“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

Friday, September 26, 2014

D.C and the secret

It is sort of like Comedy of Errors - if it were staged in a butcher shop.
Apparently if you chose to intervene in a chess game by knocking black players off the board, the white side will gain. This is coming as a great shock to D.C. Nobody loses in the political elite. Oh sure, you lose an election, but this just allows you to pluck a desireable job in lobbying or wall street and buy a bigger house. It is a world of up and up!Meanwhile, the US effort is premised on the idea that when a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, it didn't fall. So, we watched 3000 to 10000 ISIL "terrorists" decisively defeat an Iraqi army of 500000 armed with 30 billion dollars of US military equipment and benefiting from five years of training. What does this mean? Why it means we put our fingers in our ears and go nah nah we can't hear you. Then we pump some stateless "freedom fighter" group up with 10 million dollars and weapons captured in Libya and they will just blow a hole in IS and we are done. And of course said group will then easily defeat Assad.
Back in the benighted days of George Bush, one of the tells that the Iraq war was going to go wrong was the inability of the US to credibly mount a force that could both defeat Saddam H. and occupy the country. The US didn't have the soldiers and refused to institute a draft. After all, patriotic Americans wanting to taste Saddam's blood might not be so thirsty for it if their sons and daughters were out there in the desert being blown up. So the US waged a war on the cheap, which both blossomed to a trillion dollar war and was decisively lost by the US side.
ISIL shows what you can do if you have dedicated troops and enough money to take advantage of shock troop tactics, but they still don't have the kind of troops to occupy their territory. Eventually I expect they will dissolve in some civil broil. At the moment, though, they represent the Sunni part of the breakup of Iraq. Pretending this isn't so because where's the happy ending, Uncle Sam? And don't we have to do Something? doesn't change the facts that are kicking us in the face.
I sorta blame Oprah. At one point in her show, she publicized a woman who wrote a book called The Secret. The secret consists of cutting out pictures of things you want, pasting them to a piece of paper, and wishing very hard to have them - and presto, you'll get them! Obviously, the Secret became the playbook for the State Department and the D.C. press corps and establishment.
There ain't no Secret.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Karl Marx on how to start a flame war and sell your book

Marx is not often pointed out to aspiring writers for his imitable work in publicizing his masterpiece. However, the correspondence of Marx and Engels, in 1867 and 1868, is filled with strategies for making Capital known on a broad scale – from Engels suggestion that Marx should take seriously the idea of a “portrait” in the Leipzig Illustrated Paper to the campaign of reviews meant to pump the book.
Among the letters is one that is quoted extensively by Schlomo Avineri in his essay trying to prove that the connection between  Marx and Darwin came about as the result of a hoax. Avineri cherrypicks a bit in this essay: Marx, who was no biologist, was alternatively impressed by Darwin and scornful of the way he took Malthus’ method and applied it to nature (I should say, from comments of Darwin’s this is what Marx took Darwin to be doing, although of course the issue is more complex than that). Still, it gave Avineri the chance to quote a quite amazing letter in which Marx pens a review of Das Capital that criticizes its “subjective” anti-capitalist tendencies while praising its general tenor. Its quite an amusing text:   

“As regards the little Swabian paper, it would be an amusing coup if we could hoodwink Vogt’s friend, the Swabian Mayer. It would be easy to contrive the thing as follows. D'abord to begin by saying that whatever one may think of the draft of the book, it is a credit to the ‘German spirit’, for which reason, too, it was written by a Prussian in exile and not in Prussia; Prussia having long ceased to be a country where any scholarly initiative, especially in the political or historical or social field, is possible or is actually to be found, it now being the representative of the Russian and not of the German spirit. In respect of the book itself, a distinction has to be drawn between two things, between positive developments (’solid’ would be the second epithet) given by the author, and the tendentious conclusions he arrives at. The former are a direct addition to the sum of human knowledge, since actual economic relations are treated in an entirely new way by a materialistic (‘Mayer’ has a liking for this catchword, on account of Vogt) method. Example: 1. the development of money, 2. the way in which co-operation, division of labour, the machine system and the corresponding social combinations and relations develop ‘spontaneously’.
Now as regards the tendency of the author, another distinction has to be drawn. When he demonstrates that present society, economically considered, is pregnant with a new, higher form, he is only showing in the social context the same gradual process of evolution that Darwin has demonstrated in natural history. The liberal doctrine of ‘progress’ (c'est Mayer tout pur) embraces this idea, and it is to his credit that he himself shows there is hidden progress even where modern economic relations are accompanied by frightening direct consequences. At the same time, owing to this critical approach of his, the author has, perhaps malgré lui , sounded the death-knell to all socialism by the book, i.e. to utopianism, for evermore.
The author’s tendency to be subjective, on the other hand — which he was perhaps bound and obligated to assume in view of his party position and his past — i.e. the manner in which he represents to himself or to others the ultimate outcome of the present movement, of the present social process, bears absolutely no relation to its real development. If space permitted this to be more closely examined, it could perhaps be shown that its ‘objective’ development refutes his own ‘subjective’ fancies.
Whereas Mr Lassalle hurled abuse at the capitalists and flattered the backwoods Prussian squirearchy, Mr Marx, on the contrary, shows the historical necessity of capitalist production and severely criticises the landed aristocrat who does nought but consume. Just how little he shares the ideas of his renegade disciple Lassalle on Bismarck’s vocation for ushering in an economic millennium he has not merely shown in his previous protests against ‘royal Prussian Socialism’ but he openly repeats it on pp. 762, 763, where he says that the system prevailing in France and Prussia at present will subject the continent of Europe to the regime of the Russian knout, if it is not checked in good time.
That is my view on how to hoodwink the Swabian Mayer (who did after all print my preface), and small though his beastly rag is, it is, nevertheless, the popular oracle of all the Federalists in Germany and is also read abroad.”
This purely gleeful side of Marx is what makes him a manyhandled author – note the scorn connected with the world “materialist”, and the surprisingly turn at the end of the pseudo-review in which Capital is taken as the death knell of socialism. In fact, this view of the book has, outside of Marx’s “hoax”, endured, with the “rational expectations” Marxists of the 80s – I’m looking at you, Jon Elster – making it the centerpiece of their radicaly purified Marxism.
So, here’s Marx’s advice to young writers: get your friends to write reviews of your book in which they praise it for its objective merits, but qualify the praise by saying that the author’s viewpoint is, unfortunately, completely wrong.
Marx was ahead of his time: what he was doing was inventing the flame war as a way to sell his book.

Monday, September 22, 2014

heidegger as stinker

As every sentient human adult (and especially department secretaries) knows, intelligence doesn’t exclude stinkerhood. Many are the geniuses who are also stinkers.
I think these remarks are pertinent to the latest round in the Heidegger controversy. There is a suprisingly good essay about this in the current NYRB by Peter Gordon.  With the publication of the black notebooks, we have even  more evidence that Heidegger was a Nazi all through the Hitler years. Of course, Lowith back in 1935 proclaimed that Heidegger’s “lean” towards naziism was no temporary aberration, done for the sake of the university. To that kind of special pleading, I think we can all say: suck my cock! But of course in a genteel and philosophische way. The black notebooks apparently add more proof to the case that Heidegger was also a provincial anti-semite as well. Case closed.

Of course, the Heidegger controversy has its political coloring. The same people who use Heidegger’s Nazi-hood to hit deconstruction or France or continental philosophy on the head – usually american academics traveling between the New Criterion and the New York review of Books circuit – have little to say about, say, Werner von Braun, or the whole flotilla of Nazis that were calmly taken up by the Americans in Operation Paperclip. Say what one will about Heidegger, he was not an SS commander in a concentration camp, which is what von Braun was at Peenemunde. It was Braun, not Heidegger, who was photographed with American presidents. But you very rarely see American intellectuals slagged for Braun, whereas French intellectuals are supposedly crypto-collaborationists for using Heidegger.
However the outrage, if outrageously selective, is still justified. And it is a good question as to how much Naziism penetrated Heidegger’s philosophical writings.
However, here is where the history of philosophy, as it is usually told, misleads us. As it is usually told, the history of philosophy is a pageant of heads. Here’s Plato, then his “student” Aristotle, and so on. Each great man clutches a book, and “influences” or “refutes” other great men.
This is a pitifully sad way of doing intellectual history. Great heads are as mired in their contemporary circumstances as little heads. To talk about Heidegger’s philosophy and Naziism, one has to foreground that philosophy in the tendencies with which it was contemporary, and with which it had dozens of capillary relations. A materialist history of philosophy would do away with great heads and insert innumerable small ones, looking for intellectual patterns that interpenetrate economic, political and social ones.  Sein und Zeit is properly placed with, for instance, Franz Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erloesung, and with Bloch’s Geist der Utopie, and with  Mann’s Betrachtungen der Unpolitische, and with essays of Simmel’s and Lukacs’. It means putting it in relation to the anxieties concerning mechanization that were a commonplace of newspaper feuilletonists pre-1914 – notably Kraus’ notion of the “black magic” of the press. It means even looking at the severely marginalized, figures like Ludwig Klages. Etc. Heidegger didn’t come up with his texts in splendid isolation, after all.
In other words, it means pulling apart Heidegger’s philosophy like Roland Barthe pulled apart Balzac’s Sarrazine in S/Z. This isn’t to dispute that Heidegger’s philosophical texts were often full of genius, but that it was, so to speak, the genius of the clinamen – the genius of the swerve that is left after the combinatorial elements are mapped.
In a sense, one could say of Heidegger what Nietzsche said of the New Testament – that one should read his works wearing gloves. And I think that one should read them against the grain of the author’s stinko intent. Sometimes – as in the lectures on Nietzsche, which were so full of grandiose cliches that I have never been able to finish them – stinkerism overrides thought, here, for sure.
To return to the greater themes – definitely, in the world of philosphy, something was happening that all the figures I have named were responding to. On the one hand, there was the revolution in logic that seemed to allow philosophy to be dissolved in science, and on the other hand, there was the return to the transcendental thematic – shared by Husserl and the numerous graphomaniac neo-Kantians – which seemed to offer a discursive escape route from the positivist prison – which was a species of the iron cage of modernity that Weber was writing about. In Weberian terms, the philosophers and writers I’ve named were trying to carve out a region for charismatic legitimation, and in so doing often reified charisma as something that resisted and opposed the technostructure.
Retrospectively, it is easy to see that instead of opponents, these movements were often secret allies.

But this gets me far from where I wanted to go, which is simply: yes to Heidegger as a stinker, but also yes to Sein and Zeit, alas alas.