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Monday, October 19, 2020

The Land of Nod by Karen Chamisso

 The Land of Nod

Sleep is the main from which we drift
each waking day, bubbling with principium individuationis.
What was the dream about? Some rift
we fell down. You were in the dark, groping to piss
And found yourself suddenly lighted, watched
By a viewing audience dim of feature?
Even the physicist is patched
And pickled in sleeptime’s thralling curvature.
“The mode of dealing with the atoms to restore motivity
is essentially a process of assortment”
- all demons slip off their positivity
and join as one oceanic neural deportment:
in that bath of ESP
I am you and you are me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Almost a true story

 This summer, doing research for another project (which concerned illegal arms dealing) I stumbled across the story of X. X was a businessman who was murdered in 1983. His body bobbed up in a lake in a New York State park. The fascination, here, was the more that I followed the story in the newspapers of the time, the more it became clear that the authorities had a pretty good idea of who murdered X. But they never acted on that knowledge. X became a cold case from the Cold War.

So I wrote a long piece about him. 

Here's the link to Medium

Here's the beginning of the story.

-Imagine a wealthy executive. Retired from GM. His neighbors in the tony suburb of Aurora, Ohio, described him as a super patriot, a John Wayne with a Czech accent. Imagine him in 1983.

- Imagine his career, with its wonderous lacunae. Starting with birth. Our man is born to American parents in Prague in 1919. Of all times, of all places. Prague was, finally, a capital city again. In that strange merger of Bohemian nationalism and Wilsonian racism, a nation was born, another of the many that jumped out of the pocket of the Versailles treaty. Wilson, the American president, had well known white supremacist views, identifying America with a certain vision of the white race. That view inserted itself into the post WWI world, where nation and race were increasingly taken to be synonymous concepts. It was Wilson, it was the inheritance of a certain nationalist romanticism gone sour. The logic of this equation made those in the nation who were not part of the favored race maroons within their own nation. The old legitimating tie to a family, a dynasty, was torn. Who, exactly, was a Czechoslovakian?

Monday, October 12, 2020

Kafka or "the secret society"


Jean Ferry was a pataphysician, a script writer, and a general poet. Like many French writers who swam in the miasma around surrealism, he had fantastic contacts in the French literary world and lived an adventurous life, all of which was perfectly unnoticed in the Anglosphere. He wrote scenarios for Georges Clouzet and dialogue for the famous soft-core vampire flick, Daughters of Darkness, that starred  Delphine Seyrig, which is as close as he got to English language attention.  

As far as I know, he is generally untranslated. In English. So I decided to translate this little story, or prose poem,  from the collection The Mechanic, published by Finitude in 2010 – but I believe it was first published in The Secret Society (1946).


Kafka  or “the secret society”

When Joseph K… was around twenty, he discovered the existence of a secret, very secret, society. Truly, it didn’t resemble any other society of that type. It was very difficult for certain people to become admitted as members. Many, who ardently wanted to, never succeeded. Others, by contrast, become members without even knowing it. One was never, besides, never totally sure of being a member. There were many who believed they belonged to it and weren’t, really, part of it at all. However much they had been initiated, they were still less part of the secret society than many who didn’t have the slightest knowledge of the existence of the society. In fact, they had undergone the tests of a false initiation, destined to put off the scent all of those who were unworthy of being initiated for real. But even to the most authentic members, those who had reached the most elevated place in the hierarchy of this secret society, even to them it was never revealed if their initiations were valid or not. It could happen that a member attained, due to a number of authentic initiations, a real rank, and consequently, without being advised of the fact, they went and undertook false initiations. Among the members it was an object of interminable discussions whether it was better to be admitted to a smaller but real level in the hierarchy or to occupy an exalted, but illusory, one. In any case, no one was sure of the solidity of their position.


In fact, the situation was even more complicated, for certain postulants were admitted to the highest levels without undertaking any tests at all, and others without even being told. And to be frank, there was no need to be a postulant:  there were after all people who had received very elevated initiations without knowing even that the secret society existed.  

The powers of the superior members were unlimited; they carried in themselves a powerful emanation of the secret society. For instance, their presence alone was enough, even if they didn’t make it manifest, to transform an anodyne gathering, like a concert or a birthday party, into a meeting of the secret society. These members were held to establish secret links in every gathering in which they participated, which were taken from other members of the same rank; there is thus between the members a perpetual exchange of relationships, which permitted the supreme authorities of the secret society to keep a firm hold on the situation.

However high and far the initiations go, they never are high enough to reveal to the initiate the purpose pursued by the secret society. For there are always traitors, and for a long time now, it has been no mystery for anyone that the goal is to keep the goal secret.

Joseph K… was horrified to learn that this secret society was so powerful and had so many branched that it might have been the case that he, without being aware of it, had shook the hand of the most powerful members. As bad luck would have it, one morning, after having woken up from a restless sleep, he lost his first class ticket in the metro. This accident was the first link in a chain of confusing and conflicting circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society. Later, needing to simply defend himself, he had to do what was needed in order to become a member of this fearful organization. That was a long time ago, and he still did not know where he stood in the process.       

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Happiness, 2020


I’ve been thinking about a long ago abandoned project lately.

In 2007, I was suddenly struck with a vision – or a trifecta of visions. The first vision was that happiness, in Western culture, was a total social fact – the name Marcel Mauss gave to concepts that pervade social relations and social representation in a given culture. Happiness, like mana (the primal power spoken of by Polynesian people, which served as the object of Mauss’s study in The Gift) was located in three conceptual places: as an immediate feeling – I am happy about some x; as a judgement about a whole life or collective institution – for example, in survey questions about whether the respondent is “happy”, which elicits a life judgement – and finally as a social goal against which social systems should be judged – the well-being promised, for instance, by market-oriented economists. This threefold set made me wonder how it was all connected – for these were not simply different definitional aspects of happiness, but truly ontic differences that were, at the same time, understandably linked.

Vision number two was that the happiness culture was built in the early modern era. This was accompanied, or quasi caused, by the beginning of the idea of economic growth – in contradistinction from the older, Malthusian restrained, society of the image of the limited good, and by a change in fundamental family patterns in which, increasingly, males and females married and started their own households, instead of remaining in the paternal house. The destruction of the society of the limited good – the idea that your goods, or luck, take from a restricted common pot -  was, as well, the destruction of a larger worldview in which nemesis, or God’s judgment, played a predominant part.  The old notion of fortune’s wheel was laid aside in the name of a new notion in which economic activity actually intertwined beneficently – the vices of the rich were the profits of the jeweler and hatmaker, etc. and equilibrium was disconnected from non-growth.  The second phenomena, which was first postulated by an obscure scholar named John Hajnal, who proposed, in 1965, that that, in essence, starting with the end of the 16th century, you could draw a line from Trieste to St. Petersburgh and allot two different household formations to each side. On the West, you have what Hajnal came to call the simple household formation, in which one and only one married couple were at the center of the household; in the East, you had what he called a joint household formation, in which two or more related married couples formed the household. Hajnal claimed that in the sixteenth century, the Western type of household was new, and characterized by a demographic shift in which marriage occurred significantly later in life. For women, for instance, the average age moves from 20 to 25. Meanwhile, in the East, the marriage age remained very young, and so a married couple of, basically, teenagers remained in a household with an older couple, usually the husband’s family. This, to me, was a fascinating fact – even if later scholars messed about a bit with the neatness of Hajnal’s theory. What this meant was that a window in biographical time opened up between independence and marriage. For both males and females, that window was something new – it was youth. As it shifted down in the twentieth century, it became adolescence and young adulthood. The effects of this were enormous.

Vision number three was of the effect of combining the treadmill of production, accelerated by technology and the revamping of the social structure, and the happiness culture. That effect was, essentially, to remove the limits on the human. The human limit, once rigidly defined by the gods or necessity, and the scarcity of luck, now expanded to include the world. The world became the instrument for making humans happy. It had no more “rights” than any other instrument.

Well, I added to my fundamental thesis for a number of years, and then I sorta took on other projects. But I’ve been reading my notes and blog posts back then, and I do think I was onto something. I was especially thrown back on this material by Ruth Leyes’ The Ascent of Affect, which gives a genealogy to the affect theory that has grown up over the last sixty or seventy years, since WWII.  I also delved into certain areas – such as deconstructing Paul Ekman’s emotional universals – which Leyes also does, with a heavier scholarship, but less concern, I think, for the amazing anthropology of affect that has helped us re-view our sense of, for instance, the European and Anglophone schema.

So I am thinking about working out, 12 years after thinking this through, some pieces of the happiness culture puzzle.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020



On a bleak day I lay in the bleak sheets
Eight stories above the puddles in the streets
Where the rain jumped, and the cars were ill:
Everybody in Paris swallowed some kind of pill
In the hope that what the doctor said was just because
He was a sort of negative Santa Claus.
Our anxiety, our numerous internal disasters
Would surely be repaired by duly applied plasters.
And chemistry – for wasn’t this the age of belief
In time released, targeted relief?
I peered out the window, I stretched my eyes to see
Something that didn’t strike me as old or filthy
(sometimes it is like that. A girl’s education
In cleaning up extends at times to the whole nation).
Another party girl, I thought, goes down the drain
-I’d feel oh so much better if it wasn’t for this rain!
Karen Chamisso

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Machine Stops


Michael Kammen’s 1980s book about the Constitution in American culture had one of those great titles, the kind of thing that Bob Dylan might appropriate for a song lyric: The Machine that would go of itself. Kammen took the title from a lecture given in the 1880s by James Russell Lowell:

“After our Constitution got fairly into working order it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the civil war itself but momentarily disturbed.”

Oh these machines! Russell’s phrase gives us that shock of recognition which is something akin to  deja-vu – it is one of those phrases that seem already to have been written or spoken somewhere, to be on the tip of the collective tongue.. A machine that would go of itself is what the classical liberal and the neo-liberal dream of the social is all about – a machine for governance, a market machine, a rational choice machine in the consumer’s head, etc. They are not “turned on” but mystically take their charge from equilibrium itself.

The dream is that the market is our collective intelligent servant and master, knowing everything by its very structure. The state is as small as possible, vis a vis the market, which is controlled by the trade and traffic in private hands (never mind that the company is anything but a private entity). However, the state is as large as it needs to be in order to control the non-virtuous citizens. All citizens, though, are given their turn to vote for a preselected range of “representatives”, from president to city council member.

Lowell continued his speech: “And this confidence in our luck with absorbation in material interests, generated by unparalleled opportunity, has in some respects made us neglectful of our political duties.”

What Lowell sees as a fault, hearkening back to an earlier era of republican virtue, is seen, by the neoliberal, as a virtue: the political economy is de-politicized. The end of history is the end of politics, at least on what Nietzsche called the “Grand scale” – a scale that would attempt, massively, to annul the exploitation and alienation that are not so much byproducts of the machine as its very fuel. The scheme was to drain politics into smaller venues, fights over TV shows and small scale scandals among the disposables in the political class. The feeling of powerlessness that the machines inevitably cause in the populace could be compensated by other forms of power – like the power of choosing to buy one object over another, fruit loops over raison bran, the minimansion over the fixer upper suburban ranch house, ad infinitum. Nobody would notice that their lives were slipping by. And if they did, there were now a number of opioids and anti-depressants that would do just the trick.

That was then. This is now. Now is more the era of Fosters’s The Machine Stops. We’ve discovered that the machines keep not going of themselves. We’ve discovered that the marvelous private enterprise machine, for instance, keeps going up in flames and exploding, and is only reconstructed by the government machine forking out trillions of dollars to bankers and their friends. We’ve discovered the environmental machine is falling apart, quickly. We’ve discovered that consumer choice among the pharmaceuticals hasn’t rid us of our despair, but has dispatched a good many of us via the O.D. And all of this is happening in synch.

In other words, politics on the grand scale is back. It is getting more likely every year that the next time one of the machines explodes in flames, there will be such resistance to putting it back together again that all the machines will have to be … reconstructed.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Lord Rochester

“Such sweet, dear, tempting devils women are”
- of which your hands were by phantoms fathom’s full
Who cursed cunts for coyness but couldn’t dull
your blade to live in any way but as the harmful ham
without ‘em. What is it in your natural history
that makes misogyny the answer to the mystery?
As though drownded dead in some punk’s bawdry curse
You ended, as they all do, dangling and disgorged
Your proud sword all (ha ha,) unforged.
“Bad boys bad boys whatcha gonna do?”
Peerless peers, your society is hella boring
Going to the devil, fucking and snoring.
Lord Rochester, highchurch atheist, didn’t you see
That Bunyan had you in his slough of despond
And God was all the cunt where you were lost and found.
- Karen Chamisso

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Dis-identification politics


To judge that a thing is bad is a philosophical task, but in the novel of real life, we more often judge that a person is bad. We more often think, that is, about how we don’t want to be or function like X, and create a negative figure out of that moment of negative choice. Those are the figures, in essence, that we compete with. And often, the badness of the figure becomes stronger than the reasons we hold an act or a function to be bad. Out of this comes snobbery and wounded dignity. The latter emerges from the moment in which we are squeezed between the figure that represents ‘how we don’t want to be’ and something that upsets our judgment about how we don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a liberal academic, or a poser, or a fan of country music, or a supporter of Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, etc., etc. translates into a satisfying comparison that emphasizes why I am not like liberal academics, posers, fans of country music, supporters of Trump or Sanders or whoever. At least I am not like X: This is the moral stance of the contemporary hero.

Sketching out this aspect of moral life, it points to a problem in the way sociologists mapping out our positive identifications as primary. That’s an idealistic stance. Dis-identification is just as important.

It might seem like the logical endpoint of “how we don’t want to be” is enmity. But the fundamental situation of the self versus the enemy is in combat, and there is always something mortal about enemies. You wish your enemies dead. Your enemies wish you dead. Whereas dis-identification is more about edging away from people, and there’s a different fundamental situation that models it:  being surrounded by. Being surrounded by Republicans. Being surrounded by woke types. Being surrounded by lefties, righties, pinkos, rednecks, yahoos, jerkoffs, feminazis, dittoheads. Whatever. To be surrounded by cuts off the ability to edge away. Terrifyingly, to an outsider, one can be identified with the crowd of ‘how we don’t want to be.’

This is the great insight of the classical English comic writers. In French literature, the thousand meannesses of everyday life are treated as though they have a certain grandeur – think of Lisbeth’s revenge in Cousine Bette – since the French have a genius for enmity.  In English and to a certain extent the anglophone culture,   those meannesses are filtered through the comedy of wounded dignity or snobbery, since the English genius is for edging away. Dickens had a gift for showing the dis-identifying gesture, and his most famous autobiographical image, of David Copperfield in the blacking factory, combines the sense of being surrounded, the sense of being in the wrong crowd, and the crisis of identification with the intensity of some Anglo myth of origins.


Canetti, in Crowds and Power, investigates the powerful theme of the sudden, unwanted contact – in relation to the morphology of the crowd. Dis-indentification is related to the most primal form of politics, that which comes out of a stick or a club.


A branch which broke off in the hand was the origin of the stick. Enemies could be feded off with a stick and space made for the primitive creature who perhaps no more than resembled man. Seen from a tree, the stick was the weapon which lay nearest to hand. Man put his trust in it and has never abandoned it. It was a cudgel; sharpened it became a spear; bend and the ends tied together, a bow; skillfully cut, it made arrows. But through all these transformations it remained what it had been originally: an instrument to create distance, something which kept away from the touch and the grasp that they feared. In the same way that the upright human stance still retains a measure of grandeur, so, through all its transformations the stick has never wholly lost its magical quality; as scepter and sorcerer’s wand it has remained the attribute of two important forms of power.




Thursday, October 01, 2020

A day in the life in Paris


My brain is a “who’s who of the forgotten” – to cop a phrase used by the critic Alexandre Geffen to describe Nerval’s Les Illuminés. Nerval’s book was devoted to various of the neglected fanatics of literature. The idea of lives as being, as it were, volumes in the Library of Babel is a metaphor for the brain – and has been used by neurologists and biologists themselves. There is a sense in which it is libraries all the way down, from the neurons in our head to the chromosomes in that mysterious thing called the gene. There’s a case to be made that the library is the most important invention of culture after fire and agriculture, for the framework around the text – the clay tablet with the tax list in Sumer, the voter’s shard in Athens, as well as the papyrus texts that we recognize as books, etc. ­– gave us a sense that information can be organized, that disparate objects can be collected, arranged and consulted, forming a larger whole than the parts.
My who’s who would include my classmates throughout elementary and high school, most of whom I can’t recall. Yet their names and faces exist, or did exist, in my brain, and I have had experience that many things I think are forgotten pop out, suddenly, in my memory. “Memory” – we have a penchant for attributing positive affordances to the brain, and not negative ones: thus, no neurologist studies the “forgettery”. Forgetting is instead to be linked to memory as a failure, or a glitch.
Certainly as I have continued in existence (I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled) I know more things, and thus have more disparate objects to put in my memory, and forget more things. Vast amounts of things. The proportion between my memory and my forgettery leans heavily to the latter – for instance, almost all the childhood years. A disparity that is embodied in the parents’ memory – we raise and love a child at one, two, three, four, five, knowing vaguely that, like us, that child’s memory dump will later include most of those years. We don’t think about it, though -it is almost constitutionally repulsive to think about it. Yet, still, everyone at one time or another has a theory about forgetting.
My theories are heavily influenced by Freud. Freud after all came up with a systematic way to look at forgetting, via the mechanism of repression operationalized by the unconscious. Although to say that the unconscious operationalizes lends it an agency that is surely itself in question. Hmm. In any case, Freud’s theory has been endlessly debated. I think that the debate should be grounded in a less absolute sense of repression – that is, forgetting is determined by many factors, and the operationalization of forgetting, the particular forgetting styles, respond to one or another way these factors dominate. There is a case to be made that with all the sense data we take in – and this we is broad enough to encompass all the mammals and probably the fishes in the sea as well – much of it has to be shunted to the “wastebasket”. Again, this mechanism is a bit unclear – the intentionality is written into the instructions, yet I’m not sure how that is supposed to work. It is as if underneath the neurological image of the brain there is, indeed, a forgettery – which has, to be all Lacanian about it, a topological resemblance to Freud’s unconscious.
I was pondering the who’s who of the forgotten yesterday as I went out to buy a poulet roti at the butcher’s shop on Rue de Bretagne. As I came up Rue Charlot, I had one of those moments that the surrealists lived for: metaphors jumping to life in the city streets. There, on the sidewalk, in front of a photo shop, was a thousand or more snapshots, old family snapshots, in a box. You could take a handful if you wanted. Surely the box was meant for the garbage man. I looked through the snapshots, and they were absolutely dull: a baby in a crib, probably from the nineteen sixties, a wedding, a vacation. The dullness was all in the fact that these were not my memories, this was not my who’s who. Yet they were somebody’s. They were dead to me, and someday I will be dead in the same way, my who’s who all shut up. I didn’t take any of the pics, but continued on my way, with the vague feeling I’d been an intruder, there.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A good day to talk about taxes: reprising the problem with the liberal board game metaphor


the liberal myth of the economy as a board game

“Only through the forgetting of this primitive metaphor-world, only through the hardening and rigidifying of the primitive capacities of human fantasy that flowed out originally in a hot stream of images, only through the unbeatable belief, this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in brief only through the fact that man forgets himself as a subject and really as an artfully creative subject, does he live with some rest, certainty and consequence. If he for one moment could escape out of the prison walls of this belief, immediately his self consciousness would be over and done with. Already it costs him some effort to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives a whole other world than humans, and that the question, which of both world perceptions is more correct is a completely senseless one, since here we have to measure with the standard of the correct perception, that is, a standard that is not at hand.” -Nietzsche

The metaphor-world of economics is never more entangled in its antinomies – like a crippled spider in its own web – than when it comes up against the odd question of the distribution of wealth. The neo-classic mainstream exists, in fact, in a world that it only recognizes as an irritant on the way to the utopian moment when the market absorbs all its children in a heavenly rapture – but if it were entirely blind to the fact that the state, that enemy of the good honest corporation and firm, plays a major role in economics, it would face the danger of being merely comic. The liberal solution to the endless differing of market heaven is that the state exists to create a “level playing field”. Mark Thoma, who runs the excellent blog, Economist’s View, just published an article on income inequality that contains a canonical version of this notion:

“I’ve never favored redistributive policies, except to correct distortions in the distribution of income resulting from market failure, political power, bequests and other impediments to fair competition and equal opportunity. I’ve always believed that the best approach is to level the playing field so that everyone has an equal chance. If we can do that – an ideal we are far from presently – then we should accept the outcome as fair. Furthermore, under this approach, people are rewarded according to their contributions, and economic growth is likely to be highest.
But increasingly I am of the view that even if we could level the domestic playing field, it still won’t solve our wage stagnation and inequality problems. Redistribution of income appears to be the only answer.”

I wrote a little response to this paragraph on Mark’s site.

“I've never understood the popularity of this belief in America. It seems a contradiction in terms. How can you "level" the playing field, and at the same time allow any unequal outcome? These are in direct contradiction with one another. Any 'playing field' in which one of the players gains a significant advantage will be vulnerable to that player using some part of his power or wealth to 'unlevel' the playing field to his advantage. There is no rule of any type, there is no power that will prevent this. The problem is thinking of the playing field as a sort of board game. You play monopoly and you accept the outcome as 'fair'. The problem of course is that in life, unlike monopoly, you don't fold up the board after the game is over and begin it all again - in other words, the economy isn't a series of discrete games that are iterated at zero.
Thus, the whole "equality of opportunity" ideology has never made sense. If it succeeds, it will dissolve itself as those who succeed most make sure that we do not go back to zero, and that our idolized 'competition' is limited to those in the lower ranks - for among the wealthiest or the most powerful, the competition is, precisely, to stifle and obstruct competition in as much as it injures wealth or power.
To not understand the latter fact is to understand nothing about the incentive for acquiring wealth or power. It is as if economists truly believe that billionaires are searching for the next billion to spend it on candy, instead of seeing them as political players building a very traditional structure of status that will allow them the greatest possible scope for exercizing power, including helping their allies and family and injuring their enemies.”

I am not satisfied that I have spelled out the structural dilemma here. In trying to build an economy with a non-interfering state that only guarantees that the ‘playing field’ is levelled, you are building, in reality, a massively interfering state. There is no point at which equality of opportunity will, as it were, work by itself. This is because the economy does not exist as a chain of discrete states – rather, what happens in time t influences what happens in time t1. The board game metaphor, however, exerts an uncanny influence over thought here. From Rousseau to Rawls, the idea of an original position has, unconsciously, created the idea that society is like a board game. That is, it has beginnings and ends; a whole and continuous game came be played on it; that game will reward people according to their contributions. And so on. Here, classical liberalism still has a grasp on the liberalism that broke with it to develop the social welfare state. Both liberalisms, for instance, can accept that the price of an apple is not ‘earned’ by the apple, but both bridle at thinking the price of a man – his compensation – is not ‘earned’ by the man. It must have some deeper moral implication.

As we have discovered, the liberal hope, in the sixties, that the social welfare system would so arrange the board game of society that equal opportunity is extended to all, and so dissolve – was based on the false premise that the players all recognize a sort of rule in which they would not use their success in making moves to change the rules of the game. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the incentive in this ‘board game’ – success consists precisely in changing the rules in your favor. It does not consist in getting rewarded for one’s contribution to the aggregate welfare of the players of the game. The billionaire is of a different kind than the saint. And each, to use Spinoza’s phrase, must continue in their being in order to be at all.
The anti-liberalism of the last thirty or forty years is rooted in this liberal blindspot. On the one hand, the liberal allows his rhetoric to be taken hostage by a pro-forma anti-statism – surely we don’t want the corrupt state to reward the lazy and unscrupulous! Thus, social welfare is presented with a wholly utilitarian justification – it exists solely to help the industrious and the respectable. So the liberal concedes that the protector state is a second best arrangement – and slides easily into bemoaning middle class ‘entitlements’, as if surely the middle class should stand on its own. On the other hand, the state engineered by the liberals does keep growing – it keeps growing because the middle class desperately needs it to maintain their life styles, and it keeps growing because the wealthy use it as a reliable annex to acquire various monopoly powers and as a cheap insurance plan.

What the liberal seemingly can’t acknowledge is that a democratic republic, can only afford the ‘board game’ of private enterprise if the state uses its powers not simply to redistribute or to produce, but to limit – that is, to hedge in and countervail the vested influence of the wealthiest. Thus, the democratic state taxes not only to provide income to the state, or to redistribute money to the less ‘worthy’ – it also does so to materially weaken the wealthiest. Otherwise, the wealthiest will rather quickly take over the state and make a mockery of democracy.

Taxation is the guillotine by other means. Joseph de Maistre once wrote that the compact between god and the state is sealed by the blood shed by the hangman. Wrong about god, de Maistre was certainly right that all social contracts are sealed in blood. No democracy can survive if it forgets this fact.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The mock-confession


The innocent have nothing to confess. Thus, by a social logic founded in both the jurisdictional and the sacred, if you confess, you cannot be innocent.

Foucault traces this logic in Discipline and Punish, going across social spaces in the 18th and 19th century to show how it was implemented – how the disciplinary regime encouraged speaking, telling, confessing, creating great rituals of it. The subject, in the Foucaultian paradigm, confesses, and becomes dependent on confession.

In the 1970s, Foucault turned away from literature. He was no longer writing about Raymond Roussel or Magritte.  A pity, for the complement to his work on the disciplinary society was the rise of the mock-confessional novel.

The roots of this novel type – under which  I would include Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, Hamsun’s Hunger, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Chris Kraus’s I love Dick – are found in the 18th century. Two texts stand out: Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew and Rousseau’s Confessions. The Rousseau text went against the social logic of confession, in as much Rousseau’s account of his corruption, or his various acts of corruption, was pitched against a certain core and impenetrable innocence. It was the latter that enabled Rousseau to write the  Confessions themselves.  His career as a writer was shaped by his experience as an innocent, although it was an innocence that,  in the real world, was continually denied by his actions and situation. While the memoirs of adventurers were quite popular in the eighteenth century, they were shaped as adventure stories, reports akin to the reports of the explorers which had become long established as a European tradition by then. Confession, with its implications – guilt and expiation – was a different kind of thing, and Rousseau was a different kind of adventurer. 

Yet, as he was well aware, confession was shaken by the decline in the old confidence in a Christian world order. In the world presided over by a benign, rational deity, confession held a diminished sacredness. It was on the verge of being wholly taken over by forensics and psychology.

That is the world in which Diderot operated, both as propagandist and analyst. Rameau’s Nephew is a figure who foreshadows the dark side of the dialectic of the enlightenment. His confession is cynical, a game that  springs not from the desire to expiate, but from the gamemaster's desire to brag, to show his tricks. He is the enlightened parasite, and even hints that enlightenment makes possible a whole new world of parasites:

“In all of this, he said lots of the things we all think, and which guide what we do, but which never get said out loud. And here, in truth, we have the most significant difference between my man and most of the people around us. He admitted to the vices he had and which everybody else has, but he wasn’t a hypocrite. He was neither more nor less horrendous than anyone else, he was simply more open, and more logical; and occasionally, he was profound in his depravity. I trembled to think what his child would become with such a master.

The composition of the Nephew of Rameau is as mysterious as everything else about it (it first appeared, in a German translation by Goethe, 30 some years after Diderot’s death). Diderot had been friends with Rousseau, but they had broken up before the Confessions were written. Whether Rousseau influenced Diderot or not, both were responding to some epistemic need abroad in the land for reckoning with the breakup of the old order. 

So much for the confessional side– but why the 'mock'?

Mock genres were also popular in the eighteenth century, especially the mock-heroic. The fashion for the mock-heroic grew out of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. In a dialectical slight of hand, the conservatives, the defenders of the ancients, in reaction to the moderns, generated a fashion for a very modern variation on satire – cutting the heroic down to scale. This playing with scale is literal in Gulliver’s Travels, and animates some of Pope’s best work, as well as Voltaire’s. The human scale, the conservatives imply, is anti-heroic, just as a fully modern society is anti-heroic. It is this theme that insinuates itself into the Confessional novel, serving as an appropriate devise to allegorize the disenchantment of  a society in which, potentially, the quality of mercy has been well lost – in which emotions found, at best, an expression in commodity accumulation, and at worst, turned inward and created madness.

Mock, according to 19th century etymology, was connected with the gesture of pursing your lips; according to more recent etymologies, it comes from the Germanic word for mutter. Interestingly, the word migrated by one of those fatal associations that are so hard to trace, and so easy, retrospectively, to see,  from derision to imitation. We copy not just out of admiration, but also out of the impulse to caricature. One of the sure jibes of childhood is to simply repeat what someone else says – it becomes a game as the person who is copied tries to get the copier to stop it.

The mock confession, then, has a relation to the confession as the child who imitates someone else in the mocking game has to the person imitated – a weaponized echo.

One of France’s most lauded mock-confessional novels is hardly known to Anglophonia: Le Bavard, or the Talker, by Rene-Louis des Fôrets. It is so unknown that it hasn’t been translated, in spite of the fact that its admirers included George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. Blanchot wrote an essay about it, which has oddly enough been translated  (it is included in Friendship) – so non-French readers can read about a  novel that has never been translated into English.  Blanchot’s essay is written in that prose of his, which sometimes leads to a teasing high – the reader seems to be attuned, enthrallingly, to  the sound of existentialism shattering in a thousand St. Germain apartments in the mid twentieth century evening – and sometimes leads to a nose clogging sense that all the Ciceronean abstraction is not leading us anywhere.  In my opinion, Blanchot goes wrong as soon as he treats literature as one block, separate from the talk in the streets and the inventory work of the critics – his a-historicizing gesture.  In this way, Blanchot overlooks the book’s enrollment in the line of the mock-confession, though he references it:  

“The book is entitled Le Bavard (The Talker), which could have been the title of a bit by Le Bruyère, but the novel is not the portrait of the Talker. Nor are we in the presence of one of those characters in Dostoevsky, inveterate talkers who, in their desire to make provocatory confidences, give themselves away at every moment for who they are in order to shut up all the better, even if the extenuating force of Notes from the Underground often emerges anew here. We may be tempted, as well, looking for some connection, to evoke the movement which traverses the work of Michel Leiris and in particular that page of The Age of Man where the writer finds no other source for his penchant to confess than in the refusal of saying nothing, showing that the most irresponsible utterance, that which knows no limits and no purpose, originates in its own impossibility.”

One wonders why Blanchot lifts these examples up, only to dismiss them. In particular, Leiris does give a clue, in his book, about the confessional mode – that mode that is a particular form of utterance – by calling it a catharsis.  Surely this is at the heart of the mock confession – the social failure of catharsis in a society in which mercy has been replaced by the bureaucracy of punishment.

The Talker (Le Bavard has also been translated as the Chatterer, and one could suggest other names – the Man who couldn’t shut up, for instance – but being a talker, in English, often means someone who says a lot and means little) is a small novel of three chapters. The first chapter establishes the tone and the curious lack of content. The narrator tells us things about himself, his habits, and establishes a rapport with his audience of reader/listeners, without telling us some critical facts: what he does, where he comes from, where he lives. Novelistic density is sacrificed for another kind of density – that of psychological observation. And yet that psychological observation is hedged about with caveats, and a sort of reaction, on the narrator’s part, to the hostility held, he assumes, by his listeners/readers. This is not at all the kind of tale told to people of like kind, as in one of Conrad’s novels. Just as the narrator – who opens the novel by looking in the mirror and proceeding to analyze that gesture, rather than tell us what he sees in the mirror, i.e. physically describe himself – substitutes elaborate and defensive reflection for the usual fictional “showing”, so too he attributes to his audience a sort of ambient enmity that seems closer to paranoia than some anchored relationship taht we would expect in a novel of confession: say taht of a prisoner to his guard, etc.

Within this cloud of too much and not enough knowing, the narrator recounts his first and second “crisis” –  moments when he felt a Tourette’s like impulse to talk. Characteristically, the firsr crisis occurred when there was nobody around. He was stretched out on a beach. Characteristically, too, what he actually said, or didn’t say is not represented in the book. The narrator’s account accrues, oddly, around a hole – the talk of the talker.  If is as if the phenomenology of discourse – the aboutness – has been cut adrift. This is a book that doesn’t need quotation marks, even though it is a book about talking. The second crisis occurs in a low dive, to which  the narrator, half drunk, is taken by some friends. The friends, of course, are portrayed as actually hostile to him – rather like the “friends” of the narrator in Notes from the Underground. In the dive, the narrator spots a beautiful woman dancing with a clownish, red haired man. The woman is, the narrator implies, a sex worker of some sort. The narrator butts in, dances with the woman, then buys her a drink, while her redhaired friend fumes a few tables away. And then the narrator is carried away by another Tourette-like impulse, and talks and talks to the dancer. His talking attracts a bit of a crowd, which is mostly hostile to his more and more cynical tone. Again, though, though we have an elaborate analysis of the scene, there is a hole at the center – the hole of what the narrator actually said. At the end of the monologue, the woman gets up, goes to another table, and starts laughing loudly – apparently at the narrator.

In chapter two, the narrator flees the low dive, humiliated. After threading a labyrinth of streets, he ends up in a park, where he is beaten by the red haired man, who has followed him. He awakens from his concussion in the snow of the park, and hears a chorus of schoolkids from the yard behind the wall that abuts on the park. The sound leads to something close to an epiphany. 

In chapter three – spoiler – the narrator claims that none of this ever happened. The readers - now treated as a hostile group, just outside the narrator's circle - have been tricked. And whether they like it or not, the narrator doesn't care. The end.

There is a tendency among readers of The Talker to take the third chapter as true – but in actuality, there is no more reason to believe the third chapter than to believe the first one. What is true is the tonal logic – The Talker is a move to a sort of meta-mock confession. It is as if Hamsun’s unnamed narrator, or Dostoevsky’s unnamed narrator from Notes, took everything back in the end. Although in neither case would we be utterly surprised. 

Catharsis in the mock-confession will never reach a satisfying conclusion, we will never be pure, because purity is just a way of kidding ourselves. In modernity, we can no longer rely on any absolute division between the pure and the impure. We all confess. 






Ms. M.M. visits Wallace Stevens - Karen Chamisso


When Ms. M.M. visited Wallace Stevens

At his office building where there were

“eleven or twelve white marble columns along the façade”

(her famous precision on parade

but not too much – there’s the fatal “or”

to remind us of what poetry is for

and of what good manners requires as well)

and a wide window, otherwise indescribable

letting the banal Connecticut sunlight through.

No doubt Mr. Stevens had a lot to do

But he did show M.M. his secretarial pool


where the actuarial tools

were applied, and procedures for getting reimbursed

if your property had been cursed

by fire, theft, or a smell in the air.

The girls all smiled. “They aren’t bothered with strikes there;

the girls at the Hartford have it nice.” 

Said Ms. M. M. – do her words take a slice?

Or were they just words, and thus  meant quite sincerely?

Then it was over as begun, over merely.


Neither one showed the other the truth

- that they were monsters, monsters on the loose.




Thursday, September 24, 2020

two cheers for cancel culture

 From the now defunct willetts site:

Cancel culture was born on October 18, 1924, when a pamphlet was thrust upon the world entitled: A Cadaver. The subject of the pamphlet was Anatole France, a Nobel prize winning author whose death, on October 12, 1924, was announced on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: Anatole France Great Author dies … Author of “Thais” and “Le Jongleur de Notre Dame” Classed as Leader of Modern Stylists”. The writers of A Cadaver (Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, etc.) were having none of this. The pamphlet was a surrealist action of the most violent and definitive kind. Breton classed Anatole France with the “cops”, and wrote: “With Anatole France, a little human servility goes out the door.” Eluard, under the heading, An Old man Like the Others,  wrote mockingly to France: “The harmony, ah, the harmony, the knot of your tie, my dear corpse, your brain on the side, everything arranged beautifully in the coffin and the tears that are so sweet, aren’t they?” But it was Louis Aragon who really ripped poor Anatole France’s corpse another asshole. Under the heading: “Have you ever slapped a dead man?” Aragon attacked the whole idea, the stink and the shallowness of “beautiful writing”, and wrote: “I declare that every admirer of Anatole France is a degraded being.” It is polemic in the highest ranting style:

What flatters you in him, what makes him sacred, please leave me in peace, is not even the talent, which is arguable, but the vileness, which permits the first louse that comes along to exclaim : How is it that I never thought of this before !

And, the peroration:

“Today I am in the center of that mildew, Paris, where the sun is pale, where the wind entrusts its horror and its inertia to the smokestacks. All around me I see a dirty, poor busy-ness, the movement of the universe where all greatness becomes an object of derision. The breath of my interlocutor is poisoned by ignorance. In France, they say, everything ends up as a song. Let he who dies in the heart of the general beatitude go up in smoke in his turn! There is little that remains of a man. It is even more revolting to imagine that one, who was, in any case, a man. On certain days, I dream of an eraser that could wipe out all of this human stain.”

This is how you do cancellation, my droogs.

In this case, the surrealists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. By 1930, literary lights like Blaise Cendrars were claiming that France was “boring,” and Andre Gide put in the boot by saying that his oeuvre was “not considerable”. Yet when he was alive, Anatole France held a position in the overlapping worlds of literature, culture and politics that was similar to that held by, for instance, Saul Bellow in the U.S. It is hard to imagine Saul Bellow being spit on to this enormous extent when he died…

Except that Bellow did, in a sense, imagine it. Bellow sampled his own heckling by students in 1968 by working up a similar scene in Mr. Sammler’s planet:

“A man in Levi's, thick-bearded but possibly young, a figure of compact distortion, was standing shouting at him.

"Hey! Old Man!"

In the silence, Mr. Sammler drew down his tinted spectacles, seeing this person with his effective eye.

"Old Man! You quoted Orwell before."


"You quoted him to say that British radicals were all protected by the Royal Navy? Did Orwell say that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy?"

"Yes, I believe he did say that."

"That's a lot of shit."

Sammler could not speak.

"Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It's good he died when he did. And what you are saying is shit." Turning to the audience, extending violent arms and raising his palms like a Greek dancer, he said, "Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He's dead. He can't come."

At the time Mr. Sammler’s Planet came out, George Orwell had already assumed a rank at the top of the pantheon of brave “truth-tellers”, so the cancellation of Sammler and of Orwell together in one taunt – such a bearded and testosteroned one too! - was loaded with voltage. Of course, Bellow’s characters are always haunted by a ghost at the heel, taunting them with the idea that they are only ham actors, all of their beautiful thoughts only occasions for various big wig louses to say, how had I never thought of that before! Charley Citrine has Von Humboldt Fleisher, and Herzog of course is in flight from Valentine Gersbach. But in this gallery Sammler is special, since his cancellation moment is so entirely public, and so entirely on terms that Bellow felt were the only real terms – such was Bellow’s problem with women. 

Twitter has become, for the media establishment, what the heavily bearded young man was for Artur Sammler – an emblem of the end of the world in sheer barbarism and blasphemy and insulting of George Orwell. Of course, in the media establishment, it is very hard to get canceled. Noam Chomsky managed to do it by criticizing American foreign policy after the Vietnam war, when the wound was healed and all bien-pensant American “thought leaders” agreed that America had the most adorable and charming plans for the rest of the world (and was only being misunderstood as it spent trillions on the military and put these plans into effect by invading Panama City here, helping the stray Salvadorean death squad there, droning (accidentally!) some Yemeni wedding over in the corner, and so on). Otherwise, you will never find the deck chairs changing very much on the opinion pages of the great dailies, nor will you find Meet the Press or that ilk of tv inviting on anybody ‘foreign” or really anybody except its usual quota of great white male politicos and pundits. Even when a figure, like Mark Halperin, is discovered to be a serial groper and goes down, his media friends have a hard, hard time letting him go – as do his friends in both party establishments – and they keep campaigning to uncancel that pitiful mook.

Of course, the media establishment does not extend this courtesy to the rest of toiling humanity. The NYT business page looks on with equanimity when a corporation, stuffed to the gills with cash, decides a mass layoff is just what they need. You will never hear the words “cancel culture” applied in such cases. Rather, it is a matter of cash flow. When Uber recently “downsized” its work force, this is how the New York Times reported it:

“In response, Mr. Khosrowshahi has shaken up Uber’s top ranks and tried to cut costs. After cutting jobs in the marketing team in July, he instituted a monthlong hiring freeze and instructed executives to re-evaluate the size of their teams. In addition, he pushed out top executives, including his chief operating officer and chief marketing officer. Uber’s board has also undergone some turnover.”

When, on the other hand, a twitter user made a joke about Bret Stephens being a bedbug, the NYT not only permitted Stephens to write a whole column about it in which the great Stephens compared himself to all those who suffered at Auschwitz, but various member of the media, who gathered around Bari Weiss at her recent coming out party, sniffed loudly about the de-platformin’, generally wrong-headed youth, spiritual descendants of Louis Aragon, louts all:

MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who has frequently hosted Weiss on her morning show, deplored “cancel culture.” “On a regular basis,” she said, “people say to me, ‘I wouldn’t say that in public.’ As soon as people start to retreat and not share their views, it’s bad for society and culture.” – from Boris Kachka, New York magazine

Times, admittedly, have changed since an Anatole France could be celebrated as a master “stylist” on the front pages of great American newspapers. Bourgeois society’s need for intellectual legitimation – for a certain protective, brainy smugness – is now supplied by a legion of pop scientists, mostly white, male, and willing to consider the tough questions: such as, why does nature shower white males (such as me) with such genius and brilliance and money? And the answer they come up with is – it must be the genes! The function, though, is the same. Anatole France, it must be said, was not as much of a smug idiot as our current iterations of Steven Pinker. His reputation went into a tailspin, but one has to say that a man who could attract kudos from such various sources as Edmund Wilson, who devoted a chapter of Axel’s Castle to him, Ford Maddox Ford, who named Conrad, James and France as the great novelists of his younger days, and Kenneth Burke, was not a total loser. Proust took certain elements from France’s life and made him into the character Bergotte, which is, sadly (for France, at least), how he is best remembered in the Anglophone world. 

Still: hooray for the surrealists! And hurray for the twitter mob! There is something so, well, right about Stephanie Ruhle’s friends whispering their sweet little bigotries in her ear and then admitting that they are afraid to say them in public. Not, of course, that they won’t – to the chauffeur, to the maid, to the clerk at the store, or to any unfortunate who serves them at a restaurant, over and over again.

The hallmark of cancel culture is the fact that the firing, the layoff, so admired in America – Trump is, literally, president because he starred in a reality show that was all about firing people – has now been seized by the fired. They are, as it were, firing back. Louis Aragon, at least the Louis Aragon who, as a mere cricket, shit on all the literary bigwigs, would be pleased.