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 19, 2014

blood from a stone

Saakashvili, in his time, was a favorite of both the NYT and the Bush Whitehouse. Now we know that he fortified his backbone with “bite massage” while he was standing tall for democracy and against the current incarnation of Satan, Hitler and Stalin – Putin is who I’m obviously talking about, for those of you who are behind on today’s fave devils. Of course, being in power and challenging the enemy of all mankind is a tiring job, and we shouldn’t question the perks of office, like the state paying to fly out the  masseuse that gave him the said bite massage, Dorothy Stein. In fact, we shouldn’t question any of the money that disappeared during his time in office.
It is a funny thing about mysteriously sourced wealth. When it flies out of a country by way of dictators or funny presidents, the U.S. and Western european media people and scholars and governments tut tut about the corruption of these backwaters. They are so corrupt! And yet, apparently there is no taint in taking that mysteriously sourced wealth. Nicholas Shaxson, in Treasure Island, tells the story of the Corruption Index – a way of mapping the peculation of countries that receives a lot of press attention, and that lets us know just how filthy Nigeria or Iraq or Georgia is when it comes to bribe taking and the lot. This index, concentrating on that kind of dirty money, usually makes the US, the UK, Switzerland France and all the others seem like wholesome and uncorrupted paradises. But a lesser known index was established by the Tax Justice Network in 2009, to rank countries according to how much secrecy they provide to global finance. In other words, how many hidey holes they have for just that dark money. And on this index, the US is no. 1. The UK is number 5. And so on.
If, as some estimate, trillions of dollars have been taken out of the poorest countries over the last three decades, we know where it went. Miami. Houston. London. Paris. Geneva. Mysteriously funded Williamsberg.
And this is, somehow, not as funny.

It is not bite massage, but the vampire’s kiss.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

fictionable world

“Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation.” This is one of the wonderful lines in Wallace Stevens “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” – a poem that makes much of that “toward”, that motion which, seemingly, is oriented towards an endpoint that is itself on an absolute scale – it is supreme – and at the same time – being “a supreme fiction”  – seemingly, diminishingly, not the only one, leaving us rather puzzled about the entire movement and meaning that will be convened in the poem’s sweep.  
 I am thinking about this poem in relation to Michael Wood’s Literature and the Taste of Knowledge. The book gestures a lot to Empson, since it is made up of Wood’s Empson Lectures given at Cambridge. Levi-Strauss once said that totem’s are good to think with, and one could say the same for this book: it is in that way evidently totemic. Like a good totem pole, it mounts one head on another, beginning with Henry James and ending with John  Banville – it is mostly novelists – and so we have can think of the tradition that is being performed. But there is also the strange notion of the taste of knowledge. Wood  procedes to mutilate or distort the idea of knowledge until we give up our simple idea that we know what knowing is, and take another look.
It is a book that quotes philosophers, but isn’t philosophy – rather, it is at the crossroads of philosophy and literature, which is not a spot haunted by many philosophers, unfortunately.
But here’s the thing I latched onto in reading Wood’s book – the idea of fictionable worlds. The lovely phrase comes originally from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, where it is a play on the fashionable world. Wood sees the immense idea that could be here, and how it helps us to think about fiction by asking whether there could be a world without fiction. How could a world actively resist its fictionability? Perhaps this is the melancholic idea behind Adorno’s famous phrase about there being no more poetry after Auschwitz.  There is a point in which the fictionable impulse dies.  
That at least is one possible reading of the limits of the fictionable world. However, realistically,  there has been poetry after Auschwitz, and there have even been novels about Auschwitz.
So lets find another point of entry to the fictionable world, one that Wood doesn’t deal with, even as he intimates the direction I want to go in. That point of entry is the error, the mistake, the misperception.
The comedy of errors is, in Shakespeare, essential to comedy at all. Without mistakes of identity, disguises,  mishearings and misinterpretations – think of Malvolio, for instance -  there would be no comedic business.
Two of the great novelists of the twentieth century – Nabokov and Queneau – are specialists in the mistake. Pnin, for instance, is wound around a mistake that is signaled at the very beginning of the book by the omniscient and ominous narrator – Pnin is on the wrong train. From whence he proceeds to the wrong bus. Queneau, in Chiendent, sets the plot in motion with a mistaken inference by the terrible Madame Cloche, who thinks that Pierre Le Grand and Etienne Marcel are planning to rob pere Taupe. This misunderstanding has many levels. It derives from a misunderstanding of a phrase that Cloche overheard; and it leads her to infer that Pere Taupe, contrary to his appearance as a miserable quasi-bum, is actually a mythical miser.
If the world and logic were one and the same thing, these errors would cancel themselves out. They couldn’t cause anything, because they wouldn’t have any substance. From the moment that we see that logic and the world are two separate things, we see how the world is fictionable.  We see the work of error, we see how it blooms in the world. Michael Wood touches briefly on a question that was once vexatious – what use is art, or how can art be useful – to get to the question of how literature knows things. This locution – taking an object that is known and making it a knower, as in such book titles as “what buildings know” or “what poems know”, etc., is a contemporary fashion that, I can’t help but think, was helped along by the fact that computers, which we all use, seem to do things like knowing. In the early modern era, the displacement of knowing from the consciousness to the object was a principle in alchemy and, in general, occult knowledge. Even then, the fact that a place “has a memory” – a theory of Cornelius Agrippa – was not attributed, ultimately, to the place, but rather to spirits.  The question of the cognitive function of literature is, though, a bastard continuation of the great aesthetic debate between the old purists, the high modernists, for whom literature was autonomous and removed from the world of use, and the counter-modernists, the realists (socialist and otherwise), for whom literature was a means to an end – usually consciousness raising, sometimes outrage, sometimes pointing out a social ill.
That debate, while it is no longer conducted on the lofty, Adorno-ian plane, is still definitely around. My own tastes are mostly for the high modern monuments, but I don’t think my tastes encompass all literature, and it is easy to see how a literary work  could also be didactically important, or raise consciousness, etc.
We could look at this another way by using elements of Victor Turner’s idea of “ritual process”, and in particular the ideas of anti-structure and liminality. Turner writes of these things under the general notion of communitas – a non-structured, non-hierarchical gathering that inevitably hardens into organization.  But I think of this non-structured thrusting of the liminal as something larger than communitas. It is, in fact, the fictionable world, the world in which mistakes actually produce ontologically real events – in which the nothing of falsehood is a cause. The world in which we pretend logic and the world are identical bears a name: the serious world. But the world in which logic and the world suddenly separate is harder to name. It is the ludicrous world. It can be terrible, or terribly funny, or both.

That is an aspect of the world that fascinates me. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the war of the geriatric fantasists

Going to war with ISIS without even a discussion seems to be the order of the day.
Myself, let me play the crow and croak doom upon the whole business.
There were two news items recently that made me think that, once again, the war will be fought in such a way that it will be unwinnable. Not that IS might not collapse, but it will only give way to some similar organization.
The two news items are:
1.      The NYT story about IS oil that includes this graf:
Western intelligence officials say they can track the ISIS oil shipments as they move across Iraq and into Turkey’s southern border regions. Despite extensive discussions inside the Pentagon, American forces have so far not attacked the tanker trucks, though a senior administration official said Friday “that remains an option.” 

And the hearings today included this passage:      
2.    “It really comes down to building a coalition,” Dempsey replied [to senator Lindsey Graham], “so that what the Arab Muslim world see is them rejecting ISIS, not us…”
“They already reject ISIL,” Graham interjected. “Do you know any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL?”
“I know major Arab allies who fund them,” Dempsey replied
Yeah, but do they embrace them? They fund them because the Free Syrian Army couldn’t fight Assad. They were trying to beat Assad. I think they realized the folly of their ways. Let’s don’t taint the Mid East unfairly.”
I don’t think a lot of people have noticed the undercurrent in that exchange. They don’t just fund them because they were trying to beat Assad, they were urged on by Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator McCain to fund them. The tainting Graham doesn’t want is the tainting of his own hideous record. There was a nice article about it in the June Atlantic.

It will of course go down the memory hole that today’s hawks were yesterday’s material allies of ISIS. Today’s doves – myself for instance – will of course be lined up as avid supporters of our beheading friends when we point such things out, now that we have decided, in the typical American way, to declare war (except not a really really war so we can tiptoe around the constitution) against those terrorists.
The American way of war, both in D.C, and the press, is to look at it like a video game. And like a video game, the forces appear where they are when you turn it on. They are programmed into the game. Thus, there is no real history between the players.
And since they are programmed in, there is no need to ask questions about even the recent past. You would think, if we are at war against IS, that we would talk about their run of luck. After all, what we are proposing is that our allies come up with forces and throw them into battle against ISIS. Hmm, but what we are ignoring is… we already have trained allies and they have already thrown themselves into battle against ISIS and so far ISIS has destroyed them. I have not read all the transcript of the Senate hearing, but I can’t imagine that any senator spoke up and asked, let’s go over what happened in Mosul, when ISIS took it in June, and then proceeded to grab most of the Sunni heavy region of Iraq. Patrick Cockburn put the case very well back when that happened in the Independent, June 15, 2014:
“It is difficult to think of any examples in history when security forces almost a million strong, including 14 army divisions, have crumbled so immediately after attacks from an enemy force that has been estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 strong.
But once again, this fact – that the US not only assembled an army but a huge army, armed it with the latest equipment, and trained it, and watched it fall to pieces against ISIS – is treated as an irrelevancy, a little something to be sucked down the memory hole and not bother an important general with. Because this time we are going to train an army, a huge army, from various moderate terrorist groups on our side – oops, I meant freedom fighters – and this army, which will have had no experience, is going to be vastly well equipped, and it wil just roll ISIS like a heavyweight KOing a featherweight. Now, that the recent past shows that this is an absolute fantasy doesn’t mean that we can’t turn off the video game and then turn it on again and start over. And besides, as I have read in many a news report, it is the “universal” conviction in DC that we have to stop the ISIS.

We’ve been at war for thirteen years. We’ve learned absolutely nothing, and we are still led by geriatric fantasists.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Kant, in one of his obscure works (an essay entitled Speculations on the Beginning of Human History) writes that communication begins in the human desire to spread abroad one’s ego.
“ The instinct to communicate must first have moved the solitary person to proclaim his existence to  other living creatures outside them, chiefly to those who produced a sound which he imitated and which he by and by used as a name. A similar effect of this instinct can be seen even now in children and thoughtless people, who through snarling, screaming, whistling, singing, and other noisy activities (and also similarly in likeminded groups) disturb the more thoughtful part of the community. Because I see no other motivation here than that they want to proclaim their existence all over the place.”

In this passage, as in so much of the Gesammelte Werke of I. Kant, one sees the outlines of the rather sour Konigsberg bachelor emerging from beneath the verbiage of the scholar and one time Pietist. However, even though I can’t imagine that Kant ever paid too much attention to children, especially the whistling ones, there is certainly something in the idea that communication – or rather, utterance, soundmaking – derives originally from the instinct of self-assertion. Self aggrandizement. Snarling, whistling, singing and other noisy activities make one bigger. I would add cursing, which is definitely the way adults make themselves bigger, and shouting.
Since Adam has been going to school, and his mornings and afternoons have been peeled away from his Pop’s, he’s becoming much more verbal. He is full of surprises, coming out with thank you Dadi when I change his diaper (and I am told he said this, too, to Miss Tawana at school when she similarly cleaned him up) morning when I wheel him in the stroller in what is, indeed, morning, duck and truck and my. Oh what a lot of  my-s, settling especially around my ball.  Still, these words and phrases are caught in his other sounds, his private language, which is a crossword puzzle of sounds, the clues to which are too obscure for me to decypher them.
In the passage from Kant, one notices the subtle and not wholly coherent switch between imitation and assertion. This, too, is consistent with what I’ve seen with Adam. I can spend five minutes saying something that Adam will refuse to repeat after me – happy birthday, Maman, or toy, etc. – and then there will be times that Adam catches me by surprise by repeating after me when I was not trying to get him to repeat after me – especially when I am cussing for some reason. But mostly, Adam will address me with his blue gaze and go off into a presentation of obviously  conversationally purposed but purely opaque phonetic strings. The intonations are recognizable: question, statement, kidding, story.  And then there are the sounds that obviously he likes because he can make them - not crying, which is an ambiguous object (it makes you bigger to show that you are smaller), but screams and whoops that accompany a lot of running around and giggling. I love these sounds. I love all of Adam's sounds, really. And this is in contradiction to the global tendency of my old age, which is increasingly intolerant of noise, especially in restaurants (which I think of as an American disease, spreading across the world - the way everybody at every table screams like they want to get a message across to the viewing audience. There is no viewing audience, honey.)
I have doubts this makes me one of the thoughtful people in the community. It is sheer age and grouchiness.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

ISIS son of surge

ISIS, son of surge
In today’s New Yorker, one of the several liberal hawks in the stable, George Packer, dons his favorite style – more in sorrow than in anger, burdened by the tragic task of bringing civ to the uncivilized, etc. – and asks what are the lessons of the fall of Saigon for Obama, facing ISIS. The short answer is that Packer gets an F – he seemingly is incapable of learning a lesson that goes against his burning desire to benefit all humanity by way of the Pentagon. Because of course we must, Packer thinks, get into the struggle against ISIS. And he hopes our president will be clear about what that means: “But he also needs to tell the country bluntly that there will almost certainly be more American casualties, and that the struggle against ISIS—against radical Islam generally, but especially in this case—will be difficult, with no quick military solution and no end in sight.
Now, another person might think, hmm, no end in sight, struggle against radical Islam in general, American blood – well, the lesson of Vietnam is we not engage in anything that pointless. But not our masterthinker.
Why America is supposed to struggle against radical Islam is pretty unclear, especially as America – as Packer haughtily overlooks – is allied to radical Islam and has been for a long time (which is maybe why Packer doesn’t even talk about Saudi Arabia, much less the UAE). But not to worry, at least the struggle will be long and without any clear purpose. Sounds like a plan!
The rhetoric of the liberal hawks is the same old same old, same with the old hawks, but it is starting to penetrate the public and get them ready for another episode in America’s pointless wars. The terms in this  episode, like the last one, will be that those who oppose the war actually support ISIS, and chopping off heads, etc.
So, here are the futile facts. It is today's hawks who physically supported ISIS by making sure the Syrian rebels were good and armed, including arms that came from Libya. And it is by no means apologizing for ISIS to wonder about the meaning of the fact that ISIS, which at its largest is a twentieth the size of the Iraqi army, rolled over that army. The Iraqi army, remember, was armed with billions of dollars worth of US weapons and trained through other billions of dollars worth of aid. Thirty billion is an often mentioned figure. And what did they do? Why, they fled, in their hundred thousands, from ISIS's thousands. And what did the conquered population think? Well, as far as I can tell, the Sunni majority in the regions ISIS conquered are definitely glad not to be subject to the Shia militias protected by the Maliki government or the minions of that government who made a habit of  kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunnis in the old  fashioned way.
And why did this situation come about? More generally, of course, it was the occupation. But more particularly, the Sunni-Shiite split was ratified and frozen by the surge. You remember the triumphant surge, trumpeted in the press as our victory in Iraq? It came in two parts. One was surrender to the Sunni insurgents in their territory, plus bribery of the tribes. The other was creating physical barriers separating neighborhoods in urban centers. This accelerated and put an official stamp on the segregation of Sunni and Shiite, which, before the occupation, was officially verboten. From that segregation naturally arose a consciousness, among both parties, of themselves as separate entities. This, of course, has led to the current situation, which is a combination of ISIS and a good old fashioned Sunni rebellion. Ba’athist military men, not exactly a mainstay of “radical” Islam, joined ISIS. They joined because they wanted to fight the power in Baghdad.
So, Packer is proposing that we agree to fight a nebulous enemy instead of a specific and complex one, in a landscape devoid of any history except the American one – which consists of Americans heroically rescuing their Vietnamese pals, or their Iraqi pals, etc.
Here are the questions the  war hawks should answer: how can you couple defeating ISIS and reconciling the Iraqi Sunnis with the Iraqi Shiite state; how can you fight against Syria while simulataneously asking Syria to fight against ISIS; how can you defeat an enemy that has morale and skill with a foreign force from the air;  how can you restrain the landgrabbing of your allies, like Kurdistan; how can you restrain the resourcing of ISIS by your other allies in the Gulf?
My prediction is that none of these questions will even be asked, and that an empty and ultimately disasterous moral gesture  will take thousands of lives and produce exactly nothing.

But at least we will have done something! And isn’t that the sweetest little sop to our narcissism?

Saturday, September 06, 2014

nabokov and a cold war trope

Sometimes, a phrase, an image, a reference, a term will catch one’s eye, revealing – not with the flag-like pomp of a theme, but like a firefly in the back yard as evening falls – some moment in history, some corner of the vast dark we call public opinion or the forces of history, which is not so much lit up as flickered up, unshadowed a bit. The master tracker of such firefly ideas is Carlos Ginsberg, who has shown how they can twist and turn – or be twisted and turned – over the longue duree, and how they can be connected, the historian’s construction being the promise that some living thing, some beat, is actually there. Parataxis promises continuity, our ellipsis waits for the pencil that draws the line between dot “a” and dot “b”, we feel the breathing of influence, but not, oh never, the palpable push of cause.   
 It is one of those ideas that I have been toying with ever since I caught it, again, in  Nabokov’s lectures on Russian history. Specifically, this is what tugged at my eye, or perhaps I should say ear – since I seemed to confront an echo here. An echo of something I had heard before.
“ In the sixties and seventies famous critics, the idols of public opinion, called Pushkin a dunce, and emphatically proclaimed that a good pair of boots was far more important for the Russian people than all the
Pushkins and Shakespeares in the world.”

Nabokov here is repeating in condensed form an argument he had put in the mouth, or rather in the book, written by his character Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in The Gift. The book, a mock biography of Chernyshevsky, stamps its way through Chapter 4 of the book. Although mock is the tone intended, the prose often descends into mere dismissal and scurillity – it would really be worth comparing, some day, Nabokov’s pillorying of Chernyshevksy in Berlin, 1937, where much of the book was written, with the Stalinist denunciation of bourgeois writers, since the choice of insults seem to converge, and there is the same microscoping skewing and vengeful hewing of the writer’s corpus – in both senses. At one point, Nabokov makes fun of Chernyshevsky’s physical awkwardness in the Tsarist labor camp he was condemned to – which even his admirers might blanch at, this being written at a time when physically maladroit intellectuals were being processed in labor camps both in Germany and the Soviet Union. In the Lectures, he informs his poor students that Pushkin was condemned equally by Tsarist dunderheads and radical ones – which is an argument one could make, rather easily, about Nabokov’s own judgments (Thomas Mann was condemned both by the Nazis and by VN).Of course, my argument that there is something of the Stalinist purge rhetoric in Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s is also making a parallelism argument – borrowing the moral opprobrium we devote to one to the other. Hey, we are all human. However, in Pushkin’s case, try as he might, Nabokov can’t make the  parallel lines meet. But such is the wonder of art: due to a trick of the eye, they can be made to seem to.

This is a phrase from  Nabokov has his fictitious author say  about the radical’s views of Pushkin:  “When Chernyshevski or Pisarev called Pushkin’s poetry “rubbish and luxury””, thus, again, letting the quotation gently drift there, where it seems to be on the verge of emerging from the pen of Chernyshevsky or Pisarev but… ends up emerging from the hybridization of them. However, in actual fact, a quotation is like a kite – it can’t get up into the air unless there is a solid figure at one end of it. Usually this figure runs around a bit, works up a sweat, and finally – the kite, or the quote, is aloft. But not here. For all Nabokov’s love for “divine details”, this quote, in quite a philistine way, is simply daubed in, and we will decide later who was on the other end of it. But the Lectures on Russian Literature shows that the plight of our quote has worsened, and now there is a host of shadows on the other end of the diminishing of poor Pushkin, who – we are to suppose – is much better for the Russian people than boots.

This unattached quotation – how it manages to fly through the literature on Russian writers during the Cold War era! What is interesting is not only how it varies in being attributed to this or that figure, but how the quote itself can’t decide between Pushkin and Shakespeare. In Marc Slonim’s An Outline of Russian Literature (which, coming out in 1959, may have been cribbed by some of Nabokov’s students before he quit Cornell), it is Pisarev who, in a parenthesis, writes “A pair of boots is more useful than a Shakespeare play.” In Berdaiev’s The Origin of Russian communism (1937, a little before the Cold War), the boots are retained, but Pushkin is pushed aside for Shakespeare: Pisarev’s nihilism announced that ‘boots are higher than Shakespeare’ – an oddly phrased quote that attributes a phrase not to an author, but to an author’s ideas, as though the ideas were also writing articles and announcing values and appraising boots – no doubt in the same manner as the nose in Gogol’s story dons a uniform. Leszek Kolakowski takes the line that  we can attribute to Pisarev the remark that “a pair of boots is worth more than all the works of Shakespeare” –  an expansion of Berdaiev’s sentence, and making Marc Slonim’s quote look modest. Ronald Hingley, in the 1969 Nihilists: Russian radicals and revolutionaries in the reign of Alexander II, 1855-81, dispenses with the whole problem of attribution by writing that “a good pair of boots was worth more than the whole works of Pushkin” was a common saying of the 1860s period. What we have here is a phenomenon that also occurs in currency trading in a de-regulated regime: equivalents tend to disequilibrium, as one of the parts inflates in value – which of course brings up the question if the whole works of Shakespeare are worth the whole works of Pushkin. But I will be brave and not pursue every question that jumps up in my head. Instead, I will finish this woefully incomplete collage of quotations with Isaiah Berlin in Russian Thinkers (1979) who grabs the kite by the tale, or the quote by the source, correctly attributing the phrase “a pair of boots is in every sense better than Pushkin” to Dostoevsky, and speculates that Dostoevsky might have been inspired by one of Pushkin’s letters, in which he wrote that he looked at his poems “as a cobbler looks at a pair of boots that he has made.” This feat of quotation correcting occurs in the very narrow space of a footnote, but when we think  of what a lordly career the phrase has had, it seems to deserve something more.



Friday, September 05, 2014

ISIS is not a terrorist outfit

I am sick to death of the definitional inflation of the word terrorist. Villifying one's enemies goes a long way back, but I think the modern use of terrorist to mean any enemy whatsoever was started by the Nazis, who labelled all resistance to them in the countries they conquered terrorist. Now, they could have called it simply resistance, but such a name would imply that a total project could be resisted. I think that is where the terrorist idea gets its hot air from.
In the case of ISIS, the difference between them and the "moderate rebel" groups the West supports is that they aren't moderate, that they are successful, and that they are gobbling up Iraq. These may well be good reasons for the US and its allies to try to destroy ISIS, War is about this kind of thing. But one must be clear about what is happening. For instance, ISIS is not attacking the US, the US is attacking ISIS. When one reads these panic inducing reports that ISIS may strike at US territory, thus ISIS is a terrorist group, I think: no, ISIS, like any group that is attacked by a state, may attack that state back.
It should be unnecessary to say that the fact that I consider ISIS another paramilitary group does not mean I am somehow for ISIS, or find its beheadings groovy. But I am against linguistic slipperiness which, in the end, has allowed the US for the past couple wars to skirt around the international covenants and treaties it has signed about fighting war. And, indeed, skirt around the constitutional language that sets up strict procedures for warmaking (and which have been ignored by the political establishment since 1945 - if only americans were as strict constructionist about war as they are about owning handguns!).
If ISIS threatens US interests to the extent we have to bomb them, well, lets have a discussion about that. But lets not falsify the discussion from the beginning by pretending the ISIS - unlike, say, the Libyan paramilitaries who we aided in overthrowing Qaddafi - are terrorists. They aren't.