“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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Adam, Beckett and superfluity

adam and economics
Our basest beggars, King Lear said, are in the poorest thing superfluous. This is a truth that is often bent about to show how true communism goes against the human instinct for acquisition. I don’t think it works like that – in fact, it is only under the system of unlimited private enterprise that the population is truly stripped of its assets, so that, at the end of the day, in many of the most advanced economies in the world, the vast majority really owns nothing after you tally up assets versus debts. This is very much true of the U.S. But if you let the truth point to its own meaning, it does show something about human expansiveness – which takes a shitload of history to turn into acquisition. Human breadth does require superfluidity, repetition, margins. Molloy, Beckett’s beggar, runs perhaps the most famous riff on the beggar’s possessions:
“I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of
sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on
this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them
equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn
about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following
way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these
being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my
greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and
putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my
greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I
replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had
finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my
four pockets, but not quite the same stones. “
Adam doesn’t do sucking stones, although he probably would if his ever vigilant parents didn't pluck pebbles, or coins, or other small objects from his mouth as soon as he had slyly hiked one of them up there. But he does have his system with what we call “sucettes” – pacifiers. When he is seated comfortably, say, in his chair in the back seat of the car, he will take one sucette and put it in his mouth while keeping the fingers of one hand laced through the ring of another sucette. Sometimes, he will raise the sucette not in use above his head. He’ll entangle it moodily in his hair, whilst sucking on the first sucette. At these moments I think Adam is balanced between the exaltation of having extra sucettes and the peace induced by the first sucette, which is bobbing up and down in his mouth as he gets the most exact flavor from it. I say exaltation, and not a sense of extra property, because in the mood of feeling that he has extra sucettes, he tends to throw them about. Here, he differs from Molloy, whose pockets are part of the whole system of sucking stones. Adam doesn’t have the notion of storing his sucettes on his person. When he wants a sucette kept safe, he will hand it to me or Antonia. This is done with the kind of gesture that must reproduce, in miniature, a King giving the sceptre to some trusted bystanding official. The King is still King, and maybe even more King, in giving away for the moment one of the usufructs of the office – and Adam is still Adam even without the extra sucette. However, the flaw in the system is that the world does not spontaneously generate sucette, meaning that they can get lost, somehow.
Molloy’s system too had its flaws, and he himself, after elaborate meditations and changes of numbers of stones among his four pockets, admits it:
“And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had collected six teen, it was not in order to ballast my self in such and such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little store, so as never to be with¬out. But deep down I didn’t give a fid dler’s curse about being with out, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any. And the so¬lu tion to which I ral lied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in an other…”

I think Molloy’s greater experience speaks here – as for Adam, it is by no means clear that they would taste exactly the same, his sucette, and certainly they have different colors and some of them you manipulate through the little plastic ring attached to them and others, which are most often the least valuable, although sometimes, just to spring a surprise on the world, are the ones you cry for most and won’t settle until you have, these others have no little plastic ring adorning them and you have to hold them and turn them around by the little brace to which the rubber nipple is attached. But with this difference – between the infinite hopefulness of Adam and the infinite resignation of Molloy – this is how the logic of superfluity comes about. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

goodbye as morality

Philosophers have a tendency that we get a handle on the world through quantification – if we can number it, it exists. All, every, each, some, and none ride mankind.  
Adam has a different idea. For each word, each thing, he has a goodbye. He has an essentially valedictory theory of reference: the referent is something you can farewell. You can say goodbye to green lights, blue buses, iceskaters, iceskating, basketball, sky, moon, doggie, pumpkin pants, and everything in between.
I’m not quite sure of the deeper meaning here. There are certain objects, for instance, like the trees near the school, which, even in approaching, require a goodbye: goodbye trees. Green, as in green light, is also only goodbyeable. On the other hand, pumpkin pants only receive the valedictory benediction when they are taken off. They fit properly in the sequence of possession and mourning that pretty much makes up our lives. Hello, on the other hand, is something that comes less spontaneously. We have to encourage Adam to say hello. I have encouraged him to say hiya, as in hiya guys, but this is something that I have to pull out of him too.
This makes the world a bit asymmetrical; however, it must be said, though goodbye is said softly and with feeling, it isn’t really sad. Especially for those objects that are only goodbye-able. Rather, there is something like, dare I say it, respect in the goodbye.

It is true, too, that goodbye is ultimately one of the most respectful things one can say to a tree one is passing. There’s a whole morality in goodbye. If Kant had only written the Critique of Practical Reason when he was two years old, I think it would have been a, a much shorter work, and b., a much more convincing one vis a vis the treatment of objects, which is just another way of saying, the moral way to be in the world. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Strauss II: esotericism and carnival

Leo Strauss can be credited as a definite influence in the advance of philological and rhetorical sensitivity towards philosophical texts within an academic discipline, philosophy, that, in America at least, has all too often rewarded philological and rhetorical insensitivity, which is another way of saying systematic wiseassness.
In particular, Strauss was sensitive to the citational situation set up, so often, in major philosophical texts. A passage in, say, the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit can be read exoterically by trying to connect its themes and arguments without ever putting it in relation to the complex figurations of knowledge that are presented in the main text – but from the point of view of the main text, the preface must itself be in there – it exists as text as a sort of quasi-indirect discourse, a citation within the dynamic creating the figures of reason. The sensitivity to what I am calling the citational moment motivates the notion of the esoteric side. We cannot directly say that in a text, the author is “just saying” .
But Strauss’s recovery of rhetoric is, unfortunately, bent to a larger set of principles that are generalized ahistorically and that simply leap over the moment in which they are, well, argued for. Here, esotericism becomes less a method than an ideology. This is Strauss’s argument about what the ancient philosophers were doing, and the persecution they feared:
“ They believed that the gulf separating "the wise" and "the vulgar" was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of "the few:' They were convinced that
philosophy as such was suspect to, and hated by, the majority of men.1G Even if they had had nothing to fear from any particular political quarter, those who started from that assumption would have been driven to the conclusion that public communication
of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times. They must conceal their opinions from all but philosophers, either by limiting themselves to oral instruction of a carefully selected group…”
I want to get back to “philosophy as such”, since it isn’t clear here, or anywhere in Strauss, just what exactly separates philosophy as such from other forms of reflection. But taking this passage as a whole, it is hard not to goggle at the sheer implausibility of it. The supposed creed of the philosophers is that there is a hierarchy in nature that separates the low from the high? And, in the tyrannic, militaristic, slaveholding societies that sprang up all around the eastern meditteranean, this was a esoteric secret? It is like being told that philosophers in the Confederate states had to hide the fact that they thought blacks inferior. On the contrary, persecution, historically, was directed at those ‘non’-philosophers who urged the opposite: that the high did not have any right, in nature, to rule over the low. That man is the measure of things – as Protagoras would have it.
The problem here is, I think, that Strauss takes the doctrines that he attributes to philosophers as definitional of philosophers. Which is why conflicting textual evidence is no problem for him:
An exoteric book contains then two teachings: a popular
teaching of an edifying character, which is in the foreground;
and a philosophic teaching concerning the most important subject,
which is indicated only between the lines. This is not to
deny that some great writers might have stated certain important
truths quite openly by using as mouthpiece some disreputable
character: they would thus show how much they disapproved
of pronouncing the truths in question. There would then be
good reason for our finding in the greatest literature of the past
so many interesting devils, madmen, beggars, sophists, drunkards,
epicureans and buffoons. Those to whom such books are
truly addressed are, however, neither the unphilosophic majority
nor the perfect philosopher as such, but the young men who
might become philosophers: the potential philosophers are to
be led step by step from the popular views which are indispensable
for all practical and political purposes to the truth which is
merely and purely theoretical, guided by certain obtrusively enigmatic features in the presentation of the popular teachingobscurity
of the plan, contradictions, pseudonyms, inexact repetitions
of earlier statements, strange expressions, etc. Such fea- .
tures do not disturb the slumber of those who cannot see the
wood for the trees…
Strauss’s refusal to see, himself, the trees for the woody he has for the “intelligent young gentlemen” is what strikes me in this passage. I would argue that taking philosophy as such in too narrow and cultic a sense has put Strauss in a corner – when the texts in question seem citationally to undermine the high-low distinction that is so important to his definition of philosophy, he in essence ceases to take their rhetoric seriously. A more plausible theory of those range of abject and sublime figures would appeal to the by now very compendious anthropology of what Bakhtin called the carnivalesque. But this is an appeal that Strauss can’t contenance, because it goes outside of the discipline of philosophy to talk about philosophy. This violates the principle that the low don’t really think “philosophically” and resent it when others do so.
In essence, Strauss is sacrificing everything to preserve the romantic image of those young intelligent gentlemen. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

a note on strauss and esotericism 1

A note on strauss 1
The key Leo Strauss’s scholarly work is based on his recovery of esotericism, which he fully developed in the late 1930s, and which he took to be the key to understanding the ancients as well as understanding how the ancients were misunderstood by the moderns – how in fact modernity defines itself through that misunderstanding. Among the deepest pre-modern writers stretching back to the ancients, all writing had two sides: one is a surface of exoteric writing, in which meaning, theme and style is subordinate to the norms of the masses, while the other, deeper side esoteric, presenting truths in a suitably obscure manner that are not meant for the vulgar. In the golden liberal era of the 19th century (about which Strauss, like Hayek, had the most romantic notions), the urgency of the threat of persecution vanished, and made it harder for researchers to understand this two faced structure in older texts.
Although Straussians like to paint Strauss as an intellectual hero struggling against the positivism and behaviorism of the time, in actuality, esotericism was not so far out of line with many of the intellectual currents of the post war era. In literary criticism, for instance, Northrop Frye was not alone in turning to medieval rhetoric to create an ontology of reading within which there was a hierarchy of levels, from the literal to the anagogic. Psychoanalysis had spread a general cultural feeling for codes in everyday behavior, seeing surface and ostensive behaviors as the results of complicated and unconscious developments, in which, most grandly, thanatos wrestled with eros, and most trivially, Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother. This kind of psychology was bundled up with the whole set of “strategic” sciences, from game theory to anthropology, which provided the paradigm for defense policy wonks in the fifties.
It was in the early forties that Strauss gave the lecture which became the first chapter of Persecutiona and the Art of Writing. The book begins with a plea for understanding the idea of “writing between the lines.” To make this plausible to a contemporary American audience, he imagines the following scenario:
“We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion. Nobody would prevent him from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal view. He would of course have to state
the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement
in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many'quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of
mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants. Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and therefore was approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit. The attack, the bulk of the work, would consist of virulent expansions of the worst virulent utterances in the holy book or books of the ruling party. The intelligent young man who, being young, had until then been somehow attracted by those• immoderate utterances,
would now be merely disgusted and, after having tasted the forbidden fruit, even bored by them. Reading the book for the second and third time, he would detect in the very arrangement of the quotations from the authoritative books significant additions
to those few terse statements which occur in the center of the rather short first part.”
Although I’d like to separate out and analyze three moments in this scenario, it is necessary to pause for a moment and observe its type. Philosopher’s often pretend that their examples come out of a moment of chair bound thought, but in fact they are not immune to the types and tones current in the world of stories. What is this one, after all, but a sort of thriller in the high, between the war style of the Tory adventurer? The threat to the British empire is, in writers like John Buchan, warded off by intelligent ‘gentlemen’ – the cool type who do not make too much heavy weather out of the evilness of the villains they face, but know it is evil nonetheless, and that everything depends on getting the message through the screens they throw up. Headquarters must know the name of the spy, or they must change the placement of the troops – the show must be saved. It is in moments like these that one hears the dogwhistle of the cultist, where the sense is given that one is not simply decoding a way of writing from the past, but that one is in the center of an imperial thriller. Even sensible students of Strauss are liable to go off the tracks when this theme is near. Stanley Rosen, who seems have his feet on the ground as far as applying Strauss’s hermeneutic principles to philosophical texts, compared Strauss, in one essay, to Churchill. Churchill? He was making a political point that Strauss, like Churchill, was really a defender of “western style liberalism.” Not, mind you, Roosevelt, who was president of the country in which Strauss actually resided in World War II. Rosen even feels entitled to make a jab, here, at Nietzsche, whose image of a hero was more “Attila the Hun.” Of course, this is absurd – Nietzsche admired Napoleon, not Atilla the Hun. Even so, Rosen doesn’t even pause to ponder who ordered the massacre of more lives, and decimated more cities, in the “West”: Attila the Hun or Churchill?
Such, then, is the tone and style of Strauss’s scenario. One notices that it is a scenario about delivering a message. The message is one of the components of the esoteric writing scene. The threat of persecution is the context in which the message is encrypted in a larger, more harmless text. The transmitter, in this case, is a historian, and is more commonly a thinker. And the receiver of the message? Intelligent young men. The intelligent young men, or gentlemen, are the boyscouts of Strauss’s philosophical world. Always male, always from the class of “gentlemen”

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sony vs. North Korea - fun for the whole family!

I’m enjoying the hell out of the dispute between Sony and Kim Il jong.  On the one hand, you have a megalomaniac dictator, on the other, a clueless corporation that got its start distributing propaganda films for the Japanese army in WWII. The movie sounds like a gross out version of  Rambo, with American secret agents hilariously shattering the skull of the evil dictator – cause America can! A great movie to show in the torture season. Throw in Obama’s impassioned plea for freedom of speech (which of course doesn’t include Wikileaks or Edward Snowden, and doesn’t address the fact that we haven’t had a Presidency that so aggressively pursued leakers and journalists since Richard Nixon) and the exposed emails revealing that the head honchos are as stupid as you think they are, and it is a Christmas gift that keeps on giving! It isn’t the best Christmas gift from Hollywood – that’s Kim’s butt – but it will do. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

two forms of evil in the movies

I just watched the beginning of Fargo, the tv series.
The evil character in Fargo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is signalled as evil not so much by stabbing people or shooting them – no, his evil is established when it seems that the usual matrix of cause and effect fades when he is around. Normally, when a man goes into a basement with no other access than the stairs, that man will have to go out using the stairs. But, in a crucial scene in Fargo, the killer goes into the basement and disappears, reappearing in a getaway car later on.
I think there are roughly two forms of evil in film. The one is cosmological, and the sure sign of it is this fading of cause and effect. When Scorcese redid Cape Fear with Robert DeNiro playing the bad guy, the crucial moments in the film were all the result of this fading. This can, of course, create startling effects: evil is in the room and is about to slice somebody’s throat! The spectator’s visceral reaction is stimulated – hell, it is shot through with a thousand volts.
But the first Cape Fear did evil differently. Robert Mitchum played the evil man in terms of his slouch, his look, his accent – in terms, in other words, of signs. Evil here is semiotic, not cosmic. There’s no fading of cause and effect. When Mitchum lets his sleazy gaze travel over the daughter of the lawyer he has marked out as his enemy (played by Gregory Peck in all his iconic righteousness), that was the evil . If he murdered, raped, or terrorized, it was all on the earthly plane. There was no fading of cause and effect.

My preference is for semiotic evil – cosmic evil leaves me feeling a little ripped off. Of course, sometimes the payload of visceral jolts is nothing to sneeze at. But I am attached, like a peasant, to my cause and effect.

Monday, December 15, 2014

conceptual zippers

Guilty reading
Lets face it: the innocent reader who spots the blue pants on the boy holding the balloon in the picture and associates the “C” with cookie monster was filed away long ago. It exists, thinly, in the brain's filing system, although to dive in an find it is a task that would make Proust blanch. We guilty readers come, now, with a certain hodgepodge sophistication to the fragment or the treatise, or even to the letter “C” – which may remind us more of Wallace Stevens than Sesame Street. We take our theories to our books, and are eager to apply readings, now “political”, now “hermeneutic”, now “neo-darwinian”, and so on.
Myself, I’ve always like the promise of dialectical materialism, although not often its results. The idea of looking at texts not in the idea-system, head talking to head, but in terms of both historical conditions and of the text’s own long interiority – that’s the ticket. Oh that interiority! To be a writer, I think, means that one exists like a bat in a dark cave that is slowly filling up with the echos of the signals one has emitted, revealing surfaces that must eventually and imperfectly be translated into data subserviant to the detailing eye – although the writer, in his heart, always remains a creature of radar, of the sonogram.
What’s dialectical about all of this? What, except the continual stomping back and forth and the interminable difference. One can trick oneself, here, easily, into thinking that the difference can be reduced to two sides, two tracks, like the two tracks of a zipper – and that with a little conceptual zipper and a little force the two tracks will fit tightly together as one. Conceptual zippers are the most tempting things in the world, and the trick with them is not to believe them too much. The dialectical, here, for me, is ideally stripped of the absolute and has learned the humility of stripped things, naked things. The world is not all zippers, or even mostly zippers. The zipper is not all the case is.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

More reflections on what Nietzsche was up to

To the second edition of The Gay Science, published in 1887, Nietzsche added a fifth book entitled, with that mock boastfulness to which he was prone (and which has added that bellicose aura to his posthumous reputation – beloved by post-structuralist and white supremicist prison gangs alike!), We fearless ones. The end, sort of, of We fearless ones  comes with a dreamy little number  342, entitled “The great health”. Healthiness as a concept that encompasses every part of the self, instead of describing a state of bodily equilibrium, a healthiness that becomes a means to an end instead of an assumption about the everyday – this is what the perpetually sick author dreams of. His dream, though, is of a  likeminded community – this we is, as all we’s are, political. Here Nietzsche is both a child of the century, which was discovering health not as a sort of balance among animal spirits but as a fragile norm that few were able to achieve – and a sign of the coming century, when health really does get interpreted as an intention, so that our sicknesses are somehow, unconsciously, willed.

The great health, however, while has its roots not in physiology, or at least not in physiology alone, but in experience. This is an immense and interesting shift. To be fearless, in Nietzsche’s terminology, is to be an adventuerer – and the first adventure is through one’s own experience. In that instance, experience is transformed into something adventure-worthy. This connection  leads Nietzsche through one of the dithyrambic, labyrinthine arguments in which he specializes, where association and implication become interjoined, and all the rabbits are pulled from all the magician’s hats. The adventurers - the “we”, here – catch a glimpse, due to our health, of an as yet “unexplored land” which overflows with the “beautiful, the alien, the the questionable, the fearful and the divine”  - a glimpse that creates total existential discontent, since it seems that this is the place we are seeking. This place is also an ideal, but not an ideal of the sacred or the good or the just, but an ideal of play, - and here we go back to the great health, for this health belongs to the naïve and curiously innocent spirit who plays with the values that the people have erected, who enjoys a well-being and well-willing that appears inhuman in contemporary terms. These terms seal what is good, true, and real into a package with what is serious – the serious being defined by being ‘unplayable’. But the spirit that Nietzsche evokes isn’t impressed by this “earth-seriousness”, and unconsciously and involuntarily parodies it. Out of that parody, Nietzsche imagines a new seriousness springing forth, setting up its own question marks. And thus “the hour hand moves” and “the tragedy begins”.

So it would seem that the chords of the fifth book, and the book as a whole, crash to a conclusion. But the little numbers don’t stop - Nietzsche moves on to an epilogue – something that is not exactly part of the book, but is in the no man’s land of prefaces and after words. The epilogue begins like a parody of a Wagner opera – or like an episode in Disney’s Fantasia. Nietzsche takes up the “I” as  the author of the book , and depicts himself, like Poe’s poet in The Raven,  feeling the effect of the dark and dreary task of erecting question marks.

“But when I in conclusion this gloomy question mark slowly, slowly painted,  still wanting to recall into the memory of my readers the virtues of correct reading – o these forgotten and unknown virtues! – it happened, that around me the most evil, spirited, gnome-like laughter broke out: the spirits of my book themselves fell upon me, pulled me by the ear, and called me to order.”

It is passages like this that bother those who want to tell us Nietzsche’s esoteric message, or who feel like, as a proper philosopher, Nietzsche’s texts should be  easily reducible to thesis and antithesis in the good old monographic manner. Hegel’s terminology might be obscure, but the form of his book is very clear; and if we are to take Nietzsche seriously, we have to correct his tendency to mix things up and put them all in their proper place. Otherwise, of course, one would have to multiply question mark by question mark, and finally be reduced to reading Derrida’s note on Nietzsche’s misplaced umbrella – the kind of jape that got Derrida into royal trouble when Oxford was about to grant him, horrors, an honorary degree in philosophy.  Here, at the moment when a Hegelian philosopher would be at the end and have argued to a conclusion – here, suddenly, the spirits of the book treat the author like a erring school child. Who, after all, are pulled by the ear and called to order? As Nietzsche well knew from the time he’d invested in German educational institutions, being pulled by the ear was a not uncommon scene. That allusion to a schoolroom scene comes right after a lament for old fashioned reading – another pedagogical theme. But if this is a schoolroom scene, it is a reversed one – for certainly it is the bad students who make gnome like laughter their sabateur’s weapon of choice.

Viewing Nietzsche as an author, this conclusion is not completely bizarre. In fact, as an author who is a philologist and who has written on Greek tragedy, this scene conforms pretty well to the kind of satyr play that always came after the tragic cycle. In fact, we are never far from the satyr play whenever seriousness becomes an issue in Nietzsche’s texts.  

Of course, all of this, for the decrypter of the esoteric message, is simply denial and disguise. Of course, as soon as Nietzsche has revealed his real intentions – dreaming of an order of masters killing and enslaving the weak – he feels that he has gone too far, and engages in this little diversion.

However, if we engage in reading the text, which is what the text literally suggests we do, we find an artistic structure that does not look like denial or diversion, especially as the spirits of the book itself are called into play. Play, parody, and seriousness are the keywords here. The spirits of the book object, evidently, to the last word being given to tragedy. And they also mock Nietzsche’s future fetishism, the sentimentality he has invested in “solitude”, in being a great thinker alone. The jibes are put in terms of music, and Nietzsche accepts the jibes of his “friends” – the spirits of the book, the “we fearless ones”  – while at the same time accepting that the music of the book and the sense of it might be two different things, of which the first is primary. Instead of tragedy, then, the book ends on dance, and on a peasant’s dance at that. Remember that this is the Nietzsche who had no liking or sentiment for the stinking people, and presumably also their tavern instruments, among which the hurdy gurdy would be preeminent.  

If we follow up the notion that we should be reading, here, and perhaps even reaading Nietzsche’s other texts, than the hint – the non-esoteric hint – comes in the phrase “involuntary” parody, which he has used once before in his polemic against David Strauss, the liberal theologian. It is peculiar to authors that the phrases they have used years before still float about in their memory. It is perhaps their characterizing peculiarity. In the case of the polemic against Strauss – well, I would guess that this part of the Thoughts our of Season is the least read, since who among us, friends and droogs, is interested, even a little bit, in 19th century liberal theology? Strauss is probably best known, now, for being translated into English by George Eliot (who thus became the target for some of Nietzsche’s most misogynistic taunts – Nietzsche was quite the troll at times). In attacking Strauss, Nietzsche also attacks the positivist Hegel, and a certain form of apologetic for God that wills the unity of the universe, the eventual conjoining of the subjective and the objective in one coherent work. Interestingly, in his attack, Nietzsche seems to mock a certain rhetoric he later plays with in The Gay science. Here’s a long quotation to finish with – it is left as an exercise to the reader to pick up the resonances:

he [Strauss] assumes without question that all events possess the highest intellectual value and are thus absolutely rational and purposwful, and then that they contain a revelation of eternal goodness itself. He is thus in need of a complete cosmodicy and at a disadvantage compared with those who are only concerned with a theodicy, who
conceive the entire existence of man as, for example, a punsihment or a process of purification. At this point and thus embarrased, Strauss goes so far as to venture for once a metaphysical hypothesisn – the driest and most palsied there has ever been and at bottom no more than an unconscious parody of a saying of Lessing’s. “That other saying of Lessing’s, he says on page 219, that, if God held all truth in his right hand and in his left the never sleeping quest for truth with the condition of contiually erring in this quest, and offered him a choice between them, he would humbly fall upon God’s left hand and beg for the contents of it – this saying has always been regarded as among the finest he left to us. There has been found in it an expression of his restless desire for action and investigation. This saying has always made so powerful an impression upon me because behind its subjective significance I have heard resounding an objective one of immense range. For does it not contain the best reply to Schopenhauer’s crude conception of an ill-advised God who knows of nothing better to do than to enter into such a wretched a world as this is? May it not be that the Creator himself shares Lessing’s opinion and prefers continual striving to peacceful possession.” A God, that is to say, who reserves to himself continual error at at the same time a striving for truth, and who perhaps humbly falls upon Strauss’s left hand and says to him: all truth is for you. If ever a God or a man were ill advised it is this Straussian God, with his pariality for error and failure, and the Straussian man, who has to pay for this partiality – here indeed one can ‘hear resounding a significance of immense range’, here there flows Strauss’s universal soothing oil, and here one senses something of the rationality of all evolution and natural law! Does one really? Or would our world not be, rather, as Lichtenberg once called it, the work of a subordinate being who as yet lacked a full understanding of his task, and thus an experiment? A novice’s test-piece which was still being worked on? So that Strauss himself would have to concede that our world is an arena, not of rationality, but of error, and that its laws and purposefulness are no source of consolation, since they proceed from a God who is not merely in error but takes pleasure from being in error. It is a truly delicious spectacle to behold Strauss as a metaphysical architect building up into the clouds. But for whom is this spectacle mounted? Or the noble and contented “we”, so as to preserve their contentment: perhaps they were overcome by fear in the midst of those merciless wheels of the universal machine and tremblingly begged their leader for help.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The secret messages of authors: Nietzsche again

How does one use the papers of an author?
Some authors, like GS Lichtenberg, are famous mainly for the notebooks that they left to posterity. Others, like Emerson and Nietzsche, are famous firstly for their books – even as those books are trailed by the vast haul of their Nachlass, their jounals, their scratch books. Both Emerson and Nietzsche, as well, worked in an essay form that centered on the phrase, or paragraph – or perhaps it would be better to say, using Nietzsche’s dynamite metaphor, that the essay or the number is a sort of photograph of the ruin caused by the explosion of these phrases, sentences, slogans at the center. The center, supremely, does not hold.
I’m thinking about this while reading and  gritting my teeth through, Geoff Waite’s book on Nietzsche. Waite, who positions himself as a true, Nietzsche-defying leftist (an authorial figuration that takes many turns – sometimes he casts himself as a man  heading Nietzsche off at the pass, as though FN wore a black hat and rustled cattle and GW was Wyatt Earp), still turns to Leo Strauss’ notion of esoteric and exoteric to find Nietzsche’s true message. This message is in the notes.
I must admit that I find a certain amount of humor in this. Nietzsche, as is well known, was a sick man with bad eyes, who for most of his life made little money from his books and had to depend on the pension he’d been granted when he quit the University of Basel. This pension was around 800 thaler. Which, in today’s terms, would be about 23 thousand per year. Waite, however, refers to him as a rentier – which is exactly what he wasn’t – and comments about certain illegible notes in Nietzsche’s papers: “Exactiy here Nietzsche's text stutters, becomes unintelligible.91 Whenever one's handwriting breaks down completely—becomes illegible to others or to oneself— this is not necessarily by chance, nor necessarily unconsciously motivated.” The ‘not necessarilys” here are supposed to look like arguments, and certainly they are indisputable – but they also indisputably get us nowhere. Was Nietzsche such a sneek that he couldn’t even write in his notebooks without looling over his shoulder to make sure that nobody read what he really wrote about Plato? I would say, not necessarily, and not even probably, given what we know about the material conditions of his production. In another place – this struck even sympathetic reviewers – Waite pushes towards an image of Nietzsche dreaming of concentration camps to come, when in a notebook entry from the time of the composition of Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes “Der Entschluss. Unzaehlige Opfer muss es geben.” Waite translates this as "There will have to be countless dead bodies [Opfer: offerings or sacrifices]."57  The parenthetical translation choices are there, apparently, to save his scholarly integrity – for of course “The decision: there must be countless sacrifices” could mean just what it seems to mean – that there will have to be countless sacrifices. Since Nietzsche’s public works often speak of Opfer, with the meaning being a sacrificed living thing, or a sacrificed desire, etc., it would seem more, well, hermeneutically just to compare uses and decide just what is going on here, if anything.

However, if one is armed with an esoteric reading kit, things become a lot clearer, forensically clearer in fact.

If Waite’s style of reading Nietzsche seems to go off the track at times, he still presents us with an interesting question, one that is particularly pertinent to Nietzsche. After all, famously, many of Nietzsche’s jottings were put into a book and the book was attributed to Nietzsche: “The Will to Power.” The history of that book is a sort of philological crime, and like so many crimes, it was committed by a family member of the victim – Nietzsche’s sister made the book, employing Nietzsche’s friend, Peter Gast, to read the notes.
Gast – guest – what a perfect name for the intruder in the notebooks! And yet, we, who read those jottings, soon make ourselves at home. After all, it is from these notebooks that the books were quarried, and so we are tempted to think of them as the raw material, or key to the mysteries.

Waite himself seems to move between thinking that the notebooks are where the exoteric reveals its esoteric content, and thinking that even the notebook jottings conceal some ultimately even more horrible fascoid thought. Myself, I think that the exoteric/esoteric dichotomy is disturbed, and made less ‘forensically’ useful,  by Nietzsche’s perspectivism.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Leftist attacks on Nietzsche, or why I am a pseudo-leftist

Domenico Lusordo’s attack on Nietzsche is one that I am weirdly eager to read, or at least some of it – I don’t think I’m in it for 1300 pages. I haven’t yet read Geoffry Waite’s massive attack on Nietzsche, or, really, Nietzschian leftism – pseudo-leftism, Waite claims. Pseudo-leftism is a pretty good description of my own politics, and the fall of communism is not something I mourn (except when listening to Leonard Cohen’s The Future) so there is that.  Marx and Nietzsche were allied in at least this: they weren’t mourners.
However, from the reviews I have read of the Lusordo, and the bits I have read of Waite, my impression is that they are operating within the Nietzschian dance – a politics of the text, if you will. Interestingly, though, they seem to deny Nietzsche any humor or wit. Rather, his is a corpus to be driven through with a plow. If there is humor or wit, this is mere deception, mere encrypting. What it is not, what it can never be, is enjoyment.  For instance, Waite interprets Nietzsche’s subtitle of Zarathustra (a book for everyone and no one) as dividing neatly into a book for the masses and another for the elite. This division leaps over the fact that it is an odd elite, indeed, that is no one. No one, on the contrary, seems to be where the social breaks down, not where the social is ruled. Now, one could argue that rule is all the more efficient when it is incorporated by every one and enforced by no one – but this argument seems to go against Nietzsche’s own fierce anti-democratic bias, and make Nietzsche more like a liberal nudger, a la Cass Sunstein: we’ll just use clever prospective theory to make the masses make the right choices.
No one seems to me to be more hermeneutically approachable by way of a politics of (psychological) depression – the feeling that one’s loneliness has erased one’s social self entirely.
This isn’t the only interpretation of that Niemand – but it does, at least, treat with the letter of the word. Waite seems to have impatiently decided that the opposite of mass being elite, Nietzsche’s text will just have to be nailed here and we can discard as moping or disingenuousness any question about how we get from no one to elite.
This is what I mean by the bulldozing tendencies of Nietzsche’s new lefty critics. From what I have read in the review of Lusordo’s book, a similar impatience with Nietzsche’s playfulness gives us the truth about his “politics”. Lusordo shows that the rhetoric of anti-semitism – most of all, the notion of the rootless Jew – is heavily borrowed from in The Birth of Tragedy to contextualize Socrates. Voila, the book has a hidden anti-semitic subtext that is its key. Now, this is all very well – Nietzsche was prone to anti-Jewish bigotry (a nineteenth century malady that crops up in the correspondence of Marx and Engels as well), and he was very much in Wagner’s circle at the time he wrote his first book. But we seemed to have skipped over a rather crucial moment in the book – this anti-Jewish rhetoric is used to describe Socrates. Doesn’t this rather collapse, or at least damage, the idea around which the anti-Jewish rhetoric was built in the first place – the division between Christian Europe and the Jew? Doesn’t it even, retrospectively, cast into doubt Schopenhauer’s worship of Kant, who the anti-semitic Schopenhauer compared to… Socrates?
What I like about pseudo-leftism is that it deprograms the old lefty urge to conclude.  I don’t ever conclude … this is a principle in which life intersects with theory, for me.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Water pistol juntas

Lately, I've been thinking of this post, which I wrote in 2011

When looking at the story of capitalism and the rise of the European powers, it is striking to see forms of organization appear on the periphery before they migrate to the center. For instance, the work discipline of the factory in 19th century England seems to replicate forms of work discipline created for the sugar 'factories' in the West Indies of the 17th century. In 19th century England, the work discipline was imposed on 'free labor', and in Jamaica, it was imposed on slaves. Yet, if we look away from the changes implied by this transformation of the working agent, we see a continuity of form, or at least the production of an organizational form that can be transposed.  And, unlike serf labor in Central Europe, for instance, this slave labor is relatively free of the codes that define its rights and hedge in the transmission of property and title by the owners.

A similar movement from the periphery to the center seems to be happening in the counter-revolution that is now occuring in all developed countries. What happened to the LDCs in the 80s - the less developed countries - is now being served up to the Developed Countries. It is an interesting mix of fiction and terror.

The eighties are the 'lost decade' in Latin America because they are the decade in which the program of the Washington Consensus, as it came to be know, were imposed on Latin American counties. The weapon by which they were lashed into this madness was debt - combined of course with the military regimes that had been put in place in the sixties and seventies as part of the U.S.'s cold war strategy. And the result of the WC was a major drop in the living standards of the majority of the population, and an end, almost, to growth. While the 50s and the 60s saw tremendous growth in Latin America, and an uneven but perceptible distribution of more wealth to the wage and working class, in the 80s this stopped dead. What emerged in the nineties were 'good countries', like Mexico, that devoted the government to obeying the banks, notably IMF. The IMF model, however, suffered a severe blow when Argentina refused to go along with the usual medicine in 2000, and the U.S. grip on the region began to loosen.

Well, the Washington consensus has migrated, at last, to the developed world. The whole world is now being held up by bankers holding waterpistols to our head. And this threat without a real weapon - for no developed state really needs to obey the bankers, who after all have no police force to arrest it (unlike the Latin American states, where the U.S. could whip up a junta in a heartbeat) - is, to the general amazement of the non-numb among us, being obeyed to the last tittle and jot. 

In the 80s, the police were, in effect, the developed nations. However, beginning, perhaps, with Bush in 2000, the Developed Nations have given birth to the smokeless coup. This coup does not involved armed might - it involves merely taken unelected institutions, such as a court of a central bank, and making them the center of a completely undemocratic seizure of political power, on behalf of the wealthiest people on earth. There aren't, we should remind ourselves, too many wealthy people. And yet the police of every Developed country on earth have been toiling away for wealthy people and locking up demonstrators, cracking down on any demonstration of discontent, and raiding any leaks of information inconvenient to the establishment. The resistence to all of this has been tame beyond reckoning. The self-policing extends all the way up through the discourse - nobody who writes for a major paper or magazine, or who broadcasts, ever couches the new Washington Consensus junta society in terms that would offend your average civics class teacher. 

What would such terms be? Well, for instance, we would start saying: who is all this money owed to? And: can't we simply upset those bankers by taking away their money, one two three, without a by your leave. If sovereign debt is such a problem, we could easily raise the money to pay it by slapping, say, one hundred percent taxes on all bond transactions, and we can use that money to buy the bonds. And absurd solution to an absurd political situation - not an economic one. The question of debt is a question of class. The political class and the financial elite are one, united, and they drive our politics in ways that advantage the financial elite, who use money loaned them, by the governments, to loan money back to the governments. Oh, not directly - rather, by propping up the financial service sector's enterprises, we prop up the places where the bodn dealers work and trade.  

The debt issue is, then, one of those fictions that bear such weight because they serve the interest of a certain power. It isn't that the establishment doesn't believe in its fiction - much as the Aztec priest definitely believed that it was necessary to cut out the heart of a prisoner to appease the gods and continue the course of the world, the elite believe it is necessary to cut out the heart of the middle class to appease the abstract God of Debt, to whom we owe so much. My solution is the radical one of the Lord's prayer - in which we have prettified and made metaphoric the common sense suggestion that we forgive debt every day. Debt. Which is as material as the feeling of the edge of a coin. Forgiving debt is the heart of civilization. And - in this age of the internet, where all that is money has become bytes - it is divinely easy to do it. It is always the sovereign who actually enforces laws to force debters to pay creditors. When the power of the sovereign is calmly and cooly taken from the hands of the people and invested in the hands of ex employees of Goldman Sachs, they switch sides - from being the borrowers for the people, they become the creditors for the banks. 

This is, obviously, going to be a lost decade for the Developed countries. But I'm hopeful that the new Junta order will be, at best, short lived. The arithmatic that counts is not how much debt is owed, but the ratio of the creditor population to the debtor population. I'd keep my eye on the latter, for, given the logic of the counterrevolution we are seeing, the time is approaching when the the banker's water pistol will be jerked out of his hand and turned upon him. And, magically, in that moment it will become a real pistol, with a heft and insistance that will change the power relationship all, all at once.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Thus spoke Zarathustra as Goth scripture

What genre is  Thus spoke Zarathustra? This question has been kicking around the academic universe for a long time. A friend of mine, Kathy Higgins, in her book on Zarathustra, called it a Menippean satire, and compared it with Apuleius.  I think she is right about that. I also think that the Menippean form, in modernity, flows into the gothic novel. Just as there is goth poetry and novels, there is a space for Goth scripture – the Gothic novel in fact yearns to supply that gap, to convey the “Bad news.”   TSZ, upsetting the value system that counts one kind of news as good and the other as bad,  counts as Goth scripture, attempts to fill up the space left by the Schauerroman, by Faust, Frankenstein and De Sade’s Sodom.
This isn’t a claim that Nietzsche read Frankenstein or the One hundred days of Sodom. It is rather that there is a thematic in modern culture, a music, that Nietzsche was keenly attuned to. I don’t doubt that Wagner, at least, was familiar with de Sade, and most likely Frankenstein. And surely Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.  De Sade said about The Monk and Anne Radcliffe’s  that  they were the “indispensible fruits of the revolutionary shocks which have been felt throughout Europe”. Indispensable to those shocks? The phrase, the word, is ambiguous. I would use a less organic metaphor – that the music of the news, the music of actuality, was the score in which they were inscribed. In fact, Sade compares them to the terrifying events of the past ten years, and asks whether the “malheur” of the average European doesn’t outweigh one hundredfold any sorrows or cruelties cooked up to torment Gothic characters. The Inquisition may picturesquely stretch people on the rack in the dungeons of the dreamt up Spain of Monk Lewis, but a mere for years before he wrote, a revolutionary delegation from Paris, sent to Lyon, had lined up counterrevolutionaries in a public square and killed them in mass by shooting chained together cannonballs at them, which tremendously splattering results.  This is to say nothing of the White terror that the counterrevolutionary alliance was putting into place in the areas it conquered.
Of course, Zarathustra was written eighty years after de Sade penned his judgment on the contemporary state of the novel.  But the span of European history since that time, as Nietzsche was keenly aware, was still determined by the French revolution. Or not determined – rather, that history was like a firefly trapped in a bottle,  and bumping against its interior, and maddeningly transparent,  walls.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

deconstructing very serious people

“Nobody will deny that in a world in which everything is connected through cause and effect, and in which no miracles ever happen, each part is a mirror of the whole. If a pea is shot into the Meditteranean, an eye that is sharper than our own but infinitely less fine than the eye that sees all would be able to trace the effect on the coast of China. And what other is a particle of light which contacts the surface of the eye compared to the mass of the brain and its nerves?” This is one of my favorite aphorisms of Lichtenberg. He varied the comparison of the pea in another place in his notebook, imagining that after it was shot into the sea, “this effect would be strongly modified through its impression on the other objects of the see, through the wind that pushes against it, through the fish and ships that move through it, through cave ins on the land. “ 
This is one of my favorite passages in Lichtenberg. It expresses a great idea, a fantastic idea, the imagery of which has a sort of hypnogogic flickering, as though Lichtenberg had magically been able to recover one of those great ideas that one has just as one is falling asleep, which are forever lost to the consciousness that wakes the next morning. 
I often think of this passage when I read someone assessing the importance of an author or event, especially when they do so to make some invidious point. I thought of it when I read the nasty and falsefooted essay attacking Greenblatt’s The Swerve by the head of Harvard Publishing, Lindsay Waters, in a recent Boundary 2 issue. The attack was full of knowing putdowns that came across more as smirking in the back row than magisterial swats – which is what Waters was aiming for. I was very amused by this passage, however: 
“English professors have been proclaiming for decades that they were disseminating subversive ideas that would shake Western civilization to its foundations. They wanted to shock and awe the bourgeoisie. Yet, look who has rocked America and the West to its core: economic theorists, bankers, and accountants—a curious turn of events. Robert E. Lucas Jr. and Thomas J. Sargent, whom I published at the University of Minnesota Press decades before they won Nobel Prizes, were leaders in the production of ideas that deconstructed the international economy.By comparison, the impact of de Man barely measured on the Richter scale.”
Poor De Man! He probably didn’t even know that the chief of the Harvard University Press had a machine that could give us a Richter reading for events! Although one suspects that perhaps Waters doesn’t exactly understand his own machine. Certainly the description of Lucas’s work has a certain smell of bullshit. “Deconstructed the international economy” did he? I can’t imagine that Lucas thinks of himself as deconstructing the international economy. As far as I can tell, Lucas is mostly connected with the model of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium and the idea that expectations of economic actors are affected by government regulation in such a way as to make such regulation broadly inefficient. I wouldn’t exactly say this rocked Western civilization to its core. On the other hand, Waters seems to have a large experience of drunk English professors – I doubt that many of them, beginning with De Man, were promising to shake Western civilization to its foundations. 
However, it would shake Western civilization to its foundations if we had some richter scale for the effect of every pea that was cast into the ocean. Contra the head of the Harvard Press, however, such a scale, and the mechanism for applying it, doesn’t exist and will never exist. Not unless I’m wrong about this and Christ and the Angels are going to descend to earth and begin to judge the quick and the dead. But if they do, I would bet that Lucas and de Man would be judged to have different effects on different people for different reasons. As would, say, Oprah, Dale Carnegie, and the scribe that wrote the ancient Egyptian Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. No one scale will apply. 
Of course, “deconstructing” importance and the way it is judged is probably not going to get you very far at… Harvard.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A metaphysical education

When we had our parent-teacher conference last week, I was surprised by the fact that, on the sheet of paper that gives categories for “grading” our child, one of them was: “distinguishes self from others.”
Somehow, I had not thought to run into a major philosophy problem when conferencing about whether it is time to wean Adam from his pacifier. And yet there it puzzlingly was. He did not have a mark in the category, which, his teacher explained to us, was because, being the age he was, no mark could be given. We quickly passed on to other categories, but I remained puzzled. I never supposed, I never naively supposed, that education in America also looks to the metaphysical development of the pupil. Surely this is a little early to be imposing a lifelong task, that of distinguishing self from others, that I have never been able to perform to my own satisfaction, always stumbling over fuzzy boundaries and finding that those opinions and ideas that I thought were the self-born products of my idiosyncratic mind were actually cliches that everybody and their brother already knows all about. Of course, there is another explanation for what is being implied here: perhaps it is just that Adam doesn’t yet say I and only rarely says Adam. On the other hand, he gets straight As from me for his increasing employment of “mine”, which he applies to the whole world with the imperturbable greed of the 19th century British imperialists.
Still, if it were simply and simplistically a matter of linguistics, I think the question would not have been phrased so provacatively. It has larger implications. It is, I am pretty sure, a metaphysical nugget buried among a bunch of other questions about whether he can hold a crayon with his forefinger and thumb and make a mark with it, or whether he puts blocks and toys back in the box (no and yes, if you are curious).  Surely, too, a stranger would smile and say that this question could only have such a place at such a time in America, famous for its individualism. Now myself, I doubt that famous individualism, thinking that as with the rest of the world, people operate automatically and as though mesmerized in the larger current of what their fellows do. On the other hand, the ideological signature is not a pure fraud. It [points to a real thing. There is an American loneliness, just as there is an American habit of jumping from one thing to the other, and both are expressions of “individualism”. It is a marvel and a catastrophe: its monuments are midlife career changes, the rags to riches story, and the old folks home. We do spend a lot of time distinguishing self from others.
My sense is that the teacher is right that this category doesn’t even apply to Adam yet. The other day we were in the park. There was a nifty climbing thing plus slide that Adam was playing on. Near it, there was a boy and a girl, both around six. The girl had a plastic wand, which she said was a magic wand, and she was pointing it at her friend. For some reason, this interested Adam, so he waded into their circle of play saying no no no and several other things thatwere less parse-able, being a bit of English, a bit of French, and a bit of Adamese. The girl was taken aback, and told the boy, look at the baby! Then the two wandered over to the swings, and Adam tagged along behind the girl. I think he was going to give it another try. But I caught him, swung him up in my arms, and said it was time to leave the park. For the girl, Adam truly was a baby. Myself, I could see how much, how comparatively much, he wasn’t.  We are definitely approaching filling in the blank.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

don't believe the prosecutor: a comparison of Michael Brown's murder with Patricia Cook's

McCullach, the prosecutor in Ferguson, said, in his press conference, that it was almost impossible to convict a police officer with the laws as they are now. This was, of course, the most ragged of excuses to throw over his pantomime performance and he led the grand jury to the conclusion he wanted: no trial for Darren Wilson.  That he wanted not to prosecute Darren Wilson has become glaringly obvious from all we know about grand juries and his behavior at this one:
“It looks like he wanted to create the appearance that there had been a public trial when in fact there hadn’t been,” Noah Feldman, who teaches constitutional law at Harvard, said by telephone on Tuesday. The impression that was left, Mr. Feldman added, “was that the prosecutor didn’t want an indictment — and didn’t want to blamed for not getting one.”
However, his excuse has been picked up by various liberal commentors, who tell us, more in sorrow than anger, that the grand jury was never going to indict a police officer. Case in point is Jamelle Bouie, who cites the laws and the court decisions that give a wide latitude to police officers in their use of violence. And of course the FBI stats of 410 justifiable officer caused killings turn up (oddly, the much better statistics kept by the KilledbyPolice organization are never cited in the establishment media. Here the politics of Iraq is reversed – in the latter case, the lower death count that came with merely counting deaths from news items were used, rather than the higher death count derived by normal statistical methods used by a team that published in the Lancet – here, the media count is ignored and the FBI numbers are touted because the FBI numbers are lower).
However, going through the numbers, while an important exercise, shouldn’t lead us to conclude that police officers are never indicted by the grand jury. As a counter-example to Bouie’s thesis, look at a trial that happened just last year in Virginia.
Patricia Cook, 56, of Culpepper Virginia was a Sunday school teacher. She was sitting in her car in the parking lot of a church. This seemed suspicious to police officer Daniel Harmon-Wright. He claimed he approached her and she rolled down the window and he asked for her licence. When she didn't give it he grabbed her wallet, and she rolled up the window and started moving off, dragging him, so he shot her dead with seven shots. Or such was his story. But perhaps because she was a sunday school teacher, white, and Officer Harmon-Wright, because of a drinking problem, had enemies in the department, and perhaps because his mother, who was secretary to the chief, was caught trying to delete negative things from his file - for one reason or another, he was actually prosecuted properly. And although he claimed at his trial that he was just trying to defend the public security, other witnesses said that he never had his hand stuck in the car window and that he ran behind the car and fired his seven shots that way. The upshot was that he was put away for three years. See, it can be done. A, the victim must be a white sunday school teacher, and b., the cop must have enemies in the department. But it can be done.

So remember  Harmon-Wright’s story the next time you read some rightwinger tell you that Michael Brown threatened Darren Wilson’s life. Because in a real trial, that story would be subject to questioning  and, with a real prosecutor, could be largely discredited. Of course, in a real trial, the prosecutor would try to pick a jury that was not predisposed to acquit, as well. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

on ferguson: the culture of impunity for cops

According to the organization that runs the KilledbyPolice facebook page, At least 996 people have been killed by U.S. police since January 1, 2014. At least 1750 have been killed since May 1, 2013. Taking that 1,000 per year total, we have at least 13,000 Americans killed by the police since 2001. According to the US Military, 6,802 troops have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. This means that roughly twice as many Americans have died by cop in the last thirteen years as have died by the hands of the Taliban or the insurgents in Iraq. Of course, if you throw in the contractors, the number of American deaths is higher – but nobody has really kept tabs on the number of American contractors killed. Even if it is as high as 6,000, we are still talking about a situation in which more Americans are killed by cop than by America’s enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The KilledbyPolice organization operates by counting up stories about police-caused death that appear in the media. It depends, then, on not missing stories – so the number may be higher. But I do think it is of significance that your chance, as an American, of being killed by the cops is higher than your chance of being killed by the Taliban, much less the ISIS.
Of course, the stats go much higher on the killed by cop side if you are walking, driving, sleeping, at work, in a playground, or going down the stairs in an apartment and at the same time are black. If you are white, you are all right.
The disgraceful circus in Ferguson, where the Grand Jury heard a trial in which there was no prosecution, simply a prosecutor defending, as much as he could, a police officer who killed a black boy, is par for the course. So too is the white riot that broke out afterwards in comments sections on the Internet – like the Hutus, who were incited by Rwandan radio to kill Tutsis like “cockroaches”, white americans have listened for years to similarly racist appeals from a panoply of media sites, drilling the exterminationist philosophy into them. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

income inequality and the politics of raising taxes

I am ultra sympathetic to the liberal position that we can do something about inequality by raising taxes on the highest tax bracket, but ultimately, I think that it is a huge economic and political mistake to identify the entire inequality issue with the tax issue. I think, in particular, that this obscures and allows many of the structural changes that have accompanied the rise in inequality – and that, if not causing it, have provided the supportive context in which it happened. The 2008-2009 period is frustrating for a number of reasons, one of which was that the solution to the Great Recession in the US and elsewhere was, at best, a mitigated form of Keynesian demand management. It was not the spark to kick off the examination of the fundamental changes that occurred in the 70s and 80s that made the financial sector both immeasurably bigger and immeasurably more important to the “productive” parts of the economy.  That examination would mean redoing or undoing all the "reforms" enacted in the 70s and 80s, which  funneled money into the stock market and set off the explosion in the other financial instrument markets. It is important to see that these reforms weren’t just the result of conservative Reagan. It was ultra liberal Ted Kennedy who, in the 70s, began pushing a very robust de-regulatory program, starting first with the airlines. Yes, airline travel in the US was de-regulated by Ted Kennedy, architected by his aide, Alfred Kahn, as much as by anybody. This was a part of the great avalanche of de-regulatory legislation on finance that, among other things, established the 401(k) – and whichdefinitely had the Carter imprimatur. A recent story about the 401k – a leapforward in regressive taxation – was published in Bloomberg.
The promise of these years, which still crops up as the main rhetorical prop of what happened, was that it was all about “democratizing” finance – allowing you, lucky sovereign consumer, to chose. Now, this rhetoric is about as sensible as saying that everyone should be able to race cars on the Daytona 500. It takes the word choose, weaves around it a groovy ambiance of self-man-manhood, and goes on to promote one of the world historical ripoffs. After 40 years, the reality is that a miniscule proportion of the assets of the income bracket from 0 to 80 percent are in stocks, or bonds, or derivatives. The one thing that did happen, in the best spirit of Keynesian demand management, is that limits on credit and the regulation of credit were lifted or massaged so that these brackets have had greater credit access (for which they have paid) even as their productivity gains were absorbed by the top 1 percent. Although I would never, ever give it a messy, communistic name, this looks exactly like a form of increasing exploitation in the classical manner described by Marx.
It was one of Marx's insights, in fact, that capitalism abolishes private property for the masses, and when one looks at the ratio of debt to assets for the average American, one sees how right he was. This is from the Who Rules America page. The stats are out of date, but I think probably they have worsened:

Even liberal economists spend most of their time thinking about redistribution in terms of taxes, rather than what the structure of the economy is doing. It is as if, getting a higher tax rate on the wealthy allows us to keep the system in place. I think the system not only generates the kind of wealth asymmetry that naturally expresses itself in the power system (at an amazingly cheap rate - America's governing institutions are controlled at really bargain basement prices. If a billion dollars is poured into your average presidential election, the ROI is superdelicious) that makes this discussion about tax rates mostly academic. Both branches of Congress are now populated by mostly millionaires, according to recent research. This tells us much more about their politics than party composition.
One of the great things about Piketty's work is that he has pierced the veil of the taxcentric discourse about inequality, raising fundamental questions about the structure of late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism. In the end, it is perhaps illuminating about our present politics that Piketty’s suggestions do not, however, go beyond – changing the tax system.
Which makes me want to end this with the immortal words of Lenny Bruce during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as reported by Don Delillo in Underworld: we are all gonna die!  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

the agony of not writing.

There is a plot of a short story by Sigizmund
Krzhizhanovskii that I would love to read, although I don't think it has been translated into English, yet, and I only read a summary of it by a russian scholar: “The Life and Times of a 
Thought”. The thought occurs in Immanuel Kant's brain, where it is happy and everything is glorious. And then it has to be written down, which depresses the thought utterly. Apparently, writing is to a thought what the rack is to a man being questioned by the Inquisition. What an idea!

Which brings me to this post. I’ve been pondering the Krzhizhanovskii story. I recognize in it not only a familiar modernist trope (writing as the scene of the agon – Flaubert’s famous throes of dispair on his sofa as he tears apart and rebuilds a single page in Madame Bovary), but also a human predicament. As literacy spread in the early modern era, so did the introduction of a writing system into people’s lives. Literacy did not always mean the ability to write – in France, for instance, many girls were taught to read but not to write. However, that disymmetry soon passed. Reading and writing seem irresistably attracted to each other, unlike, say, music and being able to read and write music. We have a hard time, now, imagining reading without writing.
Yes, then, writing as agon is a very recognizable social fact. As an editor of academic texts, I run into it in the highest reaches of the written. But the other side of the story is writing as an irresistable compulsion. Don’t take my word for it – look at the trillions of words freely poured out on the internet, writing that issues from no professional demand. Myself, I can step out from the billions who do this and offer my own not so unrepresentative experience of graphmania, in which the terms are reversed, and one suffers from the agon of not-writing.
I don’t know how far back my scribbling disease goes. I do know that by the tie the Internet reared up and ko-ed me, I was a definite notebook man, trailing acres of crabbed script around in all these ruled and unruled notebooks which promised, deceitfully, on the blank front page, to be the place, finally, where life and writing would converge.  Most of those notebooks I’ve lost over the years – some I’ve stored here and there, like a squirrel storing nuts. Since moving to LA, I’ve filled three or four notebooks, and of course this doesn’t include the fine flights of typing on the laptop.

I am not a “thought is language” mook – of course thought can exist unthought and unvoiced, just as an unfledged bird can exist in an egg.  However, the more one writes, the more the transition from thought to writing begins to change. Or, rather, scratch that, the more the revolution takes place, the transvaluation of values. Thought, which was once the master of writing, becomes increasingly the excuse for writing – rather than boarding the train of the sentence, the sentence hijacks the train of the thought. It is as if, in the movie in my head, I’ve increasingly become more interested in the subtitles than the images. Give me the subtitles alone!  I shout, sipping my coke and dwning my popcorn there in the dark.

I don’t think I am describing the existential position of an effete literatus here, either. Every self help book, at some point, advises writing things down, under the pretence that this will materialize one’s attention – as if that attention were some pre-existent, ambient thing. There are millions of live diaries, tweets, fb posts, comments in comments sections, etc., indicating to me that there are millions of people who write not only because it is required by whatever they do to bring home the bacon, but because they need to write.

Although email assassinated the US Postal service, I don’t accept the idea that it assassinated the letter. I have received thousands of letter-like emails – a thousand-fold more than the actual letters that I have received in my life. And children, my life has been long – I’m an ancient mariner who remembers the days of stamps and envelops.

Getting back to an earlier point – if in the 17th century there were thousands of peple who could read and not write, perhaps more than could do both, in the Internet age a weird inversion has occurred. Of course, the people who write, now, can read, but I suspect the decline in reading that thumbsuckers so lachrymosely lament in the papers and the high concept journals is connected to the veritable explosion of writing. I read many e-books and I’ve remarked that in the midst of reading them, even those, like Conrad’s Nostromo, that I am enjoying immensely, there’s a certain current of impatience that disturbs the placid, passive flow of the reading. Partly, of course, this is because my computer connects me up to the aforesaid trillions of words, so I suffer from over-choice. But partly too from the consciousness that I could be reading some irritating thing on the New Yorker blog and writing about it. It is as though I am chafed by the restraint of being a mere reader, a bystander.

This is writing as a pathological condition, and a very good reason to become a Buddhist.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Marx and the machine man

“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”.

“ “While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor, and the wealth and refinement of society, it leads to the impoverishment of the laborer until he sinks to the level of the machine. While labor incites the accumulation of capitals and thus the increasing well being of society, it makes the laborer ever more dependent on the capitalist, thrusts him into a greater competition, drives him into a rush of overproduction, from which follows an equivalent slump.”  - Marx

Leszek Kolakowski has written that Marx, unlike the socialists of the 40s, had a firmer grasp of the fact that capitalism was rooted in de-humanization. His economic analysis does not marginalize this insight, but builds upon it – which is why Marx never puts the market at the center of economic analysis, even as he is able to represent the reasons that mainstream economists do so.

In the Economic-Philosophical manuscripts, the figure for that de-humanization is the machine.

Not, I notice, an animal. Traditionally, the poor were compared to animals. Animals themselves occupy an ambiguous status in the popular mindset. Sergio della Bernardina, who did an ethnographic study of various rituals of cruelty to animals, from bear baiting to hunting, found that the concept of the person, outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, not an absolute.  How personhood intervenes in social practice can’t necessarily be predicted from our definition of personhood – in the cases Bernardina examines, the tormenting of a bear or a bull before it is killed does not happen because its tormenters lack a sense of the animals personhood, but precisely because they want to provoke aggression on the part of the animal to which they can respond, shifting the blame for the animal’s death to the animal itself as a person responsible for lashing out, for acting badly.

Since the sixties, it has been a popular theme among some  environmental historians have pursued that Christianity, by entrusting nature to man, devalued the environment. I think this is a misinterpretation of the Church’s larger history, which put it in the broad ancient tradition which, while it certainly did not ascribe property to animals, did understand them as dwelling things - they did have holes and nests. They had families. Christian iconography is actually replete with peaceful animals, with the redeemed sheep, with the dove, etc.

The animal might not have a property relationship with the world – they could be hunted, they could be sacrificed, they could be eaten – but they were, of course, God’s creation.

Not the machine. The machine not only has not property claim on the world – it has no home. It has no family. The son of man would not say, the chariots have sheds, the hammers have a box – although he’d know it, being a carpenters son. In the double logic of the dissolution of the human limit, when Descartes and the early modern natural philosophers compare the animal to the machine – and man, too – they both advance a new claim about the human relationship to the world (dissolving any limit to its use) while advancing a new and unrecognizable form of human – the man machine, the Other – as the human subject.

The poverty of the worker, who sinks to the state of a machine, is the flip side of the glory of the proletariat, the Other who is the subject of universal history. What does the poverty consist in? Marx sees it, of course, in terms of wealth – but also refinement – the “Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft.” I would call this poverty an imprisonment in routines. It is hard to resist jumping ahead to Freudian terms, having to do with obsessive behavior and neurosis, which, after all, is the mechanical coming to the surface – the arm or leg that doesn’t work, that has returned to dead matter.

A note more here onthe machine. It is easy to forget that the Descartes or Le Mettrie’s machine was an automaton, an entertainment. Court societies love F/X, whether it is Versailles, Hollywood or D.C. – but in real material terms, the automata did nothing more than demonstrate the uses of a winding mechanism. What Marx is talking about is not that kind of machine.

As Schivelbusch nicely puts it at the beginning of The Railway Journey, the Europe of the eighteenth century, which was still the Europe of wood and woods, of energy supplied by streams and forests, was losing its woods. He quotes Sombart – and I am going to give some elbow room here to exaggeration and the blind eye turned to the forests in America. Still, wood was becoming more expensive, and in this way an opportunity opens up for other means of energy and structure – notably, coal and iron. To which one must add that water, too, but in a new form – as steam – is part of the complex. In one of the historical ironies that the economic historian scrupulously skirts, even the Corn laws, decried for two centuries, actually contributed to the industrial revolution, for, by raising the price of grain and thus of keeping horses, they “helped replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way shortage of wood in 18th century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production.”

So, the older elements of life – that obsession of the romantics in perhaps the last final bloom of eotechnical Europe – were being reconfigured before Marx’s eyes. When Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845, he took the messagerie – the stagecoach – to the Belgian border. In 1848, when he was kicked out of Belgium, he took the train back to Paris.

For Marx, the machine like worker is not, here, the automaton, but rather one of the new machines which incorporated an unheard of precision and standardization.

Schivelbusch, interested in how the consciousness caught the phenomenological changes being wrought by the machine, quotes a wonderful passage from an advocate of steam engine powered transport in 1825, who describes the imperfect movement of the horse: ‘the animal advances not with a continual progressive motion, but with a sort of irregular hobbling, which raises and sinks its body at every alternate motion of its limbs.”[12] Similarly, Schivelbusch notes that the steam boat was admired at first because it did not tack – it could move against the current and the wind.

A culture picks up in its proprio-phenomenological net such major changes to its habits, but often doesn’t express their novelty, because the vocabulary to express it is lacking. Marx is a monument of the modern moment because, among other things, he understood that the vastness of the changes taking place around him called for the deployment of an entirely different understanding of the world.