“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, September 10, 2015

self-consciousness: notes

We were walking down the street the other day, Adam and me, and we passed a woman who stopped and smiled and said to me, you have the Coppertone baby there. Referring to Adam’s blonde curls and his tan, the result of our visit to the beach over Labor Day weekend.
I smiled back at her. We walked on and Adam said to me, I’m not a baby.
I’m not a baby. Adam has begun to use this phrase quite often. And it has made me think about … well, about the origin of self-consciousness.
We all know, consciousness has a fatal tendency to doubling, to finding itself in front of mirrors, or even, in many cases, fun house mirrors, a mirror effect that is even reflected in the possibility of there being a first person subject in Indo European languages, at least, which leads to the grammatical possibility of that first person taking itself as a predicate. Every cowboy, structuralism teaches, is eventually caught in his own lasso. But we have a tendency to freeze this moment, this mirror stage, outside of the history of our experience, as though self-consciousness were enacted in some lunar zone outside our biology. 
Which is a fancy windup to saying that the stage of “I’m not a baby” is full of unteased out sense, I think. For not being a baby means, I think, I’m not a baby any more. This of course means that I was a baby once. In fact, in the very near past. Adam, like any little boy in the age of digital photography, can, if he chooses, wander through galleries of pics of himself being very much a baby. A year ago he was one and three fourths, and two years ago he wasn’t even one – and yet he was, here on a bouncy bounce, there with Momma, there with a toy giraffe. He certainly recognizes himself in these pics – in a way that is more implicating for him, now, than it is for, say, me, looking at a baby pic of myself (is there one? I don’t have a lot of pics of myself as a child – or, actually any). 
I often ask Adam if he remembers things. Do you remember Grandma’s Dog? Do you remember Atlanta? Etc. Many times he says yes, and sometimes he begins the game with me: Dad, remember the swimming pool? For us, his babyhood is something that has, somehow, slipped beyond our grasp – is he already almost three? Oh Jesus. Oh I loved it when he was asleep in his cradle. Oh, I remember him learning to walk. Etc. All of those moments, and yet he grew up when I was absent minded, when I was thinking of something else, it always seems. But for him, there is the bio-temperal fact that he is not a baby, and that he was a baby, and that the baby he used to be is an object he has left behind, with the object’s properties: a certain size, a certain capacity to make shrieky sounds, a certain inability to do what big boys like him do. So, he left the baby behind, and yet he is, or was, that baby. 
Part of the weirdness of Western culture is the high value it puts on youth. I have a complex theory about this which has to do with early capitalism, the demographic changes in the composition of the household which accompanied or were implicated in the rise of the capitalist mode of production.  The ideal of age has been thoroughly overthrown, now,  but  the conditions that determine the mortality rate allow us now to live, en masse, to unheard of ages, which means that there are more old people than ever before, This age overhang is, itself, a sort of accident, and one that probably has a future, just as the youth had a future in the accident that changed the household norms of the seventeenth century. Youth was created in the vacuum of waiting for marriage by choice, that necessary period of accumulation before a man could hope to marry or a woman could consider marriage.  At the moment, though, old age, advancing age, is curiously lacking in a culture of its own. It looks backwards to its youth for the culture that it has, a reflex conditioned, massively, by the semiosphere. I don’t want to read this cultural phenomenon back into Adam’s own looking backwards – a backward look marked, in proper Lacanian style, by a negation. However, I do think this moment helps us break our theoretical trance before the mirror stage and bring back history. I’ll have to tell Adam next time he says it: Adam, you are such a Marxist!

corbyn and conditions

Another day, another prediction in the British press that Corbyn will lead to the end of labour, or massive losses in 2020, or tory heaven. Whatever.
It is an amazing spectacle. Three months ago, not one of the people who are gifting us with their predictions of what is going to happen in five months was able to predict what was going to happen in three months. Back in those rosy days, the press pundits in the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, etc. were all busy wondering whether Kendall was going to carry the day. Maybe it would be exciting Andy Burnham, New Labour's plastic man!
But ignoring past failure is a prerequisite for future prediction among the press set.
So polls that are more like focus groups are wheeled out, from the usual suspects. And the pundits have settled down to learn nothing from their experience, as is their wont.
What is to be learned from their experience for the rest of us? Let's take a grab at the obvious.
All the establishment actually believes that current conditions will continue indefinitely. They have not only bought the idea of austerity as one that can be sold to the people, they believe it will actually bring about economic security to their own type, The "poor" will be disadvantaged, and the press establishment that pretends to pinkish tendencies often cries crocodile tears over the fact that Labour, disempowered under the British Fidel Corbyn Castro, will make Labour unable to achieve the power to help the disadvantaged. The pinkish tinge, nowadays, means entirely forgetting how the middle class was built, as well as the fact that the "poor" are actually working class, part of the machine that produces surplus labour value that drifts to the capitalist. Instead, being pinkish means asserting a sort of charitable impulse in the busy elite, while allowing them to get on with producing a more and more glorious speculative sector.
Well, in five years, perhaps the austerity of the Tories will bring prosperity to the average British household. But perhaps, in five years, Britain will have to pay the price for having fed a swollen financial sector while neglecting everything else except arms sales. Here's a scenario: China and India stumble. The business cycle god does not suspend history even for such upward strivers. This spreads alarm in the financial sectors, such that there is another financially caused recession. The tories continue, as they almost must, their insande austerity fetishism. The UK unemployment rate, which is currently a cool 5.5 percent, nearly doubles to 10 percent. Corbyn, who has adopted a tone of opposition such that the Tories have publicized it, now stands as the man who said austerity would ultimately make things worse - and as the man warning against an economy that is supported by a swollen financial sector.
Labour might still lose, but the Tories would be in pretty bad shape under this not so fantastic scenario.
The press establishment is still living in the 90s, still thinking there is no alternative when the alternative they have chosen has already led to disaster in 2008. Of course, they neither predicted that disaster nor actually experienced it, as is their wont.
I would not put too much trust in whatever they write. They live in shells, like oysters, but unlike oysters, they rarely produce a pearl.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Israel, Denmark, Hungary:the axis of shits

Denmark joins Hungary and Israel among the nations of non-refuge. All have in common governments of the extreme right. Netanyahu, Viktor Orban, Lars Lokki Rasmussen - the axis of shits. Ironically, the plucky Danes joined the coalition of the illing way back when. At that time, I don't remember Iraqis posting notices on Copenhagen's fascist Jyllands Posten newspaper anything like: Danish soldiers not speaking Arabic will immediately be expelled. But colonialism is nothing if it isn't a turn about is not fair play kinda bully routine. According to Le Monde, the Danish government has posted ads in the lebanese papers over the last few days that advise: In order to remain in Denmark, it is necessary to speak and understand Danish, and those who do not obtain a permit of residence will be expelled rapidly from the country.
Meanwhile, on a helpful note, most Western nations are agreed that more bombing and much much more weaponry should be sold and distributed in the Middle East, do to its marvelous effects on the health of the inhabitants. They can smell freedom with every drone directed hit!

Notes on posterity

For some reason, whenever I run across the popular literary game of predicting which writers will “endure”, I get quite bugged. When it is a slow news day or a site wants click bait, they will play this old game, and are assured of responses and heated arguments, and statements like, the works of Stephan King will be recognized one hundred years from now as the greatest American fiction of our time. Or the works of X – put in your favorite writer.
Nobody seems to predict that a writer that they don’t like will be recognized in one hundred years. Nor does anybody ask what are the institutions that preserve for posterity the reputation of a writer. Instead, these predictions rely on a sort of amorphous popular will, with powers beyond any dreamt up by Rousseau. The general will will judge the quick and the dead. That’s the sense.
There are two issues here, actually. One is that the posterity of a work is a form of credentialling – that time awards a good quality seal to the lucky genius. It is interesting that the locus here is on the work – it used to be that the poet, assuming his or her undying fame, would assure the beloved of immortality through the poem – now the poet simply assures him or her own self that fame fairydust. Auden, beautifully, captures this, in my opinion, specious idea:
Time, that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Auden, In Memory of W.B.Yeats
Auden wrote that in 1939, and part of him knew that time and the Nazis were definitely not pardoning those who lived by language, but condemning them: hence the aborted careers of scores of poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists and the lot. Time may well condemn to very long, or even perpetual, obscurity those writings that have not stuck, in some way, to the usual institutions, or that emanated from condemned ethnicities or genders.
The other issue is projecting one’s own taste and time on the future. Here, we do have historical evidence, although it is never used by any of those who play the game.
So, how should one go about making predictions about the endurance of written work?
Over the long term, my feeling is that the chance of a prediction being fulfilled, at least for the reasons one says it will be fulfilled, is vanishingly small. Remember, for the medievals, the important Latin poet after Virgil was Statius. Statius. Who even recognizes the name? Ovid, Lucretius, or Catullus just werent in the running. Lucretius did not have a very great posterity in the Roman world, and only came into European culture, really, when a manuscript of the Nature of Things was discovered in 1417 in Florence, according to Stephan Greenblatt. So over time, posterity is swallowed up in such unexpected events that we can’t guess. We need a more manageable time sequence to answer the question – we need relatively short term posterity. There needs to be at least certain structures that are generally continuous, as, for instance, an economic structure that is generally the same over time, and a structure of religious belief that is also coherent over time. Even so, there are unpredictable contingencies. The Library of Alexandria burned; Franz Kafka’s manuscripts didn’t, despite his dying request. So it goes.
Given these conditions, we can still see patterns in, say, the last three hundred years. Starting in the 18th century, the literary nexus of publishers, the writers, and the audience started to take a modern shape. Writers could come from anywhere, but readers, and publishers, came mostly from the middle class. There was certainly room for the working class and the upper class, but writers that appealed to a working class audience had to eventually appeal to a middle class audience to endure. Aleida Assmann wrote an essay about this for Representations in 1996: Texts, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory . She points out that the mythology of glory, which Burckhardt traces to Dante, and the city state culture of Italy in the fourteenth century, was, for the writer, shaped by the idea of a group who would preserve it, and upon this group was projected contemporary attitudes: true posterity would consist of people like the friends of the poet, gentle people, highborn, with swift minds. It was an almost tactile sense of posterity, posterity with a face. The posterity of the poem was the posterity of the people who read and understood the poem, the educated audience. But in the eighteenth century, the semantic markers shifted. Assman quotes Swift’s preface to the Tale of the Tub to show that the circle was replaced by the seller -- the face by the invisible hand, to be slightly anachronistic about it.
The new factor in the manufacture of posterity, in the twentieth century, has been the rise of educational institutions as transmitters of literature. One has to take that into account, as well as the relatively rapid changes that tend to traverse the academy, which is very much a product of capitalism and has been, for the most part, absorbed in the mechanism of vocationalisation. Education for its own sake, culture for its own sake, it is fair to say, is no longer the major part of the academic mission.
So here’s a concrete question. Given these circumstances, what chance does, say, Stephen King have to be remembered to future generations? And what chance do the brilliant mandarins, the literary novelists, have? To pose the question wholly in one category of literature – in poetry, I suppose, the same question could counterpoise Jorie Graham and, say, Li’l Kim, or Ashberry and Bob Dylan.
On the evidence of genre alone, gothic and horror writers have a pretty good survival rate. At least three or four writers of gothic novels in the eighteenth century are still in print, and still found on the shelves of medium sized public libraries, as well as being assigned in classes and being made into films (the addition of media technologies has a major impact on posterity, I should note: printing did everything for, say, Lucretius, while it did little for Statius). Books by Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and William Beckworth are still in print, as are those by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan La Fanu from the nineteeth century. That is just in English culture - there is also, of course, Theodore Gautier (author of the original Mummy story) and Gaston Leroux; there is ETA Hoffman and Meyrink.
One strong driver of reputation is that a book generates a character. Frankenstein, or Dracula, or, the Mummy, or – going towards another genre – a Sherlock Holmes overshadows the works in which they were represented. King has not, I believe, created that kind of character, unlike, say, Ann Rice. Furthermore, King is proudest of his thousand page works. One thing about gothic and mystery fiction is that it is generally either small or medium sized. As it gets more literary, however, the larger size helps. Hugo’s Notre Dame with the hunchback is a Stephen King sized novel.
Again, though, one can’t just bet on this recipe. Film, which now plays a major role in the posterity management of fiction, is very stagily centered around character; yet that is simply to say that it is stagily centered about the star. Hector Lector is a famous character who, I feel, may be fading into obscurity, but is still remembered as a character, and he is taken from a Thomas Harris novel that nobody predicts a long posterity for (although who knows?). In that sense, Hector Lector might well outlive his bookish source entirely. Who remembers a single book by George Du Maurier? And yet his mesmerist, Svengali, entered popular lore. On the other hand, the process goes into reverse with films, too. Who remembers the name of the character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Rather, one remembers Jack Nicholson. Or at least that’s what I do.
Posterity for a mandarin depends a lot on networking, on circle-making. It isnt necessary to be part of the establishment, but it is helpful, if one is on the outs with the establishment, to create a counter-establishment. Compare, for instance, the posthumous fates of D.H. Lawrence and John Cowper Powys - both writers of big novels, both of a philosophical bent, both obsessed with sex. Powys has his fans - Steiner called the Glastonbury Romance one of the three great books of the twentieth century. But really, Powys never made a counter-establishment. He became quaint - that is, he was on the outs with the conventions of the modern novel, but he never had a following that theorized that extra-territoriality. Lawrence, however, was the establishment rebel par excellence. There’s nothing like breaking decisively with Bertrand Russell to show that 1, you are a rebel, and 2, you know Bertrand Russell.
Now, my comments so far have not been about the quality of these writers at all. My notes have been about posterity as an effect not of the popular will, nor of quality, but of social forces.
Certain American novelists I like best - Gaddis, for instance, and McCarthy – are, I think, not destined for a long posterity. Gaddis is like George Meredith - he is eccentric enough as a writer that he attracts only a passionate few. But Meredith was able to produce one or two conventional novels, like the Ordeal of Richard Feveral. Gaddis only produced prodigies: The Recognitions, J.R. One hundred years from now, I have my doubts these novels will be much read. But that says nothing, to me, about their intrinsic quality. As for McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy, the case is trickier. I can see his later novels, which to me are much worse than his earlier ones, enduring. But his difficult works, Suttree, Blood Meridien, are more chancey, because they are too long to assign and too non-cinematic. Of course, this is where the educational institutions come in, creating the substructure of posterity. Joyce seems to be the limit case for these institutions, but it could well be that McCarthy would join Faulkner on the curriculum. I wonder.
There is an enlightenment moment in the posterity imago - it consists in assuming that the world will not end. This was quite a radical thing in the thirteenth century. I wonder if it isn’t still a radical thing. Ive recently talked to two people, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, both of whom assured me that the world was going to undergo a disaster in the next one hundred years. In fact, the expectation that the world is going to end seems so deeply etched in the Western template that it might be impossible to erase. In this sense, though the prediction of the posterity of one’s favorite author is generally made without any attention to how posterity works, It is, in other words, a combination of incredible optimism and a severely narrow viewpoint. .
Myself, I just want to know: who will the people of the future socialist utopia look back upon as predicting their groovy solutions to all the problems of capitalism.
I'm raising my hand here. Pick me!.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

immigration: what is to be done?

From the working class perspective, then, what is to be done about immigration?

There’s amnesty. There’s changing the focus of enforcement of immigration laws from the immigrant to the employer. There’s increasing the minimum wage.

All of these are partial ways of attacking what is at the heart of the problem of immigration in the US – the stagnation and decline of low income wages. I have a more total solution in mind.
I would require all employees at whatever level to belong to a union of some kind.

This of course is not an idea that anybody important in public life is, at the moment, advocating. Yet it does attack the problem not only of immigration as a tool by which capital lowers the wages of labor, but, even more radically, the division between skilled and unskilled labor.
American unions are, famously, declining. Membership from the glory days of the fifties is down by almost half. Yet, this only tells part of the story. As unions have declined, guilds, defined as means of credentialling that limit labor competition, have become more and more a common part of American life. From air conditioning repair to barbering to doctoring and lawyering, more and more professions require a licence from the government.
The justification for this practice is that the consumer – of hair cuts, cool air, surgery, or legal casuistry – has to be protected. But this justification ignores the fact that guild protection also cuts down on the labor supply and, consequently, raises the price of the cost of these services. For economists, generally, this is a sad. For me, it is one of the most potent ways the American middle class has maintained its status.
Of course, the older guilds were lateral organizations, where the onus was on the relationship between members, while many of the new guilds simply create a relationship between the state and the credentialled person.

It is my simple suggestion that labor unions of one type or another be extended all the way down and all the way up, building on the guild form that Americans have developed. There should not be a single nanny, grass cutter, or roof layer who does not have a membership card in some union. This lays the groundwork for attacking the whole problem of low wages and unemployment in a new way, in which the difference wrought by immigration would simply be dissolved.