Saturday, September 14, 2019

Review of Behemoth: the history of the factory and the making of the modern world

As a kid, I worked in my father’s ice factory. It was not a grandiose enterprise –  it consisted of an outer office, an inner office, a floor on which there were nine regular icemakers and one cube icemaker, and a freezer. Outside, in the pebble and dirt driveway, there were three ice delivery vans. The only employees were family. My mom, in the summer, my two brothers, from the time they were in the fifth grade, me, from the time I was in the seventh grade, and one summer my sister, who was the secretary.

We hired a few of my friends from highschool for the high sales seasons of spring and summer, but this rarely worked out. They had a hard time getting a grip on the process of bagging ice. It was simple, but it needed a certain meditative agility. The ice makers were all gray shiny machines that delivered a load of ice every twenty minutes or so, which piled ice up in the bins. You didn’t want the ice to pile up completely, but sometimes it did. You took your ice scoop and you dug into the bin, and you deposited the ice in a plastic bag hanging from a rack on your cart. My Dad made the cart. It was an ingenious thing, with the rack for the bags and a tape machine for the sealing and a scale. You took the bag off the rack once you had ten pounds in it, or about, you put it on the scale to check – after a while you could eye it and skip this step – and then you twirled the bag around, made a neck, and guided it forcefully through the tape machine, which would wrap the tape closely around the neck. Then you’d toss the bag into another cart, a metal one, and when you had done enough, or you judged that the bags were melting, you wheeled the cart into the freezer, which usually took a run with the cart, since the freezer was mounted a bit up from the floor. The things you did not want to do were: 1, leave too much ice on the floor; 2, fail to put in a full ten pounds; 3., fail to seal the bag completely; and 4, run crookedly at the freezer. Easy, but unfortunately many people failed at 1-3 a lot, and some even at 4.
It was cold work, and you had to wear gloves. Otherwise, you’d begin getting all scratched up and bleeding over the ice. That was no good. Also, though you could be very careful, as this work had to be done speedily in rush times, inevitably you were soon standing in a puddle of cold water. Myself, I got what I called white lung sometimes – bad pneumonia like colds. But mostly, it was a cool job. I’d keep the radio on loud, and I’d think about things for the time it took to bag. Usually, the day started at nine and ended at four. Of course, there were times that that had to be extended.

Also, I have left out of this the fifteen pound cube ice, cause that was a bitch, involving getting the ice to slide from its aluminum containers into a special bag. You would always bang up your fingers on that thing.

Also, there were the twenty pound bags, which were, unfortunately, reinforced paper, and they tended to break.

Sometimes I rode with Dad or Mom when they delivered ice; mostly that was the job of my brothers.

The business finally folded in the seventies when my father finally conceded that he was never going to make any money at it. It was a tough market, since we were competing with Southland, which not only made ice – yucky ice – but also owned all the Seven-Elevens.

That experience has made me that, on some level, I am in solidarity with factory workers in bigger factories, made me feel related, on some deep teen level, to the hands on the assembly lines and the sewing lines and the meat packing plants. I have never worked since the ice baggin’ days in a factory, but I have always been fascinated by factories: by the songs about them (like Adam raised a Cain, or Piss Factory), to movies about factory workers (for instance, Metropolis or – especially - Blue Collar) or the rare literature. Which includes Henry Green’s Living, and Beryl Bainbridge’s Bottle Factory Outing. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But, oddly, nothing outsized, nothing in the War and Peace department, even though the factory is one of the great social facts of modernity. Although I suppose there is Marx’s Capital. Marx understood the scale of the factory as a social form. He understood that it just didn’t make steel or tools or thread – the factory was making world history.
We are all so proud to have a whole geological epoch named after us: the Anthropocene. It isn’t the first time that organic matter has had a planetary aspect. About 2.5 billion years ago, according to scientists (those very important members of the Anthropoids, without whom our epoch would not have been named – in fact, wouldn’t have existed at all!) Cyanobacteria began photosynthesizing and in the process excreted a poison, oxygen, and in such quantities! You can’t imagine. The oxygen mixed with the rest of the gases in the atmosphere, competitor bacteria that couldn’t use oxygen and were in fact poisoned by it died out, the continents were rained on and leaked more of their minerals into the water, and the rest is natural history.

If some creature evolves that has an interest in writing the history of this planet after the Anthropocene destroys the Anthropoids, they should take a look at certain structures they will find in many different continents: factories. While Pyramids and cathedrals, Eastern Island carved heads and Roman aqueducts have had immense influence on the societies from which they emerged, factories have, arguably, been the most creative and destructive structures ever made. You, sitting there reading this, can look around you and spot, if you are like me and in a nice room, such things as lamps, furniture, cups, chairs, tables, doorknobs and even your clothes – socks, shirts, shoes – that can all be traced back to factories. That tracing back, once upon a time, was not so hard – if you lived in France, you’d trace back the clothes to textile factories in Lyon, and the lightbulbs to, perhaps, a factory in Ivry-sur-Seine, owned and run by the Compagnie générale des lampes. You can even go to the factory – which is now not a factory, but a historic site. As well, there is no CGL any longer. It has long been swallowed up by other companies, and its trace is only found in the portfolios of certain rentiers, or in the memories, bitter or sweet, of its dying employees.

As we all know, the old treadmill of production, which once scattered the peasants of Europe to the wind, built the weapons and the trains, made consumer society possible and created a proletariat that was supposed to seize the means of production in due time – is defunct. This isn’t to say that the factory is defunct. There are factories that are even more gigantic than those of the twentieth century, but they have gone to China, Vietnam, Mexico and other places. In France – as well  as in the U.S. and other countries – the writing was already on the wall for the factory worker in the 70s. The seventies was a curious decade, hated by your true blue conservative even more than the sixties. The reason is that the seventies witnessed a last stand, so to speak, of organized labor power. The story of the Lip watch factory, in Besançon, is typical. Since this isn’t a well known story in the U.S., I think I’d like to start here on my factory journey – a journey which will eventually link up with Joshua Freeman’s book, Behemoth: a history of the factory and the making of the modern world, which I’d like to urge on my readers. Even those who might not want to read about factories, who’d rather not think about factories, who are glad that they don’t work in factories.
You can’t escape them so easily, you know.

But back to the seventies. In 1973, the workers in the Lips watch factory in Besançon heard a rumor that their company, a French firm that at one time was one of the world leaders in watch making, was going to sell out to a Swiss firm. And the Swiss firm intended to fire all the workers and shut down the factory – as is the way of firms that buy other firms, a sort of ritual potlach they perform in order to show the neighborhood how tough and mean they are.  
Besançon is in the Eastern part of France. It was never a communist hotbed, but its factories had been radicalized in the sixties. In 1967 there’d been a famous series of actions at a nylon manufacturer which Chris Marker filmed. He also showed films made in the Soviet Union in the early thirties, which documented working conditions and worker attitudes. Fast forward to 1973.  Half of the workforce at the Lip factory was female. The CGT and the CFDT were the big unions. On June 12, 1973, having a prevision of what was up, the workers sequestered the management and went through the paperwork they had on them, discovering plans for a mass lay-off. It was then that they decided to do something that used to be done quite a bit once upon a time: and occupy the factory. But they went further than a sitdown strike. They decided to expropriate the expropriaters in real time.They declared that they were now going to manufacture and sell the watches and clocks themselves. As Andrew Kopkind, who reported on the takeover for Ramparts Magazine, put it:

“… workers at Lip seized control of their factory, made off with the large inventory of watches and parts, and began running the business themselves. Operating capital came from sale of the expropriated stock. The bosses gave up without much of a fight and the French and European Left began a campaign of support. Thousands of liberated watches were sold on the streets of Paris, in London, Rome, Berlin, and Zurich. The central unions—both Communist, Socialist and Catholic—belatedly tailed along on the tide of popularity for the Lip action, and the Left political parties also threw in their support. Mostly, however,  the energy and imagination of the action came from inside the Lip workers' committee, where "ordinary" employees—that is, not political organizers—took the lead, planned strategy, delineated the risks.”

All good things come to a bloody end in the struggle between labour and capital. President Pompidou’s Prime Minister, Messmer – a name from some expressionist film of the 20s - sent in the police, who stormed the factory and tossed out the workers. 20 to 100 thousand people came to protest. The Lip takeover then made it way into the popular consciousness, where it has had a surprisingly enduring life. A documentary about the Lip uprising was made in 2006, and a graphic novel, with a preface by the French Left’s leader, Jean-Luc Pierre Mélenchon, was issued a few years ago.

Monday, September 09, 2019


Jeffrey had numerous residences. And he used to rely on me to help him furnish them with art. I was sort of his art consultant, you might say, not that he ever took my advice. Because he pretended to be interested in art, but he was really more interested with—Jeffrey was so perverse. “Perverse,” that word, haha. You have to use it. What is perversion? You want to examine that.
Jeffrey was amused to have in his house fake art which looked like real art. Because of the fact that he was putting one over, so to speak. He thought that he was—how do you describe that? When you walked into this house, for example, there was a Max Weber or something like that, and it was a fake. And it amused him that people didn’t realize that. He was able to furnish his house with the fake paintings. Jeffrey had a collection of underage Rodins, for example, because what difference does it make if it’s real or not real?
This was, to me, a very telling story, a tell, even.  It was not just a story about fakery – although the whole of the Epstein story is about fakery on one level or another. It is also a story about complicity. For think of it: you have a guest in your house and you have what you know is a fake painting. And you point it out as a real painting. On the one hand, maybe your guest doesn’t know much about Max Weber – doesn’t know much about cubists period. So they nod along. They might like the painting or not. On the other hand, say your guest does know about Max Weber. And sees something isn’t right. Well, what is guest number two going to say? You have a fake there, buddy?
Guest number two knows just enough that by nodding, going along, he’s trapped. Or she’s trapped. A pact of complicity has been silently forged.
This is what Epstein was all about – not just fakery, but getting beyond that, where the person being faked out becomes complicit in the whole enterprise. This was on one level what getting girls who had been raped to go out and find other girls and lie to them about massage. This is tied to the science obsession. Just as, being a drop-out schmuck, he wasn’t going to get within miles of the scientists whose names graced the covers of pop science books, so, being a drop out with supposed billions, he could make those scientists smile and smile and he said drop out-y things. His website – assuming that the posts were written or at least dictated by Jeffrey Epstein – is a mishmash of rewrites from Wikipedia articles and platitudes. Sometimes you can hear the man:
“[Martin]Gardner’s numerous books and articles on recreational articles always inspired me, and I would like to share with you some fun and recreational mathematics that I have come across that are in the fun and inspirational spirit of Martin Gardner.
Pivar has a more blunt assessment of Epstein’s science abilities:
But Jeffrey didn’t know anything about science. Nevertheless, in his peculiarly inquiring mind, let’s say, like a child who is fresh to the world—because he has no compunction about approaching people—he brought together the most important scientists like Stephen Gould, like Pinker, like all of those people, and myself even, at dinners, and would propose interesting, naive ideas.. He would say, “Oh, what is gravity?”   I mean, to bring together a bunch of scientists and say, what is gravity? …Which is ridiculous in a way, even though it’s a question nobody can answer. But he would do that kind of stuff. Just for the sake of, I don’t know what. And Jaron Lanier and all that group, the greatest thinkers that they were, he brought together with a purpose of thinking, rightfully or wrongfully, that he was going to introduce some kind of logic or something—some special kind of a thought process, which others hadn’t thought of, which of course is absurd.
While everybody was watching, we began to realize he didn’t know what he was talking about. Then after a couple of minutes—Jeffrey had no attention span whatsoever—he would interrupt the conversation and change it and say things like, “What does that got to do with pussy?!”

So much for putting up the fake painting. But these people, hearing this question, are really being presented with a choice: shall I continue to associate with this guy. And they all, or most of them, did. He’d write incoherent, platitudinous or plagiarized texts on his site, he’s interrupt discussion to ask, what does that got to do with pussy, and he was treated to a stream of praise by scientists as if he was Medici and Einstein rolled into one. Richard Axel, who won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine, said this, according to Epstein’s site
“Jeffrey Epstein has the ability to make connections that other minds can’t make. He is extremely smart and probing. He can very quickly acquire information to think about a problem and also to identify biological problems without having all the data that a scientist would have … He also has an extremely short attention span. Why?—it’s not that he’s bored. He has enough information after fifteen minutes so that you can see his mind thrashing about, as if in a labyrinth. And even to doubt an expert’s statements.” – 
Apparently, Axel was impressed with the question, what does this have to do with pussy. Very impressed. Too impressed.
Fakery and complicity form an interesting pair, as every con man knows. What you want, above all, is to induce fakery into your associate, your sucker, your victim. This is made easier when the victim doesn’t care about what he knows about your character, even your crimes, even your raping teen girls. What they care about is: well, being around wealth. Being in the glamorous world where Eastern European-seeming models of ambiguous age and origin are around. As they always were. Thus giving a certain aura to your association. Con men are great on tests – they need to test the mark. They need the mark to see enough that the mark has to make a decision: do I keep on with this? Do I believe my eyes? And his scientist friends were a perfect group for that type of thing. They’d self-selected themselves as “brilliant”. They were almost all male. And they shared, whether consciously or unconsciously, mucho contempt for women.
Epstein apparently greatly impressed men with his charm. A certain type of man – not your democratic socialist type, not your African-American type – his associates were almost all white –  but your millionaire or millionaire fluffer type. He was himself his own perfect front guy for journalists in that field.
Read the rest here:

Saturday, August 24, 2019

shame of the universities 2: droit de seigneur in America

For the entire article, see Willettsmag.

There are scandals that fascinate but don’t educate. And then there are the other scandals, the ones that x-ray a social order, the ones that, in one flash of light, penetrate under the skin of the ruling class and show us the gaudy, gory connections that make up its structure and substance.

The Jeffrey Epstein scandal, from his supposed suicide (the suicide of a man who spent 12 hours a day in his jail, meeting in a special meeting room with his lawyers; the man who supposedly despaired that the jig is up, without the thought crossing his head that he might have information that he could use to bargain with the prosecutors; the man who supposedly knelt and leaned so hard against the sheets conveniently provided for him by the prison system and tied to his bed post that he broke bones in his neck; that suicide) to his donations and friendships, showed what money can buy in America. It showed, even more, what money has bought in America: it has bought unaccountable private power that now rules us in ways that would astonish the aristocracy in 18th century France.
Or maybe not.

Remember, the scandal about Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro, known to all opera lovers. The plot concerns Figaro’s master’s desire to assert the droit de seigneur on Figaro’s bride-to-be: that is, the right of the master to have sex with the bride of the vassal on the first night of the marriage. A fiction, historians say. In Beaumarchais’s day, it was a common enough trope – considered archaic, but evidence of the ghastliness of feudal times.  In the play, the Count has already renounced the droit de seigneur in his own marriage – but he seeks to reassert it with Suzanne, Figaro’s bride-to-be, by buying her consent.

          “Tired of prowling among the rustic beauties of the neighborhood he returned to the castle… and endeavors, once more, secretly to purchase from her, a right which he now most sincerely repents he ever parted with.”

Napoleon, famously, called the play “the revolution already in action”. I don’t think anybody will call the Epstein affair the revolution in action, since we seem to be at a deadpoint in history where reaction rules on all sides. But the revolution, like the kingdom of heaven, can’t be said to be here, or there, but explodes – so who knows.

In my last post about the shame of the universities, I showed a streak of moderation that, a week after writing it, I am rather ashamed of. Before I rundown the farce of irresponsibility that is unspooling before our eyes, I should say, in my most dictatorial voice, that the larger scandal is that there is no SEC like regulatory body to police the concentrated private power of tax exempt universities. What regulation exists consists of mere nudgery. We have no body to force universities to be wholly transparent about their donations. We have no body to investigate the responsibility of the administration in covering up not only insalubrious relationships, but crimes. We allow universities and colleges an incredible leaway to investigate sexual assault, to investigate inside dealing by faculty, to allow deals with for profit corporations, etc. Just as allowing billionaires to flourish is like inviting dinosaurs to your five year old’s birthday party and expecting them not to eat the cake and the kiddies; similarly, allowing Harvard or Yale to be judge and jury of their own doings is not an invitation to corruption, it is corruption in action.

Yale, for instance. Let’s take the recent news about Yale. It too involves sexual assault and an island in the Caribbean – but, at least so far, without an Epstein in it. Instead, it involves Eugene Redmond, a professor at the medical school, who as long ago as 1994 was credibly accused of sexual abuse of students. These students were invited to study on St. Kitts Island, where Thomas seemed to run a private foundation. After hearing that Redmond was tricking students into having sex with him, this is what Yale, in its glory and its power, did:

“… the Yale School of Medicine launched an investigation in 1994 after students from Redmond’s summer internship program reported that he sexually molested and harassed two students. Redmond was reprimanded and signed a settlement agreement that required him to eliminate the program, cease recruiting and any supervising of students in St. Kitts and that he abide by a separate housing policy, the report said.”
If you rub your eyes and think, wow, a cab driver that isolated a customer and raped him would not only be fired by the cab company, but turned over to the police – you obviously do not fit in America. In America, Dr. Eugene Redmond was with Yale. And Yale is no mere cab company, but a trainer of, well, our Supreme Court. So what happened was a stern interdiction of sleeping together. And with that, Yale slapped together its mighty hands. Case solved!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

shame of the universities

There’s been a lot of news about our elite universities lately. All of its been bad. Let’s do a rundown.
On January 31, 2019, the Massachusetts Attorney General, Maura Healey, submitted a thick file to the court concerning the state’s case against the Sackler Family and Purdue Pharma, their private company. The suit takes cognizance of the fact that when the Sackler family began to market and distribute oxycontin, it did so with criminal disregard both for the way its delivery system could be easily hacked and with previous protocols about the administration of opioids for pain cases. This is well known. Less well known is the memoranda concerning the role Tufts university played in credentialing Purdue Pharma’s “philosophy” of pain management, ie credentialing propaganda for pushing the drug on millions of Americans via doctors.

Tufts, it seems, had developed a synergy with the Sacklers. After getting millions in Sackler money, Tufts was happy to allow Purdue personnel, like Dr. David Haddox, to lecture at the School of Medicine’s pain center. The brunt of Haddox’s lectures was that oxycontin was not addictive. Another Tufts professor, Dr. Daniel Carr, according to Stat magazine, which does investigative journalism in healthcare, reviewed the bountiful relationship Tufts had with the Sacklers in 2009 – after, one recalls, the first courtroom case against Purdue in Virginia in 2007. Carr founded the Sacklers wonderful, and he was able to make his views known at the Pain Center first as a faculty member and then as a director. Like the Sacklers, who apparently schemed to double their money with an anti-addiction drug that would parallel oxy, Carr jumped from propagandizing for the family to organizing conferences on addiction.
Given the gravity of the charges against Tufts, Tufts administrators have decided to investigate themselves. Who knows what they will find?
MIT ended an exciting year in 2018 when it also investigated itself. This happened after Jamal Khashoggie was dissected in vivo under the order of Prince Mohammed bin Salam. MIT had gladly given itself as a PR site for bin Salam’s tour of America, where no questions were asked about bin Salam’s strategy of starving to death the population of Yemen. After the investigation, MIT was satisfied that it had no reasons to cut ties with the Saudis.
This year, in fact last Friday, we learned a little something about the famed MIT AI laboratory and its director, the late Marvin Minsky. We learned that as a guest and friend of Jeffrey Epstein, Minsky, 76, was introduced to one of Epstein’s girls, 17, and had sex with her. Also called statutory rape. But this story, sensational as it is, rather disguises the fact that Minksy organized a couple of conferences on Epstein’s island even after he was convicted in 2008 of “soliciting” an underaged “prostitute”. Now a question one might want to pose, here, is what kind of setting is this for women in AI? Is it, perhaps, slightly, oh just slightly, discriminatory? Or did that matter because all the attendees were men? Here’s an account of one of the conferences from an attendee:
“Epstein’s former neighbor, the psychologist and computer scientist Roger Schank, describes another such event that he attended: a meeting of artificial-intelligence experts, organized by Marvin Minsky and held on Epstein’s island in April 2002. “Epstein walks into the conference with two girls on his arm,” said Schank. The scientists were holding their discussions in a small room, and as they talked, “[Epstein] was in the back, on a couch, hugging and kissing these girls.” 
Harvard, of course, just keeps popping up in the Jeffrey Epstein narrative. But no larger questions seemed to be asked. So let’s broaden the scope.
Epstein gave his largest donation to Harvard in 2004. Who was president of Harvard in 2004? Larry Summers. Summers, it appears, was a plane mate of Jeffrey Epstein, and perhaps they talked about sex roles – after all, Epstein seemed to like to talk about how he’d like to inseminate a suitable 20 women with his genes on his New Mexico ranch. Whatever. In 2005, Summers got in trouble for suggesting that perhaps women are genetically deficient in mathematics in relation to men. He then proposed that women couldn’t be discriminated against in science at Harvard, for then they would go elsewhere, and in the perfect market of academia Harvard would lose out.

See the rest here.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

on a trip to tuscany

On a trip to Tuscany

The world is large, and the chopper is narrow and particular, hungry for fact and its destruction, its work in rents and the long failure of maintenance. In the slow small train from Florence to Siena, I looked out and saw a familiar scene, something I’d witness on the train from New Haven to New York, something I’d seen in Gary Indiana: I witnessed the chopper, extensively, giving the human landscape its forty whacks with shocking persistence. Wack go the brick walls, wack go the rooftrees, wack go the old railroad cars strayed on rusty sidetracks, wack go the tiles, wack goes the tin piping, down it all tinkles and back to the various toxins out of which they were fabricated goes the matter. The air is hot, the sky is blue, and the smoke that was once the accompaniment of economic life is gone, along with that life. What is left is graffiti and a hard look, and these abandoned warehouses and houses, their interior structures in glimpses, like the skeletons of the ancient beasts that used to be hunted, oh long time ago, in these hills and valleys. Hunted, and painted on cave walls in Spain, in the Dordogne, in a style that endured far longer than seems possible to our counting, where a decade is an historical event. 25,000 years. An incredible Ice Age of time. And by the time I was off the train and out in the dusty hills of village Tuscany, I was thinking of other choppers, of long views and short. For if a human, upstart from the beginning, can talk about “forever”, isn’t this the landscape to provide the backing reference? even if a human’s forever is bound to be small change against, say, the bacterial tides, Gaia’s atmosphere building. Isn’t forever in the grinding sound of the locusts in the leaves, or the bees at their business among the dry green leaves of the olives? The summer sunlight. Both love and fear in their eternal grip one on the other in those images and myths so resident here. Which don’t seem to die on us, but continue even in video game, even in the comic book hero’s law and order fascism.

One morning I walked up a white sand and pebble road that was about as wide as the one SUV that came lumbering up it, trailed by white dust, forcing me to the margin. I sat on the stoop formed by an old fallen down corner of a stone fence that was three fourths gone to rubble and read La Fontaine, thinking of the cab driver who warned us to watch out in this area for boars, which came out at night.
The Lion brought down by a single man
They showed a picture
Where a single man appeared
Towering over a lion of some stature
Who’d been conquered
The viewers enjoyed this glorious sight.
A passing lion harshed their mellow.
In fact, as to this fight,
He said, you win. Happy fellow!
But your painter is telling lies
- which is his right – this we won’t
Deny! But realistically, we could reverse the dice
If we knew how to paint – but we don’t.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Anna Burns' Milkman and the Role of Proper names in all histories, sacred or profane

Burns begins her novel with an utter spoiler of a sentence that pretty much states the case:
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. 
Fleshed out, this means that the novel follows a parallel between the events that befall the narrator as she is sexually stalked by a reputed IRA honcho and the events that have befallen Belfast itself in the years of the “troubles”, especially in her Ardoyne neighborhood in Belfast, which is Catholic and working class.  But here I run into a wee problem, because even if I could sum up the book like this, I would have to admit the fact that nowhere does the book mention Belfast or Northern Ireland or the British or  the IRA. All those names are blocked, all those names are not here. Somebody McSomebody is here, but his name is not here. The milkman is here, but his name, at least so far as the narrator knows at this point, is not here. As we will soon discover, the narrator’s name is not here either. This is not a minor detail, this is not something we can read over, if we want to read. So our first order of business to ask the question: why have the names fallen off the map of the territory covered in this novel? Why does Burns give herself the difficult task of creating a story out of a seeming  bonfire of proper names?
To answer this question in part, back up for a moment – consider  the role of the proper name in all histories, sacred or profane. The proper name seems to be unique to human communication, although who knows what goes on among dolphins. Presumably at some point they were invented, just as making fire was invented. One could even say the human comes about with the proper name. Tarzan, even, seems to have a sense of proper names – because if he didn’t, the whole me Tarzan – you Jane schtick wouldn’t make sense. You might be able to train your dog to respond to the sound of its name, but your dog is never going to use or mention your name, or even in the cells of its poochy consciousness think of you with relation to your proper name. All of which makes proper names fascinating to the philosopher, because what is going on here? Why do we need names?
Anna Burns narrator is called variously “middle sister”, “maybe-girlfriend,” “daughter”, etc. Her friends and relatives are similarly dubbed by what Bertrand Russell called “denoting phrases” – and even those with proper names, we quickly learn, don’t bear real proper names, but names denoting the fact that they seem like the type of person who might bear a particular kind of proper name – for example, something very English sounding. Except that, to continue with this and show what semantic quicksand lies within the story of Burns’s novel so that the reader, as well as the characters within the novel, never know whether the next step is going to completely suck them down, Britain and England are not dubbed with their proper names either – they are invariably “over the water” or “the state”. And even Ireland or Northern Ireland or Belfast is not dubbed with its proper name, so that it becomes a linguistic shift – a “here”, a “there”, a “this side of the street”, a “region”, an “our community” and “their community”, gaining its semantic sense from the speakers position within a semantic web (which is technically known in linguistics as a shifter). So for instance when we read that a couple who lives near the narrator’s “maybe-boyfriend” is named Nigel and Jason, we are not to think that they are “really” named Nigel and Jason. The reason that they are named Nigel and Jason is that they have been collecting, for anthropological reasons, names that were “banned” in the “community” – itself unnamed, but obviously the Catholic side of Northern Ireland – which is such a peculiar thing to do that it seems like the kind of thing people over the water might do, and over the water, as is well known, Nigel and Jason are common first names.  Maybe-girlfriend raps out a list of illegitimate names:
The banned names were: Nigel, Jason, Jasper, Lance, Percival, Wilbur, Wilfred, Peregrine, Norman, Alf, Reginald, Cedric, Ernest, George, Harvey, Arnold, Wilberine, Tristram, Clive, Eustace, Auberon, Felix, Peverill, Winston, Godfrey, Hector, with Hubert, a cousin of Hector, also not allowed. Nor was Lambert or Lawrence or Howard or the other Laurence or Lionel or Randolph because Randolph was like Cyril which was like Lamont which was like Meredith, Harold, Algernon and Beverley. Myles too, was not allowed. Nor was Evelyn, or Ivor, or Mortimer, or Keith, or Rodney or Roger or Earl of Rupert or Willard or Simon or Sir Mary or Zebedee or Quentin, though maybe now Quentin owing to the filmmaker making good in America that time. Or Albert. Or Troy. Or Barclay. Or Eric. Or Marcus. Or Sefton. Or Marmaduke. Or Greville. Or Edgar because all those names were not allowed. Clifford was another name not allowed. Lesley wasn’t either. Peverill was banned twice.
Names, as one can see, that are all male: over and above the politics of the right name and the wrong name are the politics that decrees that women’s names don’t or at least shouldn’t have such power because women themselves shouldn’t have such power, that is, political power.
“The banned names were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict, enjoinments and resisted impositions as laid down long ago in this county by that country, with the original nationality of the name not now in the running at all.”
We are only really beginning with the politics of the name, however, when we enumerate which names are and are not allowed, and which gender’s names are politically charged and which one’s are not, for the levels of non-naming are multifold and the the quicksand is deep. It is not simply in the “community” that the name has become a fatal object of conflict: even in the narrator’s own family, names have been stripped off, torn out, left unvocalized. The process was started, paradoxically, by the paterfamilias, the usual legal guardian and carrier of the name, the male namer whose family name is carried by the son and the daughter, who in this case – as in so many in his domestic life – flips the role, becoming the unnamer even as he is, himself, unnamed, abandoning our primogenitor Adam’s perogative in the name business. Which is the point at which we hit our own family unnames, such as Mom and Dad, which are the ultimate psychoanalytically charged shifters since my correct use of “Mom”, for instance, is directed towards a woman who bears another, legal name, and can’t be arbitrarily transferred to other women who have not either borne me or exist as my step-mother.  Except in cases where for one reason or another a woman has become a “Mom” to people outside of the legal and/or biological relationship of motherhood, which is an exception that proves the rule that the rules all have exceptions in a language, as language is, among other things, a huge swap meet.
But to return to middle sister’s Da:
He saw me though, even if unsure which daughter I was. That, of course, could have had nothing to do with dying, because da, when he’d lived, always had been in a state of distraction, spending overlong hours reading papers, watching the news, ears to radios, out in the street, taking in, then talking out, the latest political strife with likeminded neighbours. He was that type, the type who let nothing in except it had to be the political problems. If not the political problems – then any war, anywhere, any predator, any victim. He’d spend lots of time too, with these neighbours who were of the exact fixation and boxed-off aberration as him. As for the names of us offspring, never could he remember them, not without running through a chronological list in his head. While doing this, he’d include his sons’ names even if searching for the name of a daughter. And vice versa. Sooner or later, by running through, he’d hit on the correct one at last. Even that though, became too much and so, after a bit, he dropped the mental catalogue, opting instead for ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ which was easier. And he was right. It was easier which was how the rest of us came to substitute ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and so on ourselves.
This primal scene of unnaming, this negation of the mythic impulse (an impulse that depends so crucially on naming that one mythographic theory in ancient times was that myths were created to explain names), gives us our orienting disorienting points to make it across a narrative that expands in all directions like some crazy banyan tree. So if, instead of substituting names for denoting phrases as if I knew, beforehand, where all this was happening and who it was happening to, the story in its own terms would go something like this:
Middle sister, who seems to be 18, comes from a functionally dysfunctional family in an unnamed community where the social forces in conflict consist broadly of the renouncers of the state and their forces versus the defenders of the state and their forces, with the defenders of the state coming from outside the community – the paramilitaries from the other side of the street – or over the water – the soldiers and spies and hit squads – plus the police, and the renouncers consisting of paramilitaries, gangsters, the community opinion at large, and the spies and killers and rapists which may or may not be operating on their own or in connection with others. Being functionally dysfunctional in this neighborhood means taking a certain number of casualties – a renouncer son shot and killed, another disappeared, a daughter who the renouncers have threatened to kill if she ever comes back to the community (sister’s crime is to have married an enemy). Middle sister’s survival technique consists of keeping her head down, or in a book – she reads nineteenth century novels while walking to work.  Keeping a book up as a shield allows her, she thinks, to disappear, instead of being thought bananas or in some way so marginalized that she became a matter of unease for those in the community. As well, she has a maybe-boyfriend in another region that she has not told her mother about, or her sisters or brothers-in-law. So this is the state of play of Middle Sister’s life in the community and way of keeping alive and unmolested in the community with its overt downgrading of women and frank thrusting of second class citizenship, if that, upon women when the Milkman, driving a large white van (from which, it is Middle Sister’s theory, his nickname Milkman came from) stops and offers her a ride. In offering her a ride and making a few remarks that show that he knows where she lives, he knows her habits, he knows her routes, he makes it obvious that he has been stalking her and, by the very fact of stalking, claiming her, which reflects on his position in the community as both a respected paramilitary boss and a gangster like figure who seizes what he wants.  That simple, sinister offer starts off a general rumor and unraveling of Middle Sister’s life. On the one hand, it is obvious that the sinister Milkman is pursuing her for sexual reasons, even grooming her to become his whore, in spite of the fact that he is married, older, and a paramilitary of high and mighty violence; and on the other hand, the rumor mill starts that she has indeed accepted his offer and become his whore, as though the offer itself was irresistible,  a conclusion that is agreed to by the rumor that  her mother, her mother’s friends, and even the girl gang girlfriends of other paramilitaries have decided to believe about middle sister. To fight this rumor means, however, expressing to other people the facts of the rumor, which might have sinister consequences for, if not middle sister, then maybe-boyfriend, since making it too clear that she is refusing the Milkman would make all too clear what she suspects about the Milkman and his kind, an opinion that is both bound to bring down sexist contempt as well as the suspicion that middle sister is, like her first sister, the one who has fled, an enemy of the community. The social rules here are as complex, and take as much tact, as the rules in a Henry James novel, with the difference that if the community’s way of doing things had been applied by Milly Theale in Wings of the Dove, she would have simply blasted Kate Croy and Merton Densher in the face with a throw-away .38 snub-nose before the end of it.  
The forward flow of the action here is marked, then, by the meetings with the Milkman, meetings that eerily never flesh out the Milkman, who is very fleshly while remaining very shadowy. He does nothing in the book that is more overtly violent than to show up, open his van door, and invite Middle Sister in. Show up again and again in the narrator’s path. Show up again and again in the community’s judgement that she is involved with the Milkman, that she is having sex with the Milkman, that she is the girlfriend of the Milkman, that she is the whore of the Milkman, that she is so connected to the Milkman that it might be dangerous for people to be in line before her at, say, a chip shop, or dangerous to take her money for food, which puts her in situations she so resents that sometimes she wishes she were really the girlfriend of the Milkman and that he would kill these people who think she is the girlfriend of the Milkman. It is enough that somehow, because of his desire for her, she is marked as his in the community’s mind, with all the bad mojo that this transfers to her and her every act. No denial on her part lifts the spell that is never spelled out by anyone, since to actually talk about the killings committed by a presumed renouncer boss in the community is to betray, on some obscure level, the community, and thus bring down on oneself the wrath of the renouncers in their various degrees and forms, who are semi-legitimately defending the community from the murderous soldiers and the murderous friends of the soldiers and the State.   Around each event in going forward in this terrible progress through the somewhat impalpable medium of a community perception that transforms as nothing else does the narrator’s subjective being into a symbolic object determined by others, there arise explanations and side stories that go backwards and forwards in time, all of which abut in or spring forward from various forms of grotesque violence.