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Summer School 2016 – Abstracts Morning Lectures

The Tides of Babylon: The Apocalypse of Territoriality in Melville and D’Annunzio

Bernhard Siegert

Babylon is the name of the triangle between the founding (and the stabilizing) of a collective, the symbolic (as law), and the elementary space of the sea. In the Revelation of John Babylon is called the “the great harlot who sits on many waters”, who will be annihilated by the coming of the New Jerusalem. At the beginning of modernity – in Herman Melville’s Confidence Man – as well as around 1900 – in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s La Nave (but also in authors like Kafka et al.) – the Apocalypse is revisited in different ways, which represent alternative models of reflection of what Carl Schmitt diagnosed in 1950 as crisis of the European Nomos.

The thesis from which I depart is, that the construction of meaning is dependent on the historical conditions of possibility to operationalize the distinction between land, sea, and air (and the “ether”), to translate that distinction in anthropological, religious, and political knowledge, to transgress it, to negate it, and to re-enact it within technical media. In so-called “modernity” the constructedness and contingency of meaning becomes a part of culture; referentiality appears as mediated by technology; the coupling between signifiers and signifieds is no longer guaranteed by the Great Other but is related to a technical process of articulation and hence to some original formless, which discovers its own cosmological prototype by revoking the distinction between land and sea.

Both, Melville and D’Annunzio, depart from a crisis of the land-sea-distinction when conceiving of the frontier society or the political community – a crisis which gives rise to an immense movement of deterritorialization. Melville’s last novel interprets the frontier between the territory of the US and the terra nullius as the limits of an ontologically secured territoriality, which once guaranteed the stability of sign relations and identities; whereas D’Annunzio’s literature pursues the program of an imperial re-territorialization in the name of a renovated Mare Nostrum.

The reflection of the culture-technical backgrounds of these apocalyptic models, which are so deeply rooted in Western culture, appears to be exigent in our present times as we are told that Europe’s external borders have stopped to exist, and old legal- and geo-political concepts loom in the background of the current discussion on the Decline of the West: mare nostrum, res omnium, terra nullius and the New Nomos of the Sea.

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