Just for the heck of it, for Ben Sidran

by Yule Heibel on March 21, 2004

Some readers here already know that I don’t have tv access. I have a tv, a vcr, and a dvd, but I don’t get any channels because I don’t have an antenna or cable. But I do listen to radio — not often enough, but occasionally. Usually, we’ve got music on. Today I enjoyed a Ben Sidran groove — um, that man is still as hunky as he was 25 years ago when I bought Free in America. Terrific lyrics, can’t find them online, but they go something like this: “The nice thing about the United States, Everyone’s free to make their own mistakes. For example, you’re free to vote, you’re free to hope against hope, You’re free to quit if you don’t like the stroke. Might not sound like much, but it’ll do in a clutch, Step right up sucker, Don’t be afraid of the touch.” And so on in that vein. Wonderful song, and the whole album is an inspiration. Anyway. Freedom. On Friday (March 19) I wrote about the Vernal Equinox, but I was in fact also thinking about how to blow out of my system the feelings that George Bush’s voice had provoked in me. At least I don’t have to see him on tv — there would be vacuum tube explosions around here if I could. Listening to Mr. Bush makes me feel physically ill. It’s a visceral reaction I have trouble controlling. George was talking about the “anniversary” of the US invasion of Iraq, and I was again dumbstruck that he is getting away with it. The getting-away-with-it is a singular fact that shocks and awes me: how can this be happening? I know that comparisons to 1930s Germany are unfair, and many Americans resent them. But while history doesn’t repeat itself, and while cyclical notions of history are conceptually suspect and regressive, it’s obviously clear that we can learn from history, too. With that in mind, I decided to offer, without commentary, some quotes and sections from my book, specifically passages that deal with language — remember, this started because hearing Bush makes me want to puke. I will probably keep this up for a couple of days, not least because it’s gonna be long. There will be passages about the concentration camp system in Nazi Germany; about re-education; and about German emigr�s and inner-emigr�s who wrote about totalitarianism. So let’s start with something “easy”: Ernst Cassirer (see links above), who managed to escape from Nazi Germany to the United States. I’m especially interested in excerpts based on his book Myth of the State. Cassirer was a Kantian philosopher, but Myth of the State is fascinating for how it analyses the conditions of production — and I think we can take production to include the economic Unterbau — in the manufacture of myth:

One has always assumed that myths derive from the unconscious and that they are the free products of imagination. They do not grow, they are not, as in ancient times, the wild impulses of an overactive imagination. They are, rather, artificially fabricated by skillful and clever experts. It was left to the twentieth-century, our great age of technology, also to discover a new technique of myths. From now on, myths can be manufactured in the same sense and with the same methods as machine guns and airplanes. This is what is completely new, and a matter of great significance. The form of our entire social life is hereby altered. [published as “Der Mythos als politische Waffe,” Amerikanische Rundschau 3, nr.11 (1947), p.32; my translation.]

From that quote, I go on, p.26 ff, as follows:

Cassirer locates two bewildering “perversions” here: first, the catalyzing of “myth” from a passive, cultural context — a sort of content — into a formal instrument of manipulation; and second, the utilizing of modern means of production, of “know-how,” to create these new formal structures that allow content to become virulent in a culture. The form in effect determines the content:

With closer inspection of our political myths and the use one makes of them, we discover — to our great surprise — a revaluation not only of all of our ethical values, but also of language. The semantic word yields priority to the magical. … One is now in fact using formerly descriptive, logical — in short: semantic — words like magical ones which can have effects and are supposed to excite emotions. Our everyday words mean something; the new-fangled ones, however, are charged with feelings and passions. The men who coined these expressions were masters in the art of political propaganda. They achieved their goal — to excite vehement political passions — with the simplest means. A single word, or even the alteration of a syllable, was often enough to achieve the desired effect. The entire scale of human emotion resounds in these new words: hatred, rage, arrogance, contempt, pretention, and disdain.

Finally, of greatest significance in this alteration, or even perversion, of form is that the destruction of language is linked to the creation of new rituals that serve to destroy the distinction between the public and the private sphere, that serve radically to remake civil life; and by extension and implication, this destruction of difference — which is, in plain terms, nothing less than the destruction of the ability to perceive quality — also destroys individuality.

But the magical word requires completion through new rites if it is to have its full effect. This task, too, was solved as thoroughly as it was methodically by the political leaders. Every political action was surrounded by its own ritual. And since there is no private sphere independent of political life in the totalitarian state, the entire life of people was suddenly flooded with new rites. They were as regular, strict, and unrelenting as the rites of primitive societies. There was a special rite for every age and every sex, for every class. One could not even go into the street and greet one’s friend and neighbour without undergoing a political rite. [Cassirer refers to the rule that one was always required to greet with “Heil Hitler.”] And exactly as in primitive societies, the negligent ones were threatened with death and wretchedness.

The effect of all of this is to eradicate the subject’s sense of self, of individuality. And in the final analysis, this amounts to an alteration of the concept — or the image — of man itself.

The effect of the new rites is apparent. Nothing is more suited to crippling our power to act, to discern, and critically to differentiate, as well as to robbing us of our sense of personality and individual responsibility, than the steady, uniform, monotone exercise of the same rites. Just as there is only collective, but not individual, responsibility in primitive societies in which the rite dominates everything. Not the individual, but the group, is the “moral subject.” The family, the clan, and the entire tribe are responsible for the deeds of its members.

It is striking that Cassirer, who had died before the end of the war, should have formulated so accurately the charge of “collective guilt,” and link it so convincingly to the social form, not just the actual crime committed.
Collective guilt is an appropriate verdict, insofar as it assesses Nazi strategies of “tribalizing” society. It does not offer an accurate assessment of responsibility, however, as Cassirer’s comparison to the Odyssey indicates.

We have learned that modern man, despite — or perhaps as a result of — his inner turmoil has not really elevated himself above the savage. When he is exposed to the same powers that held the savage enthralled, he compliantly returns to the old condition of malleability. He ceases to maintain a critical relationship to his environment, and instead accepts it as a given.
Of all the terrible experiences of the last twleve years [the Third Reich], this might be the worst. One could compare it to Odysseus’s experience on Circe’s island. But it is even more horrifying. The friends and companions of Odysseus were turned into animals by Circe; but here there were intelligent and educated people, honest and upright men, who, of their own volition, threw away the highest privilege of man: to be sovereign persons. By carrying out the same rites, they soon also had the same feelings and thoughts, and began to speak the same language. Even if their gestures were lively and even vehement, they actually only led a shadow existence. They were marionettes — and did not even know that those pulling the strings in this theatre were their own political leaders.
This circumstance is of decisive significance for understanding the problem at hand. Political methods have always employed force and oppression. But they mostly pursued material goals. …The modern political myths achieve their effect in a totally different manner. They did not start by dictating man’s ability to do or not do. Rather, they undertook in the first instance to alter man himself, in order then to regulate and control his actions.

To be continued… And as always, it appears that it behooves all of us, if we have a “public” voice, to think about how and to what ends we are altering “man himself, in order then to regulate and control his actions.” Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters.


maria March 22, 2004 at 12:26 pm

Yule, this a thought-provoking post … and along the lines (but far more inclusive in perspective) of what I was trying to write about in my post when I was listening to that speech (I made myself listen to the whole thing!), as well as reacting to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, which, with the help of a few rhetorical turns tried to make the IRA and Democrats into one and the same (my post was called “the Dean-monization of the Democrats,” just for reference … not for self-promotion).

Reading your words on Cassirer (whom I “knew” mostly for his work on Kant and then on his work on the philosophy of symbolic forms), brought back even more long-lost associations and musings on the political engine that generates those rituals and new “words” in the service of the controlling myth … except these associations have to do with the particular versions of Stalinism practiced in the Eastern Europe of my childhood. I can’t tell you how liberating it was to get away from all that when I came to North America … and I can’t tell you how Cassandra-like I feel nowadays, alone and speaking in a shrill voice as that wooden horse gallops around the streets of Troy and I see that old engine cranked up, once again, this time, on these shores, pumping out ammunition for the weapons of mass DISTRACTION.

Yule Heibel March 23, 2004 at 12:37 am

I think Cassandra is an apt archetype to conjure these days. Most of the time, I feel content to just go along and keep going along, but that pack of lies, that propagandistic garbage that Bush spewed forth on Friday was one of those “I can’t believe this is happening” moments for me. And everything snaps into focus in a weird sort of way, like the visual hallucinatory aftereffects of certain acid trips. On a loop, endlessly repeating. Brrr…

And I will check out your blog to see your take on this — I have been a non-existent reader as well as hasty writer in the blogosphere lately, haven’t been visiting anywhere, too much to do in other spheres, so my apologies for that. Don’t hesitate to post your links here, it’s a historical record, too.

Anonymous March 23, 2004 at 10:47 am

this stuff is so on target to what is happening in the U.S. of A.

Yule, I have a suggestion for your DVD player: Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi series.. In the trilogy, each film has a subtitle: Life out of balance, life in transformation, and War as a way of life. You are probably familiar with these works, but I recently received the trilogy on DVD as a b’day present, and they have very interesting interviews with Reggio. And some of what he says is that we, the “advanced” civlizations, are in uncharted territory — life divorced from nature, the natural rhythms, nature as our source, now lived instead in the 24/7 technological environment. His films are his attempt to allow the viewer some distance so he or she can see it.

Oh, and the tagline on the last in the series Naqoyqatsi is “America is test driving the future.”

maria March 23, 2004 at 11:43 am

I can’t believe this, but I just ordered those DVDs, based on Bruce’s recommendation!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: