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

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

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

Friday, 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.