“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, September 29, 2007

From a wierd wedding to a minefield


“Let us return to what we have called the double movement. It can be personified as the action of two organizing principles in society, each of them setting itself specific institutional aims, having the support of definite social forces and using its own distinctive methods. The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market, relying on the support of the trading classes, and using largely laissez-faire and free trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market - primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes - and using protective legislation, restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods.” – Karl Polanyi

I have just finished Gregory Clark’s much lauded A Farewell to Alms, which weirdly weds the New Growth apercu – that knowledge, unlike other resources, gives us increasing returns, which is why there is no upward bound to growth – to Malthus – who is, if anything, known for having the very fierce view that the upward bound to growth is determined by the iron relationship between population and subsistence. Imagine, if you will, the bride of Frankenstein marrying Dracula. I won’t go into all the ins and outs of Clark’s view – I’m saving that for my Austin Statesman review – but I did find the attack on the institutionalists a little weird. Clark goes after the founders of the school for setting the beginning point of the industrial revolution at 1688. For the institutionalists, the pre-conditions for capitalism were institutions that preserved property rights, secured social stability, and produced, however modestly, a political feedback system between the rulers and the ruled.
Polanyi’s name is never mentioned in Clark’s text, partly because orthodox economist despise Karl Polanyi. But it should have been. Polanyi unpacks that notion of a feedback much more aggressively than it was later to be unpacked by Douglass North.
My ultimate goal, in tracing the rise of a particular happiness ethos and the ruin of all previous systems of emotional custom and charactermaking, is to embed this process in the Great Transformation. This is why the early nineteenth century – when the lineaments of heaven and hell on earth become, suddenly, much clearer – is so important to my thesis. And this is why it opens the thesis up to show the ‘esoteric’ contribution to psychology made by animal magnetism in creating the polar affect model, since this, too, is clearly marked by the double movement – at once aligning itself with the need for an administrative psychology and registering a deep discontent with the system that requires that psychology. We fight the enemy within, who fights his own enemy within, who is – us. It is a war of mental telepaths, I’m telling you! Or, to put it in other terms – it exactly outlines the epistemological problem of the realistic novel.

My next move is to take one of the men of 1789, Carl Gustav Carus – actually born in 1789 – and show how he used polarity, by way of Schelling, to produce a psychology now known, if at all, for the fact that it foreshadowed Freud’s notion of the unconscious – but known to use connoisseurs of PAM for the straightforward introduction of magnetic terms. Carus was not just a psychologist, he was a painter, a friend of Caspar David Friedrich. Which is, of course, almost too perfect, like discovering that your fieldwork is set in a minefield.

Friday, September 28, 2007

An austin day

Mostly, I think Austin is becoming your average urban professional car park. But sometimes you get pleasant glimpses of the older city. Today, for instance: first, I am drinking coffee at Whole Foods and a woman sits down and I notice, with admiration, that she has writing in Chinese, I think, of some sort tattooed on her back – and when I ask her about it, she explains that it is a poem from the fifth master, which, translated into English, makes for a pretty lousy poem. But a nice idea! Then a man stops by my table to inform me that Paul Simon wrote a song about numbers in 1982 – he does this, I realize, because the book I am reading David Boyle’s The Sum of our Discontent: why numbers make us irrational. Then I go to the post office and what do I see but a man who had tattooed not only his face, but his entire head. After depositing my letter, I was riding back up sixth street and passed by a man who was ambling along with nothing more on than a pretty green ribbon, tied in a little bow around his penis. And no, it wasn’t the town’s show off and mascot transvestite, Leslie. However, more impressive perhaps than the penis was the bare feet. On a sixth street sidewalk! Goddamn, I’ve had numerous flat tires from broken glass along this stretch of road, so I could only think that not only had he found a harmless outlet for displaying his gear, but he must have tough padded skin on his feet.

If only he had been marching down fifth street, lowering the property values of the yuppie towers of Babel.

the collective temperament

In Stendhal’s On Love, he takes six temperaments – the sanguine, the bilious, the melancholic, the phlegmatic, the nervous, and the athletic – and pairs them with six political situations – asian despotism, absolute monarchy, constitutional aristocracy a la Britain, republicanism a la the U.S., constitutional monarchy, and revolution – and from that pairing comes up with different regimes of love. Notice that the athletic and the revolutionary are paired.

Here’s what he says about the revolutionary – this is the myth that still has that fatal attraction for certain esprits, of which LI counts himself, reluctantly, one:

A state in revolution, like Spain [this is 1830], Portugal, France. This situation of a country, giving a lively passion to everybody, puts nature in the moeurs, destroys the stupidities, the convenient virtues, the stupid conventional wisdom, gives seriousness to youth, and makes him despise the love of vanity and neglect gallantry.

This state can endure for a long time and form the habits of a generation. In France, it began in 1788, was interrupted in 1802, and recommenced in 1815, to finish God knows when.”


The idea that peoples have a temperament was familiar to the Greeks. The idea that generations have a temperament, though – that is a product of the Enlightenment discovery of progress. Surely, if there is progress in the arts and sciences, if civilization is becoming ever more civilized, than today’s children must be bearers of tomorrow’s higher degree of civilization. So it makes sense to speak of the children of 1789 or 1815 – although, for Stendhal, this observation doesn’t have the systematic weight it will later have for someone like Dilthey.

This is just the kind of observation that should please a novelist, or at least the new kind of novelist of the Balzacian or Stendhalian type. This is the man who proposes to grasp the spiritual essence of his culture within the confines of some sufficiently rich and connected narrative. Instead of allegory, this narrative will be an epitome – a sample illuminating the whole. A nice, statistical thing – and of course, when Stendhal wrote this, nice statistical ways of thinking were finally taking off.

Interestingly – I get this from reading James Simpson’s Burning to Read, which I am reviewing – Luther, in his introduction to his translation of the New Testament, tells his readers that the essential books are the Gospel of John, Paul’s epistles, and the first epistle of Peter. Why? Because the other gospels were full of stories. Luther liked John’s gnostical pontifications and Paul’s theorizing – o, Paul is a causuistical little spider – which wrapped around a metaphysical being, Jesus, who Paul evidently knew little about. Stories, on the other hand, are so… contingent. What do they mean? What is the point? That Lutheran skepticism takes up residence in the head of every novelist, of course, who must at one point or another ask him or herself – why am I spending my life daydreaming about imaginary people? Stendhal, however, has both the moraliste tradition and his materialism – out of Helvetius, recognizing in Bentham a sort of kinship – to underwrite his narrative ambitions, and he can laugh at the German transcendentalists, with their anxious search for new allegories.

Another thing we should see here – and we should see all over Stendhal’s On Love – is how the temperament of a people and the temperament of a generation point us to sex as one of the keys of the age. The relationship between the novelist’s larger task – the grasping of the culture’s essence – and sex is obvious from the novelist’s point of view, and troubling for those outside it. I love Norman Mailer for having taken up this burden in the most showy of ways possible, and going through every novelistic station, from the vilest sexism to the most superstitious of sexual takes. Stendhal, of course, is less ‘metaphysical’, but like Mailer, is an egotist – long before Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself there was Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist.

Enough for today.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

in the american grain

When the news reached London of General Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga in 1778, Lord Chatham made a speech in the House of Commons, the like of which will never be made by any of the senatorial scum who currently prod the American Republic down the slope to hell. Here’s part of what he said:

“No man thinks more highly than I of the virtue and valour of British troops; I know they can achieve anything except impossibilities; and the conquest of English America is an impossibility… You cannot conquer America… You may swell every expense and every effort still more extravagantly… traffic and barter with every pitiful Geram prince that sells his subjects to the shambles of a foreign power; your efforts are forever vain and impotent, doubly so from this mercenary aid on which you rely, for it irritates to an incurable resentment the minds of your enemies… If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I would never lay down my arms, never – never – never!”

A good jumping off point for discussing the recent Blackwater massacre in Baghdad, and the American response. It is hard to respond when you are either brain dead or in deep freeze, so the American response has been, of course, a big lukewarm zilch. We can’t disturb the drift as we float ever closer to the Niagara, no matter how much faith we have put in short term memory loss and attention deficit disorder – this country’s favorite hobbies – to get us through the dark night of our Britneyized soul, another possum superpower hoping to avoid the broken mirror’s curse that comes from massacring the innocents. And there’s always Christmas. .

That America will never conquer Iraq, and seems intent on destroying the supports that all power must rely on – the intangible and presumptive threat of efficient force, rationally directed – has been a given at LI since 2003. We’ve ceased to write much about it – for who, among the lobotomized zombies of the electorate, the tranquilized slugs of the opposition, with the miles of bacon fat wrapped around the moral indignation or any morality whatsoever, who cares? So watching these ghouls maintain, at one and the same time, that we have to attack Iran and that we also don’t have one thousand American soldiers to replace a security force with the mores and moves of your average prison gang – I mean Blackwater – is a matter for House of Usher comedy, pedaled B movie laughter, the big fuck you in the closing moments as the hero takes out his cock and wiggles it. I can feel, every day, the corruption and filthiness of the chords that bind me, in thousands of ways, to this sickened country and its toxic momentum, but these chords are like those that bound Doctor Jekyll to Mr. Hyde – you can’t dissolve them without dissolving the motherfucking whole. Still, occasionally a mockingbird will whistle and jeer just for the pleasure of cussing, and LI will kick out with the spasmodic motion of a hanged man, crap running down our legs. So here’s the windup and here’s the pitch…

Way back when we started this blog, we wrote several posts about Angola – the alliance between the Marxist president of Angola and the Bush administration which led to the gunning down of Reagan’s favorite freedom fighter, Jonas Savimbi, struck us as an almost perfect post-Cold War fable… oh the synergies… On the one side, the always disgusting and corrupt ‘Marxist’ left, historically on the side of the slave traders, but with piped in neo-folk music. On the other side, the paymaster right, which of course the Marxy crowd could appreciate – after all, wasn’t profit and loss the be-all and end all of the dialectic? and thus both parties happily thriving on blood diamonds, blood oil, and blood ballots. A marriage truly made in hell, and to put a corpse on top of the wedding cake, apartheid South Africa’s old friend ambushed by ‘Angolan’ forces. Two excerpts from posts we made about this back on June 17 and June 21, 2002:

“A scandal identi-kit.

It works like this. The detective parks his car across the street from the warehouse, he gets out his camera, he takes pictures of men carrying briefcases meeting and exchanging them. The detective follows cars, he takes pictures of meetings in parks and under bridges.

We've seen this, right? The pictures, the movie, the implied plot. So here are a few pictures.

One would show Jacques Chirac meeting with George Bush on December 18, 2000 in Washington, DC at the French Embassy. One would show a former US supported "Freedom fighter," Jonas Savimbi, with fifteen bullets in him, gripping a gun. One would show Eduardo Dos Santos, the president of Angola and former hardline Marxist foe of Savimbo, being feted at a White House dinner shortly after Savimbo's assassination. And one would show an arms dealer named Pierre Falcone (whose wife Sonia, a former Miss Bolivia, is Laura Bush's friend) getting together $20,.000 to contribute to Bush's presidential campaign through his wife's beauty products corporation, Essante. In all, $100,000 was contributed during the campaign, and then, in 2001, returned when Falcone went to jail.

Falcone is not unknown to Chirac -- or to his old rival, Mitterand. In fact, he is one of the central figures in one of those simmering French scandals that would destroy the regime in another country: the arms trafficing scandal that involved Mitterand's son, Jean-Christophe, and huge, unaccounted for sums, as well as a mafioso style Russian arms dealer, Arkadi Gaydamak.

This isn't a story we've seen covered in the NYT. It runs through Angola and traces the surprising fault lines of the New World Order. How new worldish it is can be gauged by what happened to Jonas Savimba.

In the old days -- the eighties -- Savimbi was a right wing hero. Probably the only black man Jesse Helms ever willingly ate with, he was praised by Reagan as a George Washington type figure. His UNITA guerrillas were fed with American money, trained (as far as they had any training) by the CIA, and armed by the CIA, too.

But when the Soviet threat dissolved, Savimbi was undone by the economic facts on the ground. Those facts were about oil. The suddenly capitalistic dos Santos could deliver the oil. Savimbi, the loser of the first post-communist election, could only deliver his mad dog personality. And suddenly that personality wasn't in demand. The invites to the Helms house were on permanent hold. Savimbi retires with his guys to the bocage, of course, and forays out to attack airliners, murder villagers, rape women, and do all the stuff that made him George Washington in the first place. Well, how inconvenient. So he is tracked down -- perhaps with American help -- and killed:

"Fifteen bullets in all -- one in the neck, two in the head, the others in the chest, legs and arms -- finally overcame the boss of UNITA, who is dead at 67 years of age, Friday at 3 p.m. on the banks of the Luvuie River at Moxico." So read the announcement of his unhappy death this February. Another old cold warrior bites the dust, gangster style."

The way American intelligence agencies leave their assets around -- Savimbi in Angola, bin Laden in Afghanistan -- it is like some drunk Texas trucker throwing beer cans out the cab. Human litter, but somebody has to pick it up.

However, never let it be said that Savimbi's less glorious years had no function or meaning. With UNITA threatening him, dos Santos, backed by various American petro-chemical companies, such as Dick Cheney's Haliburton, needed arms. The desire for arms and drugs is the only unlimited desire known to mankind. Luckily, in this world, an embattled dictator can always find somebody to sell him a few hundred million dollars worth of weaponry; this is where Falcone, with his buddy Gaydamak, and his connections with Chirac and his faithful friend, Jean-Christophe Mitterand, fits in. As does ( scumbags of the world display the most touching solidarity) Clinton's good friend, Marc Rich, the on the run moneybags whose company, Glencore, deals in oil.”

Angola (part 2)

I know the names of those responsible for the slaughter
I know the names of those responsible for the slaughters
I know the names of the summit that manipulated
I know the names of those who ran
I know the names of the powerful group who
I know the names of those who, between on mass and the next, made provision and guaranteed political protection
I know the names of the important and serious figures behind who are behind the ridiculous figures who
I know the names of the important and serious figures behind the tragic kids who
I know all these names and all the acts (the slaughters, the attacks on institutions) they have been guilty of
- Pier Paolo Pasolini

This passage, from one of Pasolini's hallucinatory articles in the early seventies - the articles that possibly led to him being lured to a beach and murdered - is quoted in Peter Robb's excellent Midnight in Sicily, to which we have previously referred in our post on Sciascia. Pasolini, Robb says, went on to explain that he knew, but he didn't have proof. He knew, however, because "I am a writer and an intellectual who tries to follow what goes on, to imagine what is known and what is kept quiet, who pieces together the disorganized fragments of a whole and coherent political picture, who restores logic where arbitrariness, mystery and madness seem to prevail."

The American writer, burdened with a less active imagination, and a set of cliches that tend either to Hollywood or to the pisspoor identity kit politics that has narcotized academia for the past ten years, usually pieces together nothing but a homemade prejudice, a narcissistic grievance.

And LI is an American writer, all right? So don't ask me to rise to the heights.

Still, the quote seems appropriate as LI pulls back, these days,. Have you been getting the full heady rush of the world of blowback in your nostrils, your skin, your nerves, your blood, reader? …


Yes, that's the basic gripe, the root of the anti-corporate movement: the fear that the globalizing world is returning us to the calm regard of the beast. We would no longer ask how it works -- just as we accept any of the improbable crap we see in typical Hollywood action flicks. The discontinuity, the shallowness, or non-existence, of character, the one note motives. Those films, the malls, the traffic, the talk radio -- all of it is about culture sinking to its lowest, dumbest level. It is the debauched image of the romantic ideal, life without questions, except for the unfortunate few -- okay, the vast majority -- who have been left outside of the all the golden gated communities.



For instance, we think that the story of what happened, and has been happening, in Angola, has something ghoulishly exemplary about it. The events that flow into and out of the death of Jonas Savimbi, madman and murder that he was, the George Washington of dirty diamonds, the strong right arm of evangelical Christians (2)(some of whose leaders, like Pat Robertson (3), have strong and secret ties in this region of the world with diamond dealers, arms merchants, and some of the bloodiest tyrants of recent history), show that once again, Africa is where the white man lets down his pants, as Celine once wrote, and takes a dump. It seems to have been little remarked that Cheney is the first Vice President ever to have hired a mercenary army in a foreign land. Is this the Oliver North syndrome or what? Yes, as head of Haliburton, which includes the giant engineering firm, Brown and Root, Cheney was involved, no doubt at a distance, with a South African company named Executive Outcomes. Executive Outcomes -- which has dissolved, and reformed under a different name, last year -- was a PMC -- a private military company. Oh, it wasn't anything as tawdry as a group of hired killers. There's a rather laudatory article about EO in the magazine of the College of the Army, Parameters. Here's a list of such PMCs:

"A 1997 study by the private Center for Defense Information lists dozens of such organizations with international operations. South Africa has been the leading home of international security companies, including Executive Outcomes, Combat Force, Investments Surveys, Honey Badger Arms and Ammunition, Shield Security, Kas Enterprises, Saracen International, and Longreach Security. International military firms based in other parts of the world include Alpha Five, Corporate Trading International, Omega Support Ltd., Parasec Strategic Concept, Jardine Securicor Gurkha Services (Hong Kong), Gurkha Security Guards (Isle of Man, UK), Special Project Service Ltd. (UK), Defence Systems Ltd. (UK), Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), Vinnell Corporation (US), and Military Professional Resources Inc. (US). Executive Outcomes (South Africa) has been described as "the world's first fully equipped corporate army."

Isn't that something? a fully equipped corporate army. Press on the pedals, bring out the irony. Savimbi's UNITA army was undone by dos Santos by these guys, with Heritage Oil being, apparently, the middleman. The EO guys once fought for UNITA -- back in the days when dos Santos was a Marxist threat. Now, of course, dos Santos is merely a highly corrupt billionaire, and EO is happy to do the dirty in his employ. Heritage Oil meanwhile maintains its own little connections with the Bush family. There's an article in the Observatoire de Afrique Centrale this week that fingers Tony Buckingham, a Canadian diamond merchant and soldier of fortune, as the man behind Heritage's African explorations in petrowealth. Heritage also holds stock in one of the PMC's that murdered protestors at a mine in Papua New Guinea in 1997. Cheney's associates, in other words, happen to have a little blood on their cuffs, but that's all right. Who's going to ask any questions about it? It 's a matter of keeping the natives under control, and lately isn't the mood changing? Isn't imperialism the new new thing?

I know the names. We all know the names. But do we really give a fuck?”

Since 2002, innocent days, the milk not even dry in our mouths, we have learned a lot. For instance, we know that the fix is in re the thugs. We know that they are keepers – the House likes them, the ever in the background House, by which I mean the owners of the casino, the Bosses. Just as their great great grandfathers loved the thugs

One should remember the anti-union police of the turn of the century, and their police friends, for these are the spiritual ancestors of Blackwater. The same mix of sadism and righteousness went into these para-militaries: the ones that were hired by Republic Steel to break strikes in the 1930s, the Baldwin-Felts detective force, made famous in Sayers film, Matewan. This is from Robert Michael Smith’s From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A history of commercialized strikebreaking:

One of the largest mine operators in this part of the state [of West Virginia], Justus Collins, first turned to this agency for guards to protect his property in 1893. Less than ten years later, he utilized these same men to break a UMWA-sponsored strike. After joining his fellow operators, who agreed to enfoce a thirty-day lockout, in June of 1902 he broke ranks by bringin in one hundred and fifty scab workers. Protected by forty Baldwin-Felts men, who guarded the iron gates to themine and manned searchlights and a machine gun mounted upon the coal tipple, he reaped a fortune…

Found in nearly every mining community in the sounthern part of West Virginia by 1930, Baldwin-Felts guards provided the mine owners with a feudal like control over their workers. Under the order of the mine operators these men policed the remote mining camps, guarded the payroll, collected rents, and often determined access to company towns… Once able to move freely around the state – after 1907 – Baldwin Felts thugs harassed union organizers from the time they stepped off the train until they left.”

As with Blackwater and Co. in Iraq, the Baldwin Felts people signaled their dominance and contempt for the miners and people of West Virginia, by drive by shootings. In a congressional inquiry, … senators heard that one night in early February 1913 the local sheriff, a coal operator, and fourteen guards machine gunned a striker’s tent colony at Holly Grove from an armored train known as the Bull Moose Special.”
...

That long and twisty authoritarian American character, the scab and the strikebreaking cop - just as the twenties returned everywhere in the nineties, so too did the characters from the twenties. The return of the repressed has been formidable, and the repressed characters only got more grotesque and psychotic from their stays in the underworld - hence, a bug like Cheney. And hence the industry cops and their media mouthpieces - among whom, of course, is Ted Koppel, well known for his copcrush on Blackwater. Koppel's op ed piece was pointed to, in 2006, as a kind of unconscious satire. But it is a deadly one. This is how the establishment thinks:

"There is something terribly seductive about the notion of a mercenary army. Perhaps it is the inevitable response of a market economy to a host of seemingly intractable public policy and security problems.

Consider only a partial list of factors that would make a force of latter-day Hessians seem attractive. Among them are these:

• Growing public disenchantment with the war in Iraq;

• The prospect of an endless campaign against global terrorism;

• An over-extended military backed by an exhausted, even depleted force of reservists and National Guardsmen;

• The unwillingness or inability of the United Nations or other multinational organizations to dispatch adequate forces to deal quickly with hideous, large-scale atrocities (see Darfur and Congo);

• The expansion of American corporations into more remote, fractious and potentially hostile settings.

Just as the all-volunteer military relieved the government of much of the political pressure that had accompanied the draft, so a rent-a-force, harnessing the privilege of every putative warrior to hire himself out for more than he could ever make in the direct service of Uncle Sam, might relieve us of an array of current political pressures."

Here's the genuine voice of D.C., the consensus of the policymakers centered around the likes of George Bush and Hilary Clinton. Here's the voice of William Tyndale, four hundred years ago, explaining God's punishment on the wicked:

"… as soon as the word is once openly preached, and testified or witnessed, unto the world, and when he hath given them a season to repent, is ready at once to take vengeance of his enemies, and shooteth arrows with heads dipt in deadly poison at them; and poureth his plague from heaven down upon them; and sendeth the murrain and pestilence among them; and sinketh the cities of them; and maketh the earth swallow them, and compasseth them in their wiles, and taketh them in their own traps and snares, and casteth them into the pits which they digged for other men; and sendeth them a dazing in the head; and utterly destroyeth them with their own subtle counsel."

Which, saving the deity, is pretty much my conviction as to what will happen to a country that turns its prison system into a 'solution' to the political pressures coming from the collapse of Jim Crow - apartheid by Jena-like jury - that sends violent psychopaths into other countries to mow down the innocent, and that elects the crookedest and the stupidest of tyrants.

Another quote, and I'm done here:

he good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.

The judge smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said.

The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there's many a bloody tale of war inside it.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way. - Blood Meridian

Two euphorics: Mr. T and Stephanie's Id

I am feeling grim about the mouth lately. A sickness I caught in Georgia has left behind a persistent, puzzling headache and cough - and then of course there is the day to day living in Blackwater’s USA, Bush’s America, which is a puling, putrid kind of thing to do.

So I’ve been looking around for things to cheer me up. Here are two of them.

the first is my friend T., his wife Kiyoko, and his baby Takeo-chan here:


The second is this band, Stephanie’s ID. Just some kids in Asheville, NC making music – great garage music - instead of trying to make celebrity industry vampire music, eventually to be glued to some monster and useless product to make the joyless little suicide of a life enjoyed by the viewing audience that much more cluttered. This band is pure, and I love the voice of this woman, Stephanie Morgan.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Danto on Rorty

In the introduction to his Truth and Progress, Richard Rorty signals his appreciation of Donald Davidson’s work on truth:

“The greatest of my many intellectual debts to Donald Davidson is my realization that nobody should even try to specify the nature of the truth. … Whether or not one agrees with Davidson that it is important to be able to give a definition of “true in L” for a given natural language (by means of a Tarski-type “truth theory” for that language), one can profit from his arguments that there is no possibility of giving a definition of “true” that works in all such languages.”

Yet, a page later, Rorty is breaking his vow of agnosticism in order to make the claim that “truth is not the goal of inquiry” for all the intellectual ‘progress’ we may have made:

“How do we know that the greater predictive power and greater control of the environment (including a greater ability to cure diseases, build bombs, explore space, etc.) gets us closer to the truth, conceived of as an accurate representation of how things are in themselves, apart from human needs and interests?”

It is between the renunciation of an absolute specification of truth and the attack on a specification of truth that Rorty, for people like me, runs aground. I admit that I am not very thrilled about reified notions of truth, and rather buy Tarski’s structural notion, which depends on a schema of language use rules, out of which arise a criteria of success encoded in the semantic function of truth. This does not look like the mirror of nature; instead, the truth becomes a device for the organization of conventions. Tarski published his paper in the forties, which was the seed time of organizations and cybernetics. Just as the U.S. government was reclassifying its citizens as Human Products, the targets for experiments with radioactive materials, the idea of truth as having some higher and more piercing meaning was being shrunk to its semantic function referencing variable places related through sentiential connectives. In other words, that some things are always true and some things are passingly true no longer has a first order significance for truth. Rather, truth is absorbed into a given construct language with no more fuss and bother than the successor function or the equivalence function. As Tarski writes of objections to his theory:

“As a typical example let me quote in substance such an objection.23 In formulating the definition we use necessarily sentential connectives, i.e., expressions like "if . . ., then," "or," etc. They occur in the definiens; and one of them, namely, the phrase "if, and only if" is usually employed to combine the definiendum with the definiens. However, it is well known that the meaning of sentential connectives is explained in logic with the help of the words "true" and "false"; for instance, we say that an equivalence, i.e., a sentence of the form "p if, and only if, q," is true if either both of its members, i.e., the sentences represented by 'p' and 'q,' are true or both are false. Hence the definition of truth involves a vicious circle.

If this objection were valid, no formally correct definition of truth would be possible; for we are unable to formulate any compound sentence without using sentential connectives, or other logical terms defined with their help. Fortunately, the situation is not so bad.

It is undoubtedly the case that a strictly deductive development of logic is often preceded by certain statements explaining the conditions under which sentences of the form "if p, then q," etc., are considered true or false. (Such explanations are often given schematically, by means of the so-called truth-tables.) However, these statements are outside of the system of logic, and should not be regarded as definitions of the terms involved. They are not formulated in the language of the system, but constitute rather special consequences of the definition of truth given in the meta-language. Moreover, these statements do not influence the deductive development of logic in any way. For in such a development we do not discuss the question whether a given sentence is true, we are only interested in the problem whether it is provable.

On the other hand, the moment we find ourselves within the deductive system of logic -- or of any discipline based upon logic, e.g., of semantics -- we either treat sentential connectives as undefined terms, or else we define them by means of other sentential connectives, but never by means of semantic terms like "true" or "false." For instance, if we agree to regard the expressions "not" and "if . . ., then" (and possibly also "if, and only if") as undefined terms, we can define the term "or" by stating that a sentence of the form "p or q" is equivalent to the corresponding sentence of the form "if not p, then q." The definition can be formulated, e.g., in the following way:

(p or q) if, and only if, (if not p, then q).
This definition obviously contains no semantic terms.”

LI was thinking of these things reading Danto’s review of Rorty’s last published work, here. Davidson himself said that Rorty’s problem was that, although he acknowledges that there is a difference between truth and justification, he continually conflates the two. Thus, the oddity of saying about any research program that its goal is the truth. Only research programs in philosophy take truth as their goal – most research programs take proof as their goal. This, I think, is the ‘irritating’ thing about Rorty – Danto’s review is less about Rorty’s essays – in fact, I am not sure Danto read them – than an elaboration of the fact that Danto found Rorty irritating.

As a rule, Rorty used the word true the way everyone else does, but if you were to ask him for his theory of truth, he would say something outrageous. He did so because he believed we all know when and how to use the word true, but no one has—or needs—a theory of truth to be able to do so: “Everybody knows that the difference between true and false beliefs is as important as that between nourishing and poisonous foods,” he writes in “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre,” one of thirteen essays from the last ten years collected in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, the fourth volume of his Philosophical Papers published by Cambridge. So philosophers who seek a theory of truth are wasting their time. When he quotes a philosopher who says something he agrees with, that doesn’t mean that he believes everything—or anything else—the cited philosopher says. This implies that he doesn’t really need the philosopher anyway. But it helps bring together the two sides of Rorty’s character—that of the likable, even lovable philosopher, with the exemplary values and virtues he indisputably possessed, and that of the saboteur of philosophical sobriety, a role he adopted for himself after the immense success of his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979. He demonstrates that not one of his admirable attributes is grounded in a piece of philosophy, since philosophy in no way explains any of them. The writing is a kind of performance, the purpose of which is to dramatize philosophy’s impotence. He liked to say that he never tried to rebut positions he opposed—he merely sneered at them.”

Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick has called the fifties and sixties the era of the cybernetic fold – the era of the structure and the variable. I think that is very accurate. Some came out of it command and control freaks - like Robert McNamara. People like Rorty lived near the heart of the cybernetic fold and came out of it marked for life. They were the cybernetic dissidents, but their dissent was strongly marked by the inescapable truths of cybernetic city – truths that have now become our environment, from the pixel characters in our movies to the humble orgies of cheesecake and ipod sanctioned by the credit card industry, the anti-union that has yearly raised our anti-wages for a village usurer’s price. The virtual invades the actual only after the actual discovers, like some burning and irremovable ulcer, its constitutional structuralism. Only then is it completely vulnerable. Slothrop's erections exactly predict the sites the V-2 will hit because Slothrop's dick - and indeed Slothrop - have been put together again, in a Primal Scene II laboratory, exactly as they were, except that - they are recombinants. And so our recombinant orgies are absolutely anti-Sadean in that they do not aim at the cold mastery of desire, but subserve a commuter-office slavery, a routine so hideous that no Josephine has arisen from us human product mousepeople to sing it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Oliver Twist asks for more modalization, please


I have always liked the idea of the linguistic middle man – the guy who can go stalking deep into the technical jargon of some specialty and come back out and explain it in a ordinary language. Now, this isn’t really a knock against technical jargon – every groupuscule has one, from beggars to ex presidents. But the faith of the great middle men (o those incorrigible whigs!), the Edmund Wilson types, is that the technical jargon is merely a preliminary stage in intellectual discovery. Some of that jargon should slip under the bars and become vulgate. Some must remain behind. And, of course, the vulgar shouldn’t be so shit ignorant that they use a little unfamiliarity as an excuse to keep their heads firmly stuck up their asses.

All of which is to say that I am worried that, in my previous posts, I haven’t quite explained what I mean by modalization.

Now that is bad. It is bad because I need the term to explain the history of a social phenomena – the creation and diffusion of a way of speaking of emotions, feelings, and attitude that organizes these things according to whether they are positive or negative. That history is riven – the motives of the participants in it are distinct, and their objects are distinct, even as the model they created eventually melted together those distinctions and erased the differences.

Those various motives and objects can be organized by looking at them modally. And, as I said in my modal post, by modally I am not speaking just of the logician’s idea of modal. I am thinking, instead, of the semiotician’s use of the term, which is slightly different. So, to make this clearer, let me quote a nineteenth century philosopher, John Stuart Mill’s friend, William Hamilton. In Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic, he writes:

“Pure propositions are those in which the predicate is categorically affirmed or denied of the subject, simply, without any qualification; Modal, those in which the predicate is categorically affirmed or denied of the subject, under some mode or qualifying determination. For example, - Alexander conquered Darius, is a pure, - Alexander conquered Darius honourably, is a modal proposition.”

Hamilton adds that he finds this distinction bogus: “Nothing can be more futile than this distinction. The mode in such a proposition is nothing more than a part of the predicate.”

He then takes up the more strict use of modal by logicians:

‘But logicians, after Aristotle, have principally considered as modal propositions those that are modified by the four attributions of Necessity, Impossibility, Contingence and Possibility.”

However, Hamilton still isn’t buying it: “But, in regard to these, the case is precisely the same; the mode is merely a part of the predicate, and if so, nothing can be more unwarranted than on this accidental, on this extra-logical, circumstance to establish a great division of logical propositions.”

In the 20th century, Quine agreed with Hamilton, Carnap disagreed, and in general philosophers decided this question on the basis, I think, of boredom: since analytic philosophy discovered everything it was going to discover by 1950, they took on modal logic because they had nothing else to do… Oh oh, I’m being unfair. I’m only joking! I’m only making with the funny business!

Still, disregarding Hamilton’s dismissal of modals, his account of them is what is behind modalization in semiotics – a merging of the rhetorical account of modals and the logical account. The higher level, in semiotics, is logical, with the next level having to do with cognitive and affective attitudes.

There, does that make sense? Are we out of the thickets? Can I say modalization without feeling like I’m resorting to some abracadabra? Yes, I think yes, yes she said yes…