The Department of Asian Studies at my university is now circulating a petition which reads, in part:
In response to and strong condemnation of recent expressions of hate directed at Muslim and Jewish communities in Hawaii, we endorse the following statement:
Over the past weeks the Manoa Mosque has been the target of multiple hate messages via social media, email, and voicemail. Individual Muslims have been harassed in public, including children. Also, Temple Emanu-El was targeted with a bomb threat against its Jewish pre-school.
We stand together with our Muslim and Jewish communities and any individuals who are subjected to harassment based on religion, immigration status, national origin, race, gender, LGBTQ+ status or disability. No one should go through this experience alone.
That’s how compassion expresses itself in current academic language: categorically, sorting its intended beneficiaries by administrative identifiers: “religion, immigration status, national origin. . . .” And along with the compassionate categories, as a logically required complement, there are also anti-compassionate categories: for instance, “the US” in a recent contribution from my department titled “The Homes of Zionism: Circuits of White Supremacy between the US and Israel.” There, the Marxist term “the US” functions in the same way as the Republican term “Democrat Party”: as an ugly, unidiomatic locution meant to make its subject sound ugly and alien. But that’s the way my department talks, and the attitude toward Jews represented by conflating Israel with the Klan is what a consensus lexicon sounds like.
Considered that way, as the lingua franca of everybody who matters, it has an important thing in common with the compassion-categories of the petition: it is the vocabulary of a collective mind named “we.” If we were to try thanking that “we” for its compassion for the Jewish community, we might acknowledge the significance of the generous impulse by pointing out that Israel too is a Jewish community — in fact, a Jewish community created expressly to protect against the social consequences of hate. But of course, that time, our gratitude wouldn’t be wanted. It would not only be rejected; it would be misunderstood, uncomprehended, estranged from meaning.
Grammar would have accomplished the alienation. In the instant of its being heard, the possessive pronoun “our” in the petitioners’ phrase “our Jewish community” controls and limits admission to the meaningfulness of the term “Jewish community.” By modifying “Jewish community” to “our Jewish community,” it changes the reference of both “community” and “our” from terms that include to terms that exclude. Modified in that possessive way, the term “our Jewish community” instructs its speakers to think of Jews as theirs to possess — pets, say, who belong where the human community says they belong and nowhere else.
A footnote to the note: William Safire’s The New Language of Politics: A Dictionary of Catchwords, Slogans, and Political Usage (rev. ed., 1972) traces the history of the term “Democrat Party” back to Thomas E. Dewey in the 1940s. During the same era, cartoons in Socialist Camp periodicals like Ogonyok routinely identified villains as American by depicting them wearing the U. S. Army’s “U.S.” lapel badge. The artistic fascination with that un-Cyrillic squiggle lives on in North Korea, even when the artists get it backward:
Introducing Memento Mori, an online selection of his portraits of dogs, the Taiwanese photographer Yun-Fei Tou writes,
“These portraits are taken on the very day in which the dogs depicted is about to be put down or mercifully killed in public pounds run by governmental agencies in Taiwan. Utilizing the classic portrait style that originated in the early 19th century with the birth of photography as an art form, these photographs offer the viewer a chance to look attentively into a bleak future.
“The purpose of this project is to arouse people’s awareness of animals rights. People should view animal rights as a moral issue rather than appealing to emotional affection. As Peter Singer wrote in his Animal Liberation, ‘The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional “animal-lovers” has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion.’”
Tou’s gallery as a whole is a work of Conceptual art which operates in the normative Conceptual way — that is, by asking us to read the artwork as if it were a text commenting on its own caption. Most of the space occupied by this image, for instance,
is occupied by, yes, a photograph of a dog — a dog bathed and brushed and healthy-looking, well lighted in a pose before a seamless background. Below the photograph, however, is a literary space occupied by the photograph’s caption. This reads, in Chinese and English, “2011/08/01, 11:38am, Taiwanese Public Shelter, Time until Euthanized: 29 Minutes.”
Oh wow. (Those are reported to have been the last words of Steve Jobs.) Or, as internet commentator Jesus Diaz puts it, “What really fucks me up is to look into their eyes knowing they didn’t know what was coming up next.”
Jesus, the idea you’re trying to express is called dramatic irony. It’s sort of an old idea, as in Gray’s Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.
But yes, it’s powerful still. It works for you and me with the dogs, and it even works just as well with people — for instance, with the Cambodian and Vietnamese people in the Khmer Rouge’s Prison S-21 who were briefly passed before the camera of photographer Nhem Ein before they were led out of his studio to be killed.
On the other hand, YouTube is full of proudly posted videos of animals being tortured and the website of the Daily News is equally full of excited indignation about the fun awfulness of it all, so I wonder what goes into whatever fucking up may ensue as a result of contemplating Yun-Fei Tou’s oeuvre. Consider, as a thought experiment utilizing the materials and methods of fucking, an employer somewhere in the United Arab Emirates weeping before her soap opera, then rising from the couch to hit her Filipina slave.
Or consider how the voices rise and quaver and crack in university humanities departments like mine, all over the United States, when some member of the faculty stands up in all compassion and demands that the Jews of Israel just . . .
you know . . .
How righteous they can be, the tears of spectators in the presence of a concept.
During the summer break that’s about to end for me next week, an ancient classic that I put on the syllabus for the sophomore poetry-and-drama course changed itself in advance. That kind of change is one of the defining characteristics of the classic, of course. The classic is always younger than we are, always growing faster. That’s why every new encounter with it is a different joy. But this fall I’m afraid the joy is going to radiate so intensely from one particular classic, Antigone, that it will blast one of the subtexts my class and I will be reading in its vicinity. The history of events may wind up forcing us to read a modern text in an unanticipatedly ancient way — and at that, a way that isn’t Greek but Jewish.
When I ordered Antigone for the course several months ago, I was interested in trying what for me was a new idea: to teach it in versions from three epochs. The first version of the ancient but ever new myth would be Sophocles’s original, and the third would be a near-contemporary adaptation from 1987, A. R. Gurney’s Another Antigone. In between would come a version I’ve never taught before: Jean Anouilh’s darkly cynical adaptation, written and performed during World War II in occupied France, in which the Creon is a conscientious administrator (like, as Anouilh may have tried to hint between the lines, Pétain or Laval or Anouilh himself) doing his bitter best in an impossible situation.
Another Antigone I have taughtseveral times in the past, and each time it has been popular with the students. For them, Gurney domesticates the myth by resetting Thebes as a contemporary American college where the conflict between Antigone and Creon plays out as a disagreement between a student in a literature course and her professor — a disagreement about the ritual to be performed over the corpus of Antigone. For the student, the classic has done its perennial work once again, and she is now so inspired that she decides to write a play of her own for the professor instead of the required paper. The professor, however, is unimpressed. Because he has lived with Antigone all his professional life, he has seen the inspiration before, and read the undergraduate attempts at dramas written in homage. “Another Antigone,” he sighs — and then he orders the student to go back and fulfill the assignment as written, with the paper specified on the syllabus. In the course of the catastrophe that follows (the Creon-professor launched on his lonely way to forced retirement; the Antigone-student launched on her lonely way to craziness) the professor delivers a lecture about tragedy which provides, per classical model, both instruction and delight. Before Gurney was a playwright he was a professor of classics, and my students who encounter Sophocles at the University of Hawaii have always been grateful for his guidance.
But they’ve also needed a little preliminary orientation. The world of Gurney’s dramas is upper- and upper-middle-class USA, northeastern and (so far as I’m aware) 100% white, and when I’ve taught Another Antigone to my mostly Asian-American studentsin Honolulu I’ve accordingly had to explain the connotations of terms like Andover and Martha’s Vineyard. More consequentially, most students at the University of Hawaii have never met a Jew and have no idea what a Jew is, and in Another Antigone the Antigone is Jewish and the Creon’s tragic flaw is unrecognized antisemitism. So I’ve explained that too. Until now, at least, that part of the pedagogy was just as easy as the rest. It was only another technical detail.
The play, too, helps with the explanation. Early, in an effort to forestall the catastrophe, the Chorus (a sympathetic woman dean) spells out the plot’s exposition phase this way for the professor’s benefit and ours:
“Henry: this is a free country. And academic life is even more so. You may write four-letter words all over the blackboard. You may denounce the government, blaspheme God, take off your clothes . . . You may do all of these things in here, and most of them out there. But there is one thing, here and there, you may not do. You may not be insensitive about the Jews. That is taboo. The twentieth century is still with us, Henry. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Remember that, please. And be warned.” (20-21)
. . .
Well, Another Antigone dates from the twentieth century. One of its topical details is already an anachronism: the binder of printouts (as of 1987 they would have been on large, green-barred sheets of paper) that the dean consults when she discusses enrollment. Another anachronism is a passing reference to the word processor as something new.
A third is a reference to the Modern Language Association’s annual convention as a scene of genteel passion between professors in hotel rooms. Oh yes, the twentieth century was a long time ago. In this year of the twenty-first century, between the time I placed my book order and now, some posts on the members-only website hosted by the MLA for discussing a proposal to boycott Israel were antisemitic in the crudest racist way. This year, too, in the second-largest newspaper in Spain, a distinguished playwright has published feuilletons laced with traditional Catholic Jew-hatred; in Italy, a distinguished Marxist philosopher has endorsed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and in the United States one synod of the Presbyterian Church has informed the Jews that it will decide where, and whether, they are to live. This semester with A. R. Gurney is going to be interesting accordingly.
But here’s one contribution to the idea of a happy ending: it probably won’t hurt A. R. Gurney’s feelings if I file this blog as evidence that he isn’t as good a playwright as Sophocles. Another Antigone has gone old now and I can’t imagine its story will be sympathetically imaginable for much longer, but Antigone (I’ve just opened the book again and checked) remains evergreen.
Source: A. R. Gurney, Another Antigone. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988.