“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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The press wants so much to kiss Trump's ass: why oh why won't he let them?

The strangest thing about Trump’s war on the press is that he is attacking something so systematically sycophantic that it would have embarrassed the courtiers in Louis XIV’s Versailles. The press, of course, would like you to think otherwise, and thus loves to hark back to when it wasn’t sycophantic – almost fifty years ago, during the administration of Richard Nixon. While this is accurate, the corollary that is never explained is that the Democratic party had been in power in the legislative branch almost without interruption since Roosevelt’s time. In other words, the establishment style in DC was set by the aging New Dealers and their kids.

Since 1980, this has not been the case. Although the old idea that the establishment media is “liberal” might even have some merit in a purely sociological way – the chance that a journalist will be more liberal than, say, a middle management person in the petroleum industry is pretty high – that liberalism has been confined, for decades, to a euphemistic approval of diversity, with a blind eye towards the racism inherent in our economy, our system of justice, etc., etc.

There is abundant proof that no matter how abhorrent and mendacious a president’s actions, the white house and D.C. press corps will be there for him. I offer up, as proof, the period between 2000 and 2006. George Bush was so obviously favored by the press corps (which found him the kind of guy that you could have a beer with, against Gore, the kind of guy who claimed to have invented the internet – really, the press loved this false charge) that when he won, there was a sort of holiday of profile pieces. Then 9/11 happened, Bush showed what it was like to panic under pressure, and the press regrouped to laud him as the leader we needed in troubled times. No questions asked for years about how a nation that had spent, conservatively, in the neighborhood of 20 trillion dollars building up a military force that could repel any attack on the “homeland” failed to prevent a handful of Saudi rednecks from hijacking planes and using them as missiles. No question about what the Bush administration knew and did nothing about. Rather, the press spread the idea, which has now become fixed, that there was no way to prevent 9/11. A common sport among liberals is to ask about how Al Gore would have responded to the attack, would he have invaded Iraq, etc. – as if another administration would not have rolled up the hijackers before the ink on their pilot licences was dry.

But the press was just getting started on providing a pretorian guard of publicists for the Bushies. From Soviet style press conferences in which Bush pretended to pick questions from reporters when, in actuality, he and they knew the reporters had been handpicked previously, to the wonderful rapport between the press and the president when he mocked the whole idea of that there were WMDs in Iraq (the video of this is still shocking), the press was “in on the joke”.

The NYT and the Washington Post signal, every day, that they would love to be loved by the President. To take a notorious example, it is pretty unlikely that, under President Hillary Clinton, the NYT would send a reporter out to do a soft soap portrait of a neo-Nazi. That was surely a rose thrown at Trump. It was in a sense a pledge that the press would go as low as he wanted as long as he tweeted something respectful.

Personally, I think Trump is making a huge political mistake. Bush’s people knew very well that the press is oriented towards thinking that the GOP is the natural party of political power. They played the press is liberal card, but professionally, in a way that the press could respect. Trump though seems as convinced as any Fox viewing retiree that the rest of the press is liberal as the Daily Worker. It is hard to kiss the ass of this president. The press will, however, keep trying.

Watch and laugh! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O35NA6TywAg 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

the pariah or fascism

We were in Nimes yesterday. A. was reading the papers and she told me that Israel is naming a station in Jerusalem for Trump – the only president we have ever had who finds some silver lining in the Neo-Nazi movement.
This didn’t surprise me.
I have a theory about the “romantic nations”. Those were nations that were first imagined into existence by the poets and philosophers of the 19th century. Italy and Germany are examples, as if Hungary and Poland. The nation-states thatformed in the period between the 16th and 19th century – the United Kingdom, France, Spain, the United States, among others – were formed not on the principle of privileging a certain ethos, but rather on principles in which monarchy, reason and religion were the operative notions. Germany,Italy, and Hungary. on the other hand, were dreamed into existence by philosophers and writers (Fichte for instance; Leopardi; Kossuth), and the long struggle for nationhood was promoted by the idea of a certain people and language having primacy, creating a home. The late romantic nations like Ireland and, finally, Israel, were shaped by the same forces.
In all these cases, you can detect a cycle: the nation exists as a culture before it exists as a nation; as a nation, it increasingly legitimates itself by an appeal to the superiority of its people; and in the final phase, the nation as an entity actually attacks its culture and what it stood for.
Israel was the result of the amazing flowering of Jewish culture in 19th and early 20th century Europe. You cannot think of any aspect of modernity that was not touched by that culture. Zionism was, originally, infused with the idea that this culture – liberal, erudite, tolerant – could found a nation.
But the seeds for the destruction, or at least the wholesale attack, on that culture are laid by the success of the nation project. We know what fascism meant in Italy and Germany. In Israel, that 19th century Jewish culture, and its ideals, are despised by the leaders in power, who find much more kinship with the violently and vilely anti-semitic rulers of Saudi Arabia than with, say, the great Jewish tradition that it otherwise calls on when, for example, the National Library in Israel claims Kafka’s papers as part of the “heritage” of Israel.
Whether Israel’s romantic nationalism in its blind course, allying itself with the worst enemies of the Jews, is going to destroy Israel, who can say? We can say that “forgiving” anti-semitism if it serves the political project of Israel is no different than forgiving anti-semitism if it serves the political project of France or Germany or the U.S. I expect Netanyahu’s government, any day, to set up monuments to the accusers of Dreyfus. He is about as low as you can get. But in these dark circumstances, it is good to remember that Jewish culture far outstrips the mere political maundering of this iteration of Israel.

The dark alliance of Trump's USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel has sent me back to an essay of Hannah Arendt's, The Jew as Pariah: a hidden tradition. Arendt wrote it in 1944, the year in which, for instance, 800,000 Hungarian jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz in the most concentrated convulsion of mass murder within the greater system of mass murder set up by the Nazis. Arendt was saved from the fate of other European Nazis by the usual narrow circumstances, getting out in 1941 as one of the Jews aided by Varian Fry in Marseilles. She knew very well who was being murdered - and what. Rare qualities: how many know who is being murdered, and what, in Yemen at the moment?
Her memory of the "contribution" of Jews to the culture of the "West" - in the suspect nomenclature of the time - was a new notion of freedom, from the point of view of the Pariah. In order to sketch this out, she creates four portrait-moments in the essay: the first on Heine, the second Bernard Lazare, the defender of Dreyfus, the third Kafka, and the fourth, Chaplin (who Arendt takes to be Jewish). Through Heine, she clarifies her thesis:
" It is from this shifting of the accent, from this vehement protest on the part of the pariah, from this attitude of denying the reality of the social order and of confronting it, instead, with a higher reality, that Heine's spirit of mockery really stems. It is this too which makes his scorn so pointed. Because he gauges things so consistently by the criterion of what is really and manifestly natural, he is able at once to detect the weak spot in his opponent's armour, the vulnerable point in any particular stupidity which he happens to be exposing. And it is this aloofness of the pariah from all the works of man that Heine regards as the essence of freedom. It is this aloofness that accounts for the divine laughter and the absence of bitterness in his verses. He was the first Jew to whom freedom meant more than mere "liberation from the house of bond age" and in whom it was combined, in equal measure, with the traditional Jewish passion for justice."
The pariah figure has, of course, been wrestled with since the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, and generally found wanting and contemptible. After all, didn't Heine's pariah type take the fight out of people who went like "sheep" to the camps? This is, of course, to substitute a fantasy of muscled resistance in place of reality, which consists of the need for so many calories per day, for air, for time to organize, etc. Modern life would stop if humans were not trained up to be sheeplike in almost all things. If you set your clock so as to get up to get to work on time, you have just contributed, a tiny bit, to your own exterminatability, if authority takes that turn. Resistance, which has become a comedy word in the U.S. meaning twittering for Clinton or something, is one of the hardest things to do in the world, because it takes away all of the struts and props that make life comfortable.
Philip Roth, in Portnoy's Complaint, makes a novel of the struggle between the pariah and the rejection of the pariah. I wonder what Arendt's reaction to Portnoy's Complaint was? For in that book, everything is laid out, and the pariah is definitely put through the paces. The alternative, meanwhile, is strength - strength as a virtue. 
Strength as a virtue - it is a proposition that has left innumerable corpses behind it. Aren't we fed up yet?
Bring back the pariah

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Writing Tips from the Lord of Hosts

I’m a big fan of the Lord of Hosts. He’s a surprising deity, now forbidding murder, admirably, now punishing King Saul for refusing to participate, or participating unwillingly, in ethnocide.
But I never thought of the Lord of Hosts as a postmodernist.

Last night, though… well, last night as we were putting Adam to bed, and settling on what we should be reading – maybe the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror? Maybe the book on Ancient Egypt, emphasis mummy? I got into my head to explain to Adam that his name was really something, and that the first man was named Adam. To prove it I decided to read him the account in Genesis, in the KJV version – which I tried to read with my best Richard Burton accent. Well, I was reading the first chapter when it struck me that, a., I hadn’t read this for a while, and b., this wasn’t the story as I remember it. Then I read the second chapter, and realized that, with sovereign aplomb, God majestically crushed the law of non-contradiction the way lesser creatures, say drunk UT fratboys, crush cans of Papst Blue Ribbon (after emptying them, of course). For of course, Genesis begins with two accounts of the beginning of everything, and there isn’t even the slightest attempt to make one account cohere with the other. It is as if in the beginning was the First Draft, and then in the beginning was the Second Draft, and we saw that both were good, so here they are.

Adam was not that impressed about his namesake. Oddly, in a chapter in which Adam names the animals, little concern is shown about how Adam was named Adam himself. As character intros go, Adam’s is pretty un-Tolstoyan. We have no story about his name and no description of his characteristics. Of course, this is par for the course – one of the great things about the Old and the New Testament is that there is not a hair or eye color found in the whole thing, that I can recall. This is much different than, say, the Iliad and the Odyssey, where we do get body descriptions of a kind.

Anyway, Adam, my Adam, was pleased when we turned from Genesis to Spiderman. Myself, I’m thinking I need to read Genesis again.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

I've got rhythm

Karl Bücher is a not very well remembered economist. His ghost comes up, faintly, in the literature about Karl Polanyi. He was an economist of the ‘historical school’ back in the early twentieth century. The ‘historical school’ and the marginalists were pitted against each other, and each also pitted itself against Marx. Institutional economics owes the historical school – although it is commonly thought that the historicists were creamed when the marginalists began to produce groovy, mathematical models. 

Bücher’s ghost also sometimes haunts … musicology. Of all things. This is because of a little book entitled Work and Rhythm. We all know about Taylor, and the making of work efficiency – at least those of us who remember the way the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time fell in love with Taylorism. Bücher, in 1894, worked along other lines. He listened to labor with that German metaphysician’s ear. He listened to the sound made by the shovel going into a sandpile. He listened to the smith hammering out hot iron. He listened to carpenters hammering, noticing how, if two carpenters are nailing near each other, they fall into a syncopated rhythm – the one striking a blow while the other’s hammer is raised to the midpoint, and then coming down and striking a blow. He noticed that a loom makes a sound. He thought about the muscular movements of non-skilled labor, and how they set up a sort of systole-diastole pattern. 

Bücher thought that the spirit of music did not arise out of Dionysian ecstasy, but out of the tedium and rhythm of milling, hoeing, reaping. Although to speak of a ‘rising out of’ here is a bit of a mistake. Rather, the rhythms were intrinsic to the labor. If they were made into music, that music was not detached from work.

If we ever write a history of alienation – or rather, a geneology of alienation in modernity – one of the most important everyday break point would concern the disjunction between labor and rhythm. At the center of our Weberian interpretation of Marx is our translation of what Marx says about commodities into Weber-speak: commodities, for us, equals bundles of routines. There are advantages and disadvantages to our variation of Marx – one advantage, which we are willing to give up a lot for, is that the idea of routinization being at the center of industrial societies puts alienation back in the center of the critical study of capitalism. It is impossible to understand changes in the emotional customs wrought by modernization without having some good notion of alienation, not as an abstract thing, but operating to, for instance, create noisy work – in which all rhythms get muddied and shredded - and silent work – which has a sound profile we all know all too well. It is the clicking of many keys. I’m doing it now.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

why I hate writerly writerly stuff

I've mostly liked Jennifer Senior's time at the Book desk at the NYT - it is definitely not her fault that the editors have decided that books are passe and not worth a really quality section any more. Newspapers are run by the mostly illiterate country club set, who own the papers, and they think the way back to relevance is to diss reading and up the coverage of celebrities - which ignores the fact that reading is the act that the newspapers are selling. If you don't have a strong book culture, you don't have newspapers. But hey, go ahead and cut your throats and call it relevance. See if I care.

However, Senior's farewell NYT piece is sorta what I don't like about writer-talk. It makes the writer out to be a special species, the cuddly curmudgeon, and so on. Myself, I like to think of the writer as an intellectual worker, on par with workers in the sphere of plumbing or asphalting. I've copped my view from the Soviet 20s attitude. Rodchenko, be my God! or something like that.

Alas, Senior is all about the inner circle that can read, say, the acknowledgements in a novel and spot the fact that the author was in a writing class with some famous names. Which is, to my mind, an exercise in so-whattery - unless one is trying to establish some larger point. So much of writing about writers takes the so-whattery route - like, what is your routine for daily writing? Now, I think routines are important, really important, but writers seem to be the only people who are asked this question. Actors, models, waitpeople, bartenders, politicians, etc. are never asked this question - which would be much more interesting in their cases. I would love to see an interview with a Senator that asks, so what is your routine for the average day? So far as I know, nobody asks this question to politicos.
Except of course Studs Terkel. I miss Studs Terkel.
Here's the link

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

on filler in narratives

The first appearance in print of the word “filler”, according to the OED, was in a pamphlet by Robert Greene on lowlife, published in 1591. It was a term of art among a certain kind of crooked merchants of coal in London, who bought coal in sacks that contained four or five bushels and transferred them to narrower sacks that took two and a half, which they claimed contained the standard amount. “Tush, yet this were somewhat to be borne withal, although the gain is monstrous, but this sufficeth not, for they fill not these sacks full by far, but put into them some two bushels & a half, laying in the mouth of the sack certain great coals, which they call fillers, to make the sack show fair, although the rest be small willow coals and half dross.”

Thus, filler enters the world as the child of conmen, and it carries that air of the spurious with it to this day, even though filler is now used in dozens of more or less honest ways, particularly in packaging and in admixtures to building materials like concrete, which are produced by more or less honest companies – more than seven hundred by Wikipedia’s count.

Interestingly, the rhetoric of literature has never accorded a place to filler. Every reader knows it, but the critics – not the book reviewers, but those working in the higher reaches of theory – lack a theory of filler. Filler is generally dismissed as false weight, or a con; or it is ascribed to sheer incompetence. The closest we come to a theory is in Barthes’ The Reality Effect, which considers that certain items or descriptions in a narrative can be simply remplissage: 
“… these authors (among many others) are producing notations which structural analysis, concerned with identifying and systematizing the major articulations of narrative, usually and heretofore has left out, either because its inventory omits all details that are "superfluous" (in relation to structure) or because these same details are treated as "filling" (catalyses), assigned an indirect functional value insofar as, cumulatively, they constitute some index of character or atmosphere and so can ultimately be recuperated by structure.”
Barthes thesis is that this structural angle doesn’t suffice – which makes sense. After all, there must be a dynamic axis that the structure serves.

Barthes notion of the dynamic is a lot like those “game books” for children that are popular in France, where a situation on one page can be resolved either in one way or another, with the suggested solutions leading to different pages – if the dragon is killed, go to page ten, if the dragon eats the knight, go to page 12. Barthes thinks of these solutions as choices, and the narration as a “huge traffic-control center, furnished with a referential (and not merely discursive) tempora1ity.” In other words, narratives do not run on arguments, even if they are allegorical. This makes description into something that either enables the narrative movement or impedes it. However, to continue with the traffic metaphor, traffic can slow down either according to the rules, with stop signs, or because of other encumbrances – the quantity of cars on a given route, an accident, a slow driver, etc. We are still, in other words, far from a total theory of filler.

What Barthes does see beautifully is that descriptions have an internal teleology of their own, which he traces back to the Greek tradition of the “beautiful”. There are epochs in which the beautiful is elevated above the dynamic of the text – there is a whole tradition, from the Alexandrian school to the Renaissance, in which emblematic descriptions, regardless of their referential fit in the text, would be inserted in the narrative. In our day, this has become the easy out for reviewing novels: find the beautiful passage. On his off days, James Wood, the NYer reviewer, plays the part of little Jack Horner, taking out plums from the books he is reviewing favorably, with nary a comment about how the “beautiful writing” works. Myself, I am as touristic as anybody else, and do like me a postcard phrase. But I do know that the trip is not made to pick up postcards, and that generally, pretty writing – at least of the Wood type – is often the mark of a pisspoor novel. You gots to scratch it, you gotta rough it up, you gotta mock it – such is the fate of beautiful writing in this fallen world.

Nevertheless, due perhaps to the reviewer attention to beautiful writing and the notion that the novel, like the product of a microbrewery, is a matter of craft, filler becomes something other than waste or deception. Yet, in as much as it exists within a narrative, it cannot escape being part of the traffic. 
That double function produces something Barthes doesn’t talk about much: suspense.

Suspense is attached to genre fiction,  but it is encoded in the very model of narrative as a decision tree. Although prose may aspire to some ideal simultaneity, it bears the burden of its own material elaboration in time in the hunched trudge to the end – for the text ends. One of the key facts about a narrative is that it has, at least as a finished product, a beginning and ending. This means that it takes up a certain amount of time to read. For those who hate reading (and all of us hating reading at one point or another) the prospect of this amount of time is irritating, or even unbearable. The time that it takes to read x cannot be recuperated, or exchanged. The equation of time and reading is an enormous fact that impinges on all the sites of reading – classrooms, libraries, the internet, etc.  And the common funny phrase that I wasted x amount of time on reading it that I can’t get back is, actually, not funny at all, but a cold fact. You won’t get it back. Whether it was a waste or not.

This perception of reading is internalized in texts in terms of suspense. In police procedurals and mysteries, it is not just that the chaser is frustrated by the ruses of the chased, the police detective by the criminal – but it is also the case that a certain amount of filler must be passed through. The filler has a secondary character – it lends color, it informs (this function is more and more important) – but its primary effect is to impede.

You can’t have suspense without filler, which stand in relation one to the other like the tickle to the tickler. And in its supreme form, in a novel like, say, Ulysses, where the suspense is not so much about chaser and chased, but about – among other things – a man avoiding confronting the love affair of his wife – the quantity of filler is so increased that the book becomes about it, about where it takes place in time and space. That it is constructed in terms of a reference to the myth of Ulysses and Homer’s poem releases the enormous work of having gotten this filler right – the work of research – from the category of the beautiful and gives it back to the mythopoetic, or to history, as it were. It is in this sense that Ulysses is connected like no other novel to everything that went before it and everything that came after it.  

Monday, December 11, 2017

Robinson Crusoe and Figaro walk into a bar... official and unofficial culture

When I was a little boy I learned about American history as a parade of heros in colorful situations: George Washington stoicking it out at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin and the kite, Abe Lincoln walking twenty miles to return a borrowed book while his Mamma wilted away with the mysterious “milk sickness”. No women save for Betsy Ross, and no African-Americans down to the very name. It was all so long ago, but this version of America runs like muzak in the veins of heartland patriots, so there is that. In the meantime, history got sexy: there was the civil rights movement, there was feminism, there was Foucault, there was deconstruction, there was the new historicists, chorus chorus chorus.
This has revised our view of the American Revolution by broadening it, for one. It is not in the context of a number of Atlantic Revolutions – the French, the aborted Irish, the Haitian – and it is now something much greater than the sum of battles the Yankees fought with the redcoats. Among other things, we are learning to see creole diasporas – the black diaspora, the English, the Irish, the Spanish – interact with each other. The connections between black slaves in South Carolina and, say, Jamaica, or St. Domingue, is still not fully explored, but one has a much stronger sense of networks and movement than the older, static picture of the state of the 13 American colonies.
Of the innumerable historiettes that show these hidden connections, I am fascinated by the trajectory of a pantomime that combines in itself a number of zones of contact: Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Robinson Crusoe or Harlequin Friday.
Sheridan was a violent Whig. Unlike his fellow Irish whig, Burke, he supported the French Revolution when it broke out, up through the Terror. Unlike Burke, he felt that the excesses of the Revolution were the fruit of the old regime that it overthrew, “that dealt in extortion, dungeons, and tortures; that set an example of depravity to the slaves it ruled over." Sheridan had already entered politics by the time he created the Robinson Crusoe pantomime in 1781. It was a creation of the left hand – a pantomime, after all, built for guffaws and a few songs, which was immediately successful in England.
The pantomime at first seems to stick to the story we know, with a few extra dashes. Crusoe is shown rather comically building his little solitary place on his island. He sees the famous footprint. He witnesses the “savages” commence to prepare a meal of their captive, Friday. He fires his gun, and the savages flee. Friday is so grateful he dumbshows his willingness to become Crusoe’s slave. But at this point there is an intervention from the side of Whiggery: Crusoe refuses that role, and gives Friday a gun. The two use it to free two captives, the harlequin characters Pierrot and  Pantaloon, and then help a captain take back his ship from mutineers. Act One ends with the cast going back to Europe. Act two opens in Spain. Here something new happens. Crusoe leaves Spain, and the next bit of the panto concerns the romance of Friday, a black man, and Columbine, a white woman.  Columbine seems to be Pantaloon’s daughter, and Pantaloon throws Friday out of his house. Here another theme sounds, as a Prospero like magician proposes to help Friday to spite his enemy, Pantaloon. A Cupid comes down from the sky, gives Friday a sword, a purse and a cap, and re-christens him Harlequin. After this scene, there is the usual tumble of slapstick towards the inevitable conclusion. Pantaloon and his people give chase through many changes of scenery to Halequin and Columbine until finally, due to the magician, he gives his permission for them to wed.
This crossing of themes from the Tempest with those from Robinson Crusoe has a mighty modern feel. But we don’t, perhaps, feel so much the Figaro element. It is, though, surely there. Beaumarchais enjoyed Sheridan’s plays when he visited London; the Barber of Seville was staged by David Garrick in London in 1775, six years before Sheridan’s pantomime. Here, then, is a text in the crossroads. But even more so when one follows its performance history. It was first performed in Montego Bay, in Jamaica, in 1785. Jamaica was England’s great slaveholding colony, and was, due to its sugar production, the single most valuable asset in the British empire of that time. It was performed by Hallam’s American Company, a theater troupe that fled to Jamaica from New York City when the Continental Congress, mimicking Oliver Cromwell’s legislation, shut down theaters in the American colonies.  Hallam’s company put on many of Sheridan’s plays – which were popular among the plantation owners. Still, it is interesting to think about the divided reception of a pantomime that implies such interesting things about slavery and race. Here is James Scott’s theory of hidden transcripts set in motion.

Perhaps the panto was destined to sow double meanings wherever it went. The play might well have a Figaro-like dimension in presenting, in comic guise, erotic equality between blacks and whites; but it continues the tradition of the savage, ending with a Savage Dance. Yet here’s the moment of social contradiction, which history turns out like the abattoir turns out sausages,  that amazes me: when Hallam’s company came back to New York, they put on the panto, and it was a great success. So much so that when the “the Indian chiefs of the Oneida Nation” came to New York City in 1786, it was the Sheridan panto that they were invited to see.

Scott’s theory of the relation between the big and little traditions – elite urban culture and peasant local culture – has the defects of any big dualism. But it does allow us to find moments in which cultural messages seem to be split at the very moment of their emission. It is not just dual culture, but a culture that is scratched at the root: “What may develop under such circumstances is virtually a dual culture: the official culture filled with bright euphemisms, silences, and platitudes and an unofficial culture that has its own history, its own literature and poetry, its own biting slang, its own music and poetry, its own humor, its own knowledge of shortages, corruption, and inequalities that may, once again, be widely known but that may not be introduced into public discourse.”

The problem here is resides in “its own”, for this too severely segregates official and unofficial. The unofficial is always there to appropriate the official culture, to fill it with fan fic and juxtapose it in liberating or ridiculing samples. And official culture is as recuperative – which is how such things as “cool” become prisons in America. Which is why I think the career of this obscure and forgotten panto shows a lot about the secret tracks that lead through a history we don’t fully understand, yet. Or maybe I should say: ever.    

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

the origin of the phrase, "american dream"

The term “American dream” seems to have come into currency in the thirties. It is often attributed to James Truslow Adams, who used it in a book in 1931 to refer a certain American style of thought. However, it was used at least a year earlier to refer to the movies. According to the Literary Gazette, movies were characterized as dreams by a French critic, Bernard Fay, who claimed that they were, pre-eminently, "American dreams".
It makes sense to me that American dream would emerge from the intersection of the analogy of movies to dreams and the crisis of American capitalism, for the dream metaphor is, otherwise, a curious one. It implies, among other things, a collective sleep – yet it is supposed to speak to an overall  waking purpose. It lacks the abstractness of an ideal. It is sexier than a project, less religious than a vision. It is not a mission - which is the French myth, the mission civilisatrice. It contrasts with the British pride in absentmindedness - that smug "absentmindedness" by which Britain acquired an empire.
Movies, through a persistent analogy – the moving picture seen in a dark room, the dream seen under closed eyes – were dreams that violated the limit of the dream, which is the rule that dreams are private, one person only affairs. The metaphor dispenses with the condition inhering in the term referred to. Historians, who often are amazingly clumsy philologists, have a tendency not to care about the conditions of the emergence of a phrase, but brandish it around as though it were implicitly in the thoughts of the founding fathers, or the Pilgrims, or immigrants, etc. But this kind of procedure is, to say the least, extremely unhistorical. We wouldn't attribute an electric razor to the Pilgrims, and I see little reason for attributing the American dream to them. Both are material devices.
If this is right, and the movie metaphor established the rhetorical conditions for the political metaphor, then we can see the American dream as a uniquely modernist invention, and the discourse around it as, among other things, the way in which American modernism sought to understand itself. And like many modernist inventions, it immediately seeks to naturalize itself, to produce bogus roots in a much larger history, to invent a tradition for itself.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

silver lining and an opportunity

There's a silver lining and an opportunity in what has been happening in Congress.

The big steal effected by the GOP necessitated blowing up the obsolete protocols of the Senate and the House. You remember those protocols from 2009, when we were all told that we couldn't have a nice public option and a much more extensive ACA cause we needed sixty votes to do it in the Senate. As the GOP has shown, if you have the majority, you make the rules. When the Dems are the majority in the House and the Senate, or even just one chamber, they will no longer be able to toss the progressive promises that put them there out cause of 'bi-partisanship", or some fuckwad rule made up in 1980. The GOP has accidentally liberated Congress and made it more democratic. This is a definite huge advance.

The opportunity is for the Dems to get rid of their Herbert Hoover complex. Until the 90s, the one D. advantage was that they understood the business cycle. The GOP, having a religious faith in the market, can't admit to market failure. The D.'s then were the adult party. As adults, they realized that the question about the deficit is when we should have one and what it should do. Among the many "problems" with the Clinton administration was the way it hustled fifty years of experience out there door, passing de-regulatory legislation that was implicitly founded on the impossibility of market failure (hence that piece of TNT, sponsored by Phil Gramm and endorsed by Bill C., called the Commodities Modernization Act of 2000, which basically primed the depression of 2008) and by fetishizing deficit reduction. The latter resulted in the idiotic politics of 2000 - an election year in which the signals were that a recession was here - in which the Clinton policiy of protecting the budget surplus turned into the politics of putting an "iron box" around social security, which was what happens when you lose the justification for a policy and you pick one ad hoc. Bush, proving that a stopped clock is right twice a day, actually addressed the oncoming recession by proposing a tax cut. It was an awful tax cut, and the deficit it caused was a very distant stimulus, but at least it recognized that a stimulus was necessary.

In 2009, Christine Romer, Obama's economic advisor, told him that the stimulus should be twice as big - about 800 billion dollars bigger - to really lift the country out of the depression. There has been talk about whether Larry Summers cut that figure in half, or whether Obama just rejected it - in any case, Obama, taking up the Herbert Hoover cross, allowed the Fed to loan the banks and Wall street much much more than that 800 billion while he introduced and the Congress passed a stimulus of around a trillion dollars. If Romer's advice had been followed, we would have had a much quicker recovery, and we would not have witness wage stagnation for six years for the majority of the working class. In combination with an ACA that was much more like the one O. promised in his presidential campaign, there's a good chance we would have seen D.'s triumph in 2010, instead of failing epically. 

By coincidence, the deficit proposed by the GOP is equivalent to Romer's proposal eight years ago. But it is a deficit that is being unloaded at a time when the economy is near full employment. And it is going to the least likely sector when it comes to economic stimulus. These are the points I am hoping the D.s press. If they press the "deficit! horrors!" button, they really have learned nothing.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The Yokels - part one

It used to be the case that journalists from NYC only went out to the boonies to report on crimes. If the crime or scandal was big enough, they’d be there. For all other cases, there was the news services. It was the New Yorker (and, to an extent, Mencken’s magazine, the American Mercury) which first started sending writers out to take the temperature, so to speak, of the boonies. The New Yorker established the U.S. Journal format, with its man on the courthouse steps or in the coffeehouse interviews to establish the temperament of the burg that the reporter was passing through. At the same time, the scandal and crime driven impulse was also, understandably, cultivated. A merger of the two types takes place in the essays that Calvin Trillin collected under the title, Killings. The book came out in 1984; it has recently been reprinted, to some well deserved hoopla. The pieces cover the period from the late sixties to the early eighties. Not all of the pieces are from small towns – in fact, most of the venues where this or that person was dispatched were mid sized cities: Knoxville, Savannah, Riverside, etc. However, during this period Trillin could have stayed in NYC and written about any variety of homicide you care to ponder. These killings have an interest beyond the events that brought together victim and perpetrator, and that interest is very much the social setting – the different cultures of the provinces. They are, as it were, litmus tests of the spirit of the age, as it was bottled in these places.

The New Yorker also sponsored the project of another writer at about the same time, which ended up in the book Special Places: In search of small town America. This was penned by Berton Roueché, who was better known as the New Yorker’s medical writer. Roueché went and spent time in various small towns – towns of less than 20,000 people – in a swathe of America that included the Midwest and Texas. His travels (which bear the title of a search, instead of, say, an investigation, or a survey – a search being less prosecutorial and more open-ended) took in the towns of Stapleton, Nebraska, Welch, West Virginia, Hermann, Missouri, Crystal City, Texas, Corydon, Indiana, Pella, Iowa, and Hope, Arkansas. In other words, his search brought him to small towns in Anglo America. The partial exceptions are Crystal City and Hope, Arkansas, but Roueché never traveled to a small town that was mostly black. The overwhelming whiteness of his search is not something Roueché, or his editor, William Shawn, who prefaced his book, thought about.

The book has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted. It has no reputation, unlike Killings. But to my mind it is a counterpart to the more famous book. It encodes a way of reporting on what we see, now, as Red America, that huge transcontinental swamp of GOP voters, where the lines are about inauthenticity and urban formlessness that still rules the narrative. Even though it is now the NYT rather than the New Yorker that now supports this kind of thing, the archetype of small town America still weighs us down. It is white, it is mannered, the flowers bloom there and everybody meets and eats brunch at the Pancake house on Sunday. And of TV, and its pervasive influence, there is nary a whisper.

In the list of towns that dot Roueché’s “search”, the one that stands out today is Hope, Arkansas, which is now famous as the town where Bill Clinton was born. But when Roueché visited, in 1982, Clinton was not a name to reckon with or recognize. He was just another southern Democratic governor, apt to drop an aw shucks or a gosh when showing emotion, who’d been removed in the last election. The most interesting politician in town for Roueché was the vice-mayor, Floyd Young, who was black.  Roueché interviewed him, which is almost as far as Roueché went on the politics of the small town places he was searching – evidently, he was not in the business of finding politics. It found him, though, in the sermon he attends in the Hope Baptist Church, where the minister defends war and capital punishment on an Old Testament basis. And then there is a comment that resonates retrospectively, made by a rather slick businessman he interviewed – Vincent Foster, still kicking at that time – who confides that he knows where to get liquor in this dry town, and it doesn’t involve driving to Texarkana, either: “All I got to do is pick up the phone over there and dial a certain number. And I’m not talking about moonshine.” Thus spoke the voice of Clintonism avant le lettre. It is all about pull, man.

Roueché’s reporting style is of a dense descriptiveness that was favored during Shawn’s tenure at the New Yorker. There is not a store on a main street in the towns he stays in that remains unnamed: in Welch, West Virginia, he observes six automobile agencies including  Hall Chevrolet-Oldsmobile, he stays at the Carter Hotel and eats at the Mountaineer Restaurant. He notes that Herman, Missouri has two funeral homes and registers them for the reader (Toedtmann and Grosse and Herman Blumer). He tells us that there are four chief business streets in Corydon, Indiana, and that the Corydon State Bank, the Town and Country Shop, Nolan L. Hottell insurance, the Corydon (weekly) Democrat, the sherrif’s office and the county jail, and the Corydon Dollar store are all on one of them.  Roueché specializes in the approaches to a town – he favors towns that have rolling hills on the outskirts, have a river, are found in a pleasant valley, and are attached to the life of the land. To give him his due, when he pretty good at giving  vent to the stray rhapsodic sigh, in the great American tradition:

“I spent the better part of a month in deep southwestern Arkansas – in Hope (pop, 10,290), the seat of Hempstead County – and the sun shone every day of my stay but one, and the nights were mild, and many of them were moonlit, and almost every night I fell asleep to the long, slow faraway whistle of a freight train. I arrived in mid-March, in the first full rush of spring, and the day I left, in the second week of April, the pell-mell Southern summer had begun. I saw the jonquils bloom and fade, and the azaleas and the yellow bells and tulip trees, the wisteria and the redbuds, the peach trees and the apples, and I watched the big willow oaks that line the streets burst almost visibly into shading leaf.”

Those “ands” come from Hemingway, who took them from Twain, who took them from the common speech, who took them from the Bible. That affection for the flowers, that landscaper’s inventory, is strewn about the discovery literature – every “searcher” of the American landscape falls for the flowers and the fruits. And why not? I do myself. In fact, while Roueché was in Hope, I, unconscious of his very existence, was very probably working on my part time job for a landscaping company one hundred twenty miles South of him in Shreveport, strewing grass seed. Nature, remade, is what we are about, we Americans, we invasive species.

It is interesting, or irresistible, do a where are they now? with Roueché’s towns – to note, for instance, that the country of which Welch, West Virginia, is the county seat has the distinction of having the highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country at the moment. Roueché, in his quest for small town life, was too good a human to ask the question I always ask when passing through East Texas and country Louisiana and the rest of it: aren’t these people bored? Too good a human – but certainly lacking something as a reporter if this question never came up.
It comes up in Trillin’s book.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

a history without dates

There’s a certain magical attachment in the histories we read in books – or the magazines, or the newspapers, doing their own kind of fashion work, articulating the spirit of the age as the well to do see it - to years. A year serves not only as an organizing principle, but also as a spell – it gathers around itself a host of connotations, and soon comes to stand for those connotations. Yet, what would history be like if you knocked out the years, days, weeks, centuries? How would we show, for instance, change? In one sense, philosophical history does just that – it rejects the mathematical symbols of chronology as accidents of historical structure. These are the crutches of the historian, according to the philosophical historian. Instead, a philosophical history will find its before-after structure in the actual substance of history. In the case of the most famous philosophical history, Hegel’s, a before and after, a movement, is only given by the conceptual figures that arise and interact in themselves. To introduce a date, here, is to introduce a limit on the movement of the absolute. A limit which, moreover, from the side of the absolute, seems to be merely a superstition, the result of a ceremony of labeling founded on the arbitrary, and ultimately, on the fear of time itself, that deathdealer.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The NYT really does suck: the problem with the "Nazi sweety pies we love" article.

In a scoriating essay on the NORC survey of sexual behavior issued in 1995, Richard Lewontin goes after the social sciences both for their manufacture of categories that segment their surveys and for their naïve notion that people generally report the truth about themselves on fraught issues like sex and racial attitudes to interviewers.
“It is frightening to think that social science is in the hands of professionals who are so deaf to human nuance that they believe that people do not lie to themselves about the most freighted aspects of their own lives, and that they have no interest in manipulating the impression that strangers have of them. Only such deafness can account for their acceptance, without the academic equivalent of a snicker, of the result of a NORC survey reporting that 45 percent of men between the ages of eighty and eighty-four still have sex with a partner.”
I have been thinking about the social sciences – with their faulty methodologies – and journalists – with apparently no methodology at all – lately. The latest lately is the NYT’s incredible malversation of newspaper reporting in their article about the “Nazi Sympathizer Next Door.” The article is better viewed through the parody of it published in the Atlantic, here: https://www.theatlantic.com/…/2017/11/a-nazi-cooks-…/546737/
Today, an editor of the NYT – who should be bodily prevented from writing anything for the newspaper – intervened on the “controversy” (Nazis – good or bad?) to apologize/non apologize for offending readers. Obviously, pansy readers just aren’t tough enough to read about “extremists” (not racists, mind you, or not people dreaming of building gas chambers to eliminate blacks and Jews, but “extremists”) with the sang froid of one of the Times “smartest thinkers and best writers”.
Obviously, the NYT doesn’t get it. 

The “it” here, though, is a whole work style of reporting. “It” includes the unquestioned testimony of “experts” that often season NYT’s articles, as well as the “we tell your story” stories. The problem with both is the methodological assumption that expertise answers the methodological question posed in Lewontin’s article, “How do you know it?” That it never occurs to a reporter who is “one of the smartest thinkers” at the NYT, or his editor, that a man who thinks Hitler is cool might also have other vices in the veracity department points to the fact that the smartest thinking in the NYT doesn’t go very far.
In fact, it doesn’t even go so far as to search through the NYT’s own archive and stumble on the last time American Nazis were really in the news. That period was the early sixties, the period of the civil rights movement. And the person who represented that movement was a man named George Lincoln Rockwell.
Frederick Simonelli, Rockwell’s biographer, had a longer deadline time than the NYT-er, but as a “smart thinker” one would think that the reporter would read the book and other materials about “extremists” – especially people who end up believing in a not so coded call to violence. The questions that they could ask would accordingly search out past patterns, and the story could be about the continuance or the difference with those patterns. This is not a do it yourself kind of thing.
So you think: perhaps such people have some violence in their past? Perhaps the way to know about it is to interview friends? Acquaintances, employers, teachers? Cops? Check out harassment in the town the Nazi lives in. Ask at the local temple. Ask maybe oh, some black guys about it.
Of course, for the NYT, black guys are "no angels" - for as was pointed out on twitter by many, the NYT reporting on the black victims of police shooting has been harsher than their reporting on Nazis.
I’m intentionally not linking to the idiot story itself – it is easy enough to find – but in tracing the development of the little Nazi’s political “thought”, the reporter seems uninteresting in asking whether what he has done in the world, besides putting up friendly picks of Nazis on facebook. He quotes from one of the town’s politicians about how disgusting the Nazi is, but that is it as far as the town is concerned. He quotes from one of the Nazi’s bandmates, but that is it as far as checking out the Nazi’s story is concerned. It is like one of the “sharpest thinkers” at the NYT has the reporting skills of a fourteen year old. When your story is about a guy who went to an armed rally of Nazis at Charlottesville, probably it is a good idea to start by asking about the arms he owns, not the few books you can take a picture of. It all goes downhill from the faux novel lede graf.
The best thing about the NYT is the archive. In the past, the NYT was an amazing paper. This article, written by one of the elite Timesmen, shows why that isn’t the case anymore.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

spinoza and the american predicament

There have been innumerable searches for the roots of the American predicament that resulted in the election of Donald Trump. I came across this passage from Spinoza that provides a general framework for the racism, ignorance, stubbornness and despair that goes into giving your heart to a senile bully:

“Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, over-confident, and vain.”

The rules, of course, that once governed at least certain circumstances in the capitalist world – rules that countervailed the rule of the richest and the most powerful – were long ago re-constituted in the U.S. by both the Dems and the Republicans. They called it de-regulation, or privatization, and what they were really doing was abolishing rules that limited the behavior of the great holders of private power. Meanwhile, fortune’s greedily coveted favors – which is the real name of “being competitive internationally” or whatever flavor of bullshit is being put out by the Harvard Business School this season – were what the working class, the creators of value, were encouraged to strive for – a sort of clientelism that destroyed all the long built up solidarity and substituted an ethos of dog eat dog. The end result was, as Spinoza well saw in circumstances of similar reaction, a visible increase in credulity.

Political superstition, at least, comes about when the conditions that support superstition are put in place. They have been in place for decades. We are now seeing what this leads us, Gadarene swine that we are. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Reviving the ostinato genatalia - not a good idea!

Years ago, the art historian Leo Steinberg wrote a book about the sexuality of Christ in renaissance paintings, in which he pointed out that the ostinato genitalia was at the center of many paintings of the Baby Jesus. This was consistent with the culture of this late medieval, early modern period.
Who knew that digital phone cameras and the internet would democratize the ostinato genitalia, so that any freaking Senator, movie producer, magazine writer or talk show host would be on it like mustard on a hotdog? To the Charley Roses, the Weiners, the Louis CKs, the Rep. Joe Bartons - buddy, the late middle ages were a long time ago! Put your rocket back in your pocket, please. And also, resign?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The black and white world - the soul of the banal

The central trauma of cinema, for many writers, was the transition to sound.

For me, though, it was the transition from black and white to color.

This is a matter, partly, of my age. Being born in 1957, I well remember black and white television sets. And I remember how common black and white photos were. Color television came well after color in the movies, but during the era of black and white televisions, black and white movies from the thirties to the sixties were common fare.

Frankly, I haven’t owned a television in years, so I don’t know what the lineup is, but I imagine the spate of black and white films that I was fed from the 30s and 40s has slowed to a trickle.
The effect of black and white film and photography on me has been profound. Firstly, it has taught me the insufficiency of color words – black and white have been used so variously, the tonal scale creates such differences between one black and white picture or film and another, that our color language seems primitive, a relic that we are using to explain a cultural product that surpasses or transcends our culture.

But secondly, it has given me a very childish view of history.

In this naïve view of history, everything in the nineteenth century and everything in the first half of the twentieth century happened in black and white – or at best, sepia. The Civil War, World War I and II, were all fought in black and white. The cities – New York, London, Paris – were black and white. Nudes were black and white.

Then came the second half of the twentieth century up to now. The long present is in color. It is as if colors were invented in 1950. I know, there was color photography and film before then, but it was not dominant. And with color came a loss of depth.

Black and white images seem, to me, to somehow find, in the banality of the world, the grain or soul that escapes that banality, whereas color simply floods the zone with banality, makes it inescapable. This is ontological nonsense, of course, yet it certainly makes an epiphenomenal sense. After all, we know that, for instance, Greek statues were painted, but the way we view them, and the way they were viewed in the Renaissance, and the way they have leaked into our sense of what a statue is, is uncolored. The restoration of the statues of the ancient world always stops with putting the pieces together; we never paint them.
Similarly, we can “restore” color to the black and white portrait Nadar made of Baudelaire – in fact, I think it has been done. I’ve noticed more and more color versions of photos that were originally shot in black and white. But to me, there is something deeply wrong with this. Instead of bringing Baudelaire closer, it seems, instead, to zombify him, to take him out of that world of canonical black and white and string Vegas-y Christmas lights on him.  

The black and white world is one that I dream in; I only live in the world of color.

Friday, November 17, 2017

On pluck: translating the Brecht essay on Five Difficulties in writing the truth

Berthold Brecht wrote a small essay, meant for covert distribution in Nazi Germany, entitled Five Difficulties with writing the truth.
Thank God that we don’t live in Nazi Germany. Thank God that we don’t live in present day Yemen, which is being systematically starved to death by our ally, Saudi Arabia, using weapons sold to it by the U.S., France, the U.K., etc.
Our bad time is different.
Anyway, though this essay has been translated, I thought I’d try doing the intro paragraph and the section on “Mut” – having the spirit for something, the quality of being spunky. When we hear about the bravery of women who are accusing powerful sex abusers of their crimes and violence, we are in the realm of Mut. I’ll call it pluck. Pluck, according to the OED, went through an interesting etymological journey to arrive at the colloquial term, as they call it, for having boldness or courage. The word pluck comes from a mass of Germanic and Latin words implying untangling, peeling, unfeathering, etc. From this, the word worked itself in deeper, to connote the guts – what is plucked out of, say, a chicken. And from the guts it worked itself toward the temperament corresponding to the heart: pluck. I rather like this origin, which is less military than courage or bravery, more about the ordinary tasks characteristically allotted to women in peasant societies.
“Today, whoever wants to fight lies and ignorance and wants to write the truth has to surmount at least five difficulties. He must have the pluck to write the truth when it is being suppressed on all side; the cleverness to recognize it, although it is being hidden on all sides; the art to make it handy as a weapon; the judgement, to select those into whose hands one entrusts it; and the cunning, to distribute it to the latter.These difficulties are enormous for those who write under fascism, but they still insist themselves even in the case of those who have been hunted out of fascist countries, and even for those who write in the lands of bourgeois freedom.

1. The pluck, to write the truth. It seems self-evident, that the writer should write the truth in the sense, that he doesn’t suppress it or fall silent about it, and that he shouldn’t write the untruth. He should not bow to the might, he should not betray the weak. Naturally it is very hard not to bow to the mighty, and very advantageous, to betray the weak. To get on the bad side of the possessing class means renouncing possession oneself. To renounce payment for work performed means under certain circumstances to renounce work at all, and to waive fame among the mighty often means simply to wave fame. For this, one must be plucky. Times of the worst oppression are marked by the fact that all the speeches are about great and high things. It takes pluck in such times to speak of low and small things, like eating and the living spaces of the workers, in the midst of the violent cries that the spirit of sacrifice is the main thing necessary.  When the farmers are being showered with praises, it takes pluck to speak of machines and cheap feed, which will lighten their loads. When it is hollered on the radio waves that the man with no knowledge and education is better than the man with knowledge and education, than it is plucky to ask: for whom is he better?   When speeches are made of formed and halfformed races, it is plucky to ask if perhaps hunger and ignorance and war are not bringing forth our misbirths. Just as it requires pluck to talk the truth about oneself, over the defeated. Many, who are persecuted, lose the ability to recognize their mistakes.Persecution seems to them to be the greatest injustice. The persecutors, since they persecute, are evil, while they, the persecuted, are being persecuted because of their goodness. But this goodness has been struck down, defeated and impeded, and was thus a weak goodness, a bad, unstable, unreliable goodness; because it doesn’t do to say that the weak are good the way that rain is wet. To say that the good have not been defeated, because they were good, but because they were weak, requires pluck.”
I’ve been pretty free with my translation of the difficult last two sentences. It pretty much sums up, though, the difference between the victim, on the one hand, and the justice of a cause, on the other. Victimization does not make the victim good, even if it makes the victimizer bad.  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

my inexhaustible thirst for blowing up statues

The panic on the right about the taking down of the Confederate statues derives from a sense of time that is shared by the left: this is the time that Deleuze, in Logic of Sense, refers to as aion. Aion, for Deleuze (following the stoics) sees the present as a fiction, dividing infinitely between the past and the future. Chronos, the rival temporal schema, sees the present as the only time. The past is composed of presents that have been superceded by other presents and the future will be composed of presents in the same way. Chronos is imminently the time frame of liberalism. We can manage the past, as an obsolete present, and see how it leads to the now. The now is neither haunted nor iffy.

However: against the liberal interpretation, the left sees the razing of the Confederate statues as opening up the past that exists in the Now, in connection with other pasts. For instance, the past of sexual harassment, which of course also has its statues.

In the Democratic party, the statue from the past that is being gingerly tapped is that of Bill Clinton. This article from, of all places, Vox, is a definite sign. What we know about Bill Clinton and the various women that have accused him of sexual harassment and even rape – in the case of Juanita Broaddrick – is something that we keep trying to put out of sight. We wrapped it all tightly in the word consensual. But given the accusations against Trump, and given the pattern we see again and again with people like Harvey Weinstein, the consensual dodge is wearing thin.

Personally, I think that Clinton has escaped even in the post-Presidential years reckoning with his relation to women. The right hammers about his relationship to Jeffrey Epstein – and they are right to do so. The right is deathly silent about Trump’s relationship to Jeffrey Epstein. And meanwhile, the scandal of what a billionaire can get away with who is raping underaged girls and pimping them out continues to show what a joke the American judicial system has become.

I find it interesting how the powerful sexual harassers group together. Certainly Bill Clinton, Trump and Epstein seemed to group together. Like, well, like a cluster of confederate monuments.
What Faulkner said about the South really applies to the whole U.S. since the civil rights era: The past is not dead. It’s not even past.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A rhetorical question

Who among us has not felt intimations of a certain permanent nausea, a nausea of the brain cells, during this ice age of reaction in which we live, cocooned in the ephemerally invulnerable systems erected since the beginning of the Cold War, feeding our intellects on our irritation and imaginary apocalypses? Imaginary, I say, for us – not for, say, your average Yemeni.  And of course, for those who have eyes to see, the minor apocalypse – to give it its true historical scale – of an American middle class that has been persuaded, in the age of Reagan, to cut its throat and think, while it is lapping up its own blood, that it is enjoying the very champagne of capitalism. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

biography and formalism - first round

 The obvious objection to the pure formalist’s notion that biography has nothing to do with the artist’s work is that, indeed, biography provides the unifying link that gives you one distinct level of your units of analysis. We don’t jumble together War and Peace and Sense and Sensibility, on this level, but put Sense and Sensibility in that unit called “Jane Austin’s work” and “War and Peace” in what we call Tolstoy’s work,  and so on. To compare “Jane Austin” to “Leo Tolstoy” is to reference these unities.
When we don’t have those unities, in fact, we get worried. We want all of Plato’s works to be by Plato, and Shakespeare’s to be by Shakespeare, and since the mechanism of publication in Plato’s and Shakespeare’s epochs did not color within the lines and give us straightforward attributions, we have scholars mightily working on the sidelines to either purge the units comprising their works or add others to them. Not surprisingly, these scholars refer to … the agreed corpus of Shakespeare’s and Plato’s works to make their arguments.
But what the biography means after we have all agreed that these are the terms of the game is another matter. Some would say that the unity of an artist’s work is different from that of a philosopher or scientist. The unity of Einstein’s work, for instance, is secondary to the universe that it tries to account for. Shakespeare cannot be overthrown by the behavior of real Princes who happen to be in Hamlet’s position, but Einstein can be overthrown if we find evidence that the speed of light is not the fastest thing in the universe. If Einstein actually stole the proof from his wife, it would lower our opinion of Einstein (the stealer!) but not of the theory of general relativity.
Of course, we “find” our proves for science through science. We don’t have any direct oracle from nature. Unless, like Newton, we think that science makes no hypotheses, and the math is just that direct oracle from nature, more direct than any hearing or echolocation. In which case, there is a sense in which there are no authors in science, there are just figures.
But in the social sciences and in philosophy, we don’t have science in that sense. We have Marx, we have Keynes, we have Wittgenstein, we have Heidegger – we have a set of figures who seem, like Tolstoy or Austin, to have an authorial relation to their texts.
The next defense of the formalist is that at least here, we can forget the vices and virtues of the figures and speak of their arguments in the same way that we can speak of the formal characteristics and values that go into building a poem, play, or novel.
This, at least, is one way of building the argument.
The deconstructive intervention strikes, in a sense, here. Or let us say, the deconstructionist reshuffles the cards.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

the geography of subjective experience

There's the geography of maps, where the objects are a town, a river, a mountain, and then there is the subjective map, where the objects are all object-events: getting lost, coming home, being-in-a-strange-apartment. The subjective map has a very different scale - it measures not inches, miles, or kilometers, but uniqueness and repetitions. For instance, the geography of getting lost depends upon its position in the scale of encounters with a place - getting lost in the same place the second time is a harder thing to do, and eventually, if you keep coming back, you aren't lost at all and the lostness that you once experienced seems like a dream. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

the battle between the list and the dialogue

There are two stories about Protagoras. In the hostile account of his life written by Diogenes Laertius, it is said that he was a porter, a relatively humble position, and that he invented a porter’s pad for carrying things. But in Philostratas’s Lives of the Sophists he is given a much grander birth, being the son of a wealthy citizen of Abdera who “amassed wealth beyond most men in Thrace”, and who entertained King Xerxes in his house. Philostratus claims that this Persian connection effected Protagoras’s thinking, since he became versed, to an extent, in the doctrines of the Persian magi. Whereas Diogenes Laertius (writing with all the snobbery of the ancient world at his back) attributes Protagorus’s education to Democritus, who was impressed by Protagoras’s invention of the porter’s pad. Somehow, this story rings with the implication of slander – it gives Protagoras’s cunning all too menial a cast. And yet Diogenes also casually attributes the invention of philosophy by dialogue, or the Socratic method, to Protagoras – a rather big invention, the invention of a form, which Diogenes, in his usual way, mentions and goes on. The  biographies of the Philosophers tumble and jumble off the page like some inventory landslide, leaving us frustrated, howling outside of the sacked walls for more.  
One thing that is agreed between Philostratus and Diogenes is that Protagorus, like Socrates, was accused in Athens of disbelief in the Gods. In Philostratus, his person was condemned, and he fled from place to place like a philosophical Flying Dutchman, seeking refuge, until he drowned in a shipwreck. Diogenes L, however, maintains merely that his book, On the Gods, was burned in Athens. He read this book, supposedly, at Euripides house. The scandalous import of the book comes out in Diogenes quotation: “As to the Gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.”
This quotation, of course, doesn’t tell us much about the argument that Protagoras develops about the gods; for after all, the argument might show that most probably, they exist, and that their existence is bound up in our not knowing. Or otherwise. Protagoras’s life – which is a bit undecidable itself – might have provided a good context in which to ponder undecidablity and the shortness of human life. Surely some echo of Protagoras’s phrase is contained in the story, in Acts, that Paul discovered an altar in Athens inscribed, to the unknown God.
I have always found Protagoras a sympathetic figure, whether or not he came from the working class. He has been demonized for millenia as the “founder” of relativism. One of Protagoras’s book, lost like all of them, has the nice, Nietzschian title of “Truth, or The Overthrower” - (Kataballontes Logoi). What we have from Protagoras (as though proving the shortness of man’s life has an imminent effect on what he can know) is fragments, the most famous of which, pondered wonderfully in the Theaetetus, is: ‘Of all things, the measure is man, of things which are, that they are, of things which are not, that they are not.’ What this means is elusive, of course. It is not that man is the inventor of all things – nor does it say that things do not exist outside of man. These are, of course, possible interpretations. But it puts man in the position of “measurer”, and in one sense that goes well with the Pythagorian viewpoint according to which number is at the ontological base of things. Yet in another sense, it displaces number with the measurer – begging the question of whether measure itself “depends” on man.
Myself, I think the measure fragment links up to what DL claims about Protagoras’s invention of the socratic dialogue for doing philosophy. DL writes that Protagoras was the first to say “that on everything (pragmatos) there are two accounts (logous) opposed each other.” This would seem to make  “man”  the measurer a more suspect unity; for if pragmatos is the kind of thing that is subject to exponential account making, it might be more reasonably said that of all things, the measureless is man. Plato of course saw this, but he nevertheless decided that “man” meant an aggregate of individuals, each person, instead of something like Dasein, or the collectivity of the human, divided within itself. If we are seeking the geneology of what Bakhtin calls “broadness” – the way many views, acts, desires and beliefs can be attributed to persons, without there being a core coherence – then we would have to start, I think, with Protagoras.
There is a story about Protagoras that is recounted in Plutarch’s life of Pericles that exemplifies this theme. Pericles bratty son published a “Daddy Dearest” book trying to mock Pericles for, among other things, hanging with the sophists. “For instance, a certain athlete had hit Epitimus the Pharsalian with a javelin, accidentally, and killed him, and Pericles, Xanthippus said, squandered an entire day discussing with Protagoras whether it was the javelin, or rather the one who hurled it, or the judges of the contests, that "in the strictest sense" ought to be held responsible for the disaster.” This was an entire waste of time for the son, Xanthippus; but it is a moment of radical recognition that stands out in legal history, with the sense that liability can be mediate as well as immediate. But what we see, in this discussion with Pericles, is an effect of there being two sides to each question, and two sides after that – two sides, indeed, to whether the right question is being asked.
The interesting question to ask of those who oppose relativism relates to this issue of measure and measurelessness, and it is the question of the disposability of form, whether it can be discarded once we get to substance, or whether it is, indeed, so tied to substance that our abstraction of one from the other is a distortion. To put it another way, by rejecting Protagoras, which happens in the Theaetetus, is Plato actually rejecting the socratic method? Is he rejecting Socrates? For if Socrates is taking up Protagoras’s technique, it would seem, from Plato’s non-relativist view, that Socrates made a mistake, gave too much to the enemy. For Protagoras’s invention would seem designed never to get us closer to what we want - the list of imperatives in the realms of knowledge, ontology, ethics and aesthetics that can tell us what is true and what is false, what is knowledge and what isn’t, what exists and what doesn’t, what is right and what isn’t, what is beautiful and what isn’t.
With Protagoras, don’t we begin, in earnest, the battle between the dialogue and the list?

Sunday, November 05, 2017

shower tourism

Who among us is not aware of shower tourism? By this, I do not simply mean the always tentative exploration of hotel bathrooms, with their varying accommodation for the traveler, their little tubes of cheap shampoo and body gel, which one nevertheless pockets, their towels of varying thicknesses, and their surprisingly common problem with retaining water in the shower or shower/tub area – the latter being home to a curious penchant among hoteliers for what is called, in the industry, the “flexible curtain track”, which allows ample space to pull the curtain shut – but which always produces a sizeable puddle at the end of the lustration process. That puddle into which the showerer plunges his feet, with a light grimace, when removing himself from the shower – how well we know it. Unlike our bathroom, however, the puddle is a matter for someone else to clean up. Yes, the hotel bathroom deserves a whole chapter to itself, but at the moment, I am talking of another facet of this micro-world, which consists of using the showers of others – of friends or family with whom one is staying, or who are staying with one. Both aspects are noteworthy – tourism is, in this sense, a transitive property, since if you have guests staying with you, your quarters are, for the length of the stay, going to be somewhat alien to you. In other words, the tourist is a catalytic creature at whose touch the familiar becomes a tourist site. It is this logico-magical property that makes for the tragedy of tourism, as the tourist searches for an authenticity which his very presence destroys.
Myself, I have stayed with many a host. I have entered naked into many a tiled domain in apartment and house,  and, testing the water from the shower head or wand, surveyed the various unguents stored there. Sometimes, of course, I have entered carrying my own; sometimes, I confess, I have “borrowed” alien creams, soaps, shampoos and the like. This, you will say, is pretty un-guestly. It is a sort of vice. But it is also part of our everyday novel-writing – since we all engage in living through, or parasiting, other characters now and then. The grocery clerk surveys the line and sees Mrs. X and Mr. Y and that girl who always comes in and buys one item and the old woman who makes you go through endless rolls of curly edged coupons, the auto saleman guesses at the libido of the 20 year old guy, etc., etc. The self comes and goes, it doesn’t preceed self-interest so much as it follows it, becoming at worst a ghostly selfishness, and at best a moral worry.
So it is with conditioners. As we know from Kracauer and Benjamin, the houses and apartments we live in are potentially only repositories of clues for the classic detective. The doilies in the living room may be bought for decorative reasons, but ultimately they serve to soak up the blood from the murder victim,  along with the velvety pillow. The shower contains – like the computer and its files – a veritable history of the owner of the shower for those with the eyes to see. Are the hair products bought from the low end? Are they cheap and general? Or are they bought from the high end, and are they expensive and specialized? Is the language on them, by any chance, French? Or English? Do the shower gels refer to milk? To almonds? To glowing skin?

The shower process itself nourishes speculation. We stand under the fierce beating down of warm drops and we think. We ponder the day, the tasks. We make up verses. We make up grocery lists. There are, of course, people who simply shower to get clean. But as every tv ad for shampoo or soap makes clear, cleaning is secondary to the ecstasy of soaping and rinsing, to swinging, fresh hair, to sparkling eyes, to the smell that film is just on the edge of throwing at you if it could – the whole transcends its tawdry utilitarian purpose as much as advertisement’s speedy expensive car transcends that mere metal carapace stuck in traffic jams and hustled into parking lots. Advertisement has a way of changing the purposes of the acts of everyday life. In the case of the shower, it has cinematized our experience.
There is a reason that some sing in the shower.