“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, April 12, 2014

doctor pangloss writes for the london review of books

It must have seemed natural to the editors of the London Review to ask Thomas Nagel, the author of The View from Nowhere, to review R. Jay Wallace’s The View from Here. The subtitle of Wallace’s book is On affirmation, attachment and the limits of regret, and from the account that Nagel gives of the book, it seems to be a book that does justice to its themes, which are at the intersection of philosophy and literature. It is a meaty subject, this of taking up the moral peculiarity of the line of fate of individuals and nations, and the way these lines are a mixture of the good and the atrocious. Wallace seems to think that it isn’t as though the atrocity could be subtracted from the good, but that they are dialectically interlocked. I happen to share that view. I was raised by white parents in the suburbs in the South in the 60s, when apartheid was beginning to crack, and I have long  realized that these facts in the background – both the apartheid that made enormous room for white people like my folks in the post-war years and the crumbling of apartheid that allowed Northern businesses to move into the south as it became a more normal part of the country – benefited me. So if I retrospectively affirm my life, I am confronted with the problem of what to do about these things, which I don’t want to affirm.  Do I opt for self-condemnation, or do I apologize for Jim Crow?
In a sense (not to be too grand about it), this is the kind of problem faced by Leibniz’s God. On the one hand, his perfection requires that he affirm himself perfectly, but on the other hand, the creation is full of atrocities, and the devil is abroad. To understand how to bridge this moral conundrum, Leibniz revamped the metaphysical discourse on possibility that had been built by the ancients and the medievals. He thought, in other word, that the greatest possible good was built into every appearance of evil, the paradigm case being, of course, the exercise of free will.
For this, he was satirized by Voltaire, who began his career on the side of a certain enlightenment view that claimed that atrocity and virtue could be radically separated, given the right social machinery, and who endit it deciding that, as nature itself was indifferent to human values and civilization was generally systematized brutality, interspersed with a few minuets, virtue, as a social thing, was a sham. In other words, the movement was between believing that we could build a world in which we regret nothing to believing that we could only build, if we were fortunate, tiny nests in which regret was held at bay – otherwise, history was a wash.
It is a little astonishing to me that Nagel’s review of Wallace’s book is written in the spirit of Dr. Pangloss, the character in Candide forever associated with the phrase ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ It is important not to take this phrase too bluntly – it is not, even for Pangloss, true that all is the best, but merely that all serves the best, all is for it.  Voltaire’s satire did not wholly miss Leibniz’s point. To think that all is the best is to turn Pangloss into Babbit, the American booster. Nagel’s review alternates between Pangloss and Babbitry. He refuses to enter into the ‘view from regret’, treating it as an inducement to suicide rather than to reflection. In the spirit of the analytic philosopher, he treats dialectic as an undergraduate logical mistake. And so the interlocked nature of good and atrocity is something he doesn’t even attempt to refute.
Thus, when Wallace writes that his own place of work, the University of California at Berkeley, has benefited (and been complicit in) atrocity, asking whether, in reflecting about his own life, he should regret the existence of the institution, Nagel contradicts him in tones that remind  me of the owner of a used carlot bawling at a  new hire has conceded some fault to a potential buyer:
“Wallace teaches at Berkely, a public institution that makes enormous contributions to knowledge, both theoretical and practical, which benefit not only its members but the society of which it is a part and the world as a whole. To doubt that such institutions would exist in a just world seems to me pathologically pessimistic.”
The babbitry here was, to me, startling. “Society” and “world” are used as though these were not deeply divided entities, but wholes perfectly represented by the successful. It would have interested me what Nagel would have said if Wallace worked at, say, Duke. Would he celebrate Duke medical schools advances in the treatment of cancer, while explaining that this more than makes up for the cancers that were caused by the tobacco fortune upon which the school was founded? Sans doute. If I were to classify Nagel’s response to Wallace, it would be to call it a case of pathological optimism typical of the winners in the neo-liberal world.
Regret, I’d argue, is a politically charged mood, as well as an existential one.

I haven’t resolved the political consequences of the view from regret myself, and doubt I ever will, but I do see regret as an irreplaceable tool to understand how we got to where we are – how our histories unfolded. Without regret, history is dumb.   

Friday, April 11, 2014

the decline of big rock candy mountain

I grew up in a folksinging family. Consequently, my idea of the hobo was very romantic – he was an IWW angel. Big Rock Candy Mountain sounded like a lot more pleasant utopia than the Dictatorship of the Proletariat – and it still does. In folk songs, he was always a canny step ahead of the bulls, all in order to be free.  
However, I’ve noticed something about hobos in the last decade or so: there’s been a political sea change. When you see a bum with a political sign, it is invariably Limbaughdian. I saw, for instance, a man with a white beard a couple of hours ago, with two signs, one the usually begging one (“Help me I’m hungry” or something like that) and the other one, on poster board, a long denunciation of Obama for bringing Naziism to the United States. Santa Monica is, I think, progressive territory, or it once was, which is why the city council is still fairly liberal about letting street people be. I’d be surprised if Obama didn’t rule here during the last elections. Thus, the sign was not a means of sucking up to a potential audience – and besides, the handwriting was too angry for that explanation to float.
He reminded me of a beggar I used to run into in Tarrytown in Austin – another Democratic Party stronghold – whose signs routinely denounced Democrats for being traitors, simps, underminers of our ways, etc.
Now, there is a myth among liberal academics that the uneducated white guy is a strong supporter of the worst Republicans – but in fact, stats show, pretty consistently, that the more educated you are, the more likely you will vote Republican. Here, simple economic interest seems to explain the pattern. College graduates, with their higher salaries, are more inclined to vote for the party that will keep their taxes down. Of course, there are exceptions in this group, and the Third Party Dems have seen in the social liberalism of this group an ace way of stealing a march on the GOP – adopt GOP economic policies and combine them with social liberalism. But that strategy acknowledges the lifestyle interest of the desired constituency.
In the case of the hobo block (and it is probably not a block that goes to the polls), it is hard to see the cultural or economic interest in denouncing the party representing the “handout”. After all, the man with the beard and my friend from Tarrytown are directly demanding a handout! One would think the more handouts the better. This was, in fact, Norman Mailer’s strategy when he ran for Mayor of New York – he actually recruited angry homeless people because these were the people he wanted to appeal to. Norman Mailer was one of a kind.
But that was a long time ago, when the Big Rock Candy Mountain still distantly glimmered. It saddens me that it seems to have gone into permanent decline. The man with the white beard is surely old enough to have been a “child of God/walking along the road” of Joanie’s song – but somewhere along the journey, he absorbed the politics of Ronald Reagan.  It is as though the anti-state views of the old IWW – in which the state and corporation were identified as one monster – have been transformed into simple anti-state views, in which the state is bad cause it keeps down the hardworking billionaire.

This makes me think that American politics are even more hopeless than I already think them. Wow.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

a guess at the riddle

I ponder sometimes the fact that Adam, this complex being whose proto-language is so sweet to my ear, whose tricks I laugh at, whose humors I deal with, whose steps I marvel at, will forget all of this. We all emerge from amnesia - it is as if we awaken speaking, walking, eating properly and excreting privately, as though these were things we'd always done. Of course, we have stray memories of what went before, motes of dust in the mind's eye - an image of the shoestring we puzzled over, the feeling of crusty snow on the cheek, a confused vision of trailing down a dark hall. But these memories form no collective whole, no sense of our existence.
There are many theories about the human origin of belief in the gods; I wonder if anyone has traced the line between belief in an agent with supernatural powers and the natural history of our awakening with powers that we cannot account for?An awakening that leaves such a large mark on our subsequent life that it is too large to remember - large enough that we can only venerate it.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

the Magic Mountain in Clarkston, Georgia

I’ve been reading the Magic Mountain for much longer than the seven years it took Hans Castorp to climb it and climb down from it. Way back in high school I even finished it – in the now discredited Lowe-Porter translation. I picked it up because I read a high recommendation in a book by the wonderful Will and Ariel Durant, blessed be their names. They were members of the socialist humanism generation of American intellectuals, and their middle brow guides to Western culture were and still are excellent things for high school students, to be supplemented of course by the vast trove of lit and art that we know now was produced by the oppressed – the Atlantic culture of the African diaspora, women, gays, all those edged aside. Although I no longer remember what the couple wrote about Mann, I do remember the experience of reading it. I was sitting in a pew in the Clarkston Baptist church. No doubt it was another Sunday of Reverend Vincent’s endless non-sequitor sermons – the man lacked the charisma of an old piece of gun, so his revivalism had a tendency to fall stillborn on our dead ears. I owe him, though – my first reviews were of his sermons, which I would feistily attack coming home from church in the car with Mom. Ah, the budding critic!
Although at the time I thought I was much more than a budding thumbs up thumbs down man – I felt that I was Clarkston’s sole modernist. In fact, the single person in the damn suburb who knew what the word meant!
Under the Durants tutelage, then, I cracked the book. What I remember is feeling that there was something about the book that made me feel sickly. Then I went on with my reading list, and as the years passed, I learned to look down on T.M. I learned he was hooffooted, pendantic, full of hot air, pseudo-profound. That in fact he was an anti-modernist. I don’t exactly remember how I received this news, but I do know that Nabokov, for instance, always had it in for Mann. And in college I thought Nabokov should know, since he could do anything with prose. Now I have a different view of Nabokov – that his problem with Mann, or Balzac, or Dostoevsky, arose from the fact that Nabokov made up a canon for himself and became its prisoner. In this way, he operated, much like his social realist or psychoanalytic enemies, to squeeze the juice and joy out of literature. In his best works, I think, Nabokov knows this – hence his paragons of good taste, his King of Zembla, his Humbert Humbert, are criminals – in a sense, driven to crime by the same discriminating instinct that they have cultivated in their souls until it hypertrophied and took over the plant.  One knows, for instance, in Lolita, that when H.H. enters the Haze household and spots the “banal darling of the arty middle class, van Gogh’s Arlesienne”, he is not only showing his lethal sophistication but, in general, his lethality – his lack of perspective on his superiorities, such as they are. The radical lack of kindness, without which good taste becomes a very cruel game.
Well, for myself, I am still a Clarkston modernist. I’ve gone as far away from that little suburban burg (and it has gone away from the burg I knew in highschool, becoming one of the centers of the Bosnian refugee influx in America, and now hosting a good number of Somalis, too).  But I still kick around in the precinct of the ideas I had and the artists I admired then. Age has made me think of myself less as a Joycean exile and more as a sample of a certain history I don’t understand. In short, a relic puzzled by his own relicness. In that respect, I am in a Hans Castorp condition – which, pace Levin, is what modernism was all about.

Monday, April 07, 2014

some liberal reforms on the inequality front

The annual thumbsuckers inequality ball is going on in the press. The right, of course, is all at the battlements, decrying envy.  Greed is one of those virtuous sins for the rich, while envy is one of the damned sins that shouldn’t enter the New Jerusalem. Myself, I’ve always been a big fan of the evil eye. And I don’t even have the liberal disdain for greed.
But I do have the liberal-left desire to finish the incomplete task of the French revolution. Equality is up there with liberty on the roster.
Instead of kicking around abstractions, however, I think we should start kicking around ratios. How much more income and wealth than that earned and accrued by the top 20 percentile of income is allowable under the ideal of egalitarianism?
My sense is that if we take 250,000 dollars as our base (I am of course speaking of the US), something like 10 times that is as far aw we can go with inequality of income. Wealth is a trickier subject, but if we put a cap on 25 million dollars per person,  we have a good inequality space to work with.
Expropriative taxes are a clumsy way to enforce equality. Of course, the wealthy are always threatening to quit if they aren’t permitted to make world class booty – but I take those to be the rational cries of the hopelessly addicted. They should stop working, it would certainly benefit the rest of us.  But besides this, I think heeding those plutocratic bellows has landed us in a truly nutty variant of capitalism, with speculation ruling the roost.  This is why deeper and more radical reforms would aim at making the new york stock exchange, or any exchange, look more like the real economy. For instance, at the end of the year, the commerce department should tally up assets and earnings and make sure that the market capitalization of the firm equals the actual capitalization of the firm.

This would revolutionize Wall Street. Facebook would immediately shrink to a much lesser company than, say, Caterpillar Tractor. And so it should – being little more than an internet billboard company on which companies post ads, it is too ridiculous that Facebook is one of the world’s huge corporations.  The rule of speculation is intrinsic to the rule of the plutocrats. This is where rugs need to be pulled.