“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, October 16, 2004

Bollettino -- this is the last of three posts. Sorry, campers. I couldn't resist a long series today. To make sense of this, go back to the first post and read upward, I guess.

“An enormous power plant south of Baghdad was shut down last weekend by coordinated attacks on fuel and transmission lines, American and Iraqi government officials said Tuesday. The sabotage raised new fears that insurgents were beginning to make targets of major sectors of the infrastructure as part of an overall plan to destabilize the interim Iraqi government.
At full production, the plant is capable of supplying nearly 20 percent of the entire electrical output of Iraq. But after the war, the plant's output plunged to nearly zero, and it is still generating only a fraction of its maximum output, said Raad al-Haris, deputy minister for electricity.
An official with the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is scheduled to hand over sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30, confirmed that an oil pipeline south of Baghdad was struck in the last week. A second senior official in the Electricity Ministry said that the weekend attack was the latest in a series in the same area, and that repairs on the lines had repeatedly been followed by new strikes. This official said the pipeline also delivered crude oil to at least one major refinery, whose operations had also been affected.”
These reports could be due to the fact that the Iraqis hadn’t got their own puppet to lead them, of course. As transition neared, there was a bit of unbuttoning. Some of the CPA promises had, perhaps, in a manner of speaking, that is, not that any mistakes whatsoever were ever made, gone a bit South. James Glanz, in a ruminative article about the outstanding success of our occupation, June 30, 2004, which was guided solely by the principles of democracy that show, once again, what a force for good America is in the world., releases some interesting little stats:
“More than a year into an aid effort that American officials likened to the Marshall Plan, occupation authorities acknowledge that fewer than 140 of 2,300 promised construction projects are under way. Only three months after L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator who departed Monday, pledged that 50,000 Iraqis would find jobs at construction sites before the formal transfer of sovereignty, fewer than 20,000 local workers are employed.”
Forget that, though. Everything changed when the Iraqis took over their own governing, or as the Times put it on July 4, “Iraqis Watch With Wary Pride As Little Changes, and a Lot.”

With wary pride, Iraqis then got to watch a lot of things: American forces destroying Najaf, for instance. In fact, things got a little shaky, so Colin Powell went to buck up the morale of the puppet.. uh, free and autonomous government of Iraq, on July 31. The story about that visit contains a rather startling paragraph:

“His one tangible promise was to speed up the flow of the $18 billion in American reconstruction aid, less than $500 million of which has been released so far, so that Iraqis could see the realization of long-promised improvements in water, electricity and other areas.”

Promises, promises. But on September 21, under the headline “Iraqis Warn That U.S. Plan to Divert Billions to Security Could Cut Off Crucial Services,” we learn that Powell was not totally on track with today’s thinking. Why spend that money on electricity for Iraqis when there are other priorities? So the plan changes, but not because of any mistake ever made by any official in the Bush administration. Let’s be clear about this. It is all because of thirty five years of devastation unleashed by Saddam’s tyranny (a phrase that has to be included in every report filed by Glanz, it appears, under some strange stylebook rule), and of course the Clinton administration.
“In the original view, restoring Iraq's physical infrastructure assumed an importance equaled only by the American-led military action in creating a stable democratic country and winning the sympathies of ordinary citizens. Propounded again and again by L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian administrator here until an Iraqi government took over on June 28, that approach assumed that once the conduits for electricity, water, sewage, oil and information were in place, an efflorescence of industrial and national institutions would follow.
But with little actually being built and the deteriorating security situation making it doubtful that anything dramatic would happen if it were, a much more conventional set of nation-building priorities were put in place with the arrival last June of John D. Negroponte, the United States ambassador to Iraq. Those priorities are security, economic development and democracy building.”
All of which leads us up to this Saturday story in the Times.

Under the headline
“In Iraq Chaos, Uphill Struggle to Bring Power” James Glanz, bringing his perpetual optimism to the task, again is embedded with a heroic group of Americans. We did like this paragraph:
“More than any other sector of the infrastructure, it is the electrical grid that fills officials with hope. True, virtually every project is behind schedule, and few goals have been met. Indeed, officials involved with reconstruction expend great effort revising the overly optimistic projections made by the American occupation authorities in previous months. But there are, finally, more megawatts on the grid than before the invasion, and with a number of big projects under way behind the scenes, officials say it is just the start.”
That goal that was just over the horizon in June, 2003 is now really, really approaching. Really.

LI, for one, felt warmer just reading the article.


In a peppy article on October 23, 2003, the NYT, under the headline For Hussein's Ouster, Many Thanks, but Iraqis Are Expecting More, interviewed the man in the street in Baghdad and elsewhere, finding:
“Stability -- in the sense of an absence of attacks on Americans and Iraqis -- appears a long way off. But in dozens of recent interviews in Baghdad with ordinary Iraqis, it was clear that there is a reservoir of good will toward Americans in Iraq, or at least a weary expectation that they will, in the end, leave Iraq better than they found it.”
Mysteriously, those pre-war electricity levels seemed elusive:
''America is a great nation -- I think they can do anything,'' said Khanaan Abdul Majeed, 53, a welder in Baghdad. ''I think they can restore security and electricity and everything, but they are slow in their job.''
Mr. Majeed is also an example of another class of Iraqis generally supportive of the United States: those who benefit directly. He spoke outside his small metalwork shop, where he is building 130 beds for Americans here. He has hired six new welders and four painters. (Though an American-paid job cuts both ways: Iraqi policemen and government officials are regular targets.)” One hopes Mr. Majeed didn’t suffer for talking to the NYT. One hopes he is alive. But that is getting ahead of our timeline.
A year ago, during Ramadan, our American general in charge, General Sanchez, showing the high degree of intelligence with which Americans were stamping out the few terrorists fighting against the freedom loving people of Exxon, uh, Iraq, called the car bombings ''an operationally insignificant surge.' Is it any wonder he got along in the Rumsfeld Pentagon?
On Nov 30, 2003, the NYT did its usual “embedded with the selfless Americans restoring infrastructure story: Rebuilding Iraq Takes Courage, Cash and Improvisation.
“As the shadow of violence lengthens across the desert landscape of Iraq, reconstruction quietly continues. For some, the pace has been too slow. For others, success is more rightly measured in small moments -- as when, whether by skill or sacrifice, an irrigation system goes back online.
What is certain, though, is that when the United States begins spending the roughly $13 billion in new money earmarked earlier this month for the organs of Iraq's vitality -- water and sewage treatment, transportation, electricity and communications networks, oil production -- it will have to use the past six months as a vast how-to manual. It is a guidebook that, even today, remains decidedly ad-hoc and governed by the bald, decrepit and sometimes dangerous realities encountered on the ground.”
One wonders – the numbers get so confusing – whether this 13 billion is the same as the mythical 18 billion that is now earmarked for the same purpose, of which 1 to 2 billion has been disbursed. One also wonders – is that 13 billion coming, ultimately, from the freedom loving privatization of Iraqi oil?
The article quotes Tom Wheelock, the head of the US AIDS Iraqi reconstruction program. Here is the optimistic Mr. Wheelock, proclaiming mission nearly accomplished:
''There's a lot going on that's not manifest now,'' Mr. Wheelock said. ''We're on the cusp of impacts to people's quality of life.''
Then, on Dec. 13, 2003, the NYT visited a suburb of Baghdad, Ghazalia:
“Ghazalia is a neighborhood on edge.
Random violence and roadside bombs aimed at American patrols make the streets unsafe after dark. On the local council, Shiites and Sunnis squabble. Jobs are scarce, and prices are soaring. The electricity fails daily, and cooking gas, a necessity here, has grown scarce.
In ways large and small, life in this neighborhood of 150,000 people has worsened in the eight months since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. Now the residents of Ghazalia, a suburban neighborhood that is in many ways a microcosm of the city, are nearly out of patience.”
In a report on General Sanchez on January 11th of this year, there is a startling little throwaway. We are embedded with the great general himself, flying over a country which, basically, loves us. He and our reporter look out the window and what do they see?
“On the helicopter's flank, workmen were stringing cables from utility towers, restoring electricity that collapsed during the April looting. ''That's the first time I've seen that; that's great,'' he said.”
Eight months after the looting that caused Rumsfeld some rare and well deserved moments of hilarity, they are getting the cables up again? What about Bremer’s ukase in June of 03?
Must be a momentary glitch. As we all know, at that time, after Saddam’s capture, it was certainly time that the truth be told about Iraq -- about all the GOOD we are doing in Iraq. And this was what the NYT came up with.
On March 1, 2004, NYT headlines more good news: “Iraq Oil Industry Reviving as Output Nears Prewar Levels”.

“Iraq's oil industry has undergone a remarkable turnaround and is now producing and exporting almost as much crude oil as it did before the war, according to officials with the American-led occupation and the Iraqi oil ministry.”

Oddly enough, however, with things going merrily along in April (although that temporary surge in car bombings back in October was proving a little more, hmm, lasting), GE and Bechtel shut down operations:

April 22, 2004:
“Spokesmen for the contractors declined to discuss their operations in Iraq, citing security concerns, but the shutdowns were confirmed by officials at the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity, the Coalition Provisional Authority and other companies working directly with G.E. and Siemens in Iraq.
''Between the G.E. lockdown and the inability to get materials moved up the major supply routes, about everything is being affected in one way or another,'' said Jim Hicks, a senior adviser for electricity at the provisional authority.
The suspensions and travel restrictions are delaying work on about two dozen power plants as occupying forces press to meet an expected surge in demand for electricity before the summer. Mr. Hicks said plants that had been expected to produce power by late April or early May might not be operating until June 1.”
Then, as summer heat hovers, our man James Glanz, the same reporter who, the year before, reported on the success of American engineers in restorin’ the infrastructure, files this report on June 9, 2004:

On April 20, 2003, the NYT, under the headline From Power Grid to Schools, Rebuilding a Broken Nation, reported:
“United States military officials here make the point that the precision of the smart-bombs dropped on Baghdad limited damage to the most important infrastructure, including power and water facilities. Col. Mike Marletto, commanding officer of the 11th Marines regimental combat team, who also coordinates with Iraqis and aid groups here, said Iraqi electrical engineers told him that the damage this time was far less than during the gulf war in 1991, when power and water plants were direct targets for bombing.
''They say this is a piece of cake compared to what they had to do in 1991,'' he said.”
On May 3, 2003, reporting on the appointment of Philip J. Carroll, of Dutch Shell, to “advise” the oil ministry, the Times reported:

“The revival of Iraqi oil production, even partially, is crucial to restoring power and with it, water purification, as power plants here burn oil to generate electricity. That improvement in living conditions would greatly advance the Bush administration's goal of winning over average Iraqis, experts said.
''The most important thing we have to realize is that, apart from security issues, our time is running out,'' said Lawrence J. Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. ''With electricity and water, we don't have time. We have to get to it right now.'
On June 21, 2003, The NYT’s headline was:
“The electricity system of Iraq, already damaged by the war, is now being torn apart by systematic looting and possibly by sabotage.
Not far from the Bayji power plant in northern Iraq, high-tension cables that run to Baghdad now either hang like spaghetti or have disappeared altogether.”
Near the southern city of Basra, dozens of the biggest electric towers have been toppled in the past few weeks and now look like giraffes with their necks broken.” Interestingly, the day before they had reported that Bremer had promised to “privatize” all Iraqi industry. This is an interesting decision for a non-Iraqi to make, especially as it would immediately benefit the invading nation.
On July 23, 2003, The NYT headline read “U.S. to Outline 60-Day Plan For Iraq Rebuilding Projects.” Apparently, Bremer, multitasking from his main goal, which was to rob Iraq blind for a consortium of American companies –uh, no, I mean to deliver democracy to freedom loving Iraqis, decided to concentrate the beams of his intelligence on the pesky power problem:
“The top American civilian administrator in Iraq is to announce on Wednesday a 60-day plan for that nation, including restoring power to prewar levels, resuming criminal courts, awarding mobile-telephone licenses, and distributing revised textbooks to newly opened schools.”
This was the day after the report on Wolfowitz’s tour of ‘vindication’ in Iraq:
“In the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in south-central Iraq -- despite a tense confrontation between Americans and crowds of Iraqis supporting a young ayatollah in Najaf over the weekend -- American marines have worked closely with tribal and religious leaders to win their trust. At one point, Mr. Wolfowitz gloated that many of the dire predictions of ''uninformed commentators'' and Middle East experts that Shiites would rise up against the American occupation forces have so far not materialized.”
Of course not. Those uninformed commentators would be, of course, astonished at the urban renewal American forces affected in Najaf a year later, as Wolfowitz’s vindication just got deeper and deeper. But that is getting ahead of this little timeline.
On August 16, 2003, with our 60 day plan plugging ahead, and free enterprise in the very air of the country, stirring up the patriotism of Iraqis willing to make any sacrifice to increase the stock values of American companies… er, to show freedom loving people everywhere that freedom loving Iraqis love freedom, John Tierney issued a joshing report, Baghdad on the Blackout: A Path to Enlightenment? He gathered kids say the darndest things quotes from Iraqis advising Americans coping with the heat without a/c on what to do about the electrical situation. Of course, the importance of the situation was that real human beings (Americans) were suffering.
“But even as they smiled at divine justice, Iraqis showed their generous side. To Americans panicked by a few hours without air-conditioning in 90-degree weather, they offered survival strategies coolly developed on 125-degree days.”
Of course, since there were absolutely no mistakes made by the Bush administration, a point often underlined by the man in charge, the electricity must have been restored by the end of September, 03, right? By that time, Bremer should be concentrating his eagle eye on divvying up the oilfields to Exxon and Gulf and other great Iraqi firms, in the quest for freedom, as in free lunches for big businesses, for the freedom loving. But something – don’t call it a mistake, call it treason on the part of the Democratic party – seems to have held up the plan.

Friday, October 15, 2004


If you can get to it, read the Independent’s profile of Anna Politkovskaya. She is a Russian dissident, dur et pur.

There are many reminders in the profile, actuated by the publication of a collection of pieces on Putin’s Russia, of just why Putin and Bush do see soul to soul. They are the same dreary blend of blinking, staring autocrat. Theirs are the souls that bloom like ragweed among cockeyed schemes for the big killing, the failure of which is inevitably narcotized by the intervention of some family friend, or bloat in the declining era of the organs of repression, looking for patrons. They both had their big chances not because of who they were, but because of who they weren’t. Bush wasn’t a Gingrich Republican; Putin was a policeman, but not the type to nab his boss (Yeltsin) for stealing the billion or so dollars his family made off with. A pair made in heaven.

"My heroes are those people who want to be individuals but are being forced to be cogs again," she [A.P.] said. "In an Empire there are only cogs." Once upon a time, the individuals who were sent to salt mines by the cogs, bugged by the cogs, imprisoned in mental asylums by the cogs, or exiled by the cogs, found an audience in the West. No longer. Probably not one person in one hundred, even among the readers of the NYRB, are aware of Politkovskaya’s existence. We are, because we read her book of reportage about the war in Chechnya. Never averse to the Zola trick, the j’accuse, Politskovskaya had the guts to show that the Russian military’s operation in Chechnya was little more than a war crime. We’d love some American reporter who would do the same in reporting on the American ‘strategy’ in Sadr City or Fallujah. It is little more than Grozny with a chocolate bar – or, I forgot, a paint job on the local school, after one has kindly blown up the local fathers and strewed the brains of some little juniors about on the street.

Here’s one of Ms. Politkovskaya’s observations:
"Because Putin, a product of the country's murkiest intelligence service, has failed to transcend his origins and stop behaving like a lieutenant- colonel in the KGB. He is still busy sorting out his freedom-loving fellow countrymen; he persists in crushing liberty just as he did earlier in his career."

"We no longer want to be slaves, even if that is what best suits the West. We demand our right to be free." Poking fun at Mr Putin, she compares him to the humble Tsarist clerk, Akaky Akakievich, a famous literary creation of Russian author Nikolay Gogol. The wretched Akakievich believed the key to being successful and popular lay with his expensive overcoat. He was concerned only with his own image but when the overcoat was stolen he discovered that his own soul was empty. Politkovskaya told The Independent: "Putin is like Gogol's Akaky Akakievich. He is a small grey person who really wants not to be grey. Putin had a historic chance to be great and not to be grey but he is still grey."

LI’d previously linked to a story about how she’d been poisoned in the days around the Beslan crisis. There’s more on that story in the profile:

“On 1 September she phoned her rebel contacts and pleaded with them to allow Aslan Maskhadov, former Chechen president and rebel leader, to journey to Beslan and persuade the hostage-takers to release their captives. Having agreed to fly to Beslan and negotiate a safe passage for Maskhadov she set off for the airport. "My last contact with Maskhadov's people was ten minutes before I got on the plane. I suppose I did more than a journalist normally does. I then got on the plane and drank some tea and then ... nothing."

Thursday, October 14, 2004


My friend T. tells us that we should certainly move on from the Derrida issue. And we agree, but having started up the old philosophic engine – disinterred from the grease and newspapers in the garage – we’ve been thinking more of philosophers than of, say, those two great purveyors of philosophy, George W Bush (ardent student of Jesus H. Christ) and John Kerry (ardent student of Walter Lippman and Donald Duck’s secret lovechild). There was an op ed piece in the NYT this morning by Mark Taylor to balance out the Derrida as abstruse charlaton obit on Sunday. Taylor gets off to a rocky start by making Derrida one of the three great 20th century philosophers – Wittgenstein and Heidegger get to be the other two. That’s plainly nonsensical – whatever one claims for Derrida, he is not a figure in the same league as Husserl, or Russell. And of course there’s the little problem that making up these lists is time that could be spent more profitably masturbating. Taylor does do some nice abbreviated explaining, but then he spoils it all with a soft focus exit all about Derrida buying Halloween masks for his kids when he visited him in Paris one year. This, he claims, is deconstruction in action. This, LI would claim, is academia in full bourgeois decline.

Then there is Jerry Fodor’s essay on the LRB. We were referred to it through the Crooked Timber site. Fodor’s essay is about what happened to Analytic Philosophy, and his short answer is Kripke.

We always look forward to Fodor’s essays for the LRB. He’s turned into a model of lucidity. He begins his essay with a nice, unphilosophical question:

“Sometimes I wonder why nobody reads philosophy. It requires, to be sure, a degree of hyperbole to wonder this. Academics like me, who eke out their sustenance by writing and teaching the stuff, still browse in the journals; it's mainly the laity that seems to have lost interest. And it's mostly Anglophone analytic philosophy that it has lost interest in. As far as I can tell, 'Continental' philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the rest) continue to hold their market. Even Hegel has a vogue from time to time, though he is famous for being impossible to read. All this strikes me anew whenever I visit a bookstore. The place on the shelf where my stuff would be if they had it (but they don't) is just to the left of Foucault, of which there is always yards and yards. I'm huffy about that; I wish I had his royalties.”

Money, here, is a joke. Still, there is something about it that concentrates the mind at least as much as hanging. The upshot is this:

“So sometimes I wonder why nobody (except philosophers) reads (Anglophone, analytic) philosophy these days.

"But, having just worked through Christopher Hughes's Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity, I am no longer puzzled. That may sound as though I'm intending to dispraise the book, but to the contrary; I think it's a fine piece of work in lots of ways. To begin with, the topic is well chosen. By pretty general consent, Kripke's writings (including, especially, Naming and Necessity) have had more influence on philosophy in the US and the UK than any others since the death of Wittgenstein. Ask an expert whether there have been any philosophical geniuses in the last while, and you'll find that Kripke and Wittgenstein are the only candidates.”

Fodor spends the rest of the article explaining why Kripke’s genius was expended in differing a challenge to the very basis of conceptual analysis posed by Quine’s essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” In a large sense, what Quine did in that essay was challenge a distinction between the synthetic and the analytic that has a conceptual kinship with the challenge Derrida posed to the Saussurian distinction between the synchronic and the diachronic. In both cases, the distinctions are supplemented by shoring up work that, upon examination, is always insufficient:

“In a nutshell, Quine argued that there is no (intelligible, unquestion-begging) distinction between 'analytic' (linguistic/conceptual) truth and truth about matters of fact (synthetic/contingent truth). In particular, there are no a priori, necessary propositions (except, perhaps, for those of logic and mathematics). Quine's target was mainly the empiricist tradition in epistemology, but his conclusions were patently germane to the agenda of analytical philosophy. If there are no conceptual truths, there are no conceptual analyses either. If there are no conceptual analyses, analytic philosophers are in jeopardy of methodological unemployment.”

LI has never liked Kripke, although we find Naming and Necessity to be at least an interesting, and sometimes useful, book. However, we’ve never trusted the thesis of substituting a theory of possible worlds to explain proper names. Much of it, to us, seems like so much trickery, dressed up as counterfactuals. John Burgess at Princeton has a nice explanation of Kripke’s motives for devising a theory of modal necessity to explain names, laying out the salient elements of the dirty deed. First, Burgess explains the classical exampled learned by all first year philosophy grad students – the evening star and the morning star example. Here’s Burgess:

“…The puzzle that Russell (following Frege) addresses is this. Given that ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ denote the same individual, how can the following be true?

(2.1) It is a substantive astronomical discovery that Hesperus is Phosphorus.

According to Russell, this would be impossible if each of ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ were name in the ideal sense of ‘a simple symbol directly designating an individual which is its meaning’. For if the meaning of each name is simply the individual it designates, then since both denote the same object, the two have the same meaning, from which it would seem to follow that ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ has the same meaning as ‘Hesperus is Hesperus’. And that, surely, is no substantive astronomical discovery! In the statement of the puzzle one may replace ‘substantive astronomical discovery’ by ‘not analytic’ or ‘not a priori’ — or if George is an astronomical ignoramus, by ‘not known to George’ or ‘not believed by George’.

Russell offered a famous theory of descriptions intended to explain why the puzzle does not arise in the case of descriptions as opposed to names. But even without going into Russell’s theory it is perhaps obvious that

(2.2) It is a substantive astronomical discovery that the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the western horizon after sunset is the same as the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise.

can easily be true. (Certainly Frege, who did not have Russell’s theory of descriptions, found it so.)
Russell’s solution to the puzzle is that ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’, and more generally names in the ordinary sense, are not names in his ideal sense. Rather, each is associated with some description that constitutes its definition…”

Well, as you can imagine, that is a theory that needs some work. Things change over time, and that means that any description one comes up with will be inaccurate at least to the extent that something has changed – in other words, descriptions are always vulnerable to the effects of before/after. The refutation of Russell’s theory, taken as a strict identity between a proper name and a canonical definition, is easily available. Go to your local grocery store, look in the back of the Redbook, and notice the advertisement for the dietary supplement that shows Mrs. Smith at 300 pounds in 1999, and Mrs. Smith at a svelte 150 now.

It is important to keep your eye on the temporal dimension of this refutation. It is the object of the Kripke school to overlook it. To get back to Burgess, later in the paper he returns to the Hesperus/Phosphorus dilemma from Kripke’s side:

“Kripke has yet another argument against descriptive theories of names. A passing comet might have dislocated the planets, so that while Venus was still the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the western horizon after sunset, Mars rather than Venus was the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise. But even so, Venus, alias, Hesperus, alias Phosphorus, would not have been anything other than itself, Venus, alias Phosphorus, alias Hesperus. Thus

(7.1) Hesperus is the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise. would have been false, while

(7.2) Hesperus is Phosphorus.

still would have been true. This is so even if, in the counterfactual situation being contemplated, it were Mars that was called ‘Phosphorus’, while it were still Venus that was called ‘Hesperus’. It follows that Phosphorus is not by definition the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise (and by similar reasoning, Hesperus is not by definition the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the western horizon after sunset).”

Before we go on, notice something about the method here. This is something Fodor doesn’t mention, but something that should strike anybody who has ever read any analytic philosophy. That is the inference, from the affordances of some language in some particular grammatical structure, to a metaphysical argument that supposedly makes those affordances understandable. This is called intuition, by the analytics.

For those not familiar with the term affordances – its from engineering. Donald Norman book, The Psychology of Everyday Things, popularized the word, which he claims to have taken from J.J. Gibson. Here’s what he has to say about it:

“The word "affordance" was invented by the perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson (1977, 1979) to refer to the actionable properties between the world and an actor (a person or animal).

In POET, I argued that understanding how to operate a novel device had three major dimensions: conceptual models, constraints, and affordances. These three concepts have had a mixed reception.
To me, the most important part of a successful design is the underlying conceptual model. This is the hard part of design: formulating an appropriate conceptual model and then assuring that everything else be consistent with it. I see lots of token acceptance of this idea, but far to little serious work. The power of constraints has largely been ignored. To my great surprise, the concept of affordance was adopted by the design community, especially graphical and industrial design. Alas, yes, the concept has caught on, but not always with complete understanding.”
Here’s a plain jane example:
“The computer system already comes with built-in physical affordances. The computer, with its keyboard, display screen, pointing device and selection buttons (e.g., mouse buttons) affords pointing, touching, looking, and clicking on every pixel of the screen.”

The affordances of the proper name give us various tagging affordances. It isn’t, we think, the purpose of the proper name to imply a moment of pure presence to itself, to use the Derridean term. It is to provide an affordance across changing circumstances. The philosophic assumption must be –oh, then it is about an unchanging thing, or what remains the same, over changing circumstances. But why should we assume that? Mrs. Smith wants to show that she has changed, not that she has remained the same.

Damn, what's the time? We should be writing on our novel. So we will abruptly cut this here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


The last four years has been, in many ways, a gorgeous spectacle, a pageant of opportunities for the writer. Sometimes, government is bad. Sometimes, government is corrupt. But rarely are all branches of government as bad, as corrupt, as intellectually bankrupt, as willing to serve short term greed at the expense of any other priority, as soaked to the gills in an ethic of blind and lemming like selfishness, yoked to an astonishingly irrational messianism, as in the last four years. It is the culture of the coup. The rapture of the raptors, complete with all the dressings: the unctuous and ignorant Southerners, the Dems pawning their “liberalism” for a song, the demented likes of Zell Miller whose vacances from his accesses of fury are spent in amassing perks for Home Depot, upon whose board he will undoubtedly be ensconced when he retires in three weeks -- it is a zoo with the keepers fled. Was it like this under the Grant administration? LI got all Henry Adam-ish reading about the latest bout of Delay-ism to make its way through that thing we call the Congress like a particularly nasty form of new STD:

“The story began nearly three years ago, with an initial impetus simply to replace a $5 billion annual tax break for American exporters that the World Trade Organization had ruled was illegal. It ended this week with a 633-page behemoth that offers new tax giveaways to everyone from corporate titans like Boeing and Hewlett-Packard to an array of oil and gas producers, shopping mall developers, wine distributors, even restaurants. Many companies, like General Electric and Dell, are likely to end up with far more tax relief under the new bill than they had ever received from the old tax break. Some, like Exxon Mobil, never qualified for the old tax break at all but will enjoy tax savings now.”

There has never been a better time to buy a congressman or a cabinet member. There's never been a better time to argue a case that pits capital vs. labor before a federal court, the judges of which are most likely to have been appointed by a Reagan or a Bush. There are no laws against peculation, bribery, extortion, or other financial crimes that can’t be easily finessed if the crimes are committed by the proper players on the proper scale. There is nothing that can’t be done with money in D.C. Of course, occasionally, the Congress, remembering that decency is a matter of not showing the kids tit shots on tv, does thunder against one commercial venture: tv. But those who are true connoisseurs of obscenity know that Ms. Jackson’s endowments simply don’t compare, as pornography, to the spectacle presented, this week, by Tom DeLay’s House. Those munching sounds you heard were the collected jawings of Republicans and Democrats filling themselves to repletion with lobbyist bribes as they pushed through tax breaks, say, an airplane building company which was practically indicted, last week, for systematically bribing the Pentagon’s top Air Force procurement official, Darleen Druyun, in order to accrue perhaps as much as 10 billion dollars in extra revenue and steal a march on its competitors. The government is in that misfunction mode known to us from all the sad and edifying histories of all the falling republics. Ms. Druyun, by the way, was doled out the same punishment as Ms. Martha Stewart, such being the idiocy of our courts when it comes to white collar crime.

Matthew Josephson’s always interesting History of the Robber Barons (much dissed in the nineties by the laissez faire triumphalists – and oddly unreferenced as the laissez faire heroes unraveled all over the place in 2001 and 2002) gives us the background of Henry Adams activities during the Grant presidency:

“Late in 1869, Charles F. Adams, Jr., who was becoming a specialist in railroad affairs, came upon evidence of a “vast conspiracy” which began in an attempted seizure of one of the principal trunk-lines in the East ; then in wide ramifications enveloped the national currency system, the political leaders of several of the state legislatures, the federal government, members of the presidential cabinet itself. The machinations of the “conspirators” seemed at the time of historic significance to both the Adams brothers, who believed that successive crises had been precipitated by them, culminating finally in the nation-wide panic of 1873. Sensing the new powers at work in the situation, the deep alterations in American society, they had tried to expose the principals of the plot ; they wrote “Chapters of Erie,” unfolding the whole sensational story in a form still substantially correct. They were beating drums, setting up signal-fires ; yet no one had been alarmed, or had the time to be alarmed.”

This is Adams, from the Education, on the Gold scandal – one of the interlocking scandals that made up the substance of the book Henry and his brother wrote in 1870:

Before he got back to Quincy, the summer was already half over, and in another six weeks the effects of President Grant’s character showed themselves. They were startling—astounding—terrifying. The mystery that shrouded the famous, classical attempt of Jay Gould to corner gold in September, 1869, has never been cleared up,—at least so far as to make it intelligible to Adams. Gould was led, by the change at Washington, into the belief that he could safely corner gold without interference from the Government. He took a number of precautions, which he admitted; and he spent a large sum of money, as he also testified, to obtain assurances which were not sufficient to have satisfied so astute a gambler; yet he made the venture. Any criminal lawyer must have begun investigation by insisting, rigorously, that no such man, in such a position, could be permitted to plead that he had taken, and pursued, such a course, without assurances which did satisfy him. The plea was professionally inadmissible.

This meant that any criminal lawyer would have been bound to start an investigation by insisting that Gould had assurances from the White House or the Treasury, since none other could have satisfied him. To young men wasting their summer at Quincy for want of some one to hire their services at three dollars a day, such a dramatic scandal was Heaven-sent. Charles and Henry Adams jumped at it like salmon at a fly, with as much voracity as Jay Gould, or his âme damnée Jim Fisk, had ever shown for Erie; and with as little fear of consequences. They risked something; no one could say what; but the people about the Erie office were not regarded as lambs.”

Like Adams and Josephson, LI believes that we live in an epoch in which the chief insights in our politics are best garnered from the profound study of teratology. How else to explain the flourishing of Delay in the era of Bush?

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


As our readers know, LI does like a good debunking. Which is why you should go to Christopher Lukasik’s “The Physiognomy of Biometrics” over at Commonplace and read about the pseudo-science into which the Defense Department is preparing to pour 11 billion dollars. Not that 11 billion is more than chump change at the Pentagon; but for us poor wankers at the LI office, 11 billion dollars is a lot of dough. We’d settle for, say, five and a half billion to pay the bills and such.

Lukasik’s article starts out with a reading of an 18th century novel that we’d never heard of , Susanna Rowson’s The Inquisitor, or Invisible Rambler, which “recounts the experiences of a wealthy gentleman who, after complaining about the amount of duplicity in the world, is mysteriously given a ring that can turn him invisible. With the power of invisibility, the gentleman boasts that now "I should find my real friends, and detect my enemies." Our Rambler becomes a self-employed detective – invisibility makes police or thieves of us all, which is why the Internet is divided between fiskers and hackers – and follows villains through the stages to their revealing acts.

How does he know who to follow?

“He knows, we later learn, because he is a physiognomist. "I never cast my eye upon a stranger but I immediately form some idea of his or her dispositions by the turn of their eyes and cast of their features," he explains, "and though my skill in physiognomy is not infallible, I seldom find myself deceived." Indeed, nearly all of the people the invisible rambler suspects eventually behave as their faces predicted they would. Throughout The Inquisitor, faces reveal seducers, gamblers, idlers, dissimulators, and a variety of crooks and fortune hunters. For Rowson at least, a person’s face becomes the probable cause for the rambler’s surveillance.”

Lukasik has an enjoyable time showing the bridge between the physiognomic craze of the early nineteenth century to the biometric superstitions of our own highly superstitious time. As he points out, matching face or body to person, which seems easy at first glance, is actually rather difficult to do mechanically. People age, they change hair dos, they get into accidents, they get wrinkles and then get rid of wrinkles, and so on and so forth. Slippery signifieds, who, if they are bent on planting bombs, can even screw up the machinery of identification with a little ingenuity:

“This has proven to be quite a problem for the industry, since biometrics, especially facial recognition systems, have not performed well when tested. A recent National Institute for Standards and Technology study, for example, found that facial recognition technology failed to match people correctly 23 percent of the time. Last year, it failed to match employees at Boston’s Logan International Airport up to 38 percent of the time, and in 2002 it failed to match Palm Beach Airport employees 53 percent of the time. According to the Economist, the 2003 government-sponsored Face Recognition Vendor Test found that "none of the systems worked well . . . when shown a face and asked to identify the subject." Martyn Gates, a facial recognition specialist, confessed to the Financial Times that "in some systems, the accuracy is almost random.

… As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, Tsumoto Matsimoto from Yokohama University was able to fool eleven different fingerprint scanners roughly 80 percent of the time using $10 worth of gelatin.”

But, as with the anti-ballistic missile shield, biometrics is booming in spite of its failures. The business of security, as Lukasik puts it, is to provide the appearance of security – and, as he doesn’t add but LI will, at a cost heavy enough to employ a bunch of Pentagon honchos when they revolve through that door.

Monday, October 11, 2004



We’ve been pondering the headline of the NYT’s Derrida obituary. The headline describes him as an “abstruse theorist” in an obvious and spiteful attempt not to describe him as a philosopher. No surprise that petty malice infected even the headline writer. But it did surprise me somewhat that nowhere on the web, at least that I’ve seen, has there been any attempt to improve on the ‘abstruse’ label. That Derrida’s writings are difficult is well known. Kant’s writings are difficult too. But by now any first year philosophy textbook can simplify Kant into a picture general enough to be taught without too much difficulty.

Surely it isn’t that hard to do the same for Derrida.

If one were to start, the effort would look something like this.

A. Begin where Derrida begins. At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a programmatic turn against the naive positivistic account of the human sciences. In the nineteenth century, it was recognized that history, sociology, linguistics, and philosophy resisted the scientific models produced by the positive sciences – especially physics. Although there were candidates put forward to fill the role of the ‘laws of history’ or the ‘laws of psychology’, there was no agreement on how to find these laws, or if history, psychology, and language were even the kind of things that could be described in terms of laws. This is what Husserl would latter describe as the crisis of the sciences. In addition, there was a distinct tendency towards psychologism – as for instance Mill’s idea that numbers ‘derive’ from from empirical sense data.

There are three figures in the turn against naïve positivism who are symptomatic of what was to come to dominate 20th century philosophy: Frege, Husserl, and Saussure. Interestingly, Frege – whose influence on the development of Anglo philosophy is huge – never attracted Derrida’s attention. But Husserl and Saussure did. Why?

Because Husserl and Saussure advocate treating language as an autonomous entity. By which they meant bracketing psychological and social ‘influences” on language, and examining it as a self contained system.

Why is language important? Because it seems like language, as distinct from history or the mind (with its notorious observation problems), is the closest thing, in the human sciences, to a traditional object of the positive sciences. You can easily make the case that language was law-bound. You can find, seemingly, universals in language. And, with the development of mathematical logic around 1900, it suddenly seemed that logic could actually absorb mathematics. This was exciting insofar as logic itself was recast as the rules for a given formal language. If you consider that physics could just be considered the systematic attempt to mathematize nature, then you see the possibilities. Perhaps the positive sciences and the human sciences spring from one root.

Saussure’s program, then, treated language as autonomous. It depended on a set of strict categorical differences – the two most important of which were those between the synchronic state of language and the diachronic, and between the signifier and the signified – in order so show that language isn’t dependent for its internal workings upon an external referential context.

B. Derrida’s most important move – the one that resonates throughout his philosophy – was to examine Saussure’s set of assumptions. The assumption that, for instance, the synchronic plane of language could be absolutely separated from the diachronic invalidated a whole tradition of philosophical thinking – the Cratylian school, so to speak – which examined the etymology of words in an effort to reconstruct their essences. Derrida did not advocate returning to this school, but questioned those presuppositions by which, in one gesture, Saussure reduced the lexe to a series of distinct, unconnected-but-connected entities. Similarly, Derrida questioned the distinction between the signified and the signifier. There’s an interesting treatment of a Frege’s similar distinction, between concept and object, in an article in Ratio in 2000, by Adrian Moore. Moore has seen what Derrida was doing, and applies his critical stance, although not his method, to Frege.

C. What is the latent metaphysics that Derrida finds behind Saussure? This is a long story, but it is hinted at by the notion that the signifying unit persists as a signifying unity from one synchronic plane to the other. In other words, it constructs an ideal present. Derrida’s skepticism about the ideal present leads him to ask whether the ideal present isn’t an integral part of the code of Western metaphysics. If that Metaphysics is forced to do without it, would it lose its coherence? Now, of course at this point one could ask whether there is such a thing as one Western metaphysics. Derrida essentially accepts Heidegger’s theory that there is – that behind all the metaphysical schools there exists one common program.

D. At this point, Derrida does something interesting – and something that we can recognize, at this point in time, as consonant with the moves made by other skeptics in the Modernist tradition, like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. He does not assume that proving the falsity of an idea is the extent to which the philosopher can go. Rather, he wants to ask whether the falsity actually has a use value. Assuming, for the moment, that the metaphysics of presence clings to a falsely construed idea of the present. Then why didn’t that falsity collapse the metaphysics from the very beginning? Derrida, like M,N, and F. thinks that one shouldn’t confuse truth with use. In a sense, this is a criticism of the coherence theory of truth from within – which is why, for certain philosophers, it is so hard to understand. That is because a certain notion of the truth is the one supreme philosophic bias. That notion identifies the true with the good. That a system could be coherent and functional by eliding the truth values of its fundamental assumptions – could be set up to systematically protect them from any real investigation – is alien to the philosopher’s self image.

There now. Notice this account doesn’t use the word deconstruction once. Although eventually I would say something about deconstruction – and many other things – if I were giving a full blown account of Derrida, the more important word is “text.” That Derrida repeated uses the word text, and that it is repeatedly transformed into the word language (as, for instance, in the NYT obituary), is all about the underlying metaphysical bias Derrida is exposing.

If LI’s readers want to know why, write and ask me. I’ll then write another post about it. But you know – I haven’t done Derrida for a decade, and I don’t want to do a lot of color by numbers explanations of the guy.

PS- After I wrote this, I received an email from my friend T. in New York, who referred me to a decent obituary of Derrida in the Independent that actually mentions the text/language distinction forever lost in the NYT obituary. http://news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/story.jsp?story=570707