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The air loom gang and our present emergency

      Mike Jay is an interesting writer. He gets ahold of fascinating topics, but sometimes this means he gets ahold of a drawerful of research notes and throws them in the public’s face, like in his last book on Mescaline. Excellent topic, excellent intro, and then a march through historical particulars as arid as spray on deodorant. My favorite of his books is a more Shandian venture, illustrated beautifully, about a lunatic assassin, one James Tilley Matthews. Jay goes into the nitty gritty of this story from the 18 th century – 1796, to be precise, with a story that goes on into the early 19 th century – with a much more able touch. The book is entitled The Air Loom Gang, for it is this gang that had entranced and imprisoned the mind and body of James Tilley Matthews, with an intricate demonology worthy of one of   Blake’s longer poems. Matthews went mad, it seems, in the Paris of the Terror, where he was confined to his apartment and suspected of being an English spy. What h
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Negative twenty questions modernism

Negative twenty questions modernism There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their ob

The (gasp!) twitter horror! a janitorial response to Patricia Lockwood's No one is talking about this

  When I was eighteen, I took an early graduation route from High School, which allowed me to have the mornings by myself. The afternoon and evening was taken up with my job at another high school – I had stuck my thumb into the great bureaucratic pie of the Dekalb County School system and come up with a plum job as night janitor. I worked at a school near Chamblee – it is now, I believe, a charter school, alas. Back then, I was in a self-educating mood and thought of myself as a distant follower of Tolstoy. Physical labor and soulful preparation, that was the ticket. My mistakes in life stem from eventually quitting that job and going on to college. But destiny is fate – and not fat. If destiny was fat, I’d have become head janitor and retired at fifty four with a belly like the boss janitor. I learned a lot from that job – in terms of cleaning supplies, for instance – and I’d take the great books to read on the break. I read Montaigne’s Essays in the break room, much to the amuseme

Nagelian democracy: what is it like to be a voter?

I am, stripped of a few eccentricities, a standard issue Keynsian liberal in Marxist clothing - partly because there is no real Marxist movement or party to attach to, and I have long decided that politics without a movement or a party is an exercise in futility and depression. However, I think liberalism's attempt to shake the existential edge off politics is futile and ultimately damaging. The left, when it is healthy, and the right, when it is not, both know that politics is all about dread and ecstasy. That politics might be an existentialist errand is very much part of what I take to be the salient characteristic of contemporary election-based democracies. That politics might be an existentialist errand is very much part of what I take to be the salient characteristic of contemporary election-based democracies. If election based democracy is simply about input from those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, the Rousseauian impulse, which is non-cognitive in the technical s

Flaubert's agon - and ours

  One of the great modernist tropes is writing as the scene of the agon – Flaubert’s famous throes of despair on his sofa as he tears apart and rebuilds a single page in Madame Bovary is the hero, here. I think that moment has been insufficiently connected to the spread of literacy in the early modern era. Literacy did necessarily meanb the ability to write – in France, for instance, many girls were taught to read but not to write. However, that di-symmetry soon passed. Reading and writing, for us products of the nation state’s school system, seem irresistably attracted to each other, unlike, say, music and being able to read and write music. We have a hard time, now, imagining reading without writing. This is why Flaubert’s case is something recognizable not only to the working novelist, but to all us itchers after the written word. As an editor of academic texts, I run into it in the highest reaches of the written. But the other side of the story is writing as an irresistable compu

The American creepshow

  A merica creeps me out. Hark: even in the complaint, hear the native woodnotes wild. “Creep” – the b-side of the American aesthetic. Creeps and creepiness, our politicians, our lynchers old and young, our gothic. D.H. Lawrence, who fought the fight against gentility, was still its prisoner when he wrote, deducting from Squire Cooper’s tales, that the American hero was hard, isolate, a killer. The American hero is indeed a killer, but of the most self-pitying, the most incel kind. He can’t wipe out a high school class with Dad and Mom’s semiautomatic rifle without shedding a tear over his own victimhood. He can’t lynch a black man (either robed in the classic white sheet or in the blue uniform) without “protecting his family” or his 2 nd amendment right to maximum creepiness. His counterparts ride the airwaves and chair congressional committees, win elections as Senators and Presidents, and exude creepiness, annexing politics towards that final goal. That we take that creepiness as