Friday, January 03, 2014


My darling, knowing my heart with its eleven year old’s thirst for encyclopedias and atlases, bought me what I really wanted this Christmas: the complete works of Roland Barthes. Sturdily made paperbacks, published by Seuil, divvying up the work chronologically.
So the plan is, read Barthes this year.
Beginning at the beginning, the first thing to notice is that Barthes has comparatively little juvenilia. There he is, in 1951, in his first major essay, Michelet, history and death (published in Esprit) and we are already off. Like a horse race, there’s no warm up steps, just an out of the gate sprint, one of course that will lead us through five volumes to Barthes death in 1980.
The essay is one of those amazing, monumental texts which even as you read seems to slip from your grasp. You advance across it continually losing your baggage, continually needing to stop and to note, inscribe on some piece of paper of your own a comment, a quote. According to his biographers, Barthes wrote this essay, and eventually the book on Michelet (1954), while a student, and then while in the sanatorium, recovering from a recurring case of tuberculosis.  In the sanatorium, he would spread out his index cards – legend speaks of one thousand – over a table, or tables, index cards on which he’d written his text, displaying it like a fortunetelling spreading her cards, aligning and rearranging fates. This way of going about writing – in which the profound connections are achieved through contiguity – leaves its impress on all of Barthes’ writing. You can say of him what he said of Michelet’s history of France: “the order of events is not, properly speaking, either logical or chronological: it is geographic: each fact is a locality tied to the rest of historical space by the body of the historian-voyageur himself.”
Barthes great struggle – which was either with the demon or the objective god – was to find a way to renounce or transcend the prestigitator’s role, to return to a logic and a chronology that did not refer to Barthes. Before the death of the author was a thesis, it was a way out.   

Thursday, January 02, 2014

comments and games

… to let them live…
What is more difficult?” – Paul Valery

One of the loveliest apps of our day is the lowly technology that allows for  comments sections on the Web. I think it is lovely because, among other things, it materializes a phenomenon that is usually oral and uncaptured – the ways of argument. In fact, the ways of argument are much more mysterious, since the advent of omni-pornography, than the ways of a man with a maid, or a maid with a man, or a man with a man, or a man with a maid with a maid with a man, etc.  We have all seen every variety of corporeal groping, but have we all pondered every variety of rhetorical poking? That’s what I aim to do here.
My starting point is a post that recently appeared on the Crooked Timber blog. This blog has a certain returning constituency, among which I count myself. We’ve been with the blog through the Iraq war, through the great recession, through Bush and Blair and Brown and Obama. In a sense, then, the responses to any post are already semi-structured – those who comment will, we know from previous comments, take up certain positions that are consistent with the positions that they have taken up before, and will take up those positions with their own idiosyncratic styles.  The post was a meta-approach to the Israeli-Palestinianconflict, pondering the question of why the issue raises such a heat rash amongpeople who are neither Palestinian nor Arab nor Jewish in the way that, say,the conflicts between the Kurds and the Turks or the Russians and theCircassians don’t.
The post, in other words, presented a theory of the way that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is argued that relied heavily on analysing the motifs and situations of the arguing agents. I would call this an analysis of the “game” that is being played.
Sure enough, in the comments sections, certain moves were made by those offended by the meta tone of the post.  As one of the respondents said: this is not a game. The “this-is-not-a-game” strategy makes the assumption that the game is called off by a series of referential moves. These are almost always not trivial references, but strive to point to more and more absolute, knock me down referents – from massacres to children starting to concentration camps. The trumping referent does two things – shows that the referrer is serious, and that his meta opponent is a phoney. But the absoluteness of the referent, its inevitable excess, shows something else as well – that the player is authentic.
Against that authenticity, the original poster also proceeded to make a number of familiar moves. These moves sought to dissolve the authentic players referents into rhetoric. Instead of phoniness, the game analyst seeks, here, to show that the authentic player is actually a bumbler, a dunderhead. At the same time, the game analyst is also, in a sense, playing a “this-is-not-a-game” strategy – as if his original gambit and subsequent moves had a space outside of the game he is commenting on. In keeping with the game analyst’s rhetorical turn, this strategy tends towards irony – irony is the preferred style for remaining both detached and within the game.
These are not the only two poles of the game, of course. I don’t have a sense of how many entrances there are in the game, but I do know that one can imagine at least one other player – who I will call the sceptic. The sceptic asks two questions: a., what is the meaning of the game? And b., is this a winnable game? The latter question has some bearing on the former, since if the game can be won, then we are that much further towards defining it, or at least understanding it. And certainly the absolutist and the ironist are playing the game as though to win it, which is why there is such energy in their mutual denigration one of the other. But if the game is not a winnable game – if it is something like playing house, or whirling around and getting dizzy – then the moves made by both are delusional. Perhaps they are necessarily delusional.

What is common to all three players, I think, is the sense that the limits of the game are available, so that one can understand when one is in it and when one is out of it.  But is it that kind of game?

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

a history of the little

World history, Ludwig Schlözer wrote in 1787, was synonymous with the history of “Erfindung” – a word that can mean either discovery or invention. 
“Everything that makes for a noble progress or regress among mankind, every new important idea, every new kind of behavior, pregnant with consequences, which the rulers, priests, fashion or accident enduringly bring among a mass of men should be called by us, out of a lack of a more appropriate word, invention.” [67 Weltgeschichte]

Invention or discovery – this, Schlözer thought, was the secret hero of history. Not the discoverer, necessarily: “The inventors (alphzai) themselves are mostly unknown. Often they don’t deserve to be eternalized,for, not seldom, simple accident leads a weak head to a discovery, that only later generations learned to use.”

This is  the secret of Europe’s dominance. For small Europe was the ground zero of discovery. Europe, not coincidentally, defined discovery – the verb preeminently described the European act or gaze. America, to use the most obvious instance, may have been seen by millions of its children, and yet it was only when it was seen by Europeans that it was discovered. Crack open the word discovery and you find universal history itself before you. 

It is a curiously non-heroic heroic history. Schlözer, one of Germany’s truly Enlightened intellectuals, was ruthlessly mocking of an older, heroic history that placed kings merely because they were kings at the center of historical action. 

“It goes back to the decadent taste for the deathgames (Mordspielen) of old and new man-murderers, named heros! Lets not rejoice any longer in the smoking war histories of conquerors (Eroberer), that is, over the passionate story of these evil doers who have lead nations by the nose! But for the present believe that the still musing of a genius and the soft virtue of a wise man has brought about greater revolutions than the storms of the greatest bloodthirsty tyrant; and that many happier paradoxes have more ornamented the world than the fists of millions of warriors have desolated it.”

Given this shift in the emphasis on what history – world history – is about, it isn’t surprising that Schlözer wants us to see the “little things” as the great ones: “… the discovery of fire and of glass, carefully recounted, and the advent of smallpox, of brandy, of potatoes in our part of the world, shouldn’t be left unremarked, and so one shouldn’t be ashamed to take more notice of the exchange of wool for linen in our clothing than to seriously and purposefully deal with the dynasties of Tze, Leang, and Tschin.” 

Schlözer’s separation of the ‘little things that one shouldn’t be ashamed of noticing’ and the deathgames of the tyrants would not, of course, survive the scrutiny of a master of world history like Marx. He would notice that deathgames are ingrained in those little things, and those little things are engrained in the deathgames. We kidnap Africans to raise sugar cane to make rum to intoxicate the sailors who kidnap Africans. This circle of biota, human bodies, taste buds, brain cells, and money can be named circulation, lightly lifting up the name given by Harvey to the movement of blood in the body. The Enlightenment gesture that seeks to separate histories in order to enforce moralities - to, essentially, discover uplift in history - is not simply a fiction, but a mask that gives us discovery without bloodshed, mastery without the system of oppression that supports it. 

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.””