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What's bugging you is bugging me: Finding peace in a globalized world

>>Everyday life can be either a distraction or a source of community redemption, says Eric Santner.

PHOTO:  Santner's theory draws on Freud and philosopher Franz RosenzweigRiding the El from Garfield Boulevard to the city's northern reaches, languages and skin tones come and go with the neighborhoods: black vernacular and Spanish, dialects from Asia and Eastern Europe, yuppie-speak and slang on the North Side, then up, up to where Bollywood theme songs blare along streets shared by Indian and Pakistani eateries and long-established Jewish and Georgian delis. Riders not absorbed in newsmagazines or cell-phone conversations may also notice an underlying tension, rising and falling with the bubbling of what used to be called the melting pot but which now has a new name: globalization.

The simmering-in Chicago, Vienna, or Cairo, for that matter-hasn't gone unnoticed by Eric Santner, professor and chair in Germanic studies, the Committee on Jewish Studies, and the College.

"There's no longer an outside, really. That's what globalization means. What we need now more than ever is a way to listen to the agitations in communities produced by globalization," says the Ulrich E. Meyer professor of modern European Jewish history during an October conversation in his Wieboldt Hall office. "Pain, disturbance, turmoil, destruction of tradition, the sense of dislocation. Do we have the moral capacity to attend to the ways in which agitation seizes individuals and communities?

"What we need," says Santner, "is a technique for listening." He believes that technique exists. He calls it psychoanalytic listening, and he outlines it in his book On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (Chicago, 2001), which he began while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998. In his mid-40s with a gentle face and a medium, athletic build, Santner is dressed in blue jeans and has just returned from a month in Vienna speaking about his book. A "welcome home" vase of red roses, yellow mums, and purple asters stands directly behind him on the desk that holds the neatly stacked paperwork of a department chair. Santner's book is written in thick philosophical terminology (he opens the conversation with "So I guess your first question is, 'What do you mean?'"), and he takes pains to put it into simple, everyday terms.

"Freud invented a way of listening for agitations and disturbances that even the person speaking is not aware of-for attending to a dimension of another person and what affects the person's life most profoundly-that we didn't have before," he explains. Freud, in proposing the existence of an unconscious-and one that's mechanical, Santner notes, agitating unwittingly and on cue like a washing machine-hit upon exactly what it is that's universal to all human beings.

"What makes the Other other is not his or her spatial exteriority," writes Santner, "...but the fact that he or she is strange, is a stranger, and not only to me but also to him- or herself...." And since we're all strangers to ourselves, Santner argues, we can and should relate-listen and attend-to one another on those very terms.

But as Santner's book title implies, there's more to this technique than what Freud outlined in his famous late 19th- and early 20th-century cases. Why should we care about the stranger in Apt. 3B? Santner believes there's an inherently theological-and personally redeeming-aspect of attending to one's neighbor, particularly now that he or she may just as easily be J. Jones the telecommunications consultant as M. Atta the suicide terrorist. For this aspect, he turns to the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig.

"What I was struck by in reading Rosenzweig," Santner notes, "is that the Biblical injunction to love one's neighbor is similar to Freud's attentiveness to what in the other person is most stuck, what hinders the person from being in the world."

Being in the world every day, all the time, Santner proposes, is not as easy as it sounds, and few people do it very well. It was, however, a major concern for Rosenzweig, who pioneered Jewish adult education in Frankfurt before and after World War I. A gifted scholar who avoided academe (calling it a "vampire" that "drains him whom it possesses of his humanity"), Rosenzweig instead delighted in the mundane details of day-to-day school administration. "The nerve-wracking, picayune, and at the same time very necessary struggles with peoples and conditions," he wrote, "have now become the real core of my existence." When Santner was appointed chair in 2000, he frequently returned to Rosenzweig to come to terms with the administrative tasks that now supersede his research.

It was while tending to administrative mundanities that Rosenzweig produced his principal work, The Star of Redemption, a dense-Santner admits he once found it overwhelmingly so-work in which the philosopher explores the Judeo-Christian notion of redemption not as something achieved in the afterlife but attainable in the here and now. (Rosenzweig nearly converted to Christianity.)

The catch, Santner notes, is that everyday life can be either a source of redemption or, as it is for most people, a distraction from seeking redemption. "There's a way in which life tends to numb itself to the agitation that's always there," he says. Humans organize defenses against their unconscious agitations, going about daily life shielded from the "pulsing, agitating core in ourselves, in others, and in other communities that is always there." It's in attending to how others organize defenses, he argues, that we discover and learn to dismantle our own.

"We all have known someone in pain, someone who's always in the wrong relationships, always making the wrong decisions over and over again. We see that they are agonized, and we want to say, 'Stop. Just stop for a moment. You have to stop moving for a moment.'" Santner says such an interaction is, in fact, a form of revelation that's as holy as any in the Bible (and, Rosenzweig would argue, holier than any that occurs in an ivory tower where metaphysical thinking is, itself, a distraction from everyday life). "Revelation," Santner says, "is a joint project of opening to that senseless agitation-that paradoxical motion that isn't really motion at all." In other words, just as psychoanalysis is a joint project that requires an analyst, so too loving one's neighbor-and therefore redemption-requires a neighbor.

The task of exposing oneself "not simply to the thoughts, values, hopes, and memories of the Other, but also to the Other's touch of madness, to the way in which the Other is disoriented in the world, destitute, divested of an identity" firmly rooting him or her to the world, Santner writes, becomes much more important in a globalized community, where the agitation of a neighbor often is the agitation of a people.

Santner suggests that it is time to "rethink what it means to be genuinely open to another human being or culture and to share and take responsibility for one's implication in dilemmas of difference." As Rosenzweig put it in Star, "The very difference of an individual people from other peoples establishes its connection with them. There are two sides to every boundary. By setting separating borders for ourselves, we border on something else."

The idea that to border on others is also to touch on others' madness is intriguing to Santner, who wrote Daniel Paul Schreber's Secret History of Modernity (Princeton, 1996) near the end of his 12 years at Princeton University. Schreber was a psychotic judge and a patient of Freud who authored an autobiography spelling out his own mad-and highly theological-worldview.

"Freud focused on the meaning of God for Schreber," explains Santner. "Rather than treat Schreber's theology as a pure production of his madness, I decided to take it seriously. Schreber was not just a madman who helps us understand paranoia." He also, Santner says, demonstrated quite plainly that "the agitations of the mind are connected to something in the mind that is greater than the mind."

Just as Augustine in his reflections on memory proposed a disproportion, "something beyond the mind that's more than is contained in the mind," Schreber helped Santner realize that "those with mental disturbance are born theologians. That doesn't mean that theology is a form of madness, but that mental disturbance opens us to that in the mind that opens us to theology."

In listening to Schreber the way Freud did, but taking his madness as one more variation on the strangeness of all humans, including himself, Santner conceived of psychotheology: redemption in the midst of life. Santner's notion of redemption is open to anyone-on the El, at a café in Cairo, in Apt. 3B-and, in fact, requires everyone.


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The remains of the day
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