“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

Sunday, December 29, 2013

a pageant for our military heroes this holiday! Led by the New York Times

Denn uns fehlt der kritische Blick für uns selbst.
“…alle kriegführenden Staaten noch unter den bösen Geistern zu leiden haben, denen sie selber den Weg freigegeben haben.
Carl von Ossietzky.
As we were disembarking from our plane, yesterday, the steward made a few of the standard announcements about baggage and transfers and thanking us for choosing Southwestern. He then wished us a good stay in Los Angeles and assured us that this holiday, Southwestern Airlines was keeping our “military heros” in their thoughts. I stopped looking under the seat for various things Adam had scattered for a second, so dumbstruck was I by the intrusion of “military heros” into a simple arrival. I thought that I never keep our military “heros” in my thoughts, but wished, instead, that if we were going to remind each other of the series of aggressions that the US has committed over the last fifty years, that we would turn our thoughts to the victims of those aggressions. Now that would be a holiday wish! “and be assured, we keep in mind the Vietnamese, the Iraqis, and all others who have suffered and died due to the chosen military actions of this great country of ours.
Of course, I was coming home from Atlanta Georgia on a Dallas based airline, so  that may partially explain the note of jingoism. But the next day – today – I am reading through the NYT and I come to the column by the public editor in which it is explained that the NYT knew for seven years that RobertLevinson, an ex fbi man who “disappeared” in Iran in 2007, was working for the CIA. It knew this and decided not to report it – because, in a bizarre excuse that could only be accepted by the kinds of simple hearts who shed patriotic tears about all our military heros on the holidays – the family believed it would hurt him. As if Iranians would be puzzling their head for seven years about whether the man was spying for the CIA or was just the kind of tourist who liked to ask questions about strategy and military preparedness in all the hot middle eastern vacation spots. So worn out is this excuse that the family, for whom the NYT has been extending such noble pity, has been suing the CIA in court about Levinson – a real coverbreaker, that.
Yet the bottom of the affair is not the coverup, but the lying:
“As the website Gawker has pointed out, The Times has repeatedly and without attribution falsely described Mr. Levinson as being on a business trip to Iran when he was captured. Two of those mentions were glancing ones in editorials; one was in a news story. In other cases, The Times attributed the “business trip” reference to family members or to the government.”
So nice of the Times not only to want to dry the tears of his bereaved relatives, but to lie as well to the rest of us. For after all, what does it matter to us if the actions of the Iranian government are portrayed as unprovoked aggression or the common response of nation’s to being spied upon? Get down too far into the granular level and we won’t be able to wage our good wars with our good military heros with a clear conscience!
 Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit of the sentimental militarism that so sickeningly pervades American society at the moment in relation with a hopeful immune response against it – the inability of the powers that be to persuade the majority of the American public that Edward Snowden is a filthy traitor. Instead, a considerable portion of the population considers him a hero. His situation has been compared in the press to that of Daniel Ellsburg, but in my opinion the more interesting comparison is with Carl von Ossietzky.
Ossietzky, a committed anti-militarist, was the editor of one of Weimar Germany’s most famous lefty intellectual journals: the Weltbuehne. He was roundly hated by the right and the paramilitaries that formed after the German defeat in 1918. But what sent them overboard was a number of articles he published in 1932. Here’s a good summary from an article about the Weltbuhne by James Joll:

“Die Weltbühne not only accepted Germany’s responsibility for the war, it also repeatedly embarrassed successive governments by pointing out their failure to observe the disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and by reporting secret rearmament which was going on contrary to the terms of the peace settlement. To utter such criticisms or to draw attention to such matters led at once to the editors and contributors of Die Weltbühne being labeled as traitors by wide sections of the German public and by the nationalist press.
In 1932 the then editor, Carl von Ossietzky, and a contributor, Walter Kreiser, were charged with high treason (“Landesverrat“) and espionage because they had three years earlier pointed out that some of the activities of the Lufthansa Airline were being subsidized by the War Ministry and Admiralty and were in fact of a military nature forbidden by the peace treaty. Ossietzky was sentenced to eighteen months and although he might have left the country as Kreiser had done, he courageously went to jail.
Ossietzky was not, incidentally, pardoned for making his “homeland” vulnerable to its foes even after World War II, although he’d been sent to a concentration camp when Hitler took power in 1933. His was definitely a case of “premature fascism”, and in the Cold war period it wouldn’t do to encourage such lack of patriotism. In fact, there is a whole slew of books blaming people like Ossietzky and his co-editor, Tucholsky, for Hitler – if only these lefties had been more understanding of the difficulties the Weimar Republic was withstanding! Luckily, in this country, we have no need to fear an Ossietzky at the NYT. Or, to quote from the infinitely mockable public editor’s article, when Jill Abramson, the NYT’s executive editor, was asked about the lies that the NYT had published ..
“Ms. Abramson called the unattributed statements that appeared in The Times “regrettable.””

Saturday, December 14, 2013

holmes 1

One of the great ideas of childhood is spying.
The conceptual schema you use when you are eight is far from a computer program, with its tight binaries. It resembles, instead, a bunch of brightly colored hot air balloons, trailing strings that you crush in your hot little palm.
Spying was a particularly grand balloon. There were two types of spying: one was on animals, the other on humans. Spying on animals meant lurking behind a tree or stepping carefully down a path to view a dog or a cat or a raccoon or a bird doing something doggish, cattish, raccoonish or birdish that, presumably, would have been disturbed if your approach had been sensed. The other kind of spying was on sisters, brothers, neighborhood kids, and sometimes grownups like at a party where the party was upstairs in your house and the kids were supposed to be downstairs gathered around the tv and instead you were hiding in the shadow of the hallway taking in adult laughter and jokes and shit.
Spying is a peculiar form of seeing and hearing. Usually the senses are mere vehicles for capturing sense objects, but in spying, the objects were given a somewhat spurious glamour by being observed or heard without the object knowning that she or he was being observed or being heard. A remnant of this is still with me. When I go into a store and I look at the monitor that broadcasts what the cameras throughout the store are showing, the store looks automatically more interesting, more tabloid, more like a crime scene, rather than a buncha trails to the peanut stand and the cooler with the beers.
The glorious idea of spying was eventually combined with the glorious pasttime of reading. This happened at some point in the fifth or sixth grade, and I know exactly the point of fusion: the study in scarlet. Or perhaps another Sherlock Holmes stories. I devoured them all at that age.
Now, by then I was fairly well acquainted, as a faithful Baptist Sunday School goer, with the Bible. The Bible was a great book partly because certain sentences were supposed to leap off the page and lodge in your memory and conscience. It was that kind of book – biblical, you might say. It turned out that the Sherlock Holmes saga was the same kind of thing. Certain situations, certain dialogues, certain sayings of Holmes carried that same talismanic weight. I can still recall being blown away when Holmes, in The Study in Scarlet, disclaims any knowledge of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, about which Watson has just informed him:
"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
"To forget it!"
"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
In spite of the fact that my bent was to the fool’s position – I was a boy who liked nothing better than an odd fact, or any fact, the population of Bristol, Virginia, for instance –this struck me as a view to contend with, rather like offering your right cheek to a person who had just slapped you on the left cheek.
There were, as well, Holmes’ hints about how to go about spying on people – or being a detective, which came to the same thing. In a Case of Identity – a rather obscure story, really, the one about the typist with the inherited income whose stepfather tries to prevent her from marrying and moving her income away from home -  Holmes’ presents the difference between observation and seeing that was, to me, as the burning coal was to Isaiah:
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“How often?”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
This little passage has clung to me ever since I read it, in almost irritating way, and I think of it often when I climb the stairs from the garage to our apartment. I’m old enough now to suspect that there are some steps missing in this parable of the steps. For instance, it is obviously possible to know the number of the steps and never to have seen them – in which case I am not sure we would speak of observation. This problem leads us to the necessary and sufficient conditions for distinguishing seeing from observation, and perhaps leads us to doubt Holmes’s pat common sense.
This, of course, leads us to Holmes’ famous method. First, a little excursis.

In the great age of the British Renaissance, which stretches – if one pulls hard enough – from Bacon to Newton, the most advanced thinkers wanted to free science from the cage of logic. Following Bacon, the way they did so is subordinate deduction to induction. The latter was what let us out of the dreary deducing of what is the case, and freed us to observe what is the case, or to bend circumstances in such a way that we could observe it in experiment. In this sense Newton – to the embarrassment of philosophers of science since – was quite serious about his hypothesi non fingo – I make no hypotheses. In the nineteenth century, this became a problem, because philosophers – notably Mill – were worried about what science was doing outside the cage of logic. In the twentieth century, of course, attacking induction became something like target practice for philosophers, who from Mach to Popper were down on it. And yet the hypothetical-deductive model, to us, seems more than a little musty, since we have crept back toward’s induction’s corner, with our little Bayesian nets all aquiver. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

a story from texas

There are few states in the Union that love Jesus as much as Texas. And there is no state in the nation that loves rich people as much as Texas. But there’s always been a debate as to whether Texas loves Jesus or rich people more.  As a subtheme to this debate, there is the vexing question of Jesus’s own pronunciamento that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle Texas Christians fasten, instead, to the parable of the talents as a more reasonable picture of Jesus’s own Texashood – for surely the point of the parable of the talents – that is the one in which the bad servant buries the money his master gave him before going on a trip instead of investing it –  is that Jesus wants you to be rich. Jesus, wept – but that’s the problem with using a metaphor among a group of literalist monomaniacs.
In any case, the solution to the problem of what Texas loves most was recently solved in Dallas, where Judge Jean Boyd, one of God’s own Party, heard the case of Ethan Couch, a sixteen year old who, drunk on stolen beer, plowed into a car by the side of the road and killed four people, while injuring a handful of others. One of the killed was a youth minister. Now, we know a little about Texas justice: we know, for instance, that a black man or even a cracker from a broken household would not be allowed to run over and kill a man of God without condign punishment. But in Couch’s case, Judge Boyd faced a real dilemma: Couch was the son of a very wealthy man, Fred Couch, the owner of Cleburn Metal Works in Fort Worth. Thus you can see the knotty value problem: does Texas love the rich more than Jesus?
Well, in the end it was no contest. Harder it is to obey Jesus’s injunctions about the rich than it is for the savior to slip into an exlusive Fort Worth country club (Jesus, ahem, was a, ahem, Jew): Couch was punished, as the whole world knows now, by being sentenced to a resort/therapy center, with a cost of 450 thou a year.
He will not serve in a Texas jail because, as his lawyer pleaded, he had a case of affluenza – so wealthy are his parents and so spoiled is the child that he doesn’t understand how to be responsible.
“Affluenza” has quickly become a laugh word – but before it was a Dallas psychiatrist’s diagnosis, it was a term of art employed, in the nineties, to criticize the result of “selfish capitalism” – it was defined as a sort of keeping up with the Trump’s disease, which resulted in outbreaks of minimansions and SUVs. Couch’s psychiatrists and Judge Boyde, however, have troped this idea brilliantly by making being rich not only a condition better than any  other on earth, but, as well, a get out of jail card to be employed whenever the rich get into trouble, since it proves they are abnormal. Indeed, they are – that is the whole meaning of being in the one percentile class.
However, the cause of this cause celebre, Ethan Couch, obviously has some good years ahead of him. He is already the stuff out of which successful private equity movers and shakers are made.  There’s something Romneyesque about the lad, who will go far.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Marx and modernity's sensorium

Like any other writer, Marx is not all one block, even though he is often received as one block, labeled Marx. Marx often changes his mind, or at least his perspective, for instance, revamping the way he used alienation in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts to how he uses the notion in the German Ideology and again in Capital, vol. 1. However,  Marx never simply erases or annuls the conceptual contents he has used in the past – rather, he continually switches from the content to the form and back again to both ironize a content and locate it in a conceptual system that is always at work, one way or another, in the practices of everyday life. It is usual to attribute this method to Hegel, but myself, I think that is being much too philosophisch. Lenin once remarked that “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” – and I would say, along similar lines, that Marx’s method equals Hegelian dialectic plus the railroad. That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but Marx was well aware that one of the unintended results of technology was a revolution in perspective. While it is easy enough, abstractly, to dream of going sixty miles an hour in a vehicle from point a to point b, the “industrial experience” (to use Schivelbusch’s term) of being a railroad passenger and seeing something never seen by human beings before – to wit, a landscape going by at sixty miles an hour - was a distinct and disturbing sensation, one that had to be absorbed by nineteenth century populations, along with other industrially created perceptual experiences. The list of technological improvements in the Communist manifesto is also a list of changing sensory models. Thus, if Marx takes over and revamps the technostructure of Hegel’s dialectic, it is in coordination with the questions posed by modernity’s sensorium. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

the wilderness of piss and a story

In one of the non-serious seasons of my life – I’m referring, of course, to the grad student years – I too was arrested in a protest aimed at getting the University of Texas to divest from investments in what was then apartheid dominated South Africa  - which, in retrospect, was rather like protesting a leech to give up blood. But it was worth the old college try.
In New Orleans, in my pre graduate student days, I’d been a member of an organization dedicated to keeping Reagan out of Nicaragua, which meant in effect making a sign and waving it bravely as we marched down Canal street, while on the other end of Canal street, anti-Castro Cuban emigrants waved their own sign and hankered for our blood. A good time was had by all, and if we weren’t entirely successful, we did provide gainful employment to the not so undercover cops who’d hang in the demonstration and try to secretly photograph us – an art in which they’d been imperfectly instructed. I fear these guys, otherwise, would have had to make their living the honest way, by selling their blood to the blood bank – we aren’t talking a high level of competence here.
But when I went to UT I became pretty politically indifferent. Of course, I was a grad student, so I considered myself terribly political and radical, deconstructing the whole Western order of things, which, all things considered, did not make them quake in their boots at the highest levels of the FBI.
Still, I did go to some demos. As I remember the sequence, probably wrongly, it all started when my friend, Janet, along with some other friends of hers, was arrested by the UT security cops for speaking up to loudly to a small crowd in the shadow of UT’s Phallic symbol. I remember a photograph splashed in the UT student newspaper, and it seemed from the photo that the cop was getting an earful. Perhaps, one can hope, a lifechanging experience! This, then, was the inspiration for making the world historical leap from savaging John Stuart Mill’s little known Essay on Liberty and the Bubble Gum Trade (an obscure work that was obviously the key to the whole oeuvre) to practice, which I spelled praxis at that time.
The divestment issue got mixed up, quickly, with the free speech issue. When my friend was arrested, the rule was that you couldn’t have any demonstration in the shadow of the Phallic Symbol because it would disturb the post-prandial slumber of UT’s president, whose inspirations came out of these afternoon naps – new advances in East Austin for the University, destroying poor folks’ rentals right and left – cutting down on extra costs by eliminating insurance for TAs – just wonderful stuff. At the time, the administration had the right to ban anything or anyone at anytime on the campus. The rules for UT had been written, apparently, by the same committee Enver Hoxha used in Albania, with outstanding results vis a vis law and order and all.
Well, critical mass was soon achieved, as everybody who hung out in the student union café got arrested protesting South African investments and free speech. It was a glorious moment. Myself, I was particularly proud of the fact that we – that I – was actually handcuffed. Admittedly, they used these plastic handcuffs that underestimated my dangerous nature – hadn’t I just shown that John Stuart was being racist phallocentric and centrophallic about the bubble gum trade? To quote Nietzsche, I was obviously dynamite. However, I consoled myself that they underestimated Clark Kent, too. The upshot was that the Enver Hoxha advisory board came up with new rules of engagement on the UT campus for free speech – an area was actually designated! A victory that was heard round the world.
Meanwhile, of course, as we now know, a crewe of hoodlums and halfwits, also known as Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy team, were banding together with the racist South African army to throw back “soviet aggression” in Southern Africa. The endgame, however, was exactly the reverse of what Reagan’s hoods were expecting – as soon as the “soviet threat” as well as the soviet union ceased, the thousand year reich of whiteness in South africa crumbled. In the post cold war era, there has been a distinct lack of moral leaders – in fact, as I was writing this, I was trying to think of one besides Mandela. Vaclev Havel was the only other person who sprang to mind, and Havel, notoriously, became a true blue supporter of the occupation of Iraq, which sorta puts him out of running in the moral sweepstakes, unless you excuse the mere 450 thou dead Iraqis and the two million refugees. I don’t.

But we all know that we’ve been living in a piss wilderness since 1990 or so: the turn inward, to private liberations, and the great advance of public squalor, are the hallmarks of our not so great times. This, I think, is why Mandela’s death is being felt so much. 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

the drain

The day starts again, and all that is familiar has to be redone – for instance, you have to put together again the two huge faces, the one with the long hair that you like to grab and that when you grab it a giggle exactly the size of a bubble floats up in your throat and the other face with the toy on his nose – a nose so big it goes from your nose to your chin! – that you grab when he isn’t looking and that you then cluster your fingers around tight but that he unpries – a good game, although not as good as with the hair. And then you are floating down the stairs, dressed, your feet dangling, each step one that you will have to remember scrambling up it later peering down and laughing at the faces – now you remember, mama and dada – and challenging them to hurry in their ungainly way and catch you. Then the seat and the strap, the end of which you have to think about and the way you think is to suck it, which you do gravely while Dada is in the kitchen and he’s pouring water into the machine that makes the glugging sound and smells and he is always drinking what happens to it, and so does Mama but not as much, and to get things moving you throw a few sounds at him, and he’ll throw some back and some of them you will ponder while sucking the strap. He favors Ah, and da, and um, and he puts it together – ah-da-um – like he’s made a big discovery and he keeps poking you and saying it. But that is alright, because he has given you a piece of bread, which is better than the strap. You lift it carefully and then you chew it. Meanwhile Mama and Dada are at the table and they are making sounds at each other. Dada is nice, but Mama is funnier. Why isn’t Dada so funny? Still, there’s enough of these sounds they are making at each other, you have to intervene, throw in a few sounds yourself, kick your legs, maybe toss away the bread – there’s always more bread, and when you are crawling on the floor, later, maybe you’ll find the bread you tossed away and put it in your mouth and Dada will say, okay, let me have it, and then he’ll take a broom and sweep up under the chair. You like the broom too, you like to grab it and tilt it and watch it fall whack on the floor.  But to return to now, now the machine appears on which you can see cartoons of les crocodiles and the meunier qui dort. Then Mama plays a game where she goes out the door and she hides for a long time. When you are tired of the chair you go lulululurrrrrrr and shake your head from side to side, and that does the trick. You float into your playpen.
Then the day breaks down into a million events and…
Well, one of them is the drain. There’s the door, the floor, the window, the curtains, the lamp, the wires, and the beat goes on, but let’s concentrate on the drain, and if we get through the drain that will be enough, a lecon, comme on dit, for today.
Drains are recent. When you look back, usually you were bathed in plastic tubs. But now in California there’s a real tub, an adult tub, and instead of the water being poured out of it by Mama or Dada – an operation to which you weren’t really privy, since you were in the other room wiggling away from one of them trying to trap your arms and legs and cover your privates, which eventually they do no matter what tricks you think up to defend yourself. But now you float over the water and down you go, feet first, lately you resist being sat somewhere, you stick out your legs and stand until you sit, but this sitting is your sitting, it isn’t their sitting. The water is warm, and there’s a blue blob – a whale – and a yellow blob – a duck – that bob around when you sit, and that you can chase while the bottle comes out and soap gets in your hair and is rubbed all over you, which hardly seems worth it because then it is splashed off by the water, but there you go.At first this was an awkward thing, you’d gingerly totter in the tub, and Dada’s hands would convey that he too was awkward, but lately things have gotten much better, you can sit there by yourself a little, and explore around. One day you spotted the white thing with the ring in it that was under the water at the front of the tub and you pulled it out. You had to think about what it was, and the best way to think about a thing is to put it in your mouth, so this is what you did. Then you slapped it on the surface of the water, which is like a big sheet of something. Then you noticed that the blue blob and the yellow blob went to the front of the tub and started twirling around. The got dizzy, and the water got less, and then – you had to reach out your hand to touch this just to understand the mechanics of the thing – the water bunched up and creased around this hole under the water. When you put your hands on the hole it tries to pull you in, but it is a weakling, it is weaker than a baby. And just as things get interesting you are suddenly floating again and plopped in a towel.
That’s a drain.

Monday, December 02, 2013

the use of imprecision

A beautiful passage from Proust, in his preface to Paul Morand’s Tendres Stocks:
“The sole reproach that I am tempted to make to Morand is that sometimes he has images that are other than inevitable. However, all images that are approximative don’t count. Water, under normal circumstances, boils at one hundred degrees celsius. We don’t see that phenomenon produced at  98 or 99.  Thus, it is better then to have no images.”
I find this faith in precision beautiful, modernist, and at the same time classic. And that it should be so decisively illustrated (the image of boiling water is as precise as you can get) makes it sound like something pre-Socratic, something oracular.
However, I don’t believe it. I believe that images “ à peul près” are sometimes incredibly useful – like smudges in a drawing, they can help the sketcher to open up a dimension of fantasy that would otherwise be lacking, that would otherwise make the drawing merely a banal copy.

Yet I love the way Proust says this.  

Sunday, December 01, 2013


In Science, first hand, an odd, English language journal published by Akademika Koptyuga, there’s a fascinating article on the Gmellin-Mueller expedition to Siberia and the theme of alcohol by A. Elert, copiously illustrated with marvelous lubok – which are playing card sized woodcuts evidently produced for a mass audience.

The article is aptly summarized thus:

“This article will show our readers that the Russian people “took to the bottle” three centuries ago, which, however, did not prevent them from spreading over the vast area and building a most powerful empire in the world history. There is something wrong about it — too much passion in these talks about the “universal alcoholism” of Russians and too many extreme views. Our compatriots have long gotten used  to treating vodka as something almost sacred, something exclusively Russian, but in the last fifteen years they have been able to compare. The comparison proves paradoxical — Europeans drink at least as much as we do but liquor is not a domineering feature of their national character.”

Friday, November 29, 2013

philosopher buffoons

In the Hippias Minor, Socrates challenges Hippias, a vain sophist, over the matter of who is the better man: Achilles or Odysseus. Hippias holds that Achilles was the truest, strongest and best of the Greeks, while Odysseus was the wiliest – polytropos – or the falsest, the most cunning, the most deceptive. But Socrates, surprisingly enough, comes up with an argument to show that either both Achilles and Odysseus are mixtures of the good and the false, or that – if Achilles lies and deceptions come about involuntarily, whereas Odysseus voluntarily takes on the deceivers role, as Hippias maintains – that Odysseus must be the better man. This is the end of the dialogue:

Socrates: Is not justice either a sort of power or knowledge, or both ? Or must not justice inevitably be one or other of these ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Then injustice is a power of the soul, the more powerful soul is the more just, is it not ? For we found, my friend, that such a soul was better.
Hippias : Yes, we did.
Socrates : And what if it be knowledge ? Is not the wiser soul more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : And what if it be both ? Is not the soul which has both, power and knowledge, more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ? Is that not inevitably the case ?
Hippias : It appears to be.
Socrates : This more powerful and wiser soul, then, was found to be better and to have more power to do both good and disgraceful acts in every kind of action was it not ?
[376a] Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Whenever, then, it does disgraceful acts, it does them voluntarily, by reason of power and art ; and these, either one or both of them, are attributes of justice.
Hippias : So it seems.
Socrates : And doing injustice is doing evil acts, and not doing injustice is doing good acts.
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Will not, then, the more powerful and better soul, when it does injustice, do it voluntarily, and the bad soul involuntarily ?
Hippias : Apparently.
[376b] Socrates : Is not, then, a good man he who has a good soul, and a bad man he who has a bad one ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : It is, then, in the nature of the good man to do injustice voluntarily, and of the bad man to do it involuntarily, that is, if the good man has a good soul.
Hippias : But surely he has.
Socrates : Then he who voluntarily errs and does disgraceful and unjust acts, Hippias, if there be such a man, would be no other than the good man.”
Socrates pulls himself up short, here. How could he come to this conclusion? It is as if the Socratic method had revealed its daemonic side without, for once, the covering irony. But out of this little snatch of back and forth, in a dialogue that never receives very much attention, we see the outlines of the philosophe buffoon. The philospher buffoon stradles the line between the serious and the ludicrous. For him, the norm is vitiated by the normal, that dead even, never traveled thing – that opposite of polytropos, the word, applied to Odysseus, that sets the dialogue into motion. To never test one’s capacity for badness is not goodness, but sloth – the expression of the soul in a bad state. This is the social via negativa. Neither the right nor the left like it. School will not teach it. You have to learn it outside of school, if you want to learn it at all. It is at the root of many liberation movements. It clenched Frederick Douglass’ hand into a fist and made him beat his overseer, which was done as much to honour the bad man as the good man in Douglass’ soul – the whole man, not the candycane liberator, all fucking sweetness and light. In Dana Spiotta’s excellent novel, Eat the Document, which tracks a Weather style ‘terrorist’ named Caroline aka Mary up to the nineties in tandem with a nineties, Northwestern anti-globalist anarchist,  the anarchist actions are called ‘tests’. Caroline, in 1972, has the underground mantra down: Count on bad luck. In 1998, bad luck, for the children of America, is unimaginable.
Well, we are beginning to feel bad luck again, and perhaps on this circuit of the dialectic of the enlightenment we are also coming back to the anti-hero.
In the Tractate of Steppenwolf, that mysterious text magically popping up in the novel, the writer analyzes Harry Haller’s error in thinking that he is divided  between a man and a wolf – for even the wolf has more than two souls. We are, instead, knots of an indefinite number of selves, just like the Indian Gods in the Vedas.
“He would like to overcome the wolf in himself and become completely human, or renounce the human and at least live a unified, untorn life as a wolf. It is possible that he had never really precisely observed a wolf – because then he would have perhaps seen that even the animals have no unified souls, that even with them, behind the beautiful, austere form of the body lives a multitude of wants and circumstances, that even the wolf has its abysses in itself, that even the wolf suffers.” 
The Socrates of the Hippias Minor is closer to the Antisthenes’ Socrates than to Plato’s, closer to the figure who inspired cynicism than the figure who inspired Platonism. After all, the philosophical lineage runs not just from Socrates to Plato to all the history of philosophy that comes afterwards, but also from Socrates to Antisthenes to Diogenes up through many notable  anti-philosophical philosophers, the parasites, Bruno’s ass, Rameau’s nephew, and so on – a bunch of dangerous farceurs. But even the farceur suffers – although the true clown finds the tears of the clown a little too close to kitsch not to laugh at, afterwards.

Monday, November 25, 2013

annals of LA

Right after his daily bread, the human unit needs to feel superior to his coevals. Or some subgroup thereof. Those who lose this feeling are surely clinically depressed – such humility is pathological. Don’t look for it from saints – when God is your personal confidante, your edge is 24 carat. You can no more expect saints to be humble than you can expect the taste of a banana from a rutabaga.
The age old tale of the human unit from the sticks who comes to the big city falls, of course, under this generalization.  Although from Balzac to Franzen it is presented as a progress in civilization, the provincial from the provinces inevitably provincializes his city, or part of it, and proceeds to shoot spitball as the yokels from where he was at, or, in general, who are not counted among the elite of his quartier.
This is one of the reasons I love the NYT Styles section. It is hard wired to look down at the plebes, and it is written, surely, by former country mice, who have now wiggled into what they consider the cool set – aka heaven – and kick others who are striving towards that summit. Myself, like any other human unit, I’m all impressed. Plus of course I share certain of the prejudices.
This Sunday’s Styles section was particularly gratifying. As is often the case, many articles are devoted to looking down upon Los Angeles. When, in the old days – before we moved here in August – I read about L.A., I was basically ignorant of the geography, except of course for the four million hours of tv and film that I’d eyeballed, all set in LA. Now that I’ve gotten here, I’ve decided my schtick will be anti-LA. I’ll compare it invidiously to Paris. I’m confident the Styles staff would approve.  Thus I could revel in the snobbism on display in the story, “A Café where Los Angeles Goes to Wake Up.” The name of the sorry bistro is the Griddle Café, and it is lost somewhere on Sunset Strip. Apparently it is one of those breakfast joints thatevery American town boasts – joints with the bottomless cup coffee and the diabetes inducing pancakes, joints that smell of bacon. I’ve gone to these kind of places my whole life, which definitely shows a masochistic streak, as the experience is always the same. Once I’ve over-replenished myself, my inner teenage anorexic howls in my bowels the rest of the day.
Anyway, there are some great shots in the article. The pancakes of the Griddle are described in sickening detail, down to a truly disgusting gumbo called Mounds of Pleasure, “a stack of chocolate and coconut flapjacks buried in whipped cream, [which] should come with a straw.” Yum! Next to licking the  garbage disposal, I can think of nothing that I would less like to put in my mouth.  But the best shot is a quote from an expatriated New Yorker which, I think, will be my, my poetic summing up of LA:
“Another magazine editor, Janice Min of the Hollywood Reporter, offered this analysis, having moved to Los Angeles from Neew York three years ago: “There is no discovery in LA because  you’re always in a car heading for a specific destination. And because of that, people become very attached to the same few places, whether the food is edible or not, and it is usually not.”

Bada boom! I salute you, Janice Min! And I don’t envy your day at the office today after that crack…

Saturday, November 23, 2013

psychiatry and vodka

Back when I was a teenage moron, I did what morons do: I took certain books, which must be understood from under the weight of some experience, and swallowed them whole, believing everything from the acknowledgements to the letter z in the index. One of those books was Thomas Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness. I was a high school debater. Debate in those days, and who knows, probably now, also has a speech division, and I decided I would compete in the persuasive speaking contest by presenting arguments that mental illness was a myth, relying upon Dr. Szasz. So, full of the piss and vinegar of my seventeen years, I stood at the podium and made this argument for the requisite amount of time. My audience consisted,  I remember, of the judge and I believe two other contestents. I don’t remember what they said, and I don’t remember what the judge looked like. I do remember, however, that I had an early premonition that I was not born to be one of life’s persuaders when the judge came to me, in his summing up of the way he accorded points. I was in last place, and the brief comment was, of course there is mental illness. Somehow I think he put this more pithily, like, son, I never heard such nonsense in all my life.
Words to live by – for someone else. I have gone merrily on my way, unafraid to spout nonsense at the drop of a hat. However, sometimes my nonsense changes. I did decide that madness was no myth.
On the other hand, I am not convinced we know more about its reality than we know about the ‘reality’ of normal mentation. Of course, there is a science we can turn to for informed comment on these things – psychiatry.But, but…
I have never been a great fan of psychiatry. My conviction that psychiatry is no great shakes as a science was strengthened by my recent reading of Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe, which is an entertaining, wildly biased report on the making of DSM-5.
Greenberg wastes no time in telling you where he is going with this book. The introduction is about the rise and fall of a mental “illness” called drapetomania. I t was discovered by a Southern doctor named Cartwright in the 1850s. Drapetomania, the Southern doctor learnedly opined, was a condition that befell Negros, who suddenly and irrationally wanted to shake off their shackles and escape form their god given estate as slaves in the South. Now, before we laugh at this ludicrous attempt to dress up racism as science, Greenberg writes, we should look at how the way Cartwright elaborated his diagnosis fits pretty well with the way the DSM-5 diagnoses, say, bereavement after the death of a loved one as an “illness”.
This isn’t to say that the constructs created by the psychiatrists aren’t useful. But equally useful is understanding how they came about and their limits.
Greenberg begins, as he must, with the money. The APA faced a crisis in 2009 – the year the project of making a new DSM was announced – because their stock of money was down. While DSM-4 was a steady moneymaker, the pharmaceutical companies that had been pouring money into the APA, facing shortfalls of their own, were reducing their stipends. Plus there were the scandals that arose from Congressional hearings concerning the Pharma-psychiatrist connection. The poster boy of unscrupulous was a Harvard shrink named Biederman who, in the late nineties, decided that there was a certain category of out of control children who were “pre-psychotic”. To make this diagnosis he had to jiggle the categories around, but once he’d done that and publicized the bi-polar syndrome in children, it was time to prescribe the anti-psychotics – which, as Congress found out, brought in the big bucks for Biederman. Well, not that big – they tracked down a nifty million eight he’d received – but psychiatrists aren’t hedge funders, after all. And who knows, Biederman’s heart may have been so constructed that the idea that “half a million children, twenty thousand of them under six years old” were now being treated to a regime formerly reserved for hard core psychotics in hospitals was a good thing.
But more on that in a moment. To turn back to Greenberg’s book: the reproach that had been already leveled at DSM-4, and that was leveled with a greater level of fury at DSM-5, is that both are attempts to medicalize all suffering – that is, to hitch all our moods to the great normalizing machine of psychiatry. And that machine is neither benign nor unprofitable. Big Pharma, that great ox of multinationals that has never, for instance, come up with a cheap way of fighting malaria, has struck gold in the American, and now global, moodset.  Psychiatrists are all too complicit in this gold rush – and all too indifferent to the side effects. Risperdal, the Johnson and Johnson anti-psychotic that was Biederman’s universal panacea, has among its side effect the tendency to cause obesity and thus promote childhood diabetes. And yet, this is considered worth the price.
How has this come about? Well, as Greenberg points out, a circular logic keeps surfacing in psychiatric practice. First, a “disease”is hypothesized on account of a ‘symptom” – some stray bit of sociopathy, some mania, some down mood, some unpleasant ideation. Then it is treated. The treatment consists of drugs that interfere in one way or another with the working of some part of the brain. We can engineer that now to the working on the molecular level. And the patient no longer has the symptom – thus, the disease must be cured. Thus, there must be a disease to be cured.
It strikes me that this, which many psychiatrists call science, many bartenders call happy hour. I kept thinking about those six year olds getting anti-psychotics and wondering: why not vodka? Seriously, it is cheaper, and it will stun the child just as much. A couple of shotglasses and you won’t have the temper tantrum. And the side effects are surely not as dire as the Risperdal.
Of course, Risperdal has a pedigree. It is made in a lab. It must be super-scientific. Whereas vodka is made from a potato by a peasant, or the descendent of one.  And, in fact, vodka and gin used to be prescribed to infants by doctors. Or given by wetnurses.
The point is that if mental illness isn’t a myth, it doesn’t mean we have a science to deal with it, at least in the sense that we have a science to deal with, say, building dams.  “Mood stabilizers” come out of the folk. In the nineteenth century, psychologists made a great effort to heave themselves out of the mire of beliefs that constituted “folk psychology”, as it was labeled by, I believe, Wundt. At the same time, world commerce had made everyday life for even the poor laboring man an experiment in the contact between psychoactive substances and the body: sugar, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, chocolate, cough medicine, etc. The body of knowledge that the folk bring to psychology has to do with vague but firm notions about the body, the brain, and feeling. The body of knowledge now brought to psychology by psychologists is informed by the knowledge of genetics, of neurology, and of the molecular structure of the neural pathways in the brain.  But though these are different levels of specificity, the objects explained by folk and scientific psychiatry are still ambiguous and, to use the five dollar word, only hermeneutically understood – mood, feeling, the blues, depression, enthusiasm, etc.

Unfortunately, the APA has turned any critique of its folkways and doings into some kind of anti-psychiatric agenda, probably secretly funded by scientologists. This is a foolishly aggressive strategy. We can leave Szasz aside, and still doubt that psychiatry has the key that will explain and help us “control” our moods and mental states. That, I feel pretty confident, is never going to happen.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


My private criteria for sorting the great works from the less great is that the less great are built to be finished. I just finished reading an Elmore Leonard novel that began, conversed, and tied up all its ends in a completely satisfying way. I can say, without compunction, that I finished it. I’ve never, on the other hand, finished any novel of Beckett’s. I’ve read, it is true, Ulysses maybe ten times in my life, but each reading has given me  different book. To finish Ulysses would be like finishing looking at Notre Dame. There are, of course, the small, fierce books that one can finish, but that take a lot of moves from the unfinishable works. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District here. Poems that I love are built on the unfinishable principle as well. Perhaps this is why I love waste literature – Lichtenberg’s scribble books, Rozanov’s fallen leaves, Ludwig Hohl, Wittgenstein. Waste is something thrown away and thus supposedly finished – but the waste book takes as its principle the idea that you can repress it, but it will return. It will return from the hind end and erode everything that is finished in a text, from the paragraph to the sentence to the punctuation.
I love that creeping corruption.