“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, July 21, 2017

these are the breaks! narrative tricks of the novelist and the rest of ius

Novelists have been fossicking in the bag of narrative tricks since Don Quixote was a pup – or even longer! Yet when some novelist offers an unreliable narrator, or names one of the characters after him or herself, we haul out the postmodern or experimental label like Wow! As though this was the newest appliance since the microwave. This is what we forget for stuffing Jean Paul Richter in an oubliette, ladies and germs.
However, what is even more interesting to me is that that this bag of tricks is not something invented by writers. All of the writer’s narrative tools are taken from everyday life, because narrative is a vital part of everyday life. The unfortunate effect of the Program Era is to make writing seem like a specialization; but newspapers, blog sites, advertisements, street people, lawyers, bartenders and the whole of unwashed humanity deal in stories and lyrics, in jokes and pick up lines, in sales pitches and complaints. What novelists can do, in participating in the general mill and moil, is bring the dialectics. One plays tricks with the authorial voice in order to undermine, sneakily, the death grip of authority on our assent. Or… at least that is one variety of motive. Often, when the authorial voice is unquestioned, so is authority – in fact, the narrative of fear and terror that is the stock of cop shows and detective novels is precisely about how mad and terrible it is to ever say no to authority. Look what happens!
Modernism – and I’m a big camp follower – did encode a dialectical position in the socius. It did dally with the negative, tossed it up in the air, frisked it, and brought it indoors. The suicide of Madame Bovary is the suicide of the romantic movement in the rise of Napoleon III – among other things. The adventurer becomes the proto-fascist. The adventuress is doomed by her conditions, among which is the ruthless plundering of those adventurers among whom she falls. Moll Flanders is dead. Etc. Even though Flaubert buddy-buddied with members of the Napoleonic circle, this is still the case. 
Too often the aesthetic sphere is given a phony autonomy, as if its history were solely inside itself. But – as Zola well knew – the birth of the department store was an event in the aesthetic sphere. However, it was a crossroads event – standing at the intersection of criminology, politics, economics and the position of women in 19th century capitalism.

So, there. These are the breaks/checkitoutcheckitoutcheckitoutcheckitout.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

don't blame Ayn Rand. Blame Alex Osborn

I had gone through this vale of tears thinking that the root of brainstorm was meteorological: that the brain is encouraged to “rain down” ideas. But this week, I have learned that storm was meant, by the coiner of the phrase, to evoke soldiers storming a position. In other words, the brain was to be considered a sort of grenade, and the brainstormers were to be considered commandoes rushing at a problem.
The coiner of the phrase was an advertising man. Naturally. Name of Alex F. Osborn. Now, a lotta folks blame everything that’s been crapped up on Ayn Rand’s malign influence. Few (or maybe nobody) blames Alex F. Osborn. But I think a case can be made that Osborn’s brainstorm baby – set sailing on a sea of Babbitry and business uplift – has had a larger effect on the American elite’s cognitive style than the firebreathing Rand, who had the good sense to see that under the suit or  casualware of the business school graduate beats a heart just yearning for someone to mistake him for a hero in a Harlequin Romance.  Good way to sell books. And if daffy Silicon Valley types weave a philosophy from Rand’s romances, well, pretty much tells you about the level of Silicon Valley types.
But Osborn was serious.
“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts “brainstorm sessions; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” meas using the brain to storm a creative problem— and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.” [Applied Imagination]
Osborn is quite excited by the sheer quantity of brainstorming results. A group at his agency developed over 800 ideas for one of his clients. 800! Imagine, as they would say today, the disruption!
Osborn gives four rules for brainstorming:
“1. Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas is withheld until later.
2. Freewheeling is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better.  It is easier to tame down than to think up.
3. Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.
4. Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea. “

If the surrealist idea of automatic writing were turned into a parlor game for servants of capital, I guess it would look like this.
However, my point here is that the breathless idea of being “freewheeling” and putting out all these ideas out there – the more there are, the more likely we are to find “winners” – has become the unfortunate cognitive style of the Executive branch in its ultra testosterone mode. In a sense, Trump’s tweets are the ultimate brainstorm. They wheel so free that the wheels come off; they flurry, they multiply. And they both judge and ask not to be judged – exposing the contradiction between 1, where criticism is given its division of labor instructions to stay away, and no. 4, where we are trying to make an idea better, which is truly hard to do if we can’t judge its worth at all. Meaning that we end up with excitable inanity, the usual form in which exec speak happens. It is all very uplifting and, as Osborn likes to say over and over again, creative. The American cult of the creative may not have started with Osborn, but he was a votary.
Osborn indicates with some satisfaction (in the book I’ve been quoting) that the military has taken up his ideas and run with them. I think some glimmer of brainstorming is behind the cockeyed sense of intellectual entitlement that pervades both Silicon Alley and Wall street: that the making of software apps for taking pictures of cats, or slicing and dicing a financial instrument so that nobody understands what it is about, is very creative.   Trump, that old joke, with his art of the deal, otherwise known as cheating at cards, is very likely convinced that he is a brainstormer par excellence. He and Kushner and Bannon – can’s you see these fatuous men putting their heads together to solve, say, the problem that miiiinoooorities are still allowed to vote in this country. Etc.

I don’t blame Rand. Poor Osborn is the guy I blame. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

theses on neoliberalism: once more with feeling!

Ellen M. Wood's "The Retreat from Class" , published in 1983, is uncannily predictive of the course of neo-liberalism. Though she is pretty highhanded with us epigoni of French Theory, what she says about the disappearance of class within political discourse – and cultural discourse in general - is totally correct, at least in the Anglosphere.

Of course, class only disappears in the minds of the bien-pensants, not from their daily lives. Class as lived experience is overwhelmingly present, from the sandwich shops of David Broder to the shores of the mini-mansion subdivision universe.

Neoliberalism is neo because, unlike classical liberalism, it proceeds logically from the dismantling of the labor theory of value. In terms of class, this means writing out the working class, and substituting as its pertinent tri-fold structure the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. The wealthy are described as wealth makers. The middle class are economically autonomous, and the poor are government dependents.

Within neo-liberalism, then, taxing the wealthy is justified by the government services provided for them, and not as a countermeasure to the level of exploitation that creates that group. The middle class, if it demands something from the government, is displaying moral culpability: how dare, for instance, middle class kids demand free secondary education? Obviously, they simply want bribes. And the poor never work – the goal is to get them to work. Then we can pull away government support for them.

Class, which used to indicate a position in the spheres of production and circulation, becomes, in neoliberalism, a proxy for income.

Politically, income is a very weak guarantor of solidarity. The search for solidarity turns elsewehere – to various identities, which, in the absence of a robust sense of production and circulation, take on the primary roles in structuring our lives, and thus the politics concerning our lives.

It is interesting to me that Marx talks about life, not about economics, when speaking of what determines our consciousness. Life is at the center of his thinking, yet it is consistently read out of his thinking. When we read that Marx doesn’t accord enough force, or accords no force, to ideas, the people saying this are usually at work. They are usually academics writing ideas in books that, among other things, will gain them tenure. The ideas that they are talking about come from the great names. They are not talking about the ideas of the sandwichmaker at Subway. Why?

What we know of the life of the sandwichmaker – or of our own lives – is that we perpetually sacrifice our idea time to our work time. Marx has a pretty keen idea of what space, in the course of a life in which twelve hours a day is devoted to repetitive work activities, is going to go into ideas that are going to be written on paper.

The neo-liberal triumph is to make this all seem delusory. Instead, we have the great ideas of the great ideamen – usually men, but under our new more liberal standards, even women are accepted! – and then we have the daily lives of people who, if we don’t watch out, will want free government services.

It is in this way that neo-liberalism moves from being some set of “ideas” about the economy to a cosmic vision of how things are and ought to be.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Gareth Stedman Jones's Marx

I was so irritated by the review of Gareth Stedman Jones’ Marx “biography” in the London Book Review that I began to research GSJ’s past pronunciamentos in re the great man. Jones has been treading high road to capitalism for a long long time. But he has the misfortune, or fortune, to have linked himself early to Marx. Instead of disavowing Marx and moving on, he’s dedicated himself to the more remunerative task of misinterpreting Karl. As was pointed out in 2004 by Jacob Stevens, fascinated by Jones’s long  yawp of an intro to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto,  Jones’s Marx is recognizably a product of one of the Cold War subthemes in the “battle of ideas”: that Marxism is a religion. Hence, the title of the book of confessions by ex-Commies: The God that Failed. Jones’s variant is that Marx knew very well that ideas rock the world, but hid this under a materialism that was in stark contradiction to his humanist faith.

In making this case, Jones embraces the idea that intellectual history is pretty much about reading books. Marx reads some books, is influenced, writes books, etc. etc.

It is a case he has been making for some time. For instance, in 2002, writing for the Guardian, Jones casts cold water on the anarchos and lefties making with the cops at globalist fests – like G20 summits – by way of another Cold War trope – capitalism did everything that Marx wanted communism to do! In 2002, it was very popular for ex-lefties to make arguments of this form. Hence Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens making mock of the betrayal of the “left” by those who opposed the crusade for all that was right and good in Iraq.

Jones did not go that far, although the Blairist butter in his Guardian article is pretty thick. But what bugs me about Jones is not so much his politics – which is a garden variety of bien-pensant reformism, which in the short term is what we got – as his historical method. For instance, this:
“Marx’s manifesto vision was driven by a conviction that the capitalist cash-nexus distorted the expression of human need. Drawing upon legal historians, he concluded the modern forms of private property and the exchange economy based upon it was only one in a historical succession of different property forms. Capitalist private property had produced the unparalleled productivity gains of the 19th century industrial revolution.”

This to my mind ignores the Marx who did not have to read German legal historians to see what was going on about him as he lived and worked in Cologne. All he had to do was read the newspaper he edited. Jones simply ignores the series of newspaper articles Marx wrote about the laws concerning the abolition of traditional gleaning rights in the woods that formed an important part of the wealth of the German landowner aristocracy. How important was this issue? Wood theft constituted the highest percentage of the crimes for which people were sentenced to prison in Germany in the nineteenth century. It was while working on his newspaper that Marx saw the belief he’d been educated in – that law makes property – was untrue. Rather property law was being remade by class. Although Jones has evidently had his head in a library for a long long time, he might have stuck it out enough to notice how intellectual property laws have again remade property. This was not in response to some principle in the law, but rather to some pressure from the owners of computer software and giant pharma. You can sell your car second hand – you can’t do the same with your code for your Microsoft Office Suite. Rationalization isn't reason - the capitalist libido operates now just as it operated in the forests around Cologne in 1845. 

All of which is a way of saying: Marx noticed things outside of books. He noticed events. Jones is correct that the critique of capitalism was never succeeded by the construction of some positive communist utopia, with instructions showing how part a fits into slot b. On the other hand, what promoter of capitalism ever envisioned global warming? Or had a grasp of the vast effects of unleashing the chemical-industrial products on this world? Did the inventor of nitrogen fertilizer have any sense that he was igniting a population boom, and destroying peasant societies globally – more effectually than communism ever did?

All of these overwhelming effects of the system can be abbreviated into the term “alienation.” It is what we live in. Marx’s critique gives us a mirror of how it came about, and how it functions. It is based not on reading the British economists and the German legal historians – these were useful, but not sufficient – but on reading newspapers, reports on factory conditions, going out into the streets. Marx was perhaps the first philosopher to ever take what the newspaper reported as material for thought.

You’d never know that from an intellectual archaeology that refuses to look at the nineteenth century except in the cliched terms of “the industrial revolution” – a sort of children’s book caption for what was happening. A more serious issue might be Jones’s substitute of private property relations for wage labor. Which is what Marx was on about at the time he wrote the Manifesto, and immediately afterwards, when he edited – wait for it – a newspaper, and made speeches to workers organizations, such as the one in Vienna in 1848, on the theory of property by Puffendorf. Just kidding! The speeches were on wage labor, and were reprinted in a pamphlet, and referred to the wages made by weavers, for instance. It referred to the worker’s time – his or her living time.
Here’s a quote, ending with a perfect little metaphor. And then I’m done with the bug up my ass that succeeded my reading of that stupid review in the LRB.  

“But the putting of labor-power into action -- i.e., the work -- is the active expression of the laborer's own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages ; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on -- is this 12 hours' weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours' work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.“

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Japan EU trade treaty sucks - not that you'd know that from the nyt

The NYT - in mourning for the TPP - casts its lonely eyes on the European-Japanese treaty and finds it a shining symbol of all that is good and right. Actually, it is a shining symbol that the EU's elite never learns anything. Negotiated in secret, full of the kind of mulitnational corp goodies that are the new road to serfdom, its benefits will flow to the top 1 percent, while undermining the bottom 99 percent. This article in Libe is of interest

Trade treaties are always sold as being so ultra beneficial to the "poor" - which is what we call the laboring class in these neo-liberal times. It is odd that no representatives of the "poor" are ever allowed to shape them, then. But what do the poor know? Best keep these things secret.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

hurray for long beach!

One of Raymond Queneau’s novels, St. Glinglin, begins with a sentence that for some reason has burned itself into my memory: «Drôle de vie, la vie de poisson”. Actually, like all memory burns, this one turns out to be a little lost in space. I repeated it to A., yesterday, as we were walking around the maze of the Long Beach aquarium, but attributed it to Zazie dans le metro. And, in a final parapraxial slip, I claimed that the sentence went Droledevieviedepoisson, one word, when actually Zazie does begin with one word, “Doukipudonktan”, who is that stinker, which Queneau takes from the Finneganwakesese of everyday French.

The sentence about fish signals, in Queneau, that we are again working with a sort of loose cannon of a personage, a perpetual grad student who has gone down a side route that has nothing to do with the money he’s been granted to pursue his studies: studies in literature, not aquarium.

The Gathmanns are ferocious aficionados of aquarium, in all its aspects. Indeed, we are, as a family, agreed that the fish does have a Drôle de vie – a life of color, grubbing in the sand, nipping each other’s fins, some peakishness (Proust’s neurasthenia has nothing on that of certain tropical fish), and complex relationships with each other founded on a seeming indifference best captured in that sequence in The Meaning of Life where the fish all greet each other like London bank employees on the tube.  To support that lifestyle, certain Gathmann’s maintain big aquariums, and have even dabbled in the esoteric arts of salt water. When the Gathmanns as a group go to any big burg, one of the first things they check out is whether the burg hosts an aquarium.

Myself, until recently, I was a dissenter. The idea of laying down the hard earned ready to see a buncha fins struck me as a waste of spondoolees.  But all my snobbish distinctions have tottered and fallen since Adam was born. To have a four and a half year old is to realize that one’s personal canon must be constantly revised, i.e. bulldozed,  to let in such things as Peep and the Big Wide world, and that there is much to be said for the archetype of the Joker and knock knock jokes. Adam has been in love with sharks for some time, but it only recently hit me that sharks are, to Adam’s age group, what dolphins were to my childhood – the fashionable sea creatures. The stock price of dolphins has gone the way of the stock price of Sears and Roebuck, which makes me sad. On the other hand, I love it that Adam’s generation is all about saving sharks. In fact, I do remember happy hours playing sharks when I was a boy. There was a foldout of shark species from National Geographic that I can remember in detail, although as pointed out, first graf, my memory is not what I remember it to have been. All of which is to say that,  according to all accounts, a good place to get up close and personal with sharks was this Long Beach aquarium. And Sea world is both more expensive and probably, for someone who cares even the slightest for animals, not the best choice. So off we went on a staycation jaunt.
I’d def recommend the place. It is not, like most joints that draw in kids, a depressing money suck. The exhibits are gorgeous, sorted according to ecological region. There are hammerhead sharks, or a species of them – there are about 30 species. There are the cutest Rays or Skates in the child petting pools. The personnel are relaxed Cali types. The message of be good to the environment is good for the future environment, that U.S. of 2030 when Trumpism is remembered in Museums of Shame, and racism is actually called racism, rather than “alt-right”, in newspapers. Of course, it will also be the U.S. trying to figure out what to do with refugees from Arizona as the temperature there climbs to 160 F. There was a special exhibit on tropical frogs, with a lot of plant life and frogs that you have to find among the leafage, since tropical frogs like to hide. There was a great octopus, and I do love octopus – I love them in nature and I love them with a little salt and pepper, oil and vinegar. There was an area of the aquarium with seats and tables and nothing else – evidently, the place had actually been designed for parents with kids, because the one thing you long for after a while is a place just to rest andyou’re your kids play with the toys you bought them at the gift shop. Overall, I’d rate the experience as brilliant. It made me love Long Beach for more than the fact that it is one of the few cities in America with a park  named for a communist: Harry Bridges, who made the longshoreman’s union a model of exploiting the exploiters.      

Sunday, July 02, 2017

the mummy's curse

Classical scholars have a name for the fictional device of the “discovered manuscript: pseudo-documentarism. It is a device that goes back quite a ways in the Greek world, with hints in, say, Plato’s dialogues, but that really comes into its own, according to Karen Ni Mheallaigh, in the first and second centuries A.D. Mheallaigh emphasizes the way the discovered manuscript both addresses the materiality of the text and blurs the line between fictional and historical truth.
“Pseudo documentarism in its various manifestations raises the stakes sharply in the game of make-believe, because it asks readers not only to concede the text's fictional truth but also to enter into the fantasy of historical truthfulness as well: in other words, it fictionalizes the issue of historical truth – an ethically worrying thing to do – and in doing so, it tests the limits of the reader's grasp of the rules that govern make-believe. The finer the line distinguishing fact from fiction, it seems, the keener the frisson of readerly pleasure becomes.” (Pseudo-Documentarism and the Limits of Ancient Fiction: Karen Ní Mheallaigh,  The American Journal of Philology 2008)

Good as far as it goes, but I think that there is another aspect – the productive dimension of the document – that gets pushed a little to the side here. After all, the exchange that happens is not only covered by the ‘contract’ with the reader, but by the contract between discoverer and author. The fiction after all creates an interesting editorial relationship where the author (who, we think, “really” composed the text) is transformed from the producer to the publisher, from the laborer to the manager, or administrator.
Like discovery in general in the West (an ideological unity that could be defined in terms of ‘discovery’ and “invention”, since discovery, as we know, signifies the erasure of the discovered peoples, or at least their subordination as subjects who can be discovered, but aren’t themselves discoverers, while invention is accorded to the discovering nation as the sign of its intellectual superiority), the discovery of the manuscript, the document, comes with a history of why it had to be discovered – why its producers either lost it, or chose to hide it, or – in more catastrophic stories – why the culture in which it was produced was buried. Discovery turns a use object into a treasure, with its very special terms of exchange.  If the relationship between the writer and reader is a “contract”, the publication of the discovered document points to a more primary broken contract. One of those Derridian paradoxes that, in our flat age, we are forgetting about.

In a colloquy on the motif of the manuscrit trouvé  held in the Louvain in 1999, one of the participants, Jan Herman, quotes a passage from Vivant-Denon’s Travels to Lower Egypt that gives us a wonderful  dialectical image of the discovered manuscript. The passage comes just after Vivant-Denon, who was one of the scholars enlisted by Napoleon for his attempt to conquer Egypt, is speculating about Egyptian writing and the possibility of Egyptian books, after having uncovered a stele on a dig:

I couldn’t help but flatter myself in thinking that I was the first who had made a discovery of such importance; but I congratulated myself even more when, some hours afterwards, I was blessed with the proof of my discovery by coming into possession of a manuscript that I even discovered in the hand of a superb mummy that had been carried to me. You have to be a true collector, amateur and voyager to appreciate the total scale of my joy. I felt myself almost faint: I wanted to argue with those who, in spite of my pleading, had violated the integrity of this mummy, when I saw clutched in his right hand and under his left arm the manuscript of a papyrus scroll, which I would never have seen without this violation: I couldn’t speak; I blessed the avarice of the Arabs, and above all the chance that had offered me this good fortune; I didn’t know what to do with my treasure, having so much fear of destroying it. I didn’t dare touch this book, the most ancient of all books known until this day, and I dared not confide it to anyone, or put it anywhere. All of my bedding cotton did not seem to me sufficient to softly wrap it up. Was this the history of some personage? The epoch of his life? Was the  reign of a sovereign under whom he had served inscribed there?  Was it some theological dogma, some prayers, or the consecration of some discovery?”

Note that even before Vivant-Denon begins to read it (which, if it were in Egyptian, he didn’t have the capacity to decypher), the discovery itself is the result of broken contracts, of violations of the most sacred sort. It is the underside, perhaps, of the history of pillage that calls itself the civilizing mission that violation is followed by contract, by care – the torn sheets of the mummy replaced by the sheets of bedding of the French savant. Only a truly contracting culture could pillage with such a clear conscience.  But the contract at some point doesn’t work to mollify worry. At this point, the dead come back. At this point, the gothic takes over. At this point, the editor/finder has a hard time convincing himself that he is not the stealer/robber, and that the avarice of the “arabs” is amplified ten times, a hundred times in his case. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

my howl

During the Bush years, I wrote this. Sort of still believe it. Although my tie to America has weakened considerably.
I gotta ask sometimes about my own divided sense of, affection for, the Homeland. It’s the crow’s own country for us, which I crisscross in my imagination on black wings, the smell of carrion and white magic in my birdie nostrils. But is it by any stretch of the imagination my country still? Or have I been simply completely fucked out of it? After all, I pepper it with every pot shot in my cap gun, and it would be a fair reading of what I say about these states that I generally view it as a savage hoedown of decrepit holy rollers ruled over by the most thieving gang of imbecile oligarchs ever to drool over a bribe or start a vanity war. So am I yankee doodle dandied out? Or am I in the position of the Pilgrims way back there in the seventeenth century, carrying the cursed language on my tongue but looking for kingdoms other.

Well, pardners, close combat vituperation is as native to the red clay and purple mountain’s majesty in which my testicles dropped as a preacher sex scandal, so there is that. I’m of this country, and take my privileges accordingly. I don’t possess a pair of calipers to measure American wickedness against some other and potentially more moral destination. I weigh it against my expectations, and its own philosophical claims – for what other nation is as philosophical as the U.S.A.? We invented the absolute weapon, then built 40,000 some missiles to convey it, and by that act proclaimed ourselves the end of history and an end in itself. No country was ever bold enough, or fucked up enough, to think so highly of itself as that. We wuz followed up to the heights, sure, but it was us that got there first. What other nation had the brass balls to claim that if, by some godawful chance, we were attacked, we reserved the right to destroy humanity? Okay, the aforesaid Soviets, but that didn’t work out too well for them, did it? The US runs me ragged, but it is way and wicked rich in every material and metaphysical oddity, which is a comfort. Yes, I expect that in my lifetime things will get much harder here for my class (the stragglers and strugglers); I expect the rich shits, whom to lay a sexual name on disparages itself, to acquire ever more power, and the American majority to refuse to do the rational thing and string them up, or strip them down, or in other ways put the fear of god into them. I could say that the Americans of my time just became servile asskissers, but I know the lack of fight is because the majority is tired and is driven by debt like the sinners in some Memlinc hell are scourged by demons. But I also expect wild souls to cross all expectations, who knows how: some minor redeemers, some jammers in the war machine. Sitting in the belly of the beast, I count on some regular people to wake up and pinch it hard. There will be noises off in the American underground, and I don’t want to miss that.”
In a coupla months I am alighting for foreign shores. I’m sorta sick of America, but I still think I stand with both the diss and the hope.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

where do superheroes come from?

Since the unexpected intersection of my life and the lives of superheroes has been willed into being by Adam, I’ve been thinking about superheros and their place in the American wetdream. One of the ways I go about understanding something (which is a way I have of feeling superior to it) is to find the root of it, the precursors, the historico-etymological unconsciousness from which it was called forth. So I thought that maybe this was found in such proto-fascists as Carlyle.
My advice is, if you think that Carlyle’s essay on Heroes in history is the royal road to the birth of Superman, forget it. Don’t blow the dust from that volume! I am a big fan of the 19th century essayists, but Carlyle is simply too bogus. With respect! Coleridge, De Quincey, the whole Romantic crewe were, like Carlyle, into German literature, but unlike him, they didn’t transform it into dyspepsia and fascism. I remember reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and liking it, but the Hero book, which started out as a series of lectures and was listened to, at so much per seat, by a group that dwindled as it became apparent that Carlyle’s Scot’s accent was here to stay, is not the background to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the great mutants that have now put the lock on our popular culture.
My search for the origins of the superhero cult made a necessary stop at Jill Lepore’s book on Wonder Woman – which Lepore traced back to the peculiar crossroads between utopian feminism and criminology, all staged with Harvard in the background. Wonder Woman was, from the beginning, a super hero like no other – not only because she was a woman (and got the usual comic book sexism thrown at her. Jules Feiffer, in his book on the history of super heroes, claims she is too flat chested. Wha???), but because her back story was expressly mythological. She was not a laboratory accident, or a military experiment, or a creature from another world. Lepore’s was an exemplary intellectual history. B-b-but I was looking for a key to the entire mythology, rather like dotty, repressed Causaban in Middlemarch, and it seems to me that there has to be more – some horizon of possibility that gave  superheroes such enormous importance in American culture.  My suspicion – or theory, since my suspicions have a way of becoming theories overnight – is that the super mutant ethos and fascination is tied into newspaper culture. A culture that, in spite of the efforts of such as Barthes, is too little interpreted from the lit crit aspect.        
My theory, untested by historical research, is that the superhero and his or her obsessions arise in close proximity to the racket of the newspaper format. Newspapers jumble together, in columns that stand next to each other but maintain a monad’s distance, war, crime, weddings, weather, politics and everything else. It is as if news were always a traffic jam. In particular, crime stands out. News media loves crime. So do readers. But with the love of crime stories goes the fear of crime fact. It strikes me that the obsession of superheroes with crime is one of the keys to the mythology. Carlyle’s heroes don’t even bother with crime. They are concerned with founding society and changing consciousness. They are saints, writers, and statesmen. They are certainly not policemen. In Greek and Norse mythology, the heroes are involved with sacred transgressions. They care about sacrifice, not about bank robbery.

Lepore’s exploration of the origins of Wonder Woman takes up this theme. William Moulton Marston, her creator (or one of them. Lepore is very clear about the collective input into this invention), was also one of the inventors of the polygraph machine.

The standard history of superheroes usually begins in the 1930s, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The 30s, too, saw a crime wave the like of which was not seen in the US until the 70s, the Great Depression (which undermined rules about property crime by showing the criminal behavior of the most propertied), and the rise of Fascism. All of which might have something to do with the way that Superheroes were both obsessed with crime and incredibly submissive to the powers that be. One might expect that a man of steel from another planet would have some sympathy with the man of steel from the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Stalin, but there’s no trace of revolutionary in his actions or thoughts. The only revolutionaries are the arch villains, who are still ultimately tied by the hip to the forces of order – they are weirdly willing to destroy the social order to make money, the ideal representative of the social order. There is some blip, some slippage in the thinking of the villains, which may be why they don the clothes of carnival mutants and engage in lumpen-revolutionary acts, out of some tabloid nightmare.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Poem for Stevie Smith

Isn't it dishonesty
this felt disproportion
between the gaps in my head
and the words in my mouth?

What I do around here
What I do
Is lie in bed
Dressed in Grandma's clothes.

In the movie
The old samurai
Dusty at the entrance to the village
Unsheathes an eloquent sword

With a rusty gesture.
I can identify.
To take strategies from the fox
Arbitrager’s carnivore

To fill my hunger
Clucking like an old hen
With oafish bit players
Instead of dangerous prey...

Oh chateaux – oh bandes dessinées!
Maybe I should exit stage left.
It's the dishonor I can’t stand.
Not the woodman’s necessity sharpened axe.

Monday, June 19, 2017

we become heat tourists

Because my love had a gig in Phoenix, we hied it outta tow last Friday after Adam’s graduation. The temperature in Santa Monica when we left was 80 F. We landed in Phoenix at 9:30 p.m, and the captain blandly announced that the wind was six miles per there, and the temperature was 100. The landing was strange. I had the distinct impression that the plane, like a man on third running out a bunt to home,  slid in. Upon the end of the slide, when the plane seemed normal again, the woman next to me turned and told me that she was always coming into Phoenix in the summer, and the planes always wobbled when they came in – hit by thermals, she thought. Then we speculated about the odd cracking noises the plane made. Unfortunately, I had spent the brief trip reading a thriller I picked up, which contained an elaborate airline crash scene. Talk about killing your paperback sales at Hudson News! I’m not a superstitious guy, but I did lay that book aside.
We deplaned, went outside, and the inevitable oven comparison ensued. I have a better comparison, built upon a famous passage in one of Harold Brodkey’s short stories. To describe the impression of beauty given by some woman, he wrote that to see her cross the Harvard Quad was to see Marxism die. On those lines, to step outside the Phoenix airport last Friday night and wait around for a taxi was to feel the Holocene die. Although one could argue that the Holocene was never very kindly to the Southwest to begin with, what with the drought cycle and the disappearance of Anasazi culture.
So we got our cab, or Uber, really (I apologize to all for participating in maintaining that cursed company) and we were driven to the Scottdale Plaza Resort, where we had booked a bungalow, by a sixty-ish woman who divided her time between driving for Uber and taking care of her two grandchildren, angels of 1 and 2 ½ (she dropped a hint that her son-in-law was currently looking for work), and she gifted us with her advice about how to spend the day in Phoenix. Basically, you can stay out to 10 a.m., then lock the kids up in shadows and air conditioning until 10 p.m., by which time they are asleep anyway. I would be alarmed if my environment was forcing me to spend summers like this, but she seemed very boosterish of Phoenix. She even found something civic achievement worthy in the fact that next Tuesday – which is now tomorrow – it was predicted to be a scorcher on the order of 120F. I could hardly believe my ears.
Then she dropped us off, giving us plenty to think about.
The next day, early, my love left for her gig, and Adam and I slept until 10. 10! I remembered the warning from our Uber driver. Nevertheless, we ventured out, tenderfleshed, and found the central resort center, which offered a modicum of breakfast: wooden waffles, scrambled eggs that were fresh hours ago, and the usual bad coffee. We had cereal. Then we searched around for sun blocks. I bought the children’s 50 and 70, and an adult 50 for myself. Back in our bungalow, I slathered Adam with cream, did the same to myself, put my hat on top of Adam’s head, found our sunglasses, and thus armed, we went out to the swimming pool. The climax of this story is not that we suffered 3rd degree burns, but that you can swim in 107 F sunlight if you stop to slop bunches of sun block on yourselves every ten minutes. After an hour of frolicking, we returned to the shadows of the bungalow and waited for Phaeton to drive his chariot through the azure Arizona air for a while. Then we… did stuff. Vacation, you know. Here narration ends, and dissemination begins, since the two days of vacation we took expired without any narrative anchoring points that went beyond what you’d get in a snap shot. The grocery store for floaties, junk food, and beer. The covey of young women at the grocery store, all clothed in hot pink tee shirts that read “Bride Tribe”, foraging in the liquor section. Adam’s first water squirter, which gained immediate love and affection. Breakfast. More swimming. A gratifying absence of sun burn due to the hyper gobs of sun block. The wonder of parents at the pool allowing their two and a half year old to sit under the sun as it delivered terrific luminous jolts. The restaurant we went to, The Blue Adobe, that served real Santa Fe Carne Adovada. Highly recommended. The giant jar of margarita, which came with an open bottle of Corona stuck in it at a jaunty angle. Excellent. The awarding of a jar of similar build, with the logo of the place on it, to yours truly after finishing said drink. Unnecessary. The ride back to the resort. Drunken.
Ah, and then one last touch. American airlines startled us with a message that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of afternoon flights today, so we had to change our flight to one at 10 in the morning – that magic hour. The heat today was supposed to peak at 117 F.

Yes, its like seeing the Holocene die. Quite the weekend getaway. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cross reference, ordinary language and wine tasting.

We went to the Ojai music festival this Sunday. We’d never been to Ojai. On the way, we passed through  Casitas Springs, which greets the motorist with a large sign adorned with Johnny Cash’s picture and the boast of being the great man’s home. We are  I walk the line heads, so of course we had to look this up, and it turns out those were Cash’s dark years, when he was chasing the amphetimine blues. Vivian got the house on the hill, in a nice Hank Williams turn of thing.
The music we heard at Ojai was more avant garde than country. Adam said he didn’t like it. I did. So did A. Ojai turns out to be a very pleasant resorty kind of place. Apparently it was adopted by a plutocrat – a Libby, guy who founded Libby glass – and so it shows off all kinds of restoration that is really fakedoration, like a mission tower that was built, really, in 1919, not 1719. But I can dig that, and especially the setting – it is nestled in a valley with three large peaks taking up the Eastern horizon.
This kind of country is great for grapes. So I wandered into a wine shop, where they were having a tasting. The tourists at the bar were loving it. Instead of the oenophile sniff, taste, and toss routine, they gobbled down their free samples. The gal pouring, though, gamely spouted the usual thing. Here’s a wine with hints of mint, chocolate, wood and crickets. Or whatever.
Which made me think about the construction of this sub-language.
Philosophers of language are divided about the function of the name, and especially the status of the proper name. However, most of them believe that the name or description functions in relationship to truth. If I described an automobile as a feathered creature that flies south in the winter, what I am showing is that I don’t know what automobile means. Maybe I’ve mistaken it for another word.
What strikes me about wine descriptions is how far away they are from anything I actually taste.
In a sense, this may be because these descriptions do not cross reference. Movie and book reviewers often cross-reference the works they are describing in order to give a sense that is given by experience in the genre. Describing a movie as Silence of the Lambs meets Star Trek  does mean something – but only if you know something else about movies. This knowledge doesn’t really have to be direct. I can have acquaintance with Silence of the Lambs without seeing it, as long as I have heard enough references to it. In contrast, if I described a movie as Satantango meets Sult, I am probably only talking to people who have a more cinephilic knowledge of movies, and are more likely to have seen both of these films. Cross-reference, in other words, assumes a certain knowledge.
But what kind of knowledge is presumed by smoky, or earthy, or nutty? Surely this is the tongue’s knowledge. If I have never tasted anything smoky, then I will have no idea – even from references by people who have tasted it – what that means.
Here’s the thing. To me, wine taste descriptions rarely if ever suggest the taste of wine.
Now, if – as philosophers like to say – language, even sublanguage, has a relation to truth, then – if I am right about wine taste descriptions – it would seem that this sublanguage would soon fail. It is as if the wine server started talking Jabberwocky. It has tastes of brillig, with hints of borogrove and mome raths.
But I can’t really say that the sublanguage is failing, even though it is often mocked. Rather, the method seems to have extended itself to coffee shops – I am seeing more and more wine tasting like language in them.
So what gives? I think this is a good subject for a nice philosophy paper. Something on a language of pseudo-descriptions, and its acceptance and use. In fact, the more I make these descriptions correspond to the wines they are supposed to describe, the more I can predict the taste of the wine even if I taste nothing nutty in it. They have become indexicals, I guess one would say. Just as I can tell the subject of a book from its LOC number, I can tell the “subject” of the wine from its description.
This is a rather fascinating thing. Roland Barthes, I think, found something similar happening in the Fashion world.

So I bought a nice bottle of wine, we had ice cream, and then we all went home. The end. You will find this paragraph to be full of earthy notes, with some nuttiness added. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

scripture reading today!

The weekend, around my house, is often devoted to scripture reading – the scripture being Adorno’s minima moralia. Here’s a lively bit that I’ve translated and distorted just a pinch, which casts a lot of light on our era – you know, the Age of Bush and Trump.

Fish in the water – Since the global distribution machinery of highly concentrated industry has dissolved the sphere of circulation, the later has begun a marvelous post-existence. While the profession of the go-between has lost its economic basis, uncounted private lives have taken on the guise of agents and dealers, even one might say that the whole private domain is confounded with this enigmatic busy-ness, which bears all the features of commerce without really having an object to deal in. Across the spectrum of anxious people, from the unemployed, to the most prominent, subject at every second to the anger of those whose investments he represents,  the belief is that empathy, industry, servicability, through clever turns and dodges  through businessman’s qualities, can one take on the air of the imaginary executive, and soon there is not a relationship that isn’t seen as a connection, no impulse that is not submitted to the mental censor for being perhaps too deviant. The concept of connections, a category of intermediation and circulation, was never best exhibited in the actual circulation sphere, in the market, but instead in closed, monopolistic hierarchies. Now that society is wholly penetrated by hierarchy, the dark connections stand everywhere that we still see a semblence of freedom. The irrationality of the system expresses itself never more greatly than in the economic fate of individuals where this psychology of parasitism comes out. In early periods, when there really was something we could call a bourgeois division between the career and private life, the passing of which one must almost mourn, the unmannerly ambitious man was mistrusted for following his goals in the private sphere. Today, in contrast, the person who subsides entirely into the private sphere seems to be arrogant, alien, and not with the program, since the person’s goals are not visible.  It is almost suspicious not to ‘will’ something: one doesn’t trust anyone of this type -, who lives  without legitimating himself with some counter demands of his own – to help us in snapping after the miserable  treats we are offered. Numbers of people make their jobs out of the circumstances that kick people out of their jobs. These are the nicest people, the bien pensants, that are friends with everyone, the righteous, that forgive every human meanness and with implacable hostility label  every not normalized impulse sentimenta. They are indispensable in their knowledge of all the strings and shortcuts of power, guess the secret judgments of the might and live off of their talent for nimbly communicating it. The are found in all political situations, eveen there, where rejection of the system reigns as self-evident and thus diffuse a lax and resigned conformism of their own type. Often they  captivate with a certain cheerfulness, through an empathetic participation in the life of others: a speculating selflessness. They are clever, witty, sensible and adaptive: they have polished up the old salesman’s spirit with the latest in psychology. They are capable of anything, even love,  yet never faithful. They don’t betray out of some compulsion, but out of principle: they value even themseves as profitmakers, which they cannot share with others. In their minds they combine elective affinity and hatred: they are a temptation for the thoughtful, but also their worst enemy. Then these are the ones who take the last little corners of resistence, the hours painfull reserved from the demands of the machine, and they cunningly shit on it. Their late ripened individualism poisoned whatever is left of the individual.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

the ontological drunkard's proof

Swedenborg, I think, is the only protestant ever to create an image of hell and heaven to set against Dante's. So I like him for that. But I really like Swedenborg because he argued that drunkards, who escape from a thousand seemingly fatal accidents, are a logical proof that guardian angels exist. Weirdly enough, though the ontological proof of the existence of God is taught in every first year philosophy class, nobody teaches the proof by drunkard of the existence of guardian angels. Furthermore, I think more people believe the latter than believe the former. So what is up with these philosophers?

Monday, June 05, 2017

political stories

narrative induction
Charlotte Linde is a rather brilliant ethnographer broadly within the symbolic interaction school – although not participating in that schools downhill slide into the irrelevance of infinitely coding conversations to make the smallest of small bore points. Rather, she has taken Labov’s idea that a story is a distinguishable discursive unit and researched Life Stories – she wrote the standard book on the subject.

In 2000, she wrote a fine study of an insurance firm with the truly great title, “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes memory and identity.” https://www.scribd.com/document/209339886/Linde-How-History-Become-Memory-and-Identity
 Identity, with its columnally Latinate Id seemingly standing for noun in general, has during the course of my lifetime been dipped in the acid of the verbal form, and now little leagurers talk of identifying with their team – their grandparents would, of course, used identify to talk not of a subjective process of belonging, but an objective process of witnessing, as in, can you identify the man who you saw shoot mr x in this courtroom? Conservative hearts break as the columnar Id falls to the ground, but that’s life, kiddo.

Linde’s article circles around a marvelous phrase: narrative induction. “I define narrative induction as the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story…” My editor’s eye was pleased and did a little dance all over my face to see that this was the second sentence in the article – getting people to forthrightly state their topic is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things about editing academic papers.  

Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation. Linde, in this paper, is obviously moving from her concern with stories people tell about themselves – the point of which is to say something significant about the self, and not the world – to stories people tell about the world. Those stories often are about experiences not one’s own. They are non-participant narratives.

Linde divides the NPN process– as she calls it – into three bits: how a person comes to take on someone else’s story; how a person comes to tell their own story in a way shaped by the stories of others; and how that story is heard by others as an instance of a normative pattern.

There is an area, as Linde points out, where work on this has been done: in religious studies. Specifically, the study of metanoia, conversion stories. But there’s metanoia and then there’s metanoia. There’s St. Paul on the way to Damascas, and there’s Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, on the way to the relative wealth of a Toyota Car Dealership, owned by his father-in-law. Linde, not having access to St. Paul, opted to study the trainees of a major American insurance company in the Midwest. Like Labov, Linde is interested in class issues. In particular, stories of occupational choice. In her Life Stories book, she presented some evidence that professionals present their occupational choice stories in terms of some vocation or calling, while working class speakers present it, more often, in terms of accident or need for money. Philosophy professors rarely will say, for instance, well, I needed a steady paycheck, looked at the job security of tenure, loved the idea of travel and vacation time, so I went into philosophy. They will give a story rooted in their view of themselves as emotional/cognitive critters. Labov’s work was done in the seventies, and my guess is that there has been some shift. The NYT recently published an article about “quants” in finance, many of whom came from physics, and their stories were all without a moral/personal dimension – they were all about money, not interest in finance. Interestingly, as a sort of saving face gesture, they all talked about how there are “deep problems” in finance.
Narrative induction is obviously about politics. It is one of the great instruments by which power is made into action and organisation.  To my mind, the discourse about democracy, which has become the central discourse in political philosophy, has become sterile; using the insights of narratology might liven it up a bit. There has to be more than democracy in democracy, or democracy just becomes another gimcrack put up job. There has to be stories within a democracy that sustain it. If the stories are simply about who is being elected, I think it is a symptom of democracy’s decay – its surrender to the old monarchial narrative.  
We need, in other words, to start looking at political stories. How they work, and how they do self-work This is an area that has not  been very well explored by political philosophers who want to infinitely suss out what Locke meant, or stuff like that. We need something  more novelistic. We need more ‘what is it like to be’ questions that will allow us to understand the political stories people tell.  And not stories that give political agents the character depth of lab rats pressing buttons for pellets.

Cause those stories, though cynically satisfying, are ultimately untrue. They are even untrue about rats. 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

aryan nation

In 2014, Fortune magazine did a series about white collar convicts in prison. One of the convicts was Matthew Kluger, who was caught on an insider trading charge. Kluger is a name- his father, for instance, won a Pulitzer prize for the book, Ashes to Ashes, about cigarette company financed pseudo-science. Kluger was a highly paid lawyer.
The magazine asked him about race relations in prison. This is what he said:
When I was in transit [from Butner] to here, I was being held at this BOP central transit center in Oklahoma City: 5,000 people sitting there on any given day—it's unbelievable. It's at the airport. They pull the plane right up and they have a jet way. It's quite an amazing thing to see.
So I got there. I went to my room. And my room was occupied by a black guy. I went and started moving in, because we talked and the black guy was also going to Morgantown. About ten minutes later, some big, white, tattooed guy, an Aryan Brotherhood, Texas guy, pulled me aside. He pointed to some tables and said, "This is where we sit."
“We,” meaning you, too.
Well, I was a little confused about that. I wasn't sure whether he was saying, "This is where we sit, so stay away from us," or "This is where we sit, and you're welcome to join us." And then about ten minutes later, a guard came over and said, "I'm moving you to a different room." I said, "Why?" He said, "because your friends there said it was unacceptable to them for you to be in a room with a black guy."
So they moved me into my own room. Which was fine. I mean, I felt bad. I felt very bad. But I was happy enough to get my own room for the six days that I was there.
I've met interesting characters here, and I met interesting characters at Butner. My best friend at Butner was a 28-year-old sex offender who grew up in a trailer in rural South Carolina. I mean, I grew up in Connecticut, and later I went to prep school. This is not really my thing.
So you do meet some interesting people, and you learn to interact with people you would never outside of here have had the opportunity to interact with.

So race matters.

Race matters. Yeah. Race definitely matters. I would say in some prisons they're 50 years behind the times. Here we're only 10 or 12 years behind, or 20 years behind the times. No, there is a very “us and them” view—now, that doesn't mean that there's no interaction. And I have a couple of black friends. But by and large, there's a lot of suspicion and wariness.

I was reminded of this scene when I read the NYT’s lighthearted look at what they are calling the alt-right – it used to be known as white supremicists, but the Times is nothing if not trendy, and kissing the ass of our Republican overlords by using euphemisms for racists is where it is at in the country club world. The article centered on a former felon, Kyle Chapman, who is described here: 

As the founder of a group of right-wing vigilantes called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Mr. Chapman, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound commercial diver, is part of a growing movement that experts on political extremism say has injected a new element of violence into street demonstrations across the country.
I loooove that description. Kyle Chapman does have a slightly different profession the NYT people decided not to front. He’s been convicted of three felonies, two for armed robbery, one for selling weapons to some urban gang. Otherwise, he’s just a nice commercial diver.
I kid. You know I love our liberal gray NYT rolling over for the right paper of record, and advertising as part of the resistance. So, so… Times-ish.
But this is not so much about bashing the Times as calling attention to something that seems to operate completely under the attention zone of the establishment. It was not commercial diving that shaped Kyle Chapman's racist views. Prison has become a major station in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white males in their late teens and twenties. And that experience has majorly leaked into our national discourse.
The whole prison system in America relies on the kind of massive topown violation of human rights that puts the US on the level of North Korea, for instance, by torturing prisoners, and the encouragement of convict level gangs. The prison system that gave birth to the Aryan Nation is doing nothing about it.
I’m not suggesting that Trumpism is merely the phylogenetic extension of the Aryan nation. Rather, both are the phylogenetic extension of what America chose to become after the civil rights movements of the 60s. The massive incarceration system has leaked into the rest of the system, as it was bound to do. But we can all go da da da, and pretend this didn’t happen. Isn’t happening.

Monday, May 29, 2017

on a technological achievement: the movie actor


I never know what to say about movies. Not that this has ever prevented me from talking about movies.

My experience of movies has been that the language used about movies doesn’t make sense of that experience. 

When Edison, among others, invented the apparatus for making film, everybody – in the West - had a pretty good idea of what an actor did and what theater was. These ideas were passed onto film, as if film were merely the extension of theater. It did not occur to Edison, or to others in the first period of moviemaking, to do more than let the camera record a basically theatrical experience. It was as if one were just taking a big extended photograph of a play. 

Now, the play is certainly not a spontaneous experience, but it soon became evident that the theater and the movie operate in different dimensions. The actor in a play may rehearse the part, certainly has to memorize the lines, appears in a stage setting, interacts with others who have also memorized lines, etc. – but all within the defining experience of the performance. The actor’s experience of the play and the audiences is equivalent. 

This radically changed with film. It was blown to hell. The idea that the film would mimic the play – photograph it - could not long ignore the technical nature of film making, which allows one to create a performance out of an ensemble of many cuts. And that is key – at that moment, the experience of the audience is fatally and finally cut adrift from the experience of the actor. It is, of course, still possible to film a play, but movies generally are built on the ruin of the old regime, in which the actor experiences the unity of his part in something that occurs from beginning to end at one time. This rarely if ever happens in movies. 

Of course, this became, very early, a trope in film. Since the silent films, movies have loved to show – to gleefully demystify – their making. They love to focus the camera on the camera focusing on the actor, they love to show the fakery of it all, they love to show the director, sitting in a director’s chair, saying cut. The cliché quickly and thoroughly penetrated the culture. 

However, even as the difference made by the movie was exposed again and again, we retained old, theatrical ways of looking at what was happening. We still called the figures mouthing the lines and pretending to be detectives or kings ‘actors’. And though auteur theory wasn’t really codified until the fifties, the characteristics of it in movie appreciation appeared early on – as though the director was an author. 

And so, newpaper and magazine movie critics will write about the performance of the ‘actor’ in the film as something that occurs like the performance of an actor in a play – they will ignore what they know, and what every movie abundantly references – that this is very much a synthesis, rather than a spontaneous unity. The movie references this in its camera work, its transitions, its ‘special effects’, etc., and we know after we have finished it that our experience of it as a performance was an illusion. Even the dimmest movie goer sees through the illusion. The ironic entailment of the reality affect offered by movies is that they become less ‘real’ – they reveal themselves as process the realer they are. 

So what are these figures? Are they actors?

There’s a story told on the DVD of Ni Toit ni Loi (Vagabond). In one of the last scenes in the film, Sandrine Bonnaire, the actress who plays Mona – the film’s central figure – wanders into a small French village where the grapes have just been harvested. The village celebrates by allowing a sort of carnival – men dressed up like wine demons capture whoever wanders by – civilians – and dunks them in a vat of wine, or throws grapes at them. According to the interview, when Bonnaire played in this scene, she was not expecting these grape demons – and she was really terrified by them as they chased her around, and eventually into a phone booth. It is an excellent scene – but it would never work in theater. In the unity of the experience of audience and actors that makes up theatrical performance, and actor who doesn’t know what is happening destroys the code of the performance. He or she isn’t better or worse at that point, but becomes a non-actor. However, this rule simply doesn’t apply in film. This is why film actors often speak of acting a role in terms of the way they physically throw themselves into it – rather than, as theater actors do, the way they throw themselves into it psychologically. Bonnaire lets her hair go, doesn’t wash it, or herself – DeNiro pumps himself up to 250 pounds for Raging Bull – etc. Now, it isn’t the case that the film actor doesn’t try to assume psychological characteristics, or the theater actor is not concerned with the body as an instrument – it is a matter of what is subordinate to what. In a sense, the actor in movies, cut off from the entirety of the film by the process of making the film, is doing something very different than what we call acting. A movie is a riposte to methodological individualism – the fundamental level at which the movie works is not reduceable to the separate and individual contributions of the people involved in it. We understand it that way for giving prizes, and because the myth of the individual is something that, at least in America, we pay lip service to. In making movies, the West invented an art form that it did not have the conceptual structure to understand. 

Which is why I am uncomfortable with saying things about movies. Because the words I have to use were killed by the camera.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

the breaks

The breaks
According to Robert Craven’s 1980 article on Pool slang in American speech, breaks – as in good break, bad break, those are the breaks – derives from the American lingo of pool, which is distinct from British billiard terms. The difference in terminology emerged in the 19th century, but he dates the popular use of break (lucky break, bad break, the breaks) to the 20s. I love the idea that this is true, that the Jazz age, the age of American modernity and spectacle, saw the birth of the breaks. If the word indeed evolved from the first shot in pool – when you “break” the pyramid of balls, a usage that seems to have been coined in America in the 19th century, as against the British term – then its evolution nicely intersects one of the favored examples in the philosophy of causation, as presented by Hume.
Hume’s work, from the Treatise to the Enquiry, is so punctuated by billiard balls that it might as well have been the metaphysical dream of Minnesota Fats – excuse the anachronism – and it has been assumed, in a rather jolly way in the philosophy literature, that this represents a piece of Hume’s own life, a preference for billiards. However, as some have noted, Hume might have borrowed the billiard ball example from Malebranche – whose work he might have read while composing the Treatise at La Fleche. But even if Hume was struck by Malebranche’s example and borrowed it, the stickiness of the example, the way billiard balls keep appearing in Hume’s texts, feels to the reader like tacit testimony to Hume’s own enjoyment or interest in the game. Unfortunately, this detail has not been taken up by his biographers. When we trace the itinerary of Hume as he moved from Scotland to Bristol to London to France, we have to reconstruct ourselves how this journey in the 1730s might have intersected with billiard rooms in spas and public houses. In a schedule of coaches from London to Bristol published in the early 1800s, we read that there is a coach stop at the Swan in St. Clements street, London, on the line that goes to Bristol, and from other sources we know that the Swan was famed for its billiard room. Whether this information applies to a journey made 70 years before, when the game was being banned in public houses by the authorities, is uncertain. One should also remember that in Hume’s time, billiards was not played as we now play American pool or snooker. The table and the pockets and the banks were different. So was the cue stick – , it wasn’t until 1807 that the cue stick was given its felt or india rubber tip, which made it a much more accurate instrument. And of course the balls were hand crafted, and thus not honed to a mechanically precise roundness. 
If, however, Hume was a billiard’s man, one wonders what kind he was. His biographer Hunter speaks of the “even flight” of Hume’s prose – he never soars too much. But is this the feint of a hustler? According to one memoirist, Kant, too, was a billiards player – in fact the memoirist, Heilsberg, claimed it was his “only recreation” – and he obviously thought there was something of a hustle about Hume’s analysis of cause and effect, which is where the breaks come in. 
There’s a rather celebrated passage in the abstract of the Treatise in which Hume even conjoins the first man, Adam, and the billiard ball. The passage begins: “Here is a billiard ball lying on the table, and another ball moving towards it with rapidity. They strike; and the ball which was formerly at rest now acquires a motion.” Hume goes on to describe the reasons we would have for speaking of one ball’s contact causing the other ball to acquire a motion. The question is, does this description get to something naturally inherent in the event?
“Were a man, such as Adam, created in the full vigour of understanding, without experience, he would never be able to infer motion in the second ball from the motion and impulse of the first. It is not anything that reason sees in the cause which makes us infer the effect.”
This new man, striding into the billiard room, Hume thinks, would not see as we see, even if he sees what we see. Only when he has seen such things thousands of times will he see as we see: then, “His understanding would anticipate his sight and form a conclusion suitable to his past experience.”
Hume’s Adam is an overdetermined figure. On the one hand, in his reference to Adam’s “science”, there is a hint of the Adam construed by the humanists. Martin Luther claimed that Adam’s vision was perfect, meaning he could see objects hundreds of miles away. Joseph Glanvill, that curiously in-between scholar – defender of the ghost belief and founder of the Royal Society – wrote in the seventeenth century:
“Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew'd him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo's tube: And 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper World, as we with all the advantages of art. It may be 'twas as absurd even in the judgement of his senses, that the Sun and Stars should be so very much, less then this Globe, as the contrary seems in ours; and 'tis not unlikely that he had as clear a perception of the earths motion, as we think we have of its quiescence.” 
However, this is not the line that Hume develops. His Adam has our human all too human sensorium, and is no marvel of sensitivity. Rather, he belongs to another line of figures beloved by the Enlightenment philosophes: Condillac’s almost senseles statue, Locke’s Molyneaux, Diderot’s aveugle-né. Here, the human is stripped down to the basics. Adam’s conjunction with the billiard ball, then, gives us a situation like Diderot’s combination of the blind man and the mirror – it’s an event of illuminating estrangement.
It is important that these figures were certainly not invented in the eighteenth century. Rather, they come out of a longer lineage: that of the sage and the fool. Bruno and his ass, Socrates and Diogenes the cynic, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – it is from this family that all these deprived souls in the texts of the philosophes are appropriated and turned into epistemological clockworks. 
 Hume’s point is to lift the breaks from off our necks, to break the bonds of necessity – or rather to relocate those bonds. In doing so, he and his billiard balls are reversing the older tendency of atomistic philosophy, which was revived by Gassendi in the 17th century. Lucretian atoms fall in necessary and pre-determined courses, the only exception being that slight inexplicable swerve when the atoms contact the human – hence our free will. Hume, who had a hard enough time with Christian miracles, did not, so far as I know, discuss the Lucretian version of things even to the extent of dismissing it. 
To be a little over the top, we could say that the eighteenth century thinkers disarmed necessity, exiled Nemesis, and the heavyweight heads of the nineteenth century brought it back with a vengeance, locating it – in a bow to Hume, or the Humean moment – in history. Custom. From this point of view, Hume was part of a project that saw the transfer of power from God and Nature back to Man – although we are now all justly suspicious of such capitalizable terms.
But the breaks survived and flourished. There is a way of telling intellectual history – the way I’ve been doing it – that makes it go on above our heads, instead of in them. It neglects the general populace, the great unwashed. Book speaks to book. To my mind, intellectual history has to embrace and understand folk belief in order to understand the book to book P.A. system.
Which is why we can approach the breaks in another way.
In 1980, I was going to college in Shreveport, Louisiana. I went to classes in the morning, then worked at a general remodeling store from 3 to 10. I worked in the paint department, mostly. At seven, the manager would leave for home, and Henry, the assistant manager, would let us pipe in whatever music we wanted to - which is how I first heard Kurtis Blow’s These are the Breaks. I also first heard the Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers delight this way, and I still mix them up. I heard both, as well as La Donna and Rick James, at the Florentine, a disco/gay bar that I went to a lot with friends – it was the best place to dance in town. Being a gay bar, it was always receiving bomb threats and such, which made it a bit daring to go there. We went, however, because we could be pretty sure that the music they played would include no country or rock. It was continuously danceable until, inevitably, The Last Dance played. 
At the time, I was dabbling a bit in Marx, and thought that I was on the left side of history. At the same time, 1980 was a confusing year for Americans. The ‘malaise’ was everywhere, and nothing seemed to be going right – from the price of oil to the international order. There were supposedly communists in Central America, African countries were turning to the Soviet Union, and of course there was the hangover from the Vietnam War – the fantasy that we could have won that war had not yet achieved mass circulation, so it felt like what it was, a plain defeat. 
I imagined, then, that the breaks were falling against a certain capitalist order. In actuality, the left – in its old and new varieties – was vanishing. Or you could say transforming. The long marches were underway – in feminism, from overthrowing patriarchy to today’s “leaning in”; in civil rights, from the riots in Miami to the re-Jim Crowization of America through the clever use of the drug war; and in labor organization, from the union power to strike to the impotence and acceptance that things will really never get better, and all battles are now rearguard. 
 My horizons were not vast back then – I didn’t keep up with the news that much, but pondered a buncha books and the words of popular songs. But I knew something was in the air. As it turned out, Kurtis Blow’s breaks were not going to be kind to my type, the Nowhere people, stranded socially with their eccentric and unconvincing visions. However, after decades of it, I have finally learned to accept what Blow was telling me: these are just the breaks. That is all they are. 
You’ll live.