“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

Friday, July 25, 2008

the advocate for the insects

My thesis of the human limit seems, at first glance, to be countered by Lüthi’s persuasive notion that folktale heros and folktale objects possess a depthlessness that can’t be attributed to some stylistic primitiveness. That depthlessness is a narrative choice, as one can see by looking at the legends that circulate at the same time, and within the same circles. If a character displays no astonishment about the world in which “wishes matter”, then perhaps this is a sign of the fact that fundamentally, pre-modern European societies saw the world in the same way as early modern and modern societies – that the world is essentially made for man. In fact, the positivist version of history would say exactly this. Isn’t God simply Man, suitably arrayed in a cosmic fatsuit? Doesn’t Red Riding Hood’s wolf speak French? Aren’t the stars above us tuned to the flushes and faints of the microcosmic Adam? Isn’t the stamp of man on the World since the world was conceived in the minds of men? And, to reverse my narrative line, isn’t it just in modernity that we discover the “indifference” of the world, to use Camus’ phrase?

The positivist narrative, which plots the advance of the human understand from belief in God to belief in humanity (whether that humanity is represented by the self interested individual, the proletariat or the scientist) generated a counter-narrative that became popular in the sixties, in which the “West” is identified with greed and technology, and we are given an easy to use list of villains, like Descartes, capitalism, rationality, etc., etc. In this counter-narrative, the founding book, Genesis, lays out the environmental disasters to come, as God gives man dominion over nature. In fact, the positivists and their opponents generally share a view of the unfolding of history, but assign different values to it. And, of course, ultimately both views seem to agree on the desirability of promoting happiness as the supreme emotional value.

Take, for example, the judicial relationship between man and beast. Or man and caterpillar.

“In 1586, extraordinary rains caused a great quantity of caterpillars to be born, which devastated Dauphiné. The grand vicar of the diocese of Valence cited them to appear before him and appointed for them a curator of defender. After solemn debates, the caterpillars were condemned to empty the premices of the diocese immediately; but they failed to hasten to obey, and, in place of anathemas and excommunications, it was agreed, after the advice of two theologians and two professors of law, to have recourse to abjurations, prayers, and aspersions of holy water. In spite of all, the caterpillars only disappeared a long time afterwards. This singular sixteenth century trial is remarkable inasmuch as this was the age of a great intellectual movement imprinted on minds and that the teaching of Roaldes, Cujus and Salinger threw a lively flame on the university of Valence.” (Bulletin d'archéologie et de statistique de la Drôme, 1875:452-3)

What happened in Valence was not an unusual occurence. The philosophes of the eighteenth century had great fun with the idea of an “advocate for the insects”. However, LI is fascinated by the very possibility that the insects have a legal side that should be listened to, debated, especially since we know that the asperging of holy water has given way to the asperging of insecticide without the insects having any advocate left.

The positivist could say, however, that the advocate of the insects is only advocating for them from the human point of view – that is, God is using them to avenge some human fault.

Well, this will lead us to a little essay by Lichtenberg. And the, by these byways, we will get back to Schiller, Goethe and astrology.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

lest that thy heart's blood run cold...

Max Lüthi, in his The European Folktale: Form and Nature, systematically contrasts the folktale (Märchen) with the legend (Sagen). Legend, for Lüthi, is something like the Saint’s tale, or the Arthurian tales, which – he claims – endow characters and objects with a “greater three-dimensionality” than folktales. According to Lüthi, folktales are characterized, stylistically, by depthlessness – the other world, the Aber-world, of the supernatural is accepted by the folk tale hero without a blink.

“In the Grimms’ folktale of the Seven Ravens, we are told of the little sister who arrives at the glass mountain: ‘What was she to do now? She wanted to save her brothers and had no key to the glass mountain. The good little sister took a knife, cut off one of her little fingers, pit it into the gate, and thus managed to open it. Once she had made her way in, a little dwarf came to meet her” – and so on, without the slightest indication of physical or psychological distress.” (13)

Lüthi’s examples can be infinitely multiplied. Red Riding Hood shows no surprise that the wolf talks to her; Rosanie accepts Ricdin-Ricdon’s magic wand without any question about how it works, or why, if it possesses the magical qualities Ricdin-Ricdon claims, he hasn’t made better use of it. In Dumb Hans, a hunchback who impregnates a princess simply by wishing is also able, by wishing, to build her a castle and cast off his hump – why, then, did he spend his youth being mocked and tormented for being an ugly hunchback? The superimposition of a violent, sexually active, hierarchical world over a “once upon a time, when wishes were still of use” does not take the questions that arise in that hierarchical world and apply them to the new, hybrid world – instead, there is a sort of automatic assumption that the rules have changed, now. But have changed capriciously, as it were, by themselves.

That general attitude of depthlessness, in the world of folktales, seems to translate an aspect of the culture which, according to an increasingly powerful consensus among the elite in the seventeenth century, was riddled by superstition. The struggle against superstition does not begin in the seventeenth century – Plutarch wrote against superstition. It became one of the commonplaces of Christian preaching. In On Godly Fear, a sermon by Jeremy Taylor, the great Anglican preacher, superstition is analyzed as a misplaced fear, and put among the pagan and Romish practices. It is at the base of idolatry.

“The Latins, according to their custom, imitating the Greeks in all their learned notices of things, had also the same concepiton of this, and by their word superstitio understood “the worship of demons,” or separate spirits; by which they meant, either their minores deos, or else their zoas apotheothentas, “their braver personages, whose souls were suppose to live after death;” the fault of this was the object of their religion; they gave a worship or a fear to whom it was not due: for whenever they worshipped the great God of heaven and earth, they never called that superstition in an evil sense, except the Adeoi, “they that believed there was no God at all.” Hence came the etymology of superstition: it was the worshipping or fearing the spirits of their dead heroes, “quos superstites credebant,” “whom they thought to be alive” after their apotheiosis, or deification, “quos superstantes credebant”, “standing in places and thrones above us;” and it alludes to that admirable description of old age, which Solomon made beyond all the rhetoric of the Greeks and Romans; “Also they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way;” intimating the weakness of old persons, who, if ever they have been religious, are apt to be abused into superstition; they are “afraid of that which is high;” that is, of spirits, and separate souls of those excellent beings, which dwell in the regions above us...” (Sermons, 1874:66)

This long notion of a misplaced fear, a double of the expected and demanded fear before those who are actually on high, migrates from the Stoics to the Church fathers to the natural scientists. It still constitutes the critical attitude that is taken to superstition and the understanding of folk practices. Yet, there’s an odd break between the ability to go between this world and the other world in the folktales and this picture of the culture of superstition. As always, when folktales pose a hermeneutic problem, they usually produce a folktale about that problem. So, the problem of the wish generates the folktale of the Fisherman’s wife that is about the very nature of wishing; and the problem of fear and its lack becomes “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.”

To which we will return... Our point, however, is that the struggle against superstition was defined differently at the end of the seventeenth century than at the beginning – that is, for the elite culture. The court position of the astrologer is a good marker of this change. Jean Baptiste Morin, whose book on French astrology (an apparently endless book, having a million volumes, which were employed to build the great wall of France – a little known structure which can be seen from one of our moons) has been partly translated by the American federation of astrologers, was still able to write horoscopes for King Louis XIII and give astrological advice to Richelieu, but even then, he was engaged in a bitter rearguard battle with Gassendi about the truth of astrology. Hervé Drévillon in Lire et ecrire l’avenir notes that the laws against astrology changed during the seventeenth century. In 1628, decrees were made against prophecies that predicted the fates of individuals, princes and states – “It was a matter then of containing astrology in certain limits, without contesting a certain legitimacy and pertinence belonging to it.” However, in “1682, the strategy of monarchic power in regard to astrology changed. From this time forth, it was no longer a matter of containing a discourse in the limits of what was judged politically tolerable, but of eradicating a belief whose effects were considered pernicious for the morality and order of the public.” [226] The members of the erudite elite who were willing to defend astrology dwindled. Perrault, Drévillon notes, in his death notice of the blind military strategist, Blaise de Pagan, attributed Pagan’s book on natural astrology to his “faiblesse.”

Franchising the column

LI owes Scott McLemee, who writes a column at Inside Higher Education, a note of thanks for having publicized our column on academic books (appearing every two months now!) at the Austin American Statesman. We did an interview with him in January, which, rather surprisingly, was quoted in a speech by the president of the Association of American University Presses at their convention. For the first and last time in history, I actually had a tiny tiny effect on the world:

Last month, during his speech at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, outgoing president Sandy Thatcher quoted from my interview with Roger Gathman, who writes “The Academic Presses” for the Austin paper. “The people making decisions,” Gathman had said, “have to realize that it is in their interest to encourage reading. They have to start thinking about the need to generate an audience. At that level, it makes no sense for all of your cultural coverage to point to activities that don’t involve reading.” Thatcher, who is also the director of Penn State University Press, indicated that his recent venture in editing the review section of a local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, was inspired in part by that column.

At the time, I pointed out that Gathman’s comment about reading would seem profoundly sensible to anyone who gave it two minutes of thought – but who could spare that much time when (as it seems at newspapers nowadays) the sky is falling?”

I am planning - lazily - to franchise this column, that is, sell it to other newspapers, which could publish it a week after I write it for the Austin American Statesman. My plan is to go to newspapers in university towns - Athens Ga, Madison Wi, Eugene Oregon. The problem with the plan is, of course, exactly what Scott points out in the article - the ethos of newspaper publishing has eroded.

Newspapers are much mythologized beasts - they have by and large contributed to the "softening" of manners that is the mark of liberal society, but they have done so unconsciously, as it were - from Pulitzer to the Chandlers to the Hearsts, media owners have commonly shared the political bent of Murdoch, yet they have depended on writers to provide their materials. Writers are a feu follet breed - normally, their cultural capital is in gross disproportion to the return they make on it. Hence, they are inclined to think of themselves as badly appreciated, which plants the seed of dissatisfaction with social arrangements as they are. And of course they pass through social circles in which the bourgeois norms are bent in any number of interesting ways. This doesn't necessarily result in liberalism per se - it can easily result in extreme reaction - but it shows itself around the edges even in the day to day work of creating establishment supporting narratives.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

lies, damn lies, and the conventional wisdom

LI likes to read the econ blogs when times get all roller-coastery. One thing that the blogs share with the thumbsuckers in the papers is that Americans will generally have to get used to lowering their standard of living. This has become the truism du jour, and it goes along with the other truism, which is that Americans have been living way past their standards of living.

Of course, that is all nonsense and lies. There is one and only one cause of our present discontents, which is that Americans – by which I mean the bottom 80 percent – have been horribly underpaid for the last thirty years. It is always and everywhere good to remember that wealth comes only from the bottom. Wealth creation simply doesn’t happen at the top – licitly. Of course, we’ve watched wealth creation happen at the top for years, but a close look at it shows that it is merely the piling of one fiction on top of the other. What the top does, at the limit, is administer and manage. For this function, it has succeeded in rewarding itself with the lion share of the wealth created over the past thirty years – by the bottom 80 percent. When one reads stories, such as the much commented upon story in the NYT about the Diane McCleod, the woman with two jobs, earning 45, 000 per year, who had accumulated debts of around $280,000, including her home, an asset that is probably worth around $160,000 in today’s market, the first thing I thought is that she should probably be making 80 to 90 thousand a year working those jobs. She would be, if wages had risen as they rose in the seventies. But here’s what happened: to arrest the falling profit margins, the political and business establishment decided to smash that rise in the wage rate. They did so under the cover of a story that is universally repeated, and so now, simply assumed. That story is that wealth comes from the top. It is a fairy tale for babies, but it has nicely succeeded in blunting the progressive tendency in taxation as well as arousing the general public’s support for programs designed to cut the general public’s throat. Of course, the guilt machine turns on automatically to make the whole thing go down like sugar. Turns out McCleod liked purses, and purchased many expensive purses on her credit cards. Is that shameful or what? She actually wanted something she considered beautiful in her life. How disgusting.

Or... no. This is what is shameful:

“GE Money Bank, which levied a 27 percent rate on Ms. McLeod’s debt and is part of the GE Capital Corporation, generated profits of $4.3 billion in 2007, more than double the $2.1 billion it earned in 2003.”

In 1979, a 27 percent rate would be illegal.

The U.S. is experimenting with a unique blend of robber baron capitalism and consumerism. The barons depend on the consumer, while at the same time, they chisel down the amount the consumer takes home until, of course, relative to the robber baron the consumer’s income sinks below the horizon. To make up for the logical gap here, the robber baron extends credit at 27 percent to the consumer. To make it, the consumer takes two jobs, thus robbing the day of any moment in which to be simply human. The consumer responds in the classically mammalian way when the lab environment turns hostile, by rushing to the bowl for sweets. In the labs, the rats die and they jack out the kidneys to examine the stress effects. In the suburbs and traffic jams, the consumer’s humanity turns to a peculiar mixture of glucose and methane, while the wallets are jacked out for other charges as they may apply. Outside the window, the world is upside down and the Whore of Babylon has lofted a bright, shiny sword.

Monday, July 21, 2008

what does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?

Kant’s little writings are all too little known, except for the all too known What is Enlightenment. One of his most entertaining papers is entitled “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking.” It was written to interfere in a dispute between Mendelssohn and Jacobi over the limits of reason and the rights of genius. Mendelssohn, in the course of this dispute, talks about being “oriented” by common sense, or healthy reason, and opts for a religious purified of enthusiasm, worshipping a rational God. Kant, with that driest of dry wits (the wit of the praying mantis as she devours her mate) likes the word orientation (and of course there is a little subdued play here with Mendelssohn as a man from the orient – a Jew).

This is how Kant explains it:

To orient oneself means, properly: out of a given world region (in the four of which we divide the horizon) to find the other, namely, the place of rising (sunrise). If I look at the son in the heaven at this instant and know that it is noon, so I know how to find the south, west, north and east. But I need in support of this throughout the feeling of a difference in my own subject, namely, my right and left hands. I name it a feeling; because these two side show externally to the intuition [Anschauung – inner view] no marked difference. Without this capacity: in the description of a circle, without requiring any distinction of objects in it, to still distinguish the movement of the left to the right from the opposed direction, and through this to determine a difference in the position of the objects a priori, would not be something I knew how to do, if I did not set the West to the right or the left of the south point of the horizon, and so thus should complete the circle with the north and the east until I was again at the south. Thus I orient myself geographically by all objective data on the heavens, but only through a subjective base of difference (Unterschiedungsgrund); and if, in a day through some miracle all the constellations otherwise retaining the same shape and position relative to each other only took a different direction, that is, instead of eastwardly, going now westwardly, in the next starbright night no human eye would perceive the least change, and even the astronomer, if he simply relied on what he saw and not at the same time on what he felt, would be unavoidably disoriented.

Kant always had a deep appreciation of the time reversable world of Newtonian physics. The notion of the sky played backwards or the earth going backwards is a gorgeous mindfall – one can go a long way down, thinking of that. Is there a bottom? This is a subjective claim indeed, but not one often raised in philosophy. Partly because philosophers spend too little time marveling over left and right. Kant, in this essay, uses the term subjective to mean something oddly material – inhabiting a body in space and time. But, as Kant knows, that body is built, partly, of directions that seem to have nothing to do with space and time as we commonly think of them, requiring an imaginary dimension in which we can transfer from left to right and right to left. This is the issue at the heart of the dispute between Leibniz and Newton about absolute vs. relative space. Which I’m not going into, except to note how Kant is building his notions

His next move is to expand this idea – which, incidentally, involves introducing the first practical joke (if we put aside Descartes evil demon) in philosophy (and all the praying mantises go doo, da doo da doot da doot doo da doo da doo doot da doot):

This geographic concept of the process of orientation I can now expand, understanding it thusly: in a given space in general, thus purely mathematically, to orient oneself. In darkness I orient myself in a well known room when I get hold of only a few objects, whose place I have registered in my memory. But here I am obviously helped in nothing by the specific affordances (Bestimmungsvermogen) of the place according to a subjective ground of distinction: then the objects, whose places I should have to find, I don’t see at all; and if someone, playing a joke on me, had put all the same objects in the same order one with another, but to the left where all had previously been to the right, so I would in a room where otherwise the walls were all the same, not be able to find myself. But so I orient myself now through the simple feeling of a difference between my two sides, the right and the left. Just that happens, when I in the nighttime on street otherwise familiar to me, in which I can now not distinguish between houses, go and appropriately wend my way.

Am I the only one, reading this, who thinks:

“He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”

I won’t translate all of Kant’s essay. I want to drive us to this passage – and, I assure you, I am still thinking about Wallenstein and superstition. A moment, ladies and gentlemen. Let me compose myself. I haven’t been feeling well lately. Isn’t it hot in here? Let me get out my handkerchief. Actually, touch of an old tropical distemper, plus of course the damned clap. Vixen was well worth it! The worms have the best of it. They dine off the best bits... Was this the face that launched a thousand ships...


“The course of things is approximately this. First, genius disports itself by making its bold flights, since it has dropped the thread that otherwise links it to reason. It soon entrances others through mighty speeches and great expectations, and seems to have set itself on a throne, which slow, heavy reason barely graces; whereby it still leads with the language of the same. The at that point assumed maxim of unworthiness of a too highly placed, lawgiving reason we common men call enthusiasm [Schwarmarei] these sports of benificent nature call it illumination. Because in the meantime there must arise a confusion of speech among them because, while reason can assume the dignity to command every man, here now this one, now that one follows his inspirations: thus must finally arise, out of inner inspirations through the testimonies of externally observed facts, out of traditions, that were in the beginning themselves kinds of preferences, with time becoming intrusive oracles [Urkunde], with a word the whole subjection of reason under the fact, i.e. superstition - because this at least carries with it the form of law and thus a point of rest.”

Time for a quick one...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

“The double sense of life accuses me...”

In 1797 and 98, Schiller was working on his Wallenstein cycle of plays. Wallenstein, a Bohemian warlord who figured in the thirty years war, was not at first glance an ideal figure for create, in the German language, theater in the Shakespearian vein. In her history of the thirty years war, C.V. Wedgewood pens this portrait:

“He was not a popular man: tall, thin, forbidding, his face in the unexpressive portraits which have survived is not prepossessing. No great master painted him and the limners who attempted his saturnine features agree only in a few particulars. The irregular features, the high cheek bones and prominent nose, the heavy jowl, the thick, out jutting underlip...

Already Wallenstein had a reputation for pretensions beyond his station. A Czech by birth, speaking the language fluently and allied to many of the leading families, dispossessed and otherwise, Wallenstein was influential if not popular in many sections of society...

Meanwhile, before the end of 1623 Wallenstein had contracted a second marriage, with Isabella von Harrach, a lady who regarded him with the nearest approximation to love which we may suppose it was ever his fate to inspire...”

Kepler, who worked for the Bohemian court, had drawn up his horoscope. Although astrologers were employed by all the royal houses in the early 17th century (Campanella, the author of City of the Son, had drawn up Louis XIV’s horoscope), Schiller decided to make astrology as central to Wallenstein’s Death as witchcraft was to MacBeth. Wallenstein did have his own astronomer, “Sini”. Voltaire, in the Philosophical Dictionary, under the entry Astronomy, made some typical acerbic comments about this:

"You should still less be astonished that so many men, who were, besides, elevated above the vulgar, so many princes, so many popes, who one could not fool about the least of their interests, were so ridiculously seduced by that impertinence of astrology. They were very proud and very ignorant. The stars were only for them: the rest of the universe was scum in whose affairs the stars didn’t meddle at all. They were like that prince who trembled at a comet, and who responded gravely to those who didn’t fear it at all: you can talk – you aren’t a prince.

The famous Duke of Wallenstein was one of the most infatuated by this chimera. He called himself a prince, and consequently thought that the zodiac was formed expressly for him. He never besieged a city, he never began a battle, then after having held council with the heavens. But as this great man was extremely ignorant, he had established for the chief of his council an Italian rogue named Jean Baptiste Seni, on whom he bestowed a six horse carriage and a stipend of twenty thousand livres. Jean-Baptiste Seni could not predict, however, that Wallstein would be assassinated by the orders of his gracious lord, Ferdinand II, and that he, Seni, would be returning to Italy on foot.

It is plain that one can know nothing of the future but by conjectures. These conjectures can be so strong that they approach certitude. You see a whale swallow a small boy: you can bet 10,000 to 1 that he will be eaten. However, you can’t be absolutely sure, after the adventures of Hercules, of Jonah and of Roland the fool, who remained so long in the belly of a fish.”

Hmm, I wonder if this entry gives us the seed of the story of Pinocchio? Anyway, in LI’s daunting pursuit of whatever, we will be using Schiller’s Wallenstein and Goethe’s more “instinctive” sense of astrology –as one commentator puts it – to discuss superstition.