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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Poem by Karen Chamisso

 

Nouveau venu qui cherches Rome en Rome

 

O greenhorn who looks for Paris in Paris

Who comes to my house and looks for my home

Know: before the closed door our lares

Crouches, quiet as a, hungry as a tomb.

 

It guards the groans, ruckus future, ruckus past.

I pretended for years to be the ghost

Of my parents’ marriage. Also, Last

Of the Mohicans, hostess with the most

                                                                           -est.

 

Until I came at last to be the proud proprietor

Of my own closed door.

To the Census: “Troubleman. Feed Pump Man. Field Operator.”

This quorumed I sez  to sleep: you are a bore.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Notes on Neoliberalism and the New Class

 Why is the Left is either disorganized or a minority in every country where it used to form that one real opposition party or, sometimes, even the governing party. From the 40s to the 70s, even in countries like Italy, where the Christian Democrats tenaciously held onto power, the tide was to the left. From social policies to real advancement towards economic equality between the working class and capital, this was the direction the world was moving in.

But since the 80s, the movement is all the other way. And instead of forming an opposition, the Left has taken on a role as facilitator. It is no wonder that a recent headline in the Guardian formulated the political situation in France as the center vs. the extreme (by which was meant Le Pen). Melanchon is almost unknown outside of France. Inside, the former Left is riven by personal domain issues. The absence of a Left response to Macron’s farcical “Great Debate” was painful.

I suspect that the alt right moment is the result of this huge fucking hole in our ideological choices – in Europe, in the Anglosphere, in Elsewhere. The tear is evidently caused by what I’d call Lordon’s paradox: Left parties systematically moving right, while retaining the label and symbolic capital of being Left. My name for it comes from Frédéric Lordon, the French philosopher and economist, who stated it in a scathing review of a book by a well known French historian and political philosopher, Pierre Rosanvallon, who was one of the co-founders of Fondation Saint-Simon in the eighties. Rosanvallon has always been associated with the Socialist Party in France, but the FSS was very actively against the kinds of things that socialism is traditionally associated with : namely, understanding the limits of the market – and never taking the market as a model for the social whole. These precepts were reversed. And instead of simply supporting the right, these intellectuals remained on the “left,” becoming a vector for propagating a neo-liberal message into the Mitterrand era coalition of the « Left ». That message was wrapped in moral scolding : the idea was that the Left in the twentieth century had been criminally complicit with Stalin, and then with, oh, Pol Pot, and the only way to purge its sins was to embrace Milton Friedman.

This is a caricature, but not a very broad caricature. If you read Débats, the journal associated with FSS people, you get the message.

That historians figured so strongly in it – Francois Furet was also a cofounder – was essential to the project, since the de-legitimisation of socialism was laid out on revisionist historical lines : thus, beaucoup attention was paid to the terror under the Jacobins of the French revolution, and zip attention was paid to the 150 years of terror endured by the African population that was shipped to Haiti, whose stolen labor, shortened lives, broken families and tortured rebels – not to speak of the hundreds of thousands of bodies littering the Atlantic from collateral casualties – provided much of the wealth of the ancien regime. If attention were paid to the latter, then it was easy to claim that political correctness was messing things up, and perhaps the objections were even connected to Stalin, Lenin and that arch-criminal, Marx. The FSS historians held up the American Revolution, minus the genocide and the slavery, as a model, and the French revolution was downgraded to an advertisement for the coming attractions of the Gulag.

All of these elements were checked by Lordon, who asked: why has nobody ever examined, with sociological seriousness, this strange interior hollowing out of the Left?

My own tentative theory is that the historical argument mounted in the 80s was, in a way, window dressing; what was really happening was that, within the parties of the Left, the leadership and policy was being captured by a group that  was, by family ties, education, and outlook, indistinguishable from the  bourgeoisie who ran rightwing parties. The old influence of the working class – by way, for instance, of unions, or politicians who came from the working class – at the highest levels of the left was no longer a ‘thing’. The suspicion, or dislike, of the working class, common to the bourgeois right, was shared, less overtly, by the bourgeois left. There was a family resemblance between the two establishments.

In 1959, Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian dissenter, wrote a book entitled « The New Class » about the party bureaucrats in the communist countries who, in effect, had become a governing class, with all the perks, due to their position as the elite guard of the « revolution ». This book was immediately enrolled in the arsenal of the Cold War. See, communism leads to feudalism. And since the end of the Cold War, it has been forgotten. But the new class, in broad outlines, does provide one answer to Lordon’s paradox. It explains one aspect of the  ideological hole in our present political spectrum.

In one country after another a kind of third way became the norm: globalization, massive wealth and income inequality, and the neoliberal penetration of capitalism into every sphere of private life, was embraced by the third way. Which still claimed, however, a tenuous link to the Left. But if the Left did not represent the working class, who did they represent?

They came to represent not a position in the class struggle defining capitalism, but a moral stance.

Half this tale has never really been told, to cop a Bob Marley line.  To recap this rather hazy chronology: The emptying out of the Left is a story of the march of the New Class. It started out as the New Left in the late 60s and 70s, and became the new non-Left Left in the period of neo-liberal ascendance. We could divide this roughly into stages: the moral stage, which involved indignation about the Gulag and the identification of anti-colonialism with Pol Pot and Ayatollah Khomeini; the pragmatic « liberalism » of the 80s, which accepted Thatcherism but proposed to soften it; the final rejection of egalitarianism as an ideal in the 90s, which implied that social democracy as a political structure could rest on an economic framework resembling the Gilded age of the 1920s. In this last stage, which is still with us, investment in public goods  was radically downplayed while the Left’s thinkers turned to more sweeping privatizations – in the argot, “reforms” – to accomplish the welfare sustaining function of the government. 

Often, this tale is told without putting the political economics of the EU and Anglosphere into the global context of the foreign policies pursued by the “former” imperialist countries, which is where much of the moral energy of the New Class Left was discharged.  By the late 90s and 00s, the much reviled Tiers-mondist position was dead. In its place was a new ideology of human rights “interventions”, eerily reminiscent of the gunboat diplomacy of the early 1900s.  The New Class formed a tacit alliance with the military-industrial complex which, in their youth, they had denounced. HI operated as preliminary propaganda, laying down its barrages in the media that was intertwined with the New Class. Much was made of the monstrous torture chambers of some selected dictator in Elsewhere, and little to nothing was made of the instruments of destruction, the shock and awe, the drones, the new doctrine of long distance assassination.  Then the show was over. Mostly, the country broke apart – as in Iraq and Libya or starved to death – as in Yemen – and no investment whatsoever on a scale to make up for the breaking apart, not to speak of the massive human disasters (for instance, the two million refugees from Iraq), took place. Victory was declared, and the Others in Elsewhere had to clean up the bodies and wonder whether the three hours of electricity per day was enough to make a meal or heat water in. Besides, of course, wondering what paramilitary would be out tonight, whether they would use guns or drills, and whether the kids would survive.

Meanwhile, in the “humanitarian intervener” states, investment in the industrial-military complex in the U.S., and sales of military equipment to the Gulf states, did make for profits all the way around, which created a huge incentive for perpetual aggression.  

I would argue that the hollowing out of the Left as a working class force had everything to do with the way in which the New Left concern with human rights was turned, in the neo-liberal order, into a series of aggressions and profit opportunities. Elsewhere, it should be mentioned, often struck back, feeding their terrorism buzz – and ours: under the delusion that paramilitaries in the Middle East, who’d been armed to the teeth by twenty years of Western arms sales to the various countries they emerged in, would never dare strike Europe, Francois Hollande, for instance, ordered bombing in Syria without, apparently, considering blowback, or consulting the population at large or hinting that France had declared war against Daech, and that Daech fought by its own on the ground shock and awe. So Hollande made the same elementary mistake made by Jose Aznar in Spain in 2004, when the Spanish alliance to the Coalition of the Willing made Spain a target for terrorist attack. Aznar fell. Hollande fell. And the HI group learned nothing. 

This, too, tore a hole in the former ideological balance of Left and Right. The Left’s enthusiasm for military strikes and trade treaties giving multi-national corporations unheard of governance powers – its pilgrimages to both the Pentagon and Davos – were decisive breaks with the old anti-colonialism and the old internationalism of labor. It was the internationalism of the consumer that the Left elevated. But the consumer could well see that cheap tat did not replace an environment from which public investment was withdrawn, wage freezes, and large price increases in lifestyle goods like health and education.

I am of course painting in broad strokes. There is another broad stroke I should add, because it is crucial to the alt-ness of the alt-right. If the Left no longer represented the working class, the New Class establishment did have a constituency: an educated, middle to upper class that understood and assimilated, at least mentally, the demands of the civil rights struggles of the 60s. This was the one great positive advance to which the New Class could point – even if, in actuality, it did not organize those protests, and it did not supply, for the most part, the protesters. Yet it did recognize the moral progress in making formerly oppressed groups citizens. This became its cause – its so-called identity politics. Yet even this advance brought with it unsuspected dialectical problems.  I’ll mention two of them.

The first was the notion, founded on the New Class’s mirroring of class characteristics of the bourgeois Right, of a tacit moral exchange. Just as liberals and leftists adopted the economic precepts of the Chicago school of economics, so they convinced themselves that the Right adopted the civil rights results of the 60s onward – that officially, at least, the right condemned sexism, racism, and even homophobia.

The second was in the self-image that the Left erected. Because if the Left bourgeoisie was hip to women’s, or gay, or black cultural products – if, being so media-centered, they were especially sensitive to verbal abuse of formerly oppressed groups – that does not mean that they were hip to changing the structures that underlay homophobia, sexism or racism. When Third Way politicos were able to get elected, their politics reconciled the abandonment of egalitarianism and the egalitarianism by the civil rights movement by making the latter a case of formal legal advancements. Thus, a certain schizophrenia of approaches became the norm. For example, if the Obama administration could, on the one hand,  finally embrace gay marriage – full civil rights for gay people – on the other hand, they had no problem with deporting a record number of illegal immigrants – 2 million – and doing everything that went with this, including separating children from their families. They did this without, as it were, seeing it. If the Left constituency abhorred and watched for verbal racism in the public forum, they were blind to, or even helped facilitate, the mass incarceration of African-Americans. I’m using American models, but one can find similar patterns in Blair’s Labour, and Hollande’s PS. Meanwhile, the ranks of the political establishment in the Left remained persistently dominated by white males, and a patriarchal perspective. 

This provides a general outline, I think, of positions within the EU and the Anglosphere, where the left has collapsed the hardest. Without that collapse, this moment would look much different. We might even, given a real Left, be able to act on the fact that climate change is going to be the greatest catastrophe human beings have ever faced.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Euphemism leftism in the neoliberal era

 


For some time, a group has been waging a graffiti campaign against femicide and other violence against women in France. I saw some graffitis in Montpellier this summer. I think, however, that the largest wing of the campaign is taking place in Paris. This morning, there was a slogan on our building: “I am not free until all women are free.” A supposed quote from a famous writer.

This bugged me. I’ve thought most of the grafittis were good – some of them were long narratives, some were stats, some were cries of rage. But this graffiti struck me as, forgive me, typical neoliberal leftism.

Let’s take it for a moment that the slogan is true. If so, one has to ask what “not being free” has actually meant to this famous writer. Is she in chains? Is she out of work? Is she beaten every night? Or does she appear at conferences? Are her words printed in mainstream journals and newspapers? Does she have an academic position, a good retirement lined up, and investments?

If the latter is the case – and I would bet it is – her state of “not-freedom” would be envied by most women in the world. All of which puts into question the valaue of "freedom" - what is it worth? What does it mean? To my ear, the slogan really devalues freedom, putting it in the category of inspirational, as opposed to existential, goods. .

But is the slogan false, then? I don’t think it is false, either. There is a sense in which freedom is systematic. There is a sense that the richest bastard in the world is actually morally and existentially injured by the misery of women who are beaten, raped and killed.

Instead, I would call this an exercise in false consciousness.

To get to this conclusion, let’s use substitution to measure the soundness of such slogans. What does it mean when I substitute, in a situation in which I am a woman who does not happen to have been beaten by a partner last night, or the night before, or maybe ever, the slogan. “I am beaten as long as women are beaten.” Or, even, if I, as a man, make that statement? What it does conjoin a truth– there are women who are beaten – with a lie (I am not being beaten, I do not have a domestic situation in which I am beaten, and all the beaten women of the world do no make me, X, beaten). Instead of showing solidarity, it falsifies solidarity. It leads to purely verbal action – a kind of euphemistic liberalism that substitutes, in the cruelest way, theatrical gesture for real social action.

One of the results of the vast breakup of organized labor as a force and a culture is that solidarity increasingly means: slogans and the maintenance of the order as it is, with platforms given to those who criticize it – even violently - without ever really doing anything to change it. To this extent, the criticism of cancel culture or “wokeness” has a point. Unfortunately, that criticism is not usually aimed at overturning the system either – it is rather sticking the tongue out at those who sense that the order is rotten and unjust. Social life is complex, and there is a struggle on the plane of history, of attitude, of what is said, all of which is imbricated in the social struggles of ordinary life – those struggles that would result in justice for beaten and murdered women, and structures that would make women safe – safe on the most primitive level.

I think, even, that there is a connection between the false bottom of the slogan and the con artistry of that Jewish woman from Kansas city, who claimed to be Afro-Rican.

What the anti-femicide group is doing is, I think, a nation-wide charivari. Eugen Weber has pointed out, in Peasants into Frenchmen, that the charivari, a ritualized riot, was a form of social control in peasant societies that controlled, to an extent, violence against women, in as much as it often targeted men who beat their wives. Of course, 19th century peasant societies were not exactly friendly to women, but social control was exerted at those whose violence went beyond the conditions that the village could tolerate. The anti-femicide charivari doesn’t need neoliberal inspirational slogans (although I understand well that inspirational slogans are part and parcel of what the people want. It is a dark, harsh world, and we want some light).

 

Sunday, September 06, 2020

poem

 

In the pool at Aquaboulevard

the swimmers bob in the denatured wave

for five minutes every hour.

 

I check the affiche for the slides

which grades them for difficulty and age.

Adam wants to do them all.

 

Here’s the mangrove hot tub!

Here’s the 20 person jacuzzi!

The naiads are all dead.

 

Poor dears, they lived fearful lives

singing the blues under crystalline rivulets.

I do not think they will sing for us.

 

We invented fun

in the headlong 20th century

grading our sensations accordingly.

 

Screaming down the intestinal turns

of the Aquaraft

I forgot my connection to the greater whole.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Martin Buber and the tree 1

 

Freud once famously said thaat sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. In fact, the Freud who said this might well be the folklore Freud. Still, the Apocrypha counts. Derrida famously tried to show that an example is never just an example, although as far as I know, he never approached Freud’s cigar ( he confined himself to Baudelaire’s tobacco use).

I’m with Derrida on this. The cigar example is a good example of an example that goes a bit far, part of the identikit of Freud with the masculine-marked brown tube in his mouth. What is interesting about the fake saying is that it is supposed to be an example of something that isn’t an example, that will stubbornly remain the thing that it is, just the thing that it is. And in making it exemplarily non-exemplary, the fake Freud is offering us a counterfeit, something  parasitic on a systems of markers of value that isn’t, as it happens, what it seems to be. How was the cigar chosen to be this exemplary non-example – that is the question.

I don’t want to ask that question of the cigar, though. I want to take up the logic of self-identification and its melodrama as it applies to the tree.

I ran into the tree while reading, for the first time, Martin Buber’s I and You (I and thou in the English translation, although the “thou” is a bit too muschmouthed for the plain old German “du”). I have never read this book because Buber has a vague reputation, one I can’t quite pin down, as one of the middle class prophets, the wise men who talk about the “crisis of man”, to borrow the title of Mark Greif’s book. And just as Humbert Humbert is (unjustly) snobby about Charlotte Haze’s “Great Books”, I, too, have been unjustly snobby about the American wisemen of the fifties – the Niebuhrs, the Herschels, et al. – and the Europeans that were published under their aegis – a gallery that definitely included “I and Thou”, published by Simon and Schuster, and licked by the PR department ever since. The term “dialogue”, which had quite the history at the height of American liberalism in the 1960s, owes a debt to Buber.

Snobbishness is the counterfeit of good taste. I’ve laid it down and laid it down as I’ve gotten old and gray. And I occasionally remember that what I know about intellectual history is based, ultimately, on the Will and Ariel Durant books that I read in the seventh and eighth grade – still a good place to get an education, albeit a Eurocentricl one.

To summarize a bit: Buber starts out contrasting the I-you and the I-it relations. He elides the third person, at first, altogether. There’s an anecdote in a wonderful essay on Buber by Avishai Margalit for the NYRB, November 4, 1993, that backgrounds the he/she/they aversion:

“Buber describes an encounter he had in Berlin with the aged, influential pastor Wilhelm Hechler. After several hours of conversation Hechler was suspicious of Buber and before they parted asked him directly, “Do you believe in God?” Buber tried to reassure Hechler that he did, but the answer he thought he ought to have given him, the answer he spent his whole life trying to articulate, came to him on the way home: “If belief in God means speaking about Him in the third person, then I don’t believe in God. But if belief means being able to speak to Him in the second person, then I do believe.’”

For Buber, the I-you relationship creates the possibility for there being a moral and religious domain – or I should perhaps put this in reverse: that there is a moral and religious domain points to the possibility of there being an I-you relationship. Although, unlike Kierkegaard, Buber does not want us to clearly distinguish the moral from the religious. This is an important point: Buber’s supposed existentialism differs in significant ways from other existentialists.

Post-Shoah Jewish philosophers, strongly influenced by Levinas, begin the moral and religious realm with the face. The human face.

Buber, however, begins not with the human face, but with a tree.

A tree.

  “I and You” was published in 1923. Like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, it reflects both the pre-war sense of an old world coming apart and the catastrophe that occurred when the old world committed suicide by trench. There are textual commonalities: although we now look at the Tractatus as a philosophy text, in comparison with philosophy treatises both then and now. It doesn’t reference other arguments, or rarely, it is all about stating (The world is all the case is), and of course at the end of the book it pulls the ladder up and reveals that the book, in as much as it has been philosophical, has been nonsensical .  Wittgenstein once remarked that he wondered if philosophy could be written as a joke book – forgetting that he’d already done that with the Tractatus.

Buber had different teachers – notably George Simmel – and was evidently influenced by the Expressionists, who were evidently influenced by Zarathustra. I and You looks like a philosophical poem, just as Simmel’s sociology often looks like Baudelaire’s poems in prose.

Like Simmel, Buber was fascinated by links, connections, relations. For him, these are primary. In this, he’s following not only Simmel, but a Kabbalistic thematic. Marc-Alain Ouaknin, in Lire aux eclats (1993), writes of the dialogue between the masters of the Midrash or Talmud (the mahloquet) ax proceeding in a space of between that reflects on and in the interval.

“Thought is the thought of the interval, of the entre-deux. Rather than a distinct and certain point of view, each perspective represents a crossing of threads knotted interiorly, an infinitely complicated network, always turning and always subject to turn.”

Ouaknin is a rabbi, while Buber was a non-practicing Jew. As a Rabbi, Ouaknin resists the absolute overturning of hierarchies and oppositions that would destructure, for instance, man/animal (for instance) (that is quite an instance( (an overdetermined instance that turns and is subject to turn).

Buber was not so sure.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

I lie to power

 

I lie to power – I never tell the truth.

Power comes in through the wiring and  mail

and from sharp instruments they keep in the booth

of the GP’s office, tap tap; any frail

 

who thinks she’ll win first place for speaking

out her version to the proper guys,

 will find soon enough that her life is leaking

out in big bad droplets down her thighs.

 

Power loves the truth – as long as you’re telling it

they’ll jot it down and file it with your pass.  

Lie to the authorities, whisper when you’re yelling it

- never let them know  when you’re showing them your ass.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A voice, a vice

Give unto God what is God’s

and to the mudwrestlers what are the mudwrestlers’.

The girls work for tips, gents - the girls work for tips.

  

(Don’t we all, darling!)

The kingdom of bog is within me.

One forever morning ago

 

the Georgia red clay stuck its dog tongue

down my throat, and since

I’ve tried scrubbing it out and scraping it out

 

(gents, the ladies work for tips)

but it doesn’t go. The tinge remains

- shaming me, shaming me - on my flow.

- Karen Chamisso


Friday, August 28, 2020

Peter Baker - perhaps the worst reporter of his generation!

 I have a special affection for Peter Baker. He is, perhaps, the worst reporter of his generation. It is a much coveted title, and so many others have struggled for the fool's gold, but Baker always carries it away by his delightful blend of sycophancy and an inability to analyse that would make a brick proud. His portrait of Trump, in the NYT, is full of Bakerisms, too many to count! It starts out with promise, and just gets better: "For a man on the edge of history, President Trump sounded calm and relaxed." This is a lesson to all reporters - you begin portentiously, and proceed to produce, oh, the prose equivalent of earwax. The edge of history? Well, it is a wonder someone on the edge of history sounds calm and relaxed - not just calm, and not just relaxed, but a twofer! and that's your lead. The lead could have been - for a man with a nineinch dick (as has been the case of all our great presidents!), President Trump has the most awesome voice, and I shivered to hear it over the phone talking to little me! Sure, Baker considered it, fact checked it on Google (do all preznits has 9 incher?) but then - cause he's a reporter and a writer - he scratched it out. It might seem too intimate. How about the edge of history? Ah, that's the spirit!

The wonders of Bakery are here for the fans. For instance, this paragraph, after the one where Baker asks: how have you changed? A question his teacher gave him points for in the eighth grade - and which he has treasured ever since. The man on the edge of history, calmly and relaxedly, replied:
“I think I really am a little bit more circumspect.”
Which brings about this incredibly amazing analysis (which his eighth grade teacher might have frowned about - how to encourage Pete while discouraging, uh, his tendency to truism?)
"By that he seemed to mean that he had hardened after the many investigations and political attacks that have characterized his presidency. But he is not one for introspection. How would he be different in a second term? Really not much at all. “I think I’d be similar,” he said. Which is exactly what his supporters want and his opponents fear."
You can write this way forever! And get the big bucks from the NYT, which is nice. Especially as the man on the edge of history has been nice to people in Pete and Susan's income bracket.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Quiet history

 

The municipal libretto weaves together all kinds of speeches and rhythms, from the American east coast tourist to the Tunisian proprietor of the kebab shop. Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese – when I go out in the Marais, this is what I expect to pick up.

Covid has marked a change. A change that has not been marked, or at least I have not read about it yet - a moment in Paris’s phonic history. This spring and summer, the tourists are gone. I walk down Vielle de Temple, I walk down Rue de Bretagne, and from the cafes arise: only French. Paris has not been this French, I think, in a long time. Maybe since the Commune. Like an American chiropteroid, my ears are keen for American, and since I’ve lived here – going back to 2010 - I’ve felt how in the great Paris opera there is a strong American current. Paris is as much the New Yorker as it is Le Monde. I don’t have the figures, but I’d guess that perhaps 100,000 Americans live in the greater Paris area. Plus a considerable portion of the annual 30 million who pass through Paris, tourists or dealers, students or bankers, etc.


I wonder if French ears have picked up on the subtle difference in the soundscape. In the 20s, when American literature shifted to Paris, the Americans lived in their own bubble, and the French in their’s. There’s a wonderful book by the Canadian writer Paul Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse, about the Americans - and Canadians. It was a tribe concerned with art, sex, and drinking, and the vague perception that the French were either experts at all these things, unlike the Puritanical Americans, or at least took a laissez faire attitude. It was a great exculpatory myth for a lot of bad behavior. It goes back from before the twenties - it is in Hnery James’ The Ambassadors, and Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. It has lasted to this day: check out NYT bestsellers, where there is, standardly, once a year at least some little book about French eating, seduction, etc.

I think of Nietzsche, who hung out in backwaters of Italy – although he showed the good taste to prefer Turin – and who had an ear:

“What comes out worst in translating from one language to another is the tempo of its style: which has its footing in the character of the race, physiologically speaking, in the average tempo of its “metabolism”. There are honorably meant translations that are almost falsifications, inadvertent vulgarisations of the original, simply because its pleasing tempo and bravura cannot be translated, the property which leap over and helps us to escape all the menace of things.”  

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

anger and writing

 

I wrote this in 2013, before the age of the Troll King. It was prescient, or at least I’d claim that it put its finger on some damn thing in the national consciousness.

It concerns a question: in what ways does anger distort one’s reading

 

Anger, of course, is sometimes purposely provoked by a text. Sometimes that provocation is meant to align the reader and the writer in a shared indignation. Aristotle, in the rhetoric, defines anger in social and pragmatic terms:

 

‘Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one's friends.”

 

According to Aristotle’s definition, then, anger is the felt correspondent of the law of talion – the law of eye for an eye. Its intentional structure is not: I feel hot, I can’t breath, I have to scream, but – I have to strike out to even up the slight I have received. This way of construing the feeling, then, is the business of the the author who wants to arouse indignation. This author wants, in other words, for the reader to be on his side.

There is, of course, another side to making angry – for writing can be exactly the kind of ‘slight’ that Aristotle mentions. From teasing to open insult, this, too, is one of the uses to which a text may be put. It is, however, a stranger use, in a way, for reading, unlike being subject to some verbal abuse, requires complicity on the part of the reader. The reader, here, must remain with the text in order to receive the slight.

 

This latter requirement creates a certain hecticness in the second kind of anger-arousing text. The text must fascinate and slight at the same time.

 

Marcus Aurelius, from a stoic position, considered anger as one of the fundamental passions that must be disarmed by the sage. It is not, for Aurelius, a matter of being good so much as a matter of health: “the anger and distress that we feel at such behaviour bring us more suffering than the very things that give rise to that anger and distress.”

 

However, anger there will be – Aurelius accepts that this, too, is one of the impulses to which we are subject. But he does not accept that subjection absolutely. In the twelfth book of the Meditations, he advocates, as a counter-power to anger, the power of remembering. It is an extraordinary and I think quite beautiful passage:

 

“Whenever you take exception to something, you have forgotten that all things come to pass in accordance with the nature of the whole, and that the wrong committed is another’s, not your own, and that everything that comes about always did and always will come about in such a way and is doing so everywhere at this present moment; and you have forgotten how close is the kinship which unites each human being to the human race as a whole, for it arises not from blood or seed but from our common share in reason. You have forgotten, moreover, that the intellect of each of us is a god and has flowed from there, and that nothing is our very own, but that our child, our body, our very breath have come to us from there, and that all turns on judgement; and that the life of every one of us is confined to the present moment and this is all that we have.”

 

The cognitive counterpart to anger, on this reading, is not just ‘forgetting’ your better self, the self that is above the eternal wrangle for privilege – it is a cosmic forgetting, or forgetting the cosmos: forgetting the eternal return of the same, forgetting who you are related to, forgetting reason itself.

 

From the Aristotelian and Stoic traditions, then, we would expect that the angry reader is the defective reader, and that the writer who tries to make his reader angry – or at least, the writer who tries to provoke the reader, instead of making the reader indignant – will be unread. In other words, that provocation is futile.

 

And yet, and yet... provocation is, in fact, one of the hallmarks of modernity. Georges Bernanos begins his polemical work, Cemeteries Under the Moon, by quoting another of his polemical pamphlets in which he wrote: “J’ai juré de vous émouvoir, d’amitié ou de colère, qu’importe! – I’ve sworn to move you, with friendly feelings  or with anger, I don’t care”. He recognizes that this desire for a pure reaction is a vice, which must be repented. It is no good trying to make the heathen rage. It is no good trying to rouse up the “anger of imbeciles”.  The difference between using your polemical talents for good and for bad is the difference between dentistry and simply licking a sore tooth.

And one sees Bernanos’s point. What is the gain from arousing “imbeciles” to anger against you? Or, to put it in 2020 terms, owning the libtards?  But in fact, provocation – rousing the reader to anger – is perhaps the extreme test of style. For the imbecile who stays, who continues to read, even as the reading makes him angry, must stay for some reason. Must, in the end, find the slighting of his opinions, his lifestyle, his existence worth staying with. Of course, one could say that this simply proves how much of an imbecile he must be – just as rancid meat attracts the fly, insult attracts the injured.

 

So: there are two ends to the experience of anger and literature, in the broadest sense: one is in the writing, and one is in the reading. One is the experience of reading something that made me angry, and that I felt was designed to make me – as a certain type of person – angry. The other is the experience of writing something to specifically anger a certain type, a certain audience one has in one’s mind like the buzzing from a mosquito one might have in one’s ear.

If we take Aristotle as giving us a social definition of anger, and Marcus Aurelius as giving us a description of the cosmic damage anger does, what are we to make of the modern character of provocation?

 

Why would an author want to provoke his readers?

In a sense, I’d argue that modernity is tied to provocation – or I should say the aesthetics of modernity. If one way of writing is to lure the reader to an act of identification, another way is to lure the reader by the rather strange via negativa of alienating him – but attaching him nevertheless to what reading has to be, an act of following. William Gass talks about the sort of visual ‘wind” that blows through the written page – the invisible movement of the eye, which is called upon to deliver an image that immediately transcends itself in a concept. The image, then, of the written word is not exactly like our tradition of the idea – which in the empirical tradition is simply a sort of copy of a sense impression – since the written word exists as a meaning, first. Its shape is meaning laden and led. And not only is this so for the bare atom of the word, but for the way the eye follows in some line or another the accumulation of words. Left to right, right to left, up to down, down to up – it is all a matter of following in some direction. To pull away is to break that movement, and this is what one would expect when the movement is directed towards slighting or insulting.

That instinctive pulling away is, in fact, part of the reason that giving offense is a high stylistic challenge. I began thinking about anger and reading when I was going over what was written in 2002 and 2003, recently, mainly about politics, so let’s take an example from that set. When I read, for example, some article by Christopher Hitchens from 2002, arguing – ostensibly – for the war in Iraq, but really committed simply to slagging those who are against the war, I break off contact. I was against the war, so what is the point? It is not that I am unpersuaded as much as persuasion is not the issue. The issue is whether or not I am going to participate in my own lynching. And yet... if the savagery that I was subjected to had something fascinating in it, would I have stayed, would I have followed?

It is, perhaps, more understandable that a writer would want to offend. Or at least that one might write something to offend in order to project one’s own anger. But the writer who actually wants a reader who is among those whom one wants to offend has to think for a bit about what he is doing. Oftentimes, this second thought sublimates the insult in the prose, turns it into an accusation, and the text into something vaguely like a courtroom. Anger favors the courtroom as much as love favors the bedroom. In the courtroom, the defendent has no choice but to undergo the injury of the charge.The angry writer tends naturally to make a courtroom out of his text. This still poses the problem of what the reader is supposed to get out of it. Perhaps the reader is caught by a spell – or by a curse. Josef K. never attempts to flee, although the system of the courts and the police seem incomprehensible to him, and the charge against him is never pronounced. Perhaps if it had been, perhaps if he’d known the charge, the spell would have broken and he would have fled. But the difference between The Trial and the trial one might seek to impose in a text is that the reader can flee. It is, after all, a kangaroo court. But even a kangaroo court stages a mock exection, a symbolic death, and perhaps it is this that both angers the reader and keeps him from breaking off contact. He revolts at his mock effigy, he revolts at being hustled towards a final condemnation, and in his anger he stays.

This is, of course, the hope of the writer whose texts derive ultimately, secretly, perhaps without his even knowing it, from the village talent for cursing.

 

 

 


Thursday, August 13, 2020

ORWELL AND THE 1619 PROJECT

 

The disputes about the 1619 project, which claims that the American republic from the beginning was about slavery and the suppression of Black humanity, has been whirling off and on in the background lately. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who proclaimed that slavery was a “necessary evil”, has proposed a law defunding the teaching of the 1619 project – which is all, of course, in the name of canceling evil cancel culture – a sort of absurd ending to the absurdities of the moral panic among the unfireable portion of the commentariat. Sean Wilentz, a strong Clintonite and liberal, was dismayed to be yoked into Tom Cotton’s crusade, and has spent some time distinguishing his brand of history – which sees the constitution as a marvelous instrument that cleverly avoided the topic of slavery and was thus objectively anti-slavery –from Cotton’s. 

For those interested in the older, liberal American historiography, where the faith is that America has from the beginning been a nation tending towards progressive moral values, it is interesting to see the mishmash the old school Americanists have to make of the obvious, the moves to avoid what stares you in the face: the U.S. was originally a nation with millions of slaves, owned by millions of whites, with Northern states adopting an anti-slave and pro-segregationist position regarding African-Americans. I’d recommend a thread by Nicholas Guyatt, who gave Wilenz such a hard time in his review of No Property in Man in the New York Review of Books. https://twitter.com/NicholasGuyatt/status/1291724388174385152  In the thread, Guyatt connects Madison’s conviction that slavery was wrong (in spite of the fact that Madison was a slaveowner) with Madison’s conviction that black Americans had to be shipped back to Africa – the latter being Madison’s condition for “emancipation”.

All of this is part of a larger emergence from the Cold War myth of the “free world”. The dawn of democracy in America didn’t happen until the 1960s, with the fall of Jim Crow restrictions on black voting and political participation. In France, it wasn’t until the 1940s that women could vote, and there was no voting rights for citizens of French colonies. Similarly, the UK was an empire that basically ruled India as it wanted to until 1947, Kenya until 1956, etc.

Orwell, in from one of his less quoted essays, Not Counting N***, written in 1939, made the same point. Orwell takes on the idea that the alliances shaping up are between “democracies” and the fascists. He is ostensibly reviewing a book by a Mr. Streit, advocating a union of the Western Democracies:

 

“Mr Streit himself is not a hypocrite, but his vision is limited. Look

again at his list of sheep and goats. No need to boggle at the goats

(Germany, Italy and Japan), they are goats right enough, and bilhes

at that. But look at the sheep ! Perhaps the USA will pass inspection

if one does not look too closely. But what about France ? What about

England ? What about even Belgium and Holland ? Like everyone of

his school of thought, Mr Streit has coolly lumped the huge British

and French empires—in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting

cheap coloured labour—under the heading of democracies!“

 

Orwell had a blind spot about America, which he often confused with the country in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. He knew and sometimes gestured at the apartheid, but he never really had a clear vision of how central it was to the United States – a vision on par with his clear-sighted view of the meaning and function of the colonies. Until a couple of years ago, Orwell’s view that the Democracies were props for a race-based oligarchy would not have found any space in the New York Times. Now, with the 1619 project, it has: with significant upset to the heirs of the Cold War anti-communist coalition.

These larger forces are what connect the diverse, rather manic responses of the Never-Trump crowd, the 90s liberalism crowd, and the anti-cancel culture crowd. It is one thing to call the Iraq invasion a mistake, but to doubt that the United States is a nation animated by a moral call – rather than just a nation – really seems, to these people, a plunge into relativism and nihilism.

!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

 Good article, and a good reminder. When they opened the schools too soon, in 1831, during the cholera pandemic, one prof decided to give his usual lecture series. He died. His name was Hegel.

I think Hegel's face should be put on posters against schools reopening without lowering the amount of covid in the school district. As it was said in the Phenomenology, the Spirit is against this shit.

"On Thursday, the 10th of November, Hegel returned to his lectern and his classroom. As was his habit, he gave an exemplary lecture. With much force and energy, it was said. On Saturday, he sat in on examinations. Sunday, his wife had to disinvite friends who were coming over to eat dinner. Hegel had been seized by vomiting and spasms, which lasted the whole night. On monday, the 14th, at 5:30 p.m., he died, the doctors being helpless to do anything for him."

Sunday, August 09, 2020

When Complacency is an option.

For those who are connoisseurs of political reporting banality, the ending of John Cassidy's column is another log on the fire: Here's the last graf:
'For anyone who wants to see Trump lose, it may be tempting to view parts of his reëlection campaign as a money-making scheme, and a family affair. Yet even with his abject failure to respond to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, polling indicates that the President has roughly the same base of support that he’s always had: according to the FiveThirtyEight poll average, his approval rating stands at 41.4 per cent. Trump and the viewers of “Triggered” and “The Right View” won’t concede of their own accord. Between now and November 3rd, Biden and his supporters will have to go all out to defeat them. Complacency isn’t an option.
"

This might be the 3,403,122nd time I have read that "complacency isn't an option." Which brings up the question, when is complacency an option? The answer to that, appparently, is when politics has to do with wealth inequality, universal medical care, global warming, the pandemic, the fall of the working class, the rise of deaths of despair. There, complacency is not only an option, it is a preference.