Author: Bruce Robbins

The Germans Come Back to Psari

Elsa said it once or twice as a joke: “The Germans are coming back to Psari! Och!” The “Och!” was supposed to express fake fear. When they had come before, in the early summer of 1944, the fear had been well grounded. The village had been occupied, a woman raped, and the occupiers chased out by the Resistance. Then the German army had come back, the village had been burned to the ground, along with all its crops, and those inhabitants who had not fled (the usual number given is 5) had been shot. Those who hid in the...

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Fuck Work: Social Necessity and Meaning

Paul Jorion asks, “what is Livingston’s argument? Does he say that work is an abomination and if we had an ounce of reason, we would never have learned to love it? Or does he say that there is no more work and that we should mourn it? These are, of course, different conclusions and their assumptions are different. In the first case, if we should never have learned to love work, then our present era doesn’t differ at all from those that preceded it, and our own stupidity – of which our love of work would be the confirmation – is a constant.” From the point of view of abstract reason, these two arguments do indeed look like logical alternatives. From the perspective of a historian, however, and in particular a historian who has taken Hegelian dialectics as seriously as James Livingston has, there is no real choice between them. Smart and stupid are historically relative, as is reason itself. History, which as Livingston argues has been slowly pushing toward the abolition of work—that is, work in the sense that Hegel himself celebrated, as a mixing of oneself with the world and therefore as a means of self-transcendence– has thereby made it possible and then increasingly likely that we will find work an abomination and will castigate ourselves for our stupidity in loving it. From a Hegelian viewpoint, the...

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Trumpism at Columbia

A year ago, at the lunch honoring awardees of the Pulitzer Prize, Columbia President Lee Bollinger remarked that “the more bleak the world becomes—the less people seem to care about what is true and what is false.” By “people” he clearly meant President Trump and those who take his diatribes against the press in stride. Bollinger could safely assume that his audience of distinguished journalists would know which side he is on. Not only is he a renowned scholar and defender of free speech, but within days of Trump’s 2017 executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, he...

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The Young Karl Marx

The Young Karl Marx (dir. Raoul Peck) opens in a forest. The forest is almost painfully beautiful. Peasants are gathering sticks for firewood — only dead wood from the forest floor, nothing that’s still growing. Suddenly they are attacked by police on horseback. Some are killed. We see their bodies, eyes open. The scene is historically accurate in at least two senses: landowners in the wine-growing area of Trier, where Karl Marx was born, were just then asserting exclusive ownership over common lands where tradition afforded villagers limited but important rights, like the gathering of firewood. And it was this local...

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Thank You For Your Service

Even if they haven’t seen the movie, people above a certain age will remember Jack Nicholson’s final speech in A Few Good Men: “You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” Nicholson, a colonel in the Marines, is confessing to his guilt for having had one of his men beaten to death. He confesses because he believes he was right, and he believes that, deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, his fellow Americans know he was right. Sometimes defending the nation will require breaking the rules.  It will require getting your hands dirty. In the midst of America’s many high-energy debates about immigration and the building and manning of walls, there is a simple moral truth that has been overlooked.  It’s that truth, I think, that has made this maiden effort by Aaron Sorkin one of the most quoted speeches in Hollywood history.  It’s the same truth that gives such emotional sizzle to the formula “thank you for your service,” and does so even when those words sound, as they often do, and not just to veterans, shallow, ignorant, and insufficient.  The truth is that we depend on people far away over the horizon, doing and suffering unspeakable things so that we can live our more...

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