“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, April 19, 2008

He read Bayle

Via George Huppert’s The Style in Paris: Renaissance origins of the French Enlightenment, LI found this story about the Marquis D’argens in Jean Philibert Damiron’s Memoire sur le Marquis D’argens:

He was never lacking in adventures, and if it wasn’t in one genre, it was in another. In returning from Italy and during the trip across [the Mediterranean] , he encountered a storm, the frightened sailors took vows to all the virgins of their countries of origin; a monk said his breviary in sobbing; two Calvinists trembled while reciting the psalms of Marot; for himself, he read the Pensees diverses of Bayle, and those who saw such cold bloodedness imagined that he was a saint, to whom the tranquility of his conscience procured his repose. – He read Bayle, that was his own breviary, his preferred book, the assiduous nourishment of his soul, which opened more and more to skepticism. If to doubt is to repose, it was that repose which his author of predilection bestowed upon him. [Memoires, 13]

LI likes this story. It is a perfect cameo of the libertine sub-culture that extended into the eighteenth century, connecting the time of Voltaire with the time of Cyrano de Bergerac. Something is happening here when the libertine becomes the double of the saint, doubt becomes the double of belief, and Bayle becomes the double of the breviary. Last year, LI posted a lot about the notion of ‘volupte’ as a sort of intermediary between the humanist’s stoicism and the greatest happiness of the political arithmeticians that Burke denounced in his Reflections on the French Revolution. As Damiron confesses at the beginning of his Memoire, D’argens was not a great personality:

“The marquis d’Argens, in fact, was not a great character, and what is more, he was not an eminent thinker, and in more than one circomstance of his life, he displayed a personality that was little enough serious. He wrote much and on all things, but with no rare distinction, and of philosophy in particular, on which he often touched, he didn’t illustrate with some new light a single thing.”

He was, to use the hobbled language of the advertisers, an early adopter. He adopted a sensibility. Which brings us to a number of questions.

These questions go back to Bayle, and a point made by Pierre Force in his Self Interest Before Adam Smith. Force notes that Bayle, the encyclopedic skeptic of the 17th century (a man whose graphomania, very much of the era, has been rewarded by posterity by being read by practically no one but being preserved as a name, just as a piece of wedding cake might be preserved in a freezer for decades, not to be ceremonially eaten, but as a gesture of etiolated piety) was considered an atheist not because he advocated atheism, but because he stripped belief of the coordinate conduct it was assumed that it entailed:

For Bayle, the principle of pleasure explains the variations that may be observed in the behavior of atheists. At fist sight, someone who does not believe in the rewards and punishments of eternal life would be inclined to indulge in every kind of physical pleasure. Yet we observe that some atheists are more restrained on that count than many Christians. Whether someone indulges in drunkenness is not a matter of opinion regarding the existence of a punishment for it in the afterlife. It is simply a difference in humor and temper. Some people love to drink, others don’t:

“If you examine things in general, you suppose that, as soon as an atheist realizes that he can get drunk with impunity, he will get drunk every day. But those who know the maxim, Trahit sua quemque voluptas, and who have examined the heart of man more carefully, do not go so fast. Before judging the conduct of this atheist, they inquire about his tast. If they find that he likes ot drink, that he is very sensitive to this pleasure, that he prefers it to his reputation as a good person, they conclude that he actually will drink as much as possible. But they do not conclude that he will drink more than countless Christians, who are drunk most of the time. …”

Bayle believes that, in general, differences in behavior cannot be explained by differences in belief. The adherence to such and such system of belief is irrelevant when it comes to explaining concrete human behavior. Preferences are not a matter of opinion.”

Here we stumble upon one of the great themes of modernity, which runs through Balzac, Dostoevsky, Freud, Alcoholics Anonymous and the political industry of polling – the relationship between what we believe and how we conduct ourselves. For after all, if belief makes no difference to your behavior, why believe anything?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mankind's impossible task: unhappiness

“Fyodorov used to say that the dead had to be resurrected,mankind should set impossible tasks for itself, and after its rebirth, mankind would exit earth as if from a waiting room, and leisurely take over the cosmos.” – From Victor Shklovsky’s Energy of Delusion

LI has not read Nikolai Fyodorov’s Common Task of Mankind, in which he envisions our collective human energies devoted to resurrecting the dead and such. However, I would not laugh too hard at the project of resurrecting dead as the impossible task that humanity has set for itself, since it is my contention that humanity has set itself an equally impossible task, with equally unthought of but horrendous consequences – the spread of happiness to all peoples at all times. To each his obsessions; mine, of course, is to find out how the norm of happiness came to be the heuristic upon which we all agree, the ultimate reference for the political.

David Leonardt’s column Wednesday took up some papers that dispute the Easterlin paradox. According to research by Richard Easterlin, over time, as societies grow richer (as, for instance, Japanese society), polls indicate that populations don’t necessarily grow happier. The shorthand for this is that more money doesn’t bring more happiness. This has a gladsome sound to the Lefty ear, for more money is connected with more monopoly capitalism, and who wants monopoly capitalism? But Easterlin’s conclusion and data base have been attacked by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institute:

“In the paper, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers argue that money indeed tends to bring happiness, even if it doesn’t guarantee it. They point out that in the 34 years since Mr. Easterlin published his paper, an explosion of public opinion surveys has allowed for a better look at the question. “The central message,” Ms. Stevenson said, “is that income does matter.”
To see what they mean, take a look at the map that accompanies this column. It’s based on Gallup polls done around the world, and it clearly shows that life satisfaction is highest in the richest countries. The residents of these countries seem to understand that they have it pretty good, whether or not they own an iPod Touch.
If anything, Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers say, absolute income seems to matter more than relative income. In the United States, about 90 percent of people in households making at least $250,000 a year called themselves “very happy” in a recent Gallup Poll. In households with income below $30,000, only 42 percent of people gave that answer. But the international polling data suggests that the under-$30,000 crowd might not be happier if they lived in a poorer country.”

At this point, the traditional move is to criticize the quality of the happiness of those very happy rich people. For instance, take this householder who wrote in to a Q and A at the Washington Post today about threats to his income:

“Arlington, Va.: Who is in this working class? I make $150,000 a year and my wife makes $100,000 a year. I work 50 hours a week and my wife works 45 hours a week. We have investments we have made, but we do not live off these investments. We are both first in our families to be college-educated and have worked hard to get where we are at 32 and 31. Why are we not considered working-class?
In addition, Obama and Clinton want to increase the Social Security, income and investment taxes. Where in the Constitution does it say that people like my wife and I have to support people who did not plan wisely (housing bailout, retirement and health care). I don't mind paying my fair share, but my family is not living off inheritance, and has worked hard to get where we are. Why are we not being viewed as working-class for having some self-made success? Will this class warfare work? It blew up on the Democrats in '00 and '04.”

I imagine one could say, we have to discourage that man and his wife from putting in 95 hours a week at 32 and 31 to make their 250 thou per year. One could say that this is a recipe for unhappiness. But I don’t think so. I think this is a recipe for a disastrous, total happiness. I think that that much money combined with that much work might well make happiness the cancer that eats up all other emotions, leaving the man and his wife liable only to the panic that someone might take away some of their pile. I think that year after year, the drunkenness of happiness will so fill their souls that the addiction will be too great to ever break.

Mankind’s common task, which, say, Malthus, in 1800 would have every right to look at as a crazy and impossible dream, is now a social reality. Within our society of artifice and technology, the structures of happiness rise, triumphant, on every hand. And the people that are born and bred into this structure even have many virtues. They are more peaceful. They are prey to fits of anger, but generally sober in their habits. They have lost any sense of public spirit, but, within the narrow confines of their private sphere, they are generous when they can be.

So what is there to bitch about? Well, I dream of a new impossible common task, in which finally emotion is separated from the moral norm – in which the range of emotions that the human beast can produce find a more ample and unashamed representation in the material relations that bind together our society. In which, in other words, ennui, melancholy, anger, dread, and the vast block of nameless, mixed moods that surround reflection are not viewed as opening acts for the happiness we all strive for – since we do not all strive for happiness. Since that striving makes little sense. Since it is founded on a very imprecise sense of what happiness is (a judgment about life? a passing mood?). Finally, I do not think there is any evidence whatsoever that we naturally strive for happiness except in certain circumstances, just as we strive for this or that feeling. It is one among many, not a thing to justify a social order or a life.

To talk about the dead is a waste of time.
I can’t think of a better subject

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Infinite Thought's Democracy in America: the short course

IT is back from America, and has taken advantage of opportunities undreamt of by Tocqueville (a monkey traveling companion, a digital camera) to write her own condensed version of "Democracy in America". She seems very impressed by our vast institutions of higher learning over here - and who wouldn't be? U.T., for instance, here in Austin is its own little city. Of course, this has less to do with the Texas belief in facilitatin' the Socratic method in appropriate architectural settings, and more to do with making money in real estate and construction - ah, the fortunes you can make in higher education. But I'm not gonna bitch too much - as an accidental byproduct of building a nice, expensive library building, you often get a library! You've got to stick something in there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

the ethics of garbage flies

Yesterday I scribbled down a post about the news that Bush aided, abetted and ordered torture. At the end of it my heart dribbled out of me. Though I believe that my posts are full of sound and fury and signify quite a lot, thank you very much, there is good reason to ask whether writing in every register, from the satiric to the analytical, about the scurrilous people who rule us is doing any good. From the aesthetic point of view – which is my point of view – what counts is the intangible quality of the insult, not whether it breaks your bones. However, the aesthetic point of view does merge, at some point, with the magical point of view. A curse might be beautiful poetry, but it should still be a curse. Richard III should go to hell with the ghosts’ voices ringing in his ears, even if, in the end, Richard III is a puppet imp.

Such are the intangibles. Yesterday, I got hold of a copy of Steven Coll’s Family History of the Bin Ladens, and I’ve been enjoying the evidence pouring out of every page of the interlocking Saudi and American oligarchies, which explains a whole hell of a lot about our current politics. Perhaps instead of wailing about Bush, I should devote a little space to the intentional gap in our sense of America’s historical engagement in the Middle East. It is into this vacuum that nature – in the form of such Gandarene swine as Paul Berman – has rushed with a vengeance, creating the comic figure of the Islamofascist and the “terrorist” against which we are carrying out our global war.

And I will… but as LI is boundless in space and time, we decided that, after all, ranting about our torturing president would serve at least a cathartic purpose. So here’s the post:

Although here and there you can find appropriate responses to the news, reported by ABC, that the President not only knew about torture but, after his Vice President attended meetings designed to hammer out a torture agenda for prisoners captured by the Americans or sold to them or whatever, approved it knowingly and with malice aforethought, on the whole, the nation has been unmoved by this latest revelation about our national Garbage Fly.

I’m with the nation. We aren’t moved. The moral faculty, insofar as it extends into and identifies with this place where I am a citizen has been so desensitized that it is no longer even a phantom limb. Our National Fly has, at least, ground the residue of patriotic illusion out of me. In fact, the vision of the Fly and his country club desperadoes pretending to be serious S.S. officers is more comic than tragic, more evidence that crime, in D.C., no longer requires the dark brilliance of Richard Nixon, but can be entrusted to a bumbling cadre of Farside nosepickers, who will spill the beans to a complacent and enabling press confident that that same press will not print the beans on the front page and put the whole affair into the amnesia hole, while selecting the donuts for their favorite next superfly, John McCain.

Admittedly, the story that ABC news broke was easy to guess. Torture would be one of the Fly’s responses to 9/11, an event that we still have not fully measured, vis a vis the Fly’s reaction to it. When the planes rammed into the WTC and the Pentagon, we know now that Bush had to remember the warnings he had received and coldly dismissed a mere month before. Knowing, as we do now, what he knew then, his actions fall into a familiar pattern. For here, once again, the Fly was face to face with the fact that he sucks as a man, by every criterion of manhood instilled in him by his education and breeding. His projects are always utter failures; his responses to them, while they are ongoing, are always utterly wrong; and his susceptibility to great bouts of panic are witnessed by all the people around him, who, he will later remember, know this key fact about him. It is a fact that he retrospectively tries to hide with swagger and the bizarre assortment of things that come out of his mouth – the “bring it ons”, the “mission accomplisheds”. The Fly’s long history of failure and panic have made him vulnerable to the emotional blackmail of those he thinks of as tough. There’s something alarming and pitiful about the Fly, going around day after day, calculating toughness – but such is the life of this beast, written in every trace he leaves behind him. And, to be fair, while he gulled the population post 9/11, it was a population longing to be gulled, longing for fairy tales, longing for easy credit, longing for a sloppy, third world fuck atop its wretched piles of junk and mcmansions.

So yes, the Fly’s a war criminal, and yes, he’ll go unpunished, and even remain the object of veneration to the cult that twitches with love for him. I actually know some members of the cult. Some of them I like, bracketing their politics. On the other hand, on days when the Fly’s nature is rubbed in my face, I want to go out and bite their necks and suck them dry of blood. Which is how LI has come to sympathize with the Comte de Lautreamont:

Debout sur le rocher, pendant que l’ouragan fouettait mes cheveux et mon manteau, j’épiais dans l’extase cette force de la tempête, s’acharnant sur un navire, sous un ciel sans étoiles. Je suivis, dans une attitude triomphante, toutes les péripéties de ce drame, depuis l’instant où le vaisseau jeta ses ancres, jusqu’au moment où il s’engloutit, habit fatal qui entraîna, dans les boyaux de la mer, ceux qui s’en étaient revêtus comme d’un manteau. Mais, l’instant s’approchait, où j’allais, moi-même, me mêler comme acteur à ces scènes de la nature bouleversée. Quand la place où le vaisseau avait soutenu le combat montra clairement que celui-ci avait été passer le reste de ses jours au rez-de-chaussée de la mer, alors, ceux qui avaient été emportés avec les flots reparurent en partie à la surface. Ils se prirent à bras-le-corps, deux par deux, trois par trois; c’était le moyen de ne pas sauver leur vie; car, leurs mouvements devenaient embarrassés, et ils coulaient bas comme des cruches percées... Quelle est l'armée de monstres marins qui fend les flots avec vitesse? Ils sont six; leurs nageoires sont vigoureuses, et s’ouvrent un passage, à travers les vagues soulevées. De tous ces êtres humains, qui remuent les quatre membres dans ce continent peu ferme, les requins ne font bientôt plus qu’une omelette sans oeufs, et se la partagent, selon la loi du plus fort. Le sang se mêle aux eaux, et les eaux se mêlent au sang. Leurs yeux féroces éclairent la scène du carnage... Mais, quel est encore ce tumulte des eaux, là-bas, à l’horizon. On dirait une trombe qui s’approche. Quels coups de rame! J’aperçois ce que c’est. Une énorme femelle de requin vient prendre part au pâté de foie de canard, et manger du bouilli froid. Elle est furieuse, car, elle arrive affamée. Une lutte s’engage entre elle et les requins, pour se disputer les quelques membres palpitants qui flottent par-ci, par là, sans rien dire, sur la surface de crème rouge. À droite, à gauche, elle lance des coups de dents qui engendrent des blessures mortelles. Mais, trois requins vivants l’entourent encore, et elle est obligée de tournée en tous sens, pour déjouer leurs manoeuvres. Avec une émotion croissante, inconnue jusqu’alors, le spectateur, placé sur le rivage, suit cette bataille navale d’un nouveau genre. Il a les yeux fixés sur cette courageuse femelle de requin, aux dents si fortes. Il n’hésite plus, il épaule son fusil, et, avec son adresse habituelle, il loge sa deuxième balle dans l’ouïe d’un des requins, au moment où il se montrait au-dessus d’une vague. Restent deux requins qui n’en témoignent qu’un acharnement plus grand. Du haut du rocher, l’homme à la salive saumâtre, se jette à la mer, et nage vers le tapis agréablement coloré, en tenant à la main ce couteau d’acier qui ne l’abandonne jamais. Désormais, chaque requin a affaire à un ennemi. Il s’avance vers son adversaire fatigué, et, prenant son temps, lui enfonce dans le ventre sa lame aiguë. La citadelle mobile se débarrasse facilement du dernier adversaire... Se trouvent en présence le nageur et la femelle du requin, sauvée par lui. Il se regardèrent entre les yeux pendant quelques minutes; et chacun s’étonna de trouver tant de férocité dans les regards de l’autre. Ils tournent en rond en nageant, ne se perdent pas de vue, et se disent à part soi: “Je me suis trompé jusqu’ici; en voilà un qui est plus méchant.” Alors, d’un commun accord, entre deux eaux, ils glissèrent l’un vers l’autre, avec une admiration mutuelle, la femelle de requin écartant l’eau de ses nageoires, Maldoror battant l’onde avec ses bras; et retinrent leur souffle, dans une vénération profonde, chacun désireux de contempler, pour la première fois, son portrait vivant. Arrivés à trois mètres de distance, sans faire aucun effort, ils tombèrent brusquement l’un contre l’autre, comme deux aimants, et s’embrassèrent avec dignité et reconnaissance, dans une étreinte aussi tendre que celle d’un frère ou d’une soeur. Les désirs charnels suivirent de près cette démonstration d’amitié. Deux cuisses nerveuses se collèrent étroitement à la peau visqueuse du monstre, comme deux sangsues; et, les bras et les nageoires entrelacés autour du corps de l’objet aimé qu’ils entouraient avec amour, tandis que leurs gorges et leurs poitrines ne faisaient bientôt plus qu’une masse glauque aux exhalaisons de goémon; au milieu de la tempête qui continuait de sévir; à la lueur des éclairs; ayant pour lit d’hyménée la vague écumeuse, emportés par un courant sous-marin comme dans un berceau, et roulant, sur eux-mêmes, vers les profondeurs inconnues de l’abîme, ils se réunirent dans un accouplement long, chaste et hideux!... Enfin, je venais de trouver quelqu’un qui me ressemblât!... Désormais, je n’étais plus seul dans la vie! Elle avait les mêmes idées que moi!... J’étais en face de mon premier amour!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cold war noir revisited

LI saw Seven Days in May last night. How did we ever miss that flick? It is a generational thing – while I was not of the generation that was taught to hide under the desk if a bomb hit, I do clearly remember the impact of reading Hiroshima in the sixth grade – lent to me by my then best friend, Mike Sears, a boy who was way ahead of his time in the gore department- and having nightmares that mixed naked bodies and skin melting off them. This was just when naked female bodies were zooming to the top of the charts, as far as LI’s interest in things, so the whole thing was extremely disturbing. And it wasn’t unreasonable to actually think it could happen to good old suburban Atlanta. Why not? Any plane you saw in the sky could, potentially, be part of an attack squad that had made its way from Russia, unloading the h bomb at this very moment to fall and explode right above your own back yard. Hello Daddy Hello mom its your sk-sk-sk-skin-scrapin’/ cherry bomb

But enough psychopathology. There was one thing in Seven Days in May that struck me as extremely funny. The movie is about a liberal president who signs a disarmament treaty with the Russkies. This so pisses off General Scott (played with that Burt Lancaster trademark handsome unctuousness) that he plots to overthrow the Pres and install a military dictatorship. Here was the funny thing: we are supposed to consider the country in crisis, and the president teetering on disaster, because he is achieving only a 29 percent approval rating in the polls.

How funny and true. A Far Side moron like Bush can achieve 29 percent in the polls for years, and the establishment media will continue to treat him like he’s the second coming of Christ, disguised as the Lord of the Flies – but it is certainly true that a liberal president would be relentlessly hounded for those same numbers. Righfully, conservatives assume that they are entitled. They do, after all, own the papers, the networks, and the circle jerk of think tanks and tv-genic experts.