“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
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Sunday, September 24, 2017
A little Sunday reading from the Archives
We can easily imagine DNA replicating itself without molecular biologists, and the planets revolving around the sun without astronomers. But can we imagine capitalism without economists?
On the one hand, we are always identifying proto-forms of capitalism without contemporaries making a formal theory of it. On the other hand, would the kind of capitalism we know, that which appears in the 17th and 18th century in Europe and America, have developed as it did without the appearance, at the same time, of the political economists? And as political economists developed their discourse – as economics began to regard itself as a science – was capitalism merely a parallel development, one that they studied, or was it a development in which they played a role?
Marx, in the Grundrisse, working in the shadow of the disputes in Germany about theory and ‘materialism’, wrote:
daß die einfachre Kategorie herrschende Verhältnisse eines unentwickeltern Ganzen oder untergeordnete Verhältnisse eines entwickeltem Ganzen ausdrücken kann, die historisch schon Existenz hatten, eh das Ganze sich nach der Seite entwickelte, die in einer konkretem Kategorie ausgedrückt ist. Insofern entspräche der Gang des abstrakten Denkens, das vom Einfachsten zum Kombinierten aufsteigt, dem wirk||16|lichen historischen Prozeß…
“…the simpler categories can express the dominant relationships of an undeveloped whole or the subordinate relationships of a developed whole, which historically already exists, before the whole has developed towards the side that is expressed in a concrete category. Just in so far may the course of abstract thought, which ascends from the simplest to the combined, be correspondent to the real historical process.” – Marx, Grundrisse
I take it that the intellectual space, here, is opened up by the uncertain position of the ‘categories’ by which social life is understood vis-à-vis the dominant relationships of the social whole. Marx doesn’t seem to believe that there is a natural tendency within the social whole to move in a given direction – in this way, he does not have a classically liberal view of progress – but instead, given the presence of subordinate and dominate relationships, posits conflicts in which some agent figures.
Boldly, I take the concrete categories to be expressed in character-making. Or as all the boys and girls like to say now, in the construction of the subject. However, for reasons that have to do with my incorrigibly literary temperament, I prefer the vocabulary of the character to the subject.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
There is a pattern in American culture, a dialectic between “moderation” and “extremism”, that repeats itself in many unexpected areas. At the moment, the Democratic party is sponsoring, or involuntarily becoming, a ground for the debate between how far our political demands should go, once we have decided to call ourselves “progressives”. The terms of this debate are similar to the debate about African-American politics that was staged long ago by W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. In a long essay about Dubois that appeared in 2011 in the NYRB, Kwame Anthony Appiah provided a useful corrective to the idea that we can straightforwardly identify extremes -as for instance using Dubois as a marker of the most extreme position regarding African-American politics. In fact, Dubois represented a more moderate idea of the American “promise” than Frederick Douglas:
“The third of Du Bois’s core ideas is a claim about what the main political issue was that faced black America. Du Bois believed for much of his life, according to Gooding-Williams [author of In the Shadow of Dubois], that it was the social exclusion of African-Americans. And he thought that there was work to be done by both blacks and whites on this “Negro problem,” since, Gooding-Williams writes, “in his view, the problem had two causes. The first was racial prejudice. The second was the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.
There is a very different vision of the Negro problem, which Gooding-Williams [ finds sketched out in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In this account, the problem is not black exclusion but white supremacy. The young Du Bois saw the social exclusion of the Negro as an anomalous betrayal of the basic ideals of the American republic; Douglass, more radically, regarded the oppression of black people as a “central and defining feature” of American life, as part of all its major institutions. And oppression, for him, is not about exclusion but about domination. It means keeping blacks not out but down. The solution then can’t be mere integration, the end of exclusion; rather, it requires the reimagination of American citizenship as a citizenship of racial equals, or what Gooding-Williams approvingly calls a “revolutionary refounding of the American polity.”
It is a good idea to keep the debate about the whole program of creating a progressive America – or more bluntly, a democratic socialist one – aligned with these past debates, since they break up the semantic blocks that tend to become routine assumptions when the debaters break out the plates and hurl them at each others heads. Obama was more often compared to Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Dubois, but there is more of Dubois in his policies, or non-policies, than seems obvious at first glance.
Appiah, following Gooding-Williams, sees the influence of the German school of sociology on Dubois, and, especially, on the idea of Souls of Black Folks, where that collective soul is the equivalent of a Herderian Geist. He doesn’t mention Herder’s most famous, or at least influential, follower in the U.S. – Boas. The Boas who encouraged Zona Hurston to collect folk tales and the Mexican revolutionaries to establish museums of anthropology. Geist is in question when we replay, endlessly, the notion of identity vs. class, with the latter representing the social mechanism that creates a culture out of material interest, and the former being the bodily and cultural mechanism that produces mass mimicry, with all its parts: role models, the importance of entertainment as a vector of social transformation, etc.
Dubois was, as Appiah notes, ideally democratic, considering that the governed have a perfect right and responsibility to speak out to the governors; but he was also a proponent of the talented tenth, seeing the other 9/10s as poor, ill educated, ill informed, etc. This is a surprisingly common characteristic not only of the right, but of the left – hence the moral panic about false news, with its implication that the establishment media only engages in fact based reporting as opposed to fringe groups that trade around absurd stories of HRC connected pizza parlor pedophile gangs. In this opposition we simply forget the absurd stories, traded as truth, about Iraq having loads of WMD that the NYT and the WAPO were content to trade in as Bush took us to war. We forget the idiocy of the media during the course of that war, and before – as for instance in the idea that only black proles would believe that the CIA collaborated with drug dealers as it was high mindedly overthrowing democracies we didn’t like in Central America, and the like.
No, it is all the ignorant unwashed.
I’ve not gone into the substance of the struggle for the “soul” of the Democratic party, since what I want to point out is the form. Read Appiah’s essay if you can get ahold of it. It’s here. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/12/22/battling-du-bois/
Monday, September 18, 2017
I like the way that the NYT, which in the 90s was in the forefront of news making about global climate change, is now, in the era of Trump, taking the pulse of giant hurricanes and assuring us that the verdict is open as to whether this has anything to do with, what was it? oh yeah, global climate change. And with a change denialist earning a pretty penny from the NYT opinion page - Brett Stephens - they are all lined up to sing in the "moderate" GOP chorus. Sweet.
Why can't we all just get along is the new NYT motto.
Why can't we all just get along is the new NYT motto.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Social boundaries originate in two ways: either they are imposed, and thus are handed down from a higher level, or they emerge in an activity among actors, which requires at least tacit agreement. Roger Caillois, in Games and Human Beings, claims that the natural history of the latter kind of boundary goes back to animals. For instance, although animals do not engage fully in games of agon – competitive games – there is, in animal play, a sort of foreshadowing: “The most eloquent case is without a doubt that of those so called fighting wild peacocks. They choose “a field of battle that is a little elevated,” according to Karl Groos, “always a little humid and covered with a grassy stubble, of about a meter, a meter and a half in diameter.’ Males assemble there on a daily basis. The first that arrives awaits an adversary, and when another comes, the fight begins. The champions tremble, and they bow their heads under the incidence of blows. Their feathers stick up. They charge at each other, leading with their beaks, and strike. But never does the fight or the flight of one before the other go outside of the space delimited for these tournaments. This is why, for me, it seems legitimate here, and with regard to other examples, to use the word agon, since it is clear that the point of the event is not for each antagonist to cause real damage to the other, but to demonstrate his own superiority.”
Caillois, here, assumes that the boundary gives a total meaning to the happening. Though serious injury could happen, this isn’t the purpose of the fight – which is why the fight doesn’t go beyond the boundaries of the field. But at no point do the peacocks assemble and point to the limits of the field.
This distinction between boundaries seems pertinent to writing. When you are writing a chapter, you can – because of an order by an editor, or because this is how you work – confine it to a certain number of words. This is supposedly how romance novels are assembled by Harlequin books. However, literature takes over, so to speak, when the boundary emerges from the text itself. In fact, the same thing can be said for other components of the text – the paragraph, the sentence. There is a sentential sublime – there are writers whose sentences, by going beyond the boundaries imposed by convention, seem to be out for a thrill ride. Most thrill riders crash, of course. And the sentence can go beyond, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s one sentence Autumn of the Patriarch, merely by kicking out the stops. Joyce is the master of this kind of thing. But there is another thrillriding sentence that seems, by setting new boundaries, to have divided up the referential world differently. Pynchon does this in Gravity’s Rainbow, and you are either immediately drawn to it as a moth to a flame and spend years trying to exorcise the influence, or you hate it.
Here's a graph from the sequence in which Roger Mexico and Pointsman hunt a stray dog for the laboratory that Pointsman has set up on Pavlov’s model: “The V bomb whose mutilation he was prowling took down four dwellings the other day, four exactly, neat as surgery. There is the soft smell of house-wood down before its time, of ashes matted down by the rain. Ropes are strung, a sentry lounges silent against the doorway of an intact house next to where the rubble begins. If he and the doctor have chatted at all, neither gives a sign now. Jessica sees two eyes of no particular color glaring out the window of a Balaclava helmet, and is reminded of a mediaeval knight wearing a casque. What creature is he possibly here tonight to fight for his king? The rubble waits him, sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an openwork of laths pointlessly chevroning—flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman’s long-gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness. Back in the wreckage a brass bedpost winks; and twined there someone’s brassiere, a white, prewar confection of lace and satin, simply left tangled… . For an instant, in a vertigo she can’t control, all the pity laid up in her heart flies to it, as it would to a small animal stranded and forgotten. Roger has the boot of the car open. The two men are rummaging, coming up with large canvas sack, flask of ether, net, dog whistle. She knows she must not cry: that the vague eyes in the knitted window won’t seek their Beast any more earnestly for her tears. But the poor lost flimsy thing… waiting in the night and rain for its owner, for its room to reassemble round it…”
These sentences go backwards and forwards and cross a lot of consciousnesses, and in the process seem to violate the way sentences are supposed to be compact units expressing some identifiable relationship of author to material, good little units lined up like desks in a class, obeying the rules of Gricean implicature, easily attached to their pronouncers. Owned. But here the ties of ownership, of pertinence, are looser, and seem to wave in some wind from a source that is, well, history’s own, or the paranoid simulacrum of it. There is a drift here in the sentences, something different (but heralded) than the corporate round of consciousness visiting in, say, To the Lighthouse - that table scene! Even that enrages a certain kind fo Great Tradition reader. And it is cert not all right at all for those more comfortable in the Gricean chains, and the cultural order that pounded into place a written grammar of English since the advent of the printing press. The printing press, though, is defunct, as we all know, secretly, screen to screen, and the grammar and agreed upon territory of all the textual units is up for grabs.
Thursday, September 14, 2017
It is an interesting exercise to apply the method of the theorists to themselves. For instance, Walter Benjamin, who was critiqued by Adorno for developing, in his later years, a method that was at the crossroads of magic and positivism – the power of inferential juxtaposition, learned from the surrealists, and the method of dialectical materialism, learned from … well, kinda Marx, more probably Eduard Fuchs.
I myself like that idea – Adorno’s scorn for magic is part of the package of his own positivism. It is a high calling – methods are high callings, ideals – and Benjamin’s Arcades project, in its final state of gigantic ruin, shows how hard it is to follow.
I’ve been reading some of the fragments contained in volume 6 of the GW, and it is an interesting, rather vertiginous experience, as is any experience in which one finds oneself continually stumbling, continually knocking against the cracks. For instance, the fragment entitle On Marriage, which begins with a wonderful juxtaposition of the mythical and the tabloid:
"Eros, love moves in a single direction towards the mutual death of the lovers. It unwinds from there, like the thread in a labyrinth that has its center in the “death chamber”. Only there does love enter into the reality of sex, where the deathstruggle itself becomes the lovestruggle. The sexual itself, in response, flees its own death as its own life, and blindly calls out for the other’s death and the other’s life in this flight. It takes the path into nothingness, into that misery where life is only not-death and death is only a not-life. And this is how the boat of love pulls forward between the Scylla of Death and the Charybdis of misery and would never escape if it weren’t that God, at this point in its voyage, transformed it into something indestructible. Because as the sexuality of love in first bloom is completely alien, so must it become enduringly wholly non-alien, its very own. It is never the condition of its being and always that of its earthly endurance. God, however, makes for love the sacrament of marriage against the danger of sexuality as against that of love.”
One has to pause here. First, to listen to what Benjamin is doing – juxtaposing the prose of the “death chamber”, which comes from Police Magazines and tabloid newspapers of the 20s and 30s - adoring the rooms where the bloody corpse of some victim was found and, as well, the gas chamber or electric chair where the murderer was murdered by the state – to Greek myth, and then to a very Biblical God. And then one has to ask whether, indeed, death more often befalls lovers than befalls wives and husbands. Here a bit of positivism, a bit more tabloid knowledge, would relegate the Wagnerian Tristan and Isolde to the margin, and the more common family murder to the front. For the marriage that “God” gives us against the unleashed forces of death and sexuality is all too often a scene of violence. Engels definitely knew this. Benjamin surely, in part of himself, knew this too. The criminologists, who now call it “intimate partner homicide”, were on the case in the 20s and 30s. The mythological correlative is not Homeric, but rather the Maerchen of Grimm, where intimate partner violence is a constant companion of princesses and peasants.
However, then, I dispute the point, from the positivist, statistical viewpoint, I grant the power of the forces of sexuality and death, from the magical viewpoint. Benjamin’s surrealist genius in taking from the press the “death chamber” and inserting it into the myth of the labyrinth is in the best high modernist tradition of violently superimposing the archaic on the contemporary. This is a tradition that is moved, obscurely, unsystematically, to protest the allochronism – that long colonial time – which names it the “modern”. But to rescue the archaic by turning to the God of our Fathers means succumbing to a fundamentally reactionary impulse, which fails the test of historicity, and locks marriage into a form that it can’t sustain.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
I’m reading Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Roland Barthes. I’ve learned that when Barthes published The degree zero of writing in the fifties, he had not yet read Blanchot or Artaud, or even – so he told a reviewer – heard of Georges Bataille. Barthes was 36.
Somehow, being an aging hulk myself, I find this a beautiful anecdote. Firstly, because it rather undermines those who are searching for influences by Blanchot or Bataille in Barthes early work – and don’t we all like to see an academicus ocassionally slip on a banana peel? – but more because, secondly, it speaks to reading outside the classroom. The classroom, in the intellectual world created by the post world war II boom in colleges, has become the site of our primal reading, and sometimes our only reading of the “great books”. It is a phrase I have heard all too often – “I read that in class”. In my mind, this is matched with another phrase, usually about something in history – say Watergate: “that happened before I was born.” As if the knowable extent of the world began when a person was born. Both speak to a sort of intellectual shrinkage.
What I like is what Ralph Ellison called the old man at Chehaw Station – the amateur who is a knower, beyond all credentialing. Barthes of course went on to read Bataille and Blanchot and the rest of them. The shock of the new was not subsumed in the canon of the old as his career unfolded – and this is why his work, to me, is that of an amateur mandarin.
Friday, September 08, 2017
We owe a lot to Kate Millett. She was, in a sense, "all over" the seventies, and she burned the notion of "patriarchy" into feminism, and via the national press's fascination with "women's lib", into the national consciousness. But there, I feel, it faded. What was a call to overturn patriarchy and its values became a call to find places in patriarchy. Instead of a critique of the whole value system around the "strong" and the "tough" - these blind, violent impulses - the critique softened to a search for "Strong, tough" women. Understandably - the patriarchy didn't after all fall, but strengthened in the seventies. And it wasn't clear how the politics of sexual politics would actually proceed. Still, the goal set by Millett early on seems to me ultimately the more worthy one: in the 47 years from 1970, the degradation of the environment and the incredible stress that is now normal for most working lives has become worse. That strong and tough are bullshit words, delegating pain hierarchically to subordinate factotums - it isn't the tough president who is out on the frontline, but the soldier, the civilian, the insurgent, who are "inspired" by the strong leader to ever greater feats of barbarism - needs continually to be repeated.
There was an interesting dialogue that prefigured these issues that occurred in 1975 in L.A. at a forum featuring Marcuse and Millett, where the issue was how socialism connected to feminism. Marcuse was never the burning boy of the Frankfurt School, never Mr. Negative Dialectic. So it is good to see him take babysteps towards acknowledging the obvious: that the socialist left, in the name of class struggle, has long subordinated feminist struggle, or distorted it in terms consonant with patriarchy. What that means to me is the need for a double transformation, on the one hand of socialism, and on the other of feminism. Easier said than done! The one piece of good news from the debacle of American politics is that these transformations seem to have become real everyday issues.
Wednesday, September 06, 2017
Hemingway wrote a short story called The End of Something in the fine beginning of his career, when the stylized silences were new, impressive, and deep, and a terrible story, fossicked from his remains by his posthumous exploiters, entitled Everything Reminds you Of Something, at the end of his career, when the simplicity had turned simpleminded and the hardboiled silences had gone soft and squishy – the kind of thing that make Old Man and the Sea so unreadable. The end of something is all about the masculine refusal to speak its pain, while everything reminds you of something is all about the masculine refusal to shut up, even when it had nothing to say. And maybe there’s a story there.
“Something” in its American splendor is not considered in Mencken’s book on the American Language. Nor is it in Brewer’s phrase and fable, which disappointingly lists only one something-headed item, viz., something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is as if the American something were so pervasive that it never strikes anyone as a phrase or fable. But it surely is, and it surely can be dated, at least in print, to sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when writers like Ring Lardner and Hemingway were discovering in the speech of the folk the ethical sports and monsters of the American subconscious. And Broadway too, and the movies, and the cartoons.
Richard Burton wrote in his diary when the Gemini splashed down about the astronauts: “Sat on balcony until lunch reading newspapers. Learned to our relief that the ‘Gemini Twins’ were back from the Cosmos safely.83 For some reason we both felt oddly nervous about them. It is odd, too, that I almost always think – no condescension intended – of Americans as being gifted and brave but almost always child-like. White, the man who walked for 20 minutes in space, when asked how it was replied ‘It was really something.’
White’s comment is a sort of Summa of something – God reduced to gosh, world without end.
Karl Kraus, that most un-American of essayists, wrote that thought can’t be the master of language, only the servant. Or something like that. I know I’ve read that somewhere. The house is a mess, I can’t put my finger on the book, or the notebook in which I jotted down this bit of intellectual tittle. However, I do know that Kraus’s whole life was a war on cliché, on the deja connu, on newspaper verities. As he said, the newspaper was the black art, the end of the world, the wormwood cast into the waters, apocalypse now with all the trimmings. World War I proved him right. So did World War 2.
And yet if that Sacher-Masoch colored scene between thought and language is at all true, then it is hard to see how we are going to avoid just the kind of writing and talking that drove Kraus nuts. For what after all is the newspaper verity than language pulling thought along, or rather, dispensing with thought all together in a simulacrum of thought. In other words, aren’t we all doomed to incantation, to abracadabras of variously elevated tone?
And the opposite of the highminded abracadabras, as the young Hemingway hoped, was in a speech that was modest in its claims, truthful in its sentiment, factual in its slant. This message is made clear in Farewell to Arms. That speech, it turns out, comes with a price – it turns life into a data-filled competition. Into baseball. Or something a bit more exotic among expats. What starts out as a revolutionary stripping of established lies ends up as a flattening of effect. It’s really something.
I’ve always loved the scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when death comes to a bunch of American yuppies and their friends, English gentrifiers. They, of course, take death as a colorful local yokel at first, but eventually he starts to make his point that he is Death. At this point the American man pulls out his pipe and begins to pontificate about the experience they are all going through. This breaks it for Death, who begins a wonderful rant: “Shut up! Shut up, you American. You always talk, you Americans. You talk and you talk and say 'let me tell you something' and 'I just wanna say this'. Well, you're dead now, so shut up!”
“Let me to tell you something.” There it is again, through a hoax dialectic come to mean not, as in Hemingway’s “The end of Something”, that expression must be tied to the particulars, however painful, but to mean, let me fill in all the verbal space. And then let me walk in it, drifting, in a self-contained suit, safely attached to a large white phallic shaft.
That’s something else.
Tuesday, September 05, 2017
I like Paul Muldoon, mostly. But this paragraph in the obit for John Ashbery in the New Yorker pulled me up short – or rather, while it scrutinized me, I squinted at it:
“He managed this by developing a poetry that was absolutely equal to our later-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century predicament. It’s a simple argument: a world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex; a world that is somewhat incoherent may actually demand a poetry that is itself incoherent; a world in which no conclusions apply may even revel in its inconclusiveness. To read a John Ashbery poem is to be scrutinized by it. It is less a recording than a recording device, a CCTV screen taking us in.”
Start with the last line, and ask yourself when you considered all poetry a recording – like, never? And the addition of CCTV screen, which I suppose is supposed to be techno-hip, sort of poses the question – is it a recording device or a CCTV screen – or perhaps a hidden microphone, or maybe – I can be techno-hip too! – it’s a polarization gating spectroscopy device, which is used to probe the intestine. In any case, it is really a poem. And how a poem scrutinizes the reader is perhaps one of those incoherent things about our modern predicament that demands a poetry criticism that is itself incoherent.
If I were to look for a poetry that tried to be equal to “our” predicament, I’d look at Adrienne Rich more than John Ashberry. John Ashbery does fit comfortably in Muldoon’s “our” – Rich was outside the ‘our’, measuring the system that created it, counting the victims.
This, you might think, is a pretty ungrateful way of saying Salut, John Ashbery – but I think Muldoon’s bizarre obituary says a lot about the predicament of a twenty first century infantilism: the pervasive use of an advertising trick of making its product so exciting that the product’s details become secondary. Muldoon’s entire paragraph tells you nothing at all about the specific qualities of Ashbery’s poems. Its hateful, a disservice, an occasion for blowhardery.
I am not, I admit, a great finish-er of the poems of John Ashbery. My grip as a reader is lost as the poem itself becomes whimsical like, oh, a CCTV screen dying in static. But I am able to finish and even like some of Ashbery’s earlier poems. So there’s this, from “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:
“… The soul establishes itself. But how far can it swim out through the eyes/
And still return safely to its nest? The surface/
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases/
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point/
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept In suspension, unable to advance much farther/
Than your look as it intercepts the picture. Pope Clement and his court were "stupefied"/
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission/
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,/
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,/
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, /
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay/
Posing in this place. It must move/
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says./
But there is in that gaze a combination/
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful/
In its restraint that one cannot look for long./
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,/
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,/
Has no secret, is small, and it fits/
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.”
Sunday, September 03, 2017
Notes on Santa Monica
Beautiful days. If you live in Santa Monica, you face an iron curtain of beautiful days. Granted, there are worse iron curtains. Still, if you want to write, the days, in the monotonous self-affirmation, can give you the frustrating feeling that there’s nothing here to grip, nothing to fight with. True, there is June gloom, there are a few days in what is laughingly called winter where you keep the heat on almost all day, and days of summer where we tickle close to Dixie. But basically you walk out, the sky is blue, the sun is up, the flowers (all immigrants here) are springing with exotic colors and designer stamens, the cars are expensive, the yoga places and gyms are doing a roaring business, and the ladies in the numerous nails and hair spas are all kneeling before obviously well to do women, helpfully rounding nails and, well, aroma pedicuring, whatever that is. Win/win, obviously, up and down the block and all the way out to the Pacific, which is we know a little worse for wear, a little dangerously warmer, but still licks the shore bluely, in the distance. The joggers and dogwalkers compete for sidewalk space, the tourists are heading for the beach, and everything is as right as an icecream cone in the fist of a child.
I can’t complain. I complain. I was born complaining, a whiner from the first doc’s whack on my buttocks. Still, on our last night, when we went to Loews, ordered drinks, got in the hot tub and watched the sun set over the Pacific, I had to remember that this isn’t normal.
And then I remember other things. How Mutually Assured Destruction was planned out by a buncha the mildest war criminals in history just down the street. How Whitey Bulger retired here. How the sidewalks are filled with half naked homeless people, whose raving speeches, though often devolving into simple curses, are often, as well, much more eloquent and rhetorically interesting than the conversation of the college educated and well off in the line at the Whole Foods. I remember that Carlos Castenada led a strange, mostly female cult just up the street in West L.A., sending his “witches” to recruit on 3rd street. I remember that Santa Monica was “Baytown” for Raymond Chandler, a corrupt little berg with a bunch of hooey clinics where the docs dispensed heroin to junkies with a wink. I even sometimes remember that all the world isn’t white.
Of course, the beautiful days sometimes got up the snoots of certain observers – most notably, Theodor Adorno, whose Minima Moralia is much like a death threat to the whole scene. More elegantly written, granted, than your average serial killer or kidnapper’s screed. Still, lovely in its roving meanness.
“Every tegument which intervenes between human interactions is felt to be a disturbance of the functioning of the apparatus, in which they are not only objectively incorporated, but to which they belong with pride. That they greet each other with the familiar egalitarian hellos instead of doffing their hats, that they send each other interoffice memos devoid of addresses or signatures instead of letters, are the endemic symptoms of the sickness of contact. Alienation manifests itself in human beings precisely in the fact that distances fall away. For only so long as they are not overwhelmed with giving and taking, discussion and conclusion, access and function, would enough space remain between them for that fine mesh of threads, which connects them to each other, and whereby that which is external [Auswendige] truly crystallizes as what is assimilated [Inwendiges].”
Yes, you can see the death of civilization creeping closer with the death of the custom of doffing hats. Those Europeans! One if reminded of Freud’s reflection that the American custom of “flirting” shows what an essentially unserious society America has produced.
But I understand. The Elvis Costello rule (“I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly”) applies here if it applies anywhere. I’ve heard the rumor that Dogtown – formerly the cheaper part of Santa Monica, running along Main street – lucky to buy a house below 750 there now – was crucial to the birth of Southern California Punk.
But I floated in the pool at Loews, gulped down my margarita, and got sentimental about the four years we spent here. I love it that Adam learned his “American” here. I loved the round of coffee shops in which I wrote and wrote, on a computer that had a French keyboard that was freezing up, one key at a time. Have you ever had that divine moment when you cry out, yes, I would do it all over again, in exactly that order, with exactly those actions, facing exactly those consequences? The eternal sandglass of existence will be turned ever once more, and you with it, you grain of sand! Something like that. Well, that was my Loew’s experience.
Then, next day, we left for Paris.
Tuesday, August 29, 2017
I've noticed an air of unreality hangs about the flooding of Houston. Those of you with memories of the 00s will remember how Gore was mocked for his animations of oceans flooding cities. Hey, the Gulf of Mexico, which is warmer and higher than it was in 2003, just flooded a six million person metro area. The press so far has - understandably - concentrated on happy rescues, people doing things for people. Underneath this news is a sort of failure to express the probable extent of the casualties and what this means economically. This isn't a matter of astonishing videos, it is a matter of the blotting out, for some unforeseeable time, of the 4h largest metro area in the U.S. I feel like our suspended belief in what is happening is cousin to our suspended belief in climate change itself. For two decades, we have mostly acknowledged that climate change is happening. We have attacked this global problem by the pinprick approach. Maybe if I change my consumer habits it will help? Not really. We gotta change our infrastructure. We gotta severely reshape our economy. Capitalism isn't built to solve this problem. That isn't even to say we abolish capitalism, it is simply a call for recognizing its limits and acting accordingly.
Monday, August 28, 2017
The people who say, when a disaster happens, that we have to forget politics, are almost always conservatives. It is no wonder that they say this. In a time in which we see the result of the politics that we are pursuing – warmer oceans, urban infrastructures that are grossly underfunded, massive poverty – converge in disasters that then require billions to repair, and that can cost billions – in Harvey’s case, maybe 100 billion – in economic losses, we begin to wonder why we didn't do something before - before, for instance, we had oceans warm enough to nourish monster storms. Conservatives want us to debate these things when we’ve forgotten the disasters that conservative politics has led us into. Let’s not.
Friday, August 25, 2017
The table went yesterday. The sofa is going today. The lamps are going Saturday. The house is emptying out.
Four years. We’ve raised Adam here. We’ve grown used to the ocean. We’ve developed a taste for certain restaurants. We’ve got our routines.
I have my novel. Four years of writing it here. I’m wrapping it up – oh fateful words! The manuscript is trailed by miles of sleepless nights, the worry that nobody will read it. I have a picture of myself as a homeless man, shouting my Tourette-driven monologue to nobody at two o’clock in the morning.
And I think of Flaubert. Who else?
Flaubert was a crybaby. Every sentence in Madame Bovary elicited cries and whimpers from the sofa. Every punctuation mark.
We know this because Flaubert was also a graphomaniac. While writing his novel, he wrote letters to his friends and lovers – particularly to his lover Louise Colet – going to great lengths to describe what he was doing.
Most of the letters of writers are about anything but what they are doing. What they are doing is the office work. Even Kafka, whose ideas about writing are summed up by the writing machine in The Penal Colony, wrote much more about the work he did at the Workers Compensation Bureau that he worked in than he wrote about writing, say, The Trial.
Though Flaubert pretended that writing was one long tooth ache, he actually enjoyed himself very much. He set up problems and he figured them out. He played chess against the whole of French literature, and Don Quixote. He daydreamed. He wet dreamed. The cries from the sofa were richly enjoyed. He had to share them.
I understand. To find ever more indirections to the spot marked with an x on your mental map is the most fun. As Adam would say, it’s more fun than anything that’s fun. The problem with my long tooth ache, I realize, looking back over the pages, is that the problems may be bigger than my solutions.
This is only when I am blue. When I think that this will never be read. When I’m out on that street corner at two in the morning going fuck fuck f-f-f-fuck!
Really, they ought to publish some edition of Madame Bovary with those letters. And something about poor Louise Colet, the recipient of most of them, a writer herself who had the misfortune to get her writing advice from a whale. Not that she even wanted it – she wanted a little cuddling, a little sex.
Madame Bovary got that. Flaubert and Louise Colet between them created the parable of modernist dissatisfaction. And we can’t get away from it and back to the happy times before. Never that bliss again.
Monday, August 21, 2017
Last night Adam started crying on the couch. I asked him what’s up? And he told me that the eclipse was going to burn out his eyes. I reassured him that they were going to be taking care of him in his school. He asked me if there is ever ever going to be another eclipse, and I said probably.
He said bad. His new thing is to say bad after he receives any bit of news he doesn’t like.
Today, I asked his teacher, and she said don’t worry. We aren’t going to take the kids outside this morning. We are going into the gym!
Of course, these are the times that try kids’ souls, and turn them into scientists or people who fear dragons might eat up the sky. I am afraid we are falling in the latter category.
I did try to explain the pinhole in the box thing. This was a popular little device when I was a kid. That was a long time ago, when an empty cereal box held the charms of adventure – which has long been erased by media. I’d lament this, but I have to admit that emptying the cereal box meant the ingestion of many disgusting cereals – lab created stuff that was affixed to some poor pummeled and bleached grain. The dentist’s accountant’s friend.
I didn’t buy the glasses, and not having a showbox handy, I watched people watch the eclipse. It was like they were equipped for a three D movie, with the goofy plastic frames. It was fun to see. Natural events in the city – a breeze, clouds, a blooming tree, squirrels carrying nuts, etc. – don’t often pull people out onto the sidewalk, which is a shame. Here in Santa Monica – a phrase I am only going to be able to use for one more week, about! – you do have that persistently rocking puddle, the Pacific, at the end of the street. Personally, I prefer the full moon.
Adam was of good courage as he marched into school. His days are full of change. I have to remember, too, that the ration of himself today to his total days is only 1 to 1400, whereas my ratio is something like 1 to 70,000. The days dull a bit, seem less intense, and then of course Adam’s neural network is exploding, and mine is slowly imploding. I’m eager to get back to France, but then I realize there is going to be a couple of hardass weeks there, until we are settled in.
Hope all had a good eclipse. I’m hoisting one tonight to both the moon and the sun gods – good job, gals and guys!
Thursday, August 17, 2017
It is sweet and even a part of what I believe that love can conquer racism. But to respond to racism with a direct appeal to the emotions, alas, actual disguises racism. Because racism isn’t just personal expression: it is personal expression congealed into historically rooted structures. And blind love, love that is not informed about those structures, just becomes denial.
Let’s start this out personally. A couple of days ago, I was walking Adam home. He took my hand, which he has been doing lately (probably because he is anxious about the fact that we are soon going to move). We passed by this black guy who said, approximately, that white people always grab the hands of their children when they meet black people.
I wanted to say, not me! No, I’m different from other white people.
But I have to admit, I’m not that different. I live in a society structured to advance people with my skin color. This is why sentiment – love and hate – must be adjusted by statistics – photos of how our society is en masse. The statistics present a very different picture from the one in which white people say, not me! I’m full of love, not hate. Because my pockets, my career, my education, are legacies of a considerable amount of hate, transformed into an economic hierarchy that continues of itself. The structure can “hate” so I don’t have to.
Until we realize this, the love and hate talk is just sentimental garbage. Until we do something about it, the love and hate talk is denial in the classic, Freudian sense.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
One of the more depressing things about living in LA - as compared to say Paris - is the lack of statues in the streetlife. In my experience, most french cities – saved those bombed into shit and rebuilt after WWII – are filled with statues and images, gargoyles and fountains. But American cities and suburbs, with some exceptions, do not give you a lot of statue encounters.
In the argument about taking down the Confederate statues, there is an understandable theme that this is a matter of mere symbolism, the kind of thing that a white college student can participate in an pat himself on the back – and who doesn’t begrudge that figure his satisfactions? Yet I think the statue-viewer situation is made much too one dimensional in this view of things.
There are two dimensions that are left out here. One is the dimension of the symbol and the real in the cityscape, the park, the campus. The other dimension is the material one of who, in the average day, really encounters these statues.
My contention is that the lack of statues in the American space has to do partly with the idea that symbols aren’t real. We will spend on the real. Here’s a real building – say, the Pet store next to our apartment on 9th and Wilshire. And here’s a symbol, say, the statue of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, in Palisades Park at the very end of Wilshire.
Now the funny thing here is that the real, in this story, being the functional, can easily be substituted. The pet store on Wilshire, for instance, went broke or moved. The building was revamped, and it is now a Charles Schwab building. The effect on the users of the Pet store might still be lodged in the memory, but my bet is that nobody really notices any more. Whereas if we took the statue of Augustine’s mother down, and substituted Madelyn Murry O’hare, people would notice very much. That is because the symbol is not functional in the same way – it is read differently in the landscape. Another way of saying this is that the symbol has power.
To understand this power, one must shift levels to a materialist reading of the urban scape: who exactly sees what.
In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, the United for a Fair Economy organizaiton commissioned a study of carlessness in eleven major urban areas. And guess what? Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to be carless.
This is simply another element in the economic apartheid that prevails in the U.S. But it has effects. One of the effects is that getting around the city, if you don’t have a car, requires an elevated amount of walking. Even if you are walking to and from the bus stop, there is more walking involved in your urban life.
One of the reasons that there is a lack of statuary in cities in France that were rebuilt after the war is that these cities were rebuilt with the automobile in mind. A predominance of statues implies a congregation of walkers. Car drivers might mark certain statues in a city – but mainly they don’t know them. They don’t read them.
One of the reasons that the statue issue is hot on campuses is that this is one of those spaces where white people are actually walking. Walking not as a sport, but as a functional activity that gets them to where they are supposed to be. This directly affects the statue viewing experience. It makes it degrees more intimate.
When the Confederate statues were erected in the South, from 1910 to 1960 for the most part, there was a great deal of carlessness among both whites and blacks. This meant that the statue experience was on a level of intimacy that was meant to send a clear message to African Americans. The message was: this is not your space. This is not your home.
The level of car ownership rose considerable for whites and blacks during this period – but much more for whites than blacks. In fact, as the phrase “driving while black” implies, and as we know from every video of police – African American encounters, the white uneasiness about blacks having access to automobiles has never gone down.
What this means is that those statues loom much more into the intimate experience of African-American everyday life than they do in White American life. But when the statues are threatened, white Americans – certain ones, Nazis, Trump, that ilk – show that they can still read them very well.
In this way, symbols can grab hold of life. Taking down the statues will not collapse the structure of economic apartheid. It will lessen the stress of the African American everyday experience.
Take the statues down!
Monday, August 14, 2017
As I’ve written before, Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics is full of wonderful things, paragraphs that make me want to lay it aside and write long, gulflike commentaries. For instance, in exploring the “canting” literature of the 17th century, he writes this: “Before it entered modern usage, “slang” meant, in canting jargon, “to exhibit anything in a fair or market, such as a tall man, or a cow with two heads.”38 Hence, “slang” originally referred to the exhibition of freakish things—a kind of social and economic profanity.” Anatoly Liberman, a historian of lexicographer, surveys the theories about the etymology of slang and comes down on the use of slang as the word for making the rounds of a territory – being “out on the slang”. This could apply to actors, prostitutes, or mountebanks. But Liberman, too, concedes that the use of slang to denote a kind of language came from some linguistic sub-group – either thieves’ jargon or hawkers’ jargon. There is a “secret language” named Shelta, combining Irish and English terms, which was common among itinerants in the 17th century – we get the word bloke from this coded speech – and perhaps slang as a word for movement went into Shelta and came out as the word for words like slang. Another rather charming nineteenth century theory was propounded by one of those English churchmen with too much time on their hands, Isaac Taylor, who combined the “out on the slang” phrase with a story that there was once, in the wilds of Derbyshire, a village called Flash, where all the tinkers used to meet. Hence, this is where the term “flash” – which in the nineteenth century referred to that louche magnificence that any American first grader will tell you is pimping – came from, and where the equivalence between flash language and being out on the slang was forged.
As well – and this is where Tiffany’s theory of the lyric is both brilliant and highly poetic – this is where the connection between obscurity and the obscure, between the indirection that misleads the police and the people who don’t count, who slip like shadows, or, sand, or dirt, or any mysterious commonness between the cracks of history, was forged. Tiffany wants to re-assert the prole nature of the poem in the epoch of capitalism. He’s mining a vein that has been worked both by Wordsworth and by Baudelaire – the latter when, in Les paradis artificiels, he wrote that under the effect of haschich:
“…is developed that mysterious and temporary state of mind where the depth of life, spiky with its multiple problems, is revealed completely in the so natural and so trivial spectacle that one has under one’s eyes – where the first object we come upon becomes a speaking symbol. Fourier and Swedenborg, one with his analogies and the Fourier et Swedenborg , the former with his analogies and the latter with his correspondances, are incarnated in the vegetable and animal realms that fall under your gaze, and instead of teaching vocally, they indoctrinate you by their form and color. The intelligence of allegory takes on, in you, proportions you never dreamt of; we will note in passing that allegory, that spiritual genre, which clumsy painters have accustomed us to despise, but which is really one of the most primitive and natural form of poetry, re-establishes its legitimate domination in the intelligence illuminated by intoxication. In this way, haschich extends itself on life like a magic gloss. I colors it solemnly and throws a light into its depths.”
Of course, Baudelaire did not buy his buzz on the street corner – he was one of the subjects of the good Dr. Moreau, who – like so many doctors who are found in the shadowy corners of the intersection between the art world and the underworld – gave little experimental parties to which such gents as Baudelaire and Balzac were invited.
You could say that what Tiffany calls the “sociological sublime” is the hour of the freak. The freak marks the spot where the powers that be encounter something that is not so much resistance as a portal to a realm in which the ideology of strength, the backbone and boner of the patriarchy, has no dominion.
I see that a lot of shitheads, er, peeps soft on the confederacy, want Robert E. Lee's statue preserved for history's sake. Hey, for history's sake, I could agree, long as we match the general with Wesley Norris, the slave who escaped from Lee's Arlington residence, was recaptured, and was given fifty lashes - washed with salt brine - as well as the same number given to his cousin and his sister by the soulful future General. As Frederick Douglas remarked after the war, General Lee was given a sickeningly flattering reception in the Northern Press, but he warnt no Ivanhoe. Here's the testimony. Often disputed by apologists, generally agreed to be true by historians.
My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement. (¶ 2)
Friday, August 11, 2017
Respect to Daniel Tiffany for his Infidel Poetics. I measure its brilliance by its subtitle – subtitles are such an interesting genre, they peek out of the pockets of the author’s intention and make faces at the reader, they are little gremlins, or tells, or the overflow that escaped the editor’s “delete”, the Id making tracks for the Golden West: “Riddles, Nightlife, Substance.” A train of associations that seems to have gone way off the track and landed in Oz.
One of the other measures of a book, for me, is its quotes. You gotta quote right. Many academics think quoting is just credentialing, so they quote the silliest things: As X said, New York is the first postmodern town. Etc. You want to say, is X always so boring? But Tiffany, who is also a poet, quotes brilliant and delightful things – finds. The difference between a quote that is credentialing and a quote that is a find is the difference between a stamp collection and buried treasure.
Here is something Tiffany found in Mallarme, of all peeps.
“Indeed, one of Mallarmé’s songs from the nursery discloses the contagious effect of the rhyme’s illogic on the translator. Mallarmé adopted the practice of presenting the English song followed by his prose rendering of it in French (which I translate below):
Hey! diddle, diddle,
The cat and the ﬁddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport
While the dish ran after the spoon.
What a strange scene! Look at the cat with his violin—and that’s not all: there’s the moon, and a cow jumping right over it! I act like the little dog, laughing hard to see such foolishness. And then it seemed to me, as I contemplated this spectacle, that my ideas ran away with themselves, one after another, just as—in the words of the song—the dish runs after the spoon. Hey! diddle, diddle.’”
Mallarme, the unapproachable, becomes, unexpectedly, your favorite uncle.
Tiffany is much impressed by the effect of the hey diddle diddle, which runs, like that dish and spoon, through the poetry of modernism, lickety-split.
Wednesday, August 09, 2017
Bring em on!
I haven't gone on a blame America first rant in a while. Being a lefty, this makes me sad.
I haven't gone on a blame America first rant in a while. Being a lefty, this makes me sad.
So here's one.
Let's go on one about NKorea's nukes. Gotta go back to 1976, when Pakistan and North Korea agreed to be good buddies. At that time, this meant general pats on the back at the U.N. But things were going to be cooking in Pakistan.
That was because a certain Abdul Qadeer Khan, a scientist, had an idea. The idea was to steal a buncha blueprints from a European nuclear power consortium. Which he did. However, the Dutch caught him, and put him on trial in 1985. They fumbled the first case, and were about to mount another, when the CIA leaned on the Dutch. The message was, don’t get Pakistan angry. (I get this material from Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark’s excellent account, Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons)
You may remember – or perhaps you weren’t born yet and don’t remember – that Pakistan was our frontline ally in trying to free Afghanistan from the horrible Soviet yoke and restore it to Islamicist freedom fighters. The Reagan administration was on all cylinders to get this to happen.
Unfortunately, U.S. intelligence kept coming up with info that the Pakistanis were building a nuclear bomb. They even got Reagan to ask General Zia, then Pakistan’s dictator, if this was true. In Reagan’s diary, he recorded that Zia denied it. Well, old mister ‘Trust but Verify” didn’t really feel that verifying was called for her. Zia was a patriot and a fine soldier!
Others in his administration, including George Schulz, the Sec. of State, did write memos saying maybe we should apply some little bitty pressure on Pakistan. But instead, Pakistan was flooded with military aid. And secret aid from the CIA.
This was fortunate. Building nuclear bombs is an expensive business. The Pakistan government was broke. Where was doctor Khan going to get funding for his little project?
Well, nobody knows. There has been some revelation that of the 500 million it cost to build the centrifuges and get the nuclear biz going, some 18 million came from the Pakistan government. But wait! Wasn’t there some secret funds from the Americans sloshing around?
Yeah, baby, yeah! The authors of Deception give a cautious estimate of a diversion of 90 million dollars in U.S. funds to the building of the Pakistani bomb. As for the rest – well, I think I’m going to lay my eye on Saudi Arabia, also a big slosher around of funds at that time. Here’s a Business Insider article about how thatworked out well for Saudi Arabia.
You remember the Saudis, don’t you? Keeping unfree so that the free world can be free! Big applause for them, and maybe a little pity party for Saudi women. God bless em, they, at least, can gaze at the U.S. and see how feminist we are here! We are practically role models.
But to get back to North Korea. North Korea can mine uranium itself, since Satan put some uranium in the ground in that country. But where were they to get the centrifuges to spin out that good stuff? This is where Pakistan, under Clinton and Bush’s watchful gaze, came in handy. After nuke tests in 1999 announced to the world that Pakistan was ready to party, time to start selling the shit and making a profit. Actually, even before, in 1996, Clinton’s peeps noticed that Pakistani equipment was ending up in N. Korea. Like all tough American presidents, Clinton’s peeps really gave the Pakistanis an earful! And then bushels of money. This was followed by Bush, who also gave the Pakistanis an earful, and then bushels of money.
In this way, we were cleverly troping Pavlov, awarding negative behavior with positive strokes. It was all an experiment in behavior, don’t you know.
Well, upshot was that North Korea has enough smarties, and enough Pakistani provided equipment, that they know what to do. And so today, Dear Leader 1 vs. Dear Leader 2 makes us all think, hmm, is it time for the U.S. to suffer a million casualties – BUT AT LEAST SHOW THE WORLD WHOSE BOSS!
That’s how they do the thinking on the level above all our grades. Cause they’s so smart!
Tuesday, August 08, 2017
Generally, I am on the side of Tim Ingold – who is on the side, mostly, of Derrida – in his book, Lines. In some ways, Ingold reproduces the grammatological gesture of the early Derrida. For instance, Inglold, too, devotes time to a lesson in writing. The scene of writing in Lines is derived not from Levi-Strauss, however, but, more Englishly, from Winnie the Pooh.
“Eeyore, the old grey donkey, has arranged three sticks on the ground. Two of the sticks were almost touching at one end but splayed apart at the other, while the third was laid across them. Up comes Piglet. ‘Do you know what that is?’, Eeyore asks Piglet. Piglet has no idea. ‘It’s an A’, intones Eeyore proudly. By recognizing the ﬁgure as an A, however, would we be justiﬁed in crediting Eeyore with having produced an artefact of writing? Surely not. All he has done is to copy a ﬁgure he has seen somewhere else. He knows it is an A because that is what Christopher Robin called it. And he is convinced that to recognize an A when you see one is of the essence of Learning and Education. But Christopher Robin, who is starting school, knows better. He realizes that A is a letter, and that as such it is just one of a set of letters, called the alphabet, each of which has a name, and that he has learned to recite in a given order. He is also learning to draw these letters. But at what stage does he cease to draw letters and begin instead to write? “
This question hovers very much over any contemporary family with a child in pre-school. Adam has spent the last year in a fight with the number 5. It is a number that, he claims, he can’t draw. It is a curious problem, since he can draw 3 and even the difficult 4. But 5 in Adam’s hands tends to turn into 3.
Ingold considers the answers produced by the question of the drawing/writing divide (which one notices in the Pooh example almost fatally puts into motion the various hierarchical divides – of human vs. animal, of the schooled (literate) vs. the unschooled, or savage, of the scission between the preschooled child and the child who is “starting school” – that play out in the last 500 years of history) and goes through the various classificatory responses that attempt to sort out what is going on. There is the difference he starts out with, deriving from Nelson Goodman, between script and score (“The script, he argues, is a work, whereas in the case of the score the work comprises the set of performances compliant with it.“) He considers Vygotsky’s idea that children, making their first letters or numbers, ‘do not draw, they indicate, and the pencil merely ﬁxes the indicatory gesture.” And finally he considers Roy Harris’s argument that the difference between notation and spelling signifies a cardinal epistemological shift.
Ingold, however, wants to argue that whatever shift is indicated by the difference between Christopher Robin and Eeyore’s view of “A”, spelling or writing is still a special kind of drawing.
Adam’s problem with 5 is not a problem with its place in the number system. He knows how to count to ten – and even to one hundred, when singing the song about counting to one hundred. But I would emphasize something different than indication or spelling. I would emphasize incantation.
To my mind, Adam’s knowledge of counting to ten is incantatory knowledge. This doesn’t mean he can’t apply it. He loves, in fact, to count things. Holes in shoes that shoestrings go through. Fingers. The number of pancake pieces on his plate that he has to finish. But these numerating instances are, I think, incantatory instances as well.
Charms with incantations written on them are pretty common objects in the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Incantations are generally taken to be nonsense words, formulas that do not correspond to words or phrases that make sense in the language in which they appear. For the Greeks, they were part of the repertoire of medicine. In one of Pindar’s poems, Aesclepius uses incantations, pharmaka (drugs) or pharmaka (charms) to heal patients. The classical scholar Roy Kotansky quotes a text by Cato which recommends healing a fractured bone not only by binding the area with bandages, but also by binding a broken reed at the same time, waving about a knife, and uttering the phrase Motas Vaeta Daries Dardares Astataries Dissunapiter. This phrase is “nonsensical” – the equivalent of abracadabra.
But it is a mistake to claim that the nonsense has no larger sense. Incantatory phrases are handed down. They are written. They are remembered. They are formulaic. But the reference of the word or words that form the incantation is not on the normal route to denotation. It is hip hopping down another road, a backroad.
I’m not sure that viewing the 5 as an incantatory object is going to solve Adam’s problem. That will be solved mechanically as he keeps going to school. But it does shed some light on the way children pick up on phrases, and will repeat them for the joy of the phrase. Which later on becomes part of the reception or creation of verbal art.
One more story from Ingold.
“In some cases, the elements of a notation are clearly also depictions. That the ox-head hieroglyph, the precursor of our letter A, is a depiction becomes obvious if we compare it with the way oxen themselves were drawn in Ancient Egypt (Figure 5.4). We would not hesitate to say that the glyph is a drawing of something other than itself, even though it is also incorporated into a script. Another well-known example may be taken from recent ethnography. I refer to Nancy Munn’s (1973b) celebrated study of the Walbiri, an Aboriginal people of the Central Australian Desert whom we have already encountered, in passing, in Chapter 3. Both men and women among the Walbiri routinely draw designs in the sand with their ﬁngers, as they talk and tell stories. This drawing is as normal and as integral a part of conversation as are speech and gesture. The markings themselves are standardized to the extent that they add up to a kind of vocabulary of graphic elements whose precise meanings, however, are heavily dependent on the conversational or storytelling contexts in which they appear. Thus a simple straight line can be (among other things) a spear, a ﬁghting or digging stick, or a person or animal lying stretched out; a circle can be a nest, water hole, tree, hill, billy can or egg. As the story proceeds, marks are assembled into little scenes, each of which is then wiped out to make way for the next (Munn 1973b: 64–73).”
Sunday, August 06, 2017
I saw the movie Detroit last night. I squirmed. The beatings. The murders. I looked up the Algiers Motel incident when I came home. I squirmed some more.
And then I decided to look around in the NYT and see what was being reported around the time Detroit was experiencing its revolution and reaction.
In the summer of 1967, there was a riot in Newark, a riot in Syracuse, a riot in Tokyo, a riot in Cambridge Maryland, student riots in Brazil, a riot in Cincinnati, a riot in Manchuria, a riot in Clearwater Florida, a riot in Nashville, a riot in Houston, a riot in the Roxbury section of Boston, etc. In Philadelphia, the Mayor, riding the white rage wave, accused a group of “revolutionary” negroes of planning a mass poisoning of whites. Arlen Spector, then Philadelphia’s D.A., held a news conference to announce the charges.
The NYT times helpfully labeled these Negro Riots. As in the headline: “Milwaukee Calm after Negro Riot.” Whites, apparently, only responded to the riot. When the police beat peeps in the street, that wasn’t rioting, but anti-rioting. In this way, a riot is unlike a dance, in which both partners are described as dancing.
1967 was an interesting year in the racial geography of the U.S. Small news stories indicate larger phenomena. Take Cheshire Connecticut. Cheshire was an upscale suburb north of New Haven. One of its selectmen, name of William E.Kennedy, Jr., thought it would be a good idea to officially pass a resolution welcoming Negro homeowners. This roused the town from its dogmatic slumbers, apparently, and the select board found itself confronted by angy – but non-rioting – affluent suburbanites who, in the words of one of them, didn’t want to be “forced to welcome anyone.” Anyone is a nice disguise. It is used today whenever black lives matter is mentioned. Don’t all lives matter? The suburbanite from Cheshire would recognize the world of Trump’s America as her own. In the event, Kennedy’s resolution was altered to a welcome to anyone.
I’m not a fan of all the sixties shit, but I am astonished at how unsettled things were in America, how rapidly things moved. The period from 1945 to around 1980 featuring an explosion of civil rights activity, as well as an anti-colonialist revolution, of which the Detroit riot was a part.
The rupture created in this period was re-interpreted, and the liberatory impulses lost, in the neoliberal era, which extends from the 80s until now.
Neo-liberalism, too, was initiated in a call to arms against the state – a call to arms for the wealthy. In the mix, national governments are supposedly undermined – which I take to be a surface phenomenon of a more profound shift to wealth inequality. The call for shrinking the gov is easily reversed, as it was in 2008-9, when the fortunes of the top of the wealth scale are threatened. In the Anglo countries, unsurprisingly, great inequality went hand in hand with mass incarceration, and an astonishing absolute loss in the assets held by communities that were gaining power in the 45-80 period. Here I guess the African-American experience is exemplary. Now I wouldn’t want to say that this pushback effected all marginalised groups. Groups that are represented in the wealthiest class due, simply, to the way that class is composed of human beings – white women and white gays – have benefited from the end effects of previous civil rights movements. This is to the good. My feeling, though, is that the choice to mobilize the productive sectors of the nations with more developed economies in a great global game of musical chairs identified the gains made by these two groups with “globalisation” – instead of the liberation movements of the epoch before – and this price has been onerous and increasing. This is the hocus pocus that gives us an image of the racist white working class while the racism is all led by the white wealthy, an upper class that, in the U.S. for instance, is 96 percent white. A liberatory globalisation movement still has not arisen. When it does – when a general strike in China, say, is mirrored by one in the US – then I would say globalisation has turned, as it was turning in the sixties. We live in the pause. The old globalization was one of urban guerillas, condemned by NYT editorial and FBI director alike.