“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, April 21, 2017

the prose conscience

Hemingway, in some interview, said that he liked to begin the day by reading a page of solid English prose. This, I believe, is where he picked up the phrase from Donne that graces For whom the Bell Tolls.
At least, I believe this was Hemingway. I came across this quotation in my teens, and I have such a bright memory of it that it could be false, fool’s gold, not the real ore. However, similar spiritual exercises were recommended by Flaubert, and Flannery O’Connor in midcareer said that read Henry James because she hoped he’d have an effect on her, although she hadn’t seen any result yet.
The prose conscience, that is what these people were trying to create. I suppose there is one for every specialization, from plumbing to neurosurgery. What makes the arts a bit different is that the writer, painter or musician is building this conscience on a practice of reading. The plumber and neuorsurgeon are, I suppose, acquiring the elements of professiona integrity from experience – even if they also swear by their mentors.
Myself, in the track of Hemingway, I too read some of Donne’s sermons (challenge the person who claims to have read them all – reading them gave me a vast appreciation for the patience of our pew seated ancestors). I’ve read a number of writers as much for their putative music as for, well, what they are trying to say. Sir Thomas Brown, Samuel Johnson, Edmond Burke, John Ruskin. I know that the music can creep upon you and turn up where you least expect it. It would certainly have astonished Pascal to know that his most ardent pupil in the style department was to be Edward Gibbon, who modeled his prose on the Provincial Letters. Gibbon of course was an old reprobate. On the other hand, Pascal owed Montaigne, who was a seignorial reprobate. And the beat goes on.
It is for this reason that every oncet and a while I dip into Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying. I am not going to be persuaded by any Anglican arguments to hie me to a chapel, but the rush of the first paragraph is a sort of natural wonder. Here it is:
A man is a bubble, (said the Greek proverb,) which Lucian represents with advantages and its proper circumstances, to this purpose; saying, that all the world is a storm, and men rise up in their several generations, like bubbles descending a Jove pluvio, from God and the dew of heaven, from a tear and drop of rain, from nature and Providence; and some of these instantly sink into the deluge of their first parent, and are hidden in a sheet of water, having had no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die: others float up and down two or three turns, and suddenly disappear, and give their place to others: and they that live longest upon the face of the waters are in perpetual motion, restless and uneasy; and, being crushed with a great drop of a cloud,sink into flatness and a froth; the change not being great, it being hardly possible it should be more  nothing that it was before. So is every man: he is born in vanity and sin; he comes into the world like morning mushrooms, soon thrusting up their heads into the air, and conversing with their kindred of the same production, and as soon they turn into dust and forgetfulness - some of them without any other interest in the affairs of the world, but that they made their parents a little glad and very sorrowful: others ride longer in the storm; it may be until seven years of vanity be expired, and then peradventure the sun shines hot upon their heads, and they fall into the shades below, into the cover of death and darkness of the grave to hide them. But if the bubble stands the shock of a bigger drop, and outlives the chances of a child, of a careless nurse, of drowning in a pail of water, of being overlaid by a sleepy servant, or such little accidents, then the young man dances like a bubble, empty and gay, and shines like a dove’s neck, or the image of a rainbow, which hath no substance, and whose very imagery and colours are fantastical; and so he dances out the gaiety of his youth, and is all the while in a storm, and endures only because he is not knocked on the head by a drop of bigger rain, or crushed by the pressure of a load of indigested meat, or quenched by the disorder of an ill-placed humour: and to preserve a man alive in the midst of so many chances and hostilities is as great a miracle as to create him; to preserve him from rushing into nothing, and at first to draw him up from nothing were equally the issues of an almighty power. And therefore the wise men of the world have contended who shall best fit man’s condition with words signifying his vanity and short abode. Honour calls a man “a leaf,” the smallest, the weakest piece of a short-lived, unsteady plant. Pindar calls him “the dream of a shadow:” another “the dream of the shadow of smoke.” But St. James spake by a more excellent spirit, saying, ‘Our life is but a vapour,’ viz, drawn from the earth by a celestial influence; made of smoke, or the lighter parts of water tossed with every wind, moved by the motion of a superior body, without virtue in itself, lifted up on high, or left below, according as it pleased the sun, its foster-father. But it is lighter yet. It is but appearing; a fantastic vapour, an apparition, nothing real; it is not so much as a mist, not the matter of a shower, nor substantial enough to make a cloud; but it is like Cassiopeia’s chair, or Pelop’s shoulder, or the circles of heaven, φαινορενα, for which you cannot have a word that can signify a verier nothing. And yet the expression is one degree more made diminutive; a vapour, and fantastical, or a mere appearance, and this but for a little while neither, the very dream, the phantasm, disappears in a small time, “like the shadow that departed; or like a tale that is told, or as a dream when one waketh.” A man is so vain, so unfixed, so perishing a creature, that he cannot long last in the scene of fancy: a man goes off, and is forgotten, like the dream of a distracted person. The sum of all is this: that thou art a man, than whom there is not in the world any greater instance of heights and declinations, of lights and shadows, of misery and folly, of laughter and tears, of groans and death.” 
The bubble and trouble of that meditation, which leaps from image to image and pulls the argument, what there is of it, after, infests all his instances of the fleeting status of human life. To me, though, the image that most startles me, and is most in concord with the liveliness of raindrops annd the deadliness of admonition is that drowning in a pail of water. It delivers a shock, on the heels of the careless nurse. But it is a carefully hedged about shock, not dwelt upon but let loose in the stream of fluid and watery instances and pictures – for after all, the thing about water is that no shock really disturbs it, or is preserved in it. Unless of course it be ice – the one form of water Taylor doesn’t mention.

So here I am. The morning is over. Time to work.   

Monday, April 17, 2017

OJ and me

Ours is a household that lags the zeitgeist, so it was just this weekend that A and I streamed OJ Simpson vs. People on Netflicks. Seeing it, how the whole thing did not rush back to me!
At the time OJ Simpson took off in his famous white bronco, I was living in Santa Fe. I remember my roommate, a jazz singer, told me about it – she was watching it on her tv in her bedroom, and crying. I was puzzled about this: my roommate had never mentioned football before. To me, OJ Simpson was simply an old football player who made a bunch of cheesy ads and had a minor career in movies.
By the time the trial ended, I was living in New Haven. I do remember the not guilty verdict, mainly because the people I was working for seemed so upset about it. After work, I met my friend David, who was being visited by a neurotic friend from Brooklyn. All she wanted to do was talk about the case. As so often when Dave and I were together, we sort of silently agreed to play the fool, so we both said we thought he was innocent. The reaction to that was unexpectedly fierce: she left us and went straight to the train, and headed back to Brooklyn.
Out of that mockery I evolved my vague sense of the case: which is, that OJ Simpson was a guilty man who was framed by the LAPD. I’d heard bits and pieces about the case – this was before the Internet injected news directly into my ganglia, and I didn’t have a tv, so my knowledge of the case was curiously folkloric, depending on what other people said – and the bit that stuck was that some racist cop had found OJ’s glove. I immediately thought he’d probably planted it – such fortunate, accidental discoveries don’t just happen to cops. Especially racist cops.
I sort of still think that. One of the rare mistakes in the series is to follow along with the cop story about the glove. If he’d never found that glove, I think, OJ would have been found guilty.
But who knows?
Anyway, the series is educating me. And I do like it that I recognize the places where it was filmed, since I live in the midst of them. I’ve read that Cuba Gooding has been dissed for his imitation of OJ Simpson. That may be the case – Cuba Gooding is likeable, whereas OJ Simpson never seemed more, to me, than another egotistical Hollywood bit player. Aside from that, the film does get the race card – and that this card is called the USA. The quasi-automatic racial sidetaking is something I saw. White millionaires – for instance, Cullen Davis – have killed their spouses, or tried to, before, and beaten the rap, and it was never a symbol of everything. At the time of the trial, I was kicking against the symbol – I thought I would choose my own symbols of the Zeitgeist. But older and wiser, or more tired, which is what wisdom comes down to, I realize the Zeitgeist chooses the symbols in which it is encoded without consulting any individual. It made sense to me then, and makes sense to me now, that a system in which white juries make a habit of disculpifying cops when they kill black men, women and children was bound to get a response. This ain’t no Pavlov’s laboratory, and you can’t keep the shock machine going without the human product bursting out and taking it over at least occasionally, on high and mighty moments of exasperation.
Interestingly, a few years after OJ was released to maximum white indignation, Robert Blake offed his wife. How many peeps remember where they were when he was arrested, or when the jury cleared him of the murder charge? Time did not crystalize, in that case, any of our inner rages and guilts, I guess.

Friday, April 14, 2017

climate as property

It is often said that Marx was for abolishing private property. This is a misreading of Marx, or a sort of misreading. Marx predicted that capitalism would abolish private property.

The paralysis before climate change has something to do with Marx's notion. It is the reason that it isn't surprising that the U.S., which has appropriated the atmosphere for depositing a hugely disproportionate amount of waste, is not eager to make up for it. One of the keys to understanding pollution in capitalism is that capitalism is not, despite the first grade propaganda, based on private property. It is based, rather, on larger property owners seizing the private property of smaller owners. It is all about social costs, and renting your body for zero cents and zero dollars to lodge their corporate chemicals in. This is where Marx's theory intervenes: he had a shrewd idea that the progress of capitalism was the inverse of what the proponents of capitalism claimed, as it progressively abolished private property by concentrating it in fewer and fewer hands. At the end of this process, Marx thought, the bargaining power of the working class would have to be expressed politically, in a revolution that would establish a new order founded on that capitalist accomplishment. I'm less sanguine than Marx that the last chapter will be written that way. But one way to start the discussion of climate change is to ask about your property rights to the cimate. Have they been respected?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bellarchy, or the State we live in

Unfortunately, political philosophers rarely seem to understand war as an institution. Rather, it is looked upon as an accident, at best a derivative of other state interests. The state, after all, in classical theory, is the opposite of war – the essential curb on it. Thus it seems dialectically out of the question that war might become part of the state, colonize the state’s DNA, as it were, determine its political form (a possibility materialized in the way a state taxes and distributes money, in the way a governing elite gets its hands on the state, in the very culture of belligerence that the busy little state spreads among a population).It is as if, among possible state forms, one is missing. Democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, anarchy – all of them are there except for… bellarchy. 

Bellarchy, in premodern times, impressed itself on the core of the state in terms of conquest, plunder, and glory, and these things have featured from the Assyrians to the colonizing West – but the idea of modernization is that we have left this in the past, These things are  seem alien to the state in any of its modern guises.
But I say nay, look around you.
In modern times, it was Hitler who codified the arms race and perpetual readiness for war into the state’s answer to the numerous problems posed by the treadmill of production. After World War II, this was Hitler’s legacy to the two great superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. So, for instance, the U.S. was able, in the Cold war, to do what it had been unable to do for almost one hundred years – develop the South, using the military to distribute aid to that underdeveloped part of the country, just as it also did to the West. And that structure has had cultural effects we have seen to this day. A constituency for war has been created such that war unleashes, without any questioning, the massive resources of the state. 

If Thomas Paine, whose instinct about war was sound, never quite foresaw this system, he certainly knew of and derided the connection between war and monarchy – or, if you will, the executive branch. Here he is still very much the prophet – meaning that his words are still not taken seriously. Only when prophecy is safely defunct is the prophet honored. Thomas Paine, like MLK, remains a prophet.


Monday, April 10, 2017

War: serial hit and run nation

Thoughts on warwarwarwar
Heidegger’s critique of the subject was aimed at getting metaphysics out of the magic circle of the subject; for this purpose he used the term Dasein. In 1945, according to Eileen Welsome’s Plutonium Files, the medical staff at a Rochester hospital went Heidegger one better. The staff began injecting unwitting patients with plutonium in an experiment conducted in tandem with other doctors across the country, organized by the Department of War – and eventually absorbed by the Atomic Energy Commission. The staff referred to the patients as HP – Human Product.
We are all HP now, processed through 70 years of DEFCON [defense condition] culture. One of the truths of the post 9/11 period that LI holds to be self evident is that after 9/11, everything was the same – except more so. The three trillion dollars of extra spending on the military did, of course, done everything except capture the 4 or 5 thousand people who attacked on 9/11 – for they now serve the vital function of being the threat on tap. And the cascade caused by the vile invasion of Iraq goes on and on, don’t stop till the war makes you drop. The DOA of Libya lies behind us, like some old cadaver in the memory of a serial hit and run driver. We are licking our moral chops about Syria, although there isn’t a person in the entire talking head parade, from the ludicrous Ayroult, Hollande’s minister, to the “Obama advisors” who are coming out saying that negotiating was a mistake, who really give a shit about Syria. They do give a shit about feeling good, and editorializing. But as for the 2 million HP in refugee camps, or the six years of civil war in which the US and its allies have armed groups in the full knowledge that they were turning into little copycats of the Saudi mindset – well, we will just forget about that.
I think the US is best defined as a conjunction of plutarchy and bellarchy. A war and finance state. We have one, overriding question for our fellow American HP, which is this: how did the war state create plug and play HP? The culture of acquiescence? Why do we love our presidents to have blood in their mouths? And how is it that after all that has been happening for 16 years, we still don’t realize that War is a commitment – there are no micro World War 2s. Libya failed, and Iraq failed, precisely because the plutocrats want to keep American HP generally safe and endebted, so there’s no draft, there is no immense commitment of every resource to war – not to speak of rationing and price controls. Heavens!
In a story published in the WAPO about the Hanson Plutonium Plant in Richland, Washington in I think it was 2004, I found a passage that seems so richly symbolic that I saved it in my blog. It seemed to reach out to me:
“Richland sprouted Atomic Bowling Lanes, an Atomic Body Shop, Atomic TV Repair, even an "Atomic Man." He was Harold McCloskey, a technician who survived a 1976 accident at Hanford that sprayed his face with the largest human dose of radiation ever recorded. He became the most thoroughly studied nuclear victim in America. Baggies of his feces and urine (labeled "Caution Radioactive") were stored for years in laboratory refrigerators and freezers across the Hanford site. After the accident, McCloskey was almost blind and his face could set off Geiger counters 50 feet away. But he was pro-Hanford until the end (he died of a heart attack in 1987). "Just forget about me being anti-nuclear, because I'm not," he said a decade after the accident. "We need nuclear energy."
Football players from Richland High wore a mushroom cloud on their helmets and called themselves the Bombers. The symbol of the atom was carved atop stone columns at the entrance to the cemetery. When liberated from federal ownership and allowed self-government in 1958, Richland's residents staged a simulated atomic explosion in a vacant lot on the edge of town. And when the Cold War began to wind down, announcement of the closure of N reactor, one of Hanford's largest, brought mournful Tri-Citians into the streets by the thousands. They held candles and sang "Kumbaya."”
Kumbaya! The HP beast slouches towards the perfect anthem, the favorite song of my Vacation Bible School days back there in Clarkston, Georgia. Someone’s dying Lord – and it is us HP, mourning the amazing structures of the Cold War, the architecture, the fallout, the atom soldiers, the preparedness, the dictionary of acronyms and phrases, the way we turned, turned, turned.
Thomas Paine wrote, in the Rights of Man:
“As war is the system of Government on the old construction, the animosity which Nations reciprocally entertain, is nothing more than what the policy of their Governments excites to keep up the spirit of the system. Each Government accuses the other of perfidy, intrigue, and ambition, as a means of heating the imagination of their respective Nations, and incensing them to hostilities. Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government.”

Friday, April 07, 2017

a suggestion for art forum

I read Carol Vogel’s piece about the new Damien Hirst exhibit in the NYT today, and found it interesting in a repulsive way. Just to check, I read a number of reviews and previews of art openings in the 60s and 70s in the New Yorker, and I did not find one that even mentioned the price of the pieces. Vogel’s whole article is devoted to the price of Hirst’s work. For good reason. The work, of course, is absolute shit. One dimentional one offs which don’t deserve a second of eyetime. But the prices – ah, the prices are in a sense sublime. Unfortunately, the article was illustrated with pictures of Hirst’s pieces, instead of pictures of checks, piles of Euros, dollars. The 750 thousand Euros that one of his pieces apparently sod for is a complex object, with many dimensions of dread and bloodshed, and nicely printed. The art world of which Hirst is a sort of master example no longer produces anything as interesting as the prices that are paid for the pieces circulating within it. I think that eventually, the message, which has been hammered home with a vengeance over the past twenty years, will finally achieve an objective correlative in some art magazine that only illustrates the prices of the pieces. 

Why not eliminate the middleman? Burn the fucking Hirst shit. Just trade 750 thou for, say, 1 million. Finally, we would achieve the full circle of the collapse of art in our time.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

fondane 2: silence is out there

2
There’s a long dispute in the philosophy of science about the ontological status of probability.
The dispute goes back to the founder of modern probability theory, Laplace. Laplace – with some help from the man who edited a posthumous paper by Bayes outlining one way of thinking about narrowing down probabilities – came up with equations to help us through the jungle of chance. There’s a good book by Sharon McGregor on the subject. McGregor, in keeping with the current trend, is a Bayesian.
Laplace, famously, had no place in his hypotheses for God. But he did have a place for what one might call a God Point. From the God Point, held, Laplace imagined, by a genius calculator, the universe would be revealed in its certainty. For this viewpoint, there would be no probabilities. Where we see, for instance, a raindrop, which splashes on our nose, the divine calculator would see the entire course of causes from which that raindrop issued. It would see the water evaporating from the surface of the earth, condensing into a cloud, and at some point of critical mass falling, once again to the earth, perhaps crashing into a mingling with other drops, until finally your nose is wet. And it would see all this the way we, for instance, see a tree – all as one thing, all as a certainty.
Underneath this vision is the idea that probability derives from a radical lack of knowledge. Lack of knowledge can sound, here, like a very subjective thing, but it isn’t necessarily so. We can model it mechanically. It is not subjective in the way of a state like: what it is like to be a bat.
However, as Mcgregor points out, for the positivists of the 19th century, and for the first generation of physicists who theorized quantum mechanics, there was something sneaky about this way of thinking about probability. Ed Jaynes puts it like this: “are probability statements of  quantum mechanics expressions of empirically verifiable laws of physics,[which would mean that they are out there, in the universe the good Lord is looking at] or merely expressions of our incomplete ability to predict, whether due to a defect in the theory or to incomplete initial information [in which case Laplace’s god is in his place and all  is right with the world].
I mention this controversy as an analogy to the case for silent films that Fondane wants to make. For, just as the early generation of quantum physicists and Machian positivists like Richard von Mises placed indeterminacy out there as a constraint on frequency, so, too, does Fondane place silence out there as a fundamental construction principle of film. Fondane is saying that sound is not an act of creative destruction, but instead destroys something essential about film.
Fondane builds up to this point by constructing a history of film that situates its beginnings in a sort of popular anarchy, something happening on the margins.
“The silent art is of low birth the child of business men without business, of employee without employment, of ignorant adventureres, of apprentice photographers. At no time would these people have consented to work for any other purpose than to expand the means, nourish the image making capacity, fortify the singular virtues of the power of a machine whose activity was as far as possible from what one might want to call, retrospectively, “art”.

This is an argument not so much from unintended consequences but, rather, from the surrealist principle that Fondane puts at the center of his essay: the ‘malentendu’. The misunderstanding or misprision of things and signs is, in Fondane’s work, a standing for the surrealist fascination with chance juxtaposition, with the principle of association gone wild. It is the surrealist sublime: the famous umbrella encountering a sewing machine on an ironing board. Exactly this kind of thing, on a mass scale, happens when silence and the moving image meet each other.  

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Goodbye filibuster. Don't let the door hit you on the ass as you leave

The GOP has decided to blow up the filibuster, but just this once. Standard rightwing talk - that's how the supremes elevated the knownothing from Texas into the white house in a nice little coup, noting that their decision should never ever serve as a precedent for any other suit - an absurd clause that marked the decision as coming from a country club junta. In many ways, I think the 2000 decision marks a symbolic decision that America has not gotten over. A sort of last kick against the corpse of democracy. But the GOP is, I think, unleashing an ultimately benevolent monster. After all, the bad parts of Obamacare are there precisely in order to reach the 60 senator mark. Abolishing the 60 senator mark means that legislation only needs 51 senators. In a senate composed of reactionaries, this means that a lot of shit will be coming our way. But the only way that the GOP will be reduced to the minority status it deserves is if GOP voters get full in the face what they voted for. Already, polls show Trump's support in rural areas, the ones that voted for him, has collapsed - due to the fact that the ACHA that he supports is like a bomb dropped on their communities. The filibuster has the effect of both moderating conservative viciousness and limiting liberal programs - in other words, of making conservatism acceptable and compromising liberalism so that its obvious appeal is muted. The filibuster, like much of the American apparatus of governance, was constructed to make white male property holders supreme. The plutocracy has nothing really to fear from the way checks and balances result in checks for them and balances for the rest of us. (Not of course that the plutocracy realizes this. The insane fear experienced by billionaires wanting to save their spare millions from the taxman is proof that marginal utilitarianism goes against human feeling in the same way that quantum mechanics seems to defy common sense.) Part of why I am optimistic that a Dem it yourself movement can radically transform the Dem party is that the shell shocked response to what the Reps are doing when they have ample space to do it has more power than any of the tricks and sleights of the professional "campaign consultant" class. The Dem establishment model is: nudgery in the past, nudgery in the present, nudgery forever. This is founded on the pragmatic observation that the Congress is run so that no progressive bill can really make it through. This excuse is about to be bulldozed. Interesting times ahead.

Destructive destruction and Benjamin Fondane

La cinéma parlant est là pour remplacer le film muet, et toutes nos protestation ne feraient rien contre. – Benjamin Fondane, 1930.


As we are carried forward in great lunging steps by money and technology, we are assured on all sides thaat this is what we want. A magical vocabulary has sprung up to explain it all to us, where the abracadabra is “disruption” or “creative destruction” or the old standby, “progress’. That the destruction could be vast and negative – destructive destruction – doesn’t enter the picture. Nobody, in the late nineteenth century, voted to obliterate the night sky. It just happened, electrical lights just happened, it was all very exciting. There was no discussion of the fact that ever since we were lemurs on the floor of the jungle, we have always had the night sky. It was simply taken away, and replaced with a new paler version. That this act might have untold consequences on our collective circadian rhythm wasn’t even on the ledger, under costs. It just happened.
It is an odd characteristic of the age of democracy and progress that populations have much less choice about the vaster changes in their environment. The slaves of the Romans and Greeks, in their misery, had a freedom they did not know about: the freedom to live in the same environment they were born into, and their parents before them. They were all the more vulnerable to disease and the lot, you’ll say. And you’ll be right! Which only goes to show that costs and benefits are both on the ledger. The freedom I am talking about was assumed into the industrial age. In fact, so deeply assumed that we have no word for it. Freedom to retain our paradigm circumstances? We can only gesture towards it in crippled phrases. And even those will touch on a mass incomprehension, since, though our senses and memories know something is happening here, we don’t know what it is.  
However, ahem, to turn from these vast panoramas to my miniature,  the purpose of this little ditty: creative destruction in the film industry. About 1930, the silents were replaced by the talkies. This in retrospect has been presented as a kind of repair. Silent films were defective, and Vitaphone  repaired them.  It is as if movies were born deaf, and an operation gave them hearing.
But there were protests, among which I want to signal Benjamin Fondane’s as one of the strongest and most logical – a protest that puts its finger on the larger issue of the structure that was being ‘replaced’.  This is all the more interesting because  Fondane has become a cult figure for a very small cult,  one of those twentieth century writers that exist on the margins of our consciousness, a ghost of sorts, who lights a fire in certain readers. 
The cult goes back, in part, to his end. He belongs among the murdered. When he was arrested by the Nazis, Jean Paulhan, the influential intellectual wheeler dealer,  somehow got him a reprieve. But Fondane refused it, because it didn’t include his sister. Instead, he went with her to Auschwitz and perished. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Not a verset we are callled upon to take literally, we all think.
Fondane came from Romania to France in the 20s, and he made films. He made films up to 1936 – as per this Youtube bit, he made an absurdist film in Argentina under the patronage of Victoria Ocampo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oFygwg52DY There seems to have been a lovely bit with a man looking like Paul Valery in a ballerina tutu. The whole thing, a sort of mixture, it seems, of Bunuel and the Marx Brothers, never made it past the producer’s ire, who obviously did not sense the hunger in the Argentine masses for a hilarious send up of Paul Valery; and the complete film has been lost.  

Fondane is better known to posterity for his essays and his poems. The lament for the end of the silents was published in Bifur in 1930: From Silent to Talking: greatness and decadence of cinema (Grandeur et decadence has a lilt in French more like the English Decline and fall). It is a big essay, and I’m just rollin up  my sleeves here. Gonna work on it in a future post.    

Saturday, April 01, 2017

where are the radical children's storybooks?

I don’t blame Ayn Rand. I blame Batman.
Adam has become an enthusiastic fan of the comics. And so I have been learning about the comics.
American comics generally participate in an ideology which radiates out from a central preoccupation with crime. And not any crime. The two great crimes are jewel robberies and bank robberies. There’s a reason for that: these crimes make the rich the victim.
This is the great animating vision of the primal American super-world. Once you catch on, you can detect it in other children’s books as well. It nourishes the topsy turvy vision of reality that infects American politics, and that identifies celebrity with heroism.
Unfortunately, the political struggle for the hearts of children has not been fought very hard by the American Left. Mister Moneybags, that funny character who pops up in translations of certain texts of Marx, never made it to Gotham City. But as I have recently learned, looking around the Internet, some radical factions in the post 68 generation turned their eyes to this theater of struggle.
My discovery of this site has been eyeopening: https://children68.hypotheses.org/. Unfortunately, it does not have a long list of these ultra-leftist books. And so far, it neglects comic books. On the other hand, it does give publicity to a book that still needs to be translated into English – Histoire de Julie qui avait une ombre de garçon.
But to return to the comic book world – here one faces an ideological conundrum at the very root of the superhero ideology. Alan Moore has, I think justly, called the mania for superheros a “cultural catastrophe”; his phrase evokes that idea of a cultural product that squats like a nightmare on the shoulders of the living. 
“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times. 

The super antihero, I suppose, is yet to be born. My suspicion is that it can’t be born in a world inscribed with the principle that the rich are victims – a world of childish mystification.  

Friday, March 31, 2017

a poem

I turned off the light. In the sudden flush
Of the dark you took my blinded hand.
Leading me into the next room, hush,
you minted light in the time a coin lands

on heads, then out went the annunciation.
To bed, to bed, you said I said
In this way haloed the occasion

And bed it was, and bed…

Monday, March 27, 2017

origami, metaphysics, and Lichtenberg

A week ago I was going out of the public library in kind of a hurry. It was nearly time for me to pick up Adam. But, as I passed through the main lobby, I was too attracted by a display not to stop. Two people were behind a desk, making paper cranes. In front of them, an interested girl was being instructed in the oragamic art as well. I thought, Adam would like one of those cranes, so I asked the woman if I could have one. The answer was no, but I could make one. And due to one of those failures of the will to which I am subject, instead of saying no, I’m in a hurry, or saying no, I am the most lousy folder ever to set foot on planet earth, a menace to gift wrap and boxes,  I said alright. What followed was a painful five minutes for both me and my teacher, who must have thought, as I clumsily folded the wrong way here and sloppily failed to make one fold equal to its other there, that I’d been sent to test her. She passed the test. Now and then she’d grab my misshappen piece of paper and correct what I’d done wrongly, and hand it back (disappointing my hope that he was letting me off the hook) with some encouraging word. And of course once again my hand grew six thumbs. But in the end, I did come up with a crane.
I’m trying to make an analogy here, although I fear I’ve put too much thumb into it. The folding process for me involved two twin awkwardnesses. First was my mechanical incompetence in folding the piece of paper through a series that lead to the crane. Second was my mental blindness that saw in each twist of the paper another sort of shapelessness. There’s an essay by Paul Valery, Man and shell – man here being l’homme – in which Valery marvels not only at the spirals of the sea creature, mussel or nautilus, which he acknowledges a geometrician could generate with a formula, but also at the lips of it, where the marvelous symmetry breaks down and the creature itself appears and disappears, making of the mineral a living function.  The crane, of course, never takes off and flies – it is no crane. But its living function is to symbolize the crane. It is no mirror image of the bird, but a ritualistic image.
Hence, my analogy: between the oragami master and what Lichtenberg does in his Waste books. For there, too, much folding and shapelessness, much seemingly aimless advance, is generated. To call these entries “aphorisms” is to point us a little too firmly away from their waste content. Sometimes Lichtenberg is the master, sometimes not – but I think in Lichtenberg’s most beautiful examples, the final image surprises him. He represents, in a way, both my cluelessness and my guide’s artistry. To think with a pen involves a lot of seemingly unnecessary folding, and even the result, for those without the eye for symbol and silhouette, may seem arbitrary and unsupported.
Okeydokey then. Here’s the translation of one of Lichtenberg’s bits of rubbish in notebook F, 1776-1779, in which highly romantic, even cabalistic metaphors are attached to highly materialistic models. This gives a certain vertiginous feeling to the entry – this is long before the philosophy of mind had developed its controversies and categories. So we can see hints as to a wet mind theory of consciousness – which brings consciousness back to the specific material constitution of the brain, and rejects the cog sci idea that mental functions are indifferent to the material platforms where they are performed – and other hints of an entirely different orientation, in which we imagine other materials making  minds, or souls, still. Overall, though, hangs a metaphysics of the inscribed that sounds almost familiar.     


“Those psychologists that have looked around in the natural sciences have always reasoned more connectedly than the others who began with psychology. The more I compare Hartley’s theory with my experience [David Hartley, the British philosopher who tried to apply Newton’s vibration theory to the nervous system and laid down the foundations for associationism in psychology] the more it confirms itself with me, so entirely does it agree with our other experiences. If we shoot a pea into the sea outside Helvoet [a port of Rotterdam], I would presumably be able to trace the effect of it on the coast of China if the sea were my brain. This effect would however be strongly modified through every other  impression all the other objects make on the sea, through the wind that pushes against it, through the fish and ships that move through it, through the sea caves that break its force on the shore. The form of the surface of a countryside is a history written with natural signs of all its changes,  every grain of sand is a letter, but the language is for the most part unknown to us. On the surface of this earth there are crowds of round bodies with thick roots out of which arise many small ones,  which  live in the air like polyps live in water {the brain, nerves, spine) and hang down their roots like polyps do their limbs.  They sit in a sort of shelter, which serves them as a cover in which they can continue to operate, and are so constituted, that their weakest roots do not have to set themselves on other bodies, while material is through this shelter strained and purified in such a way that its outflow is being continually replaced. These bodies, too, like all others, are continually being altered, and are, as all others, written upon with natural signs that spell out the history of all the changes they have experienced. It is like a tin plate whose scratches and marks tell the tale of all the meals that it has been through. The matter in which they are constituted is of a specific constitution that is originally so soft and almost fluid, yet not capable of taking in all impressions like water; it has more stickiness. And because it records  not only  simultanea, but also of successiva, so will each moment be somewhat fixed, and the body will become ever tougher, so that at last it is less able to register than to express. I the I that writes this has the fortune to have such a body. That’s the way it is. If our soul is a simple substance, why doesn’t it read the changes of the earth as well as of the brain? The brain is not just as incapable of reading impressions of changes as the sea.   (beasts are notably changed through light, perhaps more than other bodies, perhaps through the electrical fluid, it is probable that water does not register the successiva of light). Maybe it is possible to conceive an animal whose brain was the sea, to whom the north wind meant blue and the south wind red. If a simultanea and successiva is enclosed together  in a  body that only records simultanea, or only lets in certain bodies, it would thus only compute certain changes. It is much to be wished, that one here saw something like an intention. To give you a symbolic idea of these alterations just think of a drop of water on which something is reflected or through which a ray is broken, the smallest change in its figure brings about the entire destruction of the image.”   

Monday, March 20, 2017

the great Georg Lichtenberg

There are many English translations of selected passages from Georg Lichtenberg’s Sudelbuecher, but unfortunately, there is no complete translation, nothing like the complete and unabridged translation of Leopardi’s Zibaldone that Farrar Straus published in spite of the fact that it was, economically, a bit of a suicide mission. Leopardi, it has to be said, sometimes allowed himself very boring divagations into philology. Lichtenberg, page for page, is less boring.
The NYRB put R.J. Hollingdale on the case in 2010. Good choice. Hollingdale cut his teeth translating Nietzsche, a writer in Lichtenberg’s spirit. Both had a knack for throwing tasty lightning phrases about, which you could sit down with and think about all day. Still, Hollingdale only translated some 1,085 aphorisms, as he chose to call them – not jottings, not throw aways – and the book amounted to 230 pages. Consider that the German suhrkamp edition of Lichtenberg’s Sudelbuecher consists of 948 very closely printed pages, and you can estimate the loss.  
For instance: Hollingsdale’s translation does not include one of Lichtenberg’s last throw aways. It has been translated, but only as part of an essay by Roberto Bolano in Between Parentheses. In the essay, he checks Lichtenberg as “our” philosopher, adding, parenthetically, that “frankly, when I say “we”, I don’t know what I am talking about”. The translation there (which I modify a bit here) goes like this:
“On the night of February 9, 1799 I dreamt that I was on a trip and eating in an inn, or rather a roadside shack, in which a dice game was going on. Across from me sat a well dressed, somewhat dissipated young man, who, heedless of the people sitting around him, was eating his soup in such a way that at every second or third spoonful, he’d throw it into the air, then catch it in the spoon and quietly swallow it.  What makes this dream really peculiar to me is that I made my usual remark to myself, that you couldn’t make this stuff up, you had to see it. (I meant that no novelist could make it up); and yet I was making it up that very second. At the dice game sat a tall, thin woman, knitting. I asked her what stakes could be won and she said nothing; when I asked her if anything could be lost, she said no. The game struck me as very important.”
As Bolano points out, Lichtenberg died 14 days later. There’s only one more entry. It’s rare that anyone’s death – outside of a novel – happens with such expressionistic drama. The man with the spoon, who seems to have been captured from a Brueghel cartoon, in juxtapositon with the knitting woman watching the stakeless game of chance – Bolano calls this the atmosphere of Kafka, and surely it would work in an Ingmar Bergman film. But my impression is that Lichtenberg, the most enlightened of German thinkers, has somehow, here, touched on a chthonic current of myth, opened up a panel to some epic long buried and forgotten.  

Well, I want to translate another bit of Lichtenberg tomorrow. Gotta now turned to more pressing tasks. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

some notes about grandstanders and Emily Nussbaum

I like a grandstanding critic. Sometimes.
In the postwar era, there were a number of grandstanders. Pauline Kael, though, stood out. A grandstanding critic is one who, while specializing in some department of American flotsam and jetsam – rock n roll, movies, comic books, tv – finds broader and deeper applications for her appreciations and pans. The goal is to give a sense of How We Live Now. Of course, the we is the uppercrust, and that interested segment that forms a suburb of the uppercrust – academics, journalists, that lot. Currently, the heir to Kael at the New Yorker is certainly Emily Nussbaum, who “does” television. I’m tempted to play with that sentence, to bring out its erotic and pornographic double sense, the way Kael would play with innuendo in the titles of her books – I lost it at the Movies, and the like. It is not inappropriate. Movies, as Kael saw, were a promiscuous medium, the select site for the range of our (upper and lower-crust) libidinous projections. But the movies got smaller – literally, they jumped onto discs and we play them at home. TV has evidently usurped the role of our libidinous puppet play, our naked Punch and Judy shows. Nussbaum is well placed to be the premier tv critic of the “golden age”. As everybody calls it.  Tom Carson is a distant contender. Carson, though, moves around too much.
My own taste, I confess, is mostly anti-Kael: I love Bergman, she hates Bergman. Kael felt that Chinatown was an essay in dopy nostalgia, I thought it reinvented the urban detective by making the object of the case the foundation of the city itself. Fuck the Maltese Falcon, it’s Water, my friends! And generally I agree with Renata Adler and Joan Didion, who both enjoyably jumped on Kael. The two were fiercer guards and critics of uppercrust moeurs. In a sense, the battle was between two divas of the ascetic modernist impulse and a sloppy voluptuary. But I have a weakness for the latter as well.
Nussbaum, like Kael, not only enthuses about her favorites, she enlists them in her own crusades. This is what she has done with “Girls”. This is what she has done with Megyn Kelly. I see no merit in “Girls” – I prefer both Sex in the City and Broad City – and I see less than no merit, I see positive political vice, in Megyn Kelly. When Nussbaum described Kelly as a Valkyrie, I don’t think she quite felt all the resonances of that particular comparison – all the Aryan Brothers mythology of it, which Kelly has quite consciously entertained. It is the grandstander’s vice to make cultural generalizations in a vocabulary that encodes fierce dialectical tensions and to never really tease out those tensions. Which is another way of saying that just as Kael often seemed to go off the rails (the most famous example is Last Tango in Paris), Nussbaum, too, sometimes seems to end up in corners that say more about uppercrust blindness than about the American wilds. The wilds, when all is said and done, is where, literally, the energy is expended that the upper crust captures. To be Marxianly vulgar, the wilds must be exploited economically, aesthetically and erotically in order for the uppercrust to function, however dimly it proceeds to do so.
All this verbiage to take me to Nussbaum’s review of “The Feud” and her divergence into a meditation on the parts offfered to aging actresses. Like Jessica Lang and Susan Sarandon, who play Joan Crawford and Betty Davis in “The Feud.” This is a perennially pickable topic, and the Film industry perennially acknowledges it even as it proceeds to pair aged men with 20 something cuties.
At a certain point, however, Nussbaum’s Eloi feminism, her lean-in-ism, gets the best of her. That point is here:
“Feud,” like “Baby Jane,” does occasionally veer into an eerie voyeuristic space, getting off on closeups of wrinkles while defending our right to stare. And yet choosing to be grotesque can be a form of liberation, too. Decades after Davis pulled on a doll’s dress, grotesquerie has been key to modern female comedy, as self-assertion, not self-loathing. Sometimes that means letting one’s face swell up, like Ilana on “Broad City,” drooling from a seafood allergy, or puncturing an eardrum, like Hannah on “Girls.” One of “30 Rock” ’s most magnificent moments had Tina Fey embracing full repulsiveness: on the subway, she became a mentally ill hag, wearing a gray wig and a mole, and hissing, “I’m pregnant with a kitty cat!,” like Baby Jane, Jr. Nothing scares people so much as a woman letting herself go; once you can scare them or make them laugh, you’re in charge.
You’re in charge? I find this an utterly bizarre comment. I can easily walkk out of my apartment to the park four blocks away, where the homeless spend the morning and afternoon, and find mentally ill hags who’ve spent the last millenium outside. And none of them is in charge. In fact, in comparison to them, even the three year old Valkyries who go to the expensive day care school another three blocks on from the park – who are led there in the morning by their Montana avenue mothers and their flocks of nannies – are postively senatorial. The confusion here is between the well compensated actress, who can afford to scare us and make us laugh, and the objective correlative she is imitating. Tina Fey actually is in charge. She is ensconsed in the upper 1 percent. This is not blameworthy, but you can’t generalize about the American wilds and be so utterly blind about class. Another 1 percenter, Lilly Tomlin, has also done the bag lady, but she came up in the politically charged sixties and seventies and never lost her sense of the meaning and meanness of marginality.

Nussbaum’s talent for grandstanding is a gift. However, I wish she would not so often blind herself to the difference between the dancer and the dance. Because she’s never – or at least very rarely - going to say something about the American Wilds this way. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

dangerous tears

 One of the most cited witticisms of Oscar Wilde concerned the climactic sentimental scene in the Old Curiosity Shop when Little Nell dies.  Wilde said that  “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”. The remark  became a sort of benchmark for the change from Victorian to modernist attitudes towards the presentation of sentiment.  Dickens readers in 1850, of course, felt differently about Little Nell.  There’s a famous story that a crowd in New York awaited the ship carrying the last bit of the serialisation of the Old Curiosity Shop demanding the fate of little Nell, and when they heard she died, they burst into mass tears.
However, at some point in the 70s or 80s, I think, the tide began to run against Wilde’s attitude.  Little Nell again came into her own as the modernist anti-sentimentality itself became suspect, was uncovered as a sort of masculinist gesture meant to impose a bogus stoicism that made  a great show of covering wounds to the ego in silence in order to have us all bow to those wounds.   And so Little Nell, that abused child, who begins Dickens’  novel by repulsing the repulsive Quilp, who lusts after her, changed into a very trendy figure. 
The politics of tears go back a long way in a certain “western” tradition. According to Darja Erker, a classics scholar, women’s tears in ancient Rome aroused peculiar fears. The repression of women’s emotional lives in public was part of the repression of women’s political role in the republic. However, the ritual of mourning was an exception to this regime of censure. Here, tears fell in public.  
When the family “admits” or recognizes (agnoscere) the death of one of its members, it becomes impure, and is provisionally separated from the rest of society. During the  feriae denicales, time stops for the members of the family, who are polluted by the death. After the period of marginalisation, the family reintegrates into the life of the civitas due to the banquet celebrated by the tomb.  (lautum novemdiale) The marked characteristics of the funeral ritual are displacements, or inversions of normal behavior, symbolic of the period of marginality.
The participants in the funeral ritual don’t wear their normal clothes, they neglect their hygene and reverse the practices governing eating together. These rituals express a temporal alteration of social values. In regard to this,  John Scheid borrows the words of Servius for characterizing the funeral service as a ritual of inversion: contraria facere. Similarly, when the time of the annual feast of the dead  (Parentalia) came around, magistrates marked the presence of a pollution incompatible with their public functions in not wearing their insignia.
Tears preside over the world of inversion.  And this has always had a frightening potential. Perhaps it is for this reason that modern scholars make much more of the carnivalesque, where laughter reigns, than the world of mourning, with its own characteristic revolt against hierarchy. It is the case in America that the tears of a man are celebrated, in the political sphere, while the tears of a woman are mocked.   
Myself, I grew up in a period, the seventies, when public crying was briefly, and in some social sets, non-taboo.  Also, I’m a crybaby. Thus, I knew last night, when we were heading towards the Arc Cinema to see Moonlight (at last!) that I’d probably leak like a faucet.  And I did.  I was redfaced and gasping by the end.  Typical for me. I always embarrass myself  this way.
Through the scrim of tears, I did notice the influence of Douglas Sirk, the… the Leonardo da Vinci of the weepy, the Picasso, the Newton and Einstein. Especially in the final scene between Chiron and his mother I felt some breeze from the beating wings of Imitation of Life,  one of my favorite films, and Sirk’s masterpiece.

Chelsea Clinton, in a much mocked interview with the NYT (in their By the Book series) said “I avoid most fiction in which children are harmed or seriously threatened in any way.” I understand her impulse.  But her criteria would ban all fairy tales, definitely all Hans Christian Anderson, much of Dickens, and much literature since, including most  YA literature. I’m reading Sandra Newman’s apocalyptic sci fi novel, Ice Cream Star, right now, and the toll on children in the plot is heavy. In Moonlight, the threat to Chiron as a child drives the entire movie. I wonder if the gesture of avoidance, here, is tied to old, old taboos about tears in public – a censoring of the atrocities that are a normal part of function of the everyday machine- you know the one, the thing that produces streets, cars, tv, the paycheck, and the death of the holocene. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ode to melatonin

 Certain subjects fill me with a wild and passionate interest, even if I have no specialist insight into them. One is laterality – the literature of the left/right dichotomy is, to my mind, full of the kind of insight that one could spend a lifetime meditating upon. A genuine classic in this field, Chris McManus’s Right Hand, Left Hand, is the modern equivalent of the Anatomy of Melancholy – it starts off, unashamedly, galloping in all directions, and yet by the end, you have a strong sense of the wierdness of Left and Right in nature and culture. The other subject which always interests me is sleep. The anti-sleep bias that arose in the Enlightenment – the curtailment of our freedom to sleep, which parallels the development of industrial society, the curious yoking together of knowledge and waking – makes sleep a troubled locus in our badman times. In my opinion, Freudian theory is resisted as much because of its emphasis on sleep as for its emphasis on sex. Anti-Freudians commonly dismiss dreams as junk, without ever pondering the fact that scientists might be biased against a human situation that rules out science. The dreaming scientist, while he or she dreams, is no scientist, but, like the rest of us, an argonaut, traveling under strange compulsions. Hence the pretence that sleep is a sort of annex or footnote to humanity. Jonathan Cray’s recent book about the current “war” aganst sleep, 24/7, contains some alarming information about the US Military’s effort to create a force of soldiers who never sleep. DARPA, the agency that was involved in studying forest fire scenarios in Vietnam – burn down the jungle and win the war! – is studying the chemical processes in the brains of certain migrating birds that let these birds go for days without sleeping. Isn’t that precious?
Which brings us to the best long read in this weekend’s NYT, Richard Freedman’s exploration of sleep, depression, mania, melatonin and the reason traveling East from, say, California to France exposes the traveler to mania, while traveling from France to California makes you more vulnerable to depression. In between, Freedman plays variations on the theme of Jet Lag, and why it is important to exercise more when you have a midlife crisis. 
In my opinion, the circadian rhythm produces a basic unconscious effect that comes through more clearly in Magic Mountain than in The Interpretation of Dreams – although the latter conditions the former, obviously. All those patients laying out on their balconies, sun-curing, and all the time slipping away. I am one of those people who somehow let massive blocks of time get away from me. For instance, I can’t believe that we will soon be returning to live in France from Santa Monica. We have been here almost four years, and I can believe it when I look at Adam – but otherwise, everything seems so recent to me. I have a Jet Lag soul, perhaps. I do nothing very quickly, and that is why I am so poor on tasks like driving the getaway car for revolutionary bank robbers and such (kidding, mr. FBI man! You know I love ya!). I’m not a quick draw.
And I love melatonin. It has to be in my top five bodily secretions. If that is what it is.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

A poem

Reading the review of Elizabeth Bishop's latest biography made me pretty ... sad for her, if that is the emotion. Indignant. The cruelties that can fill out a life are astonishing. And here's a poem about it, which I'll call the Abusers, even though 'abuse' strikes me as an abstract, euphemizing term for something as material as chewing.
We know them now – some knew them then –
Their hands so smooth, their zippers open
Bishop’s Uncle George, Woolf’s step brother Gerald, 
In the dirty labyrinth of home, biography traces these
Stravrogins, hangmen of the kid
Whose limp body dangles under a lifetime’s lid
Better, you say, that a rock were tied around their necks?
But it never was. Wrecks produce wrecks
While they smiled, serving dinner, above heaped plates
Like some impenetrable masculine fate
They stuck their knives into the shepherd pie
Thinking themselves the boys that made the little girl cry.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

a voter strategy that worked until it didnt

I've long had a theory that the GOP and the neolib Dems benefit from the fact that GOP voters, for the most part, can get their moral rocks off voting against the gov. in the confidence that what they will receive is a bit of a tax break - and continued service from the Gov, since the opposition Dems will see to that. Thus, Social Security and Medicare are safe. That was not a bad strategy for GOP voters - and Trump seemed to reaffirm it when he promised the continued service from the Gov. Now the shit is coming down, and the Dems are finally weak enough that the GOP can do what it wants without any check or balance. In consequence, you can superimpose, over those maps showing the Red counties - which were in rural or exurban areas of the country - another map, showing where the burden of cuts are going to fall. Guess what? The bleeding will start with them. The strategy doesn't work if there is too much GOP-ery - then the moral stance agin the Guvmint becomes a practical sink or swim deal.
When I use the word strategy, here, I should make it clear that it is a strategy the way natural selection is a strategy - it is not the intention of the voters individually, but the environing pattern they react to and shape as a group,
So why didn't the Dems pick on this in 2016? a recent Vox article about HRC's ads, to which a major portion of campaign funds were allotted, tells the sad tale. HRC ran on a platform that was full of incredibly popular programs. She could have trounced Trump in every policy category. But her campaign team thought they were on the Apprentice set, and didn't go with icky policy stuff. Cause who really cares if you can afford childcare or healthcare? This is still echoed in the pundit chamber with remarks about how dumb your average American is. Cause we are all for democracy, we who went to the Ivies, but come on! Those dummies always need our nudgin'.

Monday, March 06, 2017

the voice stage

From the beginning of the human race until around 1880, no human being ever heard his or her voice. Socrates didn’t, Sappho didn’t, Jesus Christ didn’t, and Abraham Lincoln didn’t. Jenny Lind, it is said, made a wax cylinder for Edison, so she might have gotten a scratching inkling of what she sounded like in the 1880s, long after her singing prime. 

In a strong sense, what this means is that the voice had no mirror. One of the great wonders of modern life is that one was invented.
It is hard to imagine ourself back to the millenia of being, essentially, like actors in a silent movie, at least to ourselves. Yet long before there were phonographs, there were sayings about hearing one’s own voice. We do have a strong sense of our voice, we seem to hear it. But when we record it, it seems a wilder thing, not the thing we recognize. There is, it turns out, a delicate interface between inhabiting a thing heard and having the sound itself confront us in its full materiality, uninhabited by us. Nowhere else is the so called "user illusion' - the illusion that we are in control of the thing we use when we are actually following its preprogrammed design - so actual.
The era initiated by Edison did not, of course, make the voice mirror universal. It took some time for audio technology to get there. When I was a kid, cheap tape recorders were available with which one could tape oneself, but it was, at best, an entertainment that was outside of the daily routine. I think one of the great moments in the history of human voice was the invention and distribution of answering machines. Although several devices to record telephone calls existed in postwar America, they were either expensive or discouraged by At and T, which wanted to monopolize the market with its own high priced technology. Attachments to record were actually just gussied up tape recorders, the older kind of tape recorders. What changed was the advent of recorders with magnetic tapes and integrated circuits that made recording incoming calls less cumbersome. An advertisement (in a 1977 Popular Mechanics) for a Ford Code-A-Phone 1977 shows a machine that would be easily recognized by the children of the seventies: a sleek silver rectangular box on which you could record a message just by holding down an inviting plastic red button, and which allowed you to easily erase messages and record over them. In addition, you could call yourself, press a code, and have the machine play back your messages over the phone. Magic! I remember my parents getting a similar box. So the first widespread consciousness of one’s own voice in America was the voice saying: this is X Smith, or this is the household of X Smith, leave a message at the beep. I remember my Dad making such a, when you think about it, referentially complex message. What kind of token was it? It had the qualities of the written, and yet, it was part of no system of linguistic representation – it was neither phonetic nor ideogramatic. It was, at best, an echo – echo writing. It was the thing itself, except that it wasn’t.
There’s really no metaphor for this, no comparable historical situation. This was something new in the psychological construction that we had always had around our voice. No echo ever prepared us for this.
My Dad never puzzled about the philosophical problems the telephone recorder posed. In fact, if this was a blow to human narcissism (different from Freud’s three moments: Copernicus, Darwin and Freud), its effect was muted. Especially with my old man, as far as I could tell.
The function of the voice in the psyche, as Freud conceived it, was crucial to the formation of the conscience. It was the parental voice that was, in a sense, recorded by the infant’s answering machine – making the conscience something foreign to the ego, something injected into the ego. This was the root, Freud felt, of the paranoid symptom of feeling observed: “the patient complains of the fact that all his thoughts are known, and their behaviors are watched and spied on. They are informed about this rule through voices that characteristically speak to them in the third person ('Now she's thinking of that again', 'now he's going out').
However, I don’t remember Freud speaking of our reaction to our own voice. Although by this time the gramophone had become a common bourgeois household object, access to record one’s own voice was pretty much restricted to entertainers and celebrities. Although perhaps one underestimates the place of recording the voice began to play in the imagination of modern culture.
In a fascinating essay entitled ‘Primal Sound’, Rilke recorded a memory of his school years that happened about the time the first gramophone was produced. The physics teacher in his class made a primitive instrument that used waxed paper, a cylinder of cardboard, and a bristle from a comb to show how sound waves could be captured in a material and replayed.
“At that time, and years afterwards I supposed that the evidence of this independent sound, taken from us and preserved in an outside material, would remain a sensation I’d never forget.”
Yet, as Rilke goes on to say, the moment of shock that the sound came out of this primitive record did not remain with him as the sense of this primal scene (Rilke describes it precisely as a primal scene, the infant beginning of something that would grow endlessly larger) . It was absorbed in the moral economy of everyday routine, so to speak. Instead, his mind fixed on the grooves themselves: “It wasn’t … the sound out of the funnel that remained uppermost in my memory, as it happened, but instead the marks carved into the platter which remained peculiarly present to me.”
In the rest of the essay, Rilke’s thought takes a sort of paranoid turn – if we remain with Freud – and instead of the peculiarity of his own voice, it is the peculiar idea that sound is frozen into substances everywhere – in as much as things are grooved. What if we found a way to “play”, for instance, the grooves in a skull? Perhaps even these grooves – in particular, the coronal suture – represent some primal sound – the scratching of God’s own finger on us, mere platters.
We all tunnel forward in our manias. Mine, here, is that this obvious turning away from the shock of hearing – even if so faintly as to be an intimation – his own voice is the negation around which Rilke has created his essay.
As far back as I can remember, I haven’t liked to hear the sound of my own voice – even as I loved recording messages in other voices I’d imitate. Although I am just the kind of person the phrase “loves to hear himself talk” was made for, I love to hear it in that shadowy place inside the voice, surfing the glottal instance that is not at all petrified in an outer material substrate. The voice, separated from me, recorded, become a thing, has always seemed to me a peculiar, shaming weakness.
I thought about all of this when, a couple of days ago, I played a quicktime film that Adam’s teachers made. Each student made a picture of a jellyfish; then each sat before the teacher, with her phone camera, and explained it. Adam came about sixth or seventh. I thought he was wonderful.
Adam didn’t. He said he didn’t like his voice. 

Because this is not the first time that Adam has heard his voice, his remark made me wonder if something happens – some voice stage new to our natural history, something that is separate from Lacan’s mirror stage – that gives us a sense of the self that is at once exposed and that we would like to avoid.
The bad conscience of the voice brings us back to questions of the dialect, and of imperial power. Hmm, where am I going with this?

Friday, March 03, 2017

dialect and defeat

I’ve been reading two books that are mainy written in dialect, or at least non-standard English. One is Their Eyes were watching God, Zora Hurston’s most famous novel, where the  black Southern dialect alternates with an authorial voice written in standard English. Hurston had a folklorist’s expertise in dialect. She wrote the novel in Haiti, and must surely have been thinking about how Haitian creole had separated itself out from French to the extent that it was a separate language. Hurston was right proud of her rendering of black speech, and criticized Richard Wright for what she believed were amateur mistakes in trying to convey its sound and power.

The other book, Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman, is about a future in which the US is populated largely by tribes of teens, who all face a disease that eliminates them when they enter their young twenties. The teens are black – although the plot in the book begins with an encounter with a “Roo”, a white man who is presumably Russian. The entire book is dipped in the language that Newman makes up for her narrator, Ice Cream Star.
Wright accused Hurston of making a minstrel show of a novel. I wonder if he was responding to the way the two levels of English operate, with standard English becoming the median of understanding and  explanation – producing the usual distance that the authorial voice mediates between the actions and the characters and their passions and the reader. The traditional hierarchy between low passion and high reason, of course, stands behind this. But, as a particular instance of that structure, there is also, in the play of phonetic spellings, a sort of global implication of a kind of illiteracy in the characters, as if they were misspelling their own words. Given the American penchant to use black speech against the speaker, to lower the status of the speakers, it is easy to see where Wright is coming from.  But as Hurston is writing from Haiti, where the idea of using creole against the chains of orthodox french was certainly in the air, there’s another perspective on the dialect business, a claim and proclaim program.
There is a long history of dialect as a literal, or rather, oral declaration of independence. Walter Scott did the same thing with Scots. The jungle of apostrophe marks that accompany these forays against the metropole are the equivalent of the dust  tossed up by some vast marching army of Goths, on a pillaging expedition to Rome.    
In Scott’s novels, the tie to the extinguishing of a culture, as the Gaelic highlands culture was extinguished in Scotland, is the loser’s wound that throbs beneath the whole edifice.  Scott’s dialect characters are tied to their political and economic station.  Here, from Old Mortality, is the  kind of thing that occurs frequently in Scott:
"Your leddyship never ca'd me sic a word as that before. Ohon! that I
suld live to be ca'd sae," she continued, bursting into tears, "and me a
born servant o' the house o' Tillietudlem! I am sure they belie baith
Cuddie and me sair, if they said he wadna fight ower the boots in blude
for your leddyship and Miss Edith, and the auld Tower--ay suld he, and I
would rather see him buried beneath it, than he suld gie way--but thir
ridings and wappenschawings, my leddy, I hae nae broo o' them ava. I can
find nae warrant for them whatsoever.”

And here is the kind of thing that occurs in Hurston – a snippet of dialogue between Janie and Tea Cake:

“Ah know it and dat’s what puts de shamery on me. You’se jus’ dis gusted wid me. Yo’ face jus’ left here and went off some where else. Naw, you ain’t mad wid me. Ah be glad if you was, ’cause then Ah might do some thin’ tuh please yuh. But lak it is—”
“Mah likes and dis likes ought not tuh make no dif fer­ence wid you, Tea Cake. Dat’s fuh yo’ lady friend. Ah’m jus’ uh some time friend uh yourn.”
               The image of a Vandal army attacking Rome brings up, of course, the barbarian/civilized opposition that has long formed a certain mainstream approach to dialect. Indeed, language follows conquest, with its attendant justifications all centering around some essential fault of the conquered. Rome, however, was founded by barbarians in the strictest sense – Trojans who were defeated by the Greeks. Underneath the victorious power, it is easy to find a level of subjection and defeat. The Scots tribes, whose defeat becomes Walter Scott’s theme, moved out – they populated much of the Southeast U.S. that Hurston knew. And they put their stamp of victory on the slaveholding society that raided at large other tribal societies.
               I’m going on to Newman’s book tomorrow.   



Wednesday, March 01, 2017

how bad was the Democratic response to Trump? Very very very bad

I've been thinking about this today, a little obsessively. And I've come to the conclusion that the dead heads in the Democratic establishment in DC are innumerate in a serious way.
Most of them are old white people, like Schumer and Pelosi. So perhaps this explains their bias.
I'm sure they think featuring an old white guy surrounded by a diner full of other older white people is a sure, a non-risky way of confronting Trump.
Actually, though, I'd argue that it is the riskiest bet they can make.
Given the fact that, at least since 1980, older white people vote Republican by between 10 percent to 20 percent more than they vote Democratic, what does it mean to pitch your entire response to them?
Your choices are: Ds want either less of them to vote, to convince them to vote D., or finally, you outflank them.
The first option is absolute. You absolutely want to discourage them. It is thus not identical with the third option, which is that you dilute their voting power by increasing the numbers in other sectors - blacks, hispanics, millenials - so that the older vote is proportionately diminished.
Given the trend lines with older whites, the most risky strategy is to try to convert them. Firstly, because it is statistically unlikely it will make a difference, and secondly, because it screws up your third option. It will bring more old white people out to vote. In 2016, there were a lot of reports that the Clinton campaign's idea to appeal to moderate Rs actually motivated a lot of Rs to go to the polls - and vote Trump.
So the DNC and the DC Dems chose the most risky option to play against Trump. But they will all assure themselves that they are playing it safe. This is how lost they are.

Monday, February 27, 2017

heidegger's naziism, locke's apology for slavery

The Magazine Litteraire had a nice dossier about Heidegger last month, heralding, I suppose, the translation of Heidegger’s Black Notebook into French. Those who keep up with those things will remember that the notebook is full of pro-Nazi, anti-semitic remarks, and continues in that vein even after WWII. Heidegger never learned anything.
Which of course leaves a problem for those who think Heidegger’s philosophy is important. Is it all, as Emmanuel Faye has maintained for decade, a coded philosophy of fascism? The argument here is pretty much one of critical integrity: it is disingenuous to leave out what we know about Heidegger’s naziism when explicating his texts. Faye, though, goes further, and relates Heidegger’s biggest text, Being and Time, to his naziism as a master explanation of what is going on. Bourdieu did the same thing. One takes a term like Sorge, care, and shows how it it is primarily a political, and not as Heidegger pretends, an existential signifier. In this way, by looking at Sorge in Nazi texts and in Being and Time, one pierces through to the true meaning of Heidegger’s text. 
This claim would be more convincing, however, if there were control texts – if we also went through Communist texts, or those in the journalistic world. Without doing this, we are pre-determining the orientation towards Naziism.
My own view is that the question of what to make of Heidegger’s Naziism throws into relief the larger question of how we do philosophical history. For my money, I’d say we do it badly. It is about great heads, marble busts lined up one after the other, all engaged only with each other. I think that philosophy, like any discourse, is less personal than that.  Reading Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Bloch and Benjamin, who were all writing in the 20s, gives one a sense that each writer is playing a variation of a code that was shared among a certain spectrum of German intellectuals who were trying to find an escape from the liberal paradigm that broke down in WWI. Looked at in this way, Heidegger represents the far right part of that spectrum, whereas people like Lukacs (whose Weber influenced essays, even before the war, could be read as though they were influenced by a much later book, Being and Time) represent its changing far left.  But Heidegger’s philosophy in almost all its major moments was easy to capture by leftists as well as rightists. It shows a misunderstanding, I think, of how philosophy operates – how the special terms and arguments are affordances that can be radically shifted in various systems without being negated – to pretend that Heidegger was writing merely for the cryptofascist crowd. He did, obviously, have the freedom to do so when he was loose in Hitler’s Germany, but he notoriously failed as the third Reich’s pet philosopher. The reason for that failure is that the Hitlerians suspected that vocabulary – they sensed something indelibly Weimarish in it. And they were right.
There’s a famous story – so I’ve been told – about Michael Dummett. He was completing a book about Frege’s mathematical philosophy when he read Frege’s own “black notebook”, his diaries, and found that he was a raving anti-semite. For a while, supposedly, he laid his work on Frege aside, not knowing if he should continue it. He finally did continue it.

I like the attacks on Heidegger for his naziism. I would love to see some more attacking on Locke and Hume for their racism. In Locke’s case, this wasn’t just a matter of condoning slavery – Locke, as a member of the board of Trade and Plantations, which supervised Virginia, was instrumental in coming up with slave codes. This is mentioned in Intro classes to Philosophy about zero times, in my experience, whereas Heidegger’s Naziism is always mentioned when he is explained. I would love to see a philosophy magazine dedicate a dossier to Locke and slavery, but I am pretty sure that is not on anybody’s agenda.