Limited, Inc.

“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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

where do superheroes come from?

Since the unexpected intersection of my life and the lives of superheroes has been willed into being by Adam, I’ve been thinking about superheros and their place in the American wetdream. One of the ways I go about understanding something (which is a way I have of feeling superior to it) is to find the root of it, the precursors, the historico-etymological unconsciousness from which it was called forth. So I thought that maybe this was found in such proto-fascists as Carlyle.
My advice is, if you think that Carlyle’s essay on Heroes in history is the royal road to the birth of Superman, forget it. Don’t blow the dust from that volume! I am a big fan of the 19th century essayists, but Carlyle is simply too bogus. With respect! Coleridge, De Quincey, the whole Romantic crewe were, like Carlyle, into German literature, but unlike him, they didn’t transform it into dyspepsia and fascism. I remember reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and liking it, but the Hero book, which started out as a series of lectures and was listened to, at so much per seat, by a group that dwindled as it became apparent that Carlyle’s Scot’s accent was here to stay, is not the background to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the great mutants that have now put the lock on our popular culture.
My search for the origins of the superhero cult made a necessary stop at Jill Lepore’s book on Wonder Woman – which Lepore traced back to the peculiar crossroads between utopian feminism and criminology, all staged with Harvard in the background. Wonder Woman was, from the beginning, a super hero like no other – not only because she was a woman (and got the usual comic book sexism thrown at her. Jules Feiffer, in his book on the history of super heroes, claims she is too flat chested. Wha???), but because her back story was expressly mythological. She was not a laboratory accident, or a military experiment, or a creature from another world. Lepore’s was an exemplary intellectual history. B-b-but I was looking for a key to the entire mythology, rather like dotty, repressed Causaban in Middlemarch, and it seems to me that there has to be more – some horizon of possibility that gave  superheroes such enormous importance in American culture.  My suspicion – or theory, since my suspicions have a way of becoming theories overnight – is that the super mutant ethos and fascination is tied into newspaper culture. A culture that, in spite of the efforts of such as Barthes, is too little interpreted from the lit crit aspect.        
My theory, untested by historical research, is that the superhero and his or her obsessions arise in close proximity to the racket of the newspaper format. Newspapers jumble together, in columns that stand next to each other but maintain a monad’s distance, war, crime, weddings, weather, politics and everything else. It is as if news were always a traffic jam. In particular, crime stands out. News media loves crime. So do readers. But with the love of crime stories goes the fear of crime fact. It strikes me that the obsession of superheroes with crime is one of the keys to the mythology. Carlyle’s heroes don’t even bother with crime. They are concerned with founding society and changing consciousness. They are saints, writers, and statesmen. They are certainly not policemen. In Greek and Norse mythology, the heroes are involved with sacred transgressions. They care about sacrifice, not about bank robbery.

Lepore’s exploration of the origins of Wonder Woman takes up this theme. William Moulton Marston, her creator (or one of them. Lepore is very clear about the collective input into this invention), was also one of the inventors of the polygraph machine.

The standard history of superheroes usually begins in the 1930s, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The 30s, too, saw a crime wave the like of which was not seen in the US until the 70s, the Great Depression (which undermined rules about property crime by showing the criminal behavior of the most propertied), and the rise of Fascism. All of which might have something to do with the way that Superheroes were both obsessed with crime and incredibly submissive to the powers that be. One might expect that a man of steel from another planet would have some sympathy with the man of steel from the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Stalin, but there’s no trace of revolutionary in his actions or thoughts. The only revolutionaries are the arch villains, who are still ultimately tied by the hip to the forces of order – they are weirdly willing to destroy the social order to make money, the ideal representative of the social order. There is some blip, some slippage in the thinking of the villains, which may be why they don the clothes of carnival mutants and engage in lumpen-revolutionary acts, out of some tabloid nightmare.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Poem for Stevie Smith

Isn't it dishonesty
this felt disproportion
between the gaps in my head
and the words in my mouth?

What I do around here
What I do
Is lie in bed
Dressed in Grandma's clothes.

In the movie
The old samurai
Dusty at the entrance to the village
Unsheathes an eloquent sword

With a rusty gesture.
I can identify.
To take strategies from the fox
Arbitrager’s carnivore

To fill my hunger
Clucking like an old hen
With oafish bit players
Instead of dangerous prey...

Oh chateaux – oh bandes dessinées!
Maybe I should exit stage left.
It's the dishonor I can’t stand.
Not the woodman’s necessity sharpened axe.

Monday, June 19, 2017

we become heat tourists

Because my love had a gig in Phoenix, we hied it outta tow last Friday after Adam’s graduation. The temperature in Santa Monica when we left was 80 F. We landed in Phoenix at 9:30 p.m, and the captain blandly announced that the wind was six miles per there, and the temperature was 100. The landing was strange. I had the distinct impression that the plane, like a man on third running out a bunt to home,  slid in. Upon the end of the slide, when the plane seemed normal again, the woman next to me turned and told me that she was always coming into Phoenix in the summer, and the planes always wobbled when they came in – hit by thermals, she thought. Then we speculated about the odd cracking noises the plane made. Unfortunately, I had spent the brief trip reading a thriller I picked up, which contained an elaborate airline crash scene. Talk about killing your paperback sales at Hudson News! I’m not a superstitious guy, but I did lay that book aside.
We deplaned, went outside, and the inevitable oven comparison ensued. I have a better comparison, built upon a famous passage in one of Harold Brodkey’s short stories. To describe the impression of beauty given by some woman, he wrote that to see her cross the Harvard Quad was to see Marxism die. On those lines, to step outside the Phoenix airport last Friday night and wait around for a taxi was to feel the Holocene die. Although one could argue that the Holocene was never very kindly to the Southwest to begin with, what with the drought cycle and the disappearance of Anasazi culture.
So we got our cab, or Uber, really (I apologize to all for participating in maintaining that cursed company) and we were driven to the Scottdale Plaza Resort, where we had booked a bungalow, by a sixty-ish woman who divided her time between driving for Uber and taking care of her two grandchildren, angels of 1 and 2 ½ (she dropped a hint that her son-in-law was currently looking for work), and she gifted us with her advice about how to spend the day in Phoenix. Basically, you can stay out to 10 a.m., then lock the kids up in shadows and air conditioning until 10 p.m., by which time they are asleep anyway. I would be alarmed if my environment was forcing me to spend summers like this, but she seemed very boosterish of Phoenix. She even found something civic achievement worthy in the fact that next Tuesday – which is now tomorrow – it was predicted to be a scorcher on the order of 120F. I could hardly believe my ears.
Then she dropped us off, giving us plenty to think about.
The next day, early, my love left for her gig, and Adam and I slept until 10. 10! I remembered the warning from our Uber driver. Nevertheless, we ventured out, tenderfleshed, and found the central resort center, which offered a modicum of breakfast: wooden waffles, scrambled eggs that were fresh hours ago, and the usual bad coffee. We had cereal. Then we searched around for sun blocks. I bought the children’s 50 and 70, and an adult 50 for myself. Back in our bungalow, I slathered Adam with cream, did the same to myself, put my hat on top of Adam’s head, found our sunglasses, and thus armed, we went out to the swimming pool. The climax of this story is not that we suffered 3rd degree burns, but that you can swim in 107 F sunlight if you stop to slop bunches of sun block on yourselves every ten minutes. After an hour of frolicking, we returned to the shadows of the bungalow and waited for Phaeton to drive his chariot through the azure Arizona air for a while. Then we… did stuff. Vacation, you know. Here narration ends, and dissemination begins, since the two days of vacation we took expired without any narrative anchoring points that went beyond what you’d get in a snap shot. The grocery store for floaties, junk food, and beer. The covey of young women at the grocery store, all clothed in hot pink tee shirts that read “Bride Tribe”, foraging in the liquor section. Adam’s first water squirter, which gained immediate love and affection. Breakfast. More swimming. A gratifying absence of sun burn due to the hyper gobs of sun block. The wonder of parents at the pool allowing their two and a half year old to sit under the sun as it delivered terrific luminous jolts. The restaurant we went to, The Blue Adobe, that served real Santa Fe Carne Adovada. Highly recommended. The giant jar of margarita, which came with an open bottle of Corona stuck in it at a jaunty angle. Excellent. The awarding of a jar of similar build, with the logo of the place on it, to yours truly after finishing said drink. Unnecessary. The ride back to the resort. Drunken.
Ah, and then one last touch. American airlines startled us with a message that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of afternoon flights today, so we had to change our flight to one at 10 in the morning – that magic hour. The heat today was supposed to peak at 117 F.

Yes, its like seeing the Holocene die. Quite the weekend getaway. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cross reference, ordinary language and wine tasting.

We went to the Ojai music festival this Sunday. We’d never been to Ojai. On the way, we passed through  Casitas Springs, which greets the motorist with a large sign adorned with Johnny Cash’s picture and the boast of being the great man’s home. We are  I walk the line heads, so of course we had to look this up, and it turns out those were Cash’s dark years, when he was chasing the amphetimine blues. Vivian got the house on the hill, in a nice Hank Williams turn of thing.
The music we heard at Ojai was more avant garde than country. Adam said he didn’t like it. I did. So did A. Ojai turns out to be a very pleasant resorty kind of place. Apparently it was adopted by a plutocrat – a Libby, guy who founded Libby glass – and so it shows off all kinds of restoration that is really fakedoration, like a mission tower that was built, really, in 1919, not 1719. But I can dig that, and especially the setting – it is nestled in a valley with three large peaks taking up the Eastern horizon.
This kind of country is great for grapes. So I wandered into a wine shop, where they were having a tasting. The tourists at the bar were loving it. Instead of the oenophile sniff, taste, and toss routine, they gobbled down their free samples. The gal pouring, though, gamely spouted the usual thing. Here’s a wine with hints of mint, chocolate, wood and crickets. Or whatever.
Which made me think about the construction of this sub-language.
Philosophers of language are divided about the function of the name, and especially the status of the proper name. However, most of them believe that the name or description functions in relationship to truth. If I described an automobile as a feathered creature that flies south in the winter, what I am showing is that I don’t know what automobile means. Maybe I’ve mistaken it for another word.
What strikes me about wine descriptions is how far away they are from anything I actually taste.
In a sense, this may be because these descriptions do not cross reference. Movie and book reviewers often cross-reference the works they are describing in order to give a sense that is given by experience in the genre. Describing a movie as Silence of the Lambs meets Star Trek  does mean something – but only if you know something else about movies. This knowledge doesn’t really have to be direct. I can have acquaintance with Silence of the Lambs without seeing it, as long as I have heard enough references to it. In contrast, if I described a movie as Satantango meets Sult, I am probably only talking to people who have a more cinephilic knowledge of movies, and are more likely to have seen both of these films. Cross-reference, in other words, assumes a certain knowledge.
But what kind of knowledge is presumed by smoky, or earthy, or nutty? Surely this is the tongue’s knowledge. If I have never tasted anything smoky, then I will have no idea – even from references by people who have tasted it – what that means.
Here’s the thing. To me, wine taste descriptions rarely if ever suggest the taste of wine.
Now, if – as philosophers like to say – language, even sublanguage, has a relation to truth, then – if I am right about wine taste descriptions – it would seem that this sublanguage would soon fail. It is as if the wine server started talking Jabberwocky. It has tastes of brillig, with hints of borogrove and mome raths.
But I can’t really say that the sublanguage is failing, even though it is often mocked. Rather, the method seems to have extended itself to coffee shops – I am seeing more and more wine tasting like language in them.
So what gives? I think this is a good subject for a nice philosophy paper. Something on a language of pseudo-descriptions, and its acceptance and use. In fact, the more I make these descriptions correspond to the wines they are supposed to describe, the more I can predict the taste of the wine even if I taste nothing nutty in it. They have become indexicals, I guess one would say. Just as I can tell the subject of a book from its LOC number, I can tell the “subject” of the wine from its description.
This is a rather fascinating thing. Roland Barthes, I think, found something similar happening in the Fashion world.

So I bought a nice bottle of wine, we had ice cream, and then we all went home. The end. You will find this paragraph to be full of earthy notes, with some nuttiness added. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

scripture reading today!

The weekend, around my house, is often devoted to scripture reading – the scripture being Adorno’s minima moralia. Here’s a lively bit that I’ve translated and distorted just a pinch, which casts a lot of light on our era – you know, the Age of Bush and Trump.

Fish in the water – Since the global distribution machinery of highly concentrated industry has dissolved the sphere of circulation, the later has begun a marvelous post-existence. While the profession of the go-between has lost its economic basis, uncounted private lives have taken on the guise of agents and dealers, even one might say that the whole private domain is confounded with this enigmatic busy-ness, which bears all the features of commerce without really having an object to deal in. Across the spectrum of anxious people, from the unemployed, to the most prominent, subject at every second to the anger of those whose investments he represents,  the belief is that empathy, industry, servicability, through clever turns and dodges  through businessman’s qualities, can one take on the air of the imaginary executive, and soon there is not a relationship that isn’t seen as a connection, no impulse that is not submitted to the mental censor for being perhaps too deviant. The concept of connections, a category of intermediation and circulation, was never best exhibited in the actual circulation sphere, in the market, but instead in closed, monopolistic hierarchies. Now that society is wholly penetrated by hierarchy, the dark connections stand everywhere that we still see a semblence of freedom. The irrationality of the system expresses itself never more greatly than in the economic fate of individuals where this psychology of parasitism comes out. In early periods, when there really was something we could call a bourgeois division between the career and private life, the passing of which one must almost mourn, the unmannerly ambitious man was mistrusted for following his goals in the private sphere. Today, in contrast, the person who subsides entirely into the private sphere seems to be arrogant, alien, and not with the program, since the person’s goals are not visible.  It is almost suspicious not to ‘will’ something: one doesn’t trust anyone of this type -, who lives  without legitimating himself with some counter demands of his own – to help us in snapping after the miserable  treats we are offered. Numbers of people make their jobs out of the circumstances that kick people out of their jobs. These are the nicest people, the bien pensants, that are friends with everyone, the righteous, that forgive every human meanness and with implacable hostility label  every not normalized impulse sentimenta. They are indispensable in their knowledge of all the strings and shortcuts of power, guess the secret judgments of the might and live off of their talent for nimbly communicating it. The are found in all political situations, eveen there, where rejection of the system reigns as self-evident and thus diffuse a lax and resigned conformism of their own type. Often they  captivate with a certain cheerfulness, through an empathetic participation in the life of others: a speculating selflessness. They are clever, witty, sensible and adaptive: they have polished up the old salesman’s spirit with the latest in psychology. They are capable of anything, even love,  yet never faithful. They don’t betray out of some compulsion, but out of principle: they value even themseves as profitmakers, which they cannot share with others. In their minds they combine elective affinity and hatred: they are a temptation for the thoughtful, but also their worst enemy. Then these are the ones who take the last little corners of resistence, the hours painfull reserved from the demands of the machine, and they cunningly shit on it. Their late ripened individualism poisoned whatever is left of the individual.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

the ontological drunkard's proof

Swedenborg, I think, is the only protestant ever to create an image of hell and heaven to set against Dante's. So I like him for that. But I really like Swedenborg because he argued that drunkards, who escape from a thousand seemingly fatal accidents, are a logical proof that guardian angels exist. Weirdly enough, though the ontological proof of the existence of God is taught in every first year philosophy class, nobody teaches the proof by drunkard of the existence of guardian angels. Furthermore, I think more people believe the latter than believe the former. So what is up with these philosophers?

Monday, June 05, 2017

political stories

narrative induction
Charlotte Linde is a rather brilliant ethnographer broadly within the symbolic interaction school – although not participating in that schools downhill slide into the irrelevance of infinitely coding conversations to make the smallest of small bore points. Rather, she has taken Labov’s idea that a story is a distinguishable discursive unit and researched Life Stories – she wrote the standard book on the subject.

In 2000, she wrote a fine study of an insurance firm with the truly great title, “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes memory and identity.”
 Identity, with its columnally Latinate Id seemingly standing for noun in general, has during the course of my lifetime been dipped in the acid of the verbal form, and now little leagurers talk of identifying with their team – their grandparents would, of course, used identify to talk not of a subjective process of belonging, but an objective process of witnessing, as in, can you identify the man who you saw shoot mr x in this courtroom? Conservative hearts break as the columnar Id falls to the ground, but that’s life, kiddo.

Linde’s article circles around a marvelous phrase: narrative induction. “I define narrative induction as the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story…” My editor’s eye was pleased and did a little dance all over my face to see that this was the second sentence in the article – getting people to forthrightly state their topic is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things about editing academic papers.  

Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation. Linde, in this paper, is obviously moving from her concern with stories people tell about themselves – the point of which is to say something significant about the self, and not the world – to stories people tell about the world. Those stories often are about experiences not one’s own. They are non-participant narratives.

Linde divides the NPN process– as she calls it – into three bits: how a person comes to take on someone else’s story; how a person comes to tell their own story in a way shaped by the stories of others; and how that story is heard by others as an instance of a normative pattern.

There is an area, as Linde points out, where work on this has been done: in religious studies. Specifically, the study of metanoia, conversion stories. But there’s metanoia and then there’s metanoia. There’s St. Paul on the way to Damascas, and there’s Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, on the way to the relative wealth of a Toyota Car Dealership, owned by his father-in-law. Linde, not having access to St. Paul, opted to study the trainees of a major American insurance company in the Midwest. Like Labov, Linde is interested in class issues. In particular, stories of occupational choice. In her Life Stories book, she presented some evidence that professionals present their occupational choice stories in terms of some vocation or calling, while working class speakers present it, more often, in terms of accident or need for money. Philosophy professors rarely will say, for instance, well, I needed a steady paycheck, looked at the job security of tenure, loved the idea of travel and vacation time, so I went into philosophy. They will give a story rooted in their view of themselves as emotional/cognitive critters. Labov’s work was done in the seventies, and my guess is that there has been some shift. The NYT recently published an article about “quants” in finance, many of whom came from physics, and their stories were all without a moral/personal dimension – they were all about money, not interest in finance. Interestingly, as a sort of saving face gesture, they all talked about how there are “deep problems” in finance.
Narrative induction is obviously about politics. It is one of the great instruments by which power is made into action and organisation.  To my mind, the discourse about democracy, which has become the central discourse in political philosophy, has become sterile; using the insights of narratology might liven it up a bit. There has to be more than democracy in democracy, or democracy just becomes another gimcrack put up job. There has to be stories within a democracy that sustain it. If the stories are simply about who is being elected, I think it is a symptom of democracy’s decay – its surrender to the old monarchial narrative.  
We need, in other words, to start looking at political stories. How they work, and how they do self-work This is an area that has not  been very well explored by political philosophers who want to infinitely suss out what Locke meant, or stuff like that. We need something  more novelistic. We need more ‘what is it like to be’ questions that will allow us to understand the political stories people tell.  And not stories that give political agents the character depth of lab rats pressing buttons for pellets.

Cause those stories, though cynically satisfying, are ultimately untrue. They are even untrue about rats.