“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, March 21, 2015

being there -NOT

I’ve always been fascinated by lacuna. Existence, it’s a word, we use it pretty easily, even when we ornament it, like a Christmas tree, with various symbolic ornaments. But it always seems there – the being there of Heideggerian lore. Alas, this thereness, when looked at levelly, seems a bit too thick, a bit too simple. It leaves out of account the vacancy which we bear on our journey through life.
For instance, tell you what I'm talking about: a couple of days ago, Adam wanted to see Adam. He wanted to see the Adam pics on my computer. There are, of course, many. Hundreds? At least a hundred. From birth until now, the now being precisely two and five months. As we went through them, again – for we have done this before – I notice, as I also noticed before, a small wedgelike sensation of strangeness, of losing my total grasp on this small face and body, the one before the speech  I can understand, the one before the two and five month year old who says Daddy, I racing, and promptly flurries for a bit down the sidewalk in his blue and yellow crocs.  Yes, this was Adam – my sentiment reaches out to this small infant whose hair at one time was not so flaxen, whose laugh was not the developed chirrup it is now, and whose crying was more primordial – cries that seemed to come directly from the beginning of all things, the big bang, the whelp universe before it hit its stride and started to get fat.  Sense, sensemaking has crept into Adam’s cries.
Myself, I have pondered the fact that my growth, my physical growth, is something I know and yet can’t feel . I can’t get back inside being, say, four feet high. Going back, returning in my mind, in the meld of imagination and memory, I am outside those four feet. And of course this is so – I don’t quite feel my height even now. But from my present height, the world spreads out. I sit on this stool in a coffee house and look at the screen and at the passerbys through the window at my given height, which is the point from which up is up and down is down. Adam, on the other hand, has much more up, in human terms, and much less down. I did too when I was his age. I can’t recover that. It isn’t there. My being is not there, even though my existence surely was there, and surely, in the sense that all moments have their own eternity, still is there.
Heidegger modifies the notion of Dasein with the notion of thrownness, just so you won’t get too comfortable with there, just so you won’t move in and plug in the tv, the airconditioner and the refrigerator and watch your favorite shows. In this sense, the there does have the essential property of recession – it perpetually recedes from the here. So perhaps in the end I should give MH some points. Adam is already fascinated with what he was once, even though I feel that – in a way – he points to the old Adam, the baby Adam, for my sake. He’s more interested, as he tells me, with Adam in park – show me Adam in park, daddy, meaning the Adam of last week who I briefly phone videoed shooting baskets.
I wonder if, like his old man, he will grow a bit morose about the lacunae, the failure of imaginative power, the failure to be there enough?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

why it doesn't matter

The fashion for titling books and articles with the aggressive phrase “why it matters” – why sinatra matters, why the middle ages matter, empathy: why it matters, and so on – has begu to itch the retina of my conscience – it is giving me spiritual hay fever.  “Why it matters” is, one would think, the unsaid and the hoped for of any research, any project, which of course must engage the researcher, writer, artist or maker on some desperate level. Whether it engages the reader or spectator is, I think, another matter entirely, and that comes down to both form and content. When I entitle a piece “why it matters”, I am making a rude, bogus, or desperate claim of pre-emptive victory. It is a bullying maneuver, trying to put the reader in a corner. But it is also a ridiculous maneuver, as the reader is unlikely to be convinced by a title alone, and either thinks a thing matters or doesn’t. It is never a good sign to begin with a puff for yourself, because that usually ends badly, in boredom and disinterest. Even Nietzsche’s Ecce homo, surely the most triumphant or triumphing title in literature, plays against his incorrigible tendency to parody, to doubling, to setting his Zarathustras in the midst of cranks, exhibitionists and gargoyles.

My first response to these why it matters titles is: fuck you. To get me to watch what you are doing, don’t poke me in the eye first.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

conspiracy theories

I love reading conspiracy books. I love conspiracy theories.
And I also rather love the pained choking sound made by the demystifiers of conspiracy theories. It is in their rhetoric that one can find all the things that characterize our 21st century capitalist society: the identification of seriousness with credentials, the logical inconsistencies that accompany examining social phenomena with an abridged set that excludes members that should be included, and the higher rationality of the technocrat that mystifies the processes of narration.. All of these features are on gorgeous display in the Aeon article about conspiracy theories written by a philosopher (who else?), Quassim Cassam. We already know where Cassam is going when he begins his article by exhibiting a loony: 

“Meet Oliver. Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn’t have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Notice the flow of that paragraph. Notice how Oliver is a conspiracy theorist, but the government – it is a judge. What is elided here is what the government, or the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, offered as its explanation for 9/11 – a conspiracy theory. That is, a theory about a conspiracy that made an event happen. What is elided, as well, or put under the sign of smugness, is expertise. What did the committee do? It hired people who spent much of their time going to websites, for instance, of jihadists. They consulted “experts” on Al Qaeda. They rarely, it should be noted, interviewed anybody from Al qaeda. Nor did they interview, as far as I know, anybody from the Saudi government. And when they interviewed certain persons, as for instance the President, they gave those persons enormous leeway in their testimony. Finally, the government report was redacted and censored.

This is how you form a theory about conspiracy. There is no other viable theory about 9/11. 19 persons didn’t spontaneously hijack four planes.

All theories about 9/11 are conspiracy theories.

However, the conspiracy theory debunker never begins from the construction of “authorized” conspiracies. In a sense, ideology in Marx’s image – the inversion of the world – is exactly what they are engaged in.

When we see such inversions, what we should expect is a certain class aggression. The construct of Oliver, who will then be battered left and right in Cassam’s essay, is the construct of an “amateur”.

The war between the academic and the amateur, especially as academia filled the spaces of expertise after WWII, is fierce and unrelenting. An amateur is part time, for one thing – he works in his “spare time”. The researcher, by contrast,, is ideally full time. Anybody who has contact with academic research can tell you that this is a pretty distorted picture – administration, teaching, managing grad students, all of these take away from research time proper. The researcher understands credentialing. Cassam’s goal in his article is to say that conspiracy theorizing arises from a character flaw in the theorizer. And to credential his theory, he opposes it to another credentialed theory, which is that conspiracy theories mistakenly find patterns in random events.

“A different objection to character-based explanations is that it’s just not true that people have questionable beliefs because they are stupid or gullible. In How We Know What Isn’t So (1991), the US social psychologist Thomas Gilovich argues that many such beliefs have ‘purely cognitive origins’, by which he means that they are caused by imperfections in our capacities to process information and draw conclusions. Yet the example he gives of a cognitive explanation takes us right back to character explanations. His example is the ‘hot hand’ in basketball. The idea is that when a player makes a couple of shots he is more likely to make subsequent shots. Success breeds success.

Gilovich used detailed statistical analysis to demonstrate that the hot hand doesn’t exist – performance on a given shot is independent of performance on previous shots. The question is, why do so many basketball coaches, players and fans believe in it anyway? Gilovich’s cognitive explanation is that belief in the hot hand is due to our faulty intuitions about chance sequences; as a species, we’re bad at recognising what genuinely random sequences look like.
And yet when Gilovich sent his results to a bunch of basketball coaches, what happened next is extremely revealing. One responded: ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ This seems like a perfect illustration of intellectual vices in operation.”

Actually, as a recent statistical study that impressed Gilovich shows, the basketball coaches seemed to be on to something. In 2014, Andrew Bocskocsky, John Ezekowitz, and Carolyn Stein presented a paper, The Hot Hand: A New Approach to an Old “Fallacy” that targetted an assumption in Gilovich and Tversky’s classic paper:

“Each player has an ensemble of shots that vary in difficulty (depending, for example, on the distance from the basket and on defensive pressure), and each shot is randomly selected from this ensemble”

Bocskocsky et al. reasoned that if basketball players did believe in the hot hand, there would be a skewing in the ensemble of shots – they would make the shots more difficult for the person with the so called hot hand. Thus, there would be a pattern – a pattern “caused” by belief in a pattern – among the players. Basketball coaches knew this, although of course they don’t speak in statistical terms – or at least they used not to, before data analysis became an essential part of the basketball toolkit. So they used “a novel dataset of over 83,000 shots from the 2012-2013 National Basketball Association (NBA) season, combined with optical tracking data of both the players and the ball.” And they did find a hot hand effect: “Our estimates of the Hot Hand effect range from 1.2 to 2.4 percentage points in increased likelihood of making a shot.”

Now, why would B, et. al., have started this research? Perhaps because the people who played basketball, rather than studied it statistically, were sure that the statisticians were wrong. In other words, the amateurs were right to question “who is this guy?”

Cassam’s paper is part of a recent rightward turn in ethics towards “moral facts” and “character” – a turn that is executed by operating in that inverted ideological way, and viewing conspiracy not as a social construct, but as a culpable piece of rebellion against official narratives – even as those official narratives themselves encompass conspiracy theories.

Which brings us back to the government ‘s function in Cassam's first paragraph. The government 'blames'. This, too, elides a very important fact. The most important screwball conspiracy theory about 9/11 was not Oliver’s, but Dick Cheney’s, and it was that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and that officers from Iraq had met with Mohammed Atta. Dick Cheney happened to be vice president.

In other words, the “government” in Cassam’s presentation - that deus ex machina - is as much a fiction as “Oliver” –  since in reality the government has multiple aspects. The government, for instance, includes the House Committee on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy that concluded in 1976 that Oswald did not act alone – or, in other words, that there was a conspiracy.

Here we have two aspects of the government that disagree, since the Warren Commission, the previous official government response, was to blame Oswald alone. This became the official narrative. All others, then, became relatively loony.  As we know, when some part of the government acts naughty and doesn’t agree with an official narrative that has been agreed to by the experts, we ignore it. This principle - that only authorized conspiracies, which cease to be conspiracy theories, are allowed - was shown by the way the  NYT, Washington Post and LA Times all felt comfortable with dissing the character of “conspiracy theorist”  Gary Webb, who reported that the CIA knowingly collaborated with drug dealers in the Contra war - the recent subject of the movie "Kill the Messenger". The journalists who attacked him were very open about the fact that  Webb didn’t give enough space to the  CIA response to the accusation – that it was false – even though, theoretically, the journalists would all probably pretend that the role of the press is not to accept the word of government agencies at face value. But in this case,  given that "drugs" at the time Webb was writing were being used to create a massive flow of persons into penitentiaries, the government agency just couldn't have done what Webb said. It would question more than the integrity of the CIA, it would also question the meme that drugs - especially cocaine - were the evilest evil ever known. Given these interlinked elements, the conclusion had to be that we must believe the CIA. As one defender of the agency in the press put it, extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof - a perfect nonsequitor. There is no such thing as extraordinary proof.  What Webb was actually doing was following up on the Kerry commission report that the CIA had used people who used the CIA to smuggle drugs. But this part of the narrative was buried by the press. We didn't need to be hearing this.

However, not to end on a sour note, the wonderful thing about conspiracy books is not the truth of the conspiracies they uncover – I’ll admit it, most of them are whacky – but the way in which, by using degrees of separation to slice into our everyday history, they uncover the extraordinary weirdness of the everyday. Anybody who reads about the New Orleans of Oswald’s day, as uncovered by Jim Garrison, has to be impressed by the totally oddball character of it: the hairless pedophile part spy airline pilot, or the private detectives shaking down strip clubs, or the daily work of Mafiosi guys – this is what I love. It is a rather beautiful narrative method, because it destabilizes the social weighting we accord to major and minor players – instead, the bit parts have a tendency to swallow the story. The necessity that there be bit parts in any narrative produces an unconscious effect on the spectator of making it seem like there are bit parts in the world. But bit parts are only in stories about the world, and those stories can be radically shifted. This is what the amateur knows, and the expert forgets.

Monday, March 16, 2015

On Robert Durst and Us

I had to watch HBO’s The Jinx, on Robert Durst.
I couldn’t help myself. 
But I was more impressed with the fourth episode, with the clips of the filming of Durst's murder trial in Galveston, than the famous sixth episode with the cadaver letter. Somehow, I don’t think that letter, or Durst’s ramblings, are going to send him to prison, frankly.
After all, his confession that he killed his neighbor, cut up his body, put the torso in a suitcase and the rest in garbage bags, and threw them into Galveston bay didn’t move the jury to a lot more than a yawn. They declared him another aggrieved Texas householder, defending himself as best he could from the ever overlooked Morris Black. Not guilty.
It is rare that you see footage that so roundly confirms one’s impression that the American judicial system is a joke and an outrage. If Amnesty international didn’t depend so much on American good will, the US would rank with Iran and Saudi Arabia as a human rights offender. The overflowing prison, that White response to the Civil Rights movement – the wholesale buying of legislatures to change laws unfavorable to corporations – and most of all, a judicial system that continues the feudal custom of allotting one’s legal defense according to one’s ability to pay for it, as though nobody had ever heard of democracy, much less equality – are all part of why the U.S., in my lifetime, has become, at least politically, a piece of crap. 
What do you get when you can afford any defense? In the OJ Simpson case, you had a defense that was, at least, matched by a District Attorney’s office that was not run completely by morons. But the Galveston trial was a remarkable display of an excellent defense lawyer’s ability to adapt to the atomsphere of intelligence in a courtroom. They ran circles around a prosecution that apparently had laid out its plan for its case long before the trial started, and zombie-walked through that plan. An alert D.A. would have enjoyed the defense plan – which began by explaining Durst’s motives for hiding in Galveston, and thus threw a huge prize in the prosecution’s lap, since here was the motive for the death of Morris Black. Although the clips from the trial were by no means exhaustive, its is obvious that the prosecution was not even listening. Why should they? After all, in our utterly corrupt system, what you have is first, some realization of a violent impulse, which is investigated by a police force more focused on extracting fines from poor people so that the department can purchase ever shinier military ware than on petty crimes like murder, and tossed to district attornies who have grown fat on pleas, punishing those who do go to trial. Its not dystopia, its everyday American life. 
Even the show did not stop to find a single person who might have known Morris Black when he was alive. The show never told us what he did – although in his interview, Durst casually let drop that he carved Black’s body up with his own tools – nor did they seek out a single distant family member. Apparently the prosecution thought that carving someone up would suffice. The judge, meanwhile, allowed the defense to instruct the jury in the finer points of law as it saw fit, making a mockery of homicide law. Of course, the judge knew that these were sharks, these lawyers, and probably figured they knew more than she did.
It was, all in all, a porthole into the way justice is doled out in this country. What was it that Solzhenitsyn says in the Gulag? He entitles the chapter on the waves of prisoners that passed through the camps “the history of our sewage disposal system”. 
That is about right.