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Friday, August 07, 2020

For a special announcement - A Karen Chamisso poem

 

 

Ceux qui s'appliquent trop aux petites choses 

deviennent ordinairement incapables des grandes.

Details drag us down

- our epic lives in little teardrops drown

 

Ain’t nobody great in this joint?

My lost shadow wants to make a point.

Myself, I’m wondering whether fragments will do

is it an angelic satisfaction to be true

 

to my interruptions? As a poet on the gal side

as a citizen of my full-of-promise stride

I’ve let the petites choses get under my skin

- and now I’m gonna whisper to my tonic and gin.

Monday, August 03, 2020

The Causal Nexus and the American miracle belief

One of the funnier aspects of "objective journalism" is its relationship to causality. We live in a world that is well mapped out, on the micro level, by then statements. You throw a stone into a pond - a cause - and then waves spread out from the center.
The specialness of America, however, interrupts this story for the journos. I noticed this often in the Iraq occupation. Although it was easy to see insurgency would happen, easy to see that the U.S. would respond as it always responds in low intensity warfare - by trying to save the lives of American troops, which inflicts much more casualties on those it is occupying , whilst trying to win their hearts and minds - and that this was obviously going to destablilize the place progressively - the journalists always had a conditional: maybe in the next three months things would get much better! Cause, miracles happen! A similar belief that the causal nexus shows mercy on American Goodness shows up in the reporting about the election. Maybe Covid is gonna disappear! Maybe the economy will come roaring back!
One can't be totally certain. God might tell us all, in a loud voice, that Melania is really the newest incarnation of the Virgin Mary. But the odds are low.
This is why it is fun to read the D.C. insiders and the political writers, who all swallow this stuff and create elaborate analogies with, say, Biden now and Dukakis in 1988. Ah, I remember the analogies of Iraq like they were yesterday - analogies are the go-tos, the plan B of the casually illiterate.
By November there will be at least 200 thou dead of Covid in the U.S. There will be at least 35 million unemployed, and millions more who don't count. The landlords will be bleeding, and millions will be trying desperately to find someone to move in with. The machine has been started, and we are not going to see it stop.
Jim Haug

Friday, July 31, 2020

The colonized and the exiled


Normally, histories of Europe talk about colonialism in terms of a mother country, or center, and a periphery. But in actuality, the periphery was located in Europe itself. It was located in Europe’s peasantry. Colonialism and the agricultural revolution in Europe are parts of the same process – the process that gave us capitalism and, more generally, the process of production that has become the norm, either achieved or striven for, across ideologies, for the last century.
The doubling of the European and the American savage is the secret heart of the noble savage myth. While conventional histories attribute the noble savage idea, wrongly, to Rousseau, and attribute the savagery solely to the Indians, in actuality the topos was as much about the European peasant, about the laws and norms concerning the forest and the field, which is what Europe largely was, as much as America, up through the 17th century in England and France. And of course all through the 19th century for much of Prussia and Austro-Hungary, Italy and Spain. The peasant was always considered a savage by the city intellectual – Engels called them simply stupid, idiots, clowns (a word for rustic in the 16th century, from, one school holds, colōnus “farmer, settler – from which comes, of course, colony) - and in Vienna, around 1900, intellectuals would say things like Vienna lives in the 20th century while Galician peasants live in the fifteenth.
I’ve been thinking about this as I’m reading Claudio Magris excellent study of Joseph Roth and the culture of exiles from the Ostjuden. It is from Magris book that I learned that Roth, who was born in a shtetl, wrote an impassioned study in 1927, Juden auf Wanderschaft, of the culture and immigration of Jews from the shtetl. It begins with thunderously excommunicating introduction that reminds me very much of the Black power high notes of the 1960s:
“This book waives all applause and approval, but also even the contradictions and criticism of those who disregard, disrespect, hate and persecute the Eastern European Jews. It is not turned to those Western Europeans who, out of the fact that they were born to elevators and toilets, deduce the right to make bad jokes about Romanian lice, Galician bedbugs, and Russian fleas. This book waives as well the “objective” reader, who with his cheap and sour good intentions squints at the East and its inhabitants from the shaky towers of Western civilization; lamenting, out of pure humanity, the lack of good sewage and out of fear of infection wants to imprison the poor immigrants in barracks, leaving the solution of a social problem to mass death. This book will not be read by those who deny their own father or grandfather, who through chance escaped from the barracks. This book is not written for a reader who will take it badly of the author that he treated the object of his study with love instead of “scientific empiricism”, which is another name for boredom. “
The kickass and risky gambit of telling off your reader from the first sentence – that is how you know you are reading a writer for whom books and molotov cocktails are interchangeable. Or at least, who knows that this is one circuit of exchange.
Magris’s book, which in French is Loin d’ou, hasn’t, I think, been translated from Italian to English. Too bad. It prods a thickly covered historical lacuna: under the murder of the European Jews there was a culture that we miss more and more today, a culture in which the dialectic between the prophet – the magghid – and modernity’s “symbol workers” was seeded with ways of thinking through an escape from the ruthless cruelty of the modern treadmill of production. This too was murdered.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

notes on le carre


I read a lot of early or mid John Le Carre novels this month. Vacation, what? An interesting experience. At the back of the reader's mind is a little hole, a leak, a sense of the futility of all the excitement of finding the mole, of placing the agent, of playing the game. It had, in the end, nothing whatever to do with the end of the Soviet Union. It did, of course, end the lives of many people, and in a more general sense - as the vast price for actually making anti-communism a state activity -produced millions of casualty, besides distorting beyond repair the fragile hopes of a post WW2 social democratic order. George Smiley, that hidebound reactionary with the cheating wife, is not so much a tragic figure as a puzzling one: why waste his intelligence to become an intelligent agent? There is, in the books, not one shred of the idea that the British government is a democracy - these people could be working for Franco, or Pinochet, save for the clubbish glass of sherry or two.
In a sense, the spy novel handled by a fine writer - Le Carre goes in and out of frequency as a fine writer, but Tinker Tailor Spy still kicks ass - is a comment on meritocracy and its downfalls. The "merit" is a value judgment made by those who are already in positions of power and wealth, or rather transmitted through every media and in every institution by those who have accepted the criteria that legitimates those who already have power and wealth. In other words, you have a very conservative sense of order, which compromises with the egalitarianism of social democracy by making the social churn in that order seem like the healthy result of liberating the individual character, instead of the social condition which fiercely protects upper class prerogative and condemns those who violate a certain narrow protocol.
Of course, this is neither how those novels were produced or received. Le Carre is famously anti-American, or at least looks down on the States, but he has swallowed the most fatuously American idea on earth, that communism is evil - and when he plays the existential card with Smiley, it is all about Smiley getting tired of the "game", i.e. the old weltschmerz of the radical right that the West is too decadent not to succumb to evil communism.
This isn't quite fair - Smiley is also famously cuckolded by his wife Ann, who seems to have made up for the democratic deficit in the book by sleeping with the entire population of the UK. Le Carre is pretty bad with female characters who still have a sex life - he's good with women who have retired and retreated to the bottle, a certain kind of dissolute "aunt" figure, but otherwise this is a world antithetical to women.
I've not yet found an American Le Carre - a spy novelist with a real artist's view of the spyworld. Although Ross Thomas, from the few novels I've read, might be a competitor. Gore Vidal once wrote that E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate figure (and William Buckley's best friend - when Buckley worked in the CIA, he was under Hunt) was a good spy novelist. Maybe I'll look there.


Monday, July 27, 2020

my canon - a poem by Karen Chamisso

My canon
What’s Uh huh Uh Huh
Among all the best that has been said and thought?
In what canon
Is it to be sought?
That’s the way (uh huh uh huh)
ran up my leg and up my spine
as I bumped it out at club Limelight
in 1989.
It led me (I like it) to a sweet fuck
If not to something worse
at least from Mama’s point of view
and perhaps Wordsworth’s.
It was already a funny tune
from the age of Kitsch (uh huh uh huh)
But it melted my honey right enough
with some Georgia Tech bubba.
I’ve forgotten the particulars
(it’s the essences we remember)
- all I know is that my canon
has many different members.
- Karen Chamisso
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Saturday, July 25, 2020

hitchens and cancel culture (oh god)

David Brooks column has set twitter media peeps talking about, oh God, Hitchens again. And cancel culture. Oh God.

So I'm reprinting my 2004 summary of Hitchens agonistes.  Just cause.

Comrades one and all....

There's a rather genteel exchange between Doug Ireland and Christopher Hitchens in this week's LA Weekly. It begins, unpromisingly enough, with Ireland writing: "My old friend Christopher Hitchens will be in Los Angeles on Saturday, March 15, for a debate at the Wiltern Theater." The phrase "old friend" pops up with distressing frequency whenever anti-war media people start writing about Hitchens. It's the friendship that blinds them, perhaps, to the kind of figure he is. This kind of transplant from the left to the right is a familiar figure in times of violent reaction. In France in the thirties, Drieu de la Rochelle moved from a radical branch of the Communist party to Nazi sympathizer, leaving behind a similar trail of "old friends." In Drieu's case, his politics had an echo on the national level in Doriot. The political fault lines aren't as hyper-charged at present, but the phenomenon Hitchens could prefigure some similar authoritarian politician -- somebody like McCain.

Ireland is 'shocked' to read that Hitchens gave an interview in which he remarks, casually, that he would have voted for Bush. No surprise there. Ireland, though, finds this all too upsetting, and sets down at his computer and mails his old friend some woolgathering emails that are pallid even by the low standards of the baby boomer New Left. Here, for example, is Ireland arguing that Bush, being against condoms, is for AIDS, and thus for "millions" of more deaths than can possibly be contrived by evil old Saddam.

"The effects of denying people access to condoms and science-based sex ed, not to mention the continuing efforts by the U.S. to blackmail countries on access to AIDS drugs and sabotage the WTO agreement at Doha that public-health crises take precedence over patents, means that millions and millions more will become infected and die between now and 2050, the earliest possible date by which - the scientists now tell us - we might reasonably begin to hope for an AIDS cure.These are not just people who've had sex, but their many children. That's more than Saddam Hussein has killed, more than will be killed in the coming war (unless Dubya starts chucking around the nukes he has now authorized). There would be a huge difference on this issue between Bush and the likely (from here) Democratic nominee, Kerry. Just in terms of sheer numbers of dead, Kerry trumps Bush (and Saddam) on that one. Yes, I have been a sharp critic of the Democratic leadership, and will continue to be. But to go from that to supporting Bush in 04 and publicly urging others to do likewise seems to me to be a rather dangerous excursion into full-blown Stephen Spenderism, and very shortsighted to boot. So I'd ask you a further question: Since you suggest your commitment to social justice is undiminished, from what I have seen of your public expressions, how do you square that with this undiluted support for Bush's re-election? Do you no longer believe in creating a democratic social-justice movement to work for change (however hopelessly)?I remain your affectionate friend, Doug (for regime change and revolution abroad and at home)"

The lather, the lather. Plus the revolution remark, in perfectly comic juxtaposition with the support for that old Jacobin, Senator Kerry -- an enemy of capitalism if there ever was one! Eventually, Ireland gets over the rubbers issue and down to the war, and Hitchens fills in the blanks with his usual debased rhetoric, which is all about Bush fighting a war against theocracy. Which prompts this kind of reply on the part of the hapless Ireland, always trying to figure out if Hitchens is just making some super-clever Marxist chessboard move:

"I still have trouble discerning a coherent politics of a progressive hue behind your support for the re-conduction of Bush in 04, as you claim."

Well, that's because there IS no progressive hue. There is, however, a huge amount of dishonesty. Hitchens simply substitutes one war for another. This is Hitchens' role. Like a lot of the DC commentariat, his propagandist function consists of putting a consistently moral interpretation on a consistently immoral policy. Because such a policy requires a maximum of secrecy, Hitchens is just as happy to discuss and debate the war as if it were his war. He is not tied to the reality of the war -- to the war that is supposedly going to cost two hundred billion dollars, to the war that is going to use up the blood of American soldiers, to the war that is going to be crowned, according to the administration, with the appointment of Jay Garner as crown prince of Iraq -- and so can defend the war of his fantasies.Slowly those fantasies will converge with reality -- the collapse of an ideological position usually involves some transition period in which you defend a radically different politics by claiming that your only real sin is a rigid consistency. Because Ireland is much too highminded to mention things like the cost of the war, the national interest of the U.S., and other technicalities -- because he wants his wars and his protests against them to be conducted on the purest ethical plane -- he's rather flummoxed by Hitchens. It is pretty easy to convince Ireland that roosters lay eggs. But, after searching high and low for Hitchen's subtle ultra left theory that would make even Vladimir Lenin's head spin (and we know he, too, was forever signing his emails "for regime change and revolution abroad and at home" -- what a fierce change agent that Vladimir turned out to be!), even Ireland is forced to face the fact that his buddy is a reactionary not that different from Charles Krauthammer or Karl Rove.

"Well, Hitch, I shall always love my friend, but I mourn the loss of my comrade. To see such talent as yours put at the service of a truly repugnant crowd like the Bushistas makes me weep. No doubt we�ll have occasion to continue this debate, even if we�ll soon be squabbling about whether all those coming deaths in Iraq have helped shape a better and more secure world."

Let's hope that debate never comes off.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Neoliberalism and privilege

Marx was the great theorist of the revolutions that ushered in modernity, and if one is seeking the genealogy of “privilege”, that elusive neo-liberal concept, he’s a good person to go to. Marx thought that the old hierarchy, the old social order, was largely determined by family and provenance (provenance being basically ethnicity, and religion), while the new social order – one that came in, symbolically, the bonfire of “privileges” – the casting off of the aristocratic governing class and the entrance of the bourgeoisie -was characterized, as a total social fact, by the exploitation of labor by capital.

However, Marx’s model was ideal. It was an ideal that was being realized, patchily, in real time. All that was solid did not, really, melt into air. Moreover, with the elastic but handy notion of alienation, Marx had a conceptual tool to understand not only the affect of the new order of exploitation, but the existential effect of the undermining of “all that is solid”.
As we know, Marx’s simple picture of capitalism, while it traces out a path that has been tread by the peoples of the world, is intersected by many persistent remnants of the ancien regime. It makes sense that Cold War liberals would seek to preserve the order while expanding it by returning to the notion of privilege. Instead of speaking of the masses oppressed and exploited by Capital, they spoke of the underprivileged. And what were the privileges? In many ways, they return to ethnicity, race, and education as a guild system – provenance once again. In this morass, the state had to help the underprivileged – hence the great welfare projects. From the retirement system in France to the welfare system in the U.S., these projects worked well to push the underprivileged into middle class status.
The Cold War liberals died with their war, and there is not a statue of one of them. Their descendants, post-war neoliberals, enjoyed the fruits of the massive expansion of exploitation, which involved destroying the welfare system in the U.S. (courtesy of Clinton), and is presently going about destroying the retirement system in France (courtesy of Macron). Yet the rhetoric under which these events were engineered is a far cry from those of the Cold War conservative. The defense of a hypercharged predator form of capitalism has been combined attacks on privilege. Hence, the absurd conjunction of, say, dropping tariffs, protecting “intellectual property”, on the one hand, and promoting a euphemistic diversity in management, with a special emphasis on the glass ceiling. In the process, white privilege, which had been the tactic of the union-busters of yore, and which is exemplified in the astonishing whiteness of the upper 1 percent, a confederate monument all by itself, has been disowned by the privileged. Unsurprisingly, the era of euphemistic diversity coincides with the era of the collapse of black household wealth – as the same people who urge sensitivity to black lives matter are, very often, the same people who have devised the means for immiserating black lives.
We’ve seen this before. The great Justice Department report that x-rayed Ferguson, MO resulted in – zip. The system of predatory fines, the system of police harassment, the constant inequality dosed out to African-Americans at the end of a taser or baton is still going strong. Defunding the police is this year’s occupy Wall Street – sweet, but then the grownups, the mostly white managerial class, will take it from here. After occupy Wall Street, the Obama administration went on to preside over a recovery that favored the rich, astonishingly, more than even the Bush tax cuts did, with zero action taken against the incredible fees that are required for being credentialed in modernity’s guild – higher education – and zero action taken to address the housing crisis that, in particular, disproportionately affects black households.

Yet, yet … this time is always different, because it is this time. With a great depression brewing among the 80 percent of Americans who make less than 150 thou a year, and with an unstoppable pandemic revealing that the American health care system doesn’t only suck, but is booby trapped – and with the American government full throttle saving the richest through the most lucrative policies ever devised by a national government, with the Fed making sure that the investor class is so bathed in trillions that the financial markets are completely untethered from the real economy – this time might be different. If we begin a bonfire of the privileges, the country club will be on the pyre.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

two poems: mallarme and chamisso

Two poems
From Mallarme
Male anxiety
I can’t seem this evening to conquer
your body, beast, in whom the sins of a people
stir, nor pit a sad storm in your dirty hair
under the incurable boredom of my poured out kisses.
From your bed I want that heavy, dreamless sleep
floating on sheets that have never known remorse
such as you might have tasted after your black lies
- you who know more of nothingness than the dead.
For vice, gnawing my native nobility
has marked me, like you, with its sterility;
while as long as there lives in your stony breast
a heart that the tooth of crime cannot tear,
I flee, pale, defeated, haunted by my winding sheet
afraid of dying when, alone, I sleep.
Crematoria
Dad said the crematoria
were expensive to build and upkeep
- they spend money on natural gas
like it is going out of style.
Two million BTUs -
the cast alloy metal ovens
the fire bricks,
this is the down side.
I said she started out in pets?
Absolutely.
People have to dispose of their pets
Darling.
I said upside?
Dad said they always say
Invest in the future.
And what’s more future than death?
I thought of chorines stretching back
From Nefertiti to Donna Summer
Toi qui sur le néant en sais plus que les morts
I said Dad I’m pretty sure
sure and sure
this is gonna bite you in the ass.
He said, the chorines said, the streets say
they have to go somewhere.
We have to go somewhere
when we have nowhere to go.
- Karen Chamisso
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Friday, July 10, 2020

On the anti-cancel culture culture


The bitching and moaning about cancel culture requires a genealogy. I’ve been thinking about where these tropes come from, the ones used by the gatekeepers to say, essentially, peons, don’t fuck with me, but in more elevated language. And I’ve been thinking about the sites that promote them. You have the Atlantic, you have Harpers, you have the NYT opinion page. In England, of course, The New Stateman. And … you used to have the New York Review of Books. You used to have The New Republic. Until some awful  change came, and many of the dinosaurs were not given infinite space to scribble in. Cathedrals fell, cities were sacked. Ian Baruma lost his editing position. TNR was sold by Marty Peretz. The
Ah, the New Republic. If you are going to do a real genealogical trace of the cancel culture is mean crowd, you will inevitably land on the old New Republic, which was owned by Marty Peretz mentioned above(the man who liked to write about how black culture was primitive and Palestinians were animals, and distributed these ideas in every raving column he crammed into the mag). Peretz had a magic touch with assembling just the right krewe that went on to write for all the solid D.C. and NY mags. You’ll find Andrew Sullivan, firm believer in black IQ inferiority, at New York magazine. You’ll find Jonathan Chait there too. Weekly Standard, before it folded, was a hive of New Republic alums. So was Slate.
One name, though, seems to have dropped out: Ruth Shalit. This is an instance of the ingratitude of history. Although she was given the heave at the New Republic for plagiarism and inaccuracy, these are, really, petty crimes in comparison to her genius as a charter member of the “cancel the pc police/cancel cancel culture” group.
Her opus was not the hit piece that supposedly helped since Clinton’s healthcare plan in 1994. That plan was a self-sinking rubic’s cube of evasions. No, her opus was ‘exposing” the horrid, horrid effects of “diversity” at the Washington Post. Or, hiring black people to important positions. It was written with that brilliant trolling style: we all admit bigotry is bad, and having so admitted, we don’t have to change a damn thing, and if you ask us to, its PC Police time!
Shalit’s piece on “Race in the Newsroom”, which dissected the diversity program at the Washington Post, could be published tomorrow in the Atlantic – save for a few lamentable errors of fact, six or seven or eight, that weigh on the piece. But the basic reasoning – that once upon a time in white America, meritocracy ruled, open and free like the Great Plains (without those horrid indigenes crudding it up), and now the “brittle sensibilities” of “minority groups” peddling their grievances are messing up the whole deal, and thus, Freedom like the Great Plains! (without those horrid indigenes crudding it up).
I have to confess, the sparklines of Shalit’s prose, for which so many praised her in DC, seems sort of paste jewels to me. But the general thrust seems so contrarian, so Harpers, so “lets write a letter with this in it and get Steven Pinker to sign it”, that I think Ruth is owed. Time for a comeback.
Here’s a few bits: Here’s the being “sensitive” [thinking that there might possibly be a legitimate P.O.C viewpoint] is a surrender of truthseeking bit: “But it's unclear how sensitivity training can be "woven" into a profession which has traditionally held that reporters should tell the truth as they see it, without fear or favor. Public reaction, hostile or not, is not supposed to be anticipated and muted in the editing process but embraced as a healthy consequence of the search for truth, since the charge of bias is best dealt with in the marketplace of ideas. [the boilerplate prose just drove DC thumbsuckers into paroxysms of praise. There’s nothing that helps you succeed as a contrarian more than tossing approved clichés at the wizened old thumbsuckers. They go for it like seals smelling smelt at feeding time.

 There a dozens of bits all about lazy stupid black peeps are hired instead of bright washed white ivy leaguers, so I’ll leave that out – although Atlantic would definitely go for that sort of thing. It is all told in a more sorrow than anger troll voice, too, which adds to the general tone of frolicking centerism.  Then there’s the appeal to the old order, the noble cause, even, being threatened by (at that time) PC!

“Indifference is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it denotes neutrality and a desire for objectivity. In recent years it has become fashionable to criticize objectivity, to attack it as a mask for interests. For journalists, however, such a view is dangerous. If objectivity is not possible, then journalism is not possible. And a newspaper's indifference to the subjects of its coverage is the sign of a newspaper's integrity. Or so it used to be.”

Talk about contrarianism - the proposal that keeping in place an almost all white newspaper in a 60 percent black city has finally found its legitimating joke.  Ruth Shalit, the distinguished signatories of a deeply brave Harper’s Magazine letter salute you! I’m thinking: isn’t it time to give Shalit the Orwell medal she so obviously deserves?





Sunday, July 05, 2020

suggestions for making law law and order order: the police and us


1. Radically de-police traffic. Police now have the equipment to take pics of moving violations. Just as they have put up cameras to take pics of cars at stop lights. There should be a vast fall off in police stopping cars, when they can simply clock and photo, and send tickets via mail. These violations should, themselves, be in the nature of very low fines. The Sandra Blands of this world should never, ever be stopped.
2. “Just cause” has been used extensively to allow violent cops to get back on the force, via arbitration. This is an abuse of just cause, which should only be used if it can be proved that some kind of political corruption was behind the firing. Narrowing the just cause clause for police arbitrations would eliminate the abuse of the community having no say in the retention of violent cops.
3. Profiling the racial profilers. Every policeman has a record of what they do and who they do it to at the end of the day. If those records consistently show a racial bias, the cop should be pulled and questioned. And if this continues, the policeman should be dismissed.
4. Controlling the system of enabling. This is the trickier part. The oppression visited on Black America is not an accident of the system, but its logic. And it is the judiciary and the prosecutors who, in the end, are the drivers of the thing. We need a better system to, a, make sure that judges are neutral rather than cop friendly, and b, make sure that D.A.s are doing their job for the community, rather than a part of the community. The entire system of the judiciary in the U.S. needs to be re-constructed. Term limits are, of course, necessary. But there are a number of things that need change, from the way that the judiciary is used to predate on the low income population (a la Ferguson) to the use of threats to people who use their constitutional right to plead not guilty. That plea should never be the basis for a longer sentence. That should simply be outlawed. If the system is overwhelmed by the number of cases, then perhaps there is something wrong with the number of cases.
5. Drug reform of course. We need to look to places like Portugal and de-criminalize drug use.
6. Police should be licenced. Like doctors. A policeman fired for beating someone, or torturing or killing someone - vide Elijah McClain - should have his or her licence yanked, and thus be unemployable as a cop in any town. As with doctor licences, the decision can be periodically reviewed.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

metempsychosis of statues


“A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.”
Thus, Robert Lowell in For the Union Dead, a poem which centers a monument. Among the army of statuary that occupies America’s cities and parks, this is one of the rare statues that is signed by an actual famous artist: Augustus Saint Gaudens. In the later nineteenth century, he was the most famous American sculptor. It was Gaudens as well who made the famous tomb to poor Clover Adams, Henry Adams’ wife, in the Rock Creek Cemetery in D.C.

In the most recent overthrow of a buncha statues of unworthies, one argument is oddly missing: that these things are valuable art pieces. Not a peep is uttered about their artistic worth – it is all a question of history. It is unlikely that anybody knows the names of the sculptors who created their equestrian visions of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson which gallop across Richmond Virginia or Stone Mountain, Georgia. These sculptures were by contract and design of an extreme banality. There was no Greek nonsense – nobody even thought about showing, say, Stonewall’s dick, a la Greek Olympic sculpture.
Evidently, these statues are ways of monumentalizing a race hierarchy – or racism. But I want to poke along in another, related direction and ask about their social existence as objects.
One thing is certain: when you have a mass social phenomenon, you have a system. The question is: what is this system about? If we have read our Barthes, the first thing we want to know is: how substitutable are they one with the other, this banal troop?

If I substituted, say, a statue of Ulysses Grant for Robert E. Lee in Richmond (under cover of night, and carefully keeping the sign that read Robert E. Lee) would anybody notice?
I would imagine the answer is yes. But the substitution would have respected the system’s rules, and helped us think through the limits of substitution – limits within the statuary universe. Here, I would tentatively claim, we get to the totemic limits defining these things in the urban space. For surely these sculptures are rooted in the white culture’s fetishes.
There is a school of cultural studies that has been here. Inspired by such figures as Louis Marin (notice how my reference here itself erects a statue, a fetish, how I am caught within the system I critique), historians have long been fascinated by public “objects”, from stamps and coins to statues. In Paris, which is a city of statuary, I am surrounded by a violent history sedimented in statues and bas-relief whereever I turn – and I love it. I love it as a walker. Statues are simply another set of blurs to the car driver, but to the walker they are presences. Unsurprisingly, historians have picked through the statuary history of Paris for clues to the meaning of these totems. Here’s a nice paragraph from Victoria Thompson’s essay, The Creation, Destruction and Recreation of Henri IV Seeing Popular Sovereignty in the Statue of a King

"At the moment of their creation, public monuments are typically designed to reflect and communicate a single meaning. In reality, they often reflect competing values. This is perhaps most evident in efforts to commemorate some of the major events of the late twentieth century—the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the fall of the Soviet bloc. The intense conflict generated by these attempts has allowed scholars to better under-stand how difficult it is to establish a stable and unifying meaning of an event using a public monument.4 In societies where diverse constituen-cies have a voice, debates over public commemoration reveal how various groups imagine their community and its history.5 And even in societies where the state determines what to commemorate and assigns monuments an official meaning, that meaning is subject to contestation by populations who vandalize, make fun of, or otherwise subvert the official meaning of a structure constantly in public view.6 The destruction of a public monument can similarly elicit diverse reactions, and the traces of its memory can exert an influence over communities long after it has disappeared.”

Thompson’s essay is concerned, in part, with the politics of revolution and reaction – revolution knocked down the statues of kings and saints, and reaction re-erected them. I live within a couple of blocks from the statue of Henri IV (an assassinated King) and a couple of blocks, as well, from the Parc du Temple, which is a third Republic park, a park designed under Napoleon III but really instituted by the Republic that came after Napoleon III’s overthrow. As a sign of the Republican ideal, a statue of Pierre Jean Béranger was erected, by popular subscription, in the park. Béranger lounges, now, in the limbo of forgotten celebrities – in his life, he was famous as a people’s poet, a maker of extremely popular songs with a democratic bent. His statue had a political meaning that was strong enough to incite a symbolic gesture when Paris was occupied by the Nazis – the statue was taken down and melted (it was made of bronze). That bronze then was recast for a statue in honor of the Nazi victories by Arno Breker, Speer and Hitler’s favorite artist. That monument, in turn, was destroyed by the Red Army.

That the fetish is fated to destruction is one of the unconscious principles of modernism. The alternation between the invention of universals and the destruction of people is the fort/da of the bit of history I have experienced, that little chunk of time, 20th/21st century.

Incidentally – two years ago, when I was in Berlin, I went to Treptower Park. There is an astonishing collection of statues there, built by the Soviets, to commemorate World War II. It is as impressive as, say, the statue of Liberty. Those statues are bronze. I wonder if Beranger’s statue, which was melted down to become part of Breker’s statue, which was melted down by the Red Army, didn’t end up there. The metempsychosis of statues – a subject for some Kleistian tale.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

GROPING THE TROPE





The poet sings – or so she used to
And there are those who’ve returned to guitar
Or drums to sing the things that are


While others never finished piano lessons.
Otherwise poets are silent as Quakers
And all that song stuff is for fakers


Unless, as I do, whispering and claw voiced
They sample the goods to have a taste
- roll their tongue over the cut and paste


My muse is mainly a tick in the mind
Which throws out of hem my rants and pleas
- fr’instance, this here poem is one of these.


- Karen Chamisso


Monday, June 29, 2020

Handwriting

I don’t remember my first writing lessons. The bubble and squeak of my first letters, those wobbly circles and jerkily disproportionate lines which flowed out of my pencil onto the cheap, thick, lined paper – I can only envision them through their descendants, the degenerate scribble of my declining years, where the bubbles are less bubblicious and have been through the rat race. But I can remember the devises that went into writing – that paper, the thick lines spaced just so and the dotted line between them, the thin, bright yellow pencils with the little intaglio number near the metal band the holds the erasor, and the sharpeners. The little oblong plastic box with the hole in one end for the pencils and the two evil little blades that would bite into the cedar-y matter of the blunt end and shave off perfect little fans of thin thin wood. As well as a dusting of pencil lead, which would somehow get on my fingers.
There was a subtle competition, I remember, between the brilliant hand pencil sharpener and the noiser larger unit you would usually find at the front of the classroom, bolted to a corner of the teacher’s closet. That was crank run, which meant using your whole arm to turn it. It had a thick plastic disc with different sized holes through which to stick different thicknesses of pencil. Somehow, I associated that pencil sharpener with industry – with steel mills and tanks and such. It would make much more racket, which would draw attention, especially if you were sharpening a pencil during a test.
This, then, was the entourage, the court around the monarchical activity of calligraphy. In my case, mere graphie – I have never been a beautiful writer. In the third grade, when we started having spelling tests, I did poorly – it was my poorest subject on the report card. For one thing, I had a sovereign contempt for the homework, which bored me. Lists of words to spell seemed infinitely less interesting than lists of words, such as you would find in the dictionary. I was always a dictionary stan. I don’t remember any real problem with my handwriting as far as teachers were concerned. But it didn’t satisfy me none, as I got older. I wanted to be able to write the address on an envelope with a real piss elegance. I wanted my various scribblings to look more intense in my notebooks. I wanted some famous dead writer’s handwriting, but I only ever have had my own.
In France, I am discovering, handwriting is not dead. One of the standard thumbsucker topics in the U.S. is: Is the computer killing handwriting? The wee-est toddler in Manhattan, we are assured, knows her way around the keyboard. There are keyboards in Paris, even portable phones, but the school system is curiously centered on handwriting. I’ve been assured that Adam must practice his handwriting if he is to get anywhere in the terribly hierarchic French school system. Parents even show each other specimens of their children’s handwriting, worriedly.
I worked, as a grad student in philosophy, on Derrida – but it has only been in the last few years, experiencing the French education system, that I quite understood the social context of Derrida’s emphasis on writing and the place of logocentrism. For the French, the dictée is at the heart of the curriculum. There really is no American equivalent. Teachers in my elementary school never gave us set speeches that we were supposed to listen to and write, that I can remember. Of course, I recognize in the dicteé a genealogical kinship with the classical educational system of the Greeks and the Romans, but the American school system broke away from that family tree when Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod – or something like that. Americans have always been, they like to think, practical.
This has lead to a curious neglect of the oral-to-hand culture in the States. I am rather pleased with the ingrained habit of the dictée and how it organizes, subtly, the whole French system. The hand, here, still leaves its mark on the text. But try as I may, I can’t get too anxious about Adam’s handwriting. I’m just too American.