“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Barthes and the paragraph

To read Barthes properly, one must be equipped with a pen and a piece of paper, a notebook, have them at hand, cite and dissect. There’s a reason for this besides the difficult theoretical terms and arguments in the text – that reason being that the texts tend to be disconnected in subtle ways, and one needs to have some record to chart the gaps. We know that his method of composition was to write on index cards and arrange them – which he did not only in his study of Michelet, but, according to his colleagues, also in his other work, throughout his life. Thus, Barthes’ text offer not the forward flow of a text that moves over a notebook, or over the loose pages of a typewriter, but instead in short bursts. Barthes once wrote an essay entitle Flaubert and the phrase. It seems natural to associate Flaubert with phrases, since he made so much of them. A similar essay could be written about Barthes and the paragraph.
The paragraph is eminently prosaic. Poetry – save for prose poems – does not settle into a paragraph. The poem must ultimately remain in touch with the vatic, the riddle, the omen – and the paragraph is antithetic to these presumptions and devices.
And yet – it isn’t precisely correct to speak of the product of these cards as paragraphs. Barthes entitle his perhaps most popular work Fragments of a lover’s discourse, and surely there is something to that ‘fragments’. The fragment is closer to the poetic line, it possesses a certain rawness that is groomed out of the properly constructed paragraph. The fragment extrudes its unity, which becomes the number that marks it from the outside – think of Wittgenstein – or the date, or some other indexical sign. It is as if here the paragraph is either too exhausted or too indignant to do its job – to pull itself together and express its topic organically. The topic thus becomes a sort of title or caption outside of it, names the fragment rather than being the interior connector that keeps it together.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

walking, magic, moral failure

Magical realism is, as a term, a real drag. That is, in as much as it is applied to a certain kind of Latin American literature. However, the implied integration of the fantastic into the ordinary does work when you are describing your baby learning how to walk. Because this happens in plain old secular time in which you bump into things, you need a shave, the third drink makes you drunk, and dreamtime, in which you are being chased by robbers again, there is a flood coming, it turns out your dead relatives aren’t dead, etc. Such are the lacunae in the chronicle that I don’t remember when Adam developed his crawl, which was not your traditional four on the floor ambulation, with both legs providing the body motion, but the three wheeler model, viz, tucking one leg up and extending the other leg behind him. It was surprisingly speedy, due to his ability to pivot with that tucked up leg. We worried, though. Was there some reason he seemed to be nursing that front leg? Somehow, though, I recognized this crawl. That’s because it resembles something I do when I am in the position (which I very rarely am) of having to crawl across a roof four stories over the ground. I once spent a summer working at an apartment complex, and occassionally I was ordered to clean out the gutters, so I would mount up to the roof on a long ladder and making it down the peak to the side, where of course the abyss called to me. Or hissed. In any case, I would not walk to the edge in a crouch, as a man does, but would crouch crawl there, and tucking one leg up under my chest, I’d lean out tentatively with my little spade and dig into the leafs and sticks and crap clogging the gutters, tossing it down to the ground. After a while, of course, the ground didn’t seem that far down, but I still kept my tripod-al attitude. And here is Adam, whose instinct is to take the same stance. A meaningless coincidence, but parenthood is all about the semiotics of meaningless coincidences.
Anyway, for a while, now, he has been rising up to clutch at the wall, or the chair, or the table, or the sofa, unsteadily tottering there; and every day he had been doing more and more moving on his pins this way. Two weeks ago, he even launched out and made a few brave steps, a balletic leap that always ended in him either falling back to the floor or sliding back to it. We said, he’s going to walk any day now.
We thought we were expecting this.
But this Monday, we come back from an expedition and there is our sitter, and she says we’ve been walking! And there is Adam. He no longer walks like the newborn foal, but like the gazelle! Or if not the gazelle, not in fact at all like the gazelle, then like Charlie Chaplin, wobbling a bit but able to cross the entire room. If Adam had sprouted wings and was flying around the room, it wouldn’t have astonished me more. It was a moment of gestalt – the whole thing of walking like that, I just hadn’t quite thought it through.
I’m sure I will forget this eventually. I once thought that having a baby would teach me to see the baby in adults – I’d look at the balding, badly shaven man with the gut and I’d see the bald headed toddler he was, somehow. I’d have this magic insight. In fact, however, I only see the badly shaven man with the gut. It is a great disappointment – I was sure that I would become morally exalted and exude compassion like a super-Buddha. And I am sure that Adam’s walk, in two or three months, will just seem normal to me. The experience will melt in my hand.

So I will put this down instead, and hope that it does not become a dead letter to my imagination.   

Monday, February 17, 2014


When, in the 1950s, the American military surveyed the incidence of plane accidents and accidents involving all the surrounding equipment necessary to get a bomber or a missile in the air, they came to an alarming conclusion: over ten years time, the chance of some accident setting off a hydrogen bomb was one in five. These are terrible odds. As with all military problems, this one was turned over to various war intellectuals at Rand. One of them, Fred Iklé, completed a secret report that zeroed in on the real problem here: once the accident happened, people might get mad at the Pentagon. In order to ward off the terrible notion that the Public would lose faith in the generals, Iklé spelled out several responses. The responses simply gave voice to what any old-timer could have told the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it was put into print by Iklé. The first and most important thing was to appoint a board of inquiry – not in order to get to the heart of what happened, of course. That way lies suicide! No, what was great about boards of inquiry was they filled the all important function of “temporizing”. After all, wiping out thousands of people arouses unsightly passion, which needs to be channeled and mitigated – and what better way to do it than to fasten upon the incident and draw out the investigation of it until the headlines had moved on.
I found Iklé’s memo in Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which is a history of nuclear near misses. But it made me think of another book, a wonderful book, about paperwork: Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: Powers and failures of paperwork. This book I’ve been urging upon my friends, partly because it gives us a novel perspective on power, and partly because it is wonderfully written, with an exact balance of microhistories and big names –  for instance, the story of a bureaucrat in the…, L, who, legend has it, made spitballs out of the orders passed down to his department to arrest and execute various people during the Terror, precedes Kafka’s presentation of  Tocqueville, whose  sense of the real accomplishment of the French Revolution was that it introduce a new administrative mechanism into the art of government, viz., bureaucracy, and in so doing changed everything. Tocqueville, by the way, deplores the lack of paperwork in America in his Big D. in America (as I sorta freely translate it), a theme that I never noticed before reading The Demon of Writing.
Kafka does not set out to praise paperwork – but, in spite of his title, he does seek to understand it, rather than simply demonizing it. Myself, I find many of his microhistories leading us back to Iklé’s rule: temporize. This, I think, is one of the a very important functions fullfilled by paperwork. Yet whether this is an accident of other functions, or a real function, is a question that traverses Kafka’s book, which is informed with a psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious. Some will groan, of course, at the idea of anything being informed by a psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious, since the times are against the psychoanalytic. Myself, I am convinced that, on the contrary, the relapse into analysing all human events solely in terms of consciousness is naïve and fundamentally wrong, a sign of these woeful times. But to get back to what I was saying before I became enamored with saying something else… I am a little bemused by the lack of analysis of this temporizing function. For surely here we are approaching neurosis not just as a condition, but as an instrument. The neurosis afflicting power becomes, through the daily exercise of power, a means of afflicting the powerless.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. Kafka’s insight into what he argues is the beginning of a qualitative change in paperwork – which he locates in the French Revolution, lining up with Tocqueville to this extent – is that paperwork arises out of a liberatory impulse. The revolutionaries sought a form of government in which the governors could be held responsible for what they did. In order to achieve this goal, what they do must be transparent. That transparency is the meeting notes, memo, slip, report, form. There’s a scene in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of La Carré’s Smiley novels, where a spy discovers that a crucial record of phone calls on a certain night has been excised from the book in which all phone calls are noted at HQ, an absence – a purloined letter – that operates as the key clue in the development of the plot.  Transparency and responsibility are ruined when the records are messed with or missing.
What happens, however, when an administration pursues the goal of transparency is that records generate records, memos memos. This unintended consequence soon becomes an exploitable resource – it provides both an excuse for the bureaucrat and a means of temporizing that robs the client of his or her time. Indeed, the time is felt as something stolen. At the same time, the client can do nothing about the robbery – the client is robbed for his or her own sake.
In other words, the bureaucratic text, paperwork, presents itself as a text wholly without pleasure, the negation of Barthes’ pleasure of the text.

However, we should be suspicious of an activity that reproduces itself through the absense of pleasure. We should wonder if, indeed, pleasure has simply gone into hiding, or metamorphosed itself, as in one of those legends of gods coming to earth in the guise of mortals.   Kafka has an eye on the rage, the blind anger, that can be provoked in the citizen who waits for the paperwork to be done, who begs for the proper forms, who is always being scolded for failing to assemble them properly. But as to the correlate of that rage, the circumlocutory pleasure of the bureaucrat – that is a story still to be told.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

routines (part of a larger essay)


Imagine a culture without routines. Is this possible? The routine for eating, cooking, harvesting, hunting, traveling, not to mention curing, excreting, making love – don’t these practical matters have to become routines?
But as we press the question, the concept of the routine seems to become more indistinct.
Imagine a culture without rituals, then. The late nineteenth century anthropologists became obsessed with rituals – rituals and art, rituals and magic, rituals and taboo. The rituals of savages – the people without the law, the non-Western Europeans – and their survivals among the civilized savages of the European zones, among whom are the scientists themselves, the middle class, the peasants and workers - were intensely studied, taxonomized, and generalized. Basing their claims on the huge data base that was presented in The Golden Bough, the anthropologists claimed that there was no culture without ritual. Without, as Jane Ellen Harrison was fond of pointing out, dromenon, the ancient Greek term for “thing done” – connected philologically and socially to drama. Ritual for the ancient Greeks became drama, was Harrison’s claim.
But routines… I will leave undecided, here, at the start, whether there are cultures without some base of routines, some transmitted program for doing things.  
But what we do know is that the word “routine” did not exist in early modern England up until the late seventeenth century.
“Behold, I am now become a grammarian, I, who never learn’t tongue but by way of rote, and that yet know not what either Adjective, Conjunctive or Ablative meaneth.” This is John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s essay, Des Destries – On Steeds, Florio called it. Behind the phrase “by way of rote”, Montaigne uses a single French word – “routine.” Rote, an etymologically related word, was  in the English vocabulary of the early 17th century. It appears in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream, when Titania says to the fairies, instructing them on their roles:
“First, rehearse your song by rote
To each word a warbling note.”
Shakespeare, however, never uses the word routine. Nor does Bacon. In France, Montaigne uses it twice in his essays, and his friend, Amyot, uses it a couple of times in his translation of Plutarch’s collected works.  A particularly interesting instance is in the translation of the essay, “That Virtue can be Taught”, in which Plutarch, at one point, takes up the opposite view and shows how absurd it would be that there are schools and precepts and masters for other things – ‘pueriles choses’ – but for the “great and perfect there is only a routine, or only chance meeting a case of adventure.”
Routine, in Montaigne and Amyot, already carries  an ambiguity in its soul. On the one hand, it points to cognitivizing a procedure – doing a routine is knowing how to proceed with a practice. On the other hand, this knowledge, to be a routine, undergoes a sort of baptism in the world of instincts. It becomes inert, habitual, and takes on a slightly negative coloration in contrast to the knowing associated with the higher intellect. In the soul’s division of labor, as laid out by the theologians – influenced by Aristotle – and the doctors – influenced by Galen – routine engages, so to speak, the lesser self, the vegatative soul, the inner dark that is wholly immersed in heartbeat, breathing, animal warmth – hardly skills at all, although they need to be practiced, repeated, and in fact repeated correctly – the heart otherwise suddenly seizes up, we choke, we freeze. The tongue may paddle, but it is no natural grammarian. 
It is more than fifty years later  that the word “routine” finally does cross the channel and make its appearance in English. It first appears in a  translation by John Evelyn of a book written by Gabriel Naudé, Advis pour dresser une Bibliotheque. Naudé was relatively young when the first edition of this book was published in 1627; by 1644, when the second edition was published, he’d garnered a large reputation as a librarian – or more than that, a builder of libraries. In 1644  Evelyn was visiting France, and perhaps this is where he picked up a copy of the book. Evelyn, calling his translation an ‘interpretation’, titled it Instructions for the Erecting of a Library. When it came out in 1661, Evelyn  recorded in his diary that he was disappointed that it was “miserably false printed” – and later, in a letter to the man it is dedicated to, Lord Clarendon, Evelyn suggests a new program – new routines – for printing books. But the diary is otherwise not forthcoming about when or where Evelyn began his translation, or why. In the diary that Evelyn kept for 1644, there is not mention of Naudé’s Advis. The  entries are crammed with highly detailed descriptions of the  gardens, architecture and painting Evelyn discovered in France: more than the traveler’s notes, these lists have a certain sensu-round feeling, the child in the midst of his toys. He also visited scholars and controversialists. When, finally, Evelyn returned home from the continent, his England was gone, or at least in hibernation, for the Puritans and Parliament had won, and King Charles I was dead. Evelyn bided his loyalist time until the Protector died, and then threw himself into public affairs under Charles II, becoming  one of the leading members of the Royal society, an advisor on rebuilding London after the great fire, an advocate of forestry, and an influential gardner – his books on gardening helped create the English style. He was the kind of man known, at the time, as a virtuoso: a man of many talents and interests, for whom knowledge was literally a venture. It is easy to see what might have attracted such a man to ‘Naudaeus’’s book.
Like Evelyn, Naudé was a man of the modern spirit – a reader of Galileo and Machiavelli, a collector, a spirited opponent of mystification – be it of the Rosicrucians or of the witchhunters. Naudé, however, belonged to an earlier generation. Born in 1600, he has been classed in the twentieth century with the group of  ‘erudite libertines’  who flourished in the first half of the 17th century in France, only to be frozen out by the authoritarian King Louis XIV. These were the esprits forts to whom Pascal addresses various of his Pensees. It was  a group that was more attracted by Pierre Gassendi’s materialism – which Gassendi  embraces by way of Epicurus - than Descartes’ reclamation of St. Augustine’s cogito; who sympathized, sometimes covertly, with the great freethinking nobles, many of whom ended up aligning themselves with the Fronde, the disastrous aristocratic rebellion of 1648 against Naudé’s patron, Cardinal Mazarin ; and whose deepest beliefs were, perhaps, less structured by the Christian ideal of redemption than a mixture of the Stoic resignation and the  Epicurian cosmology which  seemed somehow to match their circumstances, political and existential. The Epicurian universe was almost absolutely material, composed of atoms streaming ceaselessly across the void, obeying geometric laws – except for the mysterious emergence of random fluctuations among them. That fluctuation – the clinamen – was the basis of free will. It was a picture that beautifully accomodated order and disorder, the sovereign and the aristocrat, rule and whim, the rules of art and style. Against the ascetic ideal of baroque piety, the erudite libertines posited a moral code based on volupté. The career of volupté is instructive: in the seventeenth century, it was not yet simply  a matter of sexual hedonism. It was not yet defined by the air of excuse floating over  all those softcore eighteenth century novellas – the memoirs of a flea, the confessions of a sofa. Rather, it was about embracing nature.  The code of volupté was a way of living that found its supposed master in Epicurus and the new learning; in the chain of sememes of those texts that were dedicated to it, if volupté appears, soon nature will appear also.  Nature is new, it is modern, it is something that doesn’t yet have a full meaning. It isn’t quite God, but it is adverted to as though it “taught”, as though it were a guide to living.  In the reference to nature there is the promise of a program, of a way of casting off the ideology of sacrifice. Certainly, it leads the esprit fort to a negation – the negation of those things that are against nature, or supernatural.  Saint-Beuve, in a very sympathetic ‘portrait’ of Naudé (one in which he even elevates him into the link between Montaigne and Bayle) quotes Naudé’s  friend, the doctor Gui Pantin, whose description of Naude’s spiritual attitude could be extended to any number of “honnetes hommes” in this period: «As long as I knew him, he seemed to me to be extremely indifferent in his choice of religion and to have learned this at Rome, where he stayed a dozen good years; and I even remember hearing him say that he had, in the past, a teacher, a professor of rhetoric at the college of Navarre, named M. Belurgey, a native of Flavigny in Bourgogne, who he highly valued… Thus, this professor of rhetoric vaunted himself notoriously to be of the religion of Lucretius, of Pliny, and of the great men of antiquity; for his unique article of faith, he often alleged the line of a certain chorus in Seneca’s Troade.” Lucretius, Pliny, Seneca. Amyot, Montaigne. The names conjure up a connection in the mind, and it is out of this mix that routine takes its first flavor.
 Naudé recognized, perhaps, in Seneca a man of his own sorrows, even if those sorrows, in Naude’s case, were cocooned by a position of privilege that he had carefully carved out for himself, at least by the time of the second edition of his book: thus, the instructions for erecting a library are charged with a program that runs underneath the lists of the names of books. In the erudite libertines one can trace the embryo of the program of the Enlightenment  that was articulated by the philosophes in the 18th century, but even so, the seventeenth century esprit fort was an enlightenment that fully accepts,understands, and codifies – through a combination of cynicism and deep frivolity - its own defeat by, on the one hand, the credulity of the populace, and on the other, by the interests of established power.  Which is one way of understanding Saint-Breuve’s marvelous summing up of the world of these baroque free spirits: atrocité içi, mauvais gout là.
Naudé worked as a librarian for a number of seventeenth century eminences – Cardinal  da Bagno, for whom he went to Italy, where he spent eleven years and immersed himself in the Renaissance writers, Cardinal Mazarin, and Queen Christina of Sweden. Perhaps Evelyn had heard of  Naudé’s circle of ‘free thinkers” at Gentilly, outside of Paris.  Naudé was in Paris in 1644, having accepted an offer from Cardinal Richelieu to be his official librarian - which, by the time he got back to France, was transferred to Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu having died in the meantime. Probably, too, Evelyn was familiar with another book  Naudé wrote in his youth: a History of Magick By Way ofApology, For all the Wise Men Who Have Unjustly Been Reputed Magicians, from the Creation, to the Present Age, which was ‘englished’ by John Davies in 1657. The wise men of the title are for the most part the authors of the books that Naudé discusses in his Advis. Both building a library and defending the reputation of the sages were part of Naudé’s program to “deniaiser les esprits” – to destupify minds – by edging in, as it were, into the field of cultural politics, without exposing too much of oneself to the awful coercive power of the church or the state.  This was and is a tricky task – requiring both the broad view of the learned and the guarded rhetoric of the courtier.
Here, then, is the context – early modern – scholarly/political – enlightened/disenchanted - out of which the word leaps into Evelyn’s translation. It is not a passage that stands out for any other reason in the world of English prose. It is easy to imagine this lexical firstling appearing around this time in some other text.  Evelyn’s sentence reads: “What we may discern, one must be carefuyl to take with him divers theorems and praecautions, which may with more facility be reduced to practice as opportunity happens, by those who have the routine and are vers’d in books, and who judge all things fairly and without passion.” [23] Evelyn, while transposing Naudé’s word, “routine”, is still not comfortable enough to leave it alone. In the French, it is simply “ceux qui ont une grande routine des livres” – the “and vers’d in” is Evelyn’s gloss.  The “great routine of books” is, for Naudé, a tacit knowledge, a compound of experience, taste and perception, that allows the librarian to successfully decide on the questions of quality versus quantity, the ancients versus the moderns, and even the heretical versus the orthodox – for in Naudé’s opinion, a library is the one social space where virtue and vice, orthodoxy and heresy, the new learning and the old, not only can but, if the library is to be great, must coexist. The book shelf is where one can discretely build Rabelais’ utopia, the abby of  Thélème, with its motto – do what you will. The link between utopia and its survival in 1644 is routine, a “great routine”.
But this is not enough. We can’t stop here. There is, as well, a larger etymological context to consider. For the word takes us, by way of the word “route”, back into Latin, where the root term from which routine arises is “rota”, or wheel. And from rota we can go back to the Sanskrit, “ratha”, chariot. Routine is thus connected with the great family of  rotational words. The wheel, of course, provided a central affordance space for technology in Europe and America (the gear, the mill, the turbine) well up until the age of electrification, when it was replaced in the collective imagination by the switch – connecting routine to a very powerful family of concepts and images.
Such philological reasoning has long been dismissed as a voyage to Cratylia, a relapse into word magic. I don’t want to defend the Cratylian position – that is to say, I don’t think the earlier meanings of the roots of words give us the secret meaning of the word - but I do want to rethink the sense of etymological reasoning, outlining a position that is, perhaps, neo-Cratylian. Etymologies stand rather like totem poles – positivistic totem poles – at the entrance to words in the dictionary. The great tribe of philologists built them. Here, we are given  a series of words that precedes,as their evolutionary development, a specific word that is now current. One notices that each of the older words is accorded a naively unambiguous meaning, as though each word in its time was tied unambiguously to a certain definition.  How else could etymology  be done? And yet, at the same time, etymology suggests that there are forces that work on words, forces that change words, change pronunciations, displace meanings into other conceptual fields, records of semiotic smears and blurs, metaphoric offerings that not only work outside the dictionary, but fret against the differential structure, the individuated lexemes that it so patiently records. As Jane Harrison puts it, “feeling ahead for distinctions is characteristic
of all languages”. In this respect, the etymological totem pole operates less positivistically, and more totemically. The way words are essentially linked leads us to a history  that is open to occult forces and anthropological understandings. One of the first Western descriptions of a totem pole, by Captain George Dixon in 1787, describes “… figures that might be taken for a species of hieroglyphics, fishes and other animals, heads of men and various whimsical designs, mingled and confounded in order to compose a subject.” Indeed, the totem combines these objects, animals, designs in complicated ritualistic ways to map a certain power, released by ritual. That power divides and compounds. Taking each etymological “stage” in this totemic way, one can think of the totem pole of meanings and deviations that towers in the background over “routine” as itself a current  force, a repressed figure that continually returns, operating invisibly, compulsively, linking “routine” with metaphors and examples that keep turning up throughout its history, as though imprinted on the word’s wheel of fate.   
We should remark, as well, that here, as so often, ancient technologies crop up at the deepest level of the word – which one sees happen so often with key words.  The road in “routine”,  the stamp or incision in “character”, the chain in “addiction”. How many great families of words congregate around primitive tools?  The wheel, of course, exists as a specific discovery during a specific epoch among specific cultures. It never finds a place among, for instance, Mesoamerican cultures. But in the Meditteranean, Northern Europe and whereever the Europeans colonized, it became an essential metaphor for a whole vision of things. To turn a wheel is eventually to come to the point where one started. And yet that point only returns after it has gone through a predictable cycle of variations in its cardinal location. As those variations are gone through (as the wheel turns – and the turn itself is buried as a metaphor in the very language that I am using to explore the metaphor of the wheel), the wheel moves forward. The motion of the wheel, given these two structural elements, became the privileged metaphor and symbol for both fortune and nemesis – figures that are so closely connected that there has been a long transfer of symbols and identities between them. In the history of economics, for instance, these qualities of the wheel – fortune’s wheel – are at the center of it. Fortune was used, in the Renaissance, in places where we would now say “market” – and one of fortune’s symbols, the balance, is constantly evoked beneath the concept of “equilibrium”, which neo-classical economists, at least, consider to be the very basis of intelligibility for economic analysis. Even when, in the nineteenth century, the positivists sought to break out of  the cyclical view of history, the wheel still became a privileged reference for progress – for forward motion. The nineteenth century historians thought that they buried Nemesis, but Nemesis survived, Nemesis colonized progress, an event that Walter Benjamin wrestles with in his theses on history.

Within this matrix of connotations, at the crossroads of these philological intersigns, sits “routine”, a term that  carries a certain semantic and semiotic weight into sociology and art.