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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

on the pattern of moderate vs. extremist

There is a pattern in American culture, a dialectic between “moderation” and “extremism”,  that repeats itself in many unexpected areas. At the moment, the Democratic party is sponsoring, or involuntarily becoming, a ground for the debate between how far our political demands should go, once we have decided to call ourselves “progressives”. The terms of this debate are similar to the debate about African-American politics that was staged long ago by W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. In a long essay about Dubois that appeared in 2011 in the NYRB, Kwame Anthony Appiah provided a useful corrective to the idea that we can straightforwardly identify extremes -as for instance using Dubois as a marker of the most extreme position regarding African-American politics. In fact, Dubois represented a more moderate idea of the American “promise” than Frederick Douglas:

“The third of Du Bois’s core ideas is a claim about what the main political issue was that faced black America. Du Bois believed for much of his life, according to Gooding-Williams [author of In the Shadow of Dubois], that it was the social exclusion of African-Americans. And he thought that there was work to be done by both blacks and whites on this “Negro problem,” since, Gooding-Williams writes, “in his view, the problem had two causes. The first was racial prejudice. The second was the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.

There is a very different vision of the Negro problem, which Gooding-Williams [ finds sketched out in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In this account, the problem is not black exclusion but white supremacy. The young Du Bois saw the social exclusion of the Negro as an anomalous betrayal of the basic ideals of the American republic; Douglass, more radically, regarded the oppression of black people as a “central and defining feature” of American life, as part of all its major institutions. And oppression, for him, is not about exclusion but about domination. It means keeping blacks not out but down. The solution then can’t be mere integration, the end of exclusion; rather, it requires the reimagination of American citizenship as a citizenship of racial equals, or what Gooding-Williams approvingly calls a “revolutionary refounding of the American polity.”

It is a good idea to keep the debate about the whole program of creating a progressive America – or more bluntly, a democratic socialist one – aligned with these past debates, since they break up the semantic blocks that tend to become routine assumptions when the debaters break out the plates and hurl them at each others heads. Obama was more often compared to Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Dubois, but there is more of Dubois in his policies, or non-policies, than seems obvious at first glance.

Appiah, following Gooding-Williams, sees the influence of the German school of sociology on Dubois, and, especially, on the idea of Souls of Black Folks, where that collective soul is the equivalent of a Herderian Geist. He doesn’t mention Herder’s most famous, or at least influential, follower in the U.S. – Boas. The Boas who encouraged Zona Hurston to collect folk tales and the Mexican revolutionaries to establish museums of anthropology. Geist is in question when we replay, endlessly, the notion of identity vs. class, with the latter representing the social mechanism that creates a culture out of material interest, and the former being the bodily and cultural mechanism that produces mass mimicry, with all its parts: role models, the importance of entertainment as a vector of social transformation, etc.

Dubois was, as Appiah notes, ideally democratic, considering that the governed have a perfect right and responsibility to speak out to the governors; but he was also a proponent of the talented tenth, seeing the other 9/10s as poor, ill educated, ill informed, etc. This is a surprisingly common characteristic not only of the right, but of the left – hence the moral panic about false news, with its implication that the establishment media only engages in fact based reporting as opposed to fringe groups that trade around absurd stories of HRC connected pizza parlor pedophile gangs. In this opposition we simply forget the absurd stories, traded as truth, about Iraq having loads of WMD that the NYT and the WAPO were content to trade in as Bush took us to war. We forget the idiocy of the media during the course of that war, and before – as for instance in the idea that only black proles would believe that the CIA collaborated with drug dealers as it was high mindedly overthrowing democracies we didn’t like in Central America, and the like.
No, it is all the ignorant unwashed.
I’ve not gone into the substance of the struggle for the “soul” of the Democratic party, since what I want to point out is the form. Read Appiah’s essay if you can get ahold of it. It’s here.

Monday, September 18, 2017

global climate of opinion change at the NYT

I like the way that the NYT, which in the 90s was in the forefront of news making about global climate change, is now, in the era of Trump, taking the pulse of giant hurricanes and assuring us that the verdict is open as to whether this has anything to do with, what was it? oh yeah, global climate change. And with a change denialist earning a pretty penny from the NYT opinion page - Brett Stephens - they are all lined up to sing in the "moderate" GOP chorus. Sweet.

Why can't we all just get along is the new NYT motto.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Boundaries in play and sentences

Social boundaries originate in two ways: either they are imposed, and thus are handed down from a higher level, or they emerge in an activity among actors, which requires at least tacit agreement. Roger Caillois, in Games and Human Beings, claims that the natural history of the latter kind of boundary goes back to animals. For instance, although animals do not engage fully in games of agon – competitive games – there is, in animal play, a sort of foreshadowing: “The most eloquent case is without a doubt that of those so called fighting wild peacocks. They choose “a field of battle that is a little elevated,” according to Karl Groos, “always a little humid and covered with a grassy stubble, of about a meter, a meter and a half in diameter.’ Males assemble there on a daily basis. The first that arrives awaits an adversary, and when another comes, the fight begins. The champions tremble, and they bow their heads under the incidence of blows. Their feathers stick up. They charge at each other, leading with their beaks, and strike. But never does the fight or the flight of one before the other go outside of the space delimited for these tournaments. This is why, for me, it seems legitimate here, and with regard to other examples, to use the word agon, since it is clear that the point of the event is not for each antagonist to cause real damage to the other, but to demonstrate his own superiority.”
Caillois, here, assumes that the boundary gives a total meaning to the happening. Though serious injury could happen, this isn’t the purpose of the fight – which is why the fight doesn’t go beyond the boundaries of the field. But at no point do the peacocks assemble and point to the limits of the field.
This distinction between boundaries seems pertinent to writing. When you are writing a chapter, you can – because of an order by an editor, or because this is how you work – confine it to a certain number of words. This is supposedly how romance novels are assembled by Harlequin books. However, literature takes over, so to speak, when the boundary emerges from the text itself. In fact, the same thing can be said for other components of the text – the paragraph, the sentence. There is a sentential sublime – there are writers whose sentences, by going beyond the boundaries imposed by convention, seem to be out for a thrill ride. Most thrill riders crash, of course. And the sentence can go beyond, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s one sentence Autumn of the Patriarch, merely by kicking out the stops. Joyce is the master of this kind of thing. But there is another thrillriding sentence that seems, by setting new boundaries, to have divided up the referential world differently. Pynchon does this in Gravity’s Rainbow, and you are either immediately drawn to it as a moth to a flame and spend years trying to exorcise the influence, or you hate it.
Here's a graph from the sequence in which Roger Mexico and Pointsman hunt a stray dog for the laboratory that Pointsman has set up on Pavlov’s model: “The V bomb whose mutilation he was prowling took down four dwellings the other day, four exactly, neat as surgery. There is the soft smell of house-wood down before its time, of ashes matted down by the rain. Ropes are strung, a sentry lounges silent against the doorway of an intact house next to where the rubble begins. If he and the doctor have chatted at all, neither gives a sign now. Jessica sees two eyes of no particular color glaring out the window of a Balaclava helmet, and is reminded of a mediaeval knight wearing a casque. What creature is he possibly here tonight to fight for his king? The rubble waits him, sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an openwork of laths pointlessly chevroning—flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman’s long-gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness. Back in the wreckage a brass bedpost winks; and twined there someone’s brassiere, a white, prewar confection of lace and satin, simply left tangled… . For an instant, in a vertigo she can’t control, all the pity laid up in her heart flies to it, as it would to a small animal stranded and forgotten. Roger has the boot of the car open. The two men are rummaging, coming up with large canvas sack, flask of ether, net, dog whistle. She knows she must not cry: that the vague eyes in the knitted window won’t seek their Beast any more earnestly for her tears. But the poor lost flimsy thing… waiting in the night and rain for its owner, for its room to reassemble round it…”
These sentences go backwards and forwards and cross a lot of consciousnesses, and in the process seem to violate the way sentences are supposed to be compact units expressing some identifiable relationship of author to material, good little units lined up like desks in a class, obeying the rules of Gricean implicature, easily attached to their pronouncers. Owned. But here the ties of ownership, of pertinence, are looser, and seem to wave in some wind from a source that is, well, history’s own, or the paranoid simulacrum of it. There is a drift here in the sentences, something different (but heralded) than the corporate round of consciousness visiting in, say, To the Lighthouse - that table scene! Even that enrages a certain kind fo Great Tradition reader. And it is cert not all right at all for those more comfortable in the Gricean chains, and the cultural order that pounded into place a written grammar of English since the advent of the printing press. The printing press, though, is defunct, as we all know, secretly, screen to screen, and the grammar and agreed upon territory of all the textual units is up for grabs.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Benjamin - at the crossroads of magic and positivism

It is an interesting exercise to apply the method of the theorists to themselves. For instance, Walter Benjamin, who was critiqued by Adorno for developing, in his later years, a method that was at the crossroads of magic and positivism – the power of inferential juxtaposition, learned from the surrealists, and the method of dialectical materialism, learned from … well, kinda Marx, more probably Eduard Fuchs.

I myself like that idea – Adorno’s scorn for magic is part of the package of his own positivism. It is a high calling – methods are high callings, ideals – and Benjamin’s Arcades project, in its final state of gigantic ruin, shows how hard it is to follow.

I’ve been reading some of the fragments contained in volume 6 of the GW, and it is an interesting, rather vertiginous experience, as is any experience in which one finds oneself continually stumbling, continually knocking against the cracks. For instance, the fragment entitle On Marriage, which begins with a wonderful juxtaposition of the mythical and the tabloid:

"Eros, love moves in a single direction towards the mutual death of the lovers. It unwinds from there, like the thread in a labyrinth that has its center in the “death chamber”. Only there does love enter into the reality of sex, where the deathstruggle itself becomes the lovestruggle. The sexual itself, in response, flees its own death as its own life, and blindly calls out for the other’s death and the other’s life in this flight.  It takes the path into nothingness, into that misery where life is only not-death and death is only a not-life. And this is how the boat of love pulls forward between the Scylla of Death and the Charybdis of misery and would never escape if it weren’t that God, at this point in its voyage, transformed it into something indestructible. Because as the sexuality of love in first bloom is completely alien, so must it become enduringly wholly non-alien, its very own. It is never the condition of its being and always that of its earthly endurance. God, however, makes for love the sacrament of marriage against the danger of sexuality as against that of love.”

One has to pause here. First, to listen to what Benjamin is doing – juxtaposing the prose of the “death chamber”, which comes from Police Magazines and tabloid newspapers of the 20s and 30s  - adoring the rooms where the bloody corpse of some victim was found and, as well,  the gas chamber or electric chair where the murderer was murdered by the state – to Greek myth, and then to a very Biblical God. And then one has to ask whether, indeed, death more often befalls lovers than befalls wives and husbands. Here a bit of positivism, a bit more tabloid knowledge, would relegate the Wagnerian Tristan and Isolde to the margin, and the more common family murder to the front. For the marriage that “God” gives us against the unleashed forces of death and sexuality is all too often a scene of violence. Engels definitely knew this. Benjamin surely, in part of himself, knew this too. The criminologists, who now call it “intimate partner homicide”, were on the case in the 20s and 30s. The mythological correlative is not Homeric, but rather the Maerchen of Grimm, where intimate partner violence is a constant companion of princesses and peasants.

However, then, I dispute the point, from the positivist, statistical viewpoint, I grant the power of the forces of sexuality and death, from the magical viewpoint. Benjamin’s surrealist genius in taking from the press the “death chamber” and inserting it into the myth of the labyrinth is in the best high modernist tradition of violently superimposing the archaic on the contemporary. This is a tradition that is moved, obscurely, unsystematically, to protest the allochronism – that long colonial time – which names it the “modern”. But to rescue the archaic by turning to the God of our Fathers means succumbing to a fundamentally reactionary impulse, which fails the test of historicity, and locks marriage into a form that it can’t sustain.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

barthes - the amateur mandarin

I’m reading Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Roland Barthes. I’ve learned that when Barthes published The degree zero of writing in the fifties, he had not yet read Blanchot or Artaud, or even – so he told a reviewer – heard of Georges Bataille. Barthes was 36.
Somehow, being an aging hulk myself, I find this a beautiful anecdote. Firstly, because it rather undermines those who are searching for influences by Blanchot or Bataille in Barthes early work – and don’t we all like to see an academicus ocassionally slip on a banana peel? – but more because, secondly, it speaks to reading outside the classroom. The classroom, in the intellectual world created by the post world war II boom in colleges, has become the site of our primal reading, and sometimes our only reading of the “great books”. It is a phrase I have heard all too often – “I read that in class”. In my mind, this is matched with another phrase, usually about something in history – say Watergate: “that happened before I was born.” As if the knowable extent of the world began when a person was born. Both speak to a sort of intellectual shrinkage.

What I like is what Ralph Ellison called the old man at Chehaw Station – the amateur who is a knower, beyond all credentialing. Barthes of course went on to read Bataille and Blanchot and the rest of them. The shock of the new was not subsumed in the canon of the old as his career unfolded – and this is why his work, to me, is that of an amateur mandarin. 

Friday, September 08, 2017

Salut, Kate Millett

We owe a lot to Kate Millett. She was, in a sense, "all over" the seventies, and she burned the notion of "patriarchy" into feminism, and via the national press's fascination with "women's lib", into the national consciousness. But there, I feel, it faded. What was a call to overturn patriarchy and its values became a call to find places in patriarchy. Instead of a critique of the whole value system around the "strong" and the "tough" - these blind, violent impulses - the critique softened to a search for "Strong, tough" women. Understandably - the patriarchy didn't after all fall, but strengthened in the seventies. And it wasn't clear how the politics of sexual politics would actually proceed. Still, the goal set by Millett early on seems to me ultimately the more worthy one: in the 47 years from 1970, the degradation of the environment and the incredible stress that is now normal for most working lives has become worse. That strong and tough are bullshit words, delegating pain hierarchically to subordinate factotums - it isn't the tough president who is out on the frontline, but the soldier, the civilian, the insurgent, who are "inspired" by the strong leader to ever greater feats of barbarism - needs continually to be repeated.

There was an interesting dialogue that prefigured these issues that occurred in 1975 in L.A. at a forum featuring Marcuse and Millett, where the issue was how socialism connected to feminism. Marcuse was never the burning boy of the Frankfurt School, never Mr. Negative Dialectic. So it is good to see him take babysteps towards acknowledging the obvious: that the socialist left, in the name of class struggle, has long subordinated feminist struggle, or distorted it in terms consonant with patriarchy. What that means to me is the need for a double transformation, on the one hand of socialism, and on the other of feminism. Easier said than done! The one piece of good news from the debacle of American politics is that these transformations seem to have become real everyday issues.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The American "something"

Hemingway wrote a short story called The End of Something in the fine beginning of his career, when the stylized silences were new, impressive, and deep, and a terrible story, fossicked from his remains by his posthumous exploiters, entitled Everything Reminds you Of Something, at the end of his career, when the simplicity had turned simpleminded and the hardboiled silences had gone soft and squishy – the kind of thing that make Old Man and the Sea so unreadable. The end of something is all about the masculine refusal to speak its pain, while everything reminds you of something is all about the masculine refusal to shut up, even when it had nothing to say. And maybe there’s a story there.

“Something” in its American splendor is not considered in Mencken’s book on the American Language. Nor is it in Brewer’s phrase and fable, which disappointingly lists only one something-headed item, viz., something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is as if the American something were so pervasive that it never strikes anyone as a phrase or fable. But it surely is, and it surely can be dated, at least in print, to sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when writers like Ring Lardner and Hemingway were discovering in the speech of the folk the ethical sports and monsters of the American subconscious. And Broadway too, and the movies, and the cartoons.
Richard Burton wrote in his diary when the Gemini splashed down about the astronauts: “Sat on balcony until lunch reading newspapers. Learned to our relief that the ‘Gemini Twins’ were back from the Cosmos safely.83 For some reason we both felt oddly nervous about them. It is odd, too, that I almost always think – no condescension intended – of Americans as being gifted and brave but almost always child-like. White, the man who walked for 20 minutes in space, when asked how it was replied ‘It was really something.’ 

White’s comment is a sort of Summa of something – God reduced to gosh, world without end. 

Karl Kraus, that most un-American of essayists, wrote that thought can’t be the master of language, only the servant. Or something like that. I know I’ve read that somewhere. The house is a mess, I can’t put my finger on the book, or the notebook in which I jotted down this bit of intellectual tittle. However, I do know that Kraus’s whole life was a war on cliché, on the deja connu, on newspaper verities. As he said, the newspaper was the black art, the end of the world, the wormwood cast into the waters, apocalypse now with all the trimmings. World War I proved him right. So did World War 2.
 And yet if that Sacher-Masoch colored scene between thought and language is at all true, then it is hard to see how we are going to avoid just the kind of writing and talking that drove Kraus nuts.  For what after all is the newspaper verity than language pulling thought along, or rather, dispensing with thought all together in a simulacrum of thought. In other words, aren’t we all doomed to incantation, to abracadabras of variously elevated tone?

And the opposite of the highminded abracadabras, as the young Hemingway hoped, was in a speech that was modest in its claims, truthful in its sentiment, factual in its slant. This message is made clear in Farewell to Arms. That speech, it turns out, comes with a price – it turns life into a data-filled competition. Into baseball. Or something a bit more exotic among expats. What starts out as a revolutionary stripping of established lies ends up as a flattening of effect. It’s really something.
I’ve always loved the scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when death comes to a bunch of American yuppies and their friends, English gentrifiers. They, of course, take death as a colorful local yokel at first, but eventually he starts to make his point that he is Death. At this point the American man pulls out his pipe and begins to pontificate about the experience they are all going through. This breaks it for Death, who begins a wonderful rant: “Shut up! Shut up, you American. You always talk, you Americans. You talk and you talk and say 'let me tell you something' and 'I just wanna say this'. Well, you're dead now, so shut up!”

“Let me to tell you something.” There it is again, through a hoax dialectic come to mean not, as in Hemingway’s “The end of Something”, that expression must be tied to the particulars, however painful, but to mean, let me fill in all the verbal space. And then let me walk in it, drifting, in a self-contained suit, safely attached to a large white phallic shaft.

That’s something else.