“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, October 16, 2010

Berkeley and a spider

It is interesting to contemplate the fact that in the period between 1712-1717, Vico, Shaftesbury and Berkeley were all either living in or visiting Naples. Schaftesbury, who was raised, in a manner of speaking, by Locke, and rejected his tutor unequivocally – Berkeley, who grew to detest Shaftesbury’s philosophy as the very antithesis of religion and a much more poisonous skepticism than that he was accused of promoting; and Vico, whose sense of doing battle with the moderns has much in common with Shaftesbury’s sense that raillery and wit were marks of true intellectual freedom, and conversation the method of wisdom – which is another aspect of Vico’s defense of topoi against mere logic. All, in turn, knew Paolo Doria, into whose salon each man, at various times, ventured.

I wonder if Berkeley spoke to Doria of the tarantella. I wonder if there is any meaning in the fact that this idealist metaphysician – to label him in the classroom way – was so fascinated with both the tarantula and the stories of the effect of its bite. Surely as a clergyman, Berkeley was enrolled, forcibly, in the struggle against popular superstition. But Berkeley did not have Shaftesbury’s Tory contempt for the people - his Italian journal is full of incidents that show Berkeley as something more like an anthropologist than judge, recording the dirtiness of cleanliness of towns, the agricultural prospects of the countryside, the speech of the peasants with a certain tone of equanimity and fairness that surely was his tone, and one of the reasons he could get on with Swift.

But to the theme of this post: the future bishop and the spider.

The first mention of the tarantella in the journal is about a doctor who is met with on the road as Berkeley is going into Calabria. The doctor has cheerful contempt fo the peasant superstition of the tarantella, and attributes it to the peasants almost sexual love for drama. seems fascinate
After this, Berkeley records what a certain “Consul” in Tarentum told him about it:

“Tarantato that we saw dance here, no lookingglass or sword ; stamped, screeched, seemed to smile sometimes; danced in a circle like the others. The Consul,
&c. inform us that all spiders except the long-legged ones bite, causing the usual symptoms, though not so violent as the large ones in the country. He tells me the
tarantula causes pain and blackness to a great space round the bite; thinks there can be no deceit, the dancing is so laborious ; tells me they are feverish mad, and sometimes after dancing throw themselves into the sea, and would drown if not prevented ; that in case the tarantula be killed on biting, the patient dances but one year ; otherwise to the death of the tarantula.”

The next day, passing through a small Italian town, Berkeley talks with an Albanian priest about the spider: “The priest told us the arm, e. g. being bitten by the tarantula swelled, confirmed, as indeed everybody, that common notion of the tarantula's death curing the bite. His house very neat. Everywhere great respect for a knowledge of the English, owing to our commerce, fleets, and armies.” In a stop at Gavina, evidently to his enquiries, Berkeley learns this: “Tarantula not in this country ; he hath seen several bitten with a black swoln mark as large as half-a-crown ; they knew not they were bitten till dancing ; tarantula bites only in the hot months ; a peasant at Canosa laughed at their biting, and said he had often taken them in his hands.” In Ascola, or in the environs of the town, Berkeley and his companion eat beans with some peasants in a field: “They boast of a saint's finger kept in a church of a convent on a hill overlooking the town, which, so far as the church is visible, prevents the bite of the tarantula.” Approaching Vesuvius, Berkeley notes: “Taurasi and La Torella. Fricento belongs to the Principe della Torella ; 25,000 souls [2500. M.J ; July and J August without fires. An image on Monte Virgine protects the country about as far as visible from tarantulas, which, say they, are here likewise.Two bears slain last year in a neighbouring wood.” Berkeley wrote a letter about Vesuvius to John Arbuthnot – one of Berkeley’s set, along with Pope and Swift- in which he recounts its eruption and the horrible noise it makes – a letter that makes one wonder if Swift slyly poked at it in Gulliver’s Travels. He would have known of it not only because letters were passed around in the set, but also because the letter was published by the Royal Society. It was one of the odder gothic habits of 18th century intellectuals – like Wincklemann, in the 1760s – to climb Vesuvius and marvel at the lava flows. Wincklemann and his companions, the rather louche Baron d’Hancarville, tossed down a few bottles of wine on the summit. Berkeley doesn’t mention drinking anything.

After arriving at Naples, Berkeley seems to lose interest in the tarantula, and takes up another custom: the nasty habit of murder that has sprung up among the inhabitants of Southern Italy. In a letter to Pope about the island of Ischia, he writes: “and were they but as much strangers to revenge as they are to avarice and ambition, they
might in fact answer the poetical notions of the golden age. But they have got, as an alloy to their happiness, an ill habit of murdering one another on slight offences. We had an instance of this the second night after our arrival, a youth of eighteen being shot dead by our door : and yet by the sole secret of minding our own business, we found a means of living securely among those dangerous people.”

So: what is one to make of the practices of these people, their mental, or physical, reaction to the bite of the certainly real tarantula? In other words, what is the meaning of the appearance of a certain mentalist imperialism during a period when England is undergoing the tremors of the Great Transformation?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

sage-imposter vs. fool-imposter

“But to imagine a plan for a republican constitution and to found a republic are two very different things. In a government where the public will, or the law, has not and ought not to have any other support, other guarantee, other ministry than the particular will, one cannot establish liberty but in making free men. Before elevating the edifice of liberty in Naples, there was in the ancient constitutions, in the customs, in the inveterate prejudices of the people, and in the interests of the moment, a thousand obstacles that it was urgent to know and indispensable to remove.”

Thus Cuoco, pointing to the republican dilemma when a foreign army, the French, took the city and most of the kingdom.

A story.

Four Corsicans are caught in Apulia when the French army took Naples. One is a former servant, Cesare, and one is a former artillery officer and deserter, Boccheciampe. Their other two companions are, by all accounts, unemployed vagabonds. According to Cuoco, the four were fleeing to Brindisi when the came to Monteasi, a small village, and took lodgings with an old woman, to whom they told the story that they were actually fleeing nobles – Boccheciampe was the brother of the king, and Cesare (this is not in the Cuoco account, but in Pietro Colleta’s History) for the duke of Saxony. Actually, the old woman was related to the royal intendant in the village, one Girunda. According to Colleta, Girunda was taken into the secret – according to Cuoco, Girunda went to the old woman’s house, knelt before Boccheciampe, and swore his allegiance. When the four got to Brindisi, they began to issue orders and raised an army of insurgents – Boccheciampe invested the province of Leuca, and Cesare marched on Barri. The men under their command, according to Cuoco, were ‘baron’s men’, criminals, and miscreants who had escaped from one prison or another. According to Colletta, the four Corsicans were soon busy firing and hiring magistrates and emptying the treasuries of various towns and villages, while imposing fines on the “rebels” to the King.

Not only did the people rejoice in this pillage of the “patriots” – they were encouraged by the clergy, who, knowing the men were imposters, nevertheless seized the chance to proclaim them legitimate in order to set going a countryside insurgency. Even the Bourbon nobility, well aware that the King’s brother was not a rude artilleryman with a Corse accent, played along with the imposters.

And so the revolt in the countryside begins not in support of the patriots who have overthrown the barbaric remnants of feudalism in Naples, when the Republic was proclaimed, but is conducted by the people for the feudal regime, under the banner of four imposters, against Republicanism, as it is understood, itself.

Since Naples was the home of Vico and Bruno, there is much here for the Gnostic historian, avid for intersignes, to contemplate, especially as the glosses are supplied by an intelligence like Cuoco’s, whose form of enlightenment materialism (for instance, he attributes the heterogeneity of customs and tempers in the Kingdom of Naples to the heterogeneity of the property arrangements instituted by feodalism: “… and the feudal system, which, in the centuries which followed barbarism and preceded civilization, always varied according to places and circumstances, rendering property diverse throughout; and that diversity necessarily passed into the moeurs, which are always analogous to the nature of property and the means of subsistence”) is lit up, as well, by the darker torches held aloft by Machiavelli and Vico.

The problem of “removing” these impediments to create a new connection between the state and the people – that organic connection of happiness – seems, in the chaos of 1799, to have reached a moment of dream tension in which parts of the fabric of legitimacy – as if will later be called – peel off to reveal the form of the variable that takes the sovereign position. I want to intervene in this dream to recall a typology I explored years ago, at the beginning of the Human Limit project: that of the sage and the fool.

For underneath Cuoco’s distinction between a revolution from above – a revolution for abstractions, imposed upon the public, which receives it passively – and a revolution from below – a revolution of the people, struggling to achieve their interests, actively – is something like the trace of the odd necessity that yoked the fool and the sage together.

Oh that counter-enlightenment crewe! From Vico onward – and actually, from the witch onward, from the tales in the forest onward – there is a program, or at least a programmatic stance, even if there is no system, or even if the systems are crackpot, deviant, ad hoc – which consists in the rejection of the power of the will to truth. One finds (inevitably?) that the opposition between sage and philosopher that structures Francois Jullien’s argument in A Sage is Without Ideas eventually crystalizes about this matter, our matter, the will to truth. The sage, in Jullien’s account, does not develop a neurosis about the truth – and thus a whole intellectual culture slips the bonds and knots of a certain mastering cognitive passion, orienting itself instead with relation to the road, or way.

Jullien does not ask if the Dao is the path of pins or the path of needles – little red riding hood does not figure in his story. More curiously, neither does the fool. Unless – and here one feels Jullien’s grasp of the theme loosen a bit – that role is taken by the Daoist.

I have emphasized the role of the adventurer in the Great Transformation – and surely it is in the wake of the adventurer that the fool and the sage, a couple we saw come apart in Le Neveau de Rameau, recommence their adventures.

The question I am posing here is this: how does the sage-imposter differ from the fool-imposter?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

wrestling vs. boxing

I was reading an essay by Eco about Barthes’ Mythologies when I was struck by a citation from the essay on ‘Catch”, or wrestling. In fact, floating past the citation, I had the same feeling course down my spine that must be activated in the trout when confronted with a bright fly pierced by a hook. I had to swallow it.
I had to swallow it because it turns out that what Barthes writes about wrestling applies with an almost diabolical pertinence to politics in the age of mock democracy.

Mock democracy is defined as an electoral system in which both parties are concerned with aid and comfort of the minority of the wealthy, to the exclusion of anything else. This is a fact known to the electorate. It is known to the commentariat. All issues are shaped exclusively for the wealthiest, by their instruments, who have, in turn, got wealthy in the business of message management. This reality –which is easily confirmed simply by going through the bills passed by Congress and signed by the President for the past thirty years – is turned upside down during the elections, when the promises of both parties are directed at the concerns (economic and cultural) of an electorate that will be totally ignored after the election. Larry Bartels has a rather nice paper concerning whose concerns count with congress here.

From Bartels: “For incidental reasons of data availability, my research focuses on representation by U.S. senators in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Using both summary measures of senators’ voting patterns and specific roll call votes on the minimum wage, civil rights, government spending, and abortion, I find that senators in this period were vastly more responsive to the views of affluent constituents than to constituents of modest means. Indeed, my analyses suggest that the views of constituents in the upper third of the income distribution received about 50% more weight than those in the middle third (with even larger disparities on specific salient roll call votes), while the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators.”

Given this situation, the election becomes a more interesting event. Why does the electorate participate in it?

The clue, I think, is given in Barthes analysis of wrestling, which, he is quick to say, is not a sport, but a spectacle. And a spectacle of a particular type:

Le public se moque complètement de savoir si le combat est truqué ou non, et il a raison; il se confie à la première vertu du spectacle, qui est d’abolir tout mobile et toute conséquence: ce qui lui importe, ce n’est pas ce qu’il croit, c’est ce qu’il voit.
(The public could completely care less about knowing if the combat is faked or not, and it is right; it trusts in the first virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish every motive and every consequence: what matters to it is not what it believes, but what it sees.)

One of the great commonplaces is that seeing is believing. But in the world of commonplaces, I go with St. Paul: we see now as in a mirror, darkly. The inverse is really the sublunar true: believing is seeing. What we believe, we will see.
Of course, we have been saturated for years with advertisements that mock seeing and believing. In the culture of the mock democracy, it has become a sort of official dogma that what occurs and what is believed – or at least what is believed about the belief of the ‘public’ – exist on separate continuums. The cynical manipulation of the latent violence of the public feeds the educated stance of permanent irony, peppered of course with fetishistic and bizarre attachments to random phenomena in popular culture. Where once one could be assured that the Marxist you know was going to tell you about the inevitable victory of the working class, now he or she is more likely to tell you of the subversive potential of Lady Gaga.
Thus, the election has shifted as it becomes meaningful only for the upper class. The upper class, of course, well knows how to monetize nuances. The Democratic Party candidate (usually an upper class type with good intentions) will differ radically with the Republican Party type on the margins. But both are content with, for instance, the thirty year slump in medium incomes. In fact, both have simply stopped imaging the bottom thirty percent – and have only a dim, Hollywood lit sense of the very middle. Of course, the Hollywood scenario endows the 50 000 dollar household with the accoutrements of the 500 000 dollar one, and never notices – because once you are inside the Gated City, noticing becomes too hard. In the hinterlands, the Yahoos aspire themselves – in the vacant moment - to the image of their lifestyle as presented by the media message benders, but in the end they can’t really think about. They have no power to change anything even if they wanted to. Unlike, say, the French or Italan peasant at the end of the feudal period, they are pathetically docile. What castle would they burn even if they could find it?
Thus, the odd asymmetry that governs this thing called an election. On the one hand, it is taken seriously by those who know they will gain or lose on the result. On the other hand, it has to be taken as a passion play by those who will lose no matter what the result. Thus, the latter have come increasingly to seek catharsis and madness – qualities proper to wrestling, as well.
This disparity is also mirrored in Barthes’ essay, when he compares boxing and wrestling. For my comparison’s sake, the interest taken by the upper class in the election parallels, boxing, while for the loser classes, it is wrestling all the way.

“This public know very well how to distinguish wrestling from boxing. It knows that boxing is a jansenist sport, founded on the demonstration of an excellence; one can bet on the issue of a boxing combat: with wrestling, that has no sense.The boxing match is a history that is constructed under the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, it is very much the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the whole duration. The spectator doesn’t interest himself in the mounting of a fortune, he waits the live image of certain passions. Wrestling demands thus an immediate reading of the juxtaposed senses, without it being necessary to connect them. The rational future of combat doesn’t interest the amateur of wrestling, while on the contrary, a boxing match always implies a science of the future.”
I will end this with a passage from the NYT story about the election campaign of Patrick Murphey, a Democratic representative running for re-election in Pennsylvania. He is a quintessential Obama Democrat – moderate, well intentioned, a man who wants to do what is right – as long as this is politically possible.

"Marge Reed, 75, opened her screen door and before he could complete a sentence said, “You know what, Mr. Murphy, I don’t believe anything anybody tells me anymore.” She apologized for her frankness but said it was to be expected because of her Irish heritage. “I’m Irish, too,” Mr. Murphy said, as if she might not know that. “So is your opponent,” she said, and they both laughed. She told Mr. Murphy that she planned to vote for him, then continued giving him a piece of her mind.
Little of the anger Mr. Murphy encountered was aimed directly at him or even at President Obama. Mr. Murphy never once mentioned the president’s name, and, oddly, over the course of three hours, neither did any of the Levittown residents. People just did not like their situation or the general drift of the country, and seemed to hold everyone in a position of power — locally and in Washington — responsible.
I called Marge Reed the next day. She had worked for the Spiegel catalog company at a store in Levittown where people picked up their orders. She said she had lost much of her retirement nest egg in the stock market and was living on $13,750 a year and having a hard time paying for her prescriptions. Her husband died in 1993. “I don’t feel like anybody cares about people like me,” she said. “I remember President Obama talking about how he worried about his mother paying her health bills when she had cancer. Well, I’m somebody’s mother, too.”

Sunday, October 10, 2010

active and passive revolution 2

The revolution for happiness, by 1799, had memorized the shape of its own ashy shadow. After 1793, the Italian intellectuals of the era must have thought, never such innocence.

But innocence is an ever renewed political quality. It never ceases to flow.

The importance of Cuoco’s meditations about the passive and active revolution derive from their relation to two revolutions: the French and the Neapolitan. The Neapolitan intelligentsia had seemingly understood the French, and recognized its errors. Or so such people as Mario Pagano thought. In his memoirs, Count Orlov, a sympathetic observer, wrote: “ The scond edition of his Saggi Politici (Essais Politiques) appeared during that fatal period [1790] and made a sensation in a city where one almost didn’t read, where meditation is a form of fatigue. The system that he developed there, I will confess, discovered many contradictors, and had few partisans. One reproached him, with some reason, to have given himself up too much to his imagination, to have taken his authorities in inconclusive passages from ancient authors. ‘In quest’opera,’ one of his friends wrote me, ‘la fantasia supera il Giudizio.’

To bleed the trace of fantasia from politics is, perhaps, the greatest fantasy of all.

There is no reason to think that Orlov’s correspondent is Vincenzo Cuoco. But certainly the balance between fantasia and judgment is a theme that obsessed him – that followed him like the sounds of the waterfall in the glenn followed Wordsworth - in his observations on the revolution in action, which, he understood, was also the reaction, too, in action. In Chapter 7 of his essay on the revolution in Naples, he stops the plot after having portrayed the royal court, in the sway of the Bourbon queen Maria-Caroline and her sinister advisors, exerting itself to extinguish ‘revolutionary’ forces in Naples in a prevision of the white terror to come. The fact, Cuoco says, is that the revolutionary forces existed as mere salon opinion, or the casual remarks of the young bucks down at the race track. What was once merely the skeptical banter of 18th century rococo suddenly found itself transformed into deep politics.

In this chapter, Cuoco asks why the French revolution crystallized reaction in Europe, for, as he rightly points out, it is surely not the first time a kingdom has been shaken by an internal revolution in Europe. The reaction of the European kingdoms must itself be seen as different – that is, there were two distinctly novel phenomenon that emerged in the 1790s – the revolution and the reaction.