Tag Archives: Frank Moretti

“Is your country your mother or your father?”


Two Kinds of Text

Please feel free to respond, but see if you can keep your commentary moored in the two things we read for today. At least initially. So that we don’t wind up talking about a text that we co-create in the class, as opposed to what your ancient professor has asked you to read.

Fromm and Virgil: Family

The assertion that family is important is the beginning of the conversation. Now we need to take that up in the context of these two texts. I don’t think the issue is the question of whether family is consequential or important, but rather a matter of “how” is family consequential. Just as a quick little example: where Fromm is talking about the process of coming of age, which means moving away from family, in a pretty significant way, what the Aeneid is talking about is a process of coming of age of Aeneas, which is also in some way about moving away from family. There’s a still a universe of things we need to talk about here. There’s tension: we need to understand how that tension functions and works in these texts.

Vietnam and Italy

(Student mentions a story about her brother.)

Frank: Was he [student’s brother] a soldier?

Student: He was a Vietnam vet, yeah.

F: Did that have anything to do with him being part of the family?

S: Well not really, it more to do with him being part of another family…

F: So why did he do that?

S: To be different than the rest of us…he had to establish his own self, and he couldn’t do that with us around.

F: So to establish himself he became a soldier and a part of a larger family, a different family?

S: Yes, and now he’s back with us…

F: The good fortune is that he came back. If he’d gone to Vietnam and was killed, maimed, or disabled for the rest of his life, maybe the choice of the other family would have been a mistake. Maybe if he were Pallas, it would have been a mistake. Whose father gave him to Aeneas in order to fight the war, and he tears himself from the embrace of the father and puts him into the embrace of Aeneas. And what is the nature of that embrace? Aeneas can’t really take care of him. So the new family doesn’t work.


Do you remember what Virgil actually says? It’s very poignant. Remember what Aeneas actually tries to do. “Oh father, let me hold your right hand fast. Do not withdraw from my embrace.” And what does he do? He tries to hug his father. Three or four times he tries to hug him, but his hands pass through him. Because he’s really not the father that he was. And then what does the father do? He shows him the future. He defines what responsibility and duty is. Because he’s like the link in the chain of that future. If he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, the chain will be broken. That future can’t exist. So that somehow you become connected to fate, and you’re capacity to choose no longer exists. So that the personal father is no longer available to him. He no longer has a personal father in that particular context. And the only way he can please his father is by doing what? By going to Vietnam. Or in this case Italy.

A Question

Is your country your mother or your father?


Once you separate and the umbilical chord is cut and you’re in the world and you’ve given up what is literally a perfect existence in the mother’s womb, you then have a wound. You’re wounded. Just by the very fact of birth. And you need to then find a new rootedness. And that’s why we take such good care of babies. In some way they’re seriously deprived in the act of birth. And this is replicated in a lot of the mythology. So leaving the Garden of Eden, or so many different myths that depict the rupture into consciousness and individuality. This is a way of construing them.

Now the people that really understand the wounded nature of all people are in a very powerful position. If in fact they can create the cultural constructs, they are then more able to profoundly manipulate and direct those natural desires and energies in the direction of the set of goals that you as a person purse, given what you’re interested it. Fromm has not arbitrarily chosen this as a subject. He is a member of the Frankfurt School. He is a powerful psychologist. He was interested in the political effects of human psychology as they arose in Nazi Germany. His interest in the fatherland and motherland, and matriarchal or patriarchal potentialities that are, on the hand, he would argue are deeply part of individual psychology of any human being who is born, regardless frankly of the circumstance you find yourself. You in the end will find ways to define duty for yourself. You in the end will find ways to define rootedness for yourself. And then the question is: in a larger cultural-political context, how do those in power potentially manipulate you? The Aeneid is the story of a man moving away from family as we conventionally know it, represented by the image of him carrying his father, and walking with his child in his hand, out of the burning city of Troy, before he gets on the ship and takes them to Italy. From that position, all of a sudden his father represents this future, which is completely dependent on him. His son becomes the next link in the chain, to be trained, so he is oriented to that future. And in a way it’s most idealized version of what I just described, is in the funeral oration of Pericles in Thucydides. Where basically that oration is a eulogy of the city as a collective entity, far from reality, most people would argue. Then a plea to the people who actually lost loved ones in the first series of battles in the Peloponnesian Wars, to find value in that loss. Related to the fact that that loss was somehow in the interest of something very much like what Anchises basically wants Aeneas to understand as the reason for subordinating every personal and individual impulse he has in the interest of a future history…

The Aeneid is read in lots of different ways, and is a critical text. Probably of more crucial importance than the Iliad for more immediate history, because it begins to deal with representations that are much closer to the representations that we create for ourselves.


“A reason, regardless of the mayhem, to live.”

Fragments of Frank, 10.6.10 (con)

Maybe the problem is that we’ve never studied history.

Just before you leave I wanted to recommend something to everybody. I’ve spent just as much time as you reading this for this class. But last night, at 9 o’clock, I watched a two-hour documentary on Daniel Ellsberg. I recommend that you watch this documentary. It was put on PBS. It’s probably on the web. It was amazing to have Herodotus and Thucydides in your mind when you’re listening to Daniel Ellsberg. He was the guy who released the pentagon papers. Basically: the Pentagon papers were 7,000 pages of research done by the Rand Corporation, historically, about Vietnam. From World War II to that present moment. They describe how every president from Harry Truman on dealt with it, and what the realities were. What Ellsberg reveals, and this is common knowledge now, is that every president lied through their teeth in an effort to characterize that situation and mobilize more people to become the heroes of their families. You can see the amazing continuities between it and the Thucydidean analysis, particularly when he begins to talk about the hypocrisy, and the way that, if a thing is one thing, it’s described as its opposite. Remember that riff that Thucydides does in Book III, 81-83, about how everything is “reversed.” I challenge you to read that and watch this documentary and tell me that anything is different. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no reason to study history. I mean, maybe that is the reason to study history. Maybe the problem is that we’ve never studied history.

A reason, regardless of the mayhem, to live

…Remember when we talked about Prometheus Bound, that little passage about blind hope? And how the difference between humanity—somehow at the time before—and somehow that time on, or some more recent time passed on—the difference was that we no longer could see the future, but because we can no longer see the future what we have now is blind hope? The way we decide to instrument our hope, whether it’s through religion or whatever it happens to be, one of the ways the Greeks thought they could realize the possibilities of that hope was through the use of reason. So whether you are a Sophist or a philosopher or a historian or a dramatist, the motivation to create these powerful lenses on their own worlds, to look at themselves, implies that belief that there still is a reason, regardless of the mayhem, to live. And that humanity still has possibilities. We don’t need to live with the vision of that earlier time when all we could imagine was our own demise. Probably because we had absolutely no control over the physical environment in the years before we have history qua history, even archeological history. So I would think no matter how compelling the depravity in Thucydides, in the description, still: the fact that he chose to write this, it talks about a kind of essential faith that he has in something that is quintessentially Ancient Greek. It has to do with rationality against power. Even though he talks about all its twisted manifestations.

Idyllic Democracy and Imperial Endeavor

One of the questions we want don’t want to bag, and we’re not going to answer it tonight, is: Was Athens a democracy in the ideal sense that we tend to use it, as a way of creating an ideal type of democracy, or was it a local reflection of the way in which they functioned externally? Remember: they put Socrates to death. Remember: Aristocrats created revolutions in the fifth century. Remember: did you read the Orestes? When the Orestes was performed, Euripides was already ostracized from Athens. He was living on some island someplace. He wasn’t allowed back into the city. This was very common. Themistocles was ostracized. And many other people within that community. So the idyllic nature of democracy in comparison with their imperial endeavor may be a constant. You could create a contrast between those two things, but if you do a closer study of the history there’s less of a contrast there but more of an extension externally of what’s going on internally. And maybe that’s the same thing that’s happening in the United States. So you watch that documentary about Daniel Ellsberg. If there’s anyone that represents moral activity it’s him. His attourney was a friend of mine. He really is what he seems to be, if you’re willing to listen to the story.

Fragments of Frank Moretti, “The Birth of the Parameters of Understanding”

The classicist, educator, and technologist Frank Moretti passed away last year. While he published many articles and several books, Frank’s thinking was also present in his seminars on the History of Communication and Communication Theory and Social Thought. I recorded many of these seminars as a student  between 2010-2012. As a tribute to Frank’s voice and thought, I am transcribing passages from these recordings where Frank speaks at length.



The Havelock. Even if you don’t like his interpretation of the notion of the hypnosis of poetry, and the emergence of philosophy, the last two chapters are the identifier of the knower. In other words, all of sudden we believe that we can know. And somehow we begin to construct an identity where we can know things beyond appearances. So I can look at you, at each of you, and I can figure out what you really are. What I see isn’t giving me a lot of evidence, because we’ve all learned how to manipulate our masks. But the whole notion that somehow there’s a deeper reality behind appearances, is a new emergent notion. It’s clear that it wasn’t in Homer. And also that the object of knowledge is something that tries to hide, that it’s not always easy to figure out how this knowing subject should say: “Ah! That’s it!” as opposed to claiming that it’s this story or that story or this story. And so, regardless of how you feel about them, they’re both somehow playing in that same universe of people who are beginning to believe in themselves as having an intellect that pierces appearances and looks at differences and fashions an object within a deeper whole of what’s real and what’s not.

Now, the Sen interview. The reason why I wanted you to pay attention to that: it’s a contemporary taking up of the question of what the object of knowledge can be. How do you arrive at courses of action in real life when you’re trying to help people? That’s Sen’s question. How do you decide what to do? Do you do it from the premise that you know the truth and then you elaborate different kinds of policies and modes of intervention in the first world, second world, or third world–or whatever world you’re working in? Or do you try to somehow get down the ground and understand circumstances and develop a debate that allows you to make a prudent judgement whereby you think that the thing you’re going to do is better than the thing that others propose. So you’re choosing comparatively as opposed to absolutely. The book that Muldani wrote about Darfur [for instance]. You read that book, and it’s a critique of the Western way of engaging that problem, which is based on all these absolute assumptions. That notion of absolute assumptions is a position about knowledge: that you can start from these absolute places. He’s arguing that, to really figure out this problem, you really have to do the anthropology. You have to understand the ethnic histories. And no judgements are simple. So everyone wants to believe “Save Darfur!” There are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys are good this way and the bad guys are bad that way. It’s just a ridiculous analysis. It just obliterates the complexity of human experience. And Sen tries to take up that question: well, how are you supposed to make judgements if you don’t believe that there’s just one way, and we can find out, by virtue of that way, what the truth is and who is good and who is bad absolutely?


What you created was an interesting comparison. I’m not sure I agree with it: that Herodotus is the plurality and Thucydides believes in a kind mono-causal universe. Going back to the bottle [points to a bottle of seltzer]. Here’s the problem in life. Let’s say that the bottle is a problem. Then we have to figure out collectively what we’re going to do about the bottle. How do you proceed? Do you proceed with the notion that there is a truth that we could look to–however it is we figure it out–and then take our direction on how to deal with the bottle? Or do we try to create as robust a dialogue as possible about the fact that you can’t see this bottle from the perspective I see it? When I see a seltzer bottle I think of the seltzer I used to make, because I used to work at my grandfather’s soda factory for all the early years of my life, from the time I was five. So everybody does have a different experience of things. Now, is every experience of equal value? No. And that’s where a Sophist would bring in the question of rationality. Rationality is not a technique to derive the absolute truth, but rather an instrument or tool (which is what Sen would say) to figure out the best possible solution. Think of all of the ways that people try to claim they know what the problem is and where it came from–some are hideous and ridiculous. The reality is that it takes a collective endeavor to understand the problem, and even then you’re making decisions, and decisions are always based on limited human capacities to know and understand. People like Sen and Bruno Latour and others would argue that even in science it’s the same thing. That it doesn’t change because you can somehow invoke science. In fact, Latour says that one of our big problems now is that we let the scientists believe that they have an absolute purchase on a reality that no one else can understand. So what I was saying was, I liked your distinction, but I was also thinking that these two perspectives are alike in certain ways. They’re both recognizing the challenge of trying to understand. It’s as simple as that. The connection between them and Sen: I’m saying Herodotus and Thucydides show us the birth of the parameters for understanding.