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To Claim the Mundane

for M.B .O’Sullivan

If you’re a habitual visitor to these pages, you’ve probably noticed that this special issue of the Journal of Mundane Behavior differs from its predecessors in a number of ways. Our previous issues had contemporary photos on the cover — enigmatic ones, generally — that we hoped you’d puzzle over for a while before giving in and reading the caption and saying something like “aha! vaginal rings! Now I get it.” This time we’ve gone for the representational, and not only that, we’ve chosen a painting — an old, old painting about an even older theme: an ancient Greek legend; the fall of Icarus. As the story has it, Icarus and his father Daedalus were imprisoned on an island by Minos, king of Crete, and Daedalus built wings out of feathers and wax so that he and his son could escape. But Icarus, drunk on the power of flight and heedless of his father’s warnings, flew too high, too close to the sun; the wax on his wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. Your basic Greek myth, meaning many things at once: Listen to your parents. Pride cometh before a fall. Technology can only get you so far. Remember your sunscreen.

Pieter Bruegel, a Flemish painter, created “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” around the middle of the sixteenth century, and you have to look closely to find the fall: all we can see of Icarus are his naked legs, half-submerged in the sea in the lower right-hand corner. Centuries later, at the dawn of WWII, the British poet W.H. Auden had this to say about the painting:

… everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” reverberated for us in many ways, not least because it resonated so strongly with many other fallings — a year ago this week people fell from the sky — but because it reminded us of the strange marriage we’ve brokered here: atrocity and the everyday. To some, the conjoining seems counterintuitive: after all, isn’t atrocity precisely what does not occur everyday? Doesn’t speaking about atrocity in the same breath as our most mundane activities somehow demean it, detract from the compassion it demands and from the outrage it invites? Or is it more accurate to say that the co-existence of atrocity with the everyday is an atrocity in itself, one that demands our outrage? The answer lies, we believe, in the painting, in which, as Auden noticed, “everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.” As we channel-surf through hunger, terrorism, disease and abuse — those of us, at least, who are fortunate enough to own a TV, pay for cable, and choose what we want to watch — the fact that atrocity does occur everyday, and that some of us have the cash, time and opportunity to sustain the illusion that it doesn’t, should make us think about what we may be turning away from, what failures are deemed by us, like the ploughman, to be important, what is it that we, like the sun, have to do, and where is it that we, like the ship, have to get to that facilitates this comfortable aversion of our gaze. Just how do the mundanities of our everyday lives shield us from disaster? And if we were not shielded, could we have an everyday life? Could we have a life at all?

What Bruegel is saying — and Auden, nearly 400 years later, is repeating — is that it is not callous indifference but the endurance of the mundane that is illuminated — albeit sinisterly — by atrocity. Callous indifference is a problem in itself, but it is, I think, less of a problem than it is generally made out to be. Most people — I may even go so far as to say all people — find the spectacle of human suffering disturbing — that’s precisely why we channel-surf away from it. Those who sanctimoniously enjoin us to “care” are ultimately taking the easy way out: such sermonizing is easier (and far more comfortable) than addressing the uncomfortable fact that one can only care so much before the tragedy of other peoples’ pain invades and ravages our own lives, paralyzing us with grief, drowning us in depression, destroying the reassuring mainstays of our everyday existence and making victims of us too. “Pity,” Hermann Melville once wrote, “is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it.”

How do we reconcile this common sense with pity’s pain? Fields that need to be tilled with bodies falling from the sky? Melville’s fatalism here is disturbing: do common sense and pity need to cancel each other out? Couldn’t they collaborate somewhat more productively? The process of alleviating suffering is generally conceived as three-step: inform, educate, act. But there is an essential middle, invisible step: generating the tools that will integrate this knowledge and action into our everyday lives, providing us with a kind of mental split screen that we can’t channel-surf away from, enabling us to mourn without being bereft, to care without needing to be cared for, to act on behalf of others without paralyzing ourselves. It is this elusive middle step that Bruegel is inviting us to ponder: the painting is not about Icarus, it is not about the landscape. It is about the conjunction of the two, and only we, the viewers, can take that in. Bruegel is inviting us to contemplate none other than ourselves: what does it mean to be human in the face of disaster?

While thinking about this question we need to remember that to turn away from disaster is a profoundly human thing to do. As human beings, we value our bodies and want them to remain healthy. We value the surroundings — food, heat, institutions of support — that facilitate our remaining physically and psychically intact. Bodies broken, minds awry, the institutional “cracks” into which we can fall — all remind us unpleasantly of our fragility. Our everyday lives are designed to keep us from pondering that fragility too closely: we’re too busy, after all, getting to work, making a sandwich, searching for a paper clip, filling out a form, to wonder what would happen if it all went away. Sometimes it is the smallest thing — trying to make a salad with a paper cut, for instance — that topple us, like Icarus, into the painful realization that despite the bastions of everyday life we’ve erected, we are no more than a body half-submerged in death: we are human, we are fallible, we are fragile, we are weak. Everyday life is designed to protect us from that realization, to keep us, for the sake of our sanity, at a safe distance from suffering that could too easily become our own.

Precisely for this reason, though, the spectacle of human fragility has its own attraction. Oedipus’ self-mutilation filled theatres in Greece, and images of atrocity claim first place in our prime time. We surreptitiously glance towards car wrecks or gaze raptly at horrible images in books or on TV or our computer screens. That this fascination co-exists with abomination is not a sad, sad comment on contemporary culture — it, too, is what makes us human beings. But if we want to move away from this fascination with such spectacles and do something about suffering, we need first to recognize the role that the everyday plays in this crucial aspect of our humanity. Because suffering, and the fascination it compels, are located not in some distant jungle, some unpronounceable location, some exotic site, but in the most mundane aspects of our everyday lives — this is what Auden, in the same poem, called suffering’s human position:

About suffering, they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…
Even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

To say that suffering has a human position is to locate suffering firmly within that fortress of minutae, a fortress designed precisely to keep suffering at bay. Be it visible, half-visible (like Icarus’ body), or invisible, suffering is part and parcel of our most mundane activities. We know this, on some level — those of us who consume a disproportionate percentage of the globe’s resources — but we cannot face this fact squarely: such pain, like space, is too vast to imagine. I propose that we turn our gaze away from this incomprehensible pain and towards ourselves: if suffering on so vast a scale is part of our everyday lives, does that mean that, living our everyday lives, we are responsible for other peoples’ suffering, or even culpable in it? Am I to blame for the chaos in the Middle East, the famine in North Korea, the plight of homeless children on the streets of Mexico City? What do the inconsequential minutiae of my day have to do with the dissolution of other peoples’ lives? The turn away from disaster implicitly answers this question with “nothing”: there’s nothing I can do, I’m not responsible, I’m outta here. Such inability to assume responsibility is too often misinterpreted as indifference, but a more accurate designation of the problem lies, I think, in our Manichean tendency towards too firm distinctions between victim and perpetrator, helpless and powerful, innocence and guilt.

Each society has a range of mechanisms — be they legal or religious or some combination of the two — whose purpose is allocating responsibility for suffering. Public opinion, legal judgment, personal and institutional morality — all work to confront suffering, to tame and control it by distinguishing between those who cause suffering and those who are affected by it, effectively separating the guiltless from the guilty, assigning innocence, relegating blame, and managing the uncomfortable computations and negotiations that such allocations require. The inextricability of suffering from everyday life, however, dissolves these distinctions, rendering these mechanisms irrelevant: innocence, says Auden, is beside the point; it’s a privilege reserved for the torturer’s horse (the horse’s ass, actually). If suffering is human, innocence is not: it is neither our birthright, nor something we can strive for, conquer, buy, steal or claim.

* * * * *

Another unique aspect of this issue is its timing. We wanted to open this issue — an issue dedicated to marking the terror attacks of September 11 — by reflecting on how, presidential rhetoric to the contrary, what we are taking note of is both entirely unprecedented and, at the same time, nothing new. Depending on your political inclinations, the events of September 11, 2001 were either unique or inevitable, richly deserved or entirely unprovoked, a predictable product of generations of conflict or the dawn of an entirely new age. And the release of this issue one year after that date lends these questions additional weight: What is this timing meant to convey? Are we remembering September 11th, and if so, how? Are we commemorating it, and if so, as what? The answer to either question is rife with conflict — think about the current debate over what to do with ground zero, for instance — but it needs to be answered, and answered soon, because once September 11, 2001 is remembered, the manner in which it is commemorated will become part of our everyday lives, marking us inescapably as members of a certain community with which we may not wish to identify (I write this in Rhode Island which celebrates V-J day — Victory Over Japan — annually). Thinking about how to insinuate September 11 into part of our daily lives is thinking about who, and how, we want to be.

Official commemoration is different from personal memory, of course, but it is official commemoration that gets inscribed into the communal identity — be it national, ethnic, regional or religious — in the name of which intense suffering is inflicted by some individuals on to others regardless of personal affiliations or beliefs. We need, therefore, to be very vigilant about official commemoration and about what that commemoration says about us, because such articulations form us — and inform our futures. In his celebratory essay on nationalism, Ernst Renan said that nations are constituted by forgetting — specifically, by forgetting atrocities like the massacre of Saint Bartholomew (“it is good for everyone to know how to forget”). Over a century later Benedict Anderson, noting what nations can do to each other, replied that one needs to know what it is one has forgotten — in other words, you must remember something in order to “have already forgotten” it. Memory and forgetting play a crucial role in national, religious, ethnic communities and the atrocities that these communities inflict upon each other, forming a deadly cycle which preserves ancient hatreds while our ability to act on these hatreds is enhanced — the Nazis taught us that and fifty years later events in the Balkans reminded us. Perhaps we need to be reminded again and again: forgetting is intricately tied up with memory; you can’t do one without the other, and the politics of commemoration cannot be ignored.

It is for this reason that this issue of the journal, while deliberately released one year after September 11, deals only indirectly with the events of that day. Rather, we’ve chosen to focus on how incidents that, because of the degree of horror they imply, should disrupt our daily lives are acclimated into them — through pedagogy, through the media, through therapy, through our collective social, historical and statistical narratives. What should disrupt our daily lives is, of course, a loaded question: just what do we mean when we say “atrocity”? The dictionary, in this case, is vastly unhelpful: atrocity is generally defined as that which has the quality of being atrocious, which means that an atrocity can be anything from a heap of dead bodies to Brittney Spears on a bad hair day. I like this vagueness, because it puts the definition of atrocity firmly in our hands and makes us responsible for what we choose to be outraged by (“outrage” implies, for me at least, a degree of passivity and helplessness, as if rage had erupted from us, propelled by some force beyond our control). At the same time though, to think of something as “an atrocity” objectivizes it somewhat, freezes it in space and time and sets it up for our observation in a frame, a screen, a classroom, or some other space that is at a certain safe distance from our everyday lives. Mapping this distance, scrutinizing and traversing it, or otherwise putting this space to good use is an underlying concern for all the authors in this issue. Each of them, in a variety of ways, wants to make the invisible visible, to capture the process of turning towards or away from pain and to display that process for our perusal. If the pain they study varies from the cosmic to the most deeply personal, the wide range of topics covered in this issue reflect less on the elusiveness of some concept of “adequate pain” that would qualify as a legitimate “atrocity” but, rather, illuminates the richness of our ways of seeing, understanding and approaching disaster.

Kelly Train’s “As Long As It’s Not In My Backyard: September 11th and Other Apocalyptic Events” discusses how the conglomeration of events we know as “September 11th” have been mobilized as an argument for American exceptionalism. Through their construction and depiction in news media and political rhetoric, September 11th has been discursively produced as “unique,” distinct and isolated from other acts of terror across the globe. Such a production, Train argues, facilitates an essentially self-serving American ideology: if September 11 is not mundane, if it is not “just another atrocity” like those we view every day on the nightly news, U.S. response to it (both domestically and internationally) is justified as an exceptional response to an unprecedented disaster.

The interaction of specific perceptions and widespread action is continued in William Bostock’s essay, “Atrocity, Mundanity, and Mental State.” Bostock opens with the enigmatic statement: “Atrocity is an attack on mundanity,” and elaborates that “the mundanity of one individual, group, community, or civilization, may be an affront to certain other individuals and groups.” Viewing one culture’s everyday life as an atrocity perpetrated against another culture is, for Bostock, the product of a “disturbed collective mental state,” for which the perpetration of violence can have a certain therapeutic value. An enigmatic link between sociology and psychology, perturbed perceptions and perturbing acts, Bostock’s essay is especially relevant as increasing globalization, combined with media sophistication, contributes to the construction and facilitation of the situations he describes.

The link between the suffering individual and cultural suffering is explored further in Mark Borg’s “Personal Atrocity, Sadomasochism, and the Secret Lover’s Unshared Tryst,” an account of a therapeutic process by which, through the intimacies of the analyst/analysand relationship, personal suffering meets domestic trauma through the cultural cataclysm of the Holocaust. Stylistically, the author echoes these levels of suffering by moving, at times, from a clinical to an anecdotal to a personal voice, demonstrating on a range of levels how suffering, in its varying manifestations, interpenetrates not only our experience of the world but our articulations of this experience.

A similar range of voices is articulated in the following essay, “How to Make Your Students Cry: Lessons in Atrocity, Pedagogy, and Heightened Emotion,” as Natalie Friedman explores the connection between atrocity and teaching. The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and a teacher of Holocaust literature and expository writing, Friedman moves through personal reflection, rhetorical and pedagogical theory, classroom anecdotes and literary analysis to analyze how her personal knowledge, outrage and anger work to generate an emotional response from her students, a response that, significantly, helps the students break through sentimental platitudes and stifled classroom culture to produce more thoughtful, self-reflexive, and courageous writing.

Moving from the individual back to the social level, Stevphen Shukaitis and Rachel Lichtenfeld, co-authors of “Tragedy of the Common: Markedness and the Creation of Mundane Tragedy,” note that the manner in which an atrocity is represented determines the degree to which it will invade our everyday lives. Shukaitis and Lichtenfeld add that this representation works to package atrocity into a commodifiable element while it simultaneously effaces the suffering that it was initially designed to highlight. But it is precisely this process, they conclude, that can be harnessed and utilized for positive purposes: political involvement and engagement in the problem of suffering.

The interpenetration of visible and invisible suffering is also a concern in “Police Use of Excessive Force against Black Males: Aberrations or Everyday Occurrences” by Judson Jeffries. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary and a lack of conclusive data, says Jeffries, black men are the victims of a disproportionate degree of police brutality. Jeffries’ essay raises this enigmatic question: when a problem is not deemed worthy of study, or when the methods by which studies are undertaken do not take into account factors like reluctance to report incidents of brutality or the tendency of perpetrators towards duplicity, how do you prove the problem exists, much less begin to formulate a solution? Hopefully Jeffries’ essay will pave the way towards more effective approaches to this serious concern.

Scott Schaffer offers us a “politics of outrage” in his contribution to the issue. Looking at the presence of “ordinary atrocities” – everyday events, such as encountering people who are homeless or social phenomena such as sexual violence – Schaffer argues that our imbuement in our everyday lives prevents us from understanding how and why these phenomena recur. Much like the versions of atrocity we are used to – war, disease, famine – these ordinary atrocities feel overwhelming; but Schaffer claims that by channeling the sense of fury we prevent ourselves from feeling into a coherent vision of the world we would like to see, we can achieve social change that can prevent future atrocities, be they local or global.

Sol Bard’s photograph of the Twin Towers concludes this special issue. Looking both forward (at the rising sun) and back (when the World Trade Center was intact), this photo serves as our commemoration for the past victims of this disaster, as well as marking our concern for future victims of its aftermath. When we juxtaposed this photograph with the Allingham quote, we found a dual vision of past and future, the devastated with the intact, the work of mourning with the celebration of those infinite possibilities that each of our most mundane days presents. This is the tone on which we’ve chosen to end this issue on Atrocity, Outrage and the Ordinary – an end that, we hope, will be a beginning as well.

* * * * *

It is somewhat traditional for editors of special issues of the Journal of Mundane Behavior to comment, however briefly, on why they were compelled toward that particular theme. My own reason was simple: I wanted to edit this special edition because I am Israeli and I have lived with atrocity for most of my life. This means not only that atrocity has invaded my everyday life in the form of rocket attacks, suicide bombs, innocent objects laced with explosives, and a myriad of other manifestations, but because I am close, very very close, to atrocities inflicted on my neighbors the Palestinians. My generation is the generation that invaded Lebanon, that faced two Intifadas, and that killed and died in Gaza and Hebron. We saw the Zionist ideology that saved our parents and grandparents from the death camps crumble as, in its name, we did terrible things to other people. When I say that atrocity has marked my life, then, it is not as a victim that I speak but as a perpetrator as well: while bits and pieces of Israelis have been collected from the smoking remnants of a building or a bus, thousands of Palestinians have been rounded up, arrested, interrogated and beaten. While Israelis now think twice before gathering at a restaurant or café, Palestinians are confined to their homes for weeks on end, deprived of food and medicine. These sad facts show, not that one side suffers more, but that both sides suffer, and that our suffering is linked, as linked as our hopes and dreams for a future on the same godforsaken strip of sand and stone.

And yet — and this is the strangest part — it is this knowledge, this experience, this uncomfortable intimacy with suffering, that makes me somewhat hopeful. Because as we — Israelis and Palestinians — awkwardly, angrily, hesitantly talk about peace, what keeps us coming back to the table is the painful awareness of what we have done to each other, this unbearable community of suffering we have created together. This is a community in which the most mundane elements of everyday life — running out for milk, getting on a bus, getting to work or to school, meeting a friend — have become the site of our bloodiest battles, our most heartbreaking losses, our most unforgivable crimes. At the same time, this is a community in which these same mundane elements — running out for milk, getting on a bus, getting to work or to school, meeting a friend — are the site of our greatest triumphs. These triumphs, this snatching at scraps and shreds of normalcy in the midst of disaster, are like shards of a broken mirror that reflect an unscathed sky. Like the women in Buchenwald who swapped recipes while they were starving, to claim the mundane is to cling to survival. It’s a flight towards the sun despite the roiling waters underneath. It’s not a solution, it’s not even a panacea, but it’s a gesture towards the privilege of having a life. And in the face of such misery, when faced with such suffering, to claim the mundane can be on occasion the strongest, most hopeful, most human thing to do.

Author: Naomi Mandel is a member of the JMB editorial board and assistant professor of contemporary US literature and culture at the University of Rhode Island. She has published essays on Toni Morrison, Elie Wiesel, Art Spiegelman, and critical theory after the Holocaust, and is currently writing a book that explores the interrelation of atrocity and identity in literature, critical theory, popular culture, and film.

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