A Restless Ethics:
Along the Frontier from Levinas to Stein to the Wild West
Now might be either a very good time or a very bad time to revisit the cowboy novel, especially in the name of ethics. And it might be the most apt time one could imagine to draw upon French theory to inform one’s reading of the cowboy novel. In any case, the idea of an ethics of the frontier might sound horrifying upon first hearing, especially if that frontier would be the limit of an advancing empire which founds its ideal of peace upon bloody, but secure, borders. The reading I want to give of the frontier, however, would make it entirely unsecure, impossible to make secure, and, in practice, a region of restlessness that allows for no empire to found itself at all.
To be clear, I am not certain that I will get to the part about empire. It will even take some time to get to the cowboy novel, properly speaking. I want to start with the individual, the philosophical subject, and work out towards its others. Or, perhaps more accurately, I want to start with the frontier between the subject and its others and work out in both directions to see what becomes of the depths of each when the frontier itself is a paradoxical region of no thickness. Thus, what one might call simply a fascination with the unrepresentable limit, with the infinitesimally small, with the impossibly restless, with that which cannot be pinned down or definitively located or made to take a stance, what one might call merely an obsession with a paradoxically positive nothing, probably is just that obsession. What I am hoping one can call it additionally is an ethical project which will not quite be a project, but more like an ethics precisely outside of project, or outside of the horizons of subjective ambition or intention. What such a project could mean for empire might have to remain implicit for now.
To be somewhat less abstract, what I hope to achieve from juxtaposing notions of the frontier, of a certain restlessness which is not yet subjective, and an idea of a metonymic method for delineating the relations between entities at their frontiers---a method which is bound to fail--is an articulation of the undoing of subjectivity itself. This would be nothing new except for two things: the celebrated postmodern “undoing” of the subject has resulted in some ingenious efforts to shore it back up in the name of ethics, whereas an ethics proper to its very undoing has yet to be fully articulated. That such an articulation might, strictly speaking, be impossible is precisely the source of its hold over me; it may be that, in the end, I only undertake this as an excuse to go head over heels over the very idea of a restlessness which promises everything while granting nothing.
Be that as it may, the problem I wish to engage while undergoing this free-fall is that of how to construe an ethics out of a relatively new tradition, which has seemed bent on ungrounding anything like a metaphysical moral order. But rather than resurrecting something of the kind, even contingently or ironically, I wish to interrogate thoroughly the possibility that, as Deleuze puts it in Logic of Sense, the “Aion” of the surface, the very point at which moral depth unravels, “commands another ethic" (62) In doing so I hope to take seriously the charge leveled at “most postmodern critics” by William E. Bevis, that “they are themselves speaking from within liquidity, from within a bias towards free-thinking, mobility, and variety” and that from such a bias surfaces an ethical irresponsibility towards place and those who would draw their identities from a specific regionality--in this particular case, Native Americans. As Bevis argues, “capitalist modernity seeks to create a kind of no-place center, compared to which all ‘places or ‘regions’ are marginal,” and which moves from region to region in search of resources to exploit for profit (“Region, Power, Place” 21-22).
Mine is not a project of economics, and might not turn out to be overtly political in presentation, but criticisms of postmodern subjectivity as an irresponsible “liquidator” of such obscure categories as “the real,” or “experience,” or “lived history,” are varied enough that I believe I can approach the one Bevis is making, along with implicit others, from an ethical point of view. In fact, an ethics which emphatically does not arise from the moral self-absorption of the American individualist, which instead takes as its inaugural point that moment where the membranes separating self from other break down, and which can be seen to arise most unexpectedly in the literature of a certain metonymic frontier, could offer an ameliorative alternative to the ethic of a free and free-wheeling subject, be it conceived popularly as libertarian sovereign or academically as fragmented locus of postmodern irresponsibility.
To be sure, the postmodern subject is not everywhere articulated thus. Even Deleuze glimpses an ethics behind the “game” of sense, a game which unfolds “without responsibility” but in which each singularity “communicates and resonates with the others” (60). I would like to take as one of many jumping-off points (for I will be beginning again and again or perhaps will never even be able to get going) Adriana Cavarero’s “who,” who emerges as “the unifying meaning” of a personal story, but “can only be posed . . . in the form of a question” (2), and ask if this question is the frontier between the self and the other, a question that is like Deleuze’s game in that it assumes no correct answer, no “good sense,” but subsists as an event which itself cannot be known. And although, in Relating Narratives, she does not name Levinas explicitly, Cavarero’s “narratable self,” which may be said to be “first of all a desire for narration,” and an exposure to such narration as it is bestowed as a “gift” from the other (15-19), bears more than a passing similarity to what may be construed, in a sort of reading which moves in between Levinas and Deleuze, as the event of the approach of the other which both calls the self into responsibility and into question: a movement that enacts a demand for presence which is impossible to meet.
At this point, but more likely at some point in the future, I would like to ponder the extent to which the impossible answer demanded of the Levinasian self, which is not itself until the other approaches and bestows its gift, the ability to say “I,” is accomodatable to Agamben’s notion of the irreparable in The Coming Community. That is, in my never-ending desire to have it both ways, I would like to find some communication between infinite responsibility to the other and the “natural joy” of “the lack of the vision of God” (Agamben 5), precisely because both seem to proceed from that point where “the authentic and proper have no other content than the inauthentic and the improper” (Agamben 13), that point where the other and the same are not, strictly speaking, distinguishable, since together, as an event, they form the condition of possibility for distinguishing. In this I will have been anticipated by Thomas Wall, who writes in Radical Passivity that Levinas’ Other, Autrui, “is an alterity that the moi itself is” (4), and goes on to draw out the paradox of an ensuing ethics which “is born ex nihiloÑfrom its own absence” (48). What I would like to add to Wall’s reading is a sense of the positivity of this absence, both on the part of ethics and on the part of the subject, wherein it is not enough to say, “I am nothing,” or that this ethics does not form a system between identities, but rather which includes a kind of infinite waiting to say: a “halo,” or a promise.
But this itself might have to wait, or it might have to be content with mere allusion for a time longer. Instead, the movement I imagine for the dissertation will begin with an ethics of ir/responsibility and restlessness at the frontier between self and other, or the frontier which is the event of both, and pass through the possibility that metonymy can be conceived as a figure for signaling this event as both Deleuze’s presupposition of language itself and Cavarero’s exposure to narration. Immediately afterwards, I will enlist the help of Gertrude Stein to ease my way from abstract frontiers to those which are more concrete, by way of a metonymy that echoes a certain limitlessness with which the American frontier itself has been associated. It is in this way that I plan to argue that Stein is an author of the American West even though she wrote the frontier from Paris.
In any case, if I have brought myself back around to a Levinasian inquiétude at this point, placing the metonymic as the servant and creator of restlessness, I will then ponder the possibility of an ethics construable from an oeuvre as apparently indifferent to such questions as Gertrude Stein’s, and attempt to draw out less esoteric moments in other American Western authors where the frontier has, at times in spite of the author’s best efforts, called into question the tenets of American individualism and its self-involved ethical stance. This sort of a reading, of, say, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, would be slightly at odds with a reading such as William Handley’s, in which Grey’s depiction of a Mormon drive to empire functions as a kind of projection of American, Christian imperialism (82), but I do not mean to discredit this view. In fact, I think such a reading is well-justified, but I wonder what else can be made of the role of Western landscape as a destabilizing other, as Jane Tompkins seems to suggest in her introduction to Riders of the Purple Sage (xiii-xv), as well as whether even the moments of Christian familial recuperation, which Handley details (90), can themselves be read transgressively, as not quite expelling a modicum of the “hell” that Lassiter, the criminal hero, wishes to clean up at the border between Christianity and Mormonism, at the edge of what is deemed, predictably, “civilization.”
What remains is a conclusion. The one towards which I hope to strain involves an ethical encounter at the frontier that is signification itself, and an assertion that this encounter takes place along the pole of the metonymic in language and can be characterized as inquiétude. I do not yet know if I will emerge triumphantly with an ethics that can be proclaimed; it may be that this sort of an ethics cannot be proclaimed at all, and this might just be its most salient characteristic. That is, the very fragility of a moment that cannot be contained in signification but which makes signification possible, the region of exposure in which the “I” and its self-preservative instincts are called into question, may be the inarticulable moment from which something like a non-metaphysical ethics can emerge.
It strikes me that one dissertation might not be enough to hold all that I want this one to hold. It strikes me that this particular dissertation might disperse more than it holds. If there is a path from Levinas to Zane Grey, it certainly must be a circuitous and perhaps fragmentary one, but I believe, if I hew to the following path (not that this work, properly, should not be bursting with perversion. It should. But I am told I must at least try to keep something like a linear structure in evidence), I can make a credible case for reading together the frontiers each is writing about. I propose six chapters, plus an introduction, thus:
As an introduction, I would like to compose a meditation on the terms “frontier,” “restlessness,” and “metonymy,” as these will be the rhetorical anchors around which I expect the whole of the project to drift. Beginning with William Cronon’s observation that “We continue to use the word ‘frontier’ as if it meant something” (160), I will ponder briefly just what the frontier might mean, even within the fluctuating valences that Cronon notes in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”: if Turner lent to American history a narrative coherence and teleology, the “fuzzy language” in which he figured the very term “frontier” destabilized that coherence under an “illusion of great analytical power” (158), a destabilization due in part, perhaps, to the fact that the frontier thesis “set American space in motion” (166).
To take an utterance and run with it, I would like to investigate whether this “setting in motion” is not a feature of the concept of frontier itself, especially if, as Cronon suggests, historians begin treating it as indicative of a region wherein “peoples of different cultures struggle with each other for control of resources and political power” (170). Indeed, to be more radical still, I will hurriedly note how the frontier of cultural struggle might not be a concept at all, might be the very undoing of the concept, and might thus indicate an extreme restlessness which is reflected even in Turner’s own “poetic” deployment of the word. To do this I will need to allude both to Levinas and Deleuze, in anticipation of the first chapter of the dissertation, and I will interrogate Handley’s observation that, for Turner, “the frontier both as space and time must be closed or ended for it to achieve an unassailable and retrospective ideation or significance in American history and culture,” asking if the frontier, as a zone of Levinasian proximity, might be precisely that area of struggle where both (or all) struggling powers are ruined, where the "nostalgia for the ever-retreating frontier,” which “coexisted with its birth” (40), is not the nostalgia for a teleologically complete subject, immune to the effects of the very frontier which might ruin it.
It is this ruining of concepts and subjects and powers at the frontier that I will term as a certain metonymy, insofar as a metonymic process might be thought of as a primary process, not only in the formation of subjects, but in the formation of language itself. Without going into great detail--for this idea could be the subject of another dissertation--I would like at least to allude to linguistic theories such as that of Sugeno Tateki, who asserts that “Metonymy as a manner of human cognition is really practiced in the level of pre-linguistic representation” (5), and suggest ways in which metonymy may in fact be prior to representation itself, and that it functions as a differentiation, in both language and the objects of thought, which retains associational ties to the point that the differentiation itself becomes paradoxically indistinct, and the site of ruinous oscillations. There may be brief mention of a Blanchot’s disaster. A further articulation of the problems which arise in this connection will be part of the subject matter of Chapter Three.
Finally, to conclude the introduction, I will point out that examples of a metonymic method in literature, as exemplified by Gertrude Stein and, if there is room to consider him, John Ashbery, might be seen to have ethical consequences when one considers metonymy as the language of the frontier, and that from this linguistic and intersubjective (to the point the subject is able to persist, which is to say, not much) frontier, one can draw startling conclusions about the potential of the American frontier to yield an ethics which does not operate through conquest and assimilation.
This might be a wishful, utopian project--except to the extent that, in it, utopian systems themselves may be in for a disaster of their own.
In Chapter One I will devote myself to hammering out the convergences and differences between Levinas and Deleuze, in an effort to see what can be salvaged from the collision of a sensibility burdened by an infinite sense of responsibility, with one which champions the idea of an “ideal game,” innocent and “without responsibility,” which plays itself out on that frontier which is sense itself. I wish to take as my jumping-off points not only Deleuze’s declaration concerning “another ethic,” which would seem to imply that he discerns something not so irresponsible in his analysis of how sense appears between propositions and things, but also the points of isometry between the two thinkers’ models of the frontier region between, on the one hand, the self and the other, and on the other hand, propositions and things.
The tie that binds them is language: for Levinas it is the approach of the other as signifying which at once commands and calls into question the self being approached, whereas for Deleuze the incorporeal event which arises from in between--bodies, propositions, things--is coextensive with language itself and is, perhaps, a primordial form of articulation which defines entities while delineating a region, smaller than any imaginable region but productive of infinite sensical events, which lies between these entities and cannot be properly said to “belong” to either one. I believe that in this kind of a region one can locate not only Deleuze’s event of sense but also Levinas’ “one-for-the-other” of signification, and that these are regions of paradox and indistinction even as they articulate the difference between irreducible entities. Both can be figured as frontiers of exposure, be they the radical exposure of the self to the other or the exposure of the corporeal to the proposition; both can be figured as problems for an ethics which would take into account the extreme fragility and vulnerability of entities which suffer the approach of other entities.
Indeed even to say this is to say too much, for in both Levinas and Deleuze the exposure of the one to the other is the very precondition of representation and cannot be represented as such. Herein is one paradox: the frontier of exposure preexists any representation of entities as entities, and implicates them in one another in a relation that cannot be figured as a relation between properly bounded beings. It is from here that I wish to draw out an ethics that I do not yet know quite how to state; it is here that I wish to investigate conditions on the frontier as such and the degree to which a certain impropriety in figuration and a borderline-sensical, metonymic deployment of language can express, or at least gesture at, an unrepresentable border region and its ethical implications.
For Levinas, this border region signals a “restlessness” of the self; hence my emphasis on the restlessness of any ethics that can be construed from the relation between self and other. I plan on interpreting this inquiétude broadly, from an obligation not to remain quiet in the face of the call of the other, to the very contestation of anything like a subjective space or position in which an ego can rest, given its paradoxical implication in the other at the frontier of its exposure. At this frontier will pivot the terms I hope to keep in play with one another: restlessness, impropriety, metonymy, ethics.
Chapter Two could turn out to be an appendix of Chapter One, and, depending on how the writing itself plays out, might be entirely subsumed by it. Moving from the paradoxical relations between (non)entities at the frontier, I will focus on ways in which the apparently contentious opposition between Levinasian responsibility and Deluezian irresponsibility might be resolved, with an eye towards combining them in Levinas’ idea of restlessness, and further explain how the concepts of an-archy and impropriety might be seen to stem from this restlessness. For impropriety I will once more allude briefly to Agamben’s The Coming Community, and will suggest that the oscillatory prose found there may function as one articulation of restlessness and, subsequently, as a conception of a kind of ungrounded ethics.
This chapter will explicate the trope which binds and separates: that of associational metonymy. I expect it to be the hinge linking my consideration of philosophical texts with that of literary texts. I have not yet worked out the logic of my affinity for metonymy, but plan on doing so here. I may draw from texts as diverse as those of Jacques Lacan and Roman Jakobson in investigating the differences between metaphor and metonymy, but rather than succumbing here to the temptations of dichotomy, and thus to ground ethics in a gesture of exclusion, I will try to articulate metonymy as the point at which dichotomy dissolves, or oscillates so madly as to disintegrate. If, to take off from Tateki, metonymy is a preliminary trope to representation, it might be figurable as a strange linguistic turn that is somehow pre-linguistic, and which takes on the attributes of the Deleuzian event insofar as it is a moment that is at once produced by and productive of language itself.
That metonymic events might be said to occur at a frontier thus would seem to follow logically from an analysis that links them with the tensions between self and other in Levinas and propositions and things in Deleuze. From here it should not be a huge leap to associate metonymy with a linguistic and consequentially subjective restlessness--if I have not already brought Benveniste into the argument, I will do so here to offer a theoretical basis for further locating the “I” of subjectivity in language.
Finally, I would like to ponder the possible conjunction between metonymy and ethics on the basis of their convergence at the frontier. Here I might ponder the ethics of linguistic differentiation and see if a metonymic method might be ameliorative of the violence of the differentiating gesture; here I will turn back to Levinas by way of a proximity that might be metonymically evoked, and will ask the question of whether it is best not to speak of that of which we cannot speak or to find a language that pulls it to the surface and lets it go with the very breath of its enunciation, or with the bare movement of pen across paper.
That one can point to obvious instances of a kind of ethical metonymy in the literature of the American West is perhaps not particularly obvious; however the figure of the frontier looms so greatly over this genre that it seems only imperative to interrogate it as to the way in which the frontier has been imagined and the ways in which the foregoing analysis of Levinas and Deleuze can inform its further interpretation. I believe I can argue that the figure of the frontier continues to play a considerable role in any unfolding of an American ethical viewpoint, and to that end I will enlist the help of Richard Slotkin’s lengthy and pointed analyses of frontier literature and film, as well as that of Annette Kolodny’s study on metaphor in the figuration of the American landscape, at least to the point of asking whether the very structure of metaphor might impose an ethics which is quite different from the metonymic ethics I am struggling to outline.
Perhaps not so inexplicably, then, I will open what will turn out to be the larger portion of my dissertation, that dealing with the American West specifically, with an extended look at Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, along with the odd reference to other of her works, with a particular emphasis on How to Write, which provides a sort of linguistic map to parallel the categorical one laid out in the 900 pages of The Making of Americans . I do not expect everyone to agree with me right away that one can think of Stein as an author of the American West. The mundane detail of her having spent her childhood in Oakland, California might be mobilizable in such an argument, but the key to identifying a text such as The Making of Americans as an heir of the frontier lies in its method. As Stein herself writes:
Think of anything, of cowboys, of movies, of detective stories, . . . and you will realize that it is something strictly American to conceive a space that is filled with moving, a space of time that is filled always filled with moving and my first real effort to express this thing which is an American thing began in writing The Making of Americans. (“Lectures in America” 286)
To be sure, one need not take Stein’s word for it, but a case can be made for The Making of Americans as just such a space, in which repetition fills page after page in an effort to “say it all” while chasing down perhaps that one thing that cannot be named: the “sense” of the exposition, or the event which occurs at a certain frontier between the narrator and the characters described, and draws the narration restlessly onwards.
Of course it is no narration, or at least it is a very truncated narration which quickly and obsessively gives way to a repetitive litany of “types” of people. Among the questions that I plan to pursue across this text will be that of the function of repetition in the formation of the narrative “I,” and the extent to which this repetition contains the trace of the frontier region where sense itself, and the “I” itself, is under both pursuit and interrogation. Of special interest will be those moments in the text where the narrative “I” finds itself “a little unhappy” in its efforts at categorization, and I do not think I will have to stretch too far to compare this slightly unhappy “I” to the inquiet ego at its frontier with the other in Levinas, as well as to compare its subsequent textual performance to Deleuze’s frontier-event of sense. As Barrett Watten has maintained, “[Stein’s] narrative becomes its own presentation as an event” (4); what I would like to investigate is the function of this event in calling into question the narrative ego performing it, and indeed whether any “presentation” of the event within language is even possible or if here we are again speaking of the un(re)presentable.
Chapters Five and Six
In my final chapters I will turn to what is more customarily thought of as the literary West, not only to make the obvious point that much of the literature of the American West deals in a restlessness within a vast, perhaps ideally illimitable, landscape, but to find points within specific works where this restlessness is indicated by a form of metonymy which calls into question the values we are accustomed to deriving from this literature: individualism and the violence required both to maintain individual freedom and to establish an empire of free individuals.
I would like to take as a jumping-off point Susan Rosowski’s meditation on Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion, wherein Rosowski perceives a dichotomy between language and silence and organizes it along the axis male/female, with language and civilization being the provenance of the female while violence and inarticulateness belongs to the male. The question I wish to raise here is not only that of the wisdom of setting up such dichotomies, but, specifically, that of the alienation of language from violence when, in Rosowski’s own words, “it is by language . . . that we may commit, then justify, the cruelest violence” (176). For Rosowski seems to be trying to set up a feminine subjectivity that is ameliorative of the violence of male subjectivity, but in the end it is not clear that reliance on language to draw the exclusionary bounds of selfhood is not itself a reliance on a kind of violence.
Instead, I would like to suggest that the figure of the frontier sets the parameters of individualism into an oscillation that renders the individual undecidable in relation to that which it confronts along its borders. I am not certain yet if I will devote Chapter Five to a survey of literature of the West and Chapter Six to consideration of Zane Grey and Cormac McCarthy in particular, or if I will divide Chapters Five and Six between Grey and McCarthy, mentioning other authors where appropriate, but in any case I am going to dwell on what may seem a minor writerly tic in both, in which the narratives each become stuck, and begin to unravel as narratives, upon a particular repetition of a phrase. In Zane Grey I will call attention to the repetition of “the sage,” in Riders of the Purple Sage, whereas in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian I will interrogate the function of the constant reiteration, “They rode on.” This will only take a moment, and from there the readings of the two will diverge, but I am interested in the way in which this fascination or obsession recalls the obsession of the Levinasian same with the other, and whether it signifies a restlessness beyond that of the individual within a given landscape, a restlessness that calls narrative and individual coherence into question.
Riders of the Purple Sage and Blood Meridian are, of course, very different stories, but there is an animating violence at the heart of both that troubles me. I am more troubled by Blood Meridian in that this violence itself seems to undo identity and individualism, whereas in Riders of the Purple Sage I would think that it would be fairly easy to point out how, at least explicitly, violence underwrites a territorializing enterprise. That is, if the “orgies of violence” in Blood Meridian “fail to constitute a pattern, to unveil a mystery or serve any comprehensible purpose,” as Steven Shaviro argues (149), and if this incomprehensibility is at all like the incomprehensibility which founds Levinas’ ethics--insofar as the other absolutely other is incomprehensible, refractory to territorialization, and, in this way, something like death itself--then how can one make sense of the collision between a proximal peace and a limitless violence at a frontier, which, as Shaviro points out, is not to be transcended in Blood Meridian but simply will be “swallowed up in death” which is “the very life of the darkness” (157)?
I do not have the answer to this question, and I might still not have the answer by the time I finish the dissertation, but I have been struck by the assimilability of the unknowable other and death itself, if both are the infinite region in which knowledge founders on unknowing. Thus the disaster, to borrow from Blanchot, of Blood Meridian is more than simply the illustration of “man’s primal rapacity,” as Barcley Owens argues (8), and is not even an occasion for ameliorative moralizing, as he acknowledges (12); it is, rather, the intrusion of death, of the old subjective limit (and whither limit if the subject becomes impossible?), precisely where the interiority of subjects is effaced, a region “not of heights and depths, . . . but of restless, incessant horizontal movements, nomadic wanderings” (Shaviro 147). In short, the depthless region of the Deleuzian event.
This, then, is where my project turns on itself and begins devouring itself. I suspect, though, that something positive might remain in Blood Meridian’s perverse “cheerfulness” in the face of relentless violence, and that this positivity might oscillate in the chasm between responsibility and irresponsibility, and might be, if not articulated by, then at least nodded towards in a metonymic approach to the literary surface without depth. It may well be that in the end, I simply cannot say what it is.
In Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko writes of an obscured frontier between the non-human and the non-human, when Tayo remembers something his Uncle Josiah had told him when he was a boy:
Josiah said that only humans had to endure anything, because only humans resisted what they saw outside themselves. Animals did not resist. But they persisted, because they became part of the wind. . . . And when they died, frozen solid against a fence, with the snow drifted around their heads? “Ah, Tayo,” Josiah said, “the wind convinced them they were the ice.” (27)
As a conclusion, and as a counterpoint to the irruption of a violent death drive in Blood Meridian, I would like to venture briefly into what might have seemed the blind spot in my work on the frontier of the American West: Native American narrative. With Silko, I wish to ponder the possibilities of a becoming-ice which might find some affinity with Blanchot’s disaster, or Deleuze’s becoming-imperceptible. Although a proper study of Native American literature would make an entirely separate project, an abbreviated one in my conclusion will serve two purposes: to concretize just who, in particular historical instances, has waited on the other side of the American frontier, and to return to Bevis’ charge that the restlessness of an American postmodern subject can only result in dislocation and exploitation for that which is made the object of this subjectivity.
Instead, I will offer the figure of restlessness itself as the movement in which object and subject become paradoxically intertwined and ir/responsible, and where the other can never be, for precisely this reason, an exploitable object at all. And, with Silko’s help, I will suggest that one might find articulations of a kind of metonymically ethical relation not only between human beings, but between the human and the non-human, or even the animal and the non-animal. For exposure surrounds us on all sides, and everywhere are Others in their Levinasian precariousness. It is at this frontier where I hope the postmodern can find its properly ungrounded ethics.
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