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.