“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, August 17, 2017

love, hate and racism


It is sweet and even a part of what I believe that love can conquer racism. But to respond to racism with a direct appeal to the emotions, alas, actual disguises racism. Because racism isn’t just personal expression: it is personal expression congealed into historically rooted structures. And blind love, love that is not informed about those structures, just becomes denial.

Let’s start this out personally. A couple of days ago, I was walking Adam home. He took my hand, which he has been doing lately (probably because he is anxious about the fact that we are soon going to move). We passed by this black guy who said, approximately, that white people always grab the hands of their children when they meet black people.

I wanted to say, not me! No, I’m different from other white people.

But I have to admit, I’m not that different. I live in a society structured to advance people with my skin color. This is why sentiment – love and hate – must be adjusted by statistics – photos of how our society is en masse. The statistics present a very different picture from the one in which white people say, not me! I’m full of love, not hate. Because my pockets, my career, my education, are legacies of a considerable amount of hate, transformed into an economic hierarchy that continues of itself. The structure can “hate” so I don’t have to.


Until we realize this, the love and hate talk is just sentimental garbage. Until we do something about it, the love and hate talk is denial in the classic, Freudian sense. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

taking down the statues

One of the more depressing things about living in LA - as compared to say Paris - is the lack of statues in the streetlife. In my experience, most french cities – saved those bombed into shit and rebuilt after WWII – are filled with statues and images, gargoyles and fountains. But American cities and suburbs, with some exceptions, do not give you a lot of statue encounters.

In the argument about taking down the Confederate statues, there is an understandable theme that this is a matter of mere symbolism, the kind of thing that a white college student can participate in an pat himself on the back – and who doesn’t begrudge that figure his satisfactions? Yet I think the statue-viewer situation is made much too one dimensional in this view of things.

There are two dimensions that are left out here. One is the dimension of the symbol and the real in the cityscape, the park, the campus. The other dimension is the material one of who, in the average day, really encounters these statues.

My contention is that the lack of statues in the American space has to do partly with the idea that symbols aren’t real. We will spend on the real. Here’s a real building – say, the Pet store next to our apartment on 9th and Wilshire. And here’s a symbol, say, the statue of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, in Palisades Park at the very end of Wilshire.

Now the funny thing here is that the real, in this story, being the functional, can easily be substituted. The pet store on Wilshire, for instance, went broke or moved. The building was revamped, and it is now a Charles Schwab building. The effect on the users of the Pet store might still be lodged in the memory, but my bet is that nobody really notices any more. Whereas if we took the statue of Augustine’s mother down, and substituted Madelyn Murry O’hare, people would notice very much. That is because the symbol is not functional in the same way – it is read differently in the landscape. Another way of saying this is that the symbol has power.

To understand this power, one must shift levels to a materialist reading of the urban scape: who exactly sees what.

In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, the United for a Fair Economy organizaiton commissioned a study of carlessness in eleven major urban areas. And guess what? Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to be carless.

This is simply another element in the economic apartheid that prevails in the U.S. But it has effects. One of the effects is that getting around the city, if you don’t have a car, requires an elevated amount of walking. Even if you are walking to and from the bus stop, there is more walking involved in your urban life.
One of the reasons that there is a lack of statuary in cities in France that were rebuilt after the war is that these cities were rebuilt with the automobile in mind. A predominance of statues implies a congregation of walkers. Car drivers might mark certain statues in a city – but mainly they don’t know them. They don’t read them.

One of the reasons that the statue issue is hot on campuses is that this is one of those spaces where white people are actually walking. Walking not as a sport, but as a functional activity that gets them to where they are supposed to be. This directly affects the statue viewing experience. It makes it degrees more intimate.

When the Confederate statues were erected in the South, from 1910 to 1960 for the most part, there was a great deal of carlessness among both whites and blacks. This meant that the statue experience was on a level of intimacy that was meant to send a clear message to African Americans. The message was: this is not your space. This is not your home.

The level of car ownership rose considerable for whites and blacks during this period – but much more for whites than blacks. In fact, as the phrase “driving while black” implies, and as we know from every video of police – African American encounters, the white uneasiness about blacks having access to automobiles has never gone down.

What this means is that those statues loom much more into the intimate experience of African-American everyday life than they do in White American life. But when the statues are threatened, white Americans – certain ones, Nazis, Trump, that ilk – show that they can still read them very well.
In this way, symbols can grab hold of life. Taking down the statues will not collapse the structure of economic apartheid. It will lessen the stress of the African American everyday experience.

Take the statues down!


Monday, August 14, 2017

the hour of the freak

As I’ve written before, Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics is full of wonderful things, paragraphs that make me want to lay it aside and write long, gulflike commentaries. For instance, in exploring the “canting” literature of the 17th century, he writes this: “Before it entered modern usage, “slang” meant, in canting jargon, “to exhibit anything in a fair or market, such as a tall man, or a cow with two heads.”38 Hence, “slang” originally referred to the exhibition of freakish things—a kind of social and economic profanity.” Anatoly Liberman, a historian of lexicographer, surveys the theories about the etymology of slang and comes down on the use of slang as the word for making the rounds of a territory – being “out on the slang”. This could apply to actors, prostitutes, or mountebanks. But Liberman, too, concedes that the use of slang to denote a kind of language came from some linguistic sub-group – either thieves’ jargon or hawkers’ jargon. There is a “secret language” named Shelta, combining Irish and English terms, which was common among itinerants in the 17th century – we get the word bloke from this coded speech – and perhaps slang as a word for movement went into Shelta and came out as the word for words like slang.  Another rather charming nineteenth century theory was propounded by one of those English churchmen with too much time on their hands, Isaac Taylor, who combined the “out on the slang” phrase with a story that there was once, in the wilds of Derbyshire, a village called Flash, where all the tinkers used to meet. Hence, this is where the term “flash” – which in the nineteenth century referred to that louche magnificence that any American first grader will tell you is pimping – came from, and where the equivalence between flash language and being out on the slang was forged.

As well – and this is where Tiffany’s theory of the lyric is both brilliant and highly poetic – this is where the connection between obscurity and the obscure, between the indirection that misleads the police and the people who don’t count, who slip like shadows, or, sand, or dirt, or any mysterious commonness between the cracks of history, was forged. Tiffany wants to re-assert the prole nature of the poem in the epoch of capitalism. He’s mining a vein that has been worked both by Wordsworth and by Baudelaire – the latter when, in Les paradis artificiels, he wrote that under the effect of haschich:

“…is developed that mysterious and temporary state of mind where the depth of life, spiky with its multiple problems, is revealed completely in the so natural and so trivial spectacle that one has under one’s eyes – where the first object we come upon becomes a speaking symbol. Fourier and Swedenborg, one with his analogies and the Fourier et Swedenborg , the former with his analogies and the latter with his correspondances, are incarnated in the vegetable and animal realms that fall under your gaze, and instead of teaching vocally, they indoctrinate you by their form and color. The intelligence of allegory takes on, in you, proportions you never dreamt of; we will note in passing that allegory, that spiritual genre, which clumsy painters have accustomed us to despise, but which is really one of the most primitive and natural form of poetry, re-establishes its legitimate domination in the intelligence illuminated by intoxication. In this way, haschich extends itself on life like a magic gloss. I colors it solemnly and throws a light into its depths.”

Of course, Baudelaire did not buy his buzz on the street corner – he was one of the subjects of the good Dr. Moreau, who – like so many doctors who are found in the shadowy corners of the intersection between the art world and the underworld – gave little experimental parties to which such gents as Baudelaire and Balzac were invited.

You could say that what Tiffany calls the “sociological sublime” is the hour of the freak. The freak marks the spot where the powers that be encounter something that is not so much resistance as a portal to a realm in which the ideology of strength, the backbone and boner of the patriarchy, has no dominion.


Take down the statue to Lee, put up one to Wesley Norris

I see that a lot of shitheads, er, peeps soft on the confederacy, want Robert E. Lee's statue preserved for history's sake. Hey, for history's sake, I could agree, long as we match the general with Wesley Norris, the slave who escaped from Lee's Arlington residence, was recaptured, and was given fifty lashes - washed with salt brine - as well as the same number given to his cousin and his sister by the soulful future General. As Frederick Douglas remarked after the war, General Lee was given a sickeningly flattering reception in the Northern Press, but he warnt no Ivanhoe. Here's the testimony. Often disputed by apologists, generally agreed to be true by historians.
My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement. (¶ 2)