“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, February 22, 2002

Remora

There�s a nice review of God, Gulliver, and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination, 1492-1945 by Claude Rawson in TNR last week. Limited Inc prepared for the worst in the intro grafs. Reviewer Jonathan Alter seemed to be heading into traffic in the usual way with the oblique hissing at the supposed �anti-Western� clique in the universities:
�Over the past two decades, with evidently growing vehemence, the critique of Western civilization has become the great preoccupation of the humanities in American institutions of higher learning, especially in departments of literary studies. (Edward Said's Orientalism, which appeared in 1978, was certainly one point of departure for this general trend, though not all the current assaults on the pernicious influence of the West can be traced to Said.) It is Western civilization, we are repeatedly told, that has perpetrated the evils of colonialism on a global scale, and in the postcolonial era it is Western capitalism that continues to exploit and to "immiserate" the masses of the developing world. The legacy of enslavement and murder that is abundantly manifested in colonialism, it is sometimes claimed, was merely brought to its logical fulfillment in the concentration-camp universe created by the Nazis.�

The key that this music is scored to is revealed by the word �pernicious.� It is, by the way, the whole art of reading, this finding of resonances within contexts, this uncovering of the codedness on the surface of the codes. For surely Limited Inc isn�t wrong to suppose that the word carries a value redolent of extravagantly mustachioed villains tying the village beauty to the railroad tracks? If colonialism is merely a matter of gaslight melodrama, surely it is nothing to get too upset about. And then there is the Marquis de Said � red light, red light, evacuate the craft. This is, we know, the New Republic, and Said is in the shooting gallery there. His is the face atop the silhouette of the menacing intifada warrior that Marty Peretz takes matitudinal aim at, with his .45.
But Alter is not going down that path. Leaving the simplicities of vilification behind, he has a genuinely interesting point to make � or at least he claims that Rawson does:
�What Rawson bracingly demonstrates is that humanistic inquiry still can be, and deserves to be, an empirically grounded activity. He decries the "selective use of evidence to support currently approved indignations (or the earlier ones they replace)," and he goes on to cite a tart characterization by Marjorie Perloff of how intellectual arrangements are now generally made in the groves of academe: "The preferred method is to know what one wants to prove ... and then to collect one's supportive exempla, the game being to ignore all `evidence' that might point in a contrary direction."
Much of Rawson's book is a documentation of Western imaginings of other races, ethnicities, and cultures, from Montaigne's "Des cannibales" to the propaganda of the Third Reich. (To Rawson's credit, in discussing this topic he avoids the pretentiousness of using the capitalized and hypostasized form "the Other," and he also eschews the Gallic barbarity of the abstraction "alterity.") Now, many of the images that he considers, both verbal and visual, are violent and troubling: the ethnic or racial others are imagined with both prurience and clinical condescension as embodiments of sexual license and depravity, as human approximations of the bestial, and hence as fit objects for subjugation, exploitation, and ultimately extermination. Still, as Rawson repeatedly shows, the simple story of racist abomination told by the postcolonial critics often does not correspond to the ambivalences or even the dialectical character of the actual Western images. And the others are often imagined, as Montaigne illustrates, not on a binary model of the good Europeans and the savage non-Europeans, but on a triadic model, a more complicated model that is not designed to provide any ideological satisfaction, in which both benign and brutal varieties of the others are considered as antitheses to the writer's own culture.�

Rawson�s suspicion of the unilateral moralist approach to colonial studies is captured, in a pretty damning way, in his criticism of Sander Gilman:

�Sander Gilman, a scholar who has made an academic career of chronicling racist stereotypes, describes the picture as an "erotic caricature of the Hottentot Venus," with the voyeur flatly defined as "a white, male observer." What Gilman astonishingly overlooks, as Rawson duly notes, is that the most obtrusive caricature in the engraving is the face of the man looking into the telescope. The man's face is depicted as a grotesque cross between the head of a bloated frog and the head of a dewlapped bulldog. The telescope thus becomes a satiric joke about European voyeurism; and, as Rawson suggests, the woman's thrusting posterior figures as a gesture of well-deserved contempt directed at the fat man with the telescope who is ogling her. The image is not an expression of power, it is a criticism of power.�

Even here, though, Limited Inc would like to remark that vulgar Foucaultians have demonized the word power, so that it is almost useless. Since Foucault�s point, following Nietzsche, is that there is no zero degree of power, it is difficult to see how any viewpoint could divest itself of power. Or how it could want to. What is the desire for an au-dela de pouvoir, anyway? In fact, Foucault�s further point was that the promotion of the myth that there is, indeed, some zero degree of power is part of the game of power. An important, and characteristic element of modernity, inherited from both the Platonic and Christian tradition.

Oddly, Limited Incs posts this week seem to return to the topic of the West and the Other. Unlike Alter, I think there�s a point to the capitalization. Since Alter seems to also diss alterity, for reasons that Derrida would have a field day with � find the name encrypted in the name, find the Latin that turns to gall in Gallic - I suppose he just doesn�t appreciate the concept, or its position in Hegel�s dialectic, and, necessarily, ours. Well, it is certainly there, with or without Alter�s approval.

Reading the West�s relationship to the Other through the Yahoos is a marvelous idea. Especially as it can never be said enough that the West, as a monolithic concept, was not the concept with which any intellectual up to the 19th century primarily thought.

Thursday, February 21, 2002

Remora

Limited Inc reads the newspapers for much the same reasons that hard shell Baptists listen to hellfire sermons -- to produce a feeling of dys-empathy, an odd combination of melancholy and self satisfaction. Our love for all humanity is tempered by our satisfaction that humanity is being lead into various unbelievable disasters by the most greedy and dimwitted among us. Going to hell in a handbasket kind of thing, you know.
But sometimes, sometimes an item peeks through the gloom like a ray of golden sunshine. The best news in the NYT is in the science section today. No way to say this without a tremor of emotion in the voice: the Ivory Billed Woodpecker may STILL BE ALIVE!

"[] team that spent 30 days in a swampy Louisiana forest looking for a woodpecker long thought to be extinct reported yesterday that members may have heard the bird, but they did not see it."

The ivory billed woodpecker isn't simply a bird, but like the dodo, the great auk, the eskimo curlew, it is a totem, a dream image, an Audubon revery.

Some might call the evidence slim.

"On Jan. 27, at 3:30 p.m., four of the six members of the search team, in an undisclosed spot in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area near Slidell, La., heard a series of double raps characteristic of the drumming of the ivory-billed woodpecker. They managed to record the last double- rap of the sequence and some subsequent rapping.On the same day, members of a Cornell Lab of Ornithology research group heard a similar sound in the same area, and two days later, other members of the team heard loud rapping uncharacteristic of other woodpeckers. "

Oddly enough, the NYT doesn't mention that the last sighting of the species in toto was in Cuba.

In 1985, Dr. Lester Short obtained permission to Search for C. principalis in Cuba. That year he, together with George Reynard and Giraldo Alay�n, visited the Cupeyal reserve just west of the area of the 1956 sightings. No woodpeckers were observed but they found fresh marks of a foraging C. principalis and heard of a report from December 1984 in the area (14). Giraldo Alay�n and Alberto Estrada continued the Search in

"October 1985 and March 1986 (15) and followed George Lamb's 1956 route. Although the forest close to the coast, near Moa, appeared long gone, the species was apparently still present in Ojito de Agua, one of the most inland territories described by Lamb. On 13 March Alberta Estrada briefly saw a single C. principalis. Giraldo Alay�n then observed a female being attacked by two Cuban Crows, Corvus nasicus, on 16 March and in April that year an international team including Dr. Lester Short, Dr. Jennifer Horne and George Reynard saw at least one male and one female at the same spot (15). One year later, in the afternoon of 16 March 1987, an observation was made that would appear to be the very last positive record of the species. Giraldo Alay�n and Aim� Pasada saw a female woodpecker flying at a distance of about 200 m. A National Geographic expedition in 1988 which included Ted Parker and Jerome Jackson could not find the species, although an individual might have been glimpsed (7)."






Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Remora


Policy Review, a true blue, conservative journal, features a review by a Steven Menashi, of Mark Lilla�s new book.


The Lure of Syracuse, the last chapter in Lilla's book, was published in the NYRB in the black month of September. Limited Inc didn't have the heart, at the time, to make with the commentary. Lilla uses the story of Plato's supposed attraction to the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysus, to make a point. Or a couple of points. One is the point that the story should be about Plato's ultimate resistance to tyranny. The other is that twentieth century thinkers have been attracted to the philosopher slash murder king. The second point is the important one for Lilla.

On the one hand, Lilla�s point is true. A large part of the intelligentsia in every decade has embraced the most obnoxious governors, a crew of murderous and venal men like Hitler, Stalin, Mao. So, for that matter, have carpenters and farmers. The problem with Lilla�s story is that it is based on a falsely foreshortened sense of atrocity.

History is read through a special filter for Lilla -- and for that whole tradition arising out of the fifties merger of liberalism and cold war anti-communism. The murder of a Russian writer, in 1940, counts as a murder for this group. The murder of, say, a Sioux in 1870, or the starving to death of some Congolese family in 1900 doesn't count as an atrocity. In fact, it doesn't count at all. A philosophical overview of history that begins in mourning is fine, it is appropriate, lay on the organ tones and let�s all die; but Lilla�s group ends up mourning very selectively.

The NYRB site has segregated Lilla's essay into the for pay part of the site. But it is still up at this site. Let's start with the first false analogy in Lilla's piece.



"Dionysius is our contemporary. Over the last century he has assumed many names: Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Ho, Castro and Trujillo, Amin and Bokassa, Saddam and Khomeini, Ceau�sescu and Milosevic�one's pen runs dry. In the nineteenth century optimistic souls could believe that tyranny was a thing of the past. After all, Europe had entered the modern age and everyone knew that complex modern societies, attached to secular, democratic values, simply could not be ruled by old-style despotic means. Modern societies might still be authoritarian, their bureaucracies cold and their workplaces cruel, but they could not be tyrannies in the sense that Syracuse was. Modernization would render the classical concept of tyranny obsolete, and as nations outside Europe modernized they, too, would enter the post-tyrannical future. We now know how wrong this was. The harems and food-tasters of ancient times are indeed gone but their places have been taken by propaganda ministers and revolutionary guards, drug barons and Swiss bankers. The tyrant has survived."



Well, the rhetorical flourish is nice. But Dionysis is not our contemporary, or at least he isn't our contemporary in the same way Hitler and Mussolini are. In fact, the collective gesture -- one that puts Hitler and Khomeini in the same set - is infantile, betraying no sense of historical circumstances. The nineteenth century optimism, by which one presumes Lilla means Mill and Comte (although he could mean Goethe and Marx -- the phrase is empty), still had to account for the Napoleons, tyrants of a type much closer to Dionysus than any in Lilla's first list. And of course there is the notion that the nations outside Europe "modernize." Is this a joke? If it isn�t, and we fear it isn�t, then it is more evidence that when the blind lead the blind through world history, they end up like the blind in Brueghel�s painting, headlong in the ditch.. Lilla's evident ignorance of what modernization entails cries out for correction. Before you play the shame game in the NYRB, do some research. Start with, say, the history of coffee growing. As I mentioned before, last week I read Mark Prendergast�s nice, exhaustive look at the coffee industry. Well, why not start there for the quick course in Europe�s heart of darkness complex? Lilla seems to be under the illusion that 19th century intellectuals were either unaware or uninvolved with what happened on the margins: those Iindians of the Yucatan, Guatamala, El Salvador, etc; those Brazilian slaves; those Chinese resisting Britain�s Opium trade. If he wants to find the roots of Hitlerism, it won't do to go to Syracuse -- go, instead, to Hitler's admiration for that eminent nineteenth century institution, the Indian Reservation. America's gift to the world. Or look at the penal practices of the French. The Communards were cast into Dachaus spaced at some distance from the Hexagon: Devil�s Island, French Guyana.

Lilla might claim that this is merely the blame game, death toll politics. But it isn't � it is looking at the context in which intellectuals might or might not have sympathy with forces that would overthrow �liberal democracy.� To mount a philosophical polemic based on a history and have no real comprehension of history is, well, typical of philosophical polemicists.

Still, even putting aside Lilla�s ignorance of the 19th century, his inability to understand how World War I effected the West reaches into the cases he wants to talk about. In fact, here, as elsewhere, the majority of the intelligentsia went along: most were not, like Bertrand Russell, willing to go to jail to oppose the senseless slaughter on both fronts. Not that Lilla is the type to honor Russell � in fact, whenever intellectuals are being knocked by other intellectuals in forums like the NYRB, you can be sure the political sympathies of the knockers is such that they would have favored locking up the Bertrand Russells and throwing away the key.

Still, context is not an excuse. The 20th century is full of philosophers who have favored tyranny of one sort or another. The list is well known, and the model case is Heidegger. But the Stalinism of Aragon, or the sympathy of the New Critics (Allen Tate, for example) for racism is well known. So if Lilla had the integrity to confront this problem in the spirit of real inquiry � why did it happen? Is there a pattern? Who opposed Stalinism, or apartheid, or Naziism, and why? If Lilla was proceeding along this path, I�d have more sympathy with him.

However, Limited Inc�s lack of sympathy is not shared by the Policy reviewer.

�Mark Lilla offers his latest book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, as �a modest companion� to Milosz�s work. But The Reckless Mind turns out to be not so modest at all, for Lilla takes as his subject a question even more vexing than Milosz�s. We may understand why intellectuals living under tyranny, jaded by the degradations of war and intimidated by a totalitarian state, would submit to regnant orthodoxy. But what accounts for tyranny�s apologists in free societies? Why would an intellectual, unthreatened by censorship or official coercion, seek to justify repressive, dictatorial regimes �or, as was more common,� Lilla writes, �to deny any essential difference between tyranny and the free societies of the West?� Lilla seeks to answer the question, as Milosz did, through a series of profiles of modern intellectual.�

Menashi makes a curious move in his review to Strauss. Usually Straussians start going cross-eyed, in that Closing of the American Mind way, when they deal with such as Kojeve, but Menashi is actually thoughtful. A nice piece. Here�s the final graf:

�As it happens, during his lifetime Strauss produced studies of only three living thinkers: Heidegger, Schmitt, and Koj�ve � three theorists who had put their formidable talents in the service of tyrants, the first two to Hitler and the last to Stalin. In contrast to their zealotry, Strauss appears (contrary to his popular reputation) resolutely anti-dogmatic. �Philosophy is essentially not possession of the truth, but quest for the truth,� according to Strauss; he exhorts impulsive thinkers not to philosophical certainty, but to the philosopher�s moderate self-control. Against the religious dogmatism of these intellectuals, he juxtaposed the uncertain wisdom of Socrates: The true philosopher knows that he knows nothing.�

The last is a phrase is one philosophers like to use when they are getting sentimental, but like some old cheer intoned by the graduates of the class of 38 on the Yale lawn, they are going through the motions from nostalgia, not because they mean it.

Comments on yesterday's post from Alan:

"Roger,

I don't have access to the London Times article here at work so I'm flying
blind here. But here are a couple of observations.

--Rational self-interest, as conceived by free-market economists, would
never lead anyone to try to be president of the United States. There are a
whole lot less painful ways to get a whole lot richer. Besides, when you
grow up a rich kid like Georgie-poo, I suspect the marginal utility of
additional bucks is pretty much nil. I would think, in the absence of any
more particular motivations, that maximizing utility would consist in
finding ways to avoid boredom.

--We've got two questions here: GWB's character and motivation, and
Luttwak's. From a number of things I've read, I think it very likely that
since 9/11, GWB genuinely regards himself as a Man on a Mission. However,
unlike your version of Luttwak, I do not think that is a Good Thing. It
scares the shit out of me. There are few things in the world more dangerous
than a stupid and easily manipulable Man on a Mission.

It'll take me a while to work out the Venn diagram stuff. Also thinking
about the causes of famine in India, etc."

To which Limited Inc replied

Alan
-- Wow, either my Luttwak piece was good, or you are just in a discursive mood this morning. A spontaneous response!
Anyway,. my reading of maximizing one's advantage is that the particular advantage is an x, a variable. It could be money, it could be power, it could be popularity, it could be orgasms. Since rational agents live in a world of mixed value systems, their pursuit of one advantage theoretically entails not pursuing, with the same vigor, others. But I take it that the decision to pursue political power is the framework within which Bushiepoo is defining self interest. In this case, then, he would alter his behavior if he felt like it was negatively impacting his long term ability to retain political power. So, when he campaigned, he moderated everything that he promised in order to alienate as few voters as possible. What he has done since he attained power is use it for other self-interested ends, which are defined in other value frameworks. But just as we wouldn't confuse a man investing money with a man giving to charity simply because both actions entail an immediate outflow of money, so we shouldn't think of Bush as sacrificing his self interest in one framwork for a disinterested ideal in another just because, potentially, he could become unpopular. Luttwak conceivably could make that argument, but as I say, it would contradict the whole brunt of Bushiepoo's life up to now. The man with a mission is in the happy circumstance that his mission makes him popular, so Luttwak's has to present a hypothetical. He fails to even muster the elements for a hypothetical. Perhaps, like Lyndon Johnson, Bushypoo would pursue this mission even if it started to make him highly unpopular. But I think it is as likely that, having received Pavlovian gratification from being a warm monger, he might hedge the inevitable unpopularity that comes from being Santa Claus to the rich in a recession by sustaining his warmongering role, which does make him popular.
LI

There you have it comrades, actually controversy on this usually sleepy site. I'll be jiggered!

Monday, February 18, 2002

Remora

When the best aren�t the brightest, and the brightest have to console themselves with Noam Chomsky. Or, put that in a Venn diagram and stuff it in your pipe, sailor.

Bush will go to war even if it puts him out of power is the headline of an article in the Sunday (London) Times by Edward Luttwak. Headlines are written by a specialized set of editorial room ghosts. This fact continually escapes readers. I know. I�ve written articles crowned by headlines that have the same relation to my article as the image of the barroom seen through a beer bottle by a drunk has to the barroom as seen by a sober boyscout. And in these cases, sophisticated readers (like you) often ask me to explain the headline, as though it flowed from my pen.

But in this case the headline sums up this farrago of nonsense quite well. Oh, get used to it. This is the type of drivel we shall all be reading a lot of, pretty soon. Luttwak is jumping ahead of the curve, crafty syncophant that he is. Building up for another 20 article year at TNR. He does indeed make the argument the headline proclaims: that Bush is going to go to war with Iraq even if it means sacrificing his presidency.

�Everyone who comes into personal contact with him reports that George W Bush has become a man of passionate conviction who sees the struggle to prevent another September 11 as his duty and destiny, regardless of the political consequences. He has been told many times that he now risks winning the war and losing the presidency because of a weak economy and now the huge Enron scandal, but he replies that winning the war is quite enough for him even if he loses the White House. �

When one wants to distinguish bad faith from an honest but fallacious argument, a good indicator is whether the expounder of an argument has thought through the question of self-interest. Luttwak, and Georgie Bush, are both very comfortable with free market economics. That economics relies on the theory that self-interest is a key factor in organizing markets. In fact, most neo-classical economists like equilibrium models because the self-interested agent is easily quantifiable. He or she fits pretty well into the various game theories that model the actions of markets.

So when we are faced with an article in which the premise is that a rational actor is willing to sacrifice his self-interest, we want to know a few things. Is this plausible? Are there self-interested explanations for his action? Does he have a self-sacrificing personality? Is there any indication, from his past history, that he has been self-sacrificing?

Let�s look at Luttwak�s article from the standpoint of plausibility. In the first sentence of the above graf, the phrase , �regardless of the political consequences,� implies the risk that G.B. will suffer politically for his convictions. To make this plausible, one searches around for, say, poll data showing that G.B. is suffering a loss of popularity for his tenacious stand on foreign policy. And that such a loss is not effecting him.

Luttwak doesn�t want to make that argument because, of course, it is ludicrous. G.B. is being rewarded with popularity for his current stand on the war. The first thing we should notice about the whole tenor of Luttwak�s article is the implausibility of one of the premises.

But perhaps he is saying that Bush is ignoring that rise in popularity. This is an odd assertion. If Bush were a corporation, would we want to say that it is continuing to sell a profitable item regardless of the fact that it is profitable? That�s the kind of saying that any economist will reject, rightly, out of hand. In fact, the direction of motivation should go the other way. Because G.B. is being rewarded, he wants to continue warmongering. This explanation takes into account self-interest in a traditional way. In fact, I would imagine Luttwak constructing just the opposite story for a politician like Saddam Hussein or Milosovic. There are even parallel reasons. If we are at war, a more plausible, a more conservative argument would go, it is probably to counter-balance things like a bad economy. A bad economy wiped out Bushie one.

Now, perhaps Luttwak thinks GBII�s �passion� is making him self-sacrificing. Are there evidences of this in his past? The short answer, and the long answer, are both no. Ever since joining the National Guard, GBII has been an exemplary rational agent, maximizing his gain at every opportunity. There is no evidence that he has ever sacrificed his own interests for something higher than himself. Closest, I suppose, would be his acceptance of our Lord Jesus Christ into his capacious heart, but that acceptance, on his own account, hinged on a quite utilitarian matter. He needed to stop drinking. Drunk driving tickets, as he knew, were a real career-killer. Hence, it was Jesus or pay some counselor that you'd have to hide, twenty years down the road, when you ran for political office in Texas. Jesus was the lower cost.

So, our question should be not, is Luttwak right here. It should be, what does Luttwak gain by this article? With an assessment of Iraq (�As for the American decision to finish with Saddam one way or another, its reasons are exactly as stated in the Bush speech before Congress: Saddam�s regime still wants to reoccupy Kuwait and dominate Arabia; it already has some weapons of mass destruction and is smuggling in technology for more. That combination is an unacceptable danger, which must be ended�) that is not only ridiculous, but contains no casus belli � as Luttwak, who is not an idiot, knows, and with the tactful dropping of the reference to Iran, we can see Luttwak positioning himself. He is, above all, serious. Because his article�s premises are ludicrous, and his defense of the American regime is less analysis than a wet tongued osculation of the good old White House derriere, Luttwak has to maintain that implacable, that politburo seriousness. Laugh, and the whole web of deceit falls away.

Laugh, reader. Cast a cold eye upon Luttwak (and his tribe � the commentariat that ranges from the Weekly Standard to the TNR � all right turns, as J. Edgar used to tell his chauffeur), and laugh. Laugh your melancholy butt off.

Sunday, February 17, 2002

Remora

How about them corpses? Surely the movie is coming. Surely some b movie producer, some Hollywood scientologist, is on this like white on rice. Psycho is one thing, but Georgia rednecks are a whole other level of grotesque. They were good enough for Flannery O'Connor, so they should be good enough for you. The NYT story about the corpses of Walker County is another sad reminder that these are times that try the non-tv watcher's soul. I mean, camera man's delight. The woods. The voiceover. The faux conversation (Tammy, what is the sherriff saying about the body up in the crook of the pine tree there?). Essential tv. And here's the essential graf:

"After a dog walker stumbled over a skull on Friday, law enforcement officers discovered at least 120 rotting corpses in sheds and on the ground near the crematory, and state officials said that that figure could double by the time the area is fully examined. Some of the bodies had been there for years and were nearly skeletal, while others, fresh from the funeral home, still bore toe tags.Human bones, weathered white, were scattered through the woods like leaves, skulls mixed with leg bones in a ghoulish jumble that one state trooper compared to a scene from a Stephen King novel.

An infant's body was found in a box in the back of a rusting hearse.Some bodies had become mummified and may have been at the site more than 20 years, said Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia's chief medical examiner. Nearly two dozen coffins that had once been buried were also found on the ground, Dr. Sperry said, and in some cases their embalmed contents had been dragged out and left exposed to the elements for years"

And here is the perfect tabloid ending. I mean, can a news story have a better sign off line?

"His wife and son just didn't want to spend the money to fix it up," said Mrs. Horton, who grew up in Noble and now lives in Atlanta. "Lord Jesus, I don't know how they could go to bed at night with all that outside their window."

All that outside their window. An image that reminds us of some impossible rencontre between Walter Benjamin and the National Enquirer at a funeral director's convention in Sarasota Springs.