“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

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Reflection after solidarity with Charlie Hebdo

After solidarity, reflection. I’ve noticed two tendencies in the responses to the mass murder of the Charlie hebdo artists. The first is pretty much the total theme of Andrew Hussey’s rather astringent column in the NYT. According to this theme, the journal went too far. Hussey enlivens the usual complaint by pursuing two different and contradictory complaints. One is that they were past their shelf life, old 68s – as he points out, Wolinski was guilty of being 80. Hussey implies that 80 was about the median age of the editorial board to make the point that this irresponsible May spirit has now been totally discredited. The other complaint, though, makes them totally relevant, creating threats to the French abroad and being hated by the whole of the immigant banlieux.
Hussey sees, with justice, that the immigrant banlieux have a lot to justly complain about.  The other tendency, which one expected – such being the moronic inferno of this world – is that Charlie Hebdo was defending our civilization. With the implication that there is another thing outside our civilization, which is a buncha murderous Islamofascists who need to be taught a good lesson.
We don’t really have to dwell too long on the assimilation of Charlie Hebdo to the rightwing imperialist shitheads. It was a magazine of satire that devoted itself to a violent anticlericalism that was anything but friendly to “our civilization”. I think they would have agreed with a bon mot attributed to Brecht that civilization is such a good idea we should try it some time.
The first criticism is more interesting. In a sense, I think  my problem with Charlie Hebdo’s bare bummed Mohammeds and such is that they did not go far enough. Being anti-clerical, I think, blinded them to the deeper level of humor to be derived from the utterly hypocritical coordination of the “west” and the “Islamic fanatics.” In truth, what we have seen for the last eighty years is the cultivation, for quite cynical reasons, of a form of Islam dominant in the Arabian peninsula. That form of Islam is a product of the nineteenth century, not of the seventh century. Its aim is to dominate and purge the Islamic world of the thousands of intersecting Islamic sects. In this, it was, until the 1960s, successful only in the restricted area of the Arabian peninsula, and not even thoroughly there. But what happened then is that the west decided that these powers would be very useful in the two-fold task of fighting Arabic Nationalism and Middle Eastern communism.
And thus began the hilariously sick comedy of the Western double standard: human rights for, say, totalitarian Russia, and cat licks and giggles for totalitarian Saudi Arabia. In the late seventies, with Iran becoming undone, the West had a new enemy, and agreed, as though this were the best thing in the world, to turn a blind eye as the Gulf states, flush with cash, planted and surplanted Mosques throughout the world. The first target of those mosques was… other mosques. Centuries old traditions and cults were brutally attacked. In the nineties, one saw this in, for instance, Chechnya, a country were the predominant Sufi Moslems became the victims of their so called allies, Moslem paramilitaries financed by Saudi Arabia, who tried to institute the thing called “radical Islamic rule” – except of course when that is the rule of our oil producing allies.
By never going beyond Mohammed’s bare bum, Charlie Hebdo failed to exploit the riches of the sinister and farcical alliance. Take, for instance, last year. The French foreign ministry was in a lather about civil rights in Putin’s Russia. It is a place where a tax avoiding but democracy talking billionaire doesn’t have a chance! Meanwhile, of course, in Saudi Arabia, France’s ally, there was a beheading  and anti-witchcraft campaign going on, with at least forty guest workers, mostly from Indonesia, mostly maids, sitting on death row for casting spells. Remember when Qaddaffi kidnapped the Belgian nurses? That was a crime against humanity. But Saudi Arabia, oh, well, can’t fuck up the oil supply, can we?  The French Foreign minister, Fabius, has spoken out about Pussy Riot and extended best wishes to Khodorkovski, but when it comes to Ati Abeh Inan, the Indonesian maid who spent ten years on death row in Saudi Arabia for witchcraft, silence at the Matignon.  I would think here is the tender spot for placing a little comic dynamite. But I think this was beyond the vision of Charlie Hebdo – it was where they didn’t go. It would be going too far, after all, to basically mock the West for complicity in the murders of Indonesian guest workers by our allies, or for trampling into Bahrain, or for supplying all the money in the world to the Islamic  “radicals”.  Drive a car, and support an ISIS paramilitary for another day – this is of course what it comes down to. 

Still,  you targets what you can hit, as they say. They were a nervy band and their absense is a huge hole, into which, as we know, imbeciles and cretins from the right will be crawling for a long time. 

Monday, January 05, 2015

academics, charlatans, and the mystery of what we learn

In the 2000s, while I wasn’t looking, a lot of work was done on Bakhtin’s life. And that work crashed down one sancrosanct image after another, since it turned out that Bakhtin was quiet a creative liar about his own life. For instance, he gave a couple of stories to interviewers about his education, tracing his path from the University of Odessa to the University at St. Petersburg. Alas, it turns out this path was taken by another Bakhtin, his brother. Nikolai. Mikhail Bakhtin also alluded to stints at German univesities, borrowing the C.V., this time, of his friend Kagan Matvei Kagan.
More substantially, Bakhtin sometimes seemed to indicate that he had written certain works by certain of his friends, notably Voloshinov’s Marxism and and the Philosophy of Language and Medvedev’s The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship. Such was the hype about Bakhtin in the late seventies and eighties that Bakhtin’s name was actually put on some editions of these books. Brian Poole, who made the most thorough study of the matter, unequivocally denies Bakhtin authorship. Poole also discovered that Bakthin sometimes incorporated pages of other texts, notably Cassirer’s, into some of his writing without acknowledging the source – or, in other words, plagiarizing him.  Brian Poole, for instance, finds a whole page of Cassirer’s book about Renaissance philosophy incorporated into Bakhtin’s Rabelais book, where Cassirer is not even cited. Wierdly enough, nobody seemed to notice this until the later nineties. These issues are confused partly by the fact that Bakhtin inspired a cult – a cult so powerful that one Russian critic closed to him mocked the very idea that we could or could not prove Bakhtin’s authorship of Voloshinov and Medvedev’s works by comparing it to trying to scientifically prove that God exists. The cult definitely extended to the U.S. – the first wave of Bakhtin’s reception in the U.S. was urged on by scholars like Michael Holquist, who practically made Bakhtin out to be a saint.  By the end of the nineties, as Bakhtin’s papers and those of his circle became available, you have people like the man in charge of the Bakhtin center, David Shepherd, saying, well, we have to allow for the fact that Bakhtin may have been a charlatan.
I’m not sure what I think about the new Bakhtin. He is certainly different from the answer to all critical problems enthusiastically wheeled out for me by some UT professors in the 1980s. On the one hand, I feel for the descendents of  Voloshinov and Medvedev, who have not appreciated at all the idea that some of the most creative works of their ancestor are included in an edition of “masked”  works by Bakhtin. On the other hand, scoundrel scholars, brilliant ones, are always more interesting once the myths come down. If Paul de Man had been a brilliant little Belgian nerd who’d gone up the same scholarly ladder as everyone else, he would certainly never have received the biography treatment – it was that he wrote opportunistically anti-semitic things for a Nazi leaning paper in occupied Belgian, defrauded a publishing house and fled to Argentina, apparently committed bigamy by marrying in the U.S. and did not pass any examinations at all on his way to tenure – he apparently had a neuroses that made him fail all exams – that attracts our attention. Bakhtin has often been used to construct a rosy utopia that we can all believe in without thinkin’ about the nasty class struggle, and I’m not too down with that – but he was undoubtedly brilliant. That he borrowed a lot of his scholarship from German sources that he never acknowledged would be a pretty damning thing if he hadn’t done more with those borrowings.

Still, it is worth considering that the texts that are both taught to students in colleges and asked about on their exams are often by fakers, moochers, plagiarists, and people who, themselves, froze up at the thought of exams. It is a sign of something. A mystery.