“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Metaphysical absence

Lately, the star blogs we usually visit – mostly political/cultural ones – have been seriously mired in the dog days. CT has taken to two irritating habits. One is bullying Ward Churchill, who owes his entire leftist celebrity to the rabidity of the right and who has therefore been taken as a token target by the soft left – condemn this man and you are “serious” – even though, really, our only stake here is to express our distaste for lynch mobs. The second CT habit is responding in outrage to the Instaborg. Here, the who cares widens into an abyss of yawns – the number of discursive objects greater than that of being outraged by the Instaborg is surely one of those Greek letter constants that signifies the number of molecules in the universe times the number of possible moves a player could make in a chess game.

Then there is the outbreak of demystifying some faux journalist/GOP activist who operated as a ringer in the White House press corps – a funny idea in itself. A ringer among that collection of saps and duds? Haven’t they plentifully demonstrated the ability to self-ring over the past four years? Who can forget the fake press conference in which Bush, with a frat boy arrogance, “slipped” by saying that the questions were fixed in advance? Surely some GOP operative is putting icing on a sugar cube.

As for the newspapers – they have struck us as rather uninteresting lately, too. We expected the Narrative to start up about Iraq. It hasn’t, partly because the Narrative is so far from reality that even the Washington Post, which has always taken a Pravda like tone of shrill approval to any adventure the White House sees fit to throw lives away on, has had a hard time fitting a jingo attitude of approval to the coming Islamic state. It is rather like forking into a slice of chocolate cake and striking a bone. The etiquette book doesn’t have an entry for such moments. The new conservative mantra – that we should be pleased as punch to have started a civil war in Iraq – is a little too raw, as yet, for the WP editorial board – the search for a less intrusively honest vocabulary is ongoing.

So – is LI just going through a Mallarme moment (La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.)? Perhaps. Still, we think that there truly is something flat in the atmosphere right now.

Turn instead to an article by Paul De Palma entitled “why you can’t understand your computer” in the Winter American Scholar.

The first two grafs tell you: this is going to be a good essay. We like that assured feeling, the being grabbed and held, even if it isn't by the trembling hand of the Ancient Mariner but by the Old Scout in the bar, the veteran of business wars.

“On a bright winter morning in Philadelphia, in 1986, my downtown office is bathed in sunlight. I am the lead programmer for a software system that my firm intends to sell to the largest companies in the country, but like so many systems, mine will never make it to market. This will not surprise me. If the chief architect of the office tower on whose twenty-sixth floor I am sitting designed his structure with the seat-of-the-pants cleverness that I am using to design my system, prudence would advise that I pack my business-issue briefcase, put on my business-issue overcoat, say good-bye to all that sunlight, and head for the front door before the building crumbles like a Turkish high-rise in an earthquake.

But I am not prudent; nor am I paid to be. Just the opposite. My body, on automatic pilot, deflects nearly all external stimuli. I can carry on a rudimentary conversation, but my mind is somewhere else altogether. In a book-length profile of Ted Taylor, a nuclear-weapons designer, that John McPhee wrote for The New Yorker, Dr. Taylor's wife tells McPhee a wonderful story about her husband. Mrs. Taylor's sister visits for the weekend. Taylor dines with her, passes her in the hall, converses. He asks his wife on Monday morning--her sister having left the day before--when she expects her sister to arrive. Mrs. Taylor calls this state "metaphysical absence." You don't have to build sophisticated weaponry to experience it. When my daughter was younger, she used to mimic an old John Prine song. "Oh my stars," she sang, "Daddy's gone to Mars." As you will see, we workaday programmers have more in common with weapons designers than mere metaphysical absence.”

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So far, so good. Since we recently wrestled with an MSoftquake – anybody with a PC is living on a fault line composed entirely of cheap, sloppy coding brought to you by Bill Gates company, and our Windows was briefly destroyed by a minor rumble a few weeks ago -- we are vitally interested in de Palma’s topic. Plus, the literature of the programmer is growing, and there are some pretty good things in it: Mark Costello’s “If” of a few years back, and Ellen Ullman’s The Bug (anything by Ellen Ullman) are two that we particularly like to press on people.

De Palma quotes an IBM study that goes to the heart of his subject:

“People often claim that one of every three large-scale software systems gets canceled midproject. Of those that do make it out the door, three-quarters are never implemented: some do not work as intended; others are just shelved. Matters grow even more serious with large systems whose functions spread over several computers--the very systems that advances in networking technology have made possible in the past decade. A few years ago, an IBM consulting group determined that of twenty-four companies surveyed, 55 percent built systems that were over budget; 68 percent built systems that were behind schedule; and 88 percent of the completed systems had to be redesigned. Try to imagine the same kind of gloomy numbers for civil engineering: three-quarters of all bridges carrying loads below specification; almost nine of ten sewage treatment plants, once completed, in need of redesign; one-third of highway projects canceled because technical problems have grown beyond the capacity of engineers to solve them. Silly? Yes. Programming has miles to go before it earns the title "software engineering."

But are we going to give away De Palma’s explanation for these depressing stats? No. This is one of those pointer posts. Get the American Scholar. We like the journal in spite of the fact that the one review we did for them was, apparently, so despised by the current editor that we have a snowball’s chance in hell of writing for her again. So it goes.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Before the law

I’ve been having great fun, lately, reading The House by the Medlar Tree – as Verga’s I Malvoglio is translated. Verga, like most European novelists of the late nineteenth century, seemed to have received Zola as a total shock to the system. In England, Zola didn’t have quite the same effect – the English merely thought he was dirty. Dreiser, in America, did take hints from Zola, but Dreiser probably read him in English. In other countries, though – in Portugal, Spain and Italy – the Zola effect was pervasive. It would be fair to say, I think, that there was only one other novelist in the nineteenth century who exerted a similar international attraction – Walter Scott.


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According to Giovanni Cecchetti, who wrote the introduction to the edition I’m reading, there’s a clear divide between Verga’s early works – which Cecchetti implies are so much milquetoast – and the Sicilian novels, or which The House by the Medlar Tree is, I think, the most famous. In his preface, Verga wrote:

“This story is the sincere and dispassionate study of how the first anxious desires for material well-being must probably originate and develop in the humblest social conditions, and of the perturbations caused to a family, which had until then lived in relative happiness.”

Well, that immediately attracts a reader such as myself, whose days and ways are filled with the anxieties occasioned by the desire for material well being. It is the hopeless war of the flies caught in the webs of the spiders against the spiders intent on eating the flies. The spiders, we know, will win – we know it inside and outside the book.

In this case, the Malvoglio family, fishermen who own their own boat, make a fatal decision. The head of the household, Master ‘Ntoni, decides to buy a boatload of lupins and sell them in a larger town, where they would be shipped to Trieste. He gets the lupins on credit extended by the town’s moneylender. The lupins – a bean I have never tasted – are half rotten, it turns out. But they must be shipped. Unfortunately, the Malvoglio boat, which is being run by one of the sons and a hired man, goes down. And so begins the tale. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, many of the great European novels use money as a form of time. This is time as urgency – time as worry. This gives a particular coloring to the standard three-fold temporal modalities (past-present-future ) in that it sets agents and objects in a ‘race’ against each other. In the case of the Malvoglios, the rhythm that they are used to, which is seasonal, is peculiarly unsuited to the rhythm of their debt, which is legal. The comic-tragic part of the story is that, essentially, the Malvoglios don’t understand their debt. They don’t understand either its temporality or its extent. The legal extent of the debt is delimited by the fact that the two asset the Malvoglio’s hold – their house – are under dotal mortgage – that is, they are legally secured to the daughter, who has them as the major parts of her dowry. So the moneylender, in a sense, should be the ultimate loser.

However, the moneylender, “Uncle” Crocifisso, keeps insisting to old man Malvoglio that he will take the house. In order to increase the pressure, the moneylender pretends to sell the debt to Piedipappera, a village notable. Malivoglio, assaulted by both the moneylender and the apparent holder of the debt, goes to a lawyer with his whole family.
This is a wonderful scene. The lawyer looks at Malvoglio’s paperwork.

‘At last, after he’d read the papers and managed to understand something from the muddled answers which he had to pull out of Master ‘Ntoni with a pair of tongs while the others sat on the edge of their chairs, not daring to open their mouths, the lawyer began laughing heartily and they all laughed with him, without knowing why, just to ease their anguish. “Nothing,’ said the lawyer. “Nothing, that’s what you must do.” And since Master ‘Ntoni repeated that the bailiff had come, the lawyer said: “let the bailiff come even once a day. If he does, the creditor will soon tire of paying for the expenses. They won’t be able to take anything away from you, because the house is dotal…Your daughter-in-law had nothing to do with the purchase of the lupins.”

The lawyer went on talking for more than twenty-five lire’s worth, without even stopping to spit or scratch his head, so that Mater ‘Ntoni and his grandsons suddenly itched to speak too, to blurt out their whole beautiful defense which they could feel swelling in their heads; and they felt dazed, overwhelmed by all those arguments which they now possessed, and all the way home they went over and over the lawyer’s speech, gestures and all.”

So they get home, and explain to Maruzza (Master Ntoni’s daughter-in-law) that they owe nothing.

‘We won’t pay Uncle Crocifisso anything,” added ‘Ntoni [Master ‘Ntoni’s son] recklessly. “Because he can’t take the house of the Provvidenza… We don’t owe him anything.”
‘And the lupins?”
“That’s true. What about the lupins?” repeated Master Ntoni.
‘The lupins… We didn’t eat his lupins, we don’t have them in our pockets, and so Uncle Crocifisso can’t take a thing from us, the lawyer said so, he’ll just lose his money for the expenses.”
At this there was a long moment of silence; but Maruzza didn’t seem convinced.
“So he said not to pay>”
‘Ntoni scratched his head, and his grandfather said: “that’s true, he did give us the lupins, and we must pay for them.”
There was nothing to say to that. Now that the lawyer was no longer there, they had to pay for the lupins.”

I love this scene partly because it is an exact description of the encounter between the various forms of discourse that have been invented within the legal and economic matrix and the popular discourse of property, which is primitively moral and superstitious. In fact, having worked for lawyers, I’ve witnessed the effect of legal speech: the initial hope of the client, the leaning forward, the repetition of various words, and the almost visible evaporation of understanding that occurs when “the lawyer was no longer there.” One of the great tools of governance, actually, is the ability to couch the desires of the governors in a language of purposive inscrutability so that it produces this sequence: an immediate, simulacrum effect of understanding, followed by a consequent evaporation of it.


.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

“They’ve put a knife in my hand, but it is a knife with only a handle; others are holding the blade.” – Mehdi Bazargan, interview with Oriana Fallaci, 1979


LI’s friend Mr. Craddick implied a bit of an objection to LI’s use of booboisie in yesterday’s post. Indeed, LI, recently, has tended towards the sarcastic – or, as our brother likes to say, ‘sour-castic.’

But it would tax a saint to read stories such as this one, by NYT’s fan of all things occupation, Dexter Filkins, without feeling the sullen throb of dark humors.

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-- translation of a turn of the century Austrian linguist whose work on speech errors was used by Freud.

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Shiite Offers Secular Vision of Iraq Future
By DEXTER FILKINS

Published: February 10, 2005


BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 9 - Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of the leading candidates to become the new Iraqi prime minister, recalled the day last year when he and other Iraqi leaders were summoned to the holy city of Najaf by the country's senior Shiite clerics.
The topic was the role of Islam in the new Iraqi state. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite leader, questioned whether Mr. Mahdi and the others, members of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, had the legitimacy to draft an interim constitution.

"You were not elected," Ayatollah Sistani told the group.

Mr. Mahdi says he did not hesitate to answer.

"You were not elected," he told the ayatollah.

With that, Mr. Mahdi and the others returned to the capital and drafted an interim constitution intended to govern Iraqi for the next year, naming Islam as a source, but not the only source, of legislation.”

Uh, this story is so inane that it is hard to know where to start. It takes a man with a truly petrified sense of humor to praise the Governing Council for their independence. And to brag about bandying words with Sistani, without whom Mahdi's party would be plugging a distant fifth for dogcatcher in Kamchatka is hilarious, a bubble gum anecdote for the consumption of American reporters. However, it is perfectly tailored for the Narrative. This is what it will be, at least until events crumble it irretrievably.

Via Matt Yglesias’ site, yestersay, we went to Brad Plumer’s site. We liked the site. Plumer makes a nice series of comparisons between the constitutional order that emerged in Iran after 1979 and the order emerging in Iraq. Here is what Plumer has to say:

“First, some context. When we say Iran is ruled by clerics, let's not kid ourselves, this doesn't mean that a few middling clerics are placed in powerful positions and have access to key security forces. There's that, sure, but the government really is explicitly set up as a clerical-run affair from start to finish. Originally the Supreme Leader was to be a high-ranking cleric, but Khomeini downgraded this requirement when he could find no acceptable successor save for the poorly-qualified Ali Khamene'i, who is currently Supreme Leader. But it's clerics everywhere else.”

The contrast is, of course, with Sistani’s repeated statement that he doesn’t seek political office, and the submerging of the clerics in the United Iraqi Alliance. So far, so good. But since Plumer is interpreting the power to govern according to the ostensible rules about governance, his view, in our opinion, of the history of struggle that produces the power to govern is distorted. In other words, LI believes that an essential dialectical step is missing from Plumer’s account – and it is that missing step which distorts the reporting of Dexter Filkins as well. The rules, here, don’t precede the rulers. This is what is characteristic of a revolutionary moment.
If we make a comparison between Khomenei’s rhetoric, in 78 and 79, to the rhetoric emanating from the UIA, there is a rather eerie similarity.

We looked up an old article from Foreign Affairs by a French correspondent, Eric Rouleau, about “the peculiar sort of political blindness” that afflicted the West with regard to Iran during the revolution. Rouleau astutely points out that the power of the clerics in Shi’a culture seems to exist in direct proportion to the advances of foreign power upon that culture:

Thus by the beginning of the 19th century, Shi’ism emerged as a kind of early anti-imperialism movement. In 1826, the ulemas declaired a holy war against Russia. Three years later they had the members of the official delegation from St. Petersburg assassinated. They brought about the cancellation of the incredible monopoly for the exploitation of mines, forests, railroads, banks, customs and telegraphic communications granted to BARON Julius de Reuter in 1872. Their 1891 prohibition on tobacco consumption – largely observed by the population – led to the withdrawal of the tobacco monopoly accorded the previous year to a certain Mr. Talbot. Part of the clery actively participated in the 1906 revolution aimed at establishing a constitutional regime. They did so not in the name of democracy –a Western notion they abhorred even then – but to better control a Royal power which favored Euuropean penetration.”

If we look at Sistani’s role during the occupation, he seems to have been very much in this tradition, with the substituting of a constraint on American power for European penetration. This isn’t to say that what happened in Iran in 1979 is analogous to what is happening in Iraq, simply that there are some similar elements, and a similar rhetoric – in particular, the elevation of secular and Western acceptable political figures by the UIA is pretty close to the strategy of Khomeini, who explicitly said that clerics shouldn’t run for office, before he returned to Iran, and who set himself up as an advisor away from the capital city in the same way Sistani has set himself up as an advisor away from the capital city.
In Iran, there was a succession of secular figures who derived their support from factors independent of Khomeini. Bani-Sadr, before being elected president, had this to say about the division between the clerics and the state:

Bani-Sadr has clearly taken a stand for the separation of powers and the non-interferenceof the clergy in affairs of state, to the point of deriding “the Richelieus and Mazarins who crowd theIranian political scne.” Just after his election ot the presidency, he told the writer that he owed his “victory to the people,’ before adding that he thanked “the lower clergy for its support.” the higher clergy, for him, is that which supports the Islamic Republic Party of Ayatollah Beheshti, his bitter enemy.

On the morrow of his election, Bani-Sadr proclaimed Ayatollah Beheshti “politically dead.’ His optimism did not seem unfounded at the time. Ayatollah Beheshti had just suffered three important setbacks: he had wanted to be a candidate in the presidential elections, but Imam Khomeini had forbidden religious leaders to seek this office…”

Indeed, Mahdi seems to be setting himself up as a Bani-Sadr -- arrogance being the vice of secularism.

This history is cautionary, rather than predictive. However, there is no caution in the American press, and no room for any narrative but the one which puts American pre-suppositions at the center of history. If there is one thing LI takes for granted, it is that the I is not at the center of the Other’s history. In this, we are, perhaps, un-American.

We were reading George Santayana yesterday and came across a passage that describes, exactly, the waking life of the American “booboisie” upon which LI has, pettily, poured the vials of our sour-casm:

“… we may try aesthetic categoris and allow our reproductive imagination – by which memory is fed – to bring under the unity of apperception only what can fall within it harmoniously, completely, and delightfully. Such an understanding, impervious to anything but the beautiful, might be a fine thing in itself, but would not chronicle the fortunes of that organism to which it was attached. It would yield an experience – doubtless a highly interesting and elaborate experience – but one which could never serve as an index of successful action. It would totally fail to represent its conditions, and consequently would imply nothing about its continued existence. It would be an experience irrelevant to conduct, no part, therefore, of a Life of Reason, but a kind of vapid music or parasitic dream.”

Ah, what an exact description of the state of mind of the governing classes in the U.S.A., circa 2005.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

NOTE FOR THE DAY: We haven't had a lot of editing or translating action, lately, over at RWG Communication. So remember, folks, he said in his radio voice, whether you need your paper edited so that it meets the highest academic standards, or you need translation done from French or German into English, contact: rgathman@netzero.net. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program....

LI – who has the ears of a monomaniac for this kind of thing – has noticed that a huge pall has fallen over Iraq’s election in the American press. When the press doesn’t have a narrative – like, Freedom Loving Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi Sets Pace – they don’t have news.

So what is the narrative coming out of Iraq? Alas, it seems that the eight points we printed as a sort of progressive program in Iraq are going to be battered to hell. Not that we expected secularist, anti-occupation forces would win squat in the elections. We didn’t expect, however, that the pro-theocratic element would do quite so awesomely well. LI has always suspected that Iraq would undergo some theocratic regression as it stumbled towards reasserting its sovereignty, but --- if the results are as they seem to be – this will be much harsher than we imagined.

We compared Sistani to a chess player in an analysis we did a few months ago. We should amend that to secret chess player, since according to the Independent:

“Cricket is allowed but chess is "absolutely forbidden". Women may not shake hands with men. Music is permitted but only if it is not for enjoyment. Men cannot pray when wearing earrings.

These are the views of the most powerful man in Iraq. After the US invasion, various American officials and generals believed they occupied this position. They turned out to be wrong. As the election victory of the Shias has confirmed, the most influential figure in Iraq, dressed in tattered grey robe and black turban, is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.”
That we got the balance of forces in Iraq wrong is understandable – our information has to be sieved from the relentlessly insipid and American-o-centric reporting of such journalists as John Burns in the NYT (whose ra ra style reads like a Negroponte press handout) and Jonathan Steele in the Guardian (whose comment, the day of the election, was that it seemed it would be Allawi in a landslide). But LI’s goal has always been to try to see the fragments and slivers of fact we get to their intrinsic connections – not just their connection to U.S. concerns.

We do think that the endlessly repeated new line – that the new Iraqi government won’t ask for a departure timetable from the Americans – is based on a reading of the apparent retreat from that position in the week leading up to the election by the United Iraqi Alliance. However, what was proposed and then non-proposed can be proposed again. The UIA has to tread a delicate path to avoid getting out gunned by Sadr’s people, who are apparently winning local elections in Basra. It is hard to see a combination that would allow the new Iraqi government to comfortably give the occupiers carte blanche, which is what the Americans want.

The Independent story, penned by Patrick Cockburn, is the best wrap up we’ve seen:
“Iraq could be on the verge of seeing the greatest setback to women's rights in the Middle East since Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979. Laws on marriage, divorce and inheritance could be changed in favour of men. Under Islamic law, daughters inherit less than the sons.

The views of Ayatollah Sistani on chess, cricket, music, earrings and almost any other topic can be found on his highly professional website (Sistani.org). They show tolerance of other religions. Last year he was swift to condemn attacks on Christian churches in Baghdad as "abhorrent crimes". He counselled restraint when Shia leaders demanded retaliation after the bloody bombings of Shia shrines and processions.

There is also no doubt that Iraq is heading towards some form of Islamic republic even if it is more liberal than Iran. This is likely to be reflected in the new constitution to be drafted by the National Assembly just elected. "We call for having Islam as the main and only source of legislation and we reject any article that runs contrary to the Islamic legislation," said Ibrahim al-Ibrahimi, the spokesman of another Grand Ayatollah, Ishaq al-Faladh. "We call on Iraqi officials to preserve the face of Iraq and not to separate religion and state." Ayatollah Faladh is not as influential as Ayatollah Sistani but, politically liberal though the latter may be, his views are in keeping with Islamic social norms.”

Given that the Americans haven’t done anything outrageously stupid in Iraq in a couple of weeks, surely they will be doing something stupid soon – some overt, bungled attempt to elevate one of their puppets to a prominence and power the puppet hasn’t earned – that will piss off the UIA. We’ll see. It will also be interesting if, in the States, it begins to sink in that 1500 Americans lost their lives to bring about the Islamic Republic of Iraq. This is the type of thing that could disturb the narcissistic stupor of the American booboisie. Surely, to forestall the awful consequences of something like that, we need and deserve another good celebrity trial of the century.


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

St. Paul's epistle to the Washingtonians

In The Historical Aims of Science, an essay by the Australian philosopher of science, Stephen Gaukroger, in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, there’s a nice passage on what made the Scientific Revolution in Western Europe different from the boom and bust Renaissances characteristic of previous cultures, from the Greeks to the Arabs in Baghdad to the Sung Chinese. For Gaukroger, what we are looking for is not progress, but consolidation:

“The question we need to raise here is that of the consolidation of the Scientiic Revolution, and the establishment of the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise.
The consolidation of the Scientific Revolution was in part due to the ability of its proponents and apologists to draw on the often novel ways in which theories were being justified, to extrapolate from this to the legitimation of the existence of the new science as a long-term project, and to articulate a range of cognitive values around its own practice. This was not an easy or straightforward process, and its outcome was not guaranteed. It was a difficult struggle, with great efforts, of varying success, being put into establishing the value of experimentation, the public usefulness of knowledge and, from the end of the eighteenth century, largescale public science education programmes and radical reform of university curricula.”

To LI’s mind, this has left us with a persistent asymmetry of cognitive habits, in which, on the one side, we have a pattern of experiment, observations, and relations (the last characterized in the formal language of mathematics), and on the other side, we have the life of power, lust, loss and gain. There are those – Hayek being, perhaps, the most articulate on the Right in the last century – who attribute this asymmetry to the nature of human things. It just so happens that installing a set of procedures among human things that would imitate scientific procedures would quickly produce engineered catastrophe, since scientific procedures are imminently unequipped to deal with contingency and complexity.

We actually believe Hayek has a point. On the other hand, the exportation of something like scientific integrity into talk about politics has its attractions. For LI, this means seeing a political program not in terms of the moral worth of its proponent, but in terms of the coherence or incoherence of its various parts. It is this that is most striking about the American regime we are currently suffering under: its utter inability to mesh means and ends, combined with its utter inability to see inconsistencies in the various scenarios it projects as programs for action. The scenarios are all Christian erotic daydreams. The Christian self-help section of the book store is now in power, and we are officially in search of the miraculous. This being a fallen world, the miraculous reliably doesn’t happen.

Read, for instance, the NYT report on the Bush budget. The report makes clear that the budget is a compendium of malignant lies. Actually, the NYT pulls its punches. No surprise there. It fails to take into account the full extent of the tax cuts Bush wants to make permanent. One has no doubt that the figures in the current budget are as trustworthy as Enron’s projections of future profits, circa 2000. This will be pointed out. This will be discussed.

But what won’t be discussed is what strikes the third party observer – Bush’s deficits have not been rejected by the world financial community. Quite the contrary.

I had an interesting discussion with my web pal, Paul Craddick, on his site about Keynsian economics in which he brought up a reliable libertarian shibboleth – that Roosevelt’s New Deal worsened the Depression. But from the experience of the past fifty years, it wasn’t the New Deal, but the instinct for balancing budgets that worsened the Depression. WWII was a godsend for the economic health of the American public in that it allowed the State to incur debts on a level not ever seen before, extended by financial institutions that had no choice, and paid back in inflated dollars. And every recession since has been spent out of, with the variable being excuses to spend. Usually, they are military – and now that we have something called Homeland Defense, we have found a way to spend money on absolutely nothing at all – which is a very Zen thing to do for the Christian homebodies in D.C., and the most interesting development in Christian theology since Robin Morgan urged your Southern Baptist housewife to wrap her nude body in Saran wrap and await her Pauline lord and master at the door, in obedience to what Jesus would do, or advise, if there had been Saran wrap in Galilee. In fact, according to the new theology of faith, not works, you can now spend as much money as you want ‘domestically”, label it homeland defense, and ‘shrink’ spending on the “domestic’ budget. This is almost Nirvana.

What needs to be asked is: what does the borrowed money go to? If we were going to borrow a trillion some dollars anyway, why can’t we have national health care, for instance? Why, instead, do we just have a population largely in hock to credit card companies to pay for Junior’s dentistry? why is the enormous wealth of this country, flowing in every pricey restaurant from Miami to Seattle, so hard to find in the East side of Austin Texas, in the South side of Chicago, in the Bronx, etc., etc.

Monday, February 07, 2005

“As a small child Kipling was brought up by his Indian ayah. The family house in Bombay was near the burning ghats where the dead bodies were incinerated. Vultures flapped and lolloped on the look-out for tidbits. So, one day, a child's hand was found in the family garden. The young Rudyard was forbidden by his mother to mention it. "I wanted to see that hand," he writes in his autobiography, Something of Myself.’


Craig Raine’s rambling essay in the Guardian review ostensibly shows, against the convention of literary criticism and the dictates of common sense, that writing has a descriptive power equal to reality’s power to exist for description. Or is reality’s a power? In any case, we don’t believe Raine’s claim for a second. It leads him to this amusingly absurd passage:

“In an early chapter of The Bostonians, Henry James considers Ransom's Southern dialect and announces that it is not in his power by any combination of words to render Ransom's speech. In a sense, this represents a defeat for language - except that really it is only a local defeat for James's language. Kipling, though less intelligent than James, is a greater writer - at any rate, a writer more interested in capturing externals by means of words.”

We admit that the idea of James doing a Southern accent is as funny as Mark Twain creating a Portrait of a Lady. The Kipling reference gets Raine off his high horse – which is good, as he is riding nowhere on it, quickly – and the rest of the essay makes some interesting observations about Kipling. Which is why we recommend looking at it. We were fascinated by Kipling’s own fascination with Japanese cruelty – we didn’t know. After the graf we fronted this post with, Raine continues:

“The impulse here is cognate with Kipling's strange injunction in From Sea to Sea: "When you come to Japan, look at Farsari's hara-kiri pictures and his photos of the last crucifixion (twenty years ago) in Japan." The aesthetic cannot really afford to be squeamish. Of course, the moral will always make itself felt. Here Kipling concedes that there is "a strain of bloodthirstiness in their [Japanese] compositions". And he knows their "grim fidelity" will "make you uncomfortable"

Who knew? We couldn’t find Farsari’s photo of the last crucifixion in Japan on the web. We suspect Kipling really meant Felice Beato, whose crucifixion photo, here, is strangely placid.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Over at Pierrot’s Folly (aka Scratchings) they’ve been having a lively discussion about the numerous sins of the Democratic party and what to do about it from a lefty perspective. Is it time to found a new party? Go to the Greens? What?

Ever since LI was a little wet behind the ears protestor in the Reagan era (my eyes were firmly directed to America’s support for mass murder in Central America, and not the major disaster, Afghanistan being cooked up by Reagan’s busy little paramilitary rightists), I’ve heard the cries of outrage, and uttered many a cry myself.

Lately, however, in the light of the cold rage lit in my belly by the election of 2004, I’ve been rethinking the terms of that outrage. At the time, I was struck by the free rider paradox that seemed, to me, to explain the election. My perspective since then has broadened, but along the same lines. At some future time, we will mount a defense of deficit spending and an analysis of how progressives became the curious inheritors of the ghost of Herbert Hoover – a fatal legacy, we think, in the 2004 election, which turned on the ability of the electorate to afford to vote on its vilest prejudices instead of considering the index of its absolute impoverishment, at least as a share of the national wealth.

In any case, we believe the real issue is the difference between a movement and a party.

Between the thirties and the eighties, the left in the U.S. did a very interesting thing: it invented a number of movements. From labor movements in the 30s to the Gay rights movements in the seventies, these movements originated political change. They had a galvanizing effect on the Democratic party. In 1900, there was nothing particularly progressive about the Democratic party, but in 1960, there was. However, the party itself didn’t originate progressive politics – it rather responded to an exterior pressure. Anybody who looks at how, say, the Kennedys dealt with the civil rights movement sees this. The gun was in the hand of the movements.

On the philosophical plane, the sixties philosophers who broadcast a distaste for representation (Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, etc.) were, in some manner, reflecting the revolt against the party as a political unit. This was obviously inflected by the Communist party. But in the U.S., the same thing was happening on a less philosophical, more pragmatic plane. The Black Panther/Civil Rights duo, for instance, destroyed the remnants of Democratic party machines in Chicago, Detroit, and Newark. In general, the perspective at the time was that the party exists as a vehicle for the movement; that the relationship between party and movement is purely tactical. The party never represents the movement. It never represents anything but itself. It is a vehicle. You don't ask your car where it wants you to go. You simply drive it, or fix it, or junk it.

The counter-attack came in the eighties. Movements were relabeled ‘special interests” by party intelligentsia. The New Republic played its one historic card during this era by actually generating writers and a vocabulary to crush movement politics, and to reverse the power relationship between movements and party. However, what was really important was the absorption of movements into various D.C. centered institutions. and the dispersion of movement figures into various institutions, academic and political. In the eighties, the Democratic party came to monopolize opposition in America, with fatal results for the Opposition.

What this means, to LI, is that it is a mug’s game to beat up on the Democrats. The party is structurally in contradiction with itself – its leadership is from a different social niche – overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy – than its membership. That niche has used its position to discipline the membership – to crush the possibility of movement politics – and the answer to that is not to fight back by “saving” the party, but simply establishing a non-fetishistic relationship with it. The Republican party, ironically, doesn’t have this problem because the Republican party resembles a movement. The extra-party element – corporations and businesses and religious organizations – have a firm independent existence outside of the party. Thus, they can ignore that directive niche that occasionally tries to impose the same kind of discipline on movements as the Dem leadership does. The Doles that call out the far right evangelicals, for instance, simply get stomped. Whereas every Dem leader longs to display his racism in a sister soulja moment, to send the message that white rule is still at the heart of the Dem party.

So – who cares? Use the Dems in some things, don’t use them in other. Skip em, fuck em, and work on the movement rather than the party level. I guess that is LI’s position.