Teaching Classics in High School


This month, I’m teaching Greek Classics at high school here in Cambodia. Most of the planned activities have been attempted in previous years, though there is always uncertainty with repetition. Repeating Euripides in the age of social media requires repeating him in a comic book format, where only a few catch-lines are remembered. Back in high school in Canada, we read nothing earlier than Shakespeare, outside of the bible that is. But I believe today’s students should accompany Ulysses on his voyage. They should develop personal acquaintances with Circe the Witch, and traverse Hades with Tiresias the blind prophet. The hero of the Odyssey is distinguished by his pining for Ithaca, “a barren spot on the Earth, with none of the riches of Asia”.  But his homeward voyage was criticized by a certain 20th century liberal ethics that favored the departing path of Abraham the Semite. That judgment was popularized by the phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas, and was endorsed by influential figures including Pope Jean-Paul II.  A new secular synthesis emerged in the mid-20th century, surrounding such events as Bretton Woods, the Second Vatican Council, and Trilaterialism. The voice of the church was embracing romantic aesthetics, so that it could accede to its allegorical potential in a capitalist milieu, and to compete with the emotional appeal of Marxism in Latin America. The liberal doxa of the 20th century reflects the ideology of globalization.  This return has a uniquely conflicted political symbology, because alterity is the perverse bedfellow of monotheism. This hypocrisy is exemplified by how Abraham visually beheld the land of Canaan long before he was tested, and even before his sojourn in Egypt, and so he knew ahead of time where his people were going, and longed for the unity of his people with God. The object of the Semitic exodus was astronomically greater than the meager isles that Ulysses returned to.

This problematic of liberalism can be expressed topologically through the mytho-politics of the Mediterranean region. First, let’s run schematically through the archival background of this ethical decision of secular monotheism. This Semitic Modernism reflects French politics in the wake of the Dreyfus affair and Nazism, while it also reflects Kant’s turn to Egyptian and Semitic symbolism in his aesthetics of the sublime.  The fascists had taken Hellenistic symbolic positions, and so it was structurally convenient for the left identify with Jerusalem. This decision coalesces with the symbolic position of Israel during the Suez War of 1957, where France and England aligned with Zionism in order to retake the channel from the Egyptians. Nasser was supporting Algerian independence, and so Zionism was conveniently aligned with colonialism. At that moment, the European left was symbolically annihilated, because it was forced to share its ethical space with liberal capital. The facilitation of this distribution is essential for understanding the War on Terror, and the geopolitical configuration of the Mediterranean region today. When Sartre challenged his countrymen to muster the courage to read Fanon, he was asking them to step outside their symbolic coordinates, and to experience the crises of a cosmopolitan justice. It is said that Foucault expressed Zionist sentiments, and there are passages from the 80’s where Deleuze trumpeted the cause of Palestinian justice, and this illustrates the symbolic rent that affects 20th century liberal politics.

Science and Semitism are linked through the synthetic judgments of neoKantian philosophy, where the material sublime was assimilated to the desert aesthetics of Semitic religions, and distinguished from classical western ornamentation and the iconology of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s was an event where modern aesthetics displaced the traditional European imagery, and the old forms of representation lost their symbolic seats and were reduced to kitsch.  Fascism is how European culture responds to its degradation due to the exaltation of nothingness in the Semito-Kantian turn, and in this sense the gas chambers were constructed especially for neo-Abrahamic liberals like Baruch Spinoza, Moses Mendelson, Salmon Maimon, Karl Marx, Herman Cohen, and Martin Buber. Scientific modernism was ethnically disposed through Judaism, and this produced a plastic symbol that could be associated with any class. The secular Jew had queer mobility so that it could move into any role, whether bourgeois, proletarian, aristoctratic, or agrarian. Fascism is a reaction to the secular monotheism that is composed from a fabric of liberal events, from Copernicus to the Guillotine, from the Magna Carta to the Rights of Man.

Universal political inclusion is a Kantian regulative idea, and political credibility is linked to the defense of this ethical fabric. The knights who uphold the justice of this ideal are licensed to commit ethical transgressions, and the expression of this secular right always bears the taint of exceptionality. Liberalism was always expressed in exile, from Descartes to Spinoza to Rousseau, since it took a symbolic position where the norms of all particuar communities were suspended. It had to be thought under alternate premises, which necessitated scandal, because thought addressed the public from outside the territory of the law. This thought had to be exposed to the uncertainties of liberal inclusivity. This problem highlights the singularity of Kant, whose life-long spatial fixity evidences a metaphysics of the stationary voyage, which corresponds with the profound expression of liberal political-economy. Kant fell under censor, and had to defend himself against accusations of sedition before officialdom. But there is distinction between how he faced censorship, as a professor in his own city where he was comfortably established as a professor, and the situation of, say, Marx when he was evicted from France in 1846 and sent to Belgium. Degrees of volatility are essential for gauging the qualities of a discourse. Liberalism valorizes the uncertain contingencies of life beyond the native habitus, but the realization of this heterotopia somehow required the fixity of Kant in order to behold some immobile conceptual foundations. There is an economy of trade-offs where the capacity for mobility is afforded through immobility. The stability of childhood allows for the discovery of wider intellectual dimensions, whereas an unstable childhood disturbs and inhibits imaginative potential. However, it is children who traverse the turmoil of the pre-symbolic that would be considered insanity for an adult. This is a dialectic where quickness and slowness summon each other to homostasis, and who could forget that Konigsberg was a frenetic hub of Baltic trade in the late 18th century.

The stationary voyage is the theater of bracketing, or what phenomenologists once called reduction. Kant discovered that bracketing was necessary, because it followed from the inevitability of what he called the Third Antimony. Starting from materialism (such as that of Spinoza or Hume), it is impossible to ever reach a free subject, because you are compelled to follow chains of causation.  And yet, practically speaking, it is essential for us to assume the possibility of freedom, since our institutions operate on that assumption. This antimony is a problem-spring where philosophy begins from the realization of the impossibility of responding reasonably to a condition it finds everywhere inescapable, which amounts to a presumption of original insanity. Science traces our behavior to material causes, and this implies that we are not free to do otherwise, and yet we are obliged to assume that we can. The keys to this problem are found in Nietzsche, since he wrestled with the negativity of the Schopenhaurian “it was”, which he replaced with the “I willed it thus”. This is not about insisting that one willed every event of the past, but rather it is a matter of recognizing that one’s self is divided because it is always possible to subjectify or not to subjectify.  At this elementary origin, phenomenological reduction amounts to a cognitive switch between affirmation (or self-recognition) and neutrality.   This is the synthesis that Deleuze called a conjunction (“so that was it!”, “so it was me!”, “so it was you!”…), and much of modern ethics rests on this construction, which can operate as an teleological ground of the subject, or the modern equivalent of Aristotelian final cause. The decision to assume responsibility for an act, or otherwise to assume that we may be somehow indirectly implicated together in the evental disaster of the Other, that decision of symbolic identity implies the inverse decision to ignore any scientific evidence that might suggest otherwise. The will-to-power is where intellectual intuition concerning the symbolic identity of action flickers, so that identities are asserted and refused at the same time, according to the dynamic fluctuations of immanence. That flickering is the aesthetics of power over the decision to symbolically identify, and this play of the aesthetic imagination connects the study of literature with an ethics of aleatory identity.Children experiment with alternate symbolic positions, and through that ludic work they discover the aleatory qualities of the transcendental subject = X.  Adults engage in the politics of subjectivity when they attempt to conditioning the range of this imaginary play.

The Minoans were highlighted in Canadian high schools during the 1990’s, and they came up tangentially in my lessons last week as we followed the Phoenician genealogy of Greek culture. The Phoenicians are famous for spreading their alphabet around the Mediterranean, though it is less appreciated that they are a people of the Phoenix.  Zeus took the form of a bull when he abducted princess Europa at Tyre, and carried her to Crete, where she bore Minos, the king of the Minoans.  Europa’s brother Cadmus searches for her in vain everywhere, until he reaches the oracle at Delphi, who informs him of his sister’s abduction, and instructs him in the plan for the auspicious founding of Thebes. I highlighted the founding of that city to my students, because we are going to perform the Bacchae, and because I want them to understand what sacrifice meant for the Greeks. Cadmus slays a water dragon, and Athena tells him to plant its teeth in the ground, from where an army of Spartoi sprout and attack him, until he was able to subdue the last five, who became the founding pillars of Theban and Spartan military masonry. So Theban martial power was paid for in dragon teeth, but this was a high cost indeed, because the dragon was sacred to Poseidon, and much of Greek tragedy concerns that debt as it passes through the generations of Theban monarchs. It afflicted Cadmus’s grandson Pentheus, when he was defeated in his war with Dionysus, and it afflicted the house of Atreus in the days of Agamemnon and Orestes, along with their descendants Oedipus and Antigone. Thebes participated in the symbolic dialectics of the Greeks in the mode of its cursed genealogy. Tragedy was how the Greeks staged their inheritance of a civilization that supposedly originated from the Egyptians, and passed to them through the intermediary of the Phoenicians and the Minoans.  It was essential that a price was paid, and Theban tragedy staged that sacrifice, proving to the gods the suffering which qualified the Greeks as a legitimate civilization.  Now, the idea that culture requires suffering is dubious, but the idea that ancient Greeks believed that is not.   The Greeks then become a cultural other who can be laughed, and that is the relieving power to dis-identify and say things like “it wasn’t us after all!”, “it was only them!” etc.  Mediterranean mytho-politics takes a counter-intuitive turn here, where colonization becomes an advantage, since it allows a disidentification with power so to avoid the fate of the Thebans.  Looking at cultural politics from an Asian perspectives, it seems that they can adopt the West as their Thebes, the symbolic fate that they can be symbolically saved from by taking the perspective of a passive observer.

In the late 19th century, Heinrich Schleiman excavated both Troy and Thebes, and those excavations were an impetus for fascism. Dubious artifacts turned up inscribed with swastikas, supposedly verifying the antiquity of whatever European nationalism.  It was against this background that the liberal modernist Arthur Evans undertook his early 20th century excavation of the Minoan palace of Knossis. The Minoans were conceived as an earlier matriarchal culture, which could subvert the fascist appropriation of the Greek legacy, because they were closer to the lost mysteries of Isis and Osiris, or what is called the Lacanian Grail of symbolic castration.  The fascists traced their supposed Aryan legacy through the Caucus mountains and and Northern India, and there are important questions about how liberalism responds strategically to fascist mytho-politics.  This problem is timely, in that it connects with recent statements by right-wing politicians. Last week the Hindu nationalist president Morsi of India said that Shiva invented cosmetic surgery when he surgically implanted an elephant onto Ganesha. This sort of mytho-poetic engagement with the techno-political may seem absurd, but it is actually not so uncommon, and will surely become a distinguishing features of the biopolitical age.

Teaching classical literature allows for a redefinition of the limits of the imagination, and this ultimately concerns the technique of bracketing in German Idealism, which makes it possible to orient thought successively towards distinct faculties. The imagination is the original borderless faculty, where the others receive their determinations. Faculties are only imaginary thought-spaces, and bracketing is the assumption of some contingency which applies to intellection alone. This is how thought differentiates its own activity through time, and this determination of faculties is a function of self-relation. The distinction of pure and practical reason was Kant’s initial distinction, the original code of critical thought, and that reflects the sedentary ethos of a respected professor of Konigsberg. But, as thought undergoes inter-contintental movements, it comes under new pressures and is forced it to invent new forms of bracketing to reflect the contingencies of its migrations and exiles.

20th century politics had a topology where the ancient relation of Athens-Jerusalem was coded along a Conservative-Liberal axis, so that conservatives identified as those who suspended paganism in favor of liberal monotheistic purity. What I am proposing here is an heuristic that would reverse the assumed association between monotheism and conservatism, so that secular liberals are identified as those who have reintroduced religious metaphysics. The secularism of Spinoza and Kant prized Semitic vacuity, and denigrated European iconology into tasteless kitsch.  I want to interrogate the limits of this liberal orientation, and to consider how it exhausts itself. This is a rhetoric for re-introducing pagan culture on the high school curricula.  To make this argument a bit more poignant, allow me to introduce a surprising source, Karl Marx, who opposed universal suffrage, which he saw as an anti-democratic strategy of the bourgeois. Democratic representation had existed in Europe since medieval times, where representatives from different classes would meet, and Marx saw universal suffrage as an attempt to obliterate these older forms of democracy. The new system reduced everyone to abstract individuals, so that interests were no longer represented in the framework of class relations, and so the singularity of symbolic relations was erased. This caused a disjunction between representatives and represented and that way traditional representation was severed by the abstract idea of monotheistic universality. For this reason, it becomes imperative to make a tiny concession to fascist rhetoric, and to admit that the corrupt structure of bourgeois politics was “Semitic” in that it adopted an abstract universality which wrecked organic political representation in Europe. It could be the case that the liberal secularism of the 20th century is complicit in the provokation of fascism. Perhaps it is possible to exit from the cycles of mythical violence by letting the Muslims have their desert, and returning these sea-weary bones to Ithaca.

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