Saturday, July 14, 2007

Studying Political Theory through Fiction

I am progressing slower than I would like through the excerpt of J. M. Coetzee's new novel Diary of a Bad Year in The New York Review. I can give the usual excuses about all the things that have been occupying my time; but, having discovered that this "novel" may be a framework for some rather radical thoughts about the current political situation, I find myself reading every paragraph very closely. I think it is still the case that I have not yet figured out how to approach the excerpt in its entirety (let alone how to prepare for the book in its entirety); but, given the currently relations between the executive and legislative branches of my own government, one paragraph jumped out at me as a piece of text that I really wanted to see. So, in the interest of "sharing with the group," here it is:

If you take issue with democracy in times when everyone claims to be heart and soul a democrat, you run the risk of losing touch with reality. To regain touch, you must at every moment remind yourself of what it is like to come face to face with the state—the democratic state or any other—in the person of the state official. Then ask yourself: Who serves whom? Who is the servant, who the master?

Enthusiastic readers should be quick to see the resonance with the "Humpty Dumpty question" about the meaning of words in Through the Looking Glass; but this passage also needs to be read in the context of the previous excerpt I cited, which basically asserts that a "state" is an institutionalization of slavery. Needless to say, our own situation in the United States all but cries out for our asking whether we are being not only represented in the workings of our government but also served by those workings. I doubt that very many of us are satisfied with the prevailing answer!

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