“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, August 26, 2006


Come on, fuck that NYT Magazine article this morning. Trust me – don’t you trust me? Read this article by Rebecca Solnit in Orion magazine instead.
Let’s begin with one of the statistics:

“The California Gold Rush clawed out of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada considerable gold—93 tons or 2.7 million troy ounces in the peak year of 1853 alone, an estimated 973 tons or 28.4 million troy ounces by 1858, more than 3,634 tons or 106 million troy ounces to date.”

My brothers used to be in apartment maintenance. Now, standard practice calls for a quick clean up, laying new carpet and a possible paint job once your resident has vacated his place. If the resident was a smoker, inevitably the paint job followed, since the smoke would stain the walls. This is the literal materialization of human aura, but it isn’t just your renter and his Camels. No, we leave our indelible imprint on the landscape long after we have tidily tucked away the event. In human time, measured by the fingernail and hair growth, tumescence and the brief flurry of orgasm, the fleeting memory that flairs up in the night like a ghost of what the angle looked from a height that was just up to mom’s knee or thigh and is gone before you can complete the memory, organize that field of view, events are inevitably more fleeting, more bound to the attention span – but of course, in organic time, measured by proteins and fats, this isn’t so. An event can last a long time. Hence the interest in Solnit’s gold rush story. It is the quintessential Wild West story, the one the American dream life immediately focused upon – the discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill, the arrival of hundreds and then thousands come to stake a claim, the settling of California.

But Solnit brings out other pieces of the rush. For instance, by our manifest luck, we just happened to fight a war with Mexico that gave us both the Sacramento River and the means to exploit the gold we found there. That means was mercury:

“In the northwesternmost corner of old Mexico, in 1845, a staggeringly rich mercury lode was discovered by one Captain Don Andres Castillero. Located near San Jose at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay, the New Almaden Mine was well within the territory seized by the United States by the time it was developed. And only days before the February 2, 1848, treaty giving Mexico $15 million for its northern half was signed, gold was also discovered in California. Thus began the celebrated Gold Rush, which far fewer know was also a mercury rush, or that the two were deeply intertwined.”

Mercury combines with gold, making it much easier to extract from water or earth. Of course, there is the little problem that mercury is extremely poisonous, a neurotoxin that keeps on tickin’.

“During the California Gold Rush, an estimated 7,600 tons or 15,200,000 pounds of mercury were thus deposited into the watersheds of the Sierra Nevada. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that placer, or stream-based, mining alone put ten million pounds of the neurotoxin into the environment, while hard-rock mining accounted for another three million pounds. Much of it is still there—a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist once told me that he and his peers sometimes find globules the size of a man's fist in pristine-looking Sierra Nevada streams—but the rest of it ended up lining the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. Some of it is still traveling: the San Jose Mercury News (named after the old mercury mines there) reports that one thousand pounds of the stuff comes out of gold-mining country and into the bay every year, and another two hundred pounds comes from a single mercury mine at the south end of the bay annually. Some of this mercury ends up in the fish, and as you move up the food chain, the mercury accumulates.

"According to the San Francisco Estuary Institute, "Fish at the top of the food web can harbor mercury concentrations in their tissues over one million times the mercury concentration in the water in which they swim." All around the edges of the bay, warning signs are posted, sometimes in Spanish, Tagalog, and Cantonese, as well as English, but people fish, particularly poor and immigrant people, and some eat their catch. They are paying for the Gold Rush too.

“Overall, approximately ten times more mercury was put into the California ecosystem than gold was taken out of it. There is something fabulous about this, or at least fablelike. Gold and mercury are brothers and opposites, positioned next to each other, elements 79 and 80, in the Periodic Table of the Elements. And they also often coexist in the same underground deposits. Gold has been prized in part because it does not rust, change, or decay, while mercury is the only metal that is liquid at ordinary temperatures, and that liquid is, for those who remember breaking old thermometers to play with the globules, something strange, congealing into a trembling mass or breaking into tiny spheres that roll in all directions, ready to change, to amalgamate with other metals, to work its way into the bodies of living organisms.”

In the tv series westerns, nobody ever complains about mercury fumes. In real life, the landscape after gold mining is laced with poisons, the sources of the water are diverted and fouled, and of course vegetation, which likes mercury no more than the human body, dies off:

“The volume of mercury-tainted soil washed into the Yuba was three times that excavated during construction of the Panama Canal, and the riverbed rose by as much as eighty feet in some places. So much of California was turned into slurry and sent downstream that major waterways filled their own beds and carved new routes in the elevated sludge again and again, rising higher and higher above the surrounding landscape and turning ordinary Central Valley farmlands and towns into something akin to modern-day New Orleans: places below water level extremely vulnerable to flooding. Hydraulic mining washed downstream 1.5 billion cubic yards of rock and earth altogether. "Nature here reminds one of a princess fallen into the hands of robbers who cut off her fingers for the jewels she wears," said one onlooker at a hydraulic mine. “

Well, what is good for the nineteenth century is good for the 21st, especially in the Bush culture of infinite waste for the betterment of the upper 1 percent income bracket. Nevada is now the place to go to watch humans poison the earth and the sources of water (in a state that is developing million plus cities, without any visible means of water in, say, fifteen years) because, well, the sacred and wondrous effects of private property are what brought down the communist menace. Notice how it all leads to the kingdom of God, who has a funded position at the Cato Institute.

“The current gold rush in northeastern Nevada, which produces gold on a monstrous scale—seven million ounces in 2004 alone—is also dispersing dangerous quantities of mercury. This time it's airborne. The forty-mile-long Carlin Trend on which the gigantic open-pit gold mines are situated is a region of "microscopic gold"; dispersed in the soil and rock far underground, imperceptible to the human eye, unaffordable to mine with yesteryear's technology. To extract the gold, huge chunks of the landscape are excavated, pulverized, piled up, and plied with a cyanide solution that draws out the gold. The process, known as cyanide heap-leach mining, releases large amounts of mercury into the biosphere. Wind and water meet the materials at each stage and create windblown dust and seepage, and thus the mercury and other heavy metals begin to travel.

“As the Ban Mercury Working Group reports, "Though cumulatively coal fired power plants are the predominant source of atmospheric mercury emissions, the three largest point sources for mercury emissions in the United States are the three largest gold mines there." The Great Salt Lake, when tested in 2004, turned out to have astonishingly high mercury levels, as did wild waterways in Idaho, and Nevada's gold mines seem to be the culprit. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that year, "The scope of mercury pollution associated with Nevada's gold mining industry wasn't discovered until the EPA changed rules in 1998 to add mercury to the list of toxic discharges required to be reported. When the first numbers were released in 2000, Nevada mines reported the release of 13,576 pounds in 1998. Those numbers have since been revised upward to an estimated 21,098 pounds, or more than 10 tons, to make Nevada the nation's No. 1 source of mercury emissions at the time." Glen Miller, a professor of natural resources and environmental science at the University of Nevada, Reno, estimates that since 1985, the eighteen major gold mines in the state released between 70 and 200 tons of mercury into the environment.”

Don’t you love it? The Western states, with their large GOP populations, are also the ones suffering from the various poisonings they bring down on themselves. In the AEC dialectic that has dominated the West since 1945, the low use population is hooked on the conditions that make it a low use population. The embrace of a rabid individualism that masks the grab of the corporate collectives is the route traveled by mercury into the brain, an ideological analogue of the actual route from the air and water via the pores, mouth and tongue to the internal organs, the weaving nerve tissue and up ever heavenward to the brain. In comic book terms, at least, this is no disadvantage -- far from it! As the low use human product gets literally stupider with mercury poisoning, it gets more apt to believe anything.

... And they wonder where that 35 percent of hardcore Bush supporters come from.

I'm with stupid - the law of the land

It was good to see some bipartisanship return to D.C. this week. According to the WAPO, a bill to re-write the preamble to the Constitution found support from both Hilary Clinton and John McCain – the two sides of the aisle came together in a spirit of amity. “Senator Clinton said that the tedious first sentence - We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union, etc., etc.” was good in its time, but times have changed. “’I’m with stupid’ has always been my favorite t shirt slogan, and when Senator McCain said it was also his, we thought, why not make erase the obsolete, eighteenth century wording of our founding document and introduce something fresh and representative from the new millennium?” The “I’m with stupid’ change was passed, 95-1, with 4 abstentions. It is also being haled at the White House, where President Bush admitted that it was his favorite t shirt slogan too.” The first sentence now reads: "We, the people of the United States, say: I'm with stupid!"

The I’m with stupid theme is behind the happy convergence of two news stories today. One, in the WAPO, is about Katherine Harris’s own constitutional theory. Harris is running for Senator in Florida. Her personal position on the constitution (a position conveyed to her by a cohort of senile angels, who then went onto Disneyland, using their New Jerusalem discount) is the following:

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) said this week that God did not intend for the United States to be a "nation of secular laws" and that the separation of church and state is a "lie we have been told" to keep religious people out of politics.

"If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin," Harris told interviewers from the Florida Baptist Witness, the weekly journal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. She cited abortion and same-sex marriage as examples of that sin.”

The other story is about another party of God, Hezbollah. It, too, is about the Constitution – apparently, that first amendment part of it can be trashed when your gov feels like trashing it – to protect us though. In this glorious, long war on terrorism, with the wind of liberty sweeping the planet, we can’t afford to have people just saying whatever they want to. Speech has consequences. Cops need the power to shut your trap by knocking your teeth in, or arresting you and sending you to a prison where (heh heh) you better not lean over to pick up the soap in the shower! God, I love jokes about the sodomy rape of prisoners – makes me feel so part of this great nation. Here’s the story in the NYT. A Mr. Iqbal apparently runs a business providing ‘satellite programming for households.” In its wisdom, the FBI has come down on his type – did I say his name is Iqbal? Did I say it isn’t Smith, a good American name, but Iqbal? As in Iqbal? Did I say that? – to stop his nefarious doings:

But this week, the budding entrepreneur’s house and storefront were raided by federal agents, and Mr. Iqbal was charged with providing customers services that included satellite broadcasts of a television station controlled by Hezbollah — a violation of federal law.

Yesterday, Mr. Iqbal was arraigned in Federal District Court in Manhattan and was ordered held in $250,000 bail. The Hezbollah station, Al Manar — or “the beacon” in Arabic — was designated a global terrorist entity by the United States Treasury Department in March of this year.”

Now here’s some synergy for you:

“For several years, Javed Iqbal has operated a small company from a Brooklyn storefront and out of the garage at his Staten Island home that provides satellite programming for households, including sermons from Christian evangelists seeking worldwide exposure.”

Yes, it is idiot vs. idiot on the bloody junkyard of this world, Christian evangelist vs. Hezbollah, and the loser is (envelope please)--

Your right to freedom of speech!

A big round of applause for the end of that shit. We got our American Idol. We got our angelically inspired senatorial candidates. They got the party of God. They got the holocaust cartoon exhibit (the NYT story about which was, actually, rather hopeful. Iranians aren’t attending that sick and rabid stunt – and the story mentioned, as an afterthought, that there is actually a Jewish member of the Iranian parliament who condemned it. How many Jewish members of the Saudi parliament are there? or the Egyptian? or Iraqi?). And all together, if we work real hard, we can encase ourselves in complete and utter ignorance, a worldwide theo-perversity combining Witchhunters, Jewhaters, Ragheadhaters, and the perpetual war crowd in order to better clusterbomb, clusterfuck, atomfuck and enucleate each other and all the rest of us for the glory of God, leaving the planet to look like the Aral Sea on a bad day. Planet Chernobyl. At least, god damn it, it will rid us of all those ultra-dangerous moral relativists running about destroying our civilization.

Is that cool or what? This is what our systems are leading to – showing, once again, that they are the best damn systems in all the world. What other system offers the prospect of world wide heat death while stewing in our gas exhausts and middle aged male rages?

The prosecutor in the Iqbal case has said that – oh my! – Al Manar glorifies suicide bombers! they are anti-semites as well. Fuck, throw the book at him. We can’t have that running rampant, or soon all of Staten Island will be building IEDs in its spare time. Now, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled program of embedded reporters explaining the great job liberty loving American forces are doing throughout Iraq.


The roots of the G.O.P. hatred of freedom of speech go back to the Southern hatred of freedom of speech. We have, perhaps, too casually tossed this history into the memory hole, but it is important, since the conservative defense of restricting freedom of speech seems, at first, to go oddly with a libertarian strain in conservative theory. To see why this isn’t so, we have to go back to the abolitionist campaign of 1835.

In that year, abolitionist groups decided to create some publicity for themselves by mailing out anti-slavery pamphlets and newspapers – flooding the zone in their own way. Now, in 1835, that great Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, was ruling the roost. He has been viewed via the liberal historians of the 1950s as a democratic president, a people’s president. But Jackson was impatient of democracy when it got in the way of public order. For instance, the exercise of speech to promote terrorism certainly got him hot around the collar – as it so often gets our good Democrats in Congress hot around the collar today. In his annual message to congress in December, 1835, he came up with an excellent solution to the terrorism problem: we needed federal laws to severely repress these incendiaries. The first thing to do, according to Jackson, was for the postmasters to publish the names of every person who received anti-slavery terrorist propaganda. He’d already praised the mobbing of abolitionists, so the publishing of the names would rationalize the lynching process in a way that would hearten the Cheney crowd today. Also, he called for federal laws to stop abolitionists from sending anti-slavery literature through the mail to the South.

This legislation was opposed by, of all people, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was for censoring the abolitionists, with hot tar if necessary, but he was against the federal government taking control of the postal system in this way. Calhoun did like the informal federal effort, led by the Postmaster General, Amos Kendall, to confiscate anti-slavery materials. The postmaster General of New York City was on board, too.

In 1836, a gag rule was passed prohibiting the House of Representatives from discussing any anti-slavery petition or referring to one in any way. In Charleston, S.C., a crowd broke into the post office and burnt the handily available anti-slavery, pro-terrorist literature. In D.C., a man named Crandall was discovered with anti-slavery pamphlets in his possession. This led to some fine sport – a lynch crowd formed, buildings were burned, and Crandall was marched to jail. The equivalent of the WAPO, the Washington National Intelligencer, published an editorial that could have been penned by Fred Hiatt – a wonderful exercise in mature judgment, deploring the riots but attributing it to “ the natural resentment inspired by the demoniacal design, on the part of a fanatical individual to stir up our Negro population to insurrection and murder.” A terrorist sympathizer for sure, this Crandall, and well deserving of remaining in jail eight months until his trial, where – oh, how symbolism has graced this republic – he was prosecuted by Francis Scott Key. Alas, a duped jury let him off on the damned first amendment excuse. Surely the Justice Department should look up this case for pointers, so we don’t have any aberrant juries letting off today’s terrorist sympathizers.

All of these events played out in the shadow of the Nate Turner slave revolt, in which whites were massacred. Our beloved Dixie, assaulted by savage slaves, who were stirred up by the abolitionists. Is it any wonder that, for our security, the first amendment had to be temporarily suppressed in these cases?

The GOP has long been the inheritor of the Calhoun strain in the American culture. The ruling class in the South has had utter contempt for the first amendment for one hundred eighty years – that class now rules the GOP and, by extension, the country. Stifling free expression is near the very heart of their tradition, and they will work to do it with might and main.

Friday, August 25, 2006

the new mlch

While eating, they normally conceal themselves or else close their eyes.
- Doctor Brodies Report.

In Borges’ short story, Doctor Brodie’s Report, then narrator describes the habits of the Mlch - a Yahoo like people who perform all their ‘physical acts’ in open view except for eating. They have the delicacy to conceal the tiniest hints of mastication, even though they are coarse enough to enjoy devouring raw corpses.

Restaurants, for the Mlch, would be as shocking as would be, for us, emporiums designed to let parents to copulate in front of stangers and their own children. But Borges’ story isn’t simply about inverting customs. It plays with an image of the private and the public that registers in myth – an image that sees these as two opposite poles. From that socially false but mythically re-enforced idea flows the libertarian notion of capitalism as a system of private enterprises. In reality, privacy is always defined by reference to a public; it is not in opposition to that public, nor is it even particularly concealed from the public. The mythical ideal of privacy is, in the social sphere, mere autism.

To trace the menu and its effects, as the crow-like LI has been doing – or delaying doing - is just a little attempt to get a few steps into how myth and history split, here, and why, and what havoc it has wrought – to reckon up the beauty and the casualties.

The burden of LI’s insanity, over the last decade, can be summed up as the coming of the Mlch – the leap from myth to history made by the governing class that has administered privatizations worldwide in an attempt to destroy privacy. For the nature of privacy does not reside in its incommunicability, or its surveyed and absolutely defended property lines, but in the fact that privacy is about who one chooses to share space with, who one chooses to share time with. Privacy is not defined by solitude; rather, solitude as private time is derived from privacy as shared time. Only after Friday joins Robinson Crusoe does privacy come into the picture.

This is what makes the appearance of the menu such an interesting little fold in the disembedding of the economic. The menu comes out of the great houses, where the cooking is done by the servants on a scale appropriate to the notables of the ancien regime, and into the public sphere, in restaurants. It comes out of the houses as, what? A marker of the re-organization of the social? an insensible change in the way intimacy is transacted? a way of closing off space in the public for the private? as a constitution of preferences? Hey, a lot depends on the menu here. Too much to bite off, so to speak. But I suppose what should concern me is the link between intimacy and taste – and the role of individuating payment, which was one of the first and most striking things about menus. The rule in the inn was that how much you paid for the food depended solely on how many people were at the table – you did not pay for what you ate. The rule, after the restaurant was established

(- which here is the history, quickly: According to Rebecca Stang’s The Invention of the Restaurant, the first restaurant to call itself a restaurant was opened on Rue Saint-Honore, Hotel d’Aligre in Paris by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau in 1766. The restaurant was about restoration of the health – the eighteenth century doctor, when not worried about rotting smells and onanism, was worried about the effect of heavy foods, such as those served in auberge, on women and gens des lettres. Along with the restaurant came the menu, for in the restaurant, unlike the auberge, the diners’ physiques were individually addressed)

was that each paid for what each ate. And this, of course, is a concept that could only be welcomed by the budding political economist, since it made the eating of food correspond more rationally to the actual market. Or seemed to. However, it rather shocked Rousseau, who recounts going to a restaurant in the fourth of the Reveries chez la dame Vacassin, restauratrice – Rousseau calls it going to dine “en manière de pique-nique” – and who missed the old custom. Even though the restaurant as an invention serving the public health was, as Herve Dumez points out, inspired by Rousseauist themes - the same concern with breastfeeding, with being natural, with getting rid of traditional, unhealthy urban customs. In fact, the Mathurin’s restaurant, originally, emphasized broths – simple instead of healthy foods.

The framework of the establishment lent itself to the calm necessary for good digestion: for the first time, it would be possible to eat at a separate table, alone, en famille or with friends. One has here the three elements radically new of the restaurant: flexibility of the hours of dining, the choice, with the menu, and the mixture of a private intimacy made possible in a public place open to all. To which we should add a last point: the mixture of traditional cooking with innovation, simplicity (le bouillon) with sophistication. Quickly, but in the line of the maison de sante, the restaurant menus opened up to other dishes than simple soups: fruits and milk based desserts, notably rice pudding, inspired by the best seller, la Nouvelle Heloise.”

It should be pointed out that the idea that the inn simply offered common tables, here, is a myth. You could eat in your room, or you could eat at a table apart, depending on the capaciousness of the inn.

But LI has wandered into facts, here, taking us away from the bonds between taste, privacy, and intimacy. Hmm, that will be for another post.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

menus, cartes, and where we are

In the OED, the first meaning of menu is – the common people. Sons of the menu seems to have been a seventeenth century phrase. The second meaning, a schedule or list, takes its first instance of menu in English from a book, in 1830, that refers to French cooking.

In his essay on Grimod de la Reynier’s Almanach in Consuming Culture, the arts of the French Table, Michael Garval (whose homepage links to a “menu of the month” ) describes the frontispiece, which presented a little semi-humorous cartoon of the gourmand, with the bibliotheque of the 19th gourmand (bookshelves overflowing with provisions), his meditations, the first duty of an Amphitrion “with the master of the house, in the kitchen, receiving a menu from his chef,” his dreams, his awakening, and then “le plus mortel ennemi du diner”, in “which the gourmand spoils his appetite by indulging in an overly copious lunch.” I am probably not the first person to see this as a parody of Descartes in the Discours, right? So I won’t flog the comparison. What is interesting, instead, is the appearance of this menu in the household. The civilizing process, man. From the aristocrat’s schedule to the bourgeois’s grand palaces of gourmandise to the driveby ‘can I take your order’, something is happening here. But do we know what it is?

Of course, it is menu in English, but carte gastronomique in the early nineteenth century. A carte is a map, which implies a referent in which one orients oneself – a space. But what kind of space is this – the space of cuisine?

Well, I could take a leap here into Kant’s essay on orientation, which is actually a pretty good intro to the always fascinating topic of left and right and might give us some anchors for the ur-text of preferences (remember, of course, that while menus and restaurants are appearing in Paris, Bentham is dividing the moral world into pleasures and pains, a binary over which one can calculate – in fact, LI, at this moment, has half a mind to claim an intimate connection between the origin of the political economic text, constitutions and menus – text types bound together in this moment, a disguised relationship that seems to have attracted few critics – yes, many are the ties that bind the U.S. Constitution to the menu at the Taco place up the street, and a true American deconstructor, or simply your average KritikDJ, would set about mixing one with the other, scratch scratch) but let’s stick, for a moment, with Grimod.

Ah, let's do that in our next post.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

menus con't

Give me liberty, or give me death, and can you make that with extra cheese?” – Patrick Henry at the Burger King

When I cast my beady, crow’s eyes over the long stretch of modernity – in these dog, dead days, I have little else to amuse me – I see nothing that so aptly fits Polanyi’s model of the disembedding of the economy as the rise of the menu – the course of which is, appropriately, a blank as far as I can tell. No opus to light the weary traveler on his way. Just the kind of trace that makes my juices flow. At the same time, of course, LI is a humble blogger, no maker of opuses but a poker of holes: we aren’t going to build Rome in a thousand words or less, or give you the foundations of menu-ology here.

In the two scenes we picked out from two movies in our last post, it would be easy to leave the menus behind. Like the King in Las Meninas, or – a better comparison – like the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors, gracing Lacan’s Seminaire, volume 11, they are where the gazes are gathered and the source that builds the space the gazes all span. So, what royal personage is doing the looking here? Well, it is LI’s humble contention, and the root of the insanity that has obviously driven him mad, that the gaze that stares out from the menu is the fly’s gaze, one in which two hundred flavors of ice cream, thirty brands of corn flakes, eggs with rye toast or steak cooked to your preference and ten combinations of milk (soy, whole, or one percent) and coffee can be held in balance, equally. The restaurant ain’t no panopticon, but it is one of the many entrances to the fly’s world, the kingdom of Capital. And we do know the name of the Lord of the Flies, don’t we?

Not that LI is particularly kicking against Belzebuub. We are humble servitors, more humble, because more miserably unsuccessful, than most - we simply have a causist’s quibble with the definition of freedom in the fly’s kingdom. That definition is spelled out in preferences, and he who says preferences says a pricing and market mechanism before you can say “still working on that, sir?” Or, “do you want onions and pickle on that?” What better text for preferences is there, what better object of the neo-classical school than the menu? Belzebuub’s poetic conceit is that all that exists, exists to be put on a menu. It functions not only to separate and classify choices, but to civilize and educate. Just as the child’s growth as a biological entity is measured by yardsticks and charts, the child’s entry into the fly’s kingdom comes by way of learning about, well, entrees.

All of which is LI creeping towards his object and around it again, instead of making the bold pounce. Maybe I can make the pounce in the next, or the next, post.

for a history of the menu

When I wrote my master’s thesis on seriousness, I spoke, in the Pauline phrase, as a child – or rather as a child of French philosophy. Thus, I did not look hard enough at English sources to find references to seriousness. I did find that seriousness has never been seriously thematized in philosophy, even though it has been inherent since Socrates made his first wisecrack. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this while reading Hazlitt – who I read to strengthen my prose style. (My master’s thesis, by the way, is that seriousness never really forms an opposite – it is always a wildcard in the play of the dialectic, and thus functions both to maintain and to deconstruct the system of oppositions within metaphysics. About which I could go on at length, but… being in all things merciful to my readers … I won’t):

“To understand or define the ludicrous, we must first know what the serious is. Now the serious is the habitual stress which the mind lays upon the expectation of a given order of events, following one another with a certain regularity and weight of interest attached to them. When this stress is increased beyond its usual pitch of intensity, so as to overstrain the feelings by the violent opposition of good to bad, or of object to our desires, it becomes the pathetic or tragical. The ludicrous, or comic, is the unexpected loosening or relaxing this stress below its usual pitch of intensity, by such an abrupt transposition of the order of our ideas, as taking the mind unawares, throws it off its guard, startles it into a lively sense of pleasure, and leaves no time nor inclination for painful reflections.”

There is much that is wrong with this – and especially the naïve distinction between pain and pleasure – but the nice thing about it is that Hazlitt recognizes that the serious is distinct not just from the ludicrous, but from the tragic.

Now, myself, as a loser, I have found that every oracle in my life eventually pokes a big stick up my ass except for the ludicrous – and so I have followed it like my own personal destiny, and here I now sit, a crow in all but feathers, cawing over the corpse of the American culture in its Bushian phase, where painful reflection mixes inextricably with the clownish. That culture, as I grew up with it, I realize dimly, is an aspect of war culture, which has its zones and manners.

But on to the subject of this post, which is existential freedom, liberalism, and the menu.

A few days ago, LI was visiting our local video store when the clerks put on a movie that stands out, in our mind, for loathsomeness. Not the loathsomeness of catsup flecked fx, nor that of porno raunch, but a more dreadful, soul destroying loathsomeness, a glimpse into the dark abysm of the middle class soul. I am speaking, of course, of When Sally Met Harry. Or is it When Harry Met Sally? In any case, I was visiting just as Meg Ryan was seated with -- oh, what’s his name, the guy who plays Harry, that sadsack comic – and she was ordering something at a restaurant. And it flashed on my senses that this scene was obviously referencing the scene in Five Easy Pieces when Jack Nicholson tried to order breakfast at a diner. Now, while FEP isn’t my favorite piece of cinema, the anger in Nicholson has a didactic quality that LI likes – for here, in a nutshell, is the problem with social contract liberalism, with its notion that freedom is about preferences. The solution to that anger, in FEP, for this form of liberalism, is expanding the preferences – hence, the same scene in WHMS, in which we get glimpses of what the hippie revolution wrought in lifestyle America – a place where a decent latte is never too far away. Or something like that.

Now LI has long contended that freedom isn’t defined by preferences – that, in fact, the idea of identifying freedom in that technical, economic sense with political freedom per se is exactly where the libertarian goes wrong. There is a rather beautiful phrase is G. Baum’s book on Karl Polanyi: “This, then, is Polanyi’s orginal argument: the longing of the bourgeois conscience transcends the possibilities of bourgeois society. What this conscience calls for is the creation of a transparent society that allows its members to estimate the effects of what they are doing and thus assume ethical responsibility for their actions.”

I am not sure about the transparency, but I am sure about the longing and the anger when that longing is marginalized, or translated into mere preference mongering.

Now, one thing about both movies is that the scenes are centered around the interaction between a text and social action – the text being the menu. I have looked around, but in vain, for a history of menus. Menus are considered to be so obvious that the fact that menus weren’t present in places where people came to eat – inns, basically – until the start of restauranting in the late 18th century doesn’t really register as a historically interesting event. To see how people would enter an inn and order food or drink, look, for instance, at Don Quixote. Or the 18th century picaresque. No character brandishes a menu in these texts. In fact, the same thing is true in Dickens -- characters are continually being brought chops and beer, but you don't see the characters asking, well, what type of beer do you have? Although by this time, actually, that sentence was starting to make sense.

This is why my next post will be about Grimod de la Reyniere, the man who wrote the first popular restaurant guide, the Almanach des gourmands. Overshadowed by Brillat-Savarin, Grimod de la Reyniere is now experiencing a little renaissance of interest by pop culture scholars.

Or at least that is what I think the next post will be about.

Monday, August 21, 2006

my buds and companeros, the hummers

LI hopes readers haven’t found our last two posts intolerably dull. The thing is, the graphix novel we are working on does some projecting into the future. We have been dreaming of a period of great thirst, as the extent of glacial melting starts truly drying up drinking water sources, some time after 2040. Our little dystopian vision is of a Rwanda like situation in which the generation that drove cars (called "the Hummers") is systematically slaughtered by their offspring. How that fits into the plot remains to be seen. So, in any case, we are playing around with a vocabulary and vision. Sorry for the longeurs.

Ah, the symbols of the great glacier melt. Last week, the British papers had an interesting story about the reappearance of the body of a climber lost on Mount Blanc in 1989:

From the Daily Telegraph:

“THE mummified remains of a British mountaineer who vanished 17 years ago have been found in a melting glacier in the Italian Alps.
Michael Seavers, 31, was one of three British climbers who disappeared in a snowstorm with a German companion.

The bodies of William Ogburn, 32, and Leslie Lawrence, 29, were found within six months of the tragedy.

But Mr Seavers's body and that of his German companion Dirk Ziolkowske, 24, have not been found until now.

A guide said yesterday that he had seen their remains last Friday and mountain rescue teams recovered them from an altitude of 10,500ft, close to the Toula glacier on the Italian side of Mt Blanc.”

The alps are the scene of some geologically interesting stuff at the moment. They are actually growing again. As the weight of the alpine glaciers diminishes, the mountains grow inches taller. And how much is that weight going to diminish?

This is from Biotech week:

“Scientists consider glaciers to be among the best natural indicators of climate change and, therefore, monitor them closely. Rapidly shrinking glacier areas, spectacular tongue retreats, and increasing mass losses are clear signs of the atmospheric warming observed in the Alps during the last 150 years.

Michael Zemp and colleagues in the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich note that in the 1970s, about 5,150 Alpine glaciers covered a total area of 2,909 square kilometers [1,123 square miles]. This represented a loss of about 35% of glacial area from 1850 to that time. Accelerated loss of ice cover since then has resulted in a total loss of 50% of the 1850 area, culminating in a volume loss of 5 to 10% of the remaining ice during the extraordinary warm year of 2003.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an increase in summer air temperature of one to five degrees Celsius [two to nine degrees Fahrenheit] and a precipitation change between minus-20% and plus-30% by the end of the 21st century is a plausible scenario. The University of Zurich researchers say that for each one degree Celsius [two degrees Fahrenheit] increase in mean summer temperature, precipitation would have to increase by 25% to offset the glacial loss.”

There is a lake in the center of Austin. It wasn’t there one hundred years ago. It might well not be there a hundred years from now. But nobody is going to experience that span. Rather, our experiences are in the permanent. The way you make it home from work is permanent. The work you do is permanent. Sun rises permanently. Sun sets permanently. What is now is, of course, permanent. What is now always was and always will be.

Only fanatics – the kind of people who never say amen - could think otherwise.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


“Few polls were take to measure the air force’s success in public relations, but by June 1945 a Fortune survey indicated progress. As Fortune put it, “The people are sold on peace through air power.” On more subjective grounds, the air force also had reason for optimism as 1945 appraoched because doubts ere arising within the military establishment about public support for a large peacetime ground army. Arnold believed that Americans would support in its place a powerful air foce making few demands on manpower and responding to public anxieties, nourished by the air force itself, about defending against future Pearl Harbors.” The Rise of American Air Power: the creation of Armageddon by Michael Sherry

He sew his eyes shut
Because he is afraid to see – Nine Inch Nails

The conclusion I draw from my last post is nothing so facile as that all wars are one war. That is an analytic dead end. But I’d suggest that the set of wars that have taken place between 1939 and, say, the beginning of the Heat Death era, around 2040, form a distinct, unified historical epoch. And that war, here, has to include events that are usually segregated from it – the mass transformation of infrastructure that appeared all across the globe (dams, irrigation systems, road systems, the dispersal of urban areas into subways), the great scientific and technological research systems, the psychology-education complex – etc.

We are citizens of the wars. War men and women, war races. Human product among low use populations – this should be the caption for much of our history at the moment. We have devised elaborate plots behind which the parts actually fit together, the hidden patterns come alive, and we love them. We are entertained infinitely by our own destruction. And such has been the creation of cosmo-polemos.

This is why I find articles like Ralph’s fascinating. It begins with those events that have been rather forgotten relative to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“On the night of 9 March 1945, 325 B-29 ‘Superfortresses’, based in the Marianas and under the command of Major General Curtis E. LeMay, dropped 1665 tons of bombs, all of which were incendiaries,on the heart of residential Tokyo. The bombs generated a ferocious, unstoppable firestorm that consumed 15.8 square miles of the city and killed a roughly estimated 100 000 of its citizens. The targeted residential zone bordered a large manufacturing sector of the city: consequently 22 numbered industrial targets were destroyed and struck from the target list the next morning. By official Japanese estimates, 267 171 buildings were levelled (one-quarter of the city), and 1 008 005 Japanese were left homeless.2 Viewed as a massive success by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), the Tokyo raid kicked off a firebombing campaign. that laid waste to more than 60 of Japan’s largest cities and killed hundreds of thousands of its civilians by the end of the Second World War.”

Historians of the war confront a puzzle, here. U.S. air policy, laid out in the 1930s, was very clear about what the Brits called ‘area bombing.’ Roosevelt, in a speech in 1939, said:

“The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women and children has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.”

Roosevelt wasn’t just engaging in rhetoric. The U.S. air power policy developed in the thirties specifically aimed at destroying the industrial fabric of enemy power. In the air war over Germany, the U.S. tried, at least, to adhere to this policy. When, in 1945, Dresden was destroyed by an Anglo-American fleet of bombers, a British officer, C.M. Grierson, suggested at a press conference that the purpose was to kill civilians, it disturbed the American command. In fact, the destruction of German cities, Operation Clarion, was discussed and disputed with these issues in mind:

“Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, former commander of the 8th Air Force in Germany, wrote to Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz (who was then co-ordinating Clarion) and asked him not to carry out the attack: ‘We should never allow the history of this war to convict us of throwing the strategic bomber against the man in the street.’12 Spaatz went ahead with Clarion anyway, but remained, according to one general’s diary, ‘determined that the American Air Forces will not end this war with a reputation for indiscriminate bombing’.”

Given this dialogue in the European theater, why was the Pacific theater so different?

Ralph’s structured answer gives weight to the logical development, out of precision bombing, of a terror bombing policy. But in practice, terror bombing was enacted due to the interplay between Curtis LeMay and General ‘Hap’ Hapgood Arnold. It was not planned, but emerged as an improvisation from a context in which it was dialectically prefigured -- by which I simply mean that the boundaries that defined the industrial attrition policy were always subject to change, and were never anchored to any logical constant. Both LeMay and Hapgood knew that they were facing a potential crisis: peace. Hapgood was a strong advocate of strengthening the Air Force and keeping it independent from the army. Independence meant resources.

The Committee assessing the air war over Japan, as Ralph describes it, went from advocating the destruction of industry according to the thirties strategic framework to consideration of the “intriguing idea,” as one General put it, of promoting “complete chaos” in six cities by killing “584,000 people.” But this was put in terms of its economic effects – for killing people as people did make one feel a bit of a heel. Rather, the 584,000 would be workers. Human product. Subtract workers and you effect the economy.

These thoughts, then, were in the Air Force mind. And there were threats closing in:

“The pressure to do ever more for the purpose of air force independence manifested itself in many ways. First to feel it were those within the B-29 programme. As mentioned above, Arnold had risked his career for this US$3 billion endeavour. It was the B-29 that could grant air force independence, because it was the weapon that could deliver fire-power in ways the army and navy could not. But Arnold constantly risked losing his B-29s to the insatiable needs of the army and navy. In early 1944 Arnold specifically designed the 20th Air Force (which would contain the XX and XXI Bomber Commands) to be as far removed from other branches of the military as possible. In a novel fashion, the 20th reported not to the army, but directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Arnold, a member of the JCS, was both commanding general of the 20th as well as executive agent for the JCS in the Pentagon.36 The JCS created the broad strategic framework, but within that framework Arnold
could do essentially whatever he wanted.37

“Command freedom did not guarantee wartime independence, however. Arnold was very candid in his memoirs about his fears that the Air Forces would be subordinated in the Pacific theatre. He recalled that Admiral King, the highly effective commander of the US Fleet, said, ‘Trouble with all this rearrangement and reorganization is your Air Force, Hap. If you would take your Air Force and bring it over to the Navy, then the Navy … would be the largest and most powerful force in the world.’38 Arnold certainly had no desire to follow this plan, and was instead determined to keep his 20th as far from naval operations as possible. But even if Arnold maintained an independent air arm, he still would have to prove he was achieving results with his B-29s in order to keep them.”

Keeping what you got – this is the essence of great drama. Arnold, like the Golem in Lord of the Rings, wanted his precious. And the navy was threatening to take his precious away. And what stood between him and his loss? A buncha Japanese civilians.

These rivalries have become a thing of comedy. However, the 584,000 Japanese, in addition to contributing to the war effort, were notoriously humorless, which meant that, as they were dying, they wouldn’t be dying of laughter. Which is funny, since laughter is the best medicine.

So, 1944 was coming to a close, and the precision bombing campaign, which Arnold had entrusted to the man who developed the precision bombing strategy, Hansell, had been pounding Japan. Precision bombing depended on the relatively primitive guiding technology the air force had, and on weather. The publicity was bad about the bombing of the steel factories that were targeted according to the earlier protocol, since they stubbornly withstood bombardment. In the meantime, over in China, Curtis LeMay was doing wonders. Somehow, his B-29s were getting to their targets in Japan at twice the rate of Hansell’s.

So it all started to click. If precision bombing depended on such complexities, perhaps one could considering widening the cone of destruction. Hansell was asked to make a whole incendiary strike on Nagoya. The purpose was specifically to kill civilians. Hansell answered back:

“I have with great difficulty implanted the principle that our mission is the destruction of selected primary targets by sustained and determined attacks using precision bombing methods … We are just
beginning to get results … I am concerned that a change to area bombing of the cities will undermine the progress we have made.”

Well, this resistance was no good.

“Arnold did not want to hear about any more problems from Hansell; he was impatient, and wanted reports of big results. As he said himself, the ‘best evidence of how you are getting along is the pictures of the destruction that you have accomplished against your primary targets’.53 Hansell was not providing these pictures. Shortly after Hansell’s interview, Arnold made the decision to relieve Hansell and replace him with LeMay. Norstad delivered the news to Hansell in person on 6 January. Again, Hansell was shocked, but now also extremely disappointed. General Arnold wrote to him soon after, explaining his reasoning for the change in command: ‘The job from now on is no longer planning and pioneering. It has become one of operating. LeMay … should be our best qualified operator.’54 This small statement is most revealing. Arnold did not want a planner in charge of his B-29s: he needed someone who would just get things done; again, he wanted results – and fast.”

One often reads about how the Truman White House had its eye on the Soviets during the last phase of the war against Japan. Or that the main point, vide Paul Fussell, was to save American lives. But we should also remember how many eyes were turned to Boeing. And how easily we can go from precision bombing to ‘area bombing.’ In fact, it seems to be the history of the use of American air power after WWII.