Thursday, May 10, 2018

let's all piss on 'craft'



Back in the 1920s, the avant gardes, radicalized by the Russian revolution, explored the concept of the author as producer. This was a response to varied changes in the cultural industrial landscape, from the growth of newspapers and magazines to the coming of radio and film, in the light of a somewhat Marxist theory of economic development. Brecht, for instance, began to explore writing theater collectively. The surrealists briefly explored automatic writing. Skhlovsky and the Russian formalists became interested in skaz, or orality in the story.

And then there was England, and a guy named Percy Lubbock. Who was not at all interested in writing as a product manufactured  under the framework of capitalism. He was, in a gesture that referenced the 19th century reaction to industrialism, interested in “craft”.  The writer as the proprietor of an atelier, not as a worker in the factory of language – that is the image.

Lubbock’s book, The Craft of Fiction, gifted us with that image and sign of this ye olde tweediness. Actually, I don’t want to be too hard on Lubbock – it isn’t a bad book. But it is a book that utterly skips modernism. All of which is encoded in that horrible word, “craft”.

We live in a vast world of bogus words – we train people up to create and distribute them, and we call them marketers. Marketers play a valuable Keynesian function, getting us all to purchase things we don’t need and might not even want, in a constant flow of purchase, work, and credit. The word craft applied to fiction, or to beer, or to cheese, etc., bears the marketer’s impress: it is a bogus descriptor from the topimus to the bottomus.  That writers take up the cross of that bogosity and actually write about the “craft” of fiction, or poetry, or whatever, always makes my heart sink, since we begin by stripping away the critical moment and retire into Hobbitland, from whence we make up “rules” and have ourselves a very good, ye olde time. Marketing, manufacture, production on different scales, all these are ways of getting to the social causes and effects of literature, or cheese, and lead us much more interestingly to the existential substructure.

So this is my plea to writers out there: let’s all piss on craft.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

jordan peterson and other tinpot gurus of the Trump age


Wendy Kaminer’s 1993 book, I’m dysfunctional You’re dysfunctional, pointed to the way that the “personal development” movement was inherently political. She was not just following through on the feminist slogan, the personal is the political, but she was anchoring it in a long American tradition.
“(My first working subtitle was "Self-Help and the Selling of Authority.") While American mythology celebrates the common sense of Frank Capra's common man, the  American reality, reflected in the perversely named self-help industry is marked by a tendency to put our faith in experts. What sells self-help books, tapes, and workshops is the willingness to believe that there are experts who can help us achieve the good life, however it is defined at the moment; existential problems are reduced to merely technical ones, which can be solved by expert techniques.”
Shrewdly, she saw how this drew people – I would guess, mainly men – to Ross Perot in 1992. The persona he crafted was, in hindsight, something that was bound to find another figure eventually. This figure was, of course, Donald Trump. I actually don’t think Perot was disgusting, the way Trump is, but both Perot and Trump were fundamentally salesmen. Salesmen are not experts, but they use expertise as a gimmick. Hence, Trump’s famous relationship to “deals”, even though there is little evidence that he is actually very good at deals.
During the George Bush years, masculine self-help was monopolized by Straussians, who, whilst having a firm view of what men were (they were fighter pilots like George Bush!), didn’t really grasp the self-help market. Perhaps the most typical of the reactionary semi-self-help books from that decade was one that pretended to be a kind of philosophy – Harvey Mansfield’s ‘Manliness’ – and one that presented Bush as the John Wayne of our time – Fred Barnes’ ‘Rebel in Chief’.  Ten years on, a sort of synthesis has been manufactured by Jordan Peterson, the rather cracked guru of Alt-right lost boys. Strauss has lost his flair, or whatever flair he had, and the new flavour is Jung, with a dash of racism and mucho misogyny.
I ran into some of Peterson’s lost boys on twitter. One recommended that I listen to Peterson’s videos. I was a little dumbstruck by that – the man said Peterson had “turned his life around”, and what he meant is that he watched YouTube? I mean, read a book. But then I thought that this is something very much in what James C. Scott calls the little tradition – the resistance to literacy, and to the centralizing administrators of the big tradition, for whom literacy is power. The lost boys no doubt went to school, learned to read, and even learned to twitter, but in doing so they lost the anchor of the masculine voice – and it is the male voice as much as the penis that has psychoanalytical value here. The authority of that voice is crucial to the transference that is both sought and feared, since it seems to suddenly cast into recognizable form the random features of drifting lives in late capitalism.

Wendy Kaminer, by the way, has moved onward and rightward herself. In her critique of victimization she has forgotten that to say that there are no victims is as crazy as saying we are all victims. Her recent essay on why Monica Lewinsky is no victim, but is a prime case of #metoo overkill, works within the framework of methodological individualism to concentrate everything on whether Lewinsky gave her consent to sex or not. Once you’ve satisfied yourself that you can just bracket the institution, the rules of the organization, and the power those rules express, victims disappear. Once you re-introduce, say, common sense, you then have to deal with the consequences of an office in which the most powerful person – the president – likes quite visibly to ogle women, has an affair with an intern twenty some years older than him, and has people who want to make trouble about that – for instance, the fiendish Linda Tripp – transferred. In this office atmosphere, women are disadvantaged in all the classical ways. That means that, as a class, they are discriminated against. Which is why even consensual “hanky panky” can soon poison the office atmosphere. Kaminer’s failure to see this, or rather, her willingness to impose a framework in which this is rendered invisible, is why she ends up being quoted with approval by ginks like Jonathan Chait.

“Responsibility” quickly becomes an establishment copout. It is the way the establishment keeps itself going. It sucks.



Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Marx and the Amazon Hooligans

Myself, I decided to read Marx’s lesser read journalism on the Paris commune. Although innumerable rightwing tweets have gone after Marx for Stalin, in reality, Stalin was born after Marx was dead. Marx made a very clear political record for himself. That record is a record of responses to the horrors of the 19th century. Those are horrors that Cold War liberalism (of which conservatism is a variant) did not want to examine. Instead, the Cold Warriors approved a history in which native peoples “vanished”, and in which the pomp and panoply of the British Raj became the scene for many a BBC and PBS series – while the eleven million people who had starved to death in India, by 1911 (quoting the 10th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica), were ushered off stage. Too bad! If you want to know what preceded Dachau, you should look in Mike Davis’s Victorian Holocaust. Imagine a famine in which hundreds of thousands are dying, and the government response is to send troops out to the countryside to collect their taxes. This happened. Imagine a labor camp where the daily release of food contained as many calories as … well, at Dachau. This happened. We know what Marx thought about labor camps, slavery, and the “vanishing” native people because he actually wrote about them. He was, let us say, against it.

In any case, on to the Commune, about which I am reading. Here’s another witness: Camille Mendés, a sensitive sort, a poet, who remained in Paris during the Commune and wrote a book about his experience there, entitled: Les 73 journées de la Commune. I can’t believe the echo of Sade is wholly absent from that book. 

Anyway, Camille was able to observe that thing which shocked the respectable in the 1870s, the amazons-voyous – amazon hoodlums. Women from the working class armed themselves and fought alongside another communard. Mendés compares them to the famouse tricoteuses – the women who knitted while the guillotines fell. Except these were cantinieres – cafeteria workers. Waitresses, you might say. Never underestimate the waitresses!


‘There was not enough men with holes poked in them by bullets or cut up by the machine gun. A strange enthusiasm took hold of the women in their turn, and thus they fell on the field of battle as well, victims of an execrable heroism. Who were these extraordinary beings, who abandoned the household broom and the working woman’s needle for the cartridge? who abandoned their children to go to be killed by the side of their lovers or husbands? Amazon hoodlums magnificent and abject, they held their own with Penthesilia or Theroigne de Mericourt. One saw them pass, carrying canteens, amongst those going into combat; the men are furious, the women are ferocious, nothing moves them, nothing discourages them. A Neuilly, a food and drink seller, wounded in the head, had her wound bandaged and returned to take up her combat post. Another, of the 61st bataillon, bragged of having killed a score of police and three guardians of the peace. At Chatillon, a woman, remaining with a group of national guardsmen, charged her rifle, fired and recharged without ceasing; she was the last to retreat, turning around at every instant to return fire. The woman who dispensed food in the 68th bataillon fell, killed by a mortar blast which broke her ladle and projected it in pieces into her stomach. … Thus, what is the furor that has carried off these furies? Do they know what they are doing, do they understand why they are dying? Yesterday, in a boutique, rue de Montreuil, a woman enters, rifle on her shoulder, blood on the bayonet – shouldn’t you be home cleaning the faces of your brats? said a peaceful bourgeois. A furious altercation broke out; the virago was so carried away that she leaped on her adversary, bit him violently on the neck, then, falling back a few paces, grasped her rifle and was going to fire when suddenly she grew horribly pale, let fall her arm, and collapsed; she was dead, the anger had caused an aneurism to rupture. Such are, at this hour, the women of the people.”

Marx of course supported the Amazon hooligans.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

the myth of strong leadership



The ghosts of my tv watching youth drift through Youtube (downloaded by an ever nostalgic cohort of boomers) and are channeled through Adam’s video preferences. Thus, Charlie Brown tv specials have suddenly resurrected themselves in my life’s path, the catchy tune, the World War I flying ace, the security blanket, those voices – Lucy’s spectrum between cattily flirtatious to Charlie Brown’s clear as tapwater voice of reasoning and despair.
In one of these things, Charlie Brown goes to summer camp. He lists his hopes for summer camp, and they include “learning leadership skills”.

Ah, leadership! The ethos of my cub scout troop, the unexamined virtue we were all taught to revere: there was no merit badge for dissent, that’s for sure. Leadership skills were amply rewarded, or at least verbally praised.
In today’s Le Monde there is an interview with a political philosopher, who was asked to comment about a recent speech by Sarkozy in which he remarked that democracy destroys leadership. The response was along the lines of democracy is good! But – to quote a Flannery O’Connor character – that don’t satisfy me none. It is not that Sarkozy is making a deep point – he is a shallow man, and his points will always be shallow. This one just expresses that long longing for a strong tinpot dictator that has always moved the French right, whether for Boulanger in the 1880s or Poujade in the 1950s.
But the point can be deepened. The argument would go like this: when the foundations of democracy were laid, in the 18th century, the model was the ancient Roman Republic. That Republic was a colonialist, warmongering and slaveholding polity, and its most characteristic leaders were military men. This model of Republican virtue was translated into the early democratic view of leadership. The leader was strong. He – always he – unified the nation in the way a general unifies an army. In this view, then, the voice of the governed was really about finding that strong leader, and following.
Yet the idea that the governed rule, in some way, does come into conflict with the idea of the strong leader. There is a tension there that has not been resolved; instead, it has been sublimated or wished away. Meanwhile, the cultural life of this proto-fascist vision of leadership is all around us, from cub scouts to business inspirational meetings. Division and dissent is bad. Bipartisanship, meaning conformity to some leadership policy, is a virtue.
If one discards this model, what is left? What would a real democratic form of leadership look like?
This is a good question to ask now, as the democratic moment – which I would define as that moment that gathered force with women’s suffrage, pulsed through the fifties and sixties with various civil rights movements and class based organizations, and started going into decline in the 80s – wanes. I suspect the demi-democracies before the mid-twentieth century and the plutocracies that have been thrust on us now relied on a notion of leadership that was, really, counter to the democratic impulse – that was connected, very much, with the subordination of women, class hierarchy, racism, and homophobia. And in spite of the achievements of dismantling these counter-democratic patterns, we still have a Pavlovian response to “strong leadership”.
I never got a merit badge in leadership. But I was always a smartass, anyway.
In other words: learn to dissent, Charlie Brown!