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DESIRE, PASSION, AND THE POLITICS OF CULTURE

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By Jerome A. Miller

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The Montréal Review, May 2014

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Attributed to Nicolas Bollery, The Actors, about 1595-1605, oil on canvas.  The John and Marble Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, Florida State University

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Thoughtful discourse about cultural politics is jeopardized by the intrusion of ideological abstractions. In an attempt to avoid them, I’ll begin with two personal anecdotes.  

The first was a marijuana high I experienced as a young adult. Even while it was happening, I described it as floating inside a balloon full of liquid, entirely carefree pleasure.  After inhaling often and deeply, I spent three hours in this cocoon with no desire to surface or need for air.  I was aquatic and could breathe through my skin. The cocoon was not claustrophobic because everything outside it was unreal. (My wife, upstairs with the flu, might as well have been on Mars.) The fluid that enclosed me was viscous yet malleable: when I moved, it shaped itself to me like a soothing caress. The pleasure was all-enveloping: it saturated every crease of flesh and corner of consciousness.  Without incapacitating my intelligence or reason, it made them pulsate with sensory immediacy. Inside this balloon of perfect pleasure, as inside the womb of all our fantasies, I was safe, secure, imperturbable.

Spaulding Grey, fantasizing about such a pleasure, called it an “impossible vacation.” While it lasted, I lived in a present that nothing in the world could affect. The philosopher Edmund Husserl argued that consciousness is always consciousness of something−some object of interest or concern. But pleasure of the sort I experienced is the great counter-example. It’s just out of this world because it replaces the world with a womb. It’s exactly what it’s cracked up to be.

Attending an opera is something else again.

Many years ago, on a summer evening in New York City, my wife and I were looking for live music, and happened on an arts guide that directed us to a derelict hotel for a performance of La Boheme. The decaying ballroom was fitted out with folding chairs and a set apparently imported from some high school theater production. When the music finally began, we found ourselves in a shabby Paris room filled with longing and grief. In the voices of the Juilliard singers was a beauty made painful by the fervor and folly of youthful love. Hearing them, we were caught in the throe of a drama that transported us beyond our everydayness.  Its poignancy made the music riveting but liberating. It broke us open to sublime possibilities.  Afterward, walking down a darkened New York street, we were fresh in our exhaustion.

Puccini is not in the highest rank of aesthetic genius. But he often happens upon haunting melodies whose poignancy moves us all the way down. It’s hard to hear them without entrusting oneself to them. Once this happens, one isn’t any longer self-possessed. One is given over to the unpredictable vicissitudes of the future that the music sets in motion.  At a live performance, one begins to live what one is witnessing. The ancient word for this is ex-stasis–standing outside oneself. 

Experiences like a marijuana high and an opera ecstasy don’t happen daily to most of us, but they’re not entirely foreign to anyone.  They offer a respite from worry, and temporary release from deeper kinds of emptiness.  In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly call attention to such instances of “transcendence”−experiences that enable us to leave ordinariness behind.  But, rather remarkably, their book doesn’t provide us any help in distinguishing between the two kinds of experience I’ve described.  This failure is symptomatic of our culture generally. We don’t have a vocabulary or grammar that enables us to talk about how one kind of “high” differs from another. This, I suggest, is one of the principal reasons why our culture is deeply confused about its purposes and why our discussions about it are bedeviled by acrimonious misunderstandings. My purpose here is to try to draw distinctions that might be used to construct  the cultural grammar we sorely need.

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Consider that feature of stoned pleasure to which my description drew attention−its centripetalcharacter. My stoned state was sensory and sensual. But ordinarily when my senses are engaged, they’ve been drawn to something in the world–the aroma of sage, the trill of a mockingbird, the sight of a deer darting across the road. With pot, something like the opposite happened to me: I was insulated from the world by the balloon in which I floated. The experience was purgative–even, one might even say, strangely ascetic. Entirely withdrawn from the world, I felt no conflict or anxiety, no friction or fracture, because there was nothing other than myself to cause them.

It may be that only some of us are addicted to such pleasures but few of us can say we’re not motivated by desires that have a centripetal character. Consider, for example, my desire to find a rare first-edition at a dollar-a-book library sale.  (It’s happened.)  If I find such a book, I want to own it. But what I especially crave is the “shining” feel of the discrepancy between what I’ve paid and what I’ve got. In the calculus of heady intoxications, profiting ranks high because money is the universal grammar of desire. As for the book itself, it gets placed on my shelves and disappears among its fellows. Perhaps I’ll one day I’ll display it on Antiques Roadshow.

Here is one of the ironies of desire: though apparently focused on some good, such as a rare first-edition, desire is actually fixated on getting hold of it, and depriving it of its alterity–its difference from oneself. The realization that I don’t have this good is a kind of taunt.  Desire is something like the clenched fist of a centripetal impulse. It makes me intent on subordinating a good to me. Achieving that, I feel the buzz, the quick flash, of a centripetal rush. Something that was other than me is now mine. The pleasure this provides is, admittedly, a small balloon from which air quickly drains. But it is, for a moment, intoxicating.

Small wants, small pleasures–almost certainly innocuous.  But because everything other than us is able to provoke our centripetal drive to master it, there’s a remarkable plasticity to desire. It’s endlessly malleable, amorphous, protean. From Plato through Freud, it’s been considered hydra-like.  Its breadth beggars the imagination: there’s no boundary where it stops, no place that’s off-limits, no measure that’s connatural to it, no extreme from which it shies away. There’s nothing that can’t become the target of its centripetal thrust. Desire wants access to all possibilities. It doesn’t want any future to be forbidden it.

Today, in our Western culture, desire seems to have achieved, or at least to be approaching, the total access to possibility it craves. There’s little dispute about the fact that, over the course of the last century and a half, the tectonic plates of culture have shifted dramatically.  Any number of events have been read as the symbols–to some, the profaning sacraments–of this revolutionary change: Nietzsche’s announcement that all values are fictions,  Picasso’s dismemberment of the body in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. These events advanced the lifting of repression and the release of desire from traditional inhibitions.  But the pivotal question is whether this was a breakthrough or a cataclysm, a liberation from imprisoning restraints or a plunge into nihilism.  The fight over this issue has turned our cultural politics into a blood-sport.

The liberal/progressive aspires to dismantle repression and promote liberation. Repression was traditionally justified by appeal to the timeless moral and religious certainties that anchored culture; it was traditionally accomplished by implanting inhibitions deeply in the psyche and reinforcing them through the social ethos. The progressive insists that such repression smothers the self-expression on which all creativity depends and so has to be deconstructed if a culture of originality is to be possible.  A liberating culture actively fosters experimental openness to the future and exploration of unprecedented possibilities. It intends to free the imagination–the provocateur of all human achievement–from the taboos and censorships, the paralyzing formalisms and deadening canons, that tradition makes sacrosanct. Believing such freedom to be the very spring of originality, the future-oriented progressive encourages existential self-creation–the project of becoming whatever–whoever–one wants. This project rests its hopes on the untrammeled play of possibility and the emergence of what’s unprecedented. To keep this hope alive, it has to keep undermining any structure that tries to manage, constrict, or otherwise restrain the spontaneous, unruly gambols of aesthetic ingenuity. The one commandment is “Yes!” The derivative is, “No ‘nos’” that inhibit creativity.

This, the moral conservative responds, is no catch-phrase for culture; it signifies cultural disintegration and the whirligig of nihilism. Once desire is released from the taboos and decorum, the moral norms and religious beliefs, that traditionally disciplined and channeled it, there’s nothing to give ballast to character or moral direction to action. In the conservative view, the revolutionary changes of the last century and a half do not signify a shift from one kind of cultural order to another but a shift from cultural order to an-archy, from moral structure to antinomian impulse, from secure grounding in first principles to the evisceration of culture by historical relativities. The result?  Human selves become weightless and open to all possibilities, however perverse.  Even the conservative admits that desire can’t be extirpated since it’s required to motivate human action. But its perversity has to be inhibited, its primal, uncivilized objectives renounced. Through moderation and sublimation, it has to be made to serve moral ideals because, left to itself, it will inevitably subvert them. Repression–“No!”–is necessarily and unavoidably the first principle of civilized life. It grounds the psyche in culture, and culture in the unwavering principles of moral order. Without such grounding, there’s just the riot of desire which no society can survive.

Each side in this apparently interminable trench warfare can make what is, on its face, a plausible argument.  Our paradigmatic images of them reflect their opposite ways of responding to historical change: the liberal/progressive looks forward to unprecedented possibilities and works to release creativity from the repressive weight of cultural antecedents; the conservative looks back, hoping to protect society from the protean play of the possibility by re-anchoring culture to some unchanging verity. One would think that, with the disasters of the twentieth century behind us, we would have figured out which of these contradictory responses to historical change is the correct one. But about even its worst horrors we can’t decide: were they the result of the most brutal, systematic repression, or the consequence of dismantling even the most fundamental moral interdicts?  As for myself, I can’t be sanguine. Among those running the camps, there were, in all likelihood, rare-book collectors. 

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There is an irony attached to desire that the progressive is wont to ignore, and an irony about repression that the conservative tends to overlook.   

The pleasures we most persistently and irresistibly desire are similar to what I experienced when stoned: they entirely saturate consciousness so that everything except pleasure is expunged.  Alcohol does this better than chocolate, orgasm more intensely, if more briefly, than alcohol, cocaine perhaps as intensely and longer than orgasm. Getting that first edition wasn’t even as intense as chocolate; but it had the “shining” feel of profit. We tend to rank our pleasures by their power to eradicate alterity. What all centripetal desire has in common is that it wants to reduce some part of the world to oneself, or the whole world to a sensation that makes it evaporate.

But if desire wants to efface alterity,  it is itself repressive. Its centripetal drive is a clenched fist that wants to possess and asphyxiate. The conservative is horrified by, the progressive inclined to endorse, a culture that gives desire access to all possibilities. But when given access to any possibility, desire is not, in fact, open or receptive to it. It wants to seize upon possibility in order to deprive it of its alterity.  It’s intent on crushing the future, dominating difference, unworlding the world.

Should we, then, repress desire, place restraints on its colonizing violence, and re-anchor culture to unwavering moral truths, as the moral conservative proposes? To do so is to become entangled in a different but related irony. The recoil from the gyre of historical possibility, the hope to ground culture to an unchanging transcendent order–this conservative project is motivated by a nostalgic concern for the moral good. But implicit in the nostalgia for cultural security–the attempt to anchor ourselves to moral order–is a desire for an “impossible vacation” from history. In the conservative recoil from unprecedented possibilities and its effort to bind culture to unchanging moral verities, a centripetal impulse is surreptitiously at work–an impulse that seizes hold of moral order with a clenched fist and won’t let go of it.  Repression is actually motivated by a species of the very desire it tries to repress. It can acquire the certainties it craves only by gaining possession of moral order itself.

So while the opposing armies in our cultural war view refuse to be reconciled, each is, in a crucial respect, the dark twin–the doppelganger–of the other. Desire, whose liberation the progressive tends to espouse, turns out to be an exercise in repression. Repression, which the conservative considers indispensable for preventing abominations, turns out to be the work of desire. Both agendas are tragic in the original Greek sense: each pursues an objective that leads inexorably to the opposite of what it intends. Abhorrent as each is to the other, never shall the twain be separate.

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Our culture may seem doomed to perpetual imprisonment in these ironies. But underlying the view that they’re inescapable is the assumption that desire is primal in us.  This assumption is not recognized as such. It’s treated as an obvious, indisputable fact–one of the few about which all parties to our cultural wars agree. Desire is, supposedly,  our original motivation; all other motives are, supposedly, only variations on it.  But, in fact, desire cannot possibly be primal in us. For desire is repressive. And repression is always secondary, always derivative because it’s entirely dependent on, and only follows after, something that’s more primordial than it, namely, the experience that it is intent on repressing.

But what can possibly be more primordial in us than desire?

I’ve spoken of opera because of its capacity to reach us at the source of our selves–its capacity to tap the primal springs of our affections.  Those of us who haven’t experienced an opera ourselves have felt its power to transport us if we’ve seen it shock into stillness the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption, or move a solitary tear down Cher’s cheek in Moonstruck, or strike dumb the ambulance-chasing lawyer of the dying gay protagonist in Philadelphia.  The poignancy of La Boheme moved those who experienced it in that decrepit ballroom. The challenge is to understand what this means.

“To be moved” is grammatically passive: it signifies something that happens to one, not something one does or achieves. To be moved by Puccini’s music is to be drawn inside the drama it unfolds.  Only this experience of being “drawn” into music,  literature, art, science, engages one deep-down and personally in one’s culture. But in our culture, we don’t distinguish being “drawn” from being  centripetally “attracted.” Puccini’s music does not ignite the centripetal impulse of desire in us. It does something subtly but profoundly different. To be drawn into the opera–to become fascinated by and absorbed in its unfolding mystery–has a centrifugal impact on us. It leads us beyond our everydayness by leading us out of ourselves. We find that we’re caught in the throe of an unpredictable possibility that can surprise and overwhelm, inspire and devastate.

That we’re able to be so moved, so drawn, suggests that vulnerability is the very core of our being. When we’re moved by the poignant, this primordial vulnerability is pierced. It’s no accident that our image of love pictures a heart with an arrow through it. The word “core” derives from the Latin for “heart.” We’re moved when love pierces the core of our subjectivity. This piercing isn’t some disaster that occurs at the end of a relationship. It happens at its inception–when something poignant first has its heart-wrenching impact on us. A Puccini aria that touches us wounds us. What flows from this wound is passion–the life-blood of all our affections. 

Passion has long been construed as desire in extremis–desire that has thrown off all restraint and become wholly uninhibited. “Passion,” so used, is a synonym for obsession; it reaches its own extreme in our addictions.  But addiction is desire at its most repressive. And what is it we use our addictions to repress? Precisely our vulnerability.  When we’re able to make the world in its alterity from us evaporate, we aren’t in danger of being pierced and overwhelmed by it. To be so pierced, so overwhelmed, is to be rendered impotent, to lose control, to suffer a kind of death. In the age of  Cialis and Victoria’s Secret, it’s easy to avoid suffering this kind of wound. But the irony is that such wounding, such suffering, is strangely enlivening, especially when it is mortifying. It quickens the heart, and sets affection in motion.  It enables something to begin mattering to us. A longing stirs but it’s not centripetal–not a desire. Puccini’s music moves us to give ourselves to it. The passion it awakens in us is donative: acting out of it, we become participants in what transcends us.  

When we describe Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as an impassioned violinist, we mean she’s uninhibited, unrestrained, unbridled.  What makes her so is her willingness to give herself wholly–to respond without reservation−to the music that enthralls her. So too with the impassioned horse-back rider, the bedazzled stargazer, the mathematician lost in wonder, the photographer giving witness to the shyness of evening light. Each of these enthusiasms is, in its own way, a profound generosity–the gift of one’s impassioned appreciation to some alterity. But we begin as receivers.  None of our enthusiasms start with us. They’re awakened in us by some good that astonishes us and inspires us to praise. “Yes!” is the primal and primordial impulse of the heart.  It’s not a centripetal desire. It’s a centrifugal acclamation–a self-donative generosity that’s an “Amen!” to the world.

Such self-donative generosity is the only appropriate response to moral value. That which is of preeminent value, that which isn’t just good for something else but good in itself, shouldn’t be treated as a means. It should be appreciated, not used. Sublime music, for example, deserves to be loved and played for itself, not some purpose extraneous to it. Ancient artifacts and celestial bodies deserve the same kind of yea-saying. When shaped by it, archeology and astronomy are exercises in appreciation not entirely different from poetry. Desire, when it sees something good, wants to seize it. But carpe diem is not appreciative; it’s colonizing violence. Unlike desire, passion goes out to the good, instead of trying to take it in. Its “Yes!” is self-expending praise–an endorsement and celebration. The moral good calls upon us to live this “Yes!” and even, in the extreme, to die saying it. Only centrifugal passion enables us to do so.

In our culture, fascination with “shining” experiences that enable us to “transcend” everydayness has a deeply ironic consequence: it blinds us to the difference between desire and passion, centripetal addiction and centripetal enthusiasm. This makes it hard for us to realize that our addictions, which feel so intense, are serving a repressive purpose: they’re sensations that protect us from affections we can’t bear to suffer. Passion is no synonym for desire. It’s the nemesis desire is trying to flee. For some of us, nothing feels so good as the pleasures to which we’ve become addicted. But this feeling is not an emotion; it’s a sensation entirely bereft of the emotion to which our vulnerability makes us liable.  This is precisely what makes it desirable. A culture of addiction comes from, and in turn produces, a profound emotional vacuum.  It is necessarily and inevitably a culture whose distinguishing trait is depression.

Distinguishing between desire and passion does not mean they are distinct, equally basic “parts” of our selves. They’re not.

Desire recoils from a vulnerability that is more primordial than it. To understand how this can be so, we first have to first recognize that, while passion is awakened in us by realities other than us, it is not only or wholly passive. When we’re moved, something is done to us. We suffer it. But it’s the kind of suffering that only a now antiquated meaning of the word “suffering” conveys:  to “suffer” something in the original sense means to allow it to affect one–for example, to let Puccini’s music draw one into the play of its poignancy. In letting oneself be moved, one is already beginning to give oneself to what one finds moving. But besides allowing ourselves to be moved, we can repress this possibility. We can move toward that which draws us out of ourselves–or we can turn away and flee from it.

In short, we choose how to respond to the vulnerability that is primordial in us.  However we choose to respond, we draw upon the passion that vulnerability itself engenders. We give ourselves in love to the future that beckons us–or recoil in terror from it. Desire is itself passion. But it’s passion in flight from its very vulnerability. It’s the open heart turning into a clenched fist. Addiction is passion’s antidote to its own suffering. It’s passion’s attempt to make its affect-ability as cold and hard as marble. Terrified by the danger inherent in wonder and awe, it seeks respite from them in stupefaction. It wants to be in control instead of being liable to wounds. Vulnerability turns out to be a real ability. It can choose receptivity or closure, self-donation or self-protection, centrifugal movement toward the drama of the future or centripetal repression of possibility.

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If we’re to take passion seriously, we have to change the terms of our conversation about the politics of culture. Passion has the potential to become the lynchpin of a new matrix–a new way of thinking about the relationships connecting culture, history and moral order. The argument between desire and repression is interminable and pointless; our addiction to it keeps repressed what is more fundamental than either. If we’re to get beyond the conflict between conservatives and progressives that this argument has created, we have to find a way of understanding moral order that does not fixate on conserving the past, and a way of entering the unprecedented future that does not equate it with licensing desire. The logic of impassioned self-donation meets these requisites.

The conservative is convinced that, if one is not firmly grounded in some unwavering moral certainty, exposure to the play of possibility will cause one to become morally unhinged. The progressive, cringing at the repression required to implement the conservative’s moral vision, is wont to suppose, with Nietzsche, that belief in a moral order that transcends relativities is itself to blame. Jettison it and the rationale for repression evaporates. But, in fact, it’s not the concept of moral order that’s problematic. What’s problematic is the nostalgic perspective the conservative brings to it–the tendency to locate moral order in the past and to construe it as a refuge from historical change.   

We may be persuaded that we can maintain our moral bearings only by refusing to allow history to loosen our grip on the moral certainties we’ve supposedly inherited.  But trying to hold onto moral truths is not a way of being faithful to them.  It’s motivated by a self-protective impulse that sets in motion a centripetal logic. Whatever its intention, the desire for moral certainty is clenched-fisted. It’s motivated by desire, not donative passion. It uses the moral good as a refuge, instead of expending itself in appreciation of it. To think of moral order as a secure anchorage, as a canon of precedents in which our lives can be grounded, is a tragic betrayal of it.

Moral order summons us to live centrifugally–to devote ourselves to it and participate in it.  As historical beings broken open to the play of possibility, we can’tlive centrifugally, as moral order calls us to do, if we recoil from historical change.  We can live centrifugally only by passionately giving ourselves to the unprecedented. It follows from this that moral order has to come to us from, and call us into, the throe of the future. We can become fully engaged participants in the good only by entrusting ourselves wholly and unreservedly to its historical unfolding.  The good doesn’t have the character of a ground. It has the character of a throe. Like music, which is a prophetic anticipation of it, the moral good provokes impassioned appreciation and self-donation. There’s no way for us to live in rapport with it except by giving ourselves to the future into which it summons us.

This is not, however, the whole story. It’s not just the case that, as historical beings, we can access the moral good only by entering the throe of the historical future. The converse is also true: we can enter fully into the historical future only if we approach it as a good that deserves our centrifugal generosity. The progressive may suppose that liberating desire from the repressive regimen of moral order can open culture to unprecedented creativity. But, in fact, desire is a closure, not an opening. It deadens the vulnerability that engenders impassioned originality. It subjects the throe of possibility to centripetal torque. At its root, desire is passion’s terrified recoil from the poignancy of love and death. Passion is open-hearted only when it isn’t clenched-fisted. It’s not possible for us to be receptive to the future or embrace it except by responding to it centrifugally. And we can’t respond to it centrifugally unless we experience it as a good that summons us to self-donative participation in it. Just as the conservative is mistaken in supposing we have to recoil from the future if we’re to access moral order, so the progressive is mistaken in supposing we have to debunk moral order if we’re to enter the future. We can, in fact, be in rapport with moral order only by entering the throe of possibility, and can enter the throe of possibility only by responding centrifugally to the summons of moral order.  

It is this impassioned response to the good, and it alone, that engenders joy.  This truth flies in the face of all our addictions. If desire were primal in us, as our entertainments and advertisements suppose, there would be a fundamental conflict between human psychology and the demands of the moral life. We’d always be struggling against ourselves, and incapable of ever being both good and happy. But, in fact, the child-like is deeper, more personal, more original, than the childish. The aria is more profound and riveting than any escapism.  What affects us first and primordially is the primal gladness of wonder, the shudder of astonishment, the awe-full ardor of venturing into mystery. The human subject is all heart. Each of us is sheer vulnerability. The repressive ego, with its centripetal certainties, and the pleasure-seeking id, with its centripetal addictions, are only reaction-formations. They’re defenses we construct to protect the affect-ability at the core of us. The most primordial of all affects is the self-donative passion evoked in us by the glory we experience in our first fascinations. We’re born praise-singers. Child’s play celebrates by exploring. It goes all-in–without desire’s goal of winning. Unlike our addictions, our joys are self-transcending. We’re ecstatic only when, transported beyond ourselves, we’re in the throe of a goodness not subservient to us. 

The basic imperative of culture is neither to repress desire nor to release it but to do something more profound and difficult: to find a way to tap those vulnerabilities of the heart that alone enable the core of each person to connect with the mysterious goodness of the world.  Culture so conceived isn’t a network of unquestioned assumptions; it isn’t an elaborate artifice of centripetal certainties.  It doesn’t satisfy our nostalgia for security by providing us a substitute for the liquid, careless pleasures of the womb. Culture has to be ground-breaking. It has to shatter the assumptions on which centripetal certainties rest. But it can’t do this by releasing desire. It can do this only by throe-ing us open to the strange, unerring summons of a good that no culture can ever master. We access it only through our impotence and in our vulnerabilities. To be true to this good, a conversation about culture has to lead away from the illusions that repression desires and toward the truths that desire represses. How to begin this conversation?  Perhaps by listening together to music that enables the poignancy of the good to pierce us.

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JEROME ALOYSIUS MILLER earned his Ph.D. from Georgetown University and is now professor emeritus of philosophy at Salisbury University, Maryland. Specializing in philosophy of religion and Continental philosophy, he has authored 'The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis' (1988) and 'In the Throe of Wonder: Intimations of the Sacred in a Post-Modern World' (1992). He has completed work on a yet-unpublished work tentatively titled 'In the Throe of the Future: A Traumatological Inquiry into History, Culture, and Normative Order.'

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