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

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

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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

appearance and reality, father and child

Once upon a time – or more precisely, from millenia deep B.C. up to around 1950 – philosophers all made their bones by worrying about appearance and reality. The dynamic duo seem to have lost their charisma for analytic, post-analytic, and post Heideggerian philosophers, at least if you look at the titles of their books. But the problem returns again and again in everyday life, which is the pool all philosophy must eventually return to.
For instance, here’s a situtation. We are sitting, here, in a hotel restaurant in Scottsdale Arizona, Adam and me. I look at what he asked me to choose him from the buffet – the bowl of raisin bran without milk, the peach colored thing Yoplait calls Yogurt, some grapes, and apple juice in a clear plastic cup. I notice that he isn’t eating. This doesn’t surprise me. Adam is apparently going to be one of those puzzling people who do not like breakfast. He always has to be coaxed to eat in the morning. Also threatened, although Adam does not yield easily to threats – as the folks at Rand might put it, escalation leads by easy stages to a mutually assure destruction situation situation, myself in the cool down box with a tearful facedown boy. Not a good path. Anyway, I make my usual remark about how Adam chose this food and thus (throwing in a little dollop of bourgeois morality) must eat it.  The whole choice – consequences racket. Adam, in response, puts a flake of Raisin Bran (I keep misspelling raisin as raison – a meta Freudian slip) in his mouth and makes a sort of swaying dancing gesture, chomping on it and staring at me. Eating – reality – and eating – appearance – jump out at me like some archetypal Pierre from Being and Nothingness. Without thinking about the consequences, Adam – much like our common ancestor of that name – acts out, doubles, mimics, exaggerates – reality. Of course, by one school of philosophy – mine – that mimicry, that exageration, merely adds to the stock of real things – which is a vast inventory never to be completed by any number of clerks, whose every act of inventorying must be added to the pile. But another school, whose point I understand, would argue that the first school is ignoring a difference known even, in this case, by a four year old – the whole point of the mimicry being to reference something that isn’t mimicry or exaggeration. That something is the real.
All of this philosophical drama is taking place in a very very Western locale – in a restaurant whose design and routines reflect late capitalist business practices down to the intentional dwindling of certain more expensive breakfast materials in order to prod customers to vacate the premises. This is a way of getting to the knotty problem of whether Adam is just responding to some mysterious conditioning that we more vaguely and grandly refer to as his cultural bias. We assume that children who are not taken by their parents to hotel dining rooms, but are taken to say and slash and burn garden, as among the Wape people in New Guinea, might respond by four years old in a completely different way, or at least a different way. I am not aware of any anthropological study of appearance and reality behaviors that I can fall back on, but I assume there could easily be differences that manifest at this point. Yet this nuance does not, of course, erase the fact that here, in the U.S., this child is making this motion of eating for this father.  Our greater generalization cannot swallow this particular; it can only problematize it.
Of course, it is easy to see how training in appearance and reality impinges a very young age on children. We as parents spend much of our time drilling this in, from coding language – such and such words are bad, such and such information is secret, etc. – and punishing when the appearance forms aren’t sustained. It soon becomes impossible not to see the world in terms of appearance and reality, even if we later, intellectually, debunk this distinction for ontological work. We can’t go back.

So I tell Adam, eat some more, and some of the yogurt, and then we can watch Hulk. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hurston and Pasolini - same struggle?

Michele Wallace, in an impassioned essay on Zora Neale Hurston published in the 80s, and republished in her collection, Invisibility Blues, has a good time mocking Harold Bloom for setting aside Hurston’s politics and discussing her in terms of a wholly white literary lineage, a sort of Wife of Bath figure. Yet when it comes to Hurston’s politics, nobody seems prepared to confront it head-on, except to proclaim that her opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education and her support for Joe McCarthy was unfortunate. Usually these things are attributed to some unfortunate experience the woman had – Wallace ends up blaming it on the bum rap hung on Hurston for seducing under age boys, which was ultimately thrown out of court, and others blame it on the aging process.
It is true that the Hurston who can write in a letter about the unforgiveability of the atom bomb, or coint the brilliant phrase, in her anti Jim Crow essay, The American Museum of Unnatural History, for the way she and other black thinkers are put away in a little segregated corner and exhibited, seems to be going in a different direction from the woman whose heart belonged to Taft.  But I don’t think the answer to the question of how she kept these thoughts together is answered by a reference to some odd contingency.  Hurston’s politics were definitely on the right, but a right of her own making – a maroon right.  Her experiences in Florida, in Jamaica and in Haiti all went into her viewpoint, which – taking a phrase from Callaso, who takes it from Tallyrand, is a defense of the “sweetness” of life.   Eccentrically, and whitely, I see her counterpart on the left as Pasolini. These two paragraphs from his Pirate Writings could have been subscribed to, I think, by the Hurston who raged against the kind of representation of Southern blacks that put lynching at its center – as in Richard Wright’s novels.  

“At present, when the social model being realized is no longer that of class, but an other imposed by power, many people are not in the position to realize it. And this is terribly humiliating for them. I will take a very humble example: in the past, the baker’s delivery boy, or « cascherino » — as we named him here in rome, was always, eternally joyous, with a true and radiant joy. He went through the streets whistling and throwing out wisecracks. His vitality was irresistable. He was clothed much more poorly than today, with patched up pants and a shirt that was often in rags, However, all this was a part of a model which, in his neighborhood, had a value, a sense – and he was proud of it. To the world of wealth he could oppose one equally as valid, and he entered into the homes of the wealthy with a naturally anarchic smile, which discredited everything, even if he was respectful. But it was the respect of a deeply different person, a stranger.  And finally, what counted was that this person, this boy, was happy. 

Isn’t it the happiness that counts? Don’t we make the revolution in the name of happiness? ? The peasants’ and sub-proletariats’ condition could express, in the persons who lived it, a certain real happiness. Today – with economic development – this happiness has been lost. This means that that economic development is by no means revolutionary, even when it is reformist. It only gives us anguish, anxiety. In our days, there are adults of my age feckless enough to think that it is better to be serious   (quasi tragic) with which the e « cascherino », with his long ha ir and little moustache, carries his package enveloped with plastic, than to have the “infantile” joy of the past. They believe that to prefer the serious to laughter is a virile means of confronting  life.
In reality, these are vampires happy to see that their innocent victims have become vampires too. To be serious, to be dignified, are  horrible tasks that the petit bourgeoisie imposes on itself, and the petit bourgeoisie are thus happy to see to it that the children of the people are also serious and dignified.  It never crosses their minds that this is a true degredation, that the children of the people are sad because they have become conscious of their social inferiority, given that their values and cultural models have been destroyed."


Pasolini famously said that in the struggle between the cops and the students on campus, he was for the cops, as they were the authentic children of the people – a statement as shocking in 1969 as Hurston’s statement that Brown vs. Board of Education was due to a “whine” among certain Negros who wanted to be white. Somehow, I think the political impulse in both cases came from something deeper than Hurston’s personal hurt from neglect by certain of the privileged tenth. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Black history month reading: Zora Neale Hurston

For Black History month, I decided it was time to read a lot of Zora Neale Hurston. Good choice! I'm reading her non-fiction - especially Tell My Horse and Mules and Men - before reading Their Eyes were Watching God. Although it may seem an odd comparison, or no, it is an odd comparison, Hurston keeps making me think of two apparently different writers: D.H. Lawrence and Pasolini. Both had a strong sense for the massive change overtaking "pre-modern" society - which was really the majority of society in all countries. One has to remember that the working population of the US, in 1900, was more than half agricultural. In Italy, of coure, it was even more. While Britain was a vanguard country, which had shrunk its agricultural sector in the nineteenth century - while never overcoming a nostalgia for its forms, or a class system still rooted in the prestige of landholding. Hurston was famously a political conservative, a supporter of Taft and Smathers, a sniffer out of communists. But this was a surface politics, for I think her intellectual committment, like Lawrence's and Pasolini's, was to a resistance to the disembodying of culture, the uprooting of the organic ties of culture. Like Lawrence and Pasolini, the erotic element in Hurston is incredibly charged with a total existential stance. By the way, how did Hurston get away with such things as an elaborate description of the ceremony of sexually preparing a Jamaican bride - in Tell My Horse - by masturbating her? I mean, this is the kind of stuff I thought they censored in the 1930s. Perhaps she was "protected" by being a black woman, and thus, invisible to white readers. I don't know. I do know she was a very bold woman.