“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, July 21, 2006

petition congress and the president

While it is little enough, and I can't vouch for the organization, please sign this petition calling on the American government to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon: Democracy in Action.
American papers, ranging from mildly pro-Israel to loony tones WAPO editorial types, have presented an odd picture of the Arab world supporting Israel against Hezbollah. This is so absurd it does rival the “good news from Iraq” meme, that sturdy craft of lies and bullshit, that has been afloat these last three years.

The Financial Times, more shrewdly, notes: “events in Lebanon have served as a reminder of how quickly Washington can drop an Arab ally - in this case the Siniora-led government in Beirut - when Israel's "right to self-defence" is at play.”
In fact, beyond the war crime committed by bombing a civilian population and targeting Lebanese infrastructure – beyond the fact, staring anyone in the face, that Israel has chosen a small provocation to launch a war against Lebanon - Israel’s attempt to destroy its neighbor and Bush’s nursing of the Israeli enterprise is going to bring grief down on both the U.S. and Israel. As Israel goes into next week, massacring Shiites in Lebanon, U.S. soldiers are going to be sitting ducks in Iraq. And to expect Arab allies of the U.S. to weather this, an event tailor made to showcase Iranian strength and Gulf monarchy weakness, is just the kind of non-calculation – just the kind of blind stupidity that the Bush administration will long be known for, in story and song.

“Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states formally at peace with Israel, have both issued measured criticism of Israel's devastation of Lebanon, but it was only yesterday that two Arab governments delivered stronger condemnations. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki described the Israeli offensive as "operations of mass destruction" while the Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, said: "We cannot tolerate that Israel plays with the lives of citizens, civilians, women, old people and children."

“What has been new is that along with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt also blamed Hizbollah, and indirectly its Syrian and Iranian backers, for stirring a tiger with destabilising consequences for all.”

Israel is also going to lose in the U.S. Israel is generally a popular country for Americans. But the photogenic, mad bombing, and the fact that the bombed, this time, sometimes speak English into the tv set and are wearing shorts and ties and business suits, is going to make this different. Killing black robed hadji in Iraq doesn’t bother the Yankees, but killing people who look like Yankees does. This is obvious from the greatest poem to come from the Iraq war so far, the immortal Hadji girl:

“Her brother and her father shouted…
Dirka Dirka Mohammed Jihad
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah
They pulled out their AKs so I could see
... So I grabbed her little sister and pulled her in front of me.
As the bullets began to fly
The blood sprayed from between her eyes
And then I laughed maniacally
Then I hid behind the TV
And I locked and loaded my M-16
And I blew those little fuckers to eternity.
And I said…
Dirka Dirka Mohammed Jihad
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah
They should have known they were fucking with a Marine.”

A song that says it all.

But the little sisters who are getting blasted in Tyre and Beirut sometimes are wearing shorts and flip flops, and that is sure to reach even into the damaged humanity of the zombie hordes of the Bush culture.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Calasso's perpetual war

Continuing the line of thought from our last post….

There’s an essay by Arthur Machen about a spiritualist who surprises himself by successfully conjuring up a dead spirit. Looking at the vision he has been pursuing, the spiritualist feels a hand go through him, which does not press his physical organs so much as it squeezes something unknown – his very soul. This contact proves to be so overwhelming that the spiritualist never again tries to conjure up a spirit.

Well, LI can’t claim to have experienced anything that grotesquely metaphysical when we read Roberto Calasso’s essay, Perpetual War, but we did feel contacted. The essay is about Kraus’ “The Last Days of Mankind.” This is a five hundred page play, an epic theater event never, actually, staged. Kraus wrote it during World War I, and read from it in lecture halls. Elias Canetti, among others, has described the fevered atmosphere that surrounded Kraus in the twenties at those readings.

Calasso’s essay does a number of brilliant things. For instance, Calasso shows how a modern version of stupidity intersects with the modern project of building an all encompassing war culture. Bêtise was the obsession of three modern authors in particular – its anti-evangelists: Flaubert, Leon Bloy, and Kraus. Readers of LI will recognize these as the patron saints of this site, although we maintain a more extensive hagiology – we throw in Peguy, the Shaw of the prefaces, Nietzsche, Marx and Engels (in their political journalism). In particular, Engels phrase, “the official legend,” which I find so much more useful than the term “ideology” to talk about the system of modern unintelligence. The official legend is where the marriage of betise and war is officially sealed. While it is official in the sense that the same picked over phrases from it occur over and over in the mouths of officials, pundits, soldiers, clerks, farmers, etc., it is never codified in one place or another. It isn’t a constitution or a law. The official legend not only brings about and justifies wars, but it tells us how to think about them, and how to pretend that our peaces are different from wars. According to the official legend, wars are subordinate to states, and derived from them. You have a state, which is a separate, substantial thing – emblematically, a human body. A leviathan, or a behemoth. And then you have war, which is something that may afflict a state, the way a fever or the measles afflicts the human body. Randolph Bourne’s phrase, which plays with this idea, actually leads us out of the nets of the official legend: war is the health of the state. Health is not derived from the body – it describes the normal state of the body. The normal state of the modern state is war.

Of the three grand inquisitors of modern betise, Kraus was the one who saw most systematically, and attacked with language St. John of Patmos might have whistled at. This is how Calasso puts it: “The epiphany that dazzled Kraus is the same one tht made Flaubert’s last years compulsive and feverish: the prodigious eruption of la betise as the beginning of a new era, an era paved and cemented with it once any kind of alkahest or universal solvent had disappeared. This appalling event, from whose light most people averted their eyes, was obsessively followed and properly recorded primarily by three writers: Flaubert, Kraus, and Leon Bloy. To them we gratefully turn as pioneers of a new science, the only one where we can follow the treacherous waverings of that uninterrupted experiment-without-experimenter that is world history.”

Calasso doesn’t strictly date the West’s official legend – it is not something of which you can say, now it is here, or now it is there. But it has symbols you can date. Calasso choses the symbol of the “blood tax” – the draft – suggested in the French revolution and fully operational in the Napoleonic wars. The draft indicates what the new state will be composed of: ‘human materials,’ as Napoleon’s strategists called them. The AEC, in the plutonium experiments it performed on patients in hospitals in Rochester and Chicago, labelled them “human products.” And, in a memo of great philosophic acuity, speaking of the downwinders, the inhabitants of towns in Utah and Nevada that were sprinkled continually with radioactive fallout from the above ground bomb tests, the AEC called them a “low use population.” The low use population, that atomized mass of human product, are known, on official occasions when the lights in the sky are the results of fireworks rather than beta particle emissions, as We the people – and such sweet people too! If you read interviews with the downwinders, interspersed with the usual stories – the tongue cancer, the boy born with extruded organs and no legs, the cancer that goes from house to house in places like St. George, Utah, and systematically eliminates the young – leukemia – and the old (like, forty to fifty years old) with variously sited cancers, and produces immune deficiency and diabetes 1 and muscular disorders and sterility and the oddly born lambs and foals, you will find inhabitants who might be nursing their last tumors saying things like, we had to do the tests because the Russians did the tests. Sinking on the good ship cancer, the human product gave heartfelt thanks to the captain. Or, to speed the film up to today’s exiting news, 37% gave President Bush good or excellent marks on his presidency.

Human product or human materials, the names have an effect. Just as God’s real name is supposedly part of the essence and power of divinity, the low use population’s real name is part of the essence and power of its anti-divinity – its essence, which is shit. But do not underestimate shit! It can be drafted, taxed, and driven to the polling booth to enthusiastically vote for its own demise. As Calasso points out, the most menacing phrase in the Last Days of Mankind is “Clusters form.”

“These two little words discretely accompany us in the stage directions from the very first page, the second line to bew exact. They swell like poisonous clouds for hundreds of pages and strike us at the end… when they are spoken by the Faultfinder [Noergler, Kraus’s stand-in] to designate the throng of bystanders who want to have their pictures taken alongside the corpse of the hanged Battisti, while the jovial hangman looks on. Groups are not expressions of democratic spontaneity. Their origin is much older. Groups always form around a corpse. When there is no corpse, that place always evokes the many corpses that have been there and the many yet to appear.”

It is evidence of Kraus’ prophetic sensibility that he could have foreseen those pictures that flooded Nazi Germany during the first, good part of the war – soldiers sending home pics of rabbis used as ponies, little Jewish kids strung up in a wood, the hustle of warmly coated German soldiers under them, protecting the Reich, all of the news from the front. And, indeed, news from the front in Iraq follows this pattern – but no in real time video, with a sound track from Elvis, mercenaries having fun shooting through the windows of Iraqi cars and such, with the official law between the provisional government of Iraq and the Liberating Powers such that no force in Iraq could touch the Pentagon’s contractors.

In the official legend, circa 2006, virtue and vice depend on an exact matching of the ideal corpse-set to the dictatorship and Islamofascism, and, on the other side, to liberation – with the difference being that the corpses produced by liberatory activity, when alive, ardently desired their own splattering, evisceration, or simple bullet through the head termination. The liberation’s corpses are much like the cartoon animals you see on billboards for restaurants in Texas – smiling chickens and pigs, chuckling broadly about their stun gun and chain saw futures. They are not only aware of their own sweet and delicious meat – they want to be eaten.

To get Jenseits der Bloedsinn is no easy thing. The method adopted by the inquisitors is that of extensive quotation. As Calasso points out, perhaps half of The Last Days of Mankind consists simply of quotes. To put the written or spoken in quotation marks was Kraus’ way of damning it. In the passage that analyzes this, Calasso, to my mind, reaches a point of true sublimity. I’ll end this gloomy post with this amazing passage:

“But at the same time, since his name is hidden behind the figure of a comic character (the Faultfinder), his words are a voice that no longer belongs to him and that guarantees the life of this nonstop spectacle. Their function is like that of the blade used by Chuang-tzu’s perfect butcher, who for nineteen years used the same knife to quarter thousands of oxen. The blade never lost its edge because “I let it go through only where it can” – in the imperceptible empty interstices. And Prince Wen-hui answers the butcher: Thank you, you have taught me how to prolong one’s life, by using it only for what does not consume it.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

American stupidity -- let me count the ways

GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, appear to be lining up closely with the president on foreign policy. It has not helped the neoconservative case, perhaps, that the occupation of Iraq has not gone as smoothly as some had predicted. – Charles Babbington, Washington Post, Conservative Anger Grows Over Bush's Foreign Policy

“The American energy secretary, Samuel W. Bodman, who met with Iraq’s oil and electricity ministers in Baghdad, had a rosy view of progress here since his last visit in 2003.

“The situation seems far more stable than when I was here two or three years ago,” he said in an interview in the fortified Green Zone. “The security seems better, people are more relaxed. There is an optimism, at least among the people I talked to.””
...
“United Nations officials said Tuesday that the number of violent deaths had climbed steadily since at least last summer. During the first six months of this year, the civilian death toll jumped more than 77 percent, from 1,778 in January to 3,149 in June, the organization said.”
- Quotations from the same article, “About 20 Sunnis Are Kidnapped in Baghdad”-

How does one face the enormity of an intelligence that has the scope of a housefly’s stuffed into a colossus the size of a continent? Hows does one grasp something that is as awesome, as hideous, as farcical as American stupidity –the right and real stuff, the strategy behind the atom bomb and the Hummer, the third, impossible division of the American brain - neither left nor right, but an as yet undiscovered dimension, somewhere between Miracle Whip and the world’s biggest human turd?

Here’s what Robert Calasso said about Karl Kraus:

"Kraus’ fundamental experience was acoustic, and it was constantly repeated. Like Hildegarde von Bingen, Angela da Foligno, and many anonymous schizophrenics, he heard voices, but the voices were all the more alarming since they had bodies, circulated in the streets of Vienna, seated themselves in cafes and even put on affable smiles. The inflections beat on him like waves; their deadly horde provided the most faithful company for his “threefold solitude: that of the coffeehouse, where he is alone with his enemy, of the nocturnal room where he is alone with his demon, of the lecture hall where he is alone with his work.”

LI has his own threefold solitude. The enemy is met not in the coffeehouse but on a cheap dialup internet connection, blinking ads; the demon is poverty and a sarcasm that has long gone to the dark side and become pathological, a real heart condition, - a speeding up of the heartbeat, a spread of heat across the chest, the signs and symptoms of demonic possession; as for the work – well, where is the work? An impossibly cheap blog, cluttered with typos, clogged with yesterday’s annulled news, various and sundry highly forgettable reviews, failed projects that have left behind snowdrifts of paper and (wait for it, Prufrock) a graphic novel, of all things.

I’ve chosen to personalize the affront given to intelligence by American stupidity, which is rather like trying to personalize entering the Empire State Building, or entering your local shopping mall. It is doomed to failure – for if it succeeded even once, it would transform that stupidity into something else. The housefly thinks, cogito, ergo Musca domestica sum. But no, the default settings for stupidity are such that the bland language, or language substitute, used by our Energy secretary, and the formulas of WAPO’s ace reporter, Charles Babbington, are all the same thing – they have no external referent, but go on in a dark vacuum forever. They would hardly be real at all – but here we must concede that experiment has shown them to be real. The experiment of, for instance, the three thousand dead in Iraq. And it is LI who is unreal, LI with the ardent wish that tonight and every night, the throngs of those dead crowd about President Bush’s bed and freeze the blood of that pissant lowlife, who has found the dead level of his own incompetence in a clueless and ever more syncophantic court society. Freeze it tonight, and tomorrow night, and tomorrow night. Freeze it eternally.

Monday, July 17, 2006

no goodies from this war

In the Man without Qualities, Ulrich – the man himself – staying at his father’s house after his father’s death, sits down and solves a mathematical problem that he has been working on for years. He has taken up other work, and takes up the problem as a way of passing the time. He thinks about what this means. If he publishes this, perhaps his career as a mathematician will take off, perhaps he will find a place in academia. And suddenly he thinks: I’m too old for that. For the first time, he has decided that some bold move in his life is barred by age. He is thirty five, I believe.

Myself, I think that about acid. While I enjoyed it in my twenties on rare occasions, and took it once past that equinoctal age, thirty, I’m too old for that now. Pot, alcohol, cocaine I can still take. But acid is now off the menu. So, probably, is heroin – a drug I’ve never tried, and always wanted to try.

The big biography of Timothy Leary by Robert Greenfield was released this spring. I was happy to see Louis Menand review it for the New Yorker. I’ve seen a few hippyish sites on the web comment on the bio, mainly to condemn Leary. In the end, he had so relentless sold out every member of every niche that had once formed his audience that he is regarded, pretty much, with universal disgust. Myself, I can’t get over him being a snitch. On the other hand, the legendary early years fascinate me, partly for what they say about the intersection of the Cold War culture and academia, partly because who does not dream of nibbling on mushrooms in Cuernavaca in 1962? What total fun. Exploitative, check. Probably the kind of thing that not everybody should do, check. But I envy certain moods of intoxication, certain highs: Malcolm Lowry in the same town in the thirties, for instance.

Part of the war culture was the flowering of psychology. With the country being blanketed with fallout from insane bomb tests, and scientists covering up what was wrong with that, or – alternatively – proclaiming, as Edward Teller amazingly did, that the mutations that might result from radiation would be steps on man’s evolution ever onward, it is no wonder so many people felt crazy, and ended up going to psychologists in the 50s:

“There was no more opportune moment to become a psychologist. Psychology in the nineteen-fifties played the role for many people that genetics does today. "It's all in your head" has the same appeal as "It's all in the genes": an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are. Why should someone feel unhappy or engage in antisocial behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth? It can't be the system! There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere. So the postwar years were a slack time for political activism and a boom time for psychiatry. The National Institute of Mental Health, founded in 1946, became the fastest-growing of the seven divisions of the National Institutes of Health, awarding psychologists grants to study problems like alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, and television violence. Ego psychology, a therapy aimed at helping people adapt and adjust, was the dominant school in American psychoanalysis. By 1955, half of the hospital beds in the United States were occupied by patients diagnosed as mentally ill.”

To write about Leary, for someone like Menand, is an easy opportunity to grind out great paragraphs – and luckily, he gives into the temptation:

“Leary spent the first part of his career doing normative psychology, the work of assessment, measurement, and control; he spent the second as one of the leading proselytizers of alternative psychology, the pop psychology of consciousness expansion and nonconformity. But one enterprise was the flip side of the other, and Greenfield's conclusion, somewhat sorrowfully reached, is that Leary was never serious about either. The only things Leary was serious about were pleasure and renown. He underwent no fundamental transformation when he left the academic world for the counterculture. He liked women, he liked being the center of attention, and he liked to get high. He simply changed the means of intoxication. Like many people in those days, he started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff .“

The old war culture. Peter Beinart is doing his best to make the new war culture into the equivalent of the Cold War. This is laughable on many dimensions, not least of which is the lack of drugs:

“LSD was also administered to alcoholics, drug addicts, and patients with emotional blockages. The most famous of these patients was Cary Grant, who took LSD under the supervision of a psychiatrist. "All my life, I've been searching for peace of mind," Grant said. "Nothing really seemed to give me what I wanted until this treatment." Allen Ginsberg was introduced to LSD at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, in 1959, where his responses were measured by a team of doctors as part of a federally funded research program. Ginsberg eventually became one of the chief publicists for LSD, along with Ken Kesey, who first used it at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, in 1960, where, in another federally funded program, he was paid seventy-five dollars a day to ingest hallucinogens.”

That is more money than I make, for sure. All the good jobs are gone and taken!

Menand doesn't deeply understand drugs -- that is evident in his dismissive last paragraphs, which display a vulgar economic determinism that tells us little about why cocaine should have succeeded acid. But the essay does place Leary -- who is the kind of character Menand understands - very well.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

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