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“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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

How is the Dem party like the Titanic? In every way. No Joke

So on the same day the Dems dub ex governor Beshear - a name that is well known to every American household - to reply to Trump's state of the union speech, they elect Perez to chair the DNC. And the Titanic sails on! If I didn't believe that the spontaneous disgust of the American people for Trump will find a form, I'd be in despair. Beshear is a dem best known for advocating bipartisanship and shilling against obstruction. The response of this unknown outside of Kentucky seventy year old white guy to Trump will go down like jello with a laxative chaser. I can just hear, already, the agreements we have with the President! How we all have to push together! Push push push, push into the abyss. If they were going to put an ancient governor up against Trump, they shoulda chosen Jerry Brown, who is 80 but sharper than the whole DNC. But why give a shoutout to the most populous state in the nation when we can give a shout out to the loser from Kentucky? It is decisions like these that make me wonder how much further down the D party is going to go.
But at least, while demonstrating our abhorrence at Islamophobia, D's have also shown the American people that we are all right with islamophobia if it comes from big Democratic donors like Saban. So there is that.
Another day, another small triumph of cretinism. But at least it is sideshow cretinism.
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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

reading while white: Hurston and an image

I was puzzled about a passage I found in Zora Hurston’s Tell My Horse, and looked around for a gloss. The passage interested me, as it takes up the idea of the extermination of a race or ethnicity – a menace much in the air in the 30s, when Hurston visited Jamaica and Haiti. And, really, this is always in the air, the radiowave patrolled air, where a majority, or a group of people having an image of themselves as rulers evolves a history of oppressing a more powerless skin color, religion, or ethnicity. Extermination is the end point of racism, its utopia, the Lebensraum where Leben is much of a sameness. After explaining that Jamaican “mixed bloods” set themselves up as much higher beings than “negroes’, and encourage valuing whiter skin over darker skin, Hurston writes:

Perhaps the Jamaican mixed bloods are logical and right, perhaps the only answer to the question of what is to become of the negro in the Western world is that he must be absorbed by the whites. Frederick Douglass thought so. If he was right, the the strategy of the American Negro is all wrong, that is, the attempt to achieve a position equal to the white population in every way but each race to maintain its separate identity. Perhaps we should strike our camps and make use of the cover of night and execute a masterly retreat under white skins.If that is what must be, then any way at all of getting more whiteness among us is a step in the right direction. I do not pretend to know what is wise and best. “

The one person I’ve read who commented on this passage assumes, with no reference to the cues in the text backing that assumption, that Hurston is just being sarcastic. And the idea of retreating under white skins is a sort of mix of Looney Tune cartoon and bible image that might, broadly, be an indicator of sarcasm. However, I take the sentence to be Hurston’s way of maintaining a certain authorial inscrutability.The deadpan presentation of an exterminationist vision without 'pretending' to know if it is wise or best is a way of making us look at that vision not as something we refuse right off, but as something that we might be complicit in.
So much for my own readerly sense-making. But what really struck me most there was the popping up of Frederick Douglass where I wouldn’t have expected him – on the white skin side of things. I went wha??? Since Douglass seems to me an emancipatory figure that I would figure Hurston would like. How did he get in here?

It took me a while to realize that this was a question that marked reading while white. For when I looked into it, I discovered that Douglass’s second marriage to a white woman had a tremendous effect on his reputation both during and after his life, especially in the African American community. Surely it is this marriage that Hurston is alluding to, since there are no passages in Douglass’s writing that urge such drastic amalgamation.

I of course could be wrong in this conclusion. Regardless, Hurston’s style here is beautifully modernist – a lightening stroke of reference, and the image of striking camp under cover of night – of darkness – that involutes infinitely a retreat that advances us literally into the arms of the White race. For sheer lines – and I read for lines – Hurston has that twenties, that almost Augustan, wit, playing the dozens Dorothy Parker style.

Of course, another reading would be that Hurston took her cues from the linguistic patterns of black folkculture. Of this, there can be no doubt – but at the same time, she wrote for Henry Mencken’s magazine, American Mercury, and she definitely bears some marks of the house style, just as Updike bears marks of the style of the New Yorker.

Monday, February 20, 2017

impressions from the arizona tourist belt

 I never spy anything instructionally pure with my little eye. My eyeball is attached to my prejudices, my experience, the perceptive style that is the endproduct of my personal input (to a very small degree) and my circumstances (both conscious and unconscious). So as we traveled the gamut of Arizona, from on hotel to another (from Great Westerns to Scottsdale and Sedona spa + hotels), I was comparing it to my abstract sense of Arizona as a rockribbed Republican state, the one that rejected MLK Jr. Day, the one with Joe Whatshisname, the Bull Connor of Maricopa County, as its sinister symbol.
It turned out that our brief vacation intersected with the massive retirement belt that goes to Arizona for landscapes and bargains. The contrast with California struck me first. In California hotels and vacation spots, there’s a babel of languages (Russian, Korean, Spanish, French etc.) and the caucasion monoculture is plenty diversy-fied. In Arizona, the monoculture rules. These, I kept thinking, are the faces that voted in President Dipshit. But – re that first graph – I had no way of knowing that. Perhaps, by some anomaly, the happy hour at the Dunbar Hotel in Flagstaff (I’m not going to check out its real name, which was something like Dunbar. But gotta recommentd the happy hour – free kickass Bloody Marys!) attracted HRC voters. I’d double down on doubting that, though. Thing is, the faces I saw were not smug or contented – this ain’t Flaubert’s bourgeoisie. They were puffy and aggrieved, pocky and sour around the mouth. Perhaps I was too – traveling has a way of thinning your glamor, and leaving you with yesterday’s shirt and socks to wear today. Still, I couldn’t help but think, looking at the people of that same socio-economic class gathered together in the Phoenix airport to await the plane to LAX, that our Cali bourgeoisie look happier. We all wear the skin that nature gave us – few of us have botoxed it up – but the skin looks less like it contains some outrage that this is not what we were promised. I usually try to take the side of the aggrieved, of the loser, being a loser myself.  Born a loser, sounding like a loser, resentful like a loser, and wanting, finally, to stuff my loserhood in the mouth of established wealth and make them choke on it. Me! But in the tourist belt, I felt some distance between real circs – I mean, these folks were in a pretty good retirement situation – and grievance.

Perhaps this was just an illusion created by my not so innocent eye. But it left an impression.     

Thursday, February 16, 2017

appearance and reality, father and child

Once upon a time – or more precisely, from millenia deep B.C. up to around 1950 – philosophers all made their bones by worrying about appearance and reality. The dynamic duo seem to have lost their charisma for analytic, post-analytic, and post Heideggerian philosophers, at least if you look at the titles of their books. But the problem returns again and again in everyday life, which is the pool all philosophy must eventually return to.
For instance, here’s a situtation. We are sitting, here, in a hotel restaurant in Scottsdale Arizona, Adam and me. I look at what he asked me to choose him from the buffet – the bowl of raisin bran without milk, the peach colored thing Yoplait calls Yogurt, some grapes, and apple juice in a clear plastic cup. I notice that he isn’t eating. This doesn’t surprise me. Adam is apparently going to be one of those puzzling people who do not like breakfast. He always has to be coaxed to eat in the morning. Also threatened, although Adam does not yield easily to threats – as the folks at Rand might put it, escalation leads by easy stages to a mutually assure destruction situation situation, myself in the cool down box with a tearful facedown boy. Not a good path. Anyway, I make my usual remark about how Adam chose this food and thus (throwing in a little dollop of bourgeois morality) must eat it.  The whole choice – consequences racket. Adam, in response, puts a flake of Raisin Bran (I keep misspelling raisin as raison – a meta Freudian slip) in his mouth and makes a sort of swaying dancing gesture, chomping on it and staring at me. Eating – reality – and eating – appearance – jump out at me like some archetypal Pierre from Being and Nothingness. Without thinking about the consequences, Adam – much like our common ancestor of that name – acts out, doubles, mimics, exaggerates – reality. Of course, by one school of philosophy – mine – that mimicry, that exageration, merely adds to the stock of real things – which is a vast inventory never to be completed by any number of clerks, whose every act of inventorying must be added to the pile. But another school, whose point I understand, would argue that the first school is ignoring a difference known even, in this case, by a four year old – the whole point of the mimicry being to reference something that isn’t mimicry or exaggeration. That something is the real.
All of this philosophical drama is taking place in a very very Western locale – in a restaurant whose design and routines reflect late capitalist business practices down to the intentional dwindling of certain more expensive breakfast materials in order to prod customers to vacate the premises. This is a way of getting to the knotty problem of whether Adam is just responding to some mysterious conditioning that we more vaguely and grandly refer to as his cultural bias. We assume that children who are not taken by their parents to hotel dining rooms, but are taken to say and slash and burn garden, as among the Wape people in New Guinea, might respond by four years old in a completely different way, or at least a different way. I am not aware of any anthropological study of appearance and reality behaviors that I can fall back on, but I assume there could easily be differences that manifest at this point. Yet this nuance does not, of course, erase the fact that here, in the U.S., this child is making this motion of eating for this father.  Our greater generalization cannot swallow this particular; it can only problematize it.
Of course, it is easy to see how training in appearance and reality impinges a very young age on children. We as parents spend much of our time drilling this in, from coding language – such and such words are bad, such and such information is secret, etc. – and punishing when the appearance forms aren’t sustained. It soon becomes impossible not to see the world in terms of appearance and reality, even if we later, intellectually, debunk this distinction for ontological work. We can’t go back.

So I tell Adam, eat some more, and some of the yogurt, and then we can watch Hulk. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hurston and Pasolini - same struggle?

Michele Wallace, in an impassioned essay on Zora Neale Hurston published in the 80s, and republished in her collection, Invisibility Blues, has a good time mocking Harold Bloom for setting aside Hurston’s politics and discussing her in terms of a wholly white literary lineage, a sort of Wife of Bath figure. Yet when it comes to Hurston’s politics, nobody seems prepared to confront it head-on, except to proclaim that her opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education and her support for Joe McCarthy was unfortunate. Usually these things are attributed to some unfortunate experience the woman had – Wallace ends up blaming it on the bum rap hung on Hurston for seducing under age boys, which was ultimately thrown out of court, and others blame it on the aging process.
It is true that the Hurston who can write in a letter about the unforgiveability of the atom bomb, or coint the brilliant phrase, in her anti Jim Crow essay, The American Museum of Unnatural History, for the way she and other black thinkers are put away in a little segregated corner and exhibited, seems to be going in a different direction from the woman whose heart belonged to Taft.  But I don’t think the answer to the question of how she kept these thoughts together is answered by a reference to some odd contingency.  Hurston’s politics were definitely on the right, but a right of her own making – a maroon right.  Her experiences in Florida, in Jamaica and in Haiti all went into her viewpoint, which – taking a phrase from Callaso, who takes it from Tallyrand, is a defense of the “sweetness” of life.   Eccentrically, and whitely, I see her counterpart on the left as Pasolini. These two paragraphs from his Pirate Writings could have been subscribed to, I think, by the Hurston who raged against the kind of representation of Southern blacks that put lynching at its center – as in Richard Wright’s novels.  

“At present, when the social model being realized is no longer that of class, but an other imposed by power, many people are not in the position to realize it. And this is terribly humiliating for them. I will take a very humble example: in the past, the baker’s delivery boy, or « cascherino » — as we named him here in rome, was always, eternally joyous, with a true and radiant joy. He went through the streets whistling and throwing out wisecracks. His vitality was irresistable. He was clothed much more poorly than today, with patched up pants and a shirt that was often in rags, However, all this was a part of a model which, in his neighborhood, had a value, a sense – and he was proud of it. To the world of wealth he could oppose one equally as valid, and he entered into the homes of the wealthy with a naturally anarchic smile, which discredited everything, even if he was respectful. But it was the respect of a deeply different person, a stranger.  And finally, what counted was that this person, this boy, was happy. 

Isn’t it the happiness that counts? Don’t we make the revolution in the name of happiness? ? The peasants’ and sub-proletariats’ condition could express, in the persons who lived it, a certain real happiness. Today – with economic development – this happiness has been lost. This means that that economic development is by no means revolutionary, even when it is reformist. It only gives us anguish, anxiety. In our days, there are adults of my age feckless enough to think that it is better to be serious   (quasi tragic) with which the e « cascherino », with his long ha ir and little moustache, carries his package enveloped with plastic, than to have the “infantile” joy of the past. They believe that to prefer the serious to laughter is a virile means of confronting  life.
In reality, these are vampires happy to see that their innocent victims have become vampires too. To be serious, to be dignified, are  horrible tasks that the petit bourgeoisie imposes on itself, and the petit bourgeoisie are thus happy to see to it that the children of the people are also serious and dignified.  It never crosses their minds that this is a true degredation, that the children of the people are sad because they have become conscious of their social inferiority, given that their values and cultural models have been destroyed."

Pasolini famously said that in the struggle between the cops and the students on campus, he was for the cops, as they were the authentic children of the people – a statement as shocking in 1969 as Hurston’s statement that Brown vs. Board of Education was due to a “whine” among certain Negros who wanted to be white. Somehow, I think the political impulse in both cases came from something deeper than Hurston’s personal hurt from neglect by certain of the privileged tenth. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Black history month reading: Zora Neale Hurston

For Black History month, I decided it was time to read a lot of Zora Neale Hurston. Good choice! I'm reading her non-fiction - especially Tell My Horse and Mules and Men - before reading Their Eyes were Watching God. Although it may seem an odd comparison, or no, it is an odd comparison, Hurston keeps making me think of two apparently different writers: D.H. Lawrence and Pasolini. Both had a strong sense for the massive change overtaking "pre-modern" society - which was really the majority of society in all countries. One has to remember that the working population of the US, in 1900, was more than half agricultural. In Italy, of coure, it was even more. While Britain was a vanguard country, which had shrunk its agricultural sector in the nineteenth century - while never overcoming a nostalgia for its forms, or a class system still rooted in the prestige of landholding. Hurston was famously a political conservative, a supporter of Taft and Smathers, a sniffer out of communists. But this was a surface politics, for I think her intellectual committment, like Lawrence's and Pasolini's, was to a resistance to the disembodying of culture, the uprooting of the organic ties of culture. Like Lawrence and Pasolini, the erotic element in Hurston is incredibly charged with a total existential stance. By the way, how did Hurston get away with such things as an elaborate description of the ceremony of sexually preparing a Jamaican bride - in Tell My Horse - by masturbating her? I mean, this is the kind of stuff I thought they censored in the 1930s. Perhaps she was "protected" by being a black woman, and thus, invisible to white readers. I don't know. I do know she was a very bold woman.

Monday, February 06, 2017

decay of catholic conservatism

Fillonistes have fallen into sentimental rhythms about their fallen hero. In Causeur, for instance, there’s an article about the "lynching" of Fillon.This follows the tone of aggrieved persecution found elsewhere.
It was written by a Catholic conservative, Emmanuel Dubois de Prisque, of the Thomas More institute. Poor Saint Thomas Moore, to have a polemicist of such low water adorning himself with your name!
Evidently, the old exercise, recommended by all the martyred saints, of imagining the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ has become desuete. In its place has arisen a verbal inflation that has less to do with the piety and long meditations of the Saints and more to do with the spiritual non-exercise of celebrity loudmouths on news shows.
Lynching takes its name from a practice widespread in the racist US.
First, the skin was beaten, and bones were broken in abundance. Then of course came the castration, with rusty knives. Then the hanging, with the crowd often setting the lynched man on fire. Sometimes this was varied by pouring hot tar over the victim, which inflicted, in his last hour, the pain of 3rd degree burns without relief.
So, let us test the appropriateness of the lynching image. Has Fillon been beaten or kicked or clubbed? No. Have his bones been broken? No. Has a hot tar been poured over his head and torso? No. Has a rope squeezed closed his respiration, and has he been hung so that the vertebra of his neck broke? No.
He’s been asked embarrasing questions about the million Euros earned by his wife for doing nothing. Questions that are especially pertinent seeing that Fillon is running on a platform proposing firing 500,000 public servants who do things. Not intangible things, either.
His explanations have been consistent with the ridiculous image of lynching conjured up by the soi disant Catholic de Prisque – evasions and bluff, larded by resentment that a person of his power could even be asked these questions.
Someone like Georges Bernanos, a true Catholic polemicist from the past, would surely have held up the Causeur article for universal ridicule and seen in its microcosmic rhetorical corruption the vaster moral corruption of which it is a symptom. As the ideal of equality has been given the boot, a new caste-like ideal of inequality has inserted itself into our practices of justice and our system of ethics. We are encouraged to be, ninety nine percent of us, bootlickers and asskissers, while admiring the stratospheric antics of the celebrated and the wealthy.
I can predict with some confidence that Fillon will continue to live the most protected of lives and will die in a clean bed. A lynched man on the other hand in 99 percent of cases has lived a hard life and become the object of the bigoted wrath of a crowd not because of the privileges he has amassed but because of the prejudices and inequality to which he has been, forever, a victim.
Catholic conservatism is in trouble.