“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, June 07, 2008

Don Juan, Newton's secret sharer

Despite its adherence to the rather old fashioned notion that the history of ideas is concerned solely with the development of philosophical arguments, Schlomo Biderman’s project in Crossing Horizons, to contrast “Indian” thought and “Western” thought, is suggestive. One of the things it suggests it does not examine: how is it that idealism arrived so late in Europe? As a coherent, consistent doctrine, that is, not as a mystical hint?

In the three stories post, I meant to set up a rough edged answer to that problem. It is an answer that involves ‘adventure’. In the pre-capitalist, post-conquest society of the seventeenth century – in which a fully functioning global economic and political system exists, but lacking an industrial base – adventure is a symbol of social mobility. It is under the sign of adventure that social mobility happens. The adventure narrative and the adventurer penetrate inwards, as it were, from the margins. Print culture, at the same time, is the necessary condition not only for the spread of the adventure tale, but as the producer of that material which allows adventure to become a locus for new practices of imitatio.

In the relationship between Don Quixote and the mysterious Cide Hamete, the author of Don Quixote – or the ‘discoverer’ of Don Quixote (since he claims, or one of the characters in his story claims, that he ‘discovers’ books, which is surprising in the way that Columbus’s discovery of America is surprising – how can one man discover another man?) we have, in outline, the kind of ontological relationship that Descartes, later on, imagines with the problem of the evil demon. And if that demon were not evil, if, indeed, it were God, and if all our sensory impressions are as ambiguous as discoveries – sense impressions that are followed, only and inevitably, by sense impressions, as far back as we can go, just as discoveries follow discoveries on some Terra Incognita – then we approach the precincts of the idea that the Irish clergyman, George Berkeley, unfolds in The Principles of Human Knowledge.

Where, in this hasty sketch, is Newton?

Newton, drawing his symbols in new gravel in Cambridge walks. A man who writes, but doesn’t send, one personal letter in thirty years, and this in the age of personal letters, when the society of scholars was as much bound together by their gossipy correspondence as by their discoveries. Newton, utterly incapable of explaining his thoughts to an amiable princess, the way Descartes explained his in his letters to the Princess Elisabeth of Palatine. Newton, who stayed put.
To stay put was one way to advance – if you were Newton. He disappears into his study, his books – whereas Don Quixote pops out of his. Both have an adventurous view of their missions. Don Quixote literally wouldn’t have existed without the book culture, and Newton ... well, it is hard to say what he would have done. Become a village visionary?

There is another story of a book. It is in Mothe de la Vayer’s Discourse on History. Mothe de la Vayer takes up a story from Sandoval, the historian who recounted the conquest of Peru, to critique, in his own way, the geopolitics of the book:

He is at such pains to justify the right of the Spaniards and to exalt their prowess that it is perhaps one of the most farcical pieces [like a theater piece – a sketch] that is seen in any history. As to the right, unless one is very austere, it is hard to keep from laughing seeing the beautiful harangue that he puts in the mouth of one Valverde, a Dominican bishop, in order to persuade poor Atabalipa to cede his kingdom to the newcomers. He talks to him, in two words, about the trinity, the incarnation of the Word, of the passion of the son of God, and of what is the most mysterious in our religion, in order to come to the point at which the Pope, the lieutenant of this God on earth, had made a present to the Emperor, their master, of all Peru, and thus that he had to quit his present estate and become a Christian. Atabalipa responded that he held his kingdom from his predecessors, that he recognized no superior on earth, and that the Pope of whom they were speaking must be a crazy man, devia de ser loco, to give what doesn’t belong to him; and that he was not resolved to quit his religion, which seemed good to him, for another, nor to worship a dead god, in place of the sun, which never dies. On which Valverde presented him with his breviary, assuring him that this book taught the truth of everything he had been saying. Atabalipa took it, not ever having seen anything like it, and as he saw that the book didn’t speak, he believed he was being mocked, and threw it to the ground. There was no need for anything else: the Bishop cried out reveng to the Spaniards who were only waiting for the signal, they put their boot in, killed without resistance all the Indians found there, and Pizarro made the great Monarch a prisoner of his hand. Sandoval thinks the actions was so beautiful that in this place he reports the words of the Dominican, Los Evangelios por tierra Christianos, justicia de Dios, vengaca, Christianos vengaca, a ellos, que menosprpecian, y no quieren recebir nuestra ley, ny ser nuestros amigos. I recognize that the reply of Atabalipa is full of impiety towards our God, our religion, and the visible head of the Church. But what else could one expect of a poor Gentile, unequipped with divine grace, who spoke only according to his common sense [sens naturel], and who had never heard of the propositions of the Evangelist, than at the very instant when, in pronouncing them, they held a knife to his throat?”

I’ve been trying to make a case for the libertines, based on my perception of that fragile, half complete structure of sensibility – volupte – that they never succeeded in making either coherent or popular. And of the libertines themselves, after Theophile’s imprisonment, one sees a retraction – and a search for shelter. Shelter they found in the households of the great – Naudé working for Mazarin, Saint Amant becoming the panagyrist of the Cardinal de Retz, Mothe de la Vayer working as the court historiographer under Louis XIV. They, too, didn’t move, but their stillness was not pregnant, as Newton’s was, with adventure. They were office holders, useful men, off hours skeptics.

Adventure found the libertines only in fiction. In Don Juan. In Cyrano de Bergerac’s act, who was to trace a path the inverse of Don Quixote’s – instead of a fictional character becoming independent of an author, the author became a fictional character, and fixed himself in the mind of posterity as such.

Friday, June 06, 2008

a reckoning

Bubble bubble toil and trouble.
Let’s do a small reckoning, shall we?
Let's reckon up outlay in one column, and cosmic stupidity in the other column.
In the one column, we have a government outlay of 164 billion dollars. Was this money spent on a crash industrial program to develop better, fuel efficient or fuel alternative technologies? Did we decide to use the power of research represented by the public financing of education, the vast array of state universities, to create and then license said technology? Or did we decide that the credit card companies needed some bloodsugar?
Ah, what are the markers of cosmic stupidity? We need a lot of them to put in the other column. So many! All festooning our low, dirty, dishonest and lobotomized time.

Then, we have the Fed making loans to the financial sector for some as yet indefinite amount – perhaps as much as 400 billion. With the financial sector awash in cash, of course, money went zipping over to where return on non-investment would do the most good – commodities! And so we said hello to various mysterious spikes in oil prices.

Cosmic stupidity, and ramping up the carbon based suicide of the planet. Excellent. The cosmic stupidity spirits are surely rubbing their hands with glee.

And then, of course, we have Wall Street dinosaurs, who can’t remember the last time they actually had to pay for a meal, or their taxes, or any service whatsoever, deciding that this was the best of times – as indeed people do decide when they are loaned money at below par rates. Of course, much of the financial sector now consists of complicated bets on shifts in equities and commodities markets, so in essence, the Fed – never as smart as Br’er Rabbit – was taking collateral that will plummet in value if the stock market plummets in value. This massive bet on the market going up, and the market going up because the Fed was making the massive bet, seemed an excellent thing, so excellent that the fact that the economy depends on the consumption of all those people who’d maxed out their credit cards and weren’t getting wage increases seemed petty to even contemplate. Surely we were going to continue on course as we sailed through another episode of the great moderation – which is what the servitors of the wealthy, the economists, call our present phase of exacerbating wealth inequality, cutting public investment, and relying on the power that lies in consumer debt, linked to asset inflation.

To explain how Wall Street thinks, the best source, at the moment, is Jezbel.

“Oh. My. God. Okay: Henry T. Nicholas III is the former CEO of Broadcom. Broadcom makes chips that run your cable boxes and cell phones and modems and crap, but that is so beside the point here. (Well, there is this theory that porn drives all communications and media innovation, but let's cut to the chase.) In the midst of investigating Broadcom on a run-of-the-mill options backdating scandal, the Feds learned something interesting about how Henry T. Nicholas III would close a deal with a cable box manufacturer or a modem maker or whatever: he'd slip drugs into their drinks. Generally Ecstasy. Sometimes meth or coke. No seriously. The indictment is here. He'd do this, among other places, at concerts, the Super Bowl, Rome, and in an underground room and tunnel he'd built under his Rodeo Drive apartment. Seriously, check it out.”

Ah, the successful.

And this is from the NYT story: “Shares [of Broadcom] rose 65 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $28.75 on Thursday, amid a general upswing in the stock market. Its 52-week trading range was between $16.38 and $43.07.”

Thursday, June 05, 2008

When you're alone like he was alone...

I’ve got the abattoir blues...
Three stories.

Story 1:

In Book 2, Chapter 4 of Don Quixote, the knight is being chatted up by a local wit, a student named Samson. Samson wants to have some fun at Don Quixote’s expense, and thus we know that we can put him under the category of an insiders. The bystanders, in Don Quixote, are either insiders or outsiders, with the insiders being in on the joke of the knight's madness, which often prompts them to some practical joke, while the outsiders react, often with some indignation, to his words and acts as though they spoken and enacted on the same plane of reality as anybody else's words and acts. It isn’t entirely clear what stance we, as readers, are to take to the insiders. They represent us, as readers, and yet their mockery doesn’t quite match our own mixed feelings. And, indeed, are they really in on the joke, especially in Book 2? Aren't they themselves the prey of a certain ontological trap? Samson has been telling Don Quixote and Sancho Panza about the book, Don Quixote, written by a Moor. The pair are not aware that they are in a book, and are naturally interested in this fact. Samson tells them that the author has promised, at the end of Book 1, to find the 2nd book in which their adventures continue:

“And what does the author mean to do?" said Don Quixote.

"What?" replied Samson; "why, as soon as he has found the history
which he is now searching for with extraordinary diligence, he will at
once give it to the press, moved more by the profit that may accrue to
him from doing so than by any thought of praise."

Whereat Sancho observed, "The author looks for money and profit,
does he? It will he a wonder if he succeeds, for it will be only
hurry, hurry, with him, like the tailor on Easter Eve; and works
done in a hurry are never finished as perfectly as they ought to be.
Let master Moor, or whatever he is, pay attention to what he is doing,
and I and my master will give him as much grouting ready to his
hand, in the way of adventures and accidents of all sorts, as would
make up not only one second part, but a hundred. The good man fancies,
no doubt, that we are fast asleep in the straw here, but let him
hold up our feet to be shod and he will see which foot it is we go
lame on. All I say is, that if my master would take my advice, we
would be now afield, redressing outrages and righting wrongs, as is
the use and custom of good knights-errant."

There is a three irreal steps here. The characters in a book want to know what the author of the book wrote about them, thus putting their wonder in a space outside of the book. The author of the book ends the book by promising to find the book in which the characters’ adventures are completed – and by this the author negates himself as an author, insofar as he seeks a book that is already completed, a book in which the characters continue their adventures. And finally, as the author is fancying what the characters are doing – no doubt thinking the characters are “fast asleep in the straw, here” – the characters are about to move on to new adventures, which may either mean the adventures in the book the self-annihilating author is seeking or the book that the author is contemplating writing.

Story 2

Schlomo Biderman, in Crossing Horizons: the World, Self and Language in Indian and Western Thought (a book LI, under the name Roger Gathman, will be reviewing for the Austin Statesman, ‘moved more by the profit that may accrue to him from doing so than by any thought of praise’), devotes one chapter to the No-Self, contrasting Kafka and the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s book, Mulamadhyamakakarika, is dedicated to the proposition that propositions don’t reference any extra-linguistic reality. Nor, according to Nagarjuna, do they reference any inter-linguistic reality. In fact, what we call reality is, upon examination, emptiness.

“A courageous philosopher might rise up and say: since the signpost pointing us to emptiness is itself empty, why need I pay heed to its warning? However, such reaction will not betray great wisdom; it will only reveal a sorrowful myopia, an inability to distinguish properly between claims that try to assert something as opposed to preventive performatives, like those of Nagarjuna. Nargajuna himself clearly emphasizes the peventive-performative function of his claims, likening them to the action of an imaginary person perventing someone from doing something. An imaginary woman, for example, is voeted by a man who mistakenly thinks that she is a flesh and blood woman. Then a doctor arrives and draws the man’s attention to his error, to the fact that he should not have set out on his lustful path in the first place since the object of his desire is but a product of his imagination. Dispensing a course of preventive therapy, the doctor successfully cures the deluded man; he prevents the desperate lover from erring, revealing the illurory nature of the woman he covets. At this point, Nagarjuna surprises us: the doctor preventing the illusion is himself illusory – he too is imagined. Would this illusory doctor fail to cure this man just because he himself is a fictional character? (218)

Story three

- In Richard Westfall’s biography of Isaac Newton, he marvels over the paucity of references to Newton in reminiscences of his fellow Cambridge University worthies. There are a handful of stories. They are all about Newton’s famed “absent mindedness” – or what Nagajuna might have recognized as mindedness of absence. And a nexus between the book and madness that Don Quixote’s friends might well recognize, as well. According to William Stukeley:

“As when he has been in the hall at dinner, he has quite neglected to help himslef and the cloth has been taken away before he has eaten anything. That sometime, when on surplice days, he would goe toward S. Mary’s church, instead of college chapel, or perhaps has gone in his surplice to dinner in the hall. That when he had friends to entertain at his chamber, if he stept in to his study for a bottle of wine, and a thought came into his head, he would sit down to paper and forget his friends.”

- His friends. Stukeley implies that he had friends. Westfall found, in Newton’s entire correspondence, only one personal letter in the entire corpus. It was written to Francis Aston, who was going abroad, to Europe, and consisted of advice about what to see and do abroad, copied almost literally from a manuscript by Robert Southwell. Newton had never been abroad. He adds that he would like it if Aston could find a book for him by Michael Maier on astrology. Westfall writes that the letter is “more ludicrous than eloquent.” “It is found today among Newton’s own papers, which suggests that he recognized he was cutting a ridiculous figure as he assumed a ridiculous posture on the basis of one month in London and an essay by Southwell, and decided not to send it.”

- When Newton walked in the fellow’s garden, according to another reminiscence, “if some new gravel happen’d to be laid on the walks, it was sure to be drawn over and over with a bit of stick, in Sir Isaac’s diagrams; which the Fellows would cautiously spare by walking beside them, and there they would sometime remain for a good while.’

- His servant, Humphrey Newton – no relation – when Newton went to give the lectures he was obliged to give “so few went to see him, and fewer that understood him, that oftimes he did in a manner, for want of Hearers, read to the walls.”

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Everything has been done

Dead disco, dead punk, dead rock n roll

Code Poetix tagged us to list seven songs we are listening to for the spring. Well, usually LI just don’t do the meme thingy, for the same reason that, in the first grade, we had such trouble learning the hokey pokey – an exaggerated sense of our own ridiculousness in certain social situations. But this seems like fun. And a good link excuse!

1. Ysa Ferrer’s To bi or not to bi Throughout her career, Ysa has shown a strong desire to dress in sexy costumes and be physically lofted by lithe but muscular men. Well, don’t we all? In the plus column, too, there is her often expressed desire to literally become a Manga character. I am pretty confident that to bi or not to bi will be in the clubs this summer, although perhaps more the clubs in Moscow than NYC.
2. Britney Spears Piece of Me. The news that Britney Spears is “not fit” to take over her estate – which, of course, I read via my handy Google Britney Spears news alert – makes me wonder whether Brit isn’t playing some deep game, here, mimicking a conformity that, in her heart, she surely doesn’t feel. The old Britney would certainly have run off with her beach chair beau without a thought in the world, but the new one has to make her way through a Machiavellian forest of other people’s strategies – much like Beatrice Cenci.
O white innocence,
That thou shouldst wear the mask of guilt to hide
Thine awful and serenest countenance
From those who know thee not!
3. Santogold L.E.S. artistes. LI is not going to lie. We are in love, painfully, humiliatingly in love with Santi White. The whole gestalt, lock stock and barrel, from her carefully chosen look – the great psychodelic designs of her pants, the dyed, unequally cut hair, those beautiful hands - to the impassive flygirls, some retroreference to a mashup between the Soul on Ice universe and Barbarella. There is no song we don’t like.
4. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Deanna. LI would have to fold up if we didn’t have Nick Cave to accompany our frequent jags of pointlessness. And then, there’s this song, the title of which coincides with a certain current crush. About which, LI will not be jinxing the issue by many more personal revelations on this blog. You make personal revelations, you live to regret them.
5. Dhoom Machele by Tata Young. Everybody loves Bollywood line dancing. LI does too! Just try to resist it.
6. Weepers Circus Ma dame aux camellias. Têtes raides is having an excellent influence on French music at the moment. There’s a return to a sound that evokes the Moroccan decored boite de nuit in Hollywood, 1937, backed by a wastrel old Goa to Katmandu 60s rock beat. It is cool to me that this is the opposite of Ysa Ferrer’s sound, and yet both are so cabaret.

At the end of this exercise, I am supposed to tag others. Well, I would love to hear the summer music lists of my web compañeros: the WerePoet, Northhanger, Chabert, Mr. Praxis, Amie, Mr. Lumpenprofessoriat. Among others.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na

Death of a Lady's man

“I always served women and I did it without compromise until the end, with respect and love.” - Yves St. Laurent.

LI – who has advised our readers, last week, to spend their hard earned dough on Isabel Marant fall ensembles - was contemplating writing an obit post about Saint Laurent yesterday. Well, we didn’t. Instead, we watched Louis Malle’s Feu Follet (rather bizarrely translated as The Fire Inside), which by coincidence was about the cultural mix of the era in which Saint Laurent first rose to prominence at Dior.

Malle directed four films that, between them, constitute a physiognomy of the French right – Au revoir les enfant, Souffle au Coeur, Lacombe, Lucien and Feu Follet. World war ii, Indochina, Algeria – betrayal, incest, suicide. Politics, here, is a sickness arising from the very heart of the bourgeoisie’s Lebensordnung. The sixties was the moment that changed – affluence significantly eroded the old triangle of Country, Work, Home, and a significant portion of the children of the bourgeoisie went left.

It was the lot of the fascist intellectual to travel, by the most destructive of possible paths, to a moment of absolute self condemnation. Hitler’s suicide was a template for all of them. Wyndham Lewis, that master of titles, entitled his post WWII novel Self-condemned for good reason. Feu Follet is based on Drieu la Rochelle’s novel, written in the twenties, when Drieu was still involved with the avant garde. But it resonates, of course, with Drieu La Rochelle’s career, capped by the heady collaboration with the Nazis, and his own suicide in the farce of Sigmaringen (which Celine has written about) in 1945.

Malle had an uncanny sense of exactly how the right works as a circle – as a social milieu. The conjunction of a language straight out of Flaubert’s dictionnaire des idees recues, the assumption that tools can easily be bought to destroy any personal problem, which is at the origin of the louche bullying style that can crop up anywhere, and the amazing charm – oh, the charm of these people, especially the women. Beauty, manners, an air of complete intention. The film keeps Maurice Ronet, the actor who plays the lead here, an alcoholic man about town, Alain Leroy, at the center or on the edge of most of the shots. He’s a beautiful man to look at – this film really does convey what it means to be a lady’s man. The only comparable American film on the subject is Shampoo. It is a rich subject. LI has known one real lady’s man in our life – a man who lived to seduce women, who devoted himself to the rituals, the micro-sadisms, the being thrown out of apartments, the need to revenge every fuck, the uncanny ability to zero in on, to situate himself in, a woman’s narcissism and operate from that point onward. It is a series of campaigns. Leroy is an ex military man, out of Algeria, in Malle’s film, a friend of the far right paramilitaries who came out of that war. He is going down, his campaigns have all brought him to naught. Yet even as he goes down he excites the sidelong glance in the stranger. He has a perfect face. It is like Terry Lennox’s face in Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. In fact, the beginning of the Long Goodbye is in the very tone of Malle’s film:

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

Alain Boyer has a spiritual kinship with Terry Lennox, but less canniness. American lady’s men survive. There’s no suicide for them.

There’s a beautiful scene in the film where he sits in a restaurant, contemplating drinking a cognac. It is the Cafe de Flore. He watches the people walking by out on the street. It is a simple montage, and yet, Malle shows exactly how it is seen – one sees it as a man who has condemned himself sees it. These people, their clothes, their hairdoes, their busy gestures, their cars - their matter - are purposeless. Suicide and total war are joined in that glance.

Monday, June 02, 2008

the sadian fucker as the civilized savage

This is the story of listomachia. Two lists. Two programs.

One program, the canonical program of imperial rationality, lists universals. But these universals turn out to be, on examination, universals-to-be. If the universals don’t seem to be universal, it is because the inhabitants of the border, the limit – the barbarian, the savage, the atavist, the criminal –have not yet disappeared. Disappearance and civilization are a couple. As civilization comes into contact with the savage, the savage must, to the resigned regret of the humanist, disappear. Patrick Brantlinger's Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 contains loads of quotes about the disappearance, or vanishing, of the savage:

In his multivolumen Races of Mankind (1873), another popularizer, Robert Brown, indicates that disease and infertility are the causes of the ‘decay of wild races,” but he also makes it plain that violence from whites is an equally important cause. Brown quotes George Augustus Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand:

They had heard it said that it was a law of Nature that the coloured race should melt away before the advance of civilization. He would tell them where that law was registered: it was registered in hell, and its agents were those whom Satan made twofold more the children of hell than himself (3:199)

Although Selwyn’s “language is somewhat forcible, even for a Colonial bishop,” Brown writes, it is nevertheless true: the disappearance of wild r aces before the civilised is, for the greater part, as explicable as the destruction of wild animals before civilised sportsmen” (3:199) (9)

The two modes of disappearance are the active - the suggestion of hunting down and exterpating the savage, or, at the least, destroying utterly his customs and religion - and the passive - the observation that something drew the savage on to destruction as he or she encountered civilisation. Sometimes, of course, one supposed that the savage was already disappearing. In New Zealand, there was quite a vein of this kind of commentary. All the native animals, including the Maori, were already dwindling before the first white settlers set foot on the islands.

However, the moment the savage is slated to disappear is the moment that civilization’s emissaries become researchers. They are equipped with tests of all kinds, and they foray out to survey the savage. They list the typical responses, they record the savage’s mythology and break it up into a list of motifs, they record the organization of the savage’s sexual life and find the list of structures that it expresses, and finally they find that the savage was, all along, obeying the laws of the universal. He or she never was a stranger.

The second listing program begins to be compiled as reports come back from the New World. At the same time, humanists, rediscovering Greek and Latin texts, come across more and more information that seems to violate all Christian norms. Herodotus, especially, is a trove of reports on strange customs. In the French tradition, this listing program begins in Montaigne and continues through the ‘dangerous’ texts of Francois la Mothe le Vayer and into the texts of the great philosophes – Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot. In la Mothe le Vayer’s dialogue on scepticism, his sceptic, Ephestion, defending the ‘divine’ Sextus, alludes to the “morals, customs and divers opinions’ of peoples – habit, he says, is the ‘fifth element’ – in order to show that what we take to be settled and absolute differs wildly historically and culturally. According to Herodotus, for instance, Egyptian men piss squatting, while Egyptian women piss standing up; the men stay at home and weave, the women go out and work; the men carry jugs on their heads, the women carry burdens on their shoulders; among the ancient Indians, the beloved dead were eaten, and the Indians rejected with scorn the Greek custom of burial. According to Marco Polo, a people conquered by the Chinese had the pleasant custom of giving their wives and daughters to their guests to sleep with – the Chinese emperor banned the custom, but after three years relented to delegates sent from this people, who pointed out that the skies had become like iron and the crops had withered since the custom was abrogated. The savages of Ireland, even now, attach the plow to the tail of the horse, as the Scythians once did; the French man asks the parents for the hand of their daughter, which would be received as an insult in Moscow, where the parents are supposed to take the initiative. Look simply at the diversity of natural settings – the stars themselves are arranged differently in the Southern hemisphere. Look at the assessments of beauty – among the Chinese, the smallest eyes gain the most praise; among the Japanese, it is the face with the most powder, and the most scarred and pitted. Chinese nobles and the negros of Malabar both grow their fingernails as long as possible. Egyptian women dye their shameful parts and their thighs yellow. We kiss on the mouth, but the Arabs of Libya find that more shameful than kissing the ass, and for the same reason – the stink of the mouth and the asshole, their part in digestion, etc. We look at the paintings of our grandparents and we are shocked by the clumsiness of their clothes – so much do customs change among us.

This listing program – cultural relativism – becomes a story, the story, in De Sade, where the list of all the bizarre customs becomes a script for action by fuckers who are at the very center of civilization, popes, kings, and grands seigneurs.

I saw some ordinary slaughter/ I saw some routine atrocity

... and paint your legs red

Sunday, June 01, 2008

the crowned mask

“A preserved index counts some forty masks for comedy alone. And if one picks out the better masks in painting, ivory or terracotta preserved or actor statuettes and takes into account the exaggeration inherent to comedy, it will seem that the recognition that not seldom moved the performance of the mask maker to keep step with the writer is justified. Accordingly one understands that the greatest scholars of Greece and Rome, Aristophanes of Byzantium and Varro, held the masks to be worthy objects for their writing, and yet more, since the masks were completely essential to the success of a theatrical performance, that the greatest tragedian in Rome, Aesop, never put on the mask, without having studied its fine points industriously, and that another celebrated comedian, Ofilius Hilarus, by the meal after one of his most applauded representation, crowned the mask.” (The Physiognomik der Griechen, Richard Foerster, 14)

LI has criticized the methodological confusions of Paul Ekman, but we cannot say that those confusions are arbitrary, particular to Ekman, unmotivated, or even that they operate on the conscious level. Is it even fair to mix together a remark by the way – about the coming ‘disappearance’ of the people Ekman decided to study – with their appearance, as informant/curiosa, to be incorporated in a very sixties program, one that produces two registers (emotional content/facial expression) and matches them up under the sign of nature? Yet I don’t think that this remark – however unsourced and automatic – should be left out of an account of Ekman’s work, because that work, after all, revolves around universals that happen to be encoded, by a happy and uninspected historical coincidence, in distinct English pathic words, and the disappearance of people, of languages, of customs, before the universals of civilization is familiar – it is, in a sense, the great imperialist story.

In fact, I want show that the wholesale change in the emotional customs of Europe is circumstantially bound the coming of the market based industrial system, and that means showing how Europe disappeared a certain popular culture, certain tongues, certain time wasting attitudes – the savage within – at the same time that the savage without was disappearing. But it does not mean that the universal appears, suddenly, among a dominant class that has a preformed idea of how society is to change. Rather, there is a flow back and forth between ‘elite’ or erudite ideas and popular or vulgar superstitions. Honour Penury (see my post Wednesday) was not completely wrong about Isaac Newton, whose reintroduction of ‘occult forces’ – attraction at a distance – was quite a shock to the Cartesians. It visibly looked like a step backwards. Nor was the Cartesian physio-psychology that different from a folk psychology in which the body was imagined as a kind of kingdom, inhabited by different animal spirits.

It is harder to see this when we automatically attach labels like “pseudo-science” to epistemically organized topics like the reading of faces. Our contemporary physiognomy has formed an alliance with the contemporary trend towards a kind of maxi-Darwinism to form a scientific discourse that can endlessly design confirmatory experiments (show forty Inuit students pictures of Bollywood starlets making the Duchenne smile – rank their responses – etc.), while the older physiognomy got along with a metaphysics of signatures, but the output has a striking similarity. This is how Abbe Pernetty introduces Philosophical letters on Physiognomy (1746):
“I have to tell you from the very beginning that I renounce everything that is called Divination; that I have never understood how people who reason could believe in those vague predictions, founded on facial traits and the hand; on those supposedly necessary relations between those who are born and what is happening in the heavens at their birth; in those conformities with animals, established by an exterior resemblance of the figure: your mind and mine are agreed on the vanity of these presages (prestiges), which make for true misery in those who are afflicted with them, and dupes of those whom they flatter. I fly from the marvelous in everything that I have to say to you; and if sometimes I appear to be leading you there, this will not be because I am detaching myself from true nature, but because I am unveiling before your eyes some of its productions that are unknown to you.

I don’t know if magic is merely not that kind of discovery which one regards as supernatural until one knows its principle.” (5)

Having tried to show how the modern and nature are associated with each other in libertine discourse, it is time, perhaps, to go outward a step socially to those signatures of the passions the reading of which was as much a part of the politician’s equipment as the seducer’s.