bugging you is bugging me: Finding peace in a globalized world
life can be either a distraction or a source of community redemption,
says Eric Santner.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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