“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, December 15, 2007

Fingering the Rope

In Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, under the entry on suicide, Voltaire writes:

“I will make but very few reflections on the murder of oneself here; I will not examine if the late M. Chreech was right to write on the margin of his Lucretius: “n.b., when I have finished my book on Lucretius, I must kill myself”, and if he had done well to execute that resolution. I don’t want to pluck out the motives of my old prefect, P. Biennasses, a Jesuit, who told us farewell one evening, and the next moring, after having said mass and sealed some letters, three himself from the third story. Each has his own reasons in his conduct.”

I’m intrigued by this Bartleby like M. Chreech. I occasionally used stickem notes to remind myself to perform some task, but the note to remember to commit suicide is, well, a pretty cold blooded note. Voltaire’s works themselves were the occasion of a famous suicide in Russia. In 1793, a landowner, Ivan Opochinin, decided to kill himself. On the night before he did so, he spent his time translating Voltaire. In his note he wrote:

‘There is nothing after death!
Corresponding to the most truthful principle, this just argument… made me take a pistol into my hands. I had no reason for putting an end to my existence. Because of my position, the future presented me with a self-willed, pleasant existence. But the future would pass forthwith: in the end my aversion for Russian life was the incentive that compelled me to decide my fate in an act of self-will.
Oh, if only all unfortunate men had the courage to use sound reason…” [from Irena Papperno, Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky’s Russia]

Indeed. While I have been following up the traces of pessimism in the last couple of weeks, I have rather bracketed the frame of reference under which this work is being done, i.e. my triumph of happiness project. A reader of this blog asked me, a few days ago, what exactly the opposite of this pessimism is. This question abruptly brought me back to the whole point of my study. Traditionally, there is a link between a utopian ideal and the critical work of exposing a total social phenomenon. If that link is severed, then, like Opochinin, perhaps one is only left with a suicide note that appeals to all unfortunate men to use the courage of their sound reason. In a sense, Opanochin died of a disease that was well documented by the great Russian writers: the disease of rural idiocy. Stranded in the sticks, Opanochin had nobody to talk to. In his note, he asks for his library to be given to the flames. One suicide wasn’t enough for him – his isolation required at least two suicides:

‘Books, my beloved books! I do not know to whom I should leave them; I am sure no one needs them in this country. I humbly ask my heirs to consign them to the flames. They were my first treasure, they alone sustained me in life; but for them, my life would have been an uninterrupted affliction, and I would long since have abandoned this world with contempt.” [Kliuchevsky, A course in Russian History]

Ah, the third life, the one that sustains the other two! Voltaire’s mention of Chreech piqued my curiosity. It turns out to be a reference to Thomas Creech, about whom there is a macabre anecdote in Macdonald and Murphy’s book on suicide in early modern England: ‘One rumor going around was that before his suicide Creech had red Biathanotos [Donne’s book on suicide], fingering a rope as he turned the pages.”

Now, that’s the true philosophical spirit. And an inspiration to book reviewers everywhere. As I have pointed out at length, elsewhere, the early moderns were prone to talk about volupte, a concept they believed they got from Epicurus, and not happiness per se. Volupte has its risks, and one of them is that it can bring you face to face with your material self. Opanochin in his note called his body a ‘machine’ – shades of Le Mettrie – and willed it to the anatomists.

But the pessimists did not call on people to kill themselves – indeed, these philosophic suicides are all in the progressive line, materialists who, according to the pessimists, simply came to the logical conclusion of materialism.

This short note will lead us to the next round of posts on Maistre.

Friday, December 14, 2007

IT's new post

I don't know
Why you've gotta be so undemanding...

IT has continued her series on porno. You can also see the beginning of this series here and another post here and her piece about pornographic classifications here. There’s also a sexpol piece here which I think may be the best in the whole series.

Here are some comments:

Since I am trying to write a review of a book that distinguishes three regimes of seeing in science, I am, perhaps, hypersensitive to issues of representation and the ‘training’ of the people who represent and the audiences they represent to. The technique of the self, as Foucault calls it.

There is a pattern I’ve noticed on theory blogs of taking films or music – usually not novels, poetry or paintings – and subjecting them to theoretical glosses with an entire and easy assumption of the epistemological superiority of the theorist. It is as if the theorist’s position is not only self explanatory, but that the theorist knows better than the work of art itself. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is why pop cultural products of a certain kind are so popular among the blogs. It is easy to present oneself as superior in every way to, say, 300 – much harder to do that when analyzing, say, Proust.

Myself, I think even the lowliest work of art – a student film, Anal Cheerleaders 5 – retains a certain autonomy. In practical terms, that means that the thing retains the power to touch. The moment of touching can be a moment of sheer disgust. It can be a moment of rapture. But its distinguishing characteristic is that it is not in the hands of the spectator. For a fleeting instant, the audience is not superior to the work. How to explain this? There’s a famous anecdote about Lenin, recorded by Gorki. Gorki had taken Lenin to hear a performance of music. Lenin said, afterwards, that he would like to listen to Beethoven’s Apassionata every day, since it made him ‘think with pride – perhaps it is naïve of me – what marvelous things us humans can do – but then, according to Gorki, “screwing up his eyes and smiling, he [Lenin] added, rather sadly: But I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, make you want to say stupid, nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you mustn’t stroke any one’s head – you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against any one. Hm, Hm, our duty is infernally hard!”

Lenin had a very sharp sense for moments of surrender.

I think IT is more aware of the resistance of the artwork than other theory bloggers. And, by chosing to write about film porno, she has chosen to comment about a genre that implicates the spectator to an obvious and structurally expected extent. Just as you go to cook books to cook, not to marvel at the recipes - or most of us do - you go to porn to jack off, or as part of some foreplay ritual. So if you go as a critic, you have to self reflect a bit, have to explain your epistemological position a bit, have to discard the easy assumption of the theorist’s superiority. Like advertising, porno exploits the aesthetic moment of touch – exploits it like a pickpocket – and forces the critic to acknowledge it.

Anyway, there’s a theme in IT’s work, as she compares vintage porn to contemporary stuff, that goes back to her first posts. Her latest post puts it this way: “Contemporary porn is infinitely segregated. The atomisation of the 1950s filters through to a kind of obsession with taxonomy. The sheer hard work of contemporary porn, and its obsession with taxonomy, informs you that, without delusion, sex is just like everything else – grinding, relentless, boring (albeit multiply boring).”

It is the tie, here, between sex, work and boredom where I feel that the nature of porno as representation – as a work of art – is forgotten. Boredom floats, here, between the spectator and the actors. Is it that the porno actors are bored? Is it that the spectator finds them boring? I think that the line being blurred for someone as sharp as IT clues us into porn as a popular art. Popular arts are intimate like this, they work towards that blurring of the line. Few people, watching MacBeth, say, are thinking well, that is not how I would do it if I wanted to be King of Scotland. But if you watch a tv soap – if you’ve watched people watching a tv soap – you might actually talk back to the tube. “Don’t do it!’ “Oh, she’s going to be in trouble now.” “Oh oh, here comes X.” The idea that these are actors slips away, and with it Diderot’s Paradox of the Actor. Or, rather, one of the choices in Diderot’s essay – the actor as an instrument of spontaneity – is made, is systematically made, in the most unspontaneous of art forms, film.

I think this says something about the development of porn that forms the major theme in IT’s post. Although tv, film, music of a certain sort are parts of ‘popular culture’, I think they present themselves as intimate culture – and here I’ll just wildly speculate for a moment. When, in the seventies, the adult movie industry took off, porn was shown on the movie screen, in the heroic proportions that are natural to all things shown on the movie screen. But that posed the problem that Gulliver confronted in Brobdignag:

“That which gave me most Uneasiness among these Maids of Honour, when my Nurse carried me to visit them, was to see them use me without any manner of Ceremony, like a Creature who had no sort of Consequence. For, they would strip themselves to the Skin, and put on their Smocks in my Presence, while I was placed on their Toylet directly before their naked Bodies, which, I am sure, to me was very far from being a tempting Sight, or from giving me any other emotions than those of Horror and Disgust. Their Skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured, when I saw them near, with a Mole here and there as broad as a Trencher, and Hairs hanging from it thicker than Pack-threads, to say nothing further concerning the rest of their Persons. Neither did they at all scruple, while I was by to discharge what they had drunk, to the Quantity of at least two Hogsheads, in a Vessel that held above three Tuns. The handsomest among these Maids of Honour, a pleasant frolicksome Girl of Sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her Nipples, with many other Tricks, wherein the Reader will excuse me for not being over particular.”

The audience in the adult theater was composed of people who were a bit bigger than a Splacknuck – which was Gulliver’s size – but they were still gazing at men with dicks the length of a man’s arm, approaching pussies as tall and broad as toasters. Porn (to continue my wild speculation) can’t stand this magnification. The more natural home for the stuff is the video, the tv or computer screen (although with tv screens getting bigger and bigger, who knows how this will upset the collective sensorium). I would be surprised if IT had actually ever seen a porno on the full screen – you have to be at least my age to have had that access, when adult theaters were springing up all over. Brobdignagian porn is mostly a thing of the past. As T.S. Eliot might have said, Splacknucks can’t bear too much hyper-reality. If my speculation is in the ballpark of reality, it would also help explain why, as porno shrank and became more commonplace, it also evoked less heated attempts to suppress it. The violence of gangbangs is rather magnified when the gangbangers are fifteen feet tall - and in fact the violent choreography of almost all sex is brought out at that range. Whereas porn among the lilliputians, which is what we have now, has to use intense close up to get the same sensorial effects.

I'll have more thoughts about boredom as an initiatory effect later.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

News from the Imbecile Republic

And soft, what light breaks through yonder moronic inferno! Although weep, children, we should weep for a kingdom that is overthrown, here, a true Caliban's paradise of private penitentiaries, a newe way and discoverie of cleaning up foul poverty by painlessly tricking poor people through the strategic placement of vicious FBI footpads until lo, they’ve gathered into their nets a quantity of em, all saying good things about Al Qabaedola, asking for shriner hats and submachine guns, and assuring their faithful contacts and secret Judases that whatever that city is that the Sears building is located in, they will be creeping in it like the biggest hardon, blowing up this and blowing up that.

Oh, but I can’t fool myself. LI admits to being such a Islamofascista that I would like to see the FBI agents who contrived this fired and tried themselves, and on up until we catch some of the Scooters in the Justice department. But this is a dream for another time and another nation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Making the rich less rich is not socialism

I’ve become a reader of Floyd Norris’ blog over at the NYT. I’ve noticed, with some amusement, that any time a vague and distant hint arises that the rich in America might be oh, oh, slightly too… rich, the comments section is reliably flooded by screeds against socialism and for the American way.

It makes me long for a snappy way to point out that capitalism was not abolished in the U.S. in the fifties, nor was the Reagan tax cut on the wealthiest the second coming of Adam Smith in the eighties. What is funny about the rabid defense of the wealthy is that I imagine it often comes from the non-wealthy. It isn’t like billionaires are trolling blogs. But what they are defending is, of course, absolutely against their interests. It is the great American paradox: the almost saintly disinterestedness of the American householder in defense of systematic greed.

There are a number of ways to redistribute wealth down. Imagine, for instance, that unions had been strong enough, back in the eighties, to peg earnings to the ratio between upper management and the lowest paid functionaries in a company. Back then, the ratio was about 70 to 1 – today, it averages something like 300 to 1. If the unions had done this and the CEO level had succeeded in extorting the pay packages they had today, we would be living in a utopia in which the merest entry level receptionist would be taking home 150-200 thou. This would be excellent – except of course that corporations would no longer make profits. Instead, they’d be pouring all their cash into paying their workforce. Still, at the 70 to 1 ratio, upper management’s efforts to increase their compensation packets would have significantly pulled the earnings up of the entire workforce.

Unfortunately, when you don’t have powerful unions, you have to rely on the countervailing powers of the state. You have to work, then, to raise the taxation on the upper tier considerably. You have to do this not only because you need to pay for public investments, but because there is a macro good to great income equality. For one thing, it discourages economic activity that is, in reality, mere churning. Looking at the mortgage mess, one can see more and more clearly how the fantastic, Pirenesian structure of false economic activity has worked since 2001. It has allocated money not to the most productive, but to the most churnful. For another thing, more equality now means more equality latter. As the gap widens between the resources of the rich and the not-rich, it becomes exactly what we socially reproduce. Those non-rich who, for instance, decided that the death tax, otherwise know as the estate tax, was just terribly unfair to their children actually screwed their children terribly, because they are not leaving the kids fortunes, whereas the fortunate few are – thus aggravating the already unfair structure that separates rich from non-rich children. The cost of abolishing the estate tax is borne by the non-rich in such areas as trying to get their kids into top schools and the like.

But what most impresses me about expropriating a good share of the wealth of the wealthy is its environmental impact. As anybody with the eyes to see can see, the last twenty years have been years of great GDP growth in many countries. In fact, the whole Tom Friedman-esque economy is oriented towards steroiding GDP. Why? Because if you are going to have increasing inequality, growth is the way that the middle income sector – the vastly more numerous non-rich – can, at least, maintain their lifestyles. But GDP growth could also be called the Diminishing Environmental Return. DER is the natural result of overexploiting a system that is limited in many ways. Put up a zillion towers for cell phones, and you can say bye bye to songbird populations – make your McMansions of tropical wood, and strew them with the kind of wiring that gives you 24/7 instaconnectoinstamaticinstatubelivegirlsxxxxpronomatic action, and you can say bye bye to the environment of Sumatra. Down the intertubes it goes. It is an incredible waste of resources, which is the total result of the elite decision to grossly exacerbate the wealthiest’s share of the wealth. With a greater equality of income, of course, GDP doesn’t have to grow as fast. The drift of our current society into endless war, endless stupidity, an endlessly degraded public sector, the unwinding of all those hard fought democratic gains of the last one hundred years, is the direct result of a simple arithmetic ratio. To repair this – to go back to the managed capitalism, as Kuttner calls it, of the past – isn’t socialism – it is the self interest of the vast mass of American citizens.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

From My Third Life

LI has a book column to write about two books: Objectivity, by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, and Trying Leviathan, by D. Graham Burnett.

Daston and Galison mount a pretty impressive marshalling of evidence of the way, in a number of sciences over the past two hundred years, we can see three distinct regimes of representation. The first regime, truth to nature, or the search for types and ideals, G. and D. date to the eighteenth century – the second regime, objectivity, or representation that strives to eliminate any subjective bias, emerges, in their scheme, in the nineteenth century – and the third regime, trained judgment, which organizes ‘mechanically objective’ representations in terms of trends, thus reintroducing a form of consensus subjectivity, emerges in the twentieth century. Periodization doesn’t imply that this is a history of zero sum games - the rise of one regime doesn’t entail the extinction of a formerly dominant regime. However, it does imply something more interesting: the rise of different techniques of becoming a scientist. One casually speaks of the scientist as an observer, but in fact, observation is a trained act, and the training is structured around what, exactly, it means to see a phenomenon, what one is looking for, how one proves that what one sees connects to a given theory.

Obviously, I will have to refine all of this in the sugar mill of reviewing. In general, though, this is what the book is about.

All of which is an excuse to quote Marcel Schwob.

Marcel Schwob is not a name to conjure with. For the most part, even your most bookish literatus has forgotten Schwob. But he has interesting fans – among them, Borges, Bolano, and Calasso. Which is a lineage as exciting to me as the descent of Bonnie Prince Charles from James II was to your average raving Highland Scot. I’d fight under their colors.

Schwob was a fin de siecle writer. Like Mallarme, he knew English and translated from that language. He was Robert Louis Stevenson’s friend, but he also knew Jarry – Ubu Roi is dedicated to him. Myself, I’d read his name in The Banquet Years, I believe, but had never had the urge to reach for Schwob until I read Calasso’s brief essay about Imaginary Lives. Calasso claims that “the flame of this book is not yet extinguished. Today, when many who read Borges are discovering the subtlest, most vertiginous magical charm of the fantastic and a certain secret mathematics of the story, they will recognize a master in Schwob and a model of this literature in his book. … Marcel Schwob… invented a new genre of adventure literature which sought no immediate contact with reality, but rather took the byways of philology and mystification…

So I searched on the Intertubes, and of course found a site dedicated to Schwob and – hurray! – a decent archive of his texts, including Imaginary Lives. The book consists of a preface on the biographer’s art and twenty two brief lives, from Empedocles to Burke and Hare. Reading the preface, I came upon the following passage that … floored me. There are bits of literature that stick in my brain. They become a sort of third life to me – after my waking life and my dreaming life. And I know exactly when something is destined for that third life.

Here’s the quote:

History books remain silent on these things. In the rude collection of materials that are furnished by testimonies, there are not many singular and inimitable breaks. Ancient biographies in particular are miserly with them. Valuing only the public life or the grammar, they transmit to us the discourses and the titles of the books of great men. It is Aristophones himself who gives us the joy of knowing that he was bald, and if the pug nose of Socrates hadn’t served as a touchstone of literary comparisons, if his habit of walking about barefoot hadn’t been part of his system of philosophy by showing contempt for the body, there would only have been conserved of him for us his moral interrogatories. Suetonius’ gossip’s tales are only hateful polemics. The good genius of Plutarch sometimes made an artist out of him: but he did not know how to understand the essence of his art, snce he imagined ‘parallels’ – as if two men, properly described in all their details, could resemble one another! One is reduced to consulting Athanasius, Aulus Gellus, scoliasts, and Diogenes Laertes, who thought he was composing a kind of history of philosophy.

The sentiment of the individual was more developed in modern times. The work of Boswell would have been perfect if he hadn’t judged it necessary to cite Johnson’s correspondence and his digressions on books. Aubrey’s Eminent Lives are more satisfying. Aubrey had, without a doubt, the instinct of biography. How aggravating that the style of this excellent antiquarian is not on the same level as his conception! His book would have been the eternal recreation of the select few. Aubrey never felt the need to establish a relationship between individual details and general ideas. It was enough for him that others sealed the celebrity of men of whom he took an interest. Most the time, one doesn’t know if one is dealing with a mathematician or a statesman, a poet or a watchmaker. But each of them had his unique trait, which distinguished them forever amongst mankind.

The painter Hokusaï hoped to get to the ideal of his art by the time he was one hundred years old. At this moment, he said, every point, every connecting line traced by his brush would be alive. By alive, we understand him to mean: individual. Nothing is more similar than points and lines: geometry is founded on this postulate. Hokusai’s perfect art required that nothing be more different.”

This story about Hokusaï is ingenious and – as it happens – gives me an angle to look at the story of objectivity as told by Daston and Galison. For it is in the space of that reversal of geometry itself – from a science depending on the similarity of lines and points to the perfect art in which each line and point is alive – that one finds the anguish in the scientific drama of objectivity. For to represent, say, crystallized urinary deposits just as they are seen under the microscope, in their one time only state, is eventually to succeed from the whole purpose of scientific representation. One can’t build a science on the one time only – without regularities the urinary deposit, the snowflake, the species of woodpecker, the star, the canals of Mars, become a hyperclear orgy of distinctness. And in this orgy there is no master of ceremonies – even the stick that would point out the details is an insufferable interference with the phenomenon as it is. Integrity, not aura, is the scientist’s pole star, but integrity, too, falls victim (to its own weird success) in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Path to Happiness

Well, LI, for one, was glad to see that bipartisanship returned to D.C. this weekend. Democrats and Republicans have coalesced around the torture issue – they like it. They want more of it. It is the kind of thing that Nancy Pelosi would like to have more of, except that she doesn’t remember if she was told of it at all, poor dear. Amnesia is a terrible thing. Maybe she would like to have less of it. She was for it until she was against it.

Of course, at LI, we are so, so proud of our American torturers. The problem, as we see it, is lack of recognition. Why not: an American torturers medal? Rather like the Medal of Freedom, but ballsier.

We’ve been reading That Inferno to get into the torturing mood. Five women who were tortured at the EMSA – the Naval Mechanics school – between 77 and 81 began to get together in the nineties to talk.

Here’s a bit in the introduction that Pelosi would just swoon over. Perhaps, after the voting for the the 200 billion in Iraq that the Dems have pushed through Congress, no strings attached, they could set aside a billion here or there for Blackwater, our national resource when it comes to all things murderous. Imagine how this would fight terrorism!

“There was a door where someone had written “The Path to Happiness”. Behind that door was the torture chamber: electic shock machine, an iron band of a bed connected to a 220 volt machine, an electrode that went from zero to 70 volts, chairs, presses, and all kinds of instruments….
Have you ever been shocked by a refrigerator or another electric appliance? Add a hundred and multiply it by a thousand. That is what a person feels when he is tortured, a person who might be guilty or might not. … I’ll tell you about a case, a seventeen year old girl named Graciela Rossi Estrada. She was a sad looing girl. Because they needed more hands, I was asked to be present. It began with the simple methods of the average villain in a grade B police movie: cigarette butts, poking her, pulling her hair, beatings, pinchings. As they apparently didn’t get what they wanted to hear, they started with the electricity. After a half hour of receiving blows and electric shocks, the girl fainted. THey they took her very delicately by the hair and legs and heaved her into a cell, into a pool of water so she’d swell up. Four or five hourse later she was in terrible shape from swelling and they brought her back to the torture chamber. Then she’d sign anything – that she killed Kennedy or she foght in the Battle of Waterloo. That’s why I saw the facts gotten from torture weren’t real most of the time: they were just used to justify arresing a person…
One of the lively systems [that the camp doctor] invented to torture a pregantn woman was with a spoon. They put a spoon or a metallic into the vagina until it touched the fetus. Then they gave it 220. They shocked the fetus.”

Now, I’m not sure if we could go for shocking the fetus. Only if it doesn’t lead to an abortion – after all, we don’t want the value voter to be turned away! They are crucial to getting a real progressive majority in Congress.

But the electricity that they used in Argentina – trained, often, by experts from the U.S. at the School for the Americas in Columbus, Georgia – does not express the kind of perky, innovative tortures that the CIA and its allies in the Middle East are all about. I interviewed a Lebanese author, Elias Khoury, about his novel, Yalo, a couple of weeks ago. An excellent novel, and one that Democrats might well read so they can suggest new and innovative torture techniques that we need in order to stay free and keep our credit cards going. Here’s a simple but sure way to make sure you get the info you need. You simply strip your man – your inhuman terrorist, a real beast. Now, strap his arms. Usualy this method requires a couple of men. And produce a simple coke bottle. The method is called “sitting on the throne.” Lower your man onto the bottle until his anus is pressed against the top of it. Keep lowering. Hey, we aren’t monsters, of course. The man has a fair chance of surviving if the coke bottle goes into the anus without breaking. Of course, most of the time, alas, all that weight can crack the neck, and so as the coke bottle goes in, there are the rough edges that abrade and tear tissue. But such is life, and I’m sure if this was seen by Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller, they asked many questions to make sure that the torturers did not – and this is very important – use any ethnic slurs while tearing through the anal tissue of the torture ‘victim’ – as some people call obvious terrorists. Because slurring people is unprofessional, and we don’t want to get into hate crime territory, do we? We want our Medal of Torture recipients to be clean living and clean speaking. No jokes about getting it up the butt, even if they are irresistibly funny.

‘I was naked, my eyes were blindfolded, my hands were tied, and no fewer than ten people were yelling at me. “Bitch”! they yelled. “You have to collaborate,” and they asked me about my friend Patricia. Meanwhile, another one stroked my hari, took my hand, and whispered in my ear, “Stay calm, and if you collaborate, nothing will happen to you.” It was a truly demonic scene. There were yells, insults, obscenities. At one point, one of the guys lifted my mask and another one lowered his pants. I was naked and tied up. He brought his penis close to me, while the others threatened, “We’re going to go at you one by one, bitch.” The truth is that I would have preferred an actual rape. I would have taken it as something more human, more comprehensible than the torture. At one pont during the session, the power went off … And I… when the power went off, I laughed.
Elisa: Because they couldn’t use the electric prod on you.
Miriam: The situation struck me as funny. The guys said, “Oh, this is fucked up!” and they brought in a portable, battyer-powered electic prod that I didn’t even know existed. When I screamed, they said, ‘come on, you dumb ass, cut the crap. This is nothing. You got off easy because the power went off.” I don’t know whether the other one was more potent. I was lying on a wooden table, and later they took me somewhere else, where there was an elastic belt and a metal cot, and they also wet me down to help conduct the electricity. And after the electric prod in my womb, in my vagina, in my eyes, on my gums, one of the most vivid memories is of how afraid I was they would torture me again.”

See how it works? After a while, everything you ever imagined comes true. It is the path to happiness, and apparently Congress and the Coup group in the White House went hopping merrily down it. I wonder if we are ever going to come back?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Reaction vs. the System, round one

Walter Benjamin begins his 1931 essay on German fascism with a quote from one of his favorite reactionary writers:

“Léon Daudet, the son of Alphonse Daudet and himself an important writer, as well as a leader of France’s Royalist party, once gave a report in his Action Française on the Salon d’Automobile – a report that concluded, in perhaps somewhat different words, with the equation: L’automobile, c’est la guerre.”

I’ve looked around for Daudet’s article. I haven’t found it. However, I understand why Benjamin, a collector of lines – of those moments in which thought seems to be utterly transformed into its primal element shock, as though an oracle had spoken – remembered Daudet’s report. It casts a prescient light over the system of which the automobile was as impressive a product as, say, some fossil by which a paleontologist maps, in shorthand, a geological epoch. The creature that left that fossil was at the convergence of conditions both sheerly geological and evolutionary; the automobile was at the convergence of conditions of production, changes wrought by the industrial system in the habits of the citizens of developed economies, and the underlying, subdued violence that existed as the cost for these changes and these lifestyles. Contrast Daudet’s sentence with the lines in Apollinaire’s Zone, which begins:

“À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien
Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin
Tu en as assez de vivre dans l'antiquité grecque et romaine
Ici même les automobiles ont l'air d'être anciennes.”

(In the end you are tired of this ancient world
Shepherdess, o Eiffel Tower the troop of bridges bleats this morning
You are finished with living in greek and roman antiquity
Here even the automobiles have an ancient air).

Chasing the pessimistic/reactionary tradition through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century is a rather mixed experience. On the one hand, the reactionary writers are great deliverers of thunderbolts. On the other hand, when they actually make a case for themselves, the eternal return of the ancien regime would require, even in their own eyes, the same kind of massive upheaval of the social order which is exactly their constant accusation against liberalism. In Maistre’s case, the moment of the reactionary revolution is taken care of, in a bizarre way, by Napoleon. Maistre’s opinion that the Bourbons could not re-establish themselves is consistent with seeing Napoleon as fulfilling, unconsciously, the task of creating the social conditions in which the Bourbons can return. But of course, the return of the Bourbons, however sweet was the black terror of the reactionary years from 1815 to 1830, proved in the end to be a disappointment, the gravestone over the ancien regime rather than its glorious resurrection. Even in Maistre, the contrast between mealy mouthed piety and the continuous stream of contempt seems to be doing more than stylistic work – it seems to be a reflection of the politics of resentment, a politics that takes the failure of its goal for granted, and contents itself with an infinite hunt for scapegoats. Leon Daudet was, in a sense, the endpoint of this tradition – marked, more genially, by Chesterton and Belloc in Britain. Daudet’s most famous book, the Stupid Nineteenth Century, begins with a recounting of a quarrel Daudet had with his great friend, the anti-semitic pamphleteer, Dumont, over a slap delivered by a rightwing parliamentarian to the head of the division, as Daudet puts it, of ‘sneaks’ during some session of the Chamber of Deputies. The face that received that slap was in its sixties, and Dumont disapproved – much to Daudet’s chagrin. Daudet was for slaps, for riots, for rallying rightwing collegians to storm surrealist openings and the like. In fact, the mixture of gesture and ink was, spiritually, close to the surrealists themselves, who did like a good riot or a resounding slap.

It is also close in spirit to the transformation of reactionary views into a kind of Punch and Judy show – it drains the politics from them in favor of the political gesture. The frustration of advocating for a total and unlikely change is relieved in a series of ever more violent tantrums. This direction of political action is typical of a reactionary program that existed in contradiction to the technoculture that it could only accept in terms of war. In terms, that is, of a systematic violence that would drain from politics anything but gesture, making politics into an endless series of heroic gestures – which is how the conservative revolutionaries gradually became fascists. It was a collusion of temperaments.
The turn to war counters the insistence, after the French Revolution, on the political goal of happiness, and it begins with Maistre. But why did the reactionary, pessimistic tradition turn to violence in the first place? The secret source of that turn is revealed by another French reactionary, Leon Bloy, who wrote an interesting section on the devil, in one of his baffling books, Le révélateur du globe: Christophe Colomb et sa béatification future. Bloy claims that Satan, the real Satan, doesn’t leer out at us from Dante, or from Faust:

“The notion of the devil is, of all modern things, the one that most lacks depth from having become literary. Certainly the demon of most poets wouldn’t even frighten children. I only know of one poetic Satan who is truly terrible. It is Baudelaire’s, precisely because he is sacrilege. All the others, including Dante’s, leave our souls tranquil and their threats make us shrug our shoulders, the slightly literary shoulders of the girls of the catechism of perseverance. But the true Satan which one know longer knows, the Satan of theology and of the mystic saints – the antagonist of the Woman and the tempter of Jesus – Christ – he is so monstrous that, if it were permitted to that monster to show himself as he is, in the supernatural nudity of non-love, the human rance and animality entire would scream once and fall dead…
The greatest force of Satan is the Irrevocable. The word fatalism, invented by the pride of so-called philosophers among men, is only an obscure translation of this horrifying attribute of the Prince of the Wicked and the Emperor of the Captives. God gards for himself his Providence, his Justice, his Mercy, and above all, the Right of Grace which is like the seal where his omnipotent Sovereignty is imprinted. He thus keeps as well the Irrevocability of Joy and leaves to Satan the irrevocability of Despair. The terrifying pale gate of the great American poet is opened on the two gulfs offered to our liberty.”

Bloy a couple of pages later accords Satan such power over human history – particularly of the modern era – that the reader is forced to read that Irrevocability back into human history, particularly of the modern era. Unconsciously, the pessimists premises do homage to the scope and scale of the great transformation – the industrial system and the market society become, in this perspective, supernatural events. Or, to a non-Christian eye, natural events – events that have the force that natural things once had – the weather, the fertility of the land, the changes of season, those markers of peasant life, are all radically humanized in the industrial system, where the coordinates of time are defined in terms of business cycles, working days, and the brief ages of technological innovation – the age of steam, the age of the auto, etc.