“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 18, 2009

this beatitude comes in terror

It would be impossible to film this. It would be impossible that is to score the film to a proper time. There is the rhythm of time given by the historian, with its units – “the age”, for instance – of varying duration in which the content somehow determines the boundaries of the unit, and there is the real time, which opens up, upon being represented, to an audience who must trade their own real time for it, and there is slow mo and fastforward, which operate on the object of representation, the film, to create a difference in the content that picks up things unseen in real time.

This is a site and an occurrence. The site is London in the eighteenth century – a time cue. Three things happen. One, William Hogarth publishes The Four Stages of Cruelty in 1751. It is another of Hogarth’s series of etchings, this one depicting Tom Nero’s inevitable ascent into murder. The first of the etchings depicts acts of cruelty to animals. The Tate has a succinct description of the etching: “The worst abuse is being inflicted by Nero, who pushes an arrow into the anus of a terrified dog being restrained by two other boys. Another youth is distressed by what Nero is doing and attempts to stop him by offering a tart. To the left of Nero, a boy draws a hanged man on the wall and points at him, underlining the inevitable: that Nero’s behaviour will deteriorate further and cost him his life.” Lichtenberg will write about these etchings. So will Kant, in his most extended consideration of animals as the Analoga of humans in the lectures on moral philosophy, where he writes, for instance, that “when, for example, a dog has long served his master truly, so that is the analogon of service [Verdienstes]; for this reason I must reward it and sustain the dog until the end, when it can no longer serve.”

Two, in 1745 or thereabouts, in Princess Street, Emmanuel Swedenborg has his first vision. This post is about that vision… But wait…

Third event, if we want to call these things events: John Long publishes his book, John Long’s Voyages and Travels in the Years 1768-1788 in 1791, and in one paragraph, he quietly introduces a new word into the English language:

“One part of the religious superstition of the savages consists in each of them having his totem, or favorite spirit, which he believes watches over him. This totem, they conceive, assumes the shape of some beast or other, and therefore they never kill, hunt or eat the animal whose form they think this totem bears.”

Explaining this savage belief, Long delves into civilized history:

‘This idea of destiny, or, if I may be allowed the phrase, “totemism”, however strange, is not confined to the savages; many instances might be adduced from history to prove how strong these impressions have been on minds above the vulgar and unlearned. For instance one in the history of the private life of Louis XV, translated by Justamond; among some particulars of the life of the famous Samuel Bernard, the Jew banker of the court of France, he says that he was superstitious as the people of his nation are, and had a black hen to which he thought his destiny was attached; he had the greatest care taken on her, and the loss of this fowl was, in fact, the period of his own existence, in January, 1739.” (112)

Long himself was assigned a totem, the Beaver. It was tattooed on his body.

So, let us turn to Swedenborg. Two totemic quotes, incised in this non-space, to begin with:

It often happened to me subsequently, he said, to have the eyes of my spirit open, to see in full daylight what happens in the other world, and to converse with angels and spirits like I speeka with men.
- Jacques Matter, 79

This path is difficult, secret and beset with terror. The ancients called it ecstasy or absence,- a getting out of their bodies to think. All religious history contains traces of the trance of saints,- a beatitude, but without any sign of joy; earnest, solitary, even sad; "the flight," Plotinus called it, "of the alone to the alone"; Muesiz, the closing of the eyes,- whence our word, Mystic. The trances of Socrates, Plotinus, Porphyry, Behmen, Bunyan, Fox, Pascal, Guyon, Swedenborg, will readily come to mind. But what as readily comes to mind is the accompaniment of disease. This beatitude comes in terror, and with shocks to the mind of the receiver. – Emerson, Swedenborg, the mystic

Swedenborg was the son of a bishop, an expert on metals (just as Newton worked at the Royal English mint , Swedenborg was apparently called in by the Swedish treasury to work on the silver purity of the coins), and a general polymath. Long after his death, his posthumous papers on the brain were published. Together with the Animal Kingdom, a book he published in the 1740s, these, according to Charles Gross, in his history of the neuroscience of vision, show that somehow, Swedenborg made certain deductions about the division of labor of the brain that were amazingly prescient. He not only suggested the existence of neurons, but made a number of pronouncements that were confirmed only much later:

Swedenborg’s view of the circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid was not surpassed until the work of Magendie, a 100 [sic] years later. He was the first to implicate the colliculi in vision, and in fact the only one until Flourens in the nineteenth century. He suggested that a function of the corpus callosum wasw for “the hemispheres to intercommunicate with each other.” He proposed that a function fo the corpus striatum was to take over motor control from the cortex when a movement became a familiar habit or “second Nature.”

This is all the more remarkable in that Swedenborg seems not to have dissected or at least experimented himself. It has been speculated that he observed Pourfour du Petit’s experiments on dogs in Paris. But there is no hard evidence for this. (128-129)

What we do know is this. Swedenborg, at some point in the 1740s, traveled to London. Being a wealthy and famous savant, honored in Sweden with a seat in the Parliament, his travels were always apparently punctuated with visits to other savants and important people. This is what he told a director of the bank of Sweden. He had come back to his lodgings for the night. He ate with a great appetite that evening. Then, he experienced a disconcerting thing. His apartment seemed to fill with fog. The floor seemed suddenly covered with reptiles. “I was all the more taken by the fact that the obscurity kept getting thicker. However, soon it thinned out, and I saw, distinctly, a man sitting in one of the corners of the apartment at the center of a lively and radiant light. The reptiles had disappeared with the shadows. I was alone, and you can imagine my horror when I heard him, the man, in the kind of tone that would inspire terror, pronounce these words: Don’t eat so much. At these words, my view was clouded again. Little by little it came back, and I saw myself alone in my apartment.” (63)

Now, it is easy to understand the terror. If this happens to me tonight, I will be a raving lunatic tomorrow. But why the words, don’t eat so much?

It is a very strange way to enter into the numerous heavens and hells that surround us, and through which Swedenborg was able to communicate, like some kind of code going through the corpus callosum.

It wasn’t until the next day, when the man reappeared again, that he explained that he was god, and that Swedenborg was his man for writing down the proverbs of heaven and hell.

“Don’t eat so much.” The sentence seems to come out of Gogol, or Kafka. That it is in the highest degree banal, and in the highest degree terrifying – that it seems to attach to no symbolic system (though Matter does try to find one), is what makes it so uncanny; this is the tyrant’s banality, which the courtier endlessly interprets. It is like the story about Potemkin with which Benjamin introduces his essay on Kafka. In that story, Potemkin is in one of his depressed states, confined to his room, and won’t sign any paperwork. The council, meeting in an antechamber to his room, is in an uproar, when a lesser functionary, Shuvalkin, tells them he will easily set things right. He takes the papers and boldly goes into Potemkin’s room, sees the great man sitting in the half darkness, biting his nails in a threadworn sleeping outfit, and presents the papers to him for signature:

“Shuvalkin stepped up to the writing desk, dipped a pen in ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hand while putting one of the documents on his knees. Potemkin gave the intruder a vacant stare; then, as though in his sleep, he started to sign – first one paper, then a second, finally all of them. When the last signature had been affixed, Shuvalkin took the papers under his arm and left the room without further ado, just as he had entered it. Waving the papers triumphantly, he stepped into the anteroom. The councilors of state rushed toward him and tore the documents out of his hands. Breathlessly they bent over them. No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed. Again, Shuvalkin came closer and solicitously asked why the gentlemen seemed so upset. At that point he noticed the signatures. One document after the other was signed Shuvalkin… Shuvalkin… Shuvalkin.” (795)

The devil is in the banal, and the devil may be the Lord. Such is the rule of ambiguity in the great cosmic tyrannies. Indeed, Swedenborg’s journeys through heaven and hell have that same mix of the celestial and the utterly banal, from what I have read of them. The law of analogies is unfolded without any more to do than Swedenborg took in unfolding the laws of the brain. One wonders whether, in fact, after all, perhaps Swedenborg’s analogies were all travels in the brain… the brain… the brain…

But to our donkey business. As is well known, Swedenborg believed that we are all doubled – our images exist in another realm, and their images are us. He could converse with those images. But there is a twist to his belief. There are three heavens, but every heaven corresponds to a part of the human body. And every part of the human body is a society of angels. We know what part of the body this society is by its position in regard to other societies of angels. In a sense, this is a vast fractal, the body composed of self-resembling bodies, and so on to infinity. The substance of these bodies seem to be a sort of entelechy of affection, and affection connects man, beast and plant. What distinguishes man and beast and beast and animal in this scheme is not reason, but degrees of affection, with man being closer to the center – God – and plants being further out.

Although this retains the traditional hierarchy, it retains it in a much different way than Kant. In fact, it is similar to Mary Douglas’ notion of how meals gain their meaning – “ The smallest, meanest meal metonymically figures the structure of the grandest, and each unit of the grand meal figures again the whole meal – or the meanest meal. The perspective created by these repetitive analogies invests the individual meal with additional meanings. Here we have the principle we were seeking, the intensifier of meaning, the selection principle. A meal stays in the category of a meal only insofar as it carries this structure which allows the part to recall the whole. “ (1972, 67)

Enough and too much for today!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

the donkey's enlightenment

There’s a very good post about literature and sociology at the American Stranger, followed by a comments section about the same. At the tail end of the comments section, Chabert and I engage in a little methodenstreit.

And there’s a very flattering post about Limited Inc up here. What Duncan says about the oscillation between a rhetoric of violence and a rhetoric of loss hits home. I’d like to write a little more about that in a post on News From the Zona.

… Now, on with the thread…

Between Bruno and Nietzsche, the ass goes underground. Bruno’s donkey, who is brother to Cornelius Agrippa’s ass – in a noble lineage going back through Apuleius all the way to Balaam’s steed – refuses to speak. Although there are indications, an underground asinine code, that the ass’s point of view hasn’t entirely lost its power. For one way of reading Kant’s project of reconstructing the interior human limit would be to highlight the cold cold shoulder he gives to the ass. Or to the animal kingdom, where instinct always finds its purpose – the happiness (Gluckseligkeit) of the creature. And where instinct reigns and no self-consciousness flares, we discover that the animal is always and will always be a means for the rational creature. Why is a little obscure. Kant, certainly unlike the caricature Cartesian, did not think of the animal as a clockwork – although the mechanic arrangement of the organism was, of course, a valuable way of understanding the living thing.

Now, myself, I find a certain anxiety here, about this instinctive creature, this all too means oriented means. If we are to reconstruct the interior human limit and strip out the superstition that erected Nemesis rather than freedom as its guardian and definer – a freedom that finds its essential expression in the universal form of our maxims - then here we are, in the city of sausages, with little choice but to send the non-universalizers to the abattoir.

Or such at least might be the tale being spun in the Great Tradition. However, while the ass’s partisans might have given in to the collapse of the exterior human limit, and gaze, now, on a world of means, they dug in their heels, a bit, on the interior limit.

One of the partisans of asinine philosophy in the 18th century is Swedenborg. This poses a problem for me, in as much as how does one approach Swedenborg? He was a graphomaniac’s graphomaniac. One doesn’t just dip in Swedenborg, anymore than you take a header into the mid-Atlantic from some ship – vast flows will drown you. The muchness of the man who conversed with angels and went through all worlds is too much muchness for me.

So I am going to take as my guide Jacques Matter’s book on Swedenborg, Emerson’s essay, and a few other bits and pieces.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Guides to cine-world

I’m lucky. I have two guides to the movies. One of my guides, Masha Salazkina, just published her book on Eisenstein, which I helped edit. All should buy it, or actually, make a library buy it. Masha has an incredible movie archive in her head – her book is, among other things, a protest against the idea that Soviet cinema developed under the sign of some exceptionalism. The baroque that Eisenstein found in Mexico is, by a thousand micro-ethnographic threads, connected to what he was doing in Russia.

In her work, Masha displays this great synoptic vision of world cinema. She knows the secret history that connects Brazil to Cuba and Cuba to Rome and Rome to Moscow.

My other guide is Amie, who is one of the constant commentors on LI. I owe Amie for my deepest movie experience – Bela Tarr – and to owe someone for Bela Tarr is to have an infinite debt in one's intellectual/spiritual account. I’d go on and say some things about Amie’s ideas, except I hope someday she will be expounding them on her own blog, and then in her own book. Although one of these days I might go on and do it anyway.

Amie told me that if I wanted to write about the abattoirs of Paris, I should see the Franju film, Sang des Bêtes. She warned me, however, that it wasn’t a film for the easily grossed out. Well, I am not a person who blanches because I see an animal being killed and butchered and eaten, since the bodies of herds of cattle, henhouses full of chickens, pods of fish, and numerous pigs have passed through my body. Cell of my cells, these butchered skinned blooded beasts.

All of which poses, or should pose, the great question: how can this be right?
To which the short answer has to be: it isn’t.

Franju calmly drives home the short answer. The film is short, and after the camera and the narrator’s voiceover – this part is narrated a woman – gives us a sense of where La Villette is, we get down to business. La Villette was intentionally sited by Haussman in a recently annexed banlieu of Paris in the 1860s, which was populated by immigrants and poor workers. Even when the slaughterhouses were opened, they were out of date, compared to the new, hygienic German abattoirs, the latter with their on-site doctors and running water at all times. La Villette was trichinosis city in comparison. So, back to the film, we follow a blonde horse into the gates of a courtyard and watch the man leading it take out a pistolet, apply it to the horse’s forehead, and down the animal goes. It doesn’t take ten seconds before a blade is slicing through the horse’s neck, letting out a steaming, rich flood of blood. It is at this point that we realize, uncomfortably, and for some viewers probably unbearably, that we are in for the killings.

About which, more later. The film is here dubbed in English, and here is the French

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Killing 2

“Remember, Cridle, those oxen,
blonde giants, dumb, looking upwards to heaven
whilst receiving the lash: it seemed to me
like I was feeling it too – Oh, Cridle, our business is bloody.”

Such are the words of meat goods king, Pierpont Mauler, in Brecht’s 1930 play, St. Johanna of the Stockyards. Meanwhile, in Lyons, the mayor was welcoming a new invention in the municipality abattoir: a “pistolet de l’assomage”. The inventors of this instrument, Jean Duchenet and Karl Schermer, wrote a summary of the benefits of it for the patent office: “The present invention has for its object a system of using a downing pistol (pistolet d’abatage) of which the automatic function and enhanced security renders the usage very practical and completely inoffensive. The manipulation of this tool is completely harmless. Its maneuvering capability is easy, rapid, and its automatic functioning is protected from all accidental deterioriation. With this machine, the slaughter of animals becomes instantaneous. It gains precious time for the butcher, who can proceed immediately, conveniently, and without danger, to stripping the animals.”

Catherine Remy, from whose article I am quoting, explains: if one pushes the idea a little, it is the idea of a combat, or at least of a dangerousness of the animal, that is here evoked and is at the same time combated. … Eduard Herriot, the mayor of Lyons, went and was the first to introduce the pistol, all in underlining explicitly its humanitarian character. For example, in response to a letter sent by one of his co-mayors, E. Herriot qualified the pistol as the “least barbarous means of slaughter.” (60)

If Kant saw the collapse of the human limit, his response was certainly not to rethink the animal. In fact, the animal is – because it is without self consciousness – always and universally a means for Kant. A means for the one who holds the place delimited by the rational existence: the person.

Kant probably did not go down to see the livestock brought into the old slaugherhouse on the Pregel in Konigsberg. It was a very old site. Konigsberg had a lively butcher’s guild. They used to parade gigantic sausages on New Years day. In 1601, they carried a sausage that was almost 1000 ells long and weighed almost 900 pounds, according to Johann Hübner (1762).

But because there was a municpal abattoir, it wasn’t necessarily up to date. The ones in Berlin were notoriously noxious, polluting, and filthy. The floorboards rotted with the perpetual rain of blood from the slaughtered beasts, and sometimes the butcher, arm upraised and ready to strike, would be as surprised as the beef cow when the floor boards gave way, tumbling them both into the stifling darkness below the slaughterhouse. Who knows what was down there. In 1810, the city closed them, so that once again, butchers would slaughter animals on the street. On that same date, however, Napoleon famously ordered an abattoir reform, setting municipal slaughterhouses out in the suburbs, and hiding the killing and stripping of the beasts.
This was a much admired move. In London, beasts were run up Oxford street to the Smithfield Market until 1850. Britain was the home of the first organized anti-cruelty effort, but Londoners could see, every day, how the cattle and sheep and pigs were run. They had to be beaten into making their pilgrimage. However, with trains and with cooling equipment, things started to change. In Dresden, by the 1890s, the municipal slaughterhouse was so clean and sweet that tours were made of it, and the tourist could, after seeing sausages being made, take refreshment in a garden restaurant. Apparently, none of the smells carried. Of course, these slaughterhouses became famous for another reason in 1945, when Kurt Vonnegut and a bunch of POWs sheltered in one from the U.S. bombing attack.

The beast and the rational being, then, were much more shoulder to shoulder in 1781, when the Critique of Practical Reason was written, then they were even fifty years later. As the meat market grew, the meat making disappeared.

Amie has turned me on to Franju’s Sang des betes, a movie about abattoirs. It is on YouTube. I’m watching it tonight.