspects. Freud’s new science, in contrast, sees dreams as yielding
memory traces of what has been repressed by consciousness. Whereas the
old science operating along the lines of Kant’s old Enlightenment (i.e. the
categorical imperative) attempts to do without an analysis of dreams, Freud’s
new science examines their truth content.57
The move from Kant to Freud accompanies the transformation of
a Kantian de-ontologized ethics (of duty and norms) to a virtue ethics
concerned with qualitative experiences (rather than statistical surveys)
and values. Freud’s notion of the ‘old science’ describes conscious attempts
to resist a psychoanalytical representation of a traumatic past. The work of
dreams brings remote and unsavoury realities to the surface in a surreal
manner – similar to the way in which the narrator of Littell’s Kindly Ones
confronts the reader with the ethical and emotive details of mass murder
(Barthe’s punctum). Indeed, Freud treats dreams as memories of that which
consciousness does not want to remember. As he points out in his case study
of the wolf-man (1914/1918), ‘to dream is nothing else but to remember,
even though under the conditions of nightlife and dream-formation’.58
Sebald’s literary works are dreamlike in a Freudian sense, because they focus
on the ineluctable return of an unsavoury, traumatic past (war and the Nazi
genocide) of which the narrator cannot make sense.
As we have seen in the respective quotations from The Rings of Saturn and
from The Emigrants, the narrator cannot explain his dreamlike experience
of a border-crossing process of identification: it is not a meaningful but an
utterly inexplicable occurrence through which the past haunts the present.
This return of a violent or deadly past confounds structures of meaning. It
puts our contemporary coordination of sense and structure into question:
the past is no longer past; it has invaded the present. Sebald’s narratives
reverse the entropy of both time and space, which Austerlitz criticizes in
capitalism, in particular, and in modernity, in general, at the beginning of
the eponymous novel.

For a detailed discussion of Freud’s critique of the old Enlightenment see Mack’s German
Idealism and the Jew, pp. 136–154.
‘Träumen ist ja auch ein Erinnern, wenn auch unter den Bedingungen der Nachtzeit und
der Traumbildung.’ Freud, Studienausgabe, Vol. 8 ed. Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela
Richards, and James Starchy (Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 1969), p. 169.
224 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

Similar to the distancing devices in Littell’s The Kindly Ones moments

of empathy and identification with the dead in Sebald’s work establish
not closeness but distance to reassuring structures by which the present
attempts to make sense of a traumatic past. Sebald’s novels do not attempt
to endow genocidal killings and their traumatic aftermath with what could
be called rational explanations (Barthe’s studium), which might be capable
of generating a sense of the meaningful. This reluctance to offer the ambient
of comfort derived from explanations that make sense is, however, not
tantamount to an espousal of irrationalism. On the contrary, Sebald is at
pains to distance his work from what he sees as the irrationalism implicit in
literary works that impose order and meaning on the meaninglessness and
radical contingency of catastrophic events. A case in point is his critique
of Hermann Kasak’s ‘meaningful’ quasi-rational, quasi-philosophical
depiction of World War II. Kasak’s quasi-philosophical style and his zeal to
make sense of the senseless ‘show with alarming clarity the degree to which
philosophical speculation bound to the style of the time subverts its good
intentions even in the attempt of synthesis’.59 This imposition of reason unto
what resists any rationalization amounts to the aesthetic transfiguration of
violence, which Benjamin has famously criticized in his essay on Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Here reason and myth converge and Sebald
is therefore not surprised to see how the quasi-philosophical code of Kasak’s
writing ‘accidentally happened to coincide with Fascist style and diction’.60
Countering the fascist attempt to render horror and destruction as pleasing
to both reason (i.e. giving a ‘rational’ quasi-philosophical explanation as to
why it has happened) and the senses (transfiguring it aesthetically), Sebald
refers to Elias Canetti’s attempt at presenting trauma and horrific suffering in
a truthful report-like manner:

In such conditions [i.e. of historical catastrophes] writing becomes an

imperative that dispenses with artifice in the interest of truth, and turns
to a ‘dispassionate kind of speech’, reporting impersonally as if describing
‘a terrible event from some prehistoric time’. In an essay he wrote on the
diary of Dr Hachiya from Hiroshima, Elias Canetti asks what it means to
survive such a vast catastrophe, and says that the answer can be gauged
only from a text which, like Hachiya’s observations, is notable for its
precision and responsibility. ‘If there were any point,’ writes Canetti,
‘in wondering what form of literature is essential to a thinking, seeing
human being today, then it is this.’ The ideal of truth contained in the

Sebald, Campo Santo, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Penguin, 2005), pp. 74–75.

Sebald, Campo Santo, p. 75.

Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 225

form of an entirely unpretentious report proves to be the irreducible

foundation of all literary effort.61

This passage shows that Sebald sees in Canetti’s literary project an exemplary
way of writing. It is a style of writing that deals with modern catastrophes as
if they were ‘from some prehistoric time’. This approach presupposes distance
and the ability to face the meaningless without the comfort of rational and
aesthetic devices that could impose an accessible structure onto the radical
contingency of traumatic events.
Like Sebald, Canetti does not want to give an account of fascism as a
phenomenon of the twentieth century, as this would only explain how fascism
fits into the historical context of its time. This would confine genocidal
violence to the past and would leave the present untouched by it. Similar to
Sebald’s Austerlitz, Canetti goes back in time to grasp the roots of violence
and to understand the contemporary ramifications of the nineteenth- and
twentieth-century history of genocide and colonialism.
Rather than relativizing fascism in general, and Nazism in particular, by
saying that it could have happened only at the time it happened, Sebald sets
out to show that the roots of colonial and genocidal violence lie in certain
forms of behaviour of the past as well as of the present. He does so by dint of
his quasi-documentary approach towards literature, which significantly includes
the visual language of photographs. In different but related ways, Perlman,
Sebald and Littell confront us with an account of fascism as something that
still lives with us, which indeed forms part of our daily life. As Klaus Theweleit
has shown, Littell presents the Nazi genocide not as being past and only of
historical value. His disturbing narrator speaks not as a monster cut off from
the rest of humanity. Here Barthes’s studium turns into a punctum:

Max Aue is, however, not the ‘middling hero’ of the historical novel. He
is, rather than any man with qualities, an artistic monstrosity, stretched to
the most improbable extreme. He is comprised in the claim that he is not a
barbarian but forever a human being. Man himself is what is monstrous.62

Littell, Perlman and Sebald blur the distinction between a traumatic/

autoimmune past and a safe/immune present.
In what follows, I will discuss how Sebald confronts the reader with the
painful knowledge of modernity’s self-destruction as well as with the self-
destructive aspects of his own production of literature. Derrida’s recent work

Sebald, Campo Santo, p. 86.


Theweleit, ‘On the German Reaction to Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillantes’, trans.

Timothy Nunan, New German Critique (Winter 2009), pp. 21–34 (p. 34).
226 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

on self-destruction as autoimmunity sheds light on the self-criticism implicit

in Sebald’s writing about the lethal effects of both fortifications and ‘writing’.

Conclusion: Fortifications and autoimmunity

or the loss of memory

The second section of this chapter has focused on how Austerlitz’s

Benjaminian critique of the religion of capitalism eventuates in an analysis
of the destruction that is the unwanted effect of modern inventions such
as the synchronization and compression of time into space or the building
of fortifications and fortified cities. In the closing section, I will return to
Austerlitz and to his concern with the self-destructive fate of the fortified city.
Austerlitz argues that with the construction of fortifications in the eighteenth

it had been forgotten that the largest fortification will naturally attract
the largest enemy forces, and that the more you entrench yourself
the more you must remain on the defensive, so that in the end you
might find yourself in a place fortified in every possible way, watching
helplessly while the enemy troops, moving on to their own choice of
terrain elsewhere, simply ignored their adversaries’ fortresses, which
had become positive arsenals of weaponry bristling with cannons and
overcrowded with men.63

Loss of memory accompanies the building of fortification. Hence the

accumulation of weaponry and troops is as much defensive as it is destructive,
because the ‘frequent result, said Austerlitz, of resorting to measures of
fortification marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration
was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically inviting the
enemy to attack it’.64 In other words, the image of the fortified city reveals the
destruction of military defence as nothing else but self-destruction.
The French term cordon sanitaire for ‘fortification’ evokes medical
associations (sanitaire) and establishes a link between public health and
military defence. Significantly, Derrida describes immunity as both ‘public
health and military security’.65 Derrida’s as well as Austerlitz’s point is of course
to show the autoimmunity of immunity. Indeed Sebald himself discusses the

Sebald, Austerlitz, p. 19.


Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 19–20.


Derrida, Rogues, p. 155.

Conclusion: From Numbers to the Individual 227

task of the writer as being governed by the process of autoimmunity. In his

introduction to the essay collection Logis in einem Landhaus he characterizes
writing as self-destructive addiction66 and The Emigrants close with a literary
self-destruction of sorts. The narrator’s gaze itself becomes a subject of
a piercing, quasi-destructive gaze. Three women in a photo (which is not
shown to us in the The Emigrants) depicting life in a Nazi concentration
camp look at the narrator whose literary projects seem to be questioned by
their gaze:

[…] but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since
I am standing at the spot where Genewein the accountant stood with
his camera. The woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a
bride about her. The weaver to her left has inclined her head a little to
one side, whilst the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady
and relentless a gaze that I cannot meet it for long. I wonder what the
three women’s names were – Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma
and Morta, the daughters of the night, with spindle, scissor and thread.67

This is one of the most problematic passages in Sebald’s works and it seems
as if the narrator here sets out to problematize his act of storytelling, because
this passage after all thematizes the illegitimacy of authorship. The end of
The Emigrants thus turns autoimmunitary, it destroys the narrator’s authorial
credentials. Critics have read this passage as Sebald’s admission of failure.68
The remapping of culture and science as performed in this book contributes
to another reading of literature’s seemingly non-rational, non-scientific, in

Sebald writes that in the time that separates Rousseau from Robert Walser nothing has

diminished the writer’s addiction to his self-destructive task:

Beinah über zweihundert Jahre spannt sich der Bogen, und man kann sehen, daß sich im
Verlauf dieser langen Zeit nicht viel geändert hat an jener sonderbaren Verhaltenstörung,
die jedes Gefühl in einen Buchstaben verwandeln muß und mit erstaunlicher Präzision
vorbeizielt am Leben. […] Es schein kein Kraut gewachsen gegen das Laster der
Schriftstellerei; […].
Sebald, Logis in einem Landhaus. Über Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert
Walser und andere (Munich: Hanser, 1998), pp. 5–6.
Sebald, The Emigrants, trans. Michael Hulse (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 237.
As Julia Hell has put it:
Sebald’s Emigrants thus ends with a sudden reversal, the sudden return of the Medusa:
three possible victims of the Holocaust looking at the narrator. The text then concludes
with a narrator writing his text under a potentially deadly gaze. The issue of a voyeuristic
gaze thus takes on a different significance in the context of Jewish victims, or survivors.
What really is at stake in this scene of a disrupted voyeuristic gaze? The question this
passage poses is: who has the right to tell the story of the dead?
Hell: Eyes Wide Shut: German Post-Holocaust Authorship. In New German Critique 88
(Winter 2003), pp. 9–36, 34–35.
228 Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis

short, ‘negative’ aspect. Reading Sebald in the light of this book’s discussion of
economics, ethics and medicine permits us to see his work under the sign of a
certain autoimmunity, which Derrida has recently discussed not necessarily
in terms of self-defeat but as a form of vital self-criticism. According to
Derrida, the analysis of autoimmunitary processes is not destructive of either
the self or the other. On the contrary, they enable the unbinding of defence
structures, be they military, intellectual or economic:

In this regard, autoimmunity is not an absolute evil. It enables an

exposure to the other, to what and to who comes – which means that
it must remain incalculable. Without autoimmunity, with absolute
immunity, nothing would ever happen or arrive; we would no longer
wait, await, or expect, no longer expect one another, or expect any

Austerlitz’s critical elaboration on the autoimmunity of fortifications and

Sebald’s concern with the autoimmunity of his own literary work are thus not
irrational or aggressive or nihilistic. On the contrary, they open up another
view that questions the received wisdom of common sense perceptions and
thus undermine the destruction perpetrated under the status quo. That Sebald
does not stop short at questioning the status quo of his own writing might
indicate not so much self-defeat but the measure of his ‘exposure to the other’.
Sebald’s exposure to the other is intricately bound up with the experience
of both geographical border crossing and the movement between borders
that separate the present from the past (the work of memory). In a related
but different way, Littell, Perlman, Sebald and many other modernist and
contemporary writers have crossed national and cultural borders. There is a
sense in which the image of the fortified city that wreaks destruction upon
itself evokes literature as a border-crossing alternative. The border-crossing
writer has left his or her country/city and finds a home in what is supposed
to be ‘strange’ whereas those who fortify themselves against the onslaught
of ‘the strangers’ in actual fact destroy not only those whom they consider
strange but also themselves. Literature’s ethics of resilience contributes to
scientific rationality and this most strikingly at those points where it appears
to be irrational. The activity of literature makes us resist economic segregations
and medical immunizations. Segregations and immunizations cause the
destruction of those from whom we are segregated but through these border-
enforcing acts they also bring about the death of our self, which is integral to
and continuous with the life of others.

Derrida, Rogues, p. 152.


Adorno, Theodor 199 photography and the experience of

aesthetics 20, 21, 32, 56, 64, 99, 122, loss 220
161, 204 beauty 59, 148, 161, 162, 173, 204
affect 11, 12, 14, 19, 20, 28, 30, 56, 78, Benjamin, Walter 98, 103, 108, 182,
84, 86, 179, 181 202, 212–24
Agamben, Giorgio 11, 12, 48, 49, 50, Art in the Age of Mechanical
51, 100, 108–11, 130, 149 Reproduction 224
The Kingdom and Glory 48, 50, 51, Bergson, Henri 6
108, 109, 130 bioengineering 161, 173, 175
The Signature of all Things 100 biomedicine 17, 55, 151, 160, 173, 201
Anderson, Benedict 38 biopower 149, 150, 151
anti-Semitism 2, 64, 77, 95, 96–98, biopolitics
105, 163, 167, 217 benevolence 148
Arendt, Hannah 13, 27, 59–63, 116, ethics 2
175, 202 longevity 133–34, 148
Eichmann in Jerusalem 60, 61, 63 management of life 51, 148
Essays in Understanding 60 neoliberalism 149
The Human Condition 175 normativity and normative
Aristotle 71, 73, 86, 92, 101, 203 violence 17, 55, 150
Arnold, Matthew 22, 38 panic 134
Augustine promise of perfection 147
Concerning the City of God against Blumenberg Hans 108, 110
the Pagans 158, 159, 161 Butler Judith 20, 52, 53, 54, 107, 108,
Confessions 134, 135, 158 110, 120, 131, 150, 187, 194, 204
corporeal delay, 138, 146, 157, 158, ‘Bodily Inscriptions, Performative
159, 160 Subversion’ 120, 150
death, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 138 ‘Desire, Rhetoric and Recognition
eternal goodness, 157, 166 in Hegel’s Phenomenology of
ethics, 161, 162, 165 Spirit’ 52
immortality, 147, 148, 158, 166, Frames of War 205
173, 175 Giving an Account of Onseself 110,
lesser evil 2 131
sin, 134, 159 Precarious Life 107, 187, 194
transcendental predestination, ‘Variations on Sex and Gender’ 55
171, 173
Camus, Albert 87
Barthes, Roland capitalism
Camera Lucinda 221 free-market 49, 197
distinction between studium and global 45, 180
punctum 221 immortality 175, 176
230 Index

Keynesianism 33 The March 155, 156

neoliberal 142, 144, 149, 186 The Waterworks 153, 154, 155
nineteenth-century 176, 177 Dreyfus 99, 100, 101
religion 214, 215, 219, 226
scientific knowledge 35 Eagleton, Terry 29, 202, 203, 206, 209,
technology 33, 36 213
Chakrabarty, Dipesh 38 economy 49, 68, 149, 155, 180, 182,
cinema 4, 5, 6, 7, 14, 71 186, 196, 197
Clune, Michael W. 5, 112, 113 Eliot, George 25
conatus 52–56, 72, 73, 103, 204 Eliot, Thomas Stearns 86
consumerism 179, 197 Enlightenment, The 32, 190, 199, 213,
Crutzen Paul 59 222, 223

Damasio, Antonio 5, 6n. 9 flat mimesis 84, 85

Darwin, Charles 69, 143, 151, 152, formalism 203
153, 154, 155, 176 Foucault, Michel 30, 100, 109, 110,
Deleuze, Giles 120
cinema 6, 7, 14, 71 Freud, Sigmund 43, 55, 70, 71, 114,
Difference and Repetition 65, 66, 115, 116, 138, 222, 223
67, 70, 71, 72
ethics 55, 56, Galileo 67, 68, 69
mimesis 7, 73 games
neuroscience 6, 7 fort-da 114
on Freud 70, 71 language 31
on Nietzsche 67, 68, 69, 72 mental 206
on Spinoza 64–65, 72 representation 65
philosophy of difference 67 Ghosh, Amitav 16, 39–44
philosophy of repetitions 7, 66, 67, works
69, 70, 71 Incendiary Circumstances 39, 40,
posthumanism 65, 67 41
representation 66, 72 Sea of Poppies 41, 44, 45
simulucra 67, 73 The Shadow Lines 42, 43
Spinoza and Practical Philosophy ghostly
55, 56 Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ 12
Derrida, Jacques 56, 72, 73, 120, 195, in Agamben’s The Signature of all
196, 201, 218, 221, 222, 225, Things 100
226, 228 in Hamlet 90–91, 92, 93
Descartes, René 54, 55, 75, 76 in Malamud’s The Fixer 97
Doctorow, Edgar Lawrence 1, 17, 139, Spinoza as the ghost of modernity
142, 143, 144, 145, 146, 153–57, 97
173, 175 in The Tempest 91
Jack London, Hemingway and the Gilman, Sander 99, 134, 135, 147, 148,
Constitution 177, 178 157, 161
Ragtime 143, 144, 145 Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient 99
Index 231

Making the Body Beautiful 161, Hölderlin, Friedrich 121

Obesity 134, 148, 157, Homer 143–4
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang 39, 122 Horace 170
Hughes, Ted 128–9, 133, 145
Habermas, Jürgen 109, 110
Harvey, David 27–9, 35, 36, 141, 142, idealism
176, 177, 178, 190 Deleuze 67
A Brief History of Neoliberalism 29, German 32, 33
141, 142, 143, 177, 178, 190 Kantian and post-Kantian 69
The Condition of Postmodernity 35, transcendental 73
The Enigma of Capital and the ideology 17, 111
Crisis of Capitalism 28, 36, 176 class superiority 190
Hegel, George Friedrich 32, 40, 52, 78, in Doctorow 176
112, 213 inevitability of 193, 194
Heidegger, Martin 40, 69, 72, 73, 87 of market economy 196, 198
hermeneutics 203 of neoliberal economic praxis 187,
hierarchy 189, 193, 194
in biopower 150 identity 16, 29, 30, 43, 130, 167
in Spinoza 65, 76
in writing 127 Jameson, Fredric 21, 27, 28, 29
of values 194 jewish
theological 65, 135, 198 body 64
history community 100, 162
according to Aristotle 92 history 116
Agamben’s notion of repetition in identity 167
100, 109 immutability 103
African-American 211 theology 167
Australian 184
Benjamin 103, 216, 217 Kafka, Franz 17, 71, 86, 108, 130–33,
Derrida 222 143
Eichmann 116 Kant, Immanuel
Harvey 36 categorical imperative 64
Holocaust 116 de-ontologized ethics 223
Jewish 101, 116 ethics 47, 48
Hegel’s philosophy of 213 idealism 69
in Malamud 84, 96, 98, 101, 102, old Enlightenment 223
104 philosophy of humanism 75
in Plath 173 post-Kantian sense of duty and
in Roth 167 responsibility 202
in Russian society 102 theory of pleasure 8
Lang’s literary philosophy of 80 transcendental idealism 73
neoliberal 189 Keats, John 82, 84, 137
of medicine 149
religion 190 Lacan, Jacques 28, 43, 112
Sebald 216, 217 mirror stage 42
232 Index

Laden, Osama Bin 210 Spinoza and the Specters of

Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste 152 Modernity 6, 55, 59, 72, 128
Lang, Berel 115 ‘The Holocaust and Hannah
language Arendt’s Philosophical Critique
barrier 213 of Philosophy’ 63
computer 35 Malabou, Catherine 43
Freud 55 Malamud, Bernard 75–105
games 31 ‘An Idea that Animates my
of photographs 225 Writing’ 88
ordinary 181 ‘Beginning the Novel’ 87
poetic 196 ‘Bennington College
society 130 Commencement Address’ 82
literature Dublin’s Lives 105
and creativity 52 God’s Grace 75, 87
and cultural enquiry 15, 39 ‘Psychoanalysis and Literary
as border-crossing 41, 228 Criticism’ 85, 86
as critique of certainty 1 ‘The Contemporary Novel’ 87
definition of 4–5 The Fixer 76, 77, 96, 97, 98, 101,
ethic 7, 47, 51 102, 103, 104
ethics of resilience 15, 16, 45 The Magic Barrel 75, 84
heuristic tools 4, 17 ‘The Writer in the Modern World’
inventiveness 5 81
interruption of homogeneity 16–17 de Man, Paul 40
irrationality 217, 227 Mann, Thomas 86
medium of 4 Marx, Karl 157, 176, 203
narrative forms 218 medicine 1, 11, 17, 50, 57, 100, 133,
on economics and medicine 15 134, 141–74, 201, 204, 228
paradox of 40 mimesis 7, 39, 88, 92, 99, 102, 104, 178
perception 6, 39 mind-body relation
politics 52 Descartes’s dualism 54, 55
punctum of 221 Spinoza’s parallelism 53, 69
quasi-documentary approach 225 myth 49, 83, 92, 98, 99, 101, 102, 104,
Spinoza’s ethics of 53–58 110, 117, 224
universal 39–40
Littell, Jonathan 1, 18, 202, 204–07, nature 3, 16, 19, 25, 48, 53, 76, 78, 81,
216, 221, 223, 225, 228 82, 130, 132, 152
Lyotard, Jean-Francois 21, 27, 28, 29, Nazism 60, 61, 64, 117, 225
31–37, 38, 40, 44, 141 neoliberalism 36, 141, 142, 144, 148,
177, 190
Mack, Michael neurology and neuroscience 5, 6, 7,
‘Anthropology as Memory’ 122, 191 54, 55, 210, 211, 216
German Idealism and the Jew 48, Nietzsche, Friedrich 59, 67–69, 71, 72,
64, 217, 223 78, 110, 175
How Literature Changes the Way Nussbaum, Martha 59, 62, 63, 83, 96,
We Think 53, 182 112, 167
Index 233

opium 41, 44 representation

Origen 137 disrupting homogeneity 17
in Deleuze 65–67
Perlman, Elliot 1, 18, 179–199, in Freud 55
202, 207–8, 210–12, 216, in Hamlet 88–9
225, 228 in Kafka 131
Plath, Sylvia in Malamud 101, 104
aesthetics 122, 135 in Plath 132, 139, 173
anti-psychiatry movement 112 in Roth 165–7, 171–72
‘Ariel’ 118 modelling subjectivity 6, 16
‘Burning the Letters’ 133, 135, of value 13
136–8, 139, 144, 145–6, 151, psychoanalytic trauma 223
157, 160, 161, 163, 172, 173 social sciences and politics 38, 53
conformity 16, 124, 128 sovereign artistic practice 6
‘Daddy’ 113, 117, 132 theological 17–8
gender policies and identities 123, Roth, Philip 1, 17, 139, 142, 145,
126 157
Journals 121, 122, 125, 127, 129 account of everyman 169
immortality 136, 138, 158, 191 ethics 18, 162, 168, 171, 172
‘Kindness’ 129 Jewish identity 167
moral panic 129 Nemesis 145, 162–73
psychoanalysis 116 rebel against tradition 173
religion and religious act 128 The Facts: A Novelist’s
selfhood 112, 123 Autobiography 167
social dialectic of recognition 113 theodicy 162–3
subjectivity 17, 111, 112, 113, 115, trauma 166
118, 122, 145
‘Tale of a Tub’ 118–120, 124
Said, Edward 38–9
The Bell Jar 4, 118
Schiller, Friedrich 21
theology 108, 125, 161
Sebald, Winfried Georg 18, 202, 213,
Three Women 124, 126
womanhood 123
Austerlitz 214–19
Plato 40, 73, 146, 147, 158
Campo Santo 218n
Proust, Marcel 71, 84
The Emigrants 220
pseudo-medicine 98, 100, 155
The Rings of Saturn 220
pseudo-science 2, 4, 11, 18, 41, 44, 83,
Shakespeare, William 1, 16, 88–93, 95,
85, 98, 99, 100, 102, 132, 141,
99, 197
151, 152, 153, 155, 173, 190,
break with Aristotelian tradition
pseudo-theology 2, 4, 12, 13, 18, 27,
Cain’s killing of Abel 89
49, 100, 102, 143, 144, 145,
comparison with Spinoza 93
ethics and aesthetics 99
ghost 92
race and racism 2, 64, 95, 194, 202,
Hamlet 16, 88–93
234 Index

‘Let me not to the marriage of two revision of Cartesian mind-body

minds’ 197 dualism 54, 65, 69
Lucretian conception of truth 95 understanding of reason 58, 64
parallelism between life and play 91 Spivak, Gayatri 112
question about the natural 89, 90 Sterne, Lawrence 219, 220
substantive realities 91
The Tempest 91 teleology 93, 94, 95, 141, 153, 216–7
Spinoza, Baruch 1 terror and terrorism 21, 34, 63, 64,
acquiescentia 95 201, 202, 207, 210, 211
‘attributes’ 65 totalitarianism 60, 62, 63, 113, 202
break with the mimetic model of
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 31
culture 6
conatus 52, 53, 54, 56, 63, 72, 73 Žižek, Slavoj
continuity of affect and idea 93 ‘A Plea for a Return to Différance’
critique of anthropomorphism 70
67, 76 economic rationalism 180
critique of humanism 52, 63, 64 existence of meaning 34
critique of representation 73 Freud’s death drive 70
critique of supernaturalism 77 Less than Nothing 34, 40, 79
ethical thought 52, 56, 72 Organs Without Bodies 68
imagination 72 substanceless subjects 178
materialism of the mind 54 take on Hegel 78
notion of nature 81 The Plague of Fantasies 180
one-substance ontology 66 The Puppet and the Dwarf 40
post-humanist humanism 53, 59, 78 virtualization of capitalism 180n. 11