Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, September 09, 2016

Jules Renard I

Jules Renard is one of the great untranslateables, everybody says. Although his Poil de Carotte is a classic French children’s book – or rather, classic book about children, more Huck Finn than Tom Sawyer – and though his posthumously published Journal is considered one of the great (although eccentric) books of the fin de la siecle, his  name resonates only with diehard francophiles among us speakers of that mongrel Normand dialect,  English, people like Julian Barnes, who wrote a great essay about him. Perhaps the Journal awaits a translator of genius, who might do for Renard what Barbara Wright did for Queneau – translate not just the letter but the spirit.  Like the difference between a freshly opened bottle of  champaign and that same bottle the next morning, the difference between the original ane the translation can be that the latter “goes flat.” Technically, the translation can get the glossary right without being able to capture the bubbles, the irrepressible spirits in the original. This is why poetry is so much harder to translate than prose – why Montaigne is part of English literature and Du Bellay is not.     
Renard’s Journal was published – in a version that was censored by his widow – in three fat tomes in the nineteen twenties. In the Pleiade edition, this adds up to a fat  thousand pages. The  book became quite faddish in the 30s. Nibbles from  it were translated by Louise Brogan in the 60s, and the reviews congratulated her for not heaving the whole whale  into English. But a greatest hits approach does the Journal an injustice. I think its equivalent is that strange thing,  essoa’s Book of Disquiet, with its mixture of autobiography and revery. Renard had a weakness for aphorism – he was a man of the theater, he liked lines – and he produces them next to things described, situations deciphered, self-analysis, and dialogues that were obviously caught on the wing. A writer’s workshop, in other words.  
 Here are two aphorisms.
“My past is three fourths of my present. I dream more than I live, and I dream backwards.”
“I don’t know if God exists. But it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.”
The first one is close to Pessoa, the second to Nietzsche – at least the Nietzsche of Dawn.
One of the great readers of the Journal was Samuel Beckett. As his friends testify, Beckett would read them bits from the Journal. When, briefly, he taught French at Trinity in Dublin, he assigned Renard. According to all the Beckett biographers, he used Renard’s dry style of observation and noting of things said in getting beyond, or out of, Joyce-land.  The last entry in the Journal is pretty much the seed for Beckett’s triology. “Last night, I wanted to get up. Dead weight. A leg hung outside. Then a trickle runs down my leg. I allow it to reach my heel before I make up my mind. It will dry in the sheets, like when I was a redheaded boy.” That’s a pretty fine finis.

Beckettians have noticed Renard. But Beckett was not the only Renard reader – Sartre read him too, and had his say in a 1945 essay that ended up in Situations I: The Man who was all tied up. L’homme ligoté.  I have not found an English translation of this essay, even though it is Sartre’s most compact look at modernist literature. I am going to look at this next.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

the human geography of attention

The term allergy was invented in 1906. In Mark Jackson’s Allergy: history of a modern malady, it is noted that the man who invented the term, Clemens von Pirque recognized there was something counterintuitive in a disease that seemed to orginate in the immunity to disease. On the  other hand, in 1906, the wonders of the human immune system were not well known.
There was some resistance to this linguistic newcomer – I’m tempted to say that the term allergy was treated as an allergen. Jackson’s book is about how the disease – or condition – took off in the 20th century.  That is, the prevalance rate for allergies climbed throughout the century. Other diseases – tuberculosis and polio – did not – they, famously, declined. And they declined not just because cures were found for them, but also because – at least in the case of tuberculosis – there was a concerted public health effort to alter the environments that favored tuberculosis. It is always worth remembering that the greatest medicine broadcast in the twentieth century was public sewers. Rene Dubos, in a famous study, showed that tuberculosis was declining precipitantly before the advent of drugs to treat it. He also made a strong case for the idea that tuberculosis skyrocket in the 19th century due to the environmental changes brought about by industrialization. Or perhaps I should say: changes in human geography.  Similarly, it is rare tht one hears of someone dying of stomach cancer nowadays, even though, worldwide, it is the fifth most common cause of death by a malignancy. In the US, it used to be a bigger killer than lung cancer. Epidemiologists have shown that the decline can be directly linked – some say up to 50 percent - to the refrigerator. In those regions of the world where food is still preserved by using salt, stomach cancer is relatively common. Even in the refrigerated countries, incidence are climbing again, due to obesity.
It is interesting to compare the discovery and investigation of allergies as “industrial” conditions with the discovery of attention deficit disorder, or ADHD. Our attention landscape has not been mapped very well.  I like some attempts: for instance, Jonathan Crary’s excellent book about the attention crisis in the 19th century, Suspensions of Perception. But there’s no systematic mapping of the changes wrought by, say, literacy. Literacy is often treated as an unmitigated good. How can anybody be against literacy? But the question is not whether literacy is good of bad, the question is whether the increase in literacy and the creation of human landscapes that incorporate literacy on a large scale has created a psychological neurological response among a certain portion of the population that feeds into ADHD. The landscape changes have been rapid and recent. A relatively short time ago – in 1900 – in the US, for instance, half the population was rural. In 1910, only 35 percent of 17 year olds were in high school – the majority of kids stopped their education at the 8th grade level. Education and literacy are, among other things, experiments. It wouldn’t surprise me if an attention landscape that favored one form of perceptual interaction  would produce attention casualties when the landscape shifted. It would also, of course, privilege certain individuals that the previous attention landscape handicapped. To quote from Jackson’ book about allergies: “As Ludwik Fleck insisted in 1927, diseases should not be regarded as stable natural
entities but as ‘ideal fictitious pictures . . . round which both the individual and the variable morbid phenomena are grouped, without, however, ever corresponding completely to them’.

If the attention required by literacy is qualitatively different, so, too, is the attention required for driving a car. In fact, it would be interesting to me to see if attention micor-environments don’t conflict with each other. Is it possible that the attention required for going at 60 miles per hour, judging other cars, stopping, starting, the whole range of attention tasks required by the automobile, is in conflict with the attention required for looking at equations being put up on a blackboard and taking a written test?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

gender and the three year old

 The the box that says “knows difference between boys and girls” , which figured in the sheet about Adam’s progress at school, has been checked for more than a year – along with “can wash hands” and “can draw line on paper unassisted”. But I did not realize that Adam, who is now two months from four, had become fully baptised in the world of gender until this morning, when he informed me that he couldn’t like Princess Leia because he was a boy.  He liked Luke Skywalker.
Of course, this was going to come. The river of time  that carries us onward, helpless strivers against the flow – I know about it, see it on my face every day. Noooovemberrr …. Deceeeeemmmmber. Sing it Frank! But  the decision that, as a boy, he can’t like Princess Leia,  is, nevertheless, a mark, a milestone of some kind, a bit of telling turbulence in the river’s flow.  
In the afterword that Ursula Le Guin wrote to Left Hand of Darkness in 1975 (Is Gender Necessary), she makes certain comments about gender that she radicalized in 1985 when she reprinted the essay. For instance, in 1975 she did not notice how hetero her story was – while in 1985 she criticizes herself for this. What strikes me from the first essay is that she talks of her book as a thought experiment: what would happen if you eliminate gender in the world?
As Le Guin recognizes in her essay, that elimination was not thorough. For instance, gender comes back in the pronoun “he” or “him” that dogs us in English when we want to refer to some ungendered previous noun – an actor, a worker, a person in a crowd, etc.  In 1985, Le Guin came out for substituting “they” and “them” for the he and him, pointing out that the masculine pronouns were introduced into English in the 16th century, and that in the common tongue, they and them still live.
I wonder about the project. Why eliminate gender, after all? It seems that Le Guin’s first view is that gender is always a product of fundamentallly unequal social relations between men and women. Is it possible, however, that fundamentally equal social relations would simply produce another style of gender?
Having never lived in a society with fundamentaly equal social relations, I have no data to point to. Philosophically, however, I think that the social logic of gender need not be sexist. I would like Adam to consider whether he likes or doesn’t like Princess Leia on a different basis than that of being a boy. On the other hand, I want him to enjoy being a boy. I want him to like it. I think that not liking it does lead, all other things being equal, to the kind of resentments that flow into the collective sexist disposition, the poison swamp of a million comments sections.
I was reading a German novel a couple of days ago and the author made an excellent remark: our education, or at least our sentimental education, of children makes it the case that children learn, by the end of childhood, how to be a child. But it is the nature of the case that they cannot, at that point, learn how it is to be an adult. And just as adulthood starts, education stops.
This, I would say, is another way of pointing to the fundamental place of philosophy in education, which never stops. But that is my prejudice, eh?  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

josh marshall, national character, and where our wisdom comes from

I’m very familiar with the kind of barfly thumbnail sketch that sums up whole peoples. It is a hard vice to suppress. I do it. The English this, the French that. In the last couple days, one of those sketches, this one of the knout-lovin’ Russians, was twitted by Josh Marshall, a Clintonite liberal. He was attacked for it, and instead of saying I’m just tweating, he dug in and defended himself as a deep cultural observer of the Russians.
My Dad used to do the same thing, although I think he had more excuse, having grown up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Syracuse NY in the 30s and 40s, when folk wisdom about different national characters was unquestioned.
The Marshall twitterstorm reminded me of something I wrote in the early Bush era. Here it is.

Hume, Huxley, and war

The importance of distance should never be under-estimated. Heidegger, whose defense of Nazi-ism is well known, is continually being rediscovered (surprise) as the rotten bug under the rug of continental philosophy; that Derrida relies so much upon his work has been discussed in the terms one would usually reserve for talking about hiring Typhoid Mary to cook the cutlets in some local dinner. Yet who cares that David Hume, the surely one of the roots of English philosophy and its rather sterile offshoot, analytic philosophy, had, shall we say, rather dim views about blacks during a period in which the trade in black flesh (and the attendant destruction of African culture) was at its height? LI was pondering this while reading, yesterday, Thomas Huxley’s excellent Victorian study of Hume. Huxley himself is rather impatient with the “nonsense” that is usually ground out about race and national character. We like Huxley for that. We like Huxley for his reasons for embracing Darwinism. And more than that - we actually like Hume. But we have to admit that Hume admitted to the inroads of prejudice in spite of his philosophical degree zero, his wariness in the presence of generalizations. Here is what Hume has to say about race:

"I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation.... Such a uniform and constant difference [between the negroes and the whites] could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.... In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly."

This was from his essays, which Huxley justly celebrates. On the whole, Hume’s essays are under-appreciated today, except by libertarians and fans of Adam Smith. That’s because, before Adam Smith, Hume put into theoretical language a lot of what we now consider the foundations of classical political economy.

It is hard to swallow apercu like the above, however. One’s inclination is to think that such thoughts have no influence, really, on, say, Hume’s epistemology. Perhaps this says something about the success of analytic philosophy in convincing its constituency that philosophy consists of isolated areas of focus - epistemology, ontology, ethics, etc. - which are logically separated from each other. Really, though, I think it is that we – or at least “we” whites - are far enough away from the slave trade, as opposed to the Holocaust, not to feel it in the skin, like some old war wound. But it is an old war wound, nonetheless. A hole in the side of the world.

Analytic philosophers -- and, even more, the incompetent commentators on philosophy in the popular press -- are much more eager to discuss the influence of Heidegger’s Nazi-ism on his ontology than they are to bracket it, and discuss the ontology alone. We are being a little unfair: Hume never claimed that his epistemology was interwoven with his racism, as Heidegger claimed that his encounter with Seyn was interwoven with Hitler. Still, frankly owning up to a belief in black inferiority, especially during a time when Scottish merchants were making a pretty penny in selling blacks on the theory of that inferiority, should raise some questions about Mr. Hume. However, I doubt they ever will.

The tremendous influence of this contempt for a ‘lower’ race has never, really, been traced to its most extreme ends in all the branches of our history.   But when we hear casual remarks about the war of civilizations, and about ‘reforming’ the Islamic world, we have to wonder whether the speakers have any acquaintance with western civilization, besides driving in its huge cars and admiring its overpasses and malls. We live on a very thin crust of liberalism. It is about forty years old – a little younger than me. That the inheritors of the most vigorous opponents of the liberal mindset - the people who opposed civil rights for blacks, women, and the working class for the better part of American history, those who defended lynch law, laws to break up unions, and opposed giving women legal equality with men -  now casually claim this as their heritage and their sanction for making war on the benighted has to be an irony worthy of one of Hardy’s poems. No, ‘we’ are enmeshed in the dark ignorance in the belly of the beast still. It takes centuries to get through Moloch.   

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

trump and the racism of the 1 percent

Jon Stewart did a funny bit on the Stephen Colbert show – the Tonight show – during the Republican convention. He showed a collage of Fox news footage. In one piece, one of the Fox talking heads said that Trump was a “working class billionaire”. Stewart pulled the deadpan face and said, no. The audience laughed.
The joke, however, this campaign is on us. For as the press has infinitely analyzed Trump’s campaign, it has focused very much on the racist working class folk who support Trump. It has focused not at all on the 1 percent class, into which Trump was born, and where he has spent his whole life. It is as if his racial attitudes came to him during that brief period when he was kidnapped and held in a neo-Nazi mobile home.
What is it about that 1 percent? Remember that it is almost 96 percent white – the superclass is the whitest class in the nation. Remember, too, that it is the most ardent Republican voting class in the country. And one can cunclude that… oh, look over there, some fat white construction worker is holding a confederate flag!
The racism of the upper class is never, ever the focus of newspaper article or thumbsucker pieces. So much is it ignored that it is as if it doesn’t exist. If it does exist, then perhaps one should ask questions about that class – but to do that is to impugn, even tacitly, the owners of the media. So … look over there, some fat white woman who works at Walmart is showing a confederate flag!
The focus will always be on the mobile home crowd. The crowd that owns summer homes in the Hamptons and winter homes in Palm Springs, that goes to almost exclusively white clubs and presides over white corporate boards, they get a pass. The leaner-inners, the CEOs, the Quants at the Hedge fund, the numerous, numerous heirs of the 100 great American fortunes as they were listed in the 1940s – our meritocrats, our best and the brightest! – are not even slightly questioned when one of their number goes around talking about Mexican rapists and black thugs. Nobody so far as I have seen goes to seek out the opinions on race and gender at the Mar-a-Lago club. When George Saunders reported on Trump supporters for New Yorker, he confine himself to those in the crowds listening to him. Doubtless it is much harder to interview members of the various Palm Beach clubs.
When Beyonce says, in Formation,  "You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making / 'Cause I slay / I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making", there’s a certain pathos to the phrase. No white singer would say, you might just be the white Bill Gates. Although African Americans make up 12.2 percent of the population, they make up 1.4 percent of the wealthiest 1 percent. This, this is no accident.
So, the next time you hear a funny joke about Trump’s racist followers, remember, the jokes on us. Cause his people rule us.      

Saturday, August 06, 2016

My problematic liberalism

Although I try, most of the time, to be a good American liberal, there is only so much I can take before the un-American Marxist in my soul shows up and mugs my cut-out.
For instance: lately I’ve been noticing a meme that has migrated from Romney’s campaign into the analysis of good liberals. We all remember, I hope, the makers and the takers. According to a speech Romney made to some halfwit club of greedheads, in the US, 47 percent were on the dole, of one type or another – takers. Which left only 52 percent makers. Romney didn’t even have to wink to imply that of that 52 percent, a good 90 percent were losers.
When a film of this warm encounter between Romney and his deepest admirers surfaced, he obfuscated it all. But good liberals served up the incident as an x ray into what Romney really thought.
That was then. Lately, I’ve noticed that “populism” or whatever it is called is being hauled over the coals by true liberals, dismayed by the way the plebes have not been following the program. Two instances really attracted my attention.
One was a very well publicized report by George Saunders on the Trump campaign. Saunders, tossing aside any economic explanation of discontent as too much blah blah blah, made a heartfelt comparison between those discontented with the state of things in America and himself as an engineering student. In his account, he was not a very good engineering student. So he compensated by blasting better engineering students and generally not recognizing that he just wasn’t good enough.
“In college, I was a budding Republican, an Ayn Rand acolyte. I voted for Reagan. I’d been a bad student in high school and now, in engineering school, felt (and was) academically outgunned, way behind the curve. In that state, I constructed a world view in which I was not behind the curve but ahead of it. I conjured up a set of hazy villains, who were, I can see now, externalized manifestations, imaginary versions of those who were leaving me behind; i.e., my better-prepared, more sophisticated fellow-students. They were, yes, smarter and sharper than I was (as indicated by the tests on which they were always creaming me), but I was . . . what was I? Uh, tougher, more resilient, more able to get down and dirty as needed. I distinctly remember the feeling of casting about for some world view in which my shortfall somehow constituted a hidden noble advantage.
Of course, now, now George Saunders isn’t a Ayn Rand acolyte, but a man of liberal sentiments who, of course, recognizes that some people – the people ahead of the curve, apparently – just merit their positions, and we can recognize that while all doing our best to make sure our kids go to Ivy League schools or something. We can lean in, that is it, that’s what we can do. As for the rest, they can watch their tacky tv or something. In fact, perhaps we can call the ahead of the curve group makers, and the others takers… But since Saunders is now firmly liberal, and he’s writing for the firmly liberal New Yorker,  he isn’t going to go that far explicitly.  What he does do is the Clinton watusi about how this is already a great country and shouldn’t we be unified? And doesn’t it depress us that a lot of angry people haven’t given up their sophomoric idea that they deserve better? Of course, this all plugs into Unity, a description of collective agreement that  has somehow transmorgified into some kind of liberal virtue in the last couple of years.  

A more straightforward Romneyism comes overseas from the LRB. John Lancester is lamenting Brexit, and he comes, reluctantly, to the core of the thing, the people who voted for Brexit:

“The people in the rich parts of the country pay the taxes which support the poor parts. If I had to pick a single fact which has played no role in political discourse but which sums up the current position of the UK, it would be that most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it. The numbers are eerily similar to the referendum outcome: 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients.

This did make me wonder whether it was the rich parts or the poor parts who benefited from the  1, 162 billion  pounds of government outlay for the banks – that's a trillion some for you pikers out there - but I realize that this is still only cheap liberalism. The unrepentant Marxist in me remembered something that is now deeply unpopular to even mention. It is called the level of exploitation. It is the theory that wealth is not the product of management or of clever bets in the stock market. Rather it is the cumulative effect of  the labor of the workers. It is even, according to this theory, the surplus labor value – the amount taken from the worker by capital – that supports the entire structure of capital.
Silly silly silly of course. And yet, without that theory, what you get, eventually, is Romneyism.
And I’m one of those people who are in the just say no to Romneyism camp, even if it comes from various rich journalists and writers who are totally out there for, say, transgender rights. Cause I’m remembering that transgender folks, like everybody else, work. And the majority of them work for the man, and are skinned by the man.

Remembering the real source of productivity and of wealth is a very hard thing to do when it is a truth universally denied in the mainstream press. Nevertheless, I’m for remembering it.  

Monday, August 01, 2016

ambition and the novel

The first novels examined in Peter Brooks’  Reading For the Plot come from the nineteenth century, and in particular, the French nineteenth century. Putting such enormous critical stress on Balzac, Stendhal and Zola helps Brooks maintain his historical thesis  - that the novel is in rapport with the bourgeois revolution in values, which changed the meaning of ambition in the stereotypical life cycle. It isn’t that the bourgeois ethos encourages unilaterally the valorization  of ambition, in contradiction to the norms of the ancien regime; but ambition becomes an intrinsic part of plotting.
“The ambitious heros of the 19th century novel – those of Balzac, for instance – may regularly be conceived as ‘desiring machines’ whose presence in the text sustains narrative movement through the forward march of desire… Etymology may suggest that the self creates a ‘circle’ – an ambitus – or aureola around itself, mainly in front of itself.”
This interesting but awkwardly phrased notion of the ambitus (is the circle in front of the self a projection?) is, to my mind, a potent hint at the role ambition plays both within and without the novel. Ambition is a capturing passion – it doesn’t desire to incorporate the circled objects so much as to hold them, to an extent, hostage. Outside the novel, ambitiom is given now a positive, now a negative meaning, an ambiguity generated in a commercial society that has secularized charisma as salesmanship without quite being comfortable at the fundamental substitutability of all things – including the self – implied by the universal dissolvant of capitalism.
Joanne Bamberger has written that Hillary Clinton’s ambition is negatively coded, in contrast to the praise male politicians receive for being ambitious. I’m not sure that she is right about all male politicians – especially her example, which is Obama. Obama’s ambition to be president in 2008 was regularly mocked as overreach for a man whose whole experience in politics was rather shortlived. However, Bamberger has a point that ambition for a woman is often viewed as a negative – the archetype of Lady Macbeth is just below the surface in certain attacks on Clinton.
The shift in the value attached to ambition derives I think from the way the social unconscious invests in the the image of the ambitus. On the one hand, we within the circle participate, by proximity, to the charismatic and, ultimately, divine. On the other hand, reverse the values and we within the circle participate, unwillingly, in the abject and the soiled.  Aversion transforms proximity into infection.
In the American novel, under the sign of ambition, there is a pattern of such transformations from infatuation to aversion. You can see this kind of mechanism at work in Dreiser’s novels. And yet that novel type is, to contemporary readers, I think, a little too transparent. Or at least it is in the novel – it lives happily in film.

Outside of the sign of ambition, though, a strange thing happens in the novel. The protagonist falls into despair – or at least the threat of despair becomes one of the great patterns in the non-realistic novel. That despair arises from the fact that, without ambition, the novel itself, and the narrative logic of the world by which the protagonist parses the world, is fundamentally threatened. The spirit around the social that makes acts and events meaningful, in commercial society, is exorcized, but no ready replacement comes into view. The non-ambitious self confronts a world of pure, baseless induction, of sequences that are purely conjunctive, but void of life. In fact, without ambition, the self confronts its own routines as malevolent and other. This is the dark side of the futurist exhiliration in de-routinizing the given – without some utopian ambition that lends to the de-routinized moment some satisfying sense of  authenticity, the de-routinized just becomes a reminder of hopelessly one is bound to routine, as an intimate enemy, an irrational tic for which there is no cure.