Friday, April 13, 2018

THE GOLDEN AGE OF WISEASSERY




Pissing in a river, watching it rise 

Long ago, in a universe far away, Hilary Clinton appeared on a talk show and was asked about Donald Trump’s race for president in the GOP primary. Clinton burst out laughing.

I imagine that the scolds scolded her even at the time. Alas, the only times Clinton was likeable were the times that her advisors told her mistake! Ixnay on the laughnay. And her cult said, unfortunately, you aren’t allowed, cause-a sexism – terrible advice all the way around that made her into a stiff personality who seemed, even in her spontaneous moments, to be taking the advice of her spontaneous coach (oh God, please, let this not be true!).

But the point here is not to knock Clinton, but to praise her. For even today, even when we know what a disaster the short-fingered vulgarian is, even as we watch him go from racism to sexism to tax cuts like a mad triple, even now – he is genuinely funny. This is a man who tweets about the TPP and I think, Butthead-style, dude, he said PP! 
Because that is who he is.
Those who think comedy is some light dessert don’t understand how something on this scale of cruelty could possibly be funny. I mean, the Guardian is reporting that in twenty years, the top 1 percent worldwide will own 2/3 of our planet. The North Pole is now warmer than Albany, New York in the winter. There is war everywhere, and we live in a society where grave white men debate other grave white men about how dumb, genetically, blacks are – and the grave white men who maintain this, like Steven Pinker and Sam Harris, like to pretend that they are just being scientific.
So basically, what I’m saying is, we are fucked, and as the Good Ship Lollypop sinks, we are going to be harried by the dumbest people and their dumb fans so that even our dying bow will be laced with caricature and slapstick.
Yet, and yet – in all this darkness, I descry a silver lining. For isn’t this, friends, the golden age of the smart ass?
Smart assery has been my curse, my muse, my daimon, since I was a pup. I can’t help myself. Or no… lately, say for the past decade, I have toned down the sarcasm. Or sourcasm, as my brothers call it. But deep in my interior cathedral, the gothic lookin doctor and his monster are both rolling around on the lab floor every time another atrocity comes through the internets.
The reason for this is… romanticism! Modernism! Etc!
Ever since De Quincey showed how funny murder is, considered as one of the fine arts – ever since Poe – ever since Jarry’s Ubu Roi – the avant garde has known that the distance between tragedy and farce has lessened, or even collapsed. Marx thought the first time around was tragedy, the second time around was farce; Nietzsche thought that the first time around and the second and the third time and the nth time are identical; and Jacqueline Susan thought that once was not enough. Mix all of that up, and you get today’s wiseassery.
So I cry and I laugh about the state of the world, from Trump to Macron, but mostly I try to think of some appropriate jokes. Although every day, the newspaper comes up with jokes I could only dream of.


Candide's Revenge


It is a difficult thing to satirize Christianity today, as Voltaire once did. That is because the Christianity that Voltaire knew is dead. That is, the ideology of the clerks – the ideology of what James Scott calls the Great tradition – has moved on. It is no longer about glory and redemption. It is about commerce and science. 

Religion, in the Great Tradition culture, is now something to oratorically affirm on set occasions. Meanwhile, in the little tradition, in the daily life of the masses, belief has gone back to the wild. Thoughts are free – meaning it is all syncretic, a little astrology here, a little pop science there, a little Jesus, a little Oprah, a little politics. In these circumstances, the great biting ferocity of the old Candide tradition is simply out of place. Of course, there are fundamentalists, but they, too, are for the most part more moved by politics and commerce than anything like Christianity. 

My own stance on fundamentalists is that they are misnamed, since any literal reading of the Bible will tell you it is definitely as fierce as the Communist Manifesto. It makes a number of things crystal clear: that wealth is evil, that princes and nations are misguided, that primitive communism is the way to go, that thoughts aren’t free. The prophets are invariably – without exception – traitors. The messiah in the Gospels is serious that the first are last and the last are first in the kingdom of heaven. He is also serious about taking up your cross. 

I think the Candide genre died in The Master and the Margarita. Perhaps I should say, the death is explained in The Master and the Margarita. At the beginning of the book, there is a conversation between a poet and an editor. The latter, Berlioz, commissioned the poet, Ivan Ponyrev – or “Homeless” – to write an anti-Christian poem, but as he explains to Homeless, he is not satisfied with the result. The poem attributes dark motives and actions to Jesus – but the point, Berlioz says, is to bring out the fact that Jesus is a myth. He never existed. Now, Bulgakov is having some fun here, because as both are soon to find out, the Devil not only exists but has come to Moscow for an event. Berlioz’s rational world is swept away before the first chapter is over, in fact. But his theory about Jesus as a myth is a pretty good way of getting at why Candide is dead. In fact, in the current culture, whether Jesus existed or not doesn’t matter. Our liberal sentiments are offended by Candide style satire not because the belief in Jesus is belief in a myth, but because of the belief that we should be tolerant of the belief in Jesus. 

Both sides, of course, discard what we know about Jesus, whether man, God or myth: that he said and acted in certain ways, as recorded in four books and some so called Gnostic gospels. Nobody can swallow all of it, especially given the industrial-capitalist forms of our society today, which it totally did not predict, foresee, or experience.  Nobody wants to operate as though the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand anymore – which is the most absolute way of making sure that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t ever at hand. Fundamentalists have clung on to the one book in the Bible that is the most doubtful, and certainly the most anti-semitic and anti-Jesus: Revelations. Revelations is the L. Ron Hubbard book, the one that attracts the wankers.  The Fundy high priests would gladly trade the entire Good news of love for the idea that their enemies will be left to the pitiless tortures of the demons. And they have.

A religion based on Revelations won’t last. The evangelicals and fundamentalists are working, slowly and steadily, to create a broad revulsion with Christianity in all its shapes and forms. You can already see it happening. Call it: Candide’s revenge.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pablum politics

Looking for ‘politically viable’ solutions to our current problems is like looking for an anti-biotic that won’t kill microbes. The latter is called a pablum. Unfortunately, the American political class consists of people who deal in little else.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

fun among the fungus! politics and science in the 19th century


It isn’t known as well as it should be that both Georg F Hegel and Beatrice Potter were players in the study of the biology of the lichen, which in turn revolutionized the study of natural selection. Or at least I didn’t know. I do now thanks to Jan Sapp’s Evolution by Association: a history of symbiosis. A book I’d heartily recommend.


Hegel came first. Technically, Hegel didn’t know a lichen from a snowy owl. But he did put forward a view of the master-slave relationship in the Phenomenology of Spirit which must have influenced Simon Schwendener, a Swiss biologist who looked at lichens through the microscope and was startled by the fact, as he saw it, that lichens were not plants or organisms like the oak and the tiger. Rather, he claimed, they were composites.

Lichens, he argued, represented a master-slave relationship. The master was a fungus of the order scomycetes, "a parasite which is accustomed to live upon the work of others; its slaves are green algals, which it has sought out or indeed caught hold of, and forced into its service." He went on to describe how the fungus surrounds the alga, "as a spider does its prey, with a fibrous net of narrow meshes, which is gradually converted into an impenetrable covering. While, however, the spider sucks its prey and leaves it lying dead, the fungus incites the algae taken in its web to more rapid activity, nay, to more vigorous increase."7

This view, which Schwendener released to the world in 1868 (when, in America, they were putting in place the 13th and 14th amendments), was immediately controversial. Some thought this messed up the whole Linnean schema, and thus it couldn’t be true – another instance of classification influencing the classified. But Beatrice Potter in the 1890s also looked at lichens, and saw that Schwendener was right, at least about lichens being composite. But the paper she wrote about it had to be given to the Linnean society by her uncle, since the society didn’t allow women – even in the audience. And she couldn’t proceed with her studies as the British Museum because she was a woman who had made a stink. So she said to hell with it and turned to writing classic children’s tales. I don’t know if any enterprising critic has seen a lichenous theme in the Tale of Peter Rabbit, but I’d bet there is one somewhere.
Of course, in the 1860s and in the 1890s, the real intellectuals thought everything was competition. Surely! Superior races succeeding inferior ones, and all that. Nature bloody in tooth and claw. So the idea that all might actually be something else – cooperation – that was an offense to the Zeitgeist. If this was true, anarchy would rule the world!
These political views were not separate from the science. The positivist view that science floats on a cloud of theory above objective facts gives us a poor sense of what science does, since in the end theory is always about interpreting and organizing facts – and showing which ones are pertinent and which aren’t, showing what explains exceptions, etc. Just as the political economics of Malthus run through Darwin – which is not a criticism of Darwin, but an explanation of how science reaches out for models – so to the beginning of the discovery of symbiosis was couched, plainly, in terms of political power.  Its rejection, too – a rejection of any model that can’t be reduced to competition – is plainly political. Which isn’t to say it is wrong; rather, the controversies it arouses depend very much on organizing our vision of things.

It was out of this kind of controversy that symbiosis, as distinct from parasitism, was born:
“Some came to see in the lichen the possibility of a
more general phenomenon: associations between phylogenetically distinct organism
that ranged from the loosest to the most intimate and essential, and
from the most antagonistic and one-sided to the most beneficial for the wellbeing
of both associates. A neutral term was required that did not prejudge
such relationships as parasitic. Therefore, in 1877, Albert Bernhard Frank
(1839-1900) at Leipzig coined the word Symbiotismus: "We must bring all the
cases where two different species live on or in one another under a comprehensive
concept which does not consider the role which the two individuals play
but is based on the mere coexistence and for which the term Symbiosis
{Symbiotismus} is to be recommended.”

Interestingly, the other term in contention at that time was “mutualism”. This, naturally, was abhorrently sentimental to biologists who unthinkingly adopted the term “competition”, as if this was not rooted in a very heteronormative sentimentality that sits in an EZ chair, waves a pennant and roots for the home team.



Monday, April 09, 2018

the social costs of individualizing voice


I am sure that there is a relation between the ideology of the voice and the hegemonic situating of the story situation in the classroom. It is a deconstructive hunch. It is worth trying to suss it out, I think, because it would say something about politics of literature in the U.S. and perhaps the Anglophone world at the moment.

The ideology of the voice is entailed by what Derrida called logocentricity – the view that writing is always secondary to speaking, always dependent on speaking. In order to be coherent, this view first has to segregate its unities – speaking and writing – in such a way that they don’t, at least ideally, overlap. This separation has to be effected so that both categories retain their essential natures. If speaking, for instance, can’t be conceived without certain traits that belong to writing, then the whole hierarchy and its claims would become unbalanced.

I won’t go through the meticulous Derridian detective work that was applied to this thesis. I want to take up an ideological entailment of the mythical separation of the two in the Anglosphere – and in general in advanced capitalism – which I’d call the “individualism” myth. Just as voice, in the White Mythology, is one thing, spontaneous and natural, so, too, in the U.S. context, a voice is an individuating property. You “own” your voice. It is as unique to you, in this view, as your fingerprints.

Of course, the deconstructive response is to point out that the voice isn’t something you ever constructed. It is an organ that is almost uniquely sensitive to history. Within “my” voice there is a whole history of parents, of social groups, of geographies, of culture. Instead of being a unique unity, my voice is a composite, a nest more than an atom. There is a lot of fascinating research about people whose accents suffer major change after brain trauma – what is often found is that the new accent will often represent circumstances from some early portion of the patient’s life. Roth, Fink and Cherney published an interesting paper in 1997 about a patient who “sustained a left parietal hemorrhagic stroke” and began to speak again, after a period of aphasia, with a Dutch accent. This patient had been born in Holland, but he’d left Holland at five years of age. What he carried in his voice was a history of decisions, or perhaps one should say of unconscious choices, that were cruelly stripped away by the stroke. There are, that is to say, negative spaces in our voices.

If the voice, then, which can be recognized by a machine represents only the surface of that crowd phenomenon, the voice that came about and is still coming about through the twists and turns of a history that is neither spontaneous nor under one’s control, than the individualizing of the voice should be thought of not as a liberating project, but as a form of discipline and control. In the theme of “finding your voice”, the finder finds a fake voice, a unity, something that represents “him” the way a politician represents “him” – as an infinite compromise in a system of exploitation, a frustration that no hedonic headlock will resolve.

Which gets me to the classroom as the story site.
Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era, is the most comprehensive history and meditation I know of the post-war blooming of creative writing as a college discipline. It does not treat this as a disaster, nor is it nostalgic for some era of organic intellectuals. But it does pay attention to the price of this moment. One of the great prices is the forgetting that “creative writers” are specializing in a part of human action that is being performed, day in and day out, by almost every person. The story situation occurs in restaurants, on street corners, in offices, around tables – it is an incontournable aspect of human socializing before it is anything else. This aspect of writing – the skaz – seems, to me, remarkably undervalued in the current literary market. 

This, I think, may be because the skaz defies the ownership program of “creative writing” – it exists outside the classroom taboo of plagiarism, and beyond the idea of ranking. Not that ranking of a kind doesn’t exist: “tell the story about x” is a part of friendship and love – as is, frankly, “you told that boring story about x again.” These stories also change, and are often added to – the story of “x”, reminding somebody of “y”, will often change in its next retelling to echo bits of y. Just as microbes in the environment of an antibiotic will pass around resistant genes, the rhythms, types of plot, and attitude of stories will change according to what has been, so to speak, in the room.

Well, there is much more to say about the individualization of voice and and the disappearance of skaz in our literature, but that will have to do for today.

fuck reform

I've read my share of stories about "reform". For instance, privatization is a "reform." The prince of Saudi Arabia imprisoning other princes and billionaires and extorting money from them is a "reform". Austerity is a "reform." The press loves the word reform so much that if, tomorrow, the GOP in Congress passed a bill re-legalizing slavery, the headline in the NYT would read: "Labor reform voted."
Fuck reform.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

the dream of the impossible plot



When I used to review novels for Publishers Weekly, the form was dictated partly by the editorial limitation of space: I had 250 to 300 words to operate in. Conventionally, the review would either start out with or end with some elaboration of an adjective – basically, blurb territory. Then would come characters and plot – or telling what the novel was about. If I could find the room, I might refer to the writer’s reputation.

Now, this procedure relies heavily on the idea that a novel is about a plot, and that a plot is something that one can extract from the text that ‘moves’ the events and characters in the novel forward. Even if the novel varies “forward” – even if it is arranged chronologically so that it looks backwards, or it mixes up narrative patches that are in the past or future of the narrative’s present – the plot is the thing that makes the novel. The plot is to the novel what the plays are to a game – a plot encloses, in a determined field, the chances that the narrative rehearses in its serial plot-parts. If an orphan goes out one foggy afternoon to visit the tomb of his dead mother and discovers an escaped convict among the graves  –  which happens in the first chapter of Great Expectations – I expect that this will have a bearing on the entire action of the book, an action which involves numerous small actions over the course of twenty some years. The action, the plot, is a great maker of pertinence, that very English virtue that Grice made into a fundamental part of conversational implicature.

There is, of course, another meaning of plot, which refers not to the implicate order of fiction, but to the conspiracies or plans of human beings in secret coordination, one with the other, to bring about some event. A plot in this sense hinges very much on secrecy.

The plots of fiction and the plots of non-fiction have a way of converging – in fact, the latter seems, sometimes, to have almost swallowed the former, as though none of the stunted rituals of modern life present the interest to the reader that is associated with plotting in secret.

In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode brings together the narrative motive and secrecy as though, in reality, the plots of non-fiction have always been the secret sharers of the plots of fiction.  He usefully uses the notion of insiders and outsiders. A secret creates an immediate divide between those who share it and those who don’t. I itch to put the term “sharing” under scrutiny, here, since it seems to stand outside of the dominant exchange system and point to other systems of wealth and power – but I am more interested, here, in the categories of insider and outsider with relation to the form of narration.

Kermode takes the Gospels as an exemplary narrative. It is an inspired choice. From the perspective of secrets, the Gospels make the very strongest claims for the privilege of the insider. It is not that the Gospels unfold a conspiracy, although certainly some conspiring goes on to do Jesus to death. But the real secret, here, is in the double life of Jesus – on the one hand, a small time carpenter’s son, on the other hand, the beloved son of God. To understand the plot requires not only knowing that Jesus believed that he was the son of God, but believing it oneself. It requires metanoia, conversion.

Not only does the insider understand the plot, but if the insider is correct, the outsider can never understand the plot until he or she becomes an insider. The ritual of becoming an insider is not simply a matter of cognition, but of a special kind of semi-cognitive thing: belief. The belief comes not from the head – with its cognitive gearing – but from the heart – which understands that feeling is not subordinate to the world, but quite the reverse. And if this is true – death, where is thy sting?
To get away from the pull of the Gospel, Kermode’s point about secrecy and narrative is made in more general terms in a later essay published in Critical Inquiry: Secrets and Narrative Sequence.

“My immediate purpose is to make acceptable a simple proposition: we may like to think, for our purposes, of narrative as the product of two intertwined processes, the presentation of a fable and its progressive interpretation (which of course alters it). The first process tends towards clarity and propriety (“refined common sense”), the second towards secrecy, toward distortions which cover secrets.”

This does seem like refined common sense. And yet it shakes off, way too thoroughly, the insider/outsider categories that Kermode was using in the Genesis of Secrecy. I think that shaking off retreats to a classically ahistorical project: salvaging the presentation of the fable. As though the presentation came all in a block. After which – and the ‘after’ here signals, again, a certain ideal temporality, not an empirical one but a conceptual temporality – we find interpretation.

When I write the plot outline of my novel, I find myself writing, in a sense, about another book. Because the plot is so thoroughly part of the angles that determine the writing – angles that attempt to, as it were, hand the mic to many more characters – and even intellectual possibilities – than would be warrented by the plot alone.  Yet how could that be separated from the plot?

I have harbored Dadaist dreams of writing a novel which would have one surface plot for the reader and another for the author – and perhaps another outside of both the reader and the author. In this book, the plot that the reader thinks binds together the book is not the real plot, but incidental to the real plot, as it is understood and put together by the author. However, why  strain at that pitiable thing, the author? What if the real plot of the book is not understood by the author as well? As in the myth of Bellerophon, where a messenger carries a letter which, unbeknownst to him, requests that the receiver kill the messenger, perhaps the author of the plot could be considered a blind messenger, delivering a different plot from the one he or she knew? After all, there is a large degree of blindness in the world. Bellerophon is always a caution to those who think that a message can be reduced to the intention of the messanger.

In a sense, my dream novel would be an anti-gospel, because it would be closed, ultimately, to any access to its secret. The insider, here, would be defined by the fact that the secret he holds could not be shared. This would turn the world of the plot in a sense upside down. I don’t quite know how this kind of plot could even be constructed – a plot that resisted ever being known.

Surely, this is the great modernist temptation.