Saturday, January 27, 2018

kafka's famous laughter

There is a lineage that goes from Lichtenberg’s Scribble book through Lamb, Baudelaire’s Fusées, Rozanov, Pessoa, and – supremely – Kafka, whose request to Brod to burn his papers was, as it were, a request from this history itself, over and above Kafka’s personality. The principle holding this literature together was enunciated by Bartleby – I prefer not to. This is, in the universe of the clerk, equivalent to Lucifer’s non serviam – it ties together the two elements of the scribble and the institution. If we can speak of an institutional consciousness, it is always a consciousness of the system. Jack Goody, in The Domestication of the Savage Mind, notices the importance of the list in all early writing that has been found in the Mesopotamia. Goody divides lists into three types: the list that is a catalogue of names, events and offices, which he calls a ‘retrospective’ list, and which can be thought of as a representation of work-flow; the ‘shopping’ list, or the list that includes expectations and items for future projects; and the lexical list – the proto-dictionary, the list that lists the elements of listing – sounds, letters, numbers. A very important list, according to Goody, in Mesopotamia. All three of these lists are dealt with and syncretized in the clerk’s office – viewing the clerk very broadly as one of the central types of ‘circulation’ worker, as Marx named them. The accountant’s task, for instance, is – for all of its spreadsheet cleverness – directly related to the functions invented in the Mesopotamian bureaucracies. 

The clerk’s literature is a form of Western Dao – Bartleby’s phrase operates in this invisible tradition much as certain phrases from the Chuang Tzu operate to bind together the concept of the Dao. “Therefore a man who has wisdom enough to fill one office effectively, good conduct enough to impress one community, virtue enough to please one ruler, or talent enough to be called into service in one state, has the same kind of self-pride as these little creatures [the cicada and the quail who mock the giant flights of monster birds, etc.] Sung Jung-tzu would certainly burst out laughing at such a man. The whole world could praise Sung Jung-tzu and it wouldn’t make him exert himself; the whole would could condemn him and it wouldn’t make him mope.” 

Sung Jung-tzu’s laughter, to be sure, is different from Bartleby’s inexpressiveness. But in the line of texts that extend from Lichtenberg to Kafka (and into the pit of which, I think, literature in the age of its de-institutionalization is being inexorably lead), there is a laughter that comes out when, for instance, Kafka read his stories out to his friends. Or in a letter to Felice, when Kafka told his fiancé that he was famous in his office for his laughter [Ich bin sogar als grosser Lacher bekannt] and gave the example of his inability to stop laughing when, one day, the president of the Insurance company made a speech bemoaning the accidents of workers and the trouble this causes for insurance companies. In fact, Kafka coulndn’t help laughing, nor could he even look away and disguise his face when the President made his speech. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

the super-ego in the cultural industry

Among bad signs, this is a good one: you are sitting there watching a movie and you suddenly start feeling like Teddy Adorno.
Adorno, after all, was, at least as a writer, the very embodiment of melancholy. He could easily have been incorporated as some opposite to Joker in the Batman universe – call him Melancho. Melancho, the criminal mastermind who leaves a trail of tears at the crime site.

Last night, I had a Melancho moment. We were watching a good film: Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Mo. We’d been waiting to see this film. The babysitter was in place. The Bastille moviehouse boasted a screen two times the usual MK2 one. Great.

And it was much as I’d read about, and admirable. Frances McDormand was unyielding, and Woody Harelson was charming. But I gradually became aware of a severe mismatch between the nightvision of the world in the film, its dark and daft humor, and the musical score. Not the country songs, which of course Hollywood has to add if there is a rural setting (which is like a caption: rural setting). No, it was the stringwork that began to get to me. The musical score, it struck me, was operating as a sort of psychotic super-ego, making sure that one “got” every sequence.

Take, for instance [Spoilers ahead] the suicide of Sheriff Willoughby. It was hard to watch this sequence, but it was not incomprehensible. Rather, I understood it as one understands a narrative – I understood it via some synthesis of sympathy and intellect.

As, I assume, we all understand such things. But in the immediate aftermath, what does the film do? It starts to swell with a string section. The stringwork was a way of “explaining” to me that life was awfully sad. Of course, in a ruse that tells you the superego’s been here, the explanation really serves as a denial. The strings take away the shock. The underlining takes away the rawness. Life isn’t so sad after all when you have a string section tastefully following you around.

Adorno, of course, understood this as the chief mission of the cultural industry.
And maybe the music was, in fact, essential to the deal.
Every film is a deal. In this case, the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, eveloped a reputation as a sort of Irish Sam Peckinpah of the theater with plays that were as bloody as those of Seneca. This is a reputation that gets you articles in chic glossies. And attracts the attention of the next big thing crowd in the movie industry. But that very invitation then has to be digested by the investors. They have to contemplate whether the chic glossy audience can be translated into a profit margin that will make everybody whole.

My feeling is that the string section really wasn’t for me to feel sad about the sheriff, but rather it was for the investors, it was to make sure that they didn’t feel too sad about me feeling sad about the sheriff. Because if it was too much of a bummer, I’d desert the profit margin, we’d all desert the profit margin, and … there wouldn’t be a profit margin!

This is of course what commercial films do. Sometimes there’s a genius in the system, but that genius is always going to have to go through a lot of investor fat. When this is discussed, at all, it is usually discussed in terms of audiences. What “audiences” like. This conveniently deflects the discussion from what investors like. It is, as always, the subrosa class warfare text in pop culture. In fact, audiences don’t, actually, exist like some immobile Platonic form, the form of Babbits, throwing popcorn at the tragic sense of life and applauding fart jokes. Rather, this audience is a product of the cultural industry, as surely as epidemic diabetes is a product of the corn oil industry.
It made me feel like Melancho.

Good flick, otherwise.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

isolationism and bitcoin libertarianism


... and they just said
what they always say

I don’t think of Trump or Trumpism as particularly isolationist, which is the standard charge by the neo-liberal crowd. An isolationist does not increase the already horrific amount of money devoted to the American military. That isn’t just a symptom of some deeper non-isolationism – that is the whole ballgame. Rather, Trumpism exists as another twist in the long logic of power that has made it unthinkable, for the establishment, that the U.S. could for good reasons simply cease to be a superpower. That logic makes it the case that if, say, China, with its newfound wealth, does things in Africa, this is a net minus for the U.S. – because it is always a binary, always win/lose, with our “rivals”.


Fundamentally, I can’t think of any political reason to countenance the seizing of excessive world power by any nation. It has always puzzled us that the right, which doesn’t trust the state to deliver mail, trusts the state with the means of ending the human species. This, indeed, is straining at the gnat and swallowing the ICBM missile. My view is that this disproportion shows the fundamental contradiction in a theory of the state that starts out with an anti-statist ideological coloration while having no real philosophy of governance – that is, having no recognition that governance is in question in every organization. In other words, the question of governance is in play in both the power held by public and that held by private entities. Fetishizing the “contract” – an all purpose, ontological bandage here – allows the anti-statist not to look at the results of the exercise of private power. Given the course we are going in this world of ours, it is only a matter of time before a corporation builds its own nuclear missile. To the cheers, no doubt, of bitcoin libertarians.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Hitler - a screen memory from America

As is well known, the Hitler comparison is a standard trope among the Internet commentariat. The standard rhetorical reply is to evoke the Godwin’s law, which says that once the Hitler comparison is reached, all further argument is reduced to absurdity or repetition.
Godwin’s law may be right as far as the measurement of information is concerned. However, there is more to say about the insistent use of Hitler, at least from the semi-Freudian/Marxy p.o.v.  
Freud introduced the useful concept of the “screen memory” quite early in his career, in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss.  In an essay in his “Small Writings” about a childhood memory in Goethe’s autobiography, written in the midst of the horrors of World War I, 1917, he condenses the notion down to its essence:

“Obviously, the important value of such childhood memories is only rarely evident. Mostly they seem indifferent, even nugatory, and it seems incomprehensible that it is just these memories that succeeded in defying our amnesia; thus those, who retain them as their memory properties over the course of many years, know as little how to measure their importance as the people to whom they recount them. In order to recognize their significance, it requires a certain art of interpretation, that either shows how their content was substituted through another, or shows their relationship to some other unrecognized but important experience, for which they have emerged as so-called “screen memories’”.
It is, of course, an enormous step from the memories of an individual to the collective memories of a culture. But I’ll leap it here, to ask, what screen memory is “Hitler” the name for?

My theory is that it is the screen memory that allows Americans to project on a completely foreign leader, and events that happened in Europe, a chain of events that were located firmly in the New World, from the ethnic cleansing of the Indian nations to slavery to post Civil War apartheid all the way up to the mass incarcerations that have marked our last thirty years. In other words, the correct comparison for evils that happen in America is not Nazi Germany, but the American past, with all of its complexities. The correct comparison for Trump, for instance, is evidently and obviously George Bush, whose footsteps he is following pretty closely. When the absurd editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, writes about Trump as a “Nero”, I have to laugh, since this same Remnick was all too happy to publish fakey news accounts about how closely Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were bound together in the year leading up to the invasion of Iraq – the bloodiness and awfulness of which is being softened to nothing by the same American amnesia that has now made the war in Vietnam a question of heroic American P.O.W.s, instead of say the multiply more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese P.O.W.s who faced much worse conditions in camps in the South.

You would think that 9/11 would have made us think a bit about how a society treats people who bomb it, but then, that would be a little too much thinking.

In any case, the Hitler comparison and in general the fascist comparisons that are continually thrown up in political discourse in this country are products not of solemn historical reflection, and not of deep and vigorous resistance to Trump, but, just the opposite, of a resistance to see how Trump fits into our national narrative. Trump, as H. Rap Brown mighta put it, is as American as apple pie.