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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

remote control


The channel changer was put on the market by Zenith in 1950 under the label “Lazybones” – an oddly moralizing kind of brand name. In the fifties, as home technology reshaped the house, the house became a refuge of laziness against the ideal of the grime and stress of the working life. That the cleaning of the home was itself labor was lost, as it has always been lost, under this advertising driven thematic. The union ticket worker never had it so good. The eight hour day was solid. The pay a little per month credit structure was solid. You could lounge in your lounger, you didn’t have to take the steps to the tv to change the channel. Such was the idea.

Remote control was in its infancy. It really found its legs when it changed from a sonic device to one using infrared technology, which was marketed in the eighties at the same time that cable tv started to make inroads on network tv.

Myself, I owned my last television set under the ancien regime in 1980. After that, I lost interest in TV. I skipped the 80s and the 90s. It wasn’t until around 2004 that I had another tv, by which time the entire infrastructure of tv had changed. And now I see tv shows on my computer, and we don’t have a tv proper.  

I have not been interested in network tv, or tv news of any sort, since 1980. But I loved the channel changer. When I stayed with my brothers, in Atlanta, I drove them crazy when I managed to get my hands on the channel changer, because the drift from one channel to another would fill me with a strange auteurist joy. There’s a funny story by James Thurber about an avant garde poet who found inspiration in breaking light bulbs, which made him a trying party guest. Similarly, I was a trying remote controller, which introduced the mashup, the American form of montage, to the public at large. I connect this time – the time when Reagan was in the house and MTV was spreading its brand of whiteness to the suburbs – with the high tide of French theory, where the mashup principle achieved philosophical dignity. From the white mythology to the rhizome, it was in tune with the second Cold War vibe. Theory has dispersed and gone off in different channels since then, as the mashup is now being done by Neo-lib nudgers, nudging us towards Weather death. Meanwhile, remote control is now everywhere in the parking lot, it has crawled into the HVAC and the computer and is a lot less fun for me. When we go to a hotel or rent a house through Airbnb and discover a television, the channel changing is less a flow of cuts that makes a crazy zigzag through the nights narrative and more a long slog as the channels never stop, and never get more interesting. Remote editing, for some reason, has never been on the boards for the masses, but surely that is a function that we would all like, and not just this here peapod descendent of the situationists.

Friday, June 11, 2021

children of the homunculus


 John Maynard Keynes famously remarked that Newton was the last of the magicians. He was referring to Newton’s fascination with alchemy and the book of Revelations. Keynes was, of course, wrong – there were certainly magicians after Newton. But he was right in the most important respect, which was that the Whiggish history of science, in which Newton figured as a hero of positivism, was founded on a fiction. And it was not an unimportant glossing over of minor Newtonian penchants – according to Dobbs in The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought, one of the great books in the science wars, Newton took his notion of force from the alchemists. In fact, although the positivists still seem not to recognize this, the father of positivistic physics, quite purged of alchemical crap, is Descartes. The only problem with Descartes notion of vortices is that they are, mathematically, crap, as Newton proved. In place of the vortices – which at least adhere to the old materialist image of one thing causing another by means of contact – we have the mathematically proven magic of attraction at a distance.

When Goethe started reading the alchemists in the 1770s, preparting to write Faust, alchemy was good and dead – but only in the sense that psychoanalysis is good and dead. While alchemy seemed, especially to the 19th century positivists, to have been overthrown as a rational task by scientist, in reality its concepts became part of the background of natural philosophy, aka science.

Which brings us to the homunculus. Goethe’s critics claim that Goethe first read about the artificial manniken in a dialogue written by a Dr. Johannes Praetorius, a prolific seventeenth century popularizer of wonders, against Paracelsus. Gerhild Williams, in his book on Praetorius, summarizes it as a very curious dialogue, in that Paracelsus never claimed to have made a homunculus. Like Praetorius, Paracelsus believed in the elemental spirits literally. Praetorius, however, claims he instructed his disciples in how to create chymische Menschen – literally, “chemical people”. You needed wine, yeast, sperm, blood and horse dung to do the deed. ‘When he is done, you have to watch him very diligently. Though no one will have taught him, he will be among the wisest of men; he will know all the occult arts because he has been created with the greatest of skill.”

In one way, we are the children of the homunculus. We are certainly chemical people. Our environments consist of synthetics absolutely unknown in this solar system before we began to produce them – and now, of course, they wrap about us, a giant oil-n-corn slick, and we rarely touch dirt, or unprocessed wood. If by some magic I waved a wand and wished away all the synthesized chemical products in my nearest neighborhood, the stools on the sidewalks outside of the cafes would collapse, the cars would vanish, the plants would wither (fertilizers gone), the food in the grocery store, what was left of it, would immediately start to grow rapidly stale.

None of which were things foreseen by Goethe, Newton’s fiercest enemy, in 1769.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

poison and writing

“- When do you write?

- Not all the time.

- So you aren’t a writer?

-I am a writer just as a venomous beast stings at some time or another, when it is provoked, when it is stepped on, when it is attracted. The venom can be an erotic juice.”

This note, in Hervé Guibert’s  journal, The mausoleum of lovers, seems to me an antidote to the Stendhalian model of the mirror. As is usual with Guibert, it puts a premium on the body as an endless source of secretion and excretion – among which we can count writing, writing in the animal life.

Socrates compares himself with a gadfly or horsefly in the Apology: his sting is to arouse the listener from his torpor. And yet, in the Meno, the sting does other work: there, Meno compares Socrates to the narke, a fish with the power to diffuse the water around it with a charge, so that in its neighborhood, or even touching it, a person is shocked and numbed.

“And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me.”

I imagine that Socrates was too Athenian to play with the idea of being stepped on – that is a bit slavish. Yet it is surprising how Guibert’s notion of the writer as the poisonous animal lines up with the Socratic notion of the philosopher as horsefly. To compare oneself to a horsefly is an odd thing – it seems an especially degrading image, not an image to preen over. At the same time, Hera, who was divine, sent a humble gadfly to torment Io, that much beset cow, the former lover of Zeus.

To compare oneself to a venomous beast, or one with a stinger, is definitely part of the field of analogies for a kind of art, if philosophy comes under that compass. Socrates, in reply to Meno, says that he is as torpified as anybody he supposedly torpifies – but in the Apology he tells the truth – perhaps – and comes out from behind the curtain with his stinger. One that does not torpify, but hurts like hell. It wakes you out of the torpid condition.

Guibert had a relationship with Foucault – the unknown philosopher. It isn't unlikely that they may have discussed Socrates Apology, as this was during the last stage of Foucault's career, when he returned to Classical Greek society for material about self care and the ethos of sexuality. Foucault's death, it could be said,  had something to do with suc amoureux, at least in Guibert’s view.  The horsefly, as the Greeks knew, was found around the horse’s eyes – and rear end.

In Greek Love Magic, Christopher Faraone writes that oistros “ranges in meaning from the  gadfly that infests bovines or “goad” to “madness or frenzy, often of desire” and eventually the “mating madness” of female mammals in heat...” Socrates actually uses muops – horsefly - to describe himself, but Plato’s texts include oistros according to Nass and Bell in Plato’s Animals, and the terms were basically interchangeable.

(Although there is discussion among scholars on this topic. Did Socrates in the Apology mean to say he stung, or that he “stirred” the horse of state? And how would a horsefly stir a horse, save by stinging it?)

There’s a story at the very beginning of Guibert’sMausoleum. It concerns M.F. – an easy to see through initials. Here poison and desire, the experience-limit, come together in an anecdote:

“Saturday night around 9 p.m. the doorbell rang at M.F.’s, he was alone. He thought it was me, or T., a ‘familiar’. Two boys entered, their faces hidden, pushing him inside they slapped him, knocking off his glasses, with a blow they opened his nose, he fell to the ground, they pummeled him with kicks, he lost consciousness. They didn’t ransack the apartment, they didn’t pull out the telephone cord. When they left, he got up, blood pissing abundantly from his nostrils. Several days earlier someone had told him the story of a man who had died within eight days of a cerebral hemorrhage provoked by an emotion, a disagreement with his wife. Seeing the blood run abundantly like this from his nostrils, he thinks: “I, too, am having a brain hemorrhage, I’m going to die in the night.” He doesn’t think to call someone, not the police, not a friend, no one. He cleans up, puts everything away: he wipes the blood stains from the floor, he puts the books back into piles, he changes his shirt, and he goes to bed. He didn’t leave a note, nothing. In the morning, he wakes up with black crusts on his nose and skull, a bump on his cheek, astonished to be alive.


Saturday, June 05, 2021

Philosophy departments everywhere: sociopathology isn't destiny

 There is an article in the Philosophers Mag that made me laugh outloud. It is a survey essay by Helen Beebee entitled Women in Philosophy: What’s changed? Beebee lists the things that have pushed back the men’s club atmosphere in Philosophy departments, including less tolerance for sexual harrassment and greater opportunities for women to publish. This is the paragraph, though, that I particularly liked:

“One final change I do want to highlight, though, is the atmosphere in philosophy research seminars. Some things that used to happen relatively frequently: questions asked in an incredibly aggressive manner. (I’ve seen people in a state of near apoplexy, so insulted were they by the speaker’s outrageous suggestion that metaphysical realism is false, or that maybe knowledge is justified true belief after all. I mean, what is wrong with the speaker? Is he or she an idiot?) Someone hogging an enormous slab of the Q&A time by asking repeated follow-up questions. (Because their question must just be so much more important than the questions the other members of the audience want to ask.) Or failing to shut up despite the fact that the seminar was supposed to end ten minutes ago and the chair is very clearly starting to look desperate.”

The instances gave me an instant (non)nostalgia for my own days as a grad student in the University of Texas Philosophy Department. Both the intelligence policing – the idea that you had to be smart, which I at first thought was a joke and then realized was taken very seriously – and the outsized, testosterone swollen passion attaching to abstract positions, usually backed up by this or that hoary “analytic” philosopher – were a huge burden to someone like me, who just wanted to talk about Nietzsche, Derrida and Georges Bataille. This desire, not an unusual thing in 80s humanities, marked me down as a nihilist or something. And so I had that experience of presenting arguments that insulted all of humanity, plus the shade of Bertrand Russell, bless his hairy hide. After a while, it was just not funny any more. I remember taking a class with one of the names on the faculty rouster in which discussions that involved me often ended up in “throught experiments”about what I would say if someone was pointing a gun at my head. From my own brief experience of being mugged, I thought that it would be a very rare thing indeed if the mugger was after my response to questions concerning the correspondence theory of truth. A pistol, in my opinion, is a powerful coherence-maker.
If decades on philosophy departments are starting to understand the sociopathic nature of intelligence policing, and doing something about it, it will be almost entirely because of women in philosophy departments, and the entrance of feminism (in another two or three decades, who knows? Even people of color!) have disrupted the thing, the our thing, the male philosopher’s cosa nostra.
Excellent news for the people in that small, small world.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Little France syndrome

 The Little France syndrome

Well, at last the NYT emerges from its Macron daze to notice the sheer cretinism of the Macron cultural politics, driven by its far right allies, all swimming happily in their own shit and screaming about Islamo-gauchisme.

Meanwhile, the old retired fossils in academe, who made their bones in the 80s and 90s – those decades Francois Cusset labels the great nightmare, due to the proliferation of Nouvelle Philosophes and their wannabe companions, all using leftwing rhetoric to promote right wing economic and foreign policy – are also on the attack against the “Americanization” of the cultural agenda. This movement is in synch with Trump’s 1776 commission and Boris Johnson’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which last month reported that, hooray, Britain has none, and never did anyway, except during a brief window in May of 1679 when somebody financed somebody else’s slaveboat which we think musta been Dutch – a total anomaly!

All of these can be called “Little” positions – Little America, Little Britain, and now Little France. The attacks on American “wokeness” are congealed in a rhetoric that is difficult to cope with. It seems so ridiculous that French academics, any of them, in this day and age would claim that France represents “universal values”, but of course – in spite of the past five hundred years of history, in spite of the evident and outrageous income and wealth inequalities between people of color and white French people, in spite of what you see the cops doing every day – there we are. It is a country in which, on the one hand, feminist groups graffiti walls with condemnations of femicide, and in which, on the other hand, tve-genic academics who have built careers on subpar academic work bemoan intersectionality – we have come to this, debates with the midgets all descending from Action Francaise.

The laughter that wells up in me is the contrast between this small French attitude – in favor the “universal” – and the subrosa massive support for the Americanization of the French economy – a process that has been going on since the “lefties” of the 80s quietly abandoned the defining left tradition while clinging fiercely to the title. It was so eighties – the leveraged buyout era. The entire vocabular of the regime of the president of the rich consists of banalities from American business schools, from “entrepreneurship” – restored to the French vocabulary! – to competitiveness, to the “burden” of the state on the dynamic private sector. It is a made in America circus. But nobody is talking about the droite-onclesamists. Nor, frankly, is anyone in the Little France corner really attacking Islamicists. The largest and most totalitarian Islamicist state – Saudi Arabia – is France’s friend, and more importantly, France’s weapons industry’s friend. So nobody is going so far as to say that we should boycott the Saudis, or block their gas pipelines, like with evil Putin. This is because Saudi Arabia is reformin’, plus they’ve been waging un mignon génocide in Yemen, and nobody wants to interrupt the cash flow there. Rather, the focus is on how Daech’s leadership is no doubt absorbing Judy Butler’s tomes, one after the other.

Georges Bernanos in Les Grands Cimetieres sous le lune wrote: La colère des imbéciles m'a toujours rempli de tristesse, mais aujourd'hui elle m'épouvanterait plutôt. You and me, Georges my brother.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Barthes freudian slip


“The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus.29 They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.” – Plutarch, the Life of Theseus

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. – Otto Neurath
There’s a curious error in Barthes by Barthes – something that is like a parapraxis, a Freudian slip. Like the classic instance of the Freudian slip outlined in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life,  this one, too, has to do with a classical allusion.
It is contained in the entry entitled, The Argo.
“ A frequent image: that of the ship, the Argo (bright and white), which the Argonauts replaced piece by piece, little by little, so that in the end they had an entirely new vessel, without having to change either its name or its form.”
This image seems to be a conflation of two classical instances of the ship image in philosophy. One is the vessel of Theseus, which is first mentioned by Plutarch in the Life of Theseus. In the early modern period, Plutarch’s instance was taken up by Hobbes and Leibniz, each of who commented on the paradox of identity that the ship names. The second is Neurath’s ship. As Thomas Uebel has shown, Neurath often turned to the image of the rebuilt but continuous ship in his writing. He especially used the image against the Carnapian ideal of a meta-language – a dream language in which syntax and semanticity would merge, so that we would know from the very construction of a sentence whether it was true or not.  This, Neurath thought, fundamentally misunderstands language. Hence, the image of a ship which is constantly being repaired from flotsam at sea by sailors who cannot simply go into port and take the ship apart from the bottom.  In Hans Blumenberg’s exploration of ship metaphors in philosophy, he quotes an instance where Neurath claims that the imprecise clusters are “always somehow part of the ship.”
Out of these two separate images, Barthes chose to attach the perpetually reconstructed ship to the Argo, which carried Jason and his crew – the Argonauts – to Colchis. In constrast with Theseus’s ship, which – being on display – is, as it were, a museum piece, the Argo is an object of practical life. But there is another difference with Theseus’s ship, one that should block Barthes’ appropriation. As Apollonius of Rhodes put it in the Argonautica: ‘For a divine timber had been fixed in her: Athene had taken it from the oak of Dodona and fitted it in the center of the prow.”
The wood of Dodona had the power of human speech – a power that was given to the Argo. So, in fact, the Argo is the one instance of a ship in which there is something irreplaceable.  Which goes against Barthes point: ‘This vessel, the Argo, is very useful. It furnishes us with the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest acts (which cannot be grasped by the mystique of creation): substitution (one piece drives out the other, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is not at all tied to the stability of the pieces) by means of combining in the interior of the same name, nothing is left of the origin. The Argo is an object without any other cause than its name, without any other identity than its form.”
As in any parapraxis, we are given an utterance that is like a wound, allowing us, if we have the tools, to trace the trauma. The trauma here is seems to be in the form of a forgetting – forgetting the magical/religious instance. That forgetting marks the enlightenment heritage of structuralism – in fact, Barthes mistake might be taken as emblematic of the fact that structuralism was the purest outcome of the enlightenment, its endpoint. Structuralism assumes, finally, that the world is saturated with substitutes, is a system of substitutes – in a sense, the world is capitalism. And in this world, action at a distance, magic, origin, Athene are chased away by a universal forgetting . Under the guidance of the name – in the name of – the system of substitutions can act on its own, automatically, without a genius.
In Barthes telling, these two acts just happen to coincide in this one image. They are, however, historically bound together. In practical terms, the crew of the Argo is simply trying to survive and stay afloat, which is why all oak planks – whether from Dodona or from sea wrack – are replaceable. From the point of view of nomination, however, whether the Argo is registered as the Argo or not is of ultimate political importance. If the name doesn’t hold, then the Argo becomes a pirate ship, an illicit ship. And at this point the schema of substitutions feeds into a different destination for the ship.
The forgetting of the story of the Argo – the supervenience of two other stories of ships and identity – is all the more freighted as Barthes himself is in the midst of changing, as he wrote Barthes by Barthes, from the disenchanted mapper of myths to the softer and more vulnerable utopian of desire. He was, in a sense, letting one piece of Barthes drive out another.  Right after presenting the image of the Argo, he personalizes it by contrasting his office in Paris with his office in the country, which, though differently located, is identical in function.  He ends this passage by writing of the Argo as the ideal structural object, in which the “system prevails over particular beings.” But using an image which is structured to deny that the system prevails over Athena – using an image of the one boat that can talk – Barthes seems to be undermining his point – just as he is trying to shed his structuralist past.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The identity crisis turn


It was, I believe, the existential psychoanalyst Erik Erickson who first coined the phrase “identity crisis”. In “Young Man Luther”  - a truly Hollywoodish title for a monograph. Erickson defined the term with relation to adolescence  which he naturalized as part of the life cycles that he saw as inherent to the full development of human beings:

“I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis; it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, ut of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood...”

Erickson, in the late fifties, became a celebrated figure, one of those intellectuals that Time Magazine would reference. Perhaps the height of his popular fame came in the early 70s. On April 5, 1970, he made the cover of NYT magazine under the headline: Beyond Freud, which was glory indeed at the height of Freudian psychoanalysis. Tom Wolfe, that labeller, called the 70s the me decade, but it could have been better labelled the “identity crisis” decade. This interests me, since identity has grown in importance since the 70s, while “identity crisis” has lost its psychological roots. There is a certain pleasing backwardness to the idea that the era of identity comes after the era of the identity crisis – or is this, in fact, the kind of growth through life passages Erikson envisioned?

The Erikson article in the NYT begins with an anecdote: the writer, a professor of psychology, is attending a faculty function. A “young mother” there was “talking about her identity crisis”, which came about because she and her husband had decided to have no more children. “It was as if ... she had been robbed of some part of herself and now needed to find a new function to replace the old one.”

Of course, being a young mother, the male professor had to show her, for the reader’s benefit, who was who: “When I remarked that her story sounded like a case history from a book by Erik Erikson, she replied, “who’s Erikson?”

One can imagine her side of this story.  And in fact, one can more than imagine – although the professor didn’t know it, the seventies belonged to the young mother, and to the explosion of the woman’s “new function.”

The same NYT magazine contained two other articles – one a consideration of the Chicago Seven and the New Haven Black Panther trials, the other a consideration of white unemployment.  A crossroads, this particular issue, of the spirits of the time.

That 1970 article crowned the march of the “identity crisis” out of Erikson’s books and into the general public. In 1963, Diane Ravich, reviewing Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, diagnosed it as saying that the American housewife is undergoing an identity crisis – which she called “a much overworked phrase.” Perhaps this was because the disorienting social forces unleashed during the Cold War had recognized, in a phrase that had its origins in colonial outposts, a mantra. As the NYT reported, Erikson’s theory of life passages came out of his work on two Indian reservations in the 30s and 40s.

“Erikson did field work not only with the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge, S.D. ... but also with the salmon-fishing Yurok of North California.”

Erikson was one of a group of workers in the human sciences, like his friends Margaret Mead and Alfred Kroeber, who were engaged in a process of cultural transference, looking for solutions to “Western problems” while at the same time projecting onto their “subjects” Western theories. Theories that, one should remember, came out of European or American metropoles that had fairly recently been surrounded by a majority peasant population, whether of Central European peasants – Erikson came from Vienna – or American smallholder farmers.

It was a context of cultures in the midst of liquidation, both physical – from genocide – and cultural.

“Central to many an adult Indian’s emotional problems seemed to be his sense of uprootedness and lack of continuity between his present life-style and that portrayed in tribal history. Not only did the Indian sense a break with the past, but he could not identify with a future requiring assimilation of the white culture’s values.”

As it turned out, the “white culture’s values” were, at the same time, de-routing and disorienting the white subject, l’homme moyen sensuel. As well, the black subject. The female subject. Subjects all over in labs all over, subjects all over  in cities and suburbs, factories and faculties, who responded well to the conditioning, the advertising, the credit cards, the local organizations of uplift, etc.

The identity crisis as a phrase has now embedded itself in the “discourse”, although, oddly, there is still no reckoning between the universalist claims of life passages, out of which the identity crisis comes, and the identity turn. That the identity crisis became portable – that it hits now the Democratic party, now the society for better dentistry, etc. – has made it blander, and less startling in its reference to uprootedness, alienation, and cultural annihilation. If there is a missile in the first act, it should go off in the last act – according to an old theatrical theory. But we are long beyond the last act, and the destruction we face was not the one we envisioned when we moved out of the cities to live and built the highways to carry us away from the bomb’s epicenter. And we all now identify, but who is this “we”, and how does it move through its life?




Friday, May 28, 2021

Cold War Crosshatchery: where do UFOs come from, Dad?


The press at the moment is full of UFO stories. The Pentagon is about to come clean – to publish its files – encounters of the third kind are leaping off the pages of National Enquirer in your grocery store and become scientific, or sorta scientific, fact! We will have to deal with it, say certain members of our billionaire class. Who floating through a whole different atmosphere of money have long felt that they live on another, superior planet. 

Which brings me back to an old essay, written by Ian Hacking in 1998 and entitled, Canguilhem  among the cyborgs. I came across the essay in the Bush era and found it fascinating more for the fascinating sideline on cyborgs, voodoo, All in the Family and other topics than for what it says about Canguilhem, much as I respect that man.

Hacking makes the case for Canguilhem’s case for seeing tools and machines as organs, in the service of Canguilhem’s twist away from the dominant Cartesian paradigm. But he doing so, in a Shandian way, he seems to go off the tracks – or rather, he goes on a lot of interesting tracks that involve things like Voodoo, cyborgs and UFOs, Donna Haraway’s thesis that in the late twentieth century the line between machines and organisms have been irreparably blurred, and what kind of thing a man on a bicycle is (or a fish, to allude to the famous 70s feminist slogan, a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle) – is he a cyborg? Actually, if one goes back to the inventor of the word, he definitely is. Cyborg’s came out of space travel.

“The word cyborg was first used in print in the September 1960 issue of Astronautics. It came with the definition: for the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated system unconsciously, we propose the name Cyborg (Clynes and Kline)

The name was made up by Manfred Clynes working with Nathan Kline. Kline was a distinguished psychiatrist, director of research at Rockland State Hospital in New York and teacher at Columbia University. His foret was psychopharmacology. Those who consult the Cyborg Handbook (Gray 1996) will learn that he won numerous awards, some internal to his profession ( the Adolph Meyer award) and some more public (a New York Newspaper Guild Page One award in Science). He was a good deal more colourful than that. He was Poap Doc Duvalier’s personal psychiatric consultant, and he also established clinics in Haiti. The favours were mutual: he had a fine private collection of Haitian, popularly known as Voodoo, preparations and herbals, with which he is said to have experimented freely. He was an advisor on psychological topics to Hollywood producer Norman Lear, so whatever psychology appears in Lear’s movies or TV scripts had Kline’s imprimatur. (this supplementary information is derived from telephone interviews with family members.”

Kline was quite the Cold War magus and eminence gris. Oh, spirit of Pynchon, be with me now!

“And yet there is another twist in this story that I cannot omit. It has a lot to do with the mind, though here one imagines that it is Kline speaking and not Clynes. It interest me because Rewriting the Soul (Hacking 1995) is, among other things, a very extensive study of multiple personality and dissociation. Kline was apparently stirring the dissociative soup way back in 1960

… hypnosis per se may prove to have a definite place in space travel, although there is much to be learned about the phenomena of dissociation, generalization of instructions, and abdication of executive control.

We are now working on a new preparation which may greatly enhance hypnotizability, so that pharmacological and hypnotic researches may be symbiotically combined.

Ross (1966) is a book [sic – I believe Hacking is referring to Colin Ross’ The Osiris Complex] written by a leader in the field of dissociative disorder suggesting that the epidemic of disturbed people having flashbacks of alien abduction into outer space is due to what he calls CIA experiments in hypnosis, drugs and mind control in the 1960s. The unhappy people with these memories are really recalling trance states induced by mad scientists in the employ of the United States Government. Most readers, including myself, take this as proof that Ross is himself a bit touched. But now I wonder, what was going on at Rockford State?””


The answer to the last question was canonically answered in the series, Stranger Things. Although mysteriously, season four keeps getting put back – THEY obviously don’t want you to know!

However, the point, the small point, is that surely this is a valuable trivial pursuit fact. The most popular comedy shows of the seventies received their psychological input from the inventor of the cyborg and a scientist deeply interested in mind control? Ho ho ho - I come from generation fucked. Now I know who did it!

But we have only covered one of the homonymous duo, doeppelgaengers sprung into the Cold War future by way of Freud and Philip Dick. To get back to our question about the bike for a second, the first cyborg devised by this duo was simply a rat, which had some kind of osmotic pump set to a feedback pattern that would pump chemicals into it, get some appropriate responding chemical cue and modify its injections. The point eventually, our Small ones (Kleins) (“At one time the elves are small enough to creep through key-holes, and a single potato is as much as one of them can carry; at another they resemble mankind, with whom they form alliances, and to whom they hire themselves as servants; while some are even said to be above the size of mortals, gigantic hags, in whose lap mortal women are mere infants” – Superstitions of the Highlands) thought, was to make man less robotlike – once in space, Hacking points out, an astronaut was to be as free in his capsule as the homunculus was in Descarte’s brain – freer! For the homunculus didn’t carry around a feedback rat.

The Cold War’s tentacles were everywhere, and our historians are blind to the cultural implications of that.


Monday, May 24, 2021

cold war skies



“What age was I? Six or seven, I think. I was stretched out in the shadow of some poplar trees contemplating a sky almost without clouds. I saw this sky teeter, and fall into the emptiness. This was my first impression of nothingness, all the  more vivid in that it succeeded that of a full and rich existence. Since then, I have sought to understand why one thing succeeded the other, and in consequence of an erroneous assumption common to those who search with their intelligence instead of their bodies and souls, I thought it was a question of what philosophers call the “problem of evil.” However, it was something deeper and more serious. I had before me not a failure but a lacuna. Everything, literally everything, threatened  to fall into this yawning hole.”

This is from Jean Grenier’s The Islands, a book of “fallen leaves”, brief poem-meditations, published in 1934. Grenier’s sky was the pre-World One sky, from 1906.  Its freight was birds, tree branches, clouds, the sun, the moon, the stars, bats. In other words, no human freight. It was the sky as a non-human scene. Hence, a divine scene – or a natural scene.

When I was  a kid, this sky was long past. My tenth year was, what, 1968? In my suburb, the back yards were dotted with swing sets, which, like the two car garage, were signs of middle class prosperity. Your kids didn’t have to play on the street corner and get into gangs – they had playthings in the yard itself, which was your Crusoe’s island, your claim on the main.

By the age of ten I was outgrowing swinging. But I still liked the ‘sky’ effect. You would kick until you achieved a certain level, then swing easily, face up to the sky, and let yourself fall into it. Fall, at least, into a trance of the sky. It did not disclose emptiness and the hint of the Dao to me, as it did to Grenier, but it did make me pleasingly dizzy.

I think it was that year that my elementary school friend showed me the book he was reading: Hiroshima, by John Hershey. I read a bit of it and it changed my sky.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what airplanes did. How many world war movies and shows did I see on tv? In my memory, it seems like hundreds. And almost all of them had bombers in them. However, the viewpoint was definitely the bomber’s viewpoint, not the bombed. We weren’t bombed, here in the states. It was our blessing, our sign from God. We bombed. But the little bit I read about the victims of Hiroshima gave me, literally, nightmares. I liked the planes that contrailed across my sky. I liked the way the contrails spread out and disappeared. I never took them as a threat. But whether it was due to John Hershey’s book or whether I was putting two and two together in my little Cold War head, it suddenly struck me that maybe it was possible that the communists could actually bomb us. In which case I knew what would happen: our clothes would burn off, our skin would slither off our bones, we would troop to rivers to cool ourselves and those rivers would be boiling. This landscape was familiar to me: it was Hell. The place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Cold War sky stuck with me for a long time, and then it faded. By the time Reagan was resurrecting the idea of “doable” nuclear war, I had not thought about missiles falling down upon us for some time. Rather, I thought of them as an engineering dodge, a way of paying billions to greedy corporations.  The Cold War sky didn’t really come back until 9/11, after the CW was over, and then the threat was not missiles or bombs falling from the sky, but the planes themselves. By this time, I had become a customer of the airlines myself. It was strange to think of that domestic beast, the increasingly uncomfortable jet (where each year corporate profits took a bit more of your legroom) as a predator. I wonder whether the children of that time saw some replica of the Cold War sky I saw when I was a kid? I’m pretty sure that has passed. 9/11 seems to signal, increasingly, an irrational crowd response, like the boom and bust in tulips in  17th century Amsterdam, than the moment that ‘CHANGED EVERYTHING”. But it did change the sky, literally, for a few days – restoring Jean Grenier’s pre-World War I sky for a moment.

Or a facsimile of that sky. The sky has been too humanized to ever show us, again, a pure nothingness. Its vertigo is attached to our political economy, and perhaps as climate change eats up our rivers and raises our ocean, to our end.




Saturday, May 22, 2021

What then is useful to the bee: a poem by Karen Chamisso


“Honeysuckle. So named because of the old

but entirely erroneous idea that bees extracted

honey therefrom. The honeysuckle is useless to

the bee.”


What, then, is useful to the bee?

My world,  penned in by human pride

Allows me to see as I see

Through the two eyes on either side


Of one nose – unlike the bee

Who sports two eyes for domestic tasks

And three ocelli

To make impressionistic tracks


Among the flowering vegetation –

What can I know

About such kinds of navigation

About what it’s like to go


About, laughing up your sleeve

At the honeysuckle’s vain imposture?

I don’t even bring in the sheeves.

I lay on my sheets as useless as an oyster.




Friday, May 21, 2021

The American blat


Ferdinand Lundberg, in 1939, wrote a book about the sixty wealthiest families in America. He made the audacious claim that these families collectively owned and directed most of America’s wealth – her industrial capacity, her speculative/financial sector, her raw materials. He names the families and engages in the tedious geneological work of showing how marriage and strategic alliances maintain and expand fortunes that have their roots, many of them, in the 19th century. He goes there from the first sentence in the book, which proclaims: “The United States is owned and dominated today by a hierarchy of its sixty richest families, buttressed by no more than ninety families of lesser wealth.” He claims that behind the de jure democratic form of government is a de facto government, “absolutist and plutocratic.”

 Now, it is a difficult business, tracking family fortunes. For one thing, “family” is a misleading category. Lundberg’s families are really more like the famous modern Russian clans, blat. Numbers of families and associates are held together in a web of mutual interests, which one can generally call after the family name of those who founded it. Thus, to use Lundberg’s first family, the Rockefellers, we can see that a Carnegie marrying a Rockefeller (a scion of one of the branches), which occurred when J. Stillman Rockefeller married Nancy C. S. Carnegie, grandniece of Andrew. Lundberg, incidentally, is a deadeye for those middle names. Where does “Stillman” come from? It comes from James Stillman, whose daughter married a Rockefeller. Stillman was the founder of National City Bank, now known as Citibank.

 Corporations as fronts for blat are an understudied subject of capitalist culture in America. Scratch the self-made description in Forbes, and you will find some blat money flowing. Famously, General Motors began on Du Pont money. An actual Du Pont was the CEO of GM in the 1920s, but a company doesn’t have to have such a direct connection to be, well, connected. The Ames family fortune helped found General Electric. Apple Corporation was shepherded through its early years by the Nautilus Fund, connected to Eaton Vance, one of the first mutual funds in the U.S., based in Boston. You can find the branches of a number of Brahmin families in looking through the Eatons and the Vances. Their life stories are all edited in the newspapers after the sixties, when it was no longer cool to show, so evidently, the source of the money that sent one to prep school and then to Princeton.

If Lundberg is right, then American historians have truly missed the boat. It would be like historians of 15th century France ignoring the nobility and misunderstood the form of French government. In other words, historians have treated the United States as though it were permanently the country Tocqueville described, but it is really, since Tocqueville’s time, the country of magnates and their sons and daughters that Henry James wrote about.





Thursday, May 20, 2021

On method: advice from the puppeteer

 In Kleist's essay, On the Marionette Theater, Kleist presents a dialogue between himself and a marionette master concerning theater and the relation of the marionette to the human actor. The master voices the idea that even human actors display their souls not in their voices but in the bodies and their movements.

"Just look at that girl who dances Daphne", he went on. "Pursued by Apollo, she turns to look at him. At this moment her soul appears to be in the small of her back. As she bends, she look as if she's going to break, like a naiad after the school of Bernini. Or take that young fellow who dances Paris when he's standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it's a frightful thing to see) in his elbow."
These examples are not neutral - they gather and explode in his next passage:
" Misconceptions like this are unavoidable," he said, " now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back."
That methodological circumnavigation, in search of the back door to paradise, is how the older hermeneutics, the taking of allegory seriously, the gnostic pickings at the lock of Biblical verses projected to the world at large, survived in the culture of bourgeois capitalism. Without paradise, or without scenting some paradise now closed to us, it becomes pointless, out of joint, a mere deathrattle from an automaton.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

TSE and me

 Everybody has his or her year of genius, a yar in which neurons configure into revelations. For some it is at age five, for others, at age 65. Everything becomes a portal. You see your life globally. You see your life in a grain of sand or a raindrop. And you see, in a brilliant flash, the alien, strange, other-than-you life of the grain of sand or the raindrop.

For me, that age was approximately fourteen. 1972, 1973 – ninth grade. In the summer between the eighth and ninth grade, I made a fair amount of pocket change, for a kid, bagging ice for my Dad. Dad owned an ice company, due to, well, the absurdity that ruled like a broken mirror’s curse over my Dad. The company went belly up in, I believe, 1975.
For me, this money meant I could buy three things that helped nudge along my revelatory neuronal path: a television set, which I took into my room, a couple of Dylan albums, my first – Bringing it all back Home and Highway 61 – and a subscription to William Buckley’s National Review, then at the height of its intellectual powers. The tv made me independent of my family’s preference for Network programs. I, on the other hand, tuned into public tv, and was thus initiated, via a series of Bergman films and a series on World Cinema hosted by Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin, into the higher civilization of film, where despair was common and an occasional naked woman was to be seen – which was a big plus for a 14 year old.
The Dylan albums are self-explanatory, love em or hate em.
And the National Review was perfect for my self-fashioning as a little conservative. But they were even more than fantastic for my self-fashioning in general, since the standard of the writers in the general section was high, although tending towards the ultra-right – let’s hear it for Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, folks! – and the arts and manners and books section had writers like Guy Davenport and the crazy and now obscure novelist, D. Keith Mano.
Davenport’s review of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era is an oddly important document for me – it was published in May 1972, and I still remember the names, the strange names in it: Apollinaire, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound. I had my nose against the shop window of the higher civilization that I knew existed outside of Clarkston Georgia. I have recently been looking through the correspondence between Davenport and Kenner, and enjoying a nostalgic thrill from the names of that time. Frank Meyer, who remembers Frank Meyer? Only old old movement people – the conservative movement, not the SDS.
I remember some of my eighth and ninth grade teachers, lovely people. But this is not, alas, the story of a stripling being taken under the wing of some wise English teacher. That would have been nice and Hollywoodish, but instead, I was taken under the wings of the Clarkston High School Library and the Decatur Library. It was at this time that the library stepped up for me, not as a place to find a picture book for a book report, but as this fantastic paradise where I could pick the fruit for free.
I discovered Dostoevsky, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. I discovered Joyce – the Dubliners and the Portrait of an Artist. I discovered “modern” art, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Duchamp, etc. If I went back to the art books today, I’d probably smile at how bad the photographic reproductions were, but for me at the time, this was all amazing.
As well, I discovered poetry. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, those were my ticket beyond the shop window, aforementioned.
Eliot, I swallowed whole. He’s been my symbiot since. Knock Prufrock and the Wasteland out of me and you might as well kick me to the curb, because much of what makes me the me that is typing this would be lost.
Eliot of course went along with my young conservative styling, the nostalgia I imbibed from all those National Reviews. As I got over my genius year, I drifted far, far away from young conservativism, but I still liked Eliot’s elegant, elegiac sense of our modern decay – desolation row.
When I went to college, Eliot’s grip on the humanities, ie the literature departments, was loosening. It was becoming clearer that subjecting all poetry to critical techniques that work for a few metaphysical poets might be a mistake. The canon of the right ones – Herbert, Donne – and the wrong uns – Shelley, Tennyson – was breaking down.
What if “the existing monuments: did not “form an ideal order among themselves?” What if the monuments were more like kaleidoscopes? What if romanticism wasn’t some horrid blotch? Maybe trading a sour Christian order in which the vast majority was kept in ignorance and fear for the “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” was not a bad deal?
Eliot’s is an odd fate. Here was a man who refused to tread the path he could easily have tread. He could have ended up teaching at Columbia, like Lionel Trilling, instead of being a bank employee on the verge of a nervous breakdown. From which he went not into academia, but into publishing, become a Faber and Faber man. Yet, especially after WWII, and especially in certain American universities, Eliot’s critical stance was embedded in the orthodoxy of literature as a discipline.
That was never going to last. The explosive growth of higher education was moving the great unwashed – such as me – into the classroom. That unwashed was, at first, eager for the washing – and then began to consider that perhaps the washing should go the other way around.
For me, my genius age had some dire and dreadful consequences. It put me on the course of imitating my heroes and never adapting to the discipline of classroom specialization. My reading, even in college, was done under the precepts of idiosyncratic programs I made up for myself, in my head. This made me, in essence, an amateur. An autodidact. A crank. Modernism, as a literary phenomenon, is gloriously, incorrigibly crankish. It embraces Poe in Baudelaire or Mallarme’s translation. It veers with Pound towards Frobenius. It pretends with Wittgenstein to have never read the canonical philsophers.
The crank in me is always making up its own paradigms, which fail, because paradigms, by definition, are common and not idiosyncratic things. Idiosyncratic things are tics. Thus, my genius year and my life as a loser – or, more generously, as a crank – are tied together. This became evident to me when I was in grad school. All the dreaming about garrets when I was fourteen was not good for me.
I think the crankish side of TSE – the man who liked to put on purple lipstick when he went out, from time to time – was taken out of him by his disciples, who were succeeded by people who identified Eliot with his disciples and said: no thanks. I no longer pay much attention to Eliot’s idea of the canon - William Carlos Williams is now in the captain’s tower in my head. But I’m infinitely grateful to him. I’m faithful to the crank I met at fourteen.
The poetry. The poetry. That is the main thing.