“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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

on the pattern of moderate vs. extremist

There is a pattern in American culture, a dialectic between “moderation” and “extremism”,  that repeats itself in many unexpected areas. At the moment, the Democratic party is sponsoring, or involuntarily becoming, a ground for the debate between how far our political demands should go, once we have decided to call ourselves “progressives”. The terms of this debate are similar to the debate about African-American politics that was staged long ago by W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. In a long essay about Dubois that appeared in 2011 in the NYRB, Kwame Anthony Appiah provided a useful corrective to the idea that we can straightforwardly identify extremes -as for instance using Dubois as a marker of the most extreme position regarding African-American politics. In fact, Dubois represented a more moderate idea of the American “promise” than Frederick Douglas:

“The third of Du Bois’s core ideas is a claim about what the main political issue was that faced black America. Du Bois believed for much of his life, according to Gooding-Williams [author of In the Shadow of Dubois], that it was the social exclusion of African-Americans. And he thought that there was work to be done by both blacks and whites on this “Negro problem,” since, Gooding-Williams writes, “in his view, the problem had two causes. The first was racial prejudice. The second was the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.

There is a very different vision of the Negro problem, which Gooding-Williams [ finds sketched out in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In this account, the problem is not black exclusion but white supremacy. The young Du Bois saw the social exclusion of the Negro as an anomalous betrayal of the basic ideals of the American republic; Douglass, more radically, regarded the oppression of black people as a “central and defining feature” of American life, as part of all its major institutions. And oppression, for him, is not about exclusion but about domination. It means keeping blacks not out but down. The solution then can’t be mere integration, the end of exclusion; rather, it requires the reimagination of American citizenship as a citizenship of racial equals, or what Gooding-Williams approvingly calls a “revolutionary refounding of the American polity.”

It is a good idea to keep the debate about the whole program of creating a progressive America – or more bluntly, a democratic socialist one – aligned with these past debates, since they break up the semantic blocks that tend to become routine assumptions when the debaters break out the plates and hurl them at each others heads. Obama was more often compared to Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Dubois, but there is more of Dubois in his policies, or non-policies, than seems obvious at first glance.

Appiah, following Gooding-Williams, sees the influence of the German school of sociology on Dubois, and, especially, on the idea of Souls of Black Folks, where that collective soul is the equivalent of a Herderian Geist. He doesn’t mention Herder’s most famous, or at least influential, follower in the U.S. – Boas. The Boas who encouraged Zona Hurston to collect folk tales and the Mexican revolutionaries to establish museums of anthropology. Geist is in question when we replay, endlessly, the notion of identity vs. class, with the latter representing the social mechanism that creates a culture out of material interest, and the former being the bodily and cultural mechanism that produces mass mimicry, with all its parts: role models, the importance of entertainment as a vector of social transformation, etc.

Dubois was, as Appiah notes, ideally democratic, considering that the governed have a perfect right and responsibility to speak out to the governors; but he was also a proponent of the talented tenth, seeing the other 9/10s as poor, ill educated, ill informed, etc. This is a surprisingly common characteristic not only of the right, but of the left – hence the moral panic about false news, with its implication that the establishment media only engages in fact based reporting as opposed to fringe groups that trade around absurd stories of HRC connected pizza parlor pedophile gangs. In this opposition we simply forget the absurd stories, traded as truth, about Iraq having loads of WMD that the NYT and the WAPO were content to trade in as Bush took us to war. We forget the idiocy of the media during the course of that war, and before – as for instance in the idea that only black proles would believe that the CIA collaborated with drug dealers as it was high mindedly overthrowing democracies we didn’t like in Central America, and the like.
No, it is all the ignorant unwashed.
I’ve not gone into the substance of the struggle for the “soul” of the Democratic party, since what I want to point out is the form. Read Appiah’s essay if you can get ahold of it. It’s here. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/12/22/battling-du-bois/

Monday, September 18, 2017

global climate of opinion change at the NYT

I like the way that the NYT, which in the 90s was in the forefront of news making about global climate change, is now, in the era of Trump, taking the pulse of giant hurricanes and assuring us that the verdict is open as to whether this has anything to do with, what was it? oh yeah, global climate change. And with a change denialist earning a pretty penny from the NYT opinion page - Brett Stephens - they are all lined up to sing in the "moderate" GOP chorus. Sweet.

Why can't we all just get along is the new NYT motto.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Boundaries in play and sentences

Social boundaries originate in two ways: either they are imposed, and thus are handed down from a higher level, or they emerge in an activity among actors, which requires at least tacit agreement. Roger Caillois, in Games and Human Beings, claims that the natural history of the latter kind of boundary goes back to animals. For instance, although animals do not engage fully in games of agon – competitive games – there is, in animal play, a sort of foreshadowing: “The most eloquent case is without a doubt that of those so called fighting wild peacocks. They choose “a field of battle that is a little elevated,” according to Karl Groos, “always a little humid and covered with a grassy stubble, of about a meter, a meter and a half in diameter.’ Males assemble there on a daily basis. The first that arrives awaits an adversary, and when another comes, the fight begins. The champions tremble, and they bow their heads under the incidence of blows. Their feathers stick up. They charge at each other, leading with their beaks, and strike. But never does the fight or the flight of one before the other go outside of the space delimited for these tournaments. This is why, for me, it seems legitimate here, and with regard to other examples, to use the word agon, since it is clear that the point of the event is not for each antagonist to cause real damage to the other, but to demonstrate his own superiority.”
Caillois, here, assumes that the boundary gives a total meaning to the happening. Though serious injury could happen, this isn’t the purpose of the fight – which is why the fight doesn’t go beyond the boundaries of the field. But at no point do the peacocks assemble and point to the limits of the field.
This distinction between boundaries seems pertinent to writing. When you are writing a chapter, you can – because of an order by an editor, or because this is how you work – confine it to a certain number of words. This is supposedly how romance novels are assembled by Harlequin books. However, literature takes over, so to speak, when the boundary emerges from the text itself. In fact, the same thing can be said for other components of the text – the paragraph, the sentence. There is a sentential sublime – there are writers whose sentences, by going beyond the boundaries imposed by convention, seem to be out for a thrill ride. Most thrill riders crash, of course. And the sentence can go beyond, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s one sentence Autumn of the Patriarch, merely by kicking out the stops. Joyce is the master of this kind of thing. But there is another thrillriding sentence that seems, by setting new boundaries, to have divided up the referential world differently. Pynchon does this in Gravity’s Rainbow, and you are either immediately drawn to it as a moth to a flame and spend years trying to exorcise the influence, or you hate it.
Here's a graph from the sequence in which Roger Mexico and Pointsman hunt a stray dog for the laboratory that Pointsman has set up on Pavlov’s model: “The V bomb whose mutilation he was prowling took down four dwellings the other day, four exactly, neat as surgery. There is the soft smell of house-wood down before its time, of ashes matted down by the rain. Ropes are strung, a sentry lounges silent against the doorway of an intact house next to where the rubble begins. If he and the doctor have chatted at all, neither gives a sign now. Jessica sees two eyes of no particular color glaring out the window of a Balaclava helmet, and is reminded of a mediaeval knight wearing a casque. What creature is he possibly here tonight to fight for his king? The rubble waits him, sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an openwork of laths pointlessly chevroning—flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman’s long-gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness. Back in the wreckage a brass bedpost winks; and twined there someone’s brassiere, a white, prewar confection of lace and satin, simply left tangled… . For an instant, in a vertigo she can’t control, all the pity laid up in her heart flies to it, as it would to a small animal stranded and forgotten. Roger has the boot of the car open. The two men are rummaging, coming up with large canvas sack, flask of ether, net, dog whistle. She knows she must not cry: that the vague eyes in the knitted window won’t seek their Beast any more earnestly for her tears. But the poor lost flimsy thing… waiting in the night and rain for its owner, for its room to reassemble round it…”
These sentences go backwards and forwards and cross a lot of consciousnesses, and in the process seem to violate the way sentences are supposed to be compact units expressing some identifiable relationship of author to material, good little units lined up like desks in a class, obeying the rules of Gricean implicature, easily attached to their pronouncers. Owned. But here the ties of ownership, of pertinence, are looser, and seem to wave in some wind from a source that is, well, history’s own, or the paranoid simulacrum of it. There is a drift here in the sentences, something different (but heralded) than the corporate round of consciousness visiting in, say, To the Lighthouse - that table scene! Even that enrages a certain kind fo Great Tradition reader. And it is cert not all right at all for those more comfortable in the Gricean chains, and the cultural order that pounded into place a written grammar of English since the advent of the printing press. The printing press, though, is defunct, as we all know, secretly, screen to screen, and the grammar and agreed upon territory of all the textual units is up for grabs.