“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, February 27, 2015

the tourist's world of contemporary liberalism

Tourist guides never advise tourists to go to working factories. Tourist guides avoid, as well, pointing out the wonders and spectacle of doctors’ and insurance offices, tire and brake repair places, janitorial supply warehouses, and loading docks. In other words, the world, seen through a tour book, is a world in which the sphere of production is shut out, and the sphere of circulation is severely abridged. The people who do work in the tourist’s country, who prepare food and bring it to the tourists table, who check the tourist into the hotel and change the sheets on the bed, who sell t shirts on the beach or post cards at the museum shop, are indeed working hard, to please the tourist. But the massive mechanism behind these people is simply assumed by the tourist. The tourist isn’t there to see it. If in fact the tourist comes into contact with this world – say in a car wreck, or because the tourist becomes ill – this is not part of the vacation. It is the part one subtracts from the vacation.
What, then, are we to make of this tourist world? A couple of things. Except for shows dealing with cops and criminals, it is a fair picture of the world television shows. Television used to show the blue collar world, but mainly that world has dried up, Nielson-wise. The other thing is that it is a fairly good take on the world of the contemporary liberal.  Up through the eighties, the old fashioned liberal – reporter, judge, politician, academic – used to have some very serious political connection with the working class. But as the unions diminished both as a moral force and a physical presence, those connection became nominal. The world of production and circulation is out there, but if you map the outrages and causes of the liberal onto it, you will find very large gaps, incredible gaps relative to what liberalism used to be. For instance, in my lifetime, there have been two extended periods of decline in black household wealth – during the Reagan years, and since 2007. The decline since 2007 is unbelievable: according to Pew Research, while median white household net worth is at 141,900 dollars, for black households, it is 11,000 dollars. In 1983, the figures were 100,000 dollars and  10,000 dollars.
In tourist America, however, this just hasn’t happened. In the sixties, liberals from RFK to the writers at The New Republic would have been all over this. But, in our post-deluge world, it is a tourist unfriendly fact. Tourist unfriendly facts only get to emerge as facts if they become excitingly voyeuristic – if we can stick a crime in there someplace. Who was the black actor who said that 90 percent of the time his job offers were to play criminals?
I think the effort to make this a tourist world is seriously chipping at the moment. But I fear that the liberal literati are not seeing it.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

confessions of a gnostic

The gospel version was: “in the beginning was the word.” That is a very attractive idea for the intellectual, the creature of formulas, chalkboards, debates, science, and all that stuff. The word gets a big advantage, heritage-wise, and can lord it over the rest of creation.
However, as we know, the Gospel of John touches on gnostic heresy. It is the most philosophical of the gospels. In Genesis, the star turn is taken by the creation of the heavens and the earth – not by the instrument God uses. Whereas there is a variant within gnostic belief (gnostic gathering together the mixed cosmic schemes of the first to third century A.D.) that I have some sympathy with. This variant took a dim view of the heavens and the earth. In a sense, in this view,  “in the beginning was the mistake.” The mistake was, precisely, to begin. And the reason that mistake was made was the subject of the colorful mythologies that we can extract from obscure texts by Origen and Iraneaus, who were always slagging Gnostic groups with delightful descriptions. For those with the kind of pre-disposition for it – those Blakeans among us – the heresies listed in Iraneaus or Origen are objects of revery. What if we lived in a culture where we believed that the seven heavens were guarded by seven totemic beasts?
(1) Michael the lion-like, (2) Suriel the bull-like, (3) Raphael
the serpent-like, (4) Gabriel the eagle-like, (5) Thautabaoth the bearlike,
(6) Erathaoth the dog-like, and (7) Thartharaoth (Celsus: Thaphabaoth) or Onoel the donkey-like. Tuomas Rasimus, 18.
Onoel the Donkey-like is an entity I wouldn’t mind praying to. Donkeys are the most spiritual of animals. They have long been the philosophers friend. Giordano Bruni was especially fond of his donkey, and wrote a sort of spoof, an ass fest. Would that there were more of these.
It is no longer the case that the gnostics are simply obscure bogeymen of obscure theologians.  We know more, now, than we’ve known in 1500 years about them, or about the scattered heresies that have been categorized as Gnostic, due to the Nag Hammadi Library and other manuscript discoveries.
That almost all the heresies the early church fathers discuss are now called gnostic shows a very interesting interchange between the two terms, as though any deviation from Christian orthodoxy must become gnostic. Heresy is derived not from the Greek word for error, but from the word for choice: haireo. A heresy is perseverance in choice - which opposes it to perseverence in faith.  It has long been the reigning idea among heavy thinking conservatives that liberalism, and indeed, modernity itself, is a form of heresy - or gnosticism. Eric Voegelin  was the most famous proponent of this idea, and it allowed him to label both Marx and Nietzsche and the modernist everyman as gnostic. You can tell a gnostic, to make Voegelin sound a bit like J.Edgar Hoover on Communism, by the way he cuts off questions. Voegelin has a peculiar notion of what cutting off questions means. Because Voegelin wants to say that there is, at the foundation of society, a transcendence that he gets all mushy about in the usual philosophical way (At the opening of the soul—that is the metaphor Berg son uses to de scribe the event—the order of being be comes visible even to its ground and origin in the beyond, in the Platonic epekeina, in which the soul participates as it suffers and achieves its opening), he is making a claim. But it is made in the weird way that we get there from the  possibility  opened up by questioning whether man is just a part of nature, whether, that is, the social order does reflect something transcendent. Possibility is magically transmuted into a claim by way of the question: interrogation becomes assertion, and assertion becomes opening. Well, two can play at that game, and one wonders why we couldn’t open up the possibility that this isn’t so by questioning whether transcendence makes sense, opening up the possibilty of a world in which transcendence doesn't make sense. In Voegelin’s view, I guess, you can go up the staircase but not down it.

Voegelin might nevertheless be right that there is somethng distinctly gnostic about modernity. Voegelin’s notion is that the very notion of alienation is the clue that the gnostic hunter should be looking for, since for the gnostics, matter is the primal sin, and man is forced to live as matter and among matter like a prisoner.

But given the alchemy of questioning, this prison, for the modern gnostic, must be  a form of self-deception that does not actually ultimately fool the self, which has the power to question and can, as aforesaid, open itself wide.

Voegelin then draws up a model of self-deception or intellectual swindling in three moments:
“On the surface lies the deception it self. It could be self-deception; and very often it is, when the speculation of a creative thinker has cultur­ally degenerated and become the dogma of a mass move ment. But when the phenom non is apprehended at its point of origin, as in Marx or Nietzsche, deeper than the deception itself will be found the awareness of it. The thinker does not lose control of himself: the libido domi­nandi turns on its own work and wishes to master the deception as well. This gnostic turning back on itself corresponds spiritually, as we have said, to the philosophic conversion, the pe­riagoge in the Platonic sense. However, the gnostic movement of the spirit does not lead to the erotic open ing of the soul, but rather to the deepest reach of  persistence in the deception, where revolt against God is revealed to be its motive and purpose.”

There is definitely something to this, if we grant that deception is involved, here, rather than deflation of the grander claims of Platonism or Christianity – or any order footed, supposedly, in the transcendent. But I think that at a deeper level, it is this notion that the beginning was an irrevocable mistake with which we have to deal that makes up the real gnostic insight, and the base of gnostic reflection, and for this reason  I think we have to ultimately reject the idea that the majordomos of modern thought are gnostic.. Voegelin's rather heavy handed attempt to turn orthodoxy into paradox and heresy into orthodoxy is a common move on the right - Chesterton did a similar thing. In as much as heresy goes back to the notion of choice, however, I think the paradox can't be sustained, and the opening of the soul will always result in a credo, rather than the vigorous life of questioning. The latter is what the modern gnostic is, actually, much more about than his opponent, who will call the omni-questioner, the true gnostic, a nihilist.

Monday, February 23, 2015

he do the police in several voices - Kristen Ross's police conception of history

Kristin Ross, in her excellent book, May 68 and its afterlives, begins with a meditation on what she calls the police conception of history, riffing off Jacques ranciere. She begins in this way because she has noted a strong tendency in the 1990s to dismiss 1968 as a failed revolution. Nothing happened, is the refrain.

Nothing happened.” In a recent text, Jacques Ranciere uses that phrase—only in the present tense: “Nothing is happening”—to represent the functioning of what, broadly speaking,he calls “the police.”

Police intervention in public space is less about interpellating demonstrators
than it is about dispersing them. The police are not the law that
interpellates the individual (the “hey, you there” of Louis Althusser)
unless we confuse the law with religious subjection. The police are
above all a certitude about what is there, or rather, about what is not
there: “Move along, there’s nothing to see.” The police say there is
nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving,
circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the
space of circulation. Politics consists in transforming that space of circulation
into the space of the manifestation of a subject: be it the people,
workers, citizens. It consists in refiguring that space, what there is to do there, what there is to see, or to name. It is a dispute about the division
of what is perceptible to the senses.

Ive been giving this some thought in relation to the coverage about the Greek crisis. Fridays agreement was immediately greeted by an overwhelming chorus of nothing happened in the press. The Greeks, poor dumb bastards, tried to turn the agreement in something that would end their economic depression although no, it is never phrased that way. Would try to welsh on their debt that is the preferred meaning. Since Europe has gotten bored with unemployment figures not seen since the end of World War II, it isnt an issue.

Still, the rush to say, nothing happened, seems exactly the kind of thing Ranciere is talking about. Indeed, something did happen the Greeks were able to hammer down the primary surplus required by the Germans or, to do pretend talk, by the Troika. This is, as far as  can see, the first time one of the collapsed periphery nations Ireland, Portugal, Spain came away with a concession. One would think that there was something to see, there.

But, as if Wolfgang Schaubles Id were dictating all the stories from Bloomberg to the Guardian, from Le Monde to Liberation the story was essentially that the Greeks failed, and that there was nothing to see.

The police fate awaiting mass movements has now become routinized in public response. If there is nothing to see, if the police win every time, then the fight beccomes futile, or becomes a spectacle. It is one of the unconscious vices of the critical school, of negative dialectics, that it can assist the police endeavor, or make it seem like, at most, the important thing is to resist.
Maybe the important thing, however, is to win. Maybe a negativity disconnected from any sense of victory quickly becomes a myth-machine.

Maybe I am claiming that this is possible, not that this is always and everywhere what is happening.

Something is happening, however. Dont move on. Watch. At the very least, watch.