Saturday, April 03, 2004


John Burns is one of the New York Times most intelligent foreign correspondents. The Times usually slathers an aggressive, heedless neo-liberal ideology on its foreign news, picking its stringers, in such places as Venezuala, from among the most notorious class of exploiters, and in general sending out people whose framework is a sort of rightwing Friedmanism. This makes it very hard to know what is happening in the rest of the world. In the case of Iraq, the NYT has been notoriously supportive of a mere propagandist, Judith Miller. She isn’t even a competent propagandist. Her famous article about the unnamed, disguised Iraqi scientist pointing to spots in the sand where WMD are buried could be used as a freshman journalism class joke. Miller is a throwback to the Hearst reporters that went to Cuba to supply America with grounds for a war with Spain, except that she doesn’t spread that rara avis plumage of jingoistic prose – no Richard Harding Davis she. Rather, she prefers the mothballed clichés of the Wolfowitz set.

Burns, however, went into hiding because of the toughness of his reporting about Saddam Hussein’s insane leadership of his country. So it was all the more jolting to read his analysis of the recent events in Fallujah. It was not only wildly misleading, but childish in its tones and theme. The theme is: why aren’t the Iraqis grateful to us Americans? The tone was like the whining of some sullen twelve year old heir whose gifts of his old clothes to the maid’s son still hasn’t convinced the boy to play with him. Such generosity! Such complaining people, these Iraqis! After all the electricity we’ve got going for them too.

As for the misleading part: the whole history of the American/Iraqi encounter in Fallujah was set by the massacre of 17 to 30 Iraqis in the occupying of the town. Why this happened still remains a mystery, although it is easy to guess that American trigger happy nervousness had a lot to do with it. What did not occur, however, was a ‘firefight’ – which is how Burns describes it.

That theme of gratitude/ingratitude reflects the deeper, entrenched racism that frames the whole neo-imperialist enterprise, with its unconscious (or sometimes conscious) presentation of Iraqis as “children”. The parent/child image has been a standard legitimating trope in the colonialist discourse since the Spanish waded ashore on Hispanola. In Iraq, its late efflorescence has caused the CPA to act in enormously irrational ways. That the horror of the lynching of the four mercenaries in Fallujah touches off a similar response in Burns, who should know better, does not bode well for US/Iraq relations. So instead of asking such journalist questions as: why is the Army using mercenaries in the Sunni triangle, and why were these four guys going into a town the army wouldn’t enter in an unarmored vehicle, he gives us his shock and dismay.

From the beginning, we have maintained that the top down implementation of civil change, such as was envisioned by all the Defense Department planners, goes against everything we know about the failures of central planning. That is hard earned knowledge for the left. Lately, we’ve been wondering what it means to combine the benefit of a welfare state with bottom up self organization – the kind of foreign policy that the left should be vigorously exploring. In thinking about this, we keep bumping into the name James C. Scott, the man who wrote “Seeing Like A State.” So we went to an essay in Studies in Comparative Society and History for a recent essay by Lisa Wedeen, entitled “Seeing like a Citizen”. Since the essay is about the interplay between state and culture in Yemen, we thought that it might have some suggestions about what the progressive project in Iraq would be like.

Wedeen discusses three events in Yemn. One is the first direct presidential election, held on September 23, 1999. The second is the tenth anniversary celebration of national unification, on May 22, 2000. And the third is the career of a serial killer who did his killings in a University setting. Here is how Weedon sees a community of thematic interest in these different threads:

Each of the events betrays a note of irony. The election was widely heralded
as “the first free direct presidential election” ever held in Yemen, and there was
never any doubt about the ability of the incumbent to capture a majority of the
vote. Yet the ruling party, on dubious legal grounds, barred the opposition’s
jointly chosen challenger from the race and then appointed its own opponent.
President ƒAli ƒAbd Allah Salih had a chance to win what the world would have
regarded as a fair and free election, but chose instead to undermine the process,
using the apparently democratic form to foreclose democratic possibilities. In
the case of the unification anniversary, both the preparations and the event itself
required the regime to introduce state-like interventions in domains where
they had never been seen before. In areas of everyday practice, such as garbage
collection and street cleaning, the state made itself apparent to citizens in ways
that could only serve to remind them of how absent it usually was. Finally, the
revelation that a shocking series of murders had taken place inside the state-run
university produced communities of criticism in which people found themselves
sharing a sense of belonging to a nation the existence of which was merely
imputed by the failure of the state to exercise its expected role of protecting
its citizens.”

As you can see, gentle reader, these are familiar themes in the Iraqi context. Wedeen wants to know why, firstly, a party in power would overreach to the extent of delegitimating its democratic standing for no apparent gain; secondly, why the state can come spasmodically to life, spending money on a ritual celebrating itself to the extent that it points its citizens to that expenditure – for instance, in cleaning up the streets before the celebration – and so points to its incompetence both before and after the celebration; and thirdly, why a ruling elite that exists in terms of its assertion of direct power can still leave the citizens of the state feeling unprotected. To put the third question less clumsily: why is the state so inefficient at security, given its emergence from an overtly militarized context?

Wedeen uses the word "belonging" -- a term that has grown suspiciously popular in the social sciences -- to link up to her titular image of seeing to make her general point: “Yemen demonstrates how events of collective vulnerability can bring about episodic expressions of national identification.”

We’ll get back to this essay in our next post.

Friday, April 02, 2004


The Black and White world

In the 1730s, a French monk, Louis Bertrand Castel, invented a color ‘clavecin.” Following a suggestion by Athanasius Kircher that arrangements of colors corresponded to arrangements of sounds, the clavecin was designed to create color harmonies synchronized to music. That Kircher was invoked should tell us that Castel was an anti-Newtonian, which he was -- il doutait 'que Monsieur Newton n'eut jamais manié de prisme' – of the profound sort – Castel, like Kircher, still lived in a world in which science was an exquisite web of analogies. The kind of reductionism and mathematical method that Newton applied, without any pre-determining analogies, seemed like a desecration of that web. Blake had that same sentiment a century later, although by then the pre-modern understanding of nature had been irreversibly lost, along with the culture that sustained it. Castel’s example influenced the ever-peculiar Russian composer, Scriabin, in the 20th century.

Well, this is an odd starting place for a post about the world of black and white films and photographs – the world of technical photo-reproduction for most people from the mid nineteeth to the mid twentieth centuries. We start here because we want to touch the folk science of color -- the system of folk beliefs that contain schematics for the correspondence of color to words, sounds, moods, crimes and virtues. We’ve been thinking about that world because, somehow, we came across this exhibition of tabloid photographs. We find photos like this enormously and mysteriously appealing. In fact, it is hard to think of the modern era – from around 1900 through the 1950s – without thinking, unconsciously, in black and white. Kennedy’s assassination, for me, is in black and white, although I’m not really sure the Zapruder film was black and white. I’ve often wondered why nobody has explored how the optical values of the historical iconography spill over into our larger historical imagination.

It isn’t simply that black and white is a color scheme – as human things, colors in their mutual relations one with the other have human significances even as they do the "job" of blocking in figures that philosophers assign to them. There’s an old philosophical bias towards the figural and against color. Color is considered accidental, transitory, way too mutable. Here the old schematic bias, the old logocentrism, as Derrida puts it, flashes into sight and as quickly vanishes.

Try to imagine, for instance, the photo of the wifebeater on the ninth page of the exhibit in different colors. For me, this is almost impossible. Even if I saw the image colorized, it would revert to black and white in my memory, just as certain events -- say World War I -- happen in black and white in my memory. I cannot see it, mentally, in technocolor. The effect of the alleged wifebeater photo is all in the heavy face of the smiling husband, the blocked out head of the wife, and the hand holding -- a gesture that suddenly seems sinister. LI has remarked before, on some post, about the tension between caption and picture. This one has a caption that is a Dashiell Hamlett short story in a sentence: “William Charles November 28, 1947 Friday Held on suspicion of wife-beating.” Can he possibly not be guilty? No, every nuance here proclaims his guilt. But this is where we find the black and white world particularly eerie – it is as if those colors were not only necessary to his representation, but the secret determinants of his crime. It is as if those colors had the pervasive influence of the fates upon Mr. Charles – as if when he beat his wife, the act itself must have been in black and white.

On another note -- LI has finally made the Paypal thing work. Check it out.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

“Beauty should not happen”

LI received a letter from our friend T. in NYC regarding our “beautiful woman” posts. It was addressed to the character in our novel, Holly Sterling – and like a spur in the ribs, it reminded us that we have not been writing the novel in the last week or two. T. has been a regular reader – with red pencil in hand – of the novel.

(Our excuse, our regular excuse, is that since we are close to being kicked out of our apartment, losing our electricity, and in general deprived of the amenities – like a slug under the salt, in other words -- we have other things on our mind. Samuel Johnson, in our humble opinion, might have been wrong – the threat of imminent hanging doesn’t wonderfully concentrate the mind – it fatally scatters it. Of course, we don’t claim to have the highwayman’s strong character. Or perhaps we have a different sense of the drama of our ending. Its sheer pettiness is insurmountable).

But to get back to T.’s letter – if you haven’t read the Beautiful Woman posts, it won’t make any sense to you. Go and read them – they begin two posts back.
We’ve edited and shortened the letter a bit.

"Holly dear,

You must obviously wonder of this intrusion. Its true that it is embarrassment that is at the forefront of my mind as I write to you; I ask and assume too much of your attention. After all, our first and only meeting was so brief that you can’t possibly remember this admirer, I could not have made any impression whatever; and, after all, you were already dead.

Although you are dead, I've heard stories of your beauty. Secondhand stories, its true, and none of them ever mentioned the color of your hair, and a few told me of your accent, but the last fact was not presented as integral to your beauty. No, I actually do not know how beautiful you were, but I can imagine....the fewer and sparer the tales, the more space for my imaginings. Anyway, I'm rather appreciative of beautiful women, and I've recently read a little book that gave me much cause to think about beauty, and divinity, and divinely beautiful women....I thought I might share this with you.

Will I offend you so much if I speak of Pierre Klossowski; will you be offended if I even merely invoking a few references in order to tell you a bit about beauty? Realize that as a beauty, you perhaps have little to say beyond the seeming affect it has had on others. That is your first person (if you will have one at all). My first person account is as pure as it can be on this matter. A reasonable concern of yours: Is what he [LI] has to tell me merely scopic? Perhaps; some would argue “Indeed and only.” Well, then, since you cannot have even a taste of the scopic (according to those who say “Indeed and only”), then I will offer a few observations from that place that cannot be yours.

I swear Holly, I'm not a pervert, but an author that dares to contemplate possible conclusions to the saga of Diana at her Bath as PK, is an author that I need more of in my life. Will you be offended by that possibility that Acteon, not quite all a stag, left hand still in human form, groping Diana’s breast, at the brink of penetrating the goddess in human form whereupon he is set upon by the ravenous hounds that rip him apart, drenching Diana in blood; or, alternatively, Acteaon wearing the bloody head of a stag upon his own, seduced by the goddess, rapturously on top of her….
No, I am not a pervert, but give me myth, Holly dear, just don't ask too much of my faith; engage me in tales of wondrous plausibility, and I will never demand that you tarry with the truth; you are dead Holly, which renders this the beginning and the end of our correspondence, but let me know the story of your beauty.
Divinity unto uselessness, if you prefer a theme.

Did the persona behind Limited, Inc. ever tell you one tale of the Invisible Woman? No, well, LI should have, for it might inform you of what is to come, and what becomes of you. The beautiful woman, such as yourself, need not be here, or there, exactly; its (please excuse and pardon me: your) presence is not always a matter of proximity, but intimate contact, at a distance or otherwise.

That sensation when one is before beauty, when one espies it, that then one is nearer to the "religious gravity" that Barthes finds the Lover provides. I am a far less discerning man; I need not the magnitude of a Lover – any beautiful woman will do. Contact at a distance; contact without the often unavailable or inconvenient facts and particularities of proximity; such is the space that I am trying to explain; I’m sure you have occupied that space, knowingly or not; think back to times before your demise…the attention of their conversation… the casual embrace….the touch at your wrist or shoulder…a glance from across the room: all of them abstract and indistinct in their formality, seemingly ordinary.

Preceeding that space?: Waiting. It is an unknown; that one, beknowst to one or not, is always waiting for beauty - that one is there only because one should not be there. Beauty should not happen; there is no apparent teleology to the encounter, it is rare and awkward and unusual. Although miracles surely do happen, one cannot predict them for they have no place amidst the rigors of prediction and verification; brilliant and extreme (the dictionary indicates of ‘beauty’ (etymologically related to 'bounty')); but it is all so much a matter of what beauty DOES - thus the examples that one might mine from the History of Western Lit., from Helen to Mademoiselle Marnaffe and to a more current date (the Dulcinea del Tobloso is a peculiar case, to be sure, but enough of my parody of erudition!). A beautiful woman does nothing for me, she is superfluous, unnecessary; yet she immediately ends that waiting and therefrom does that impressionistic sense of space and color ensue - wholly human for she is seen as a beautiful woman, but also ethereal; thus, a moment formally sublime.

What did your beauty do Holly? That is the story that I want to hear.

There is, of course, never anything normal about the peculiar charms of a beautiful woman - arms ever too long, face far to piqued, nose rather askew, hands very much too small, etc… but usually a disorganization well short of anything that might be a fetish. What is IT? Yes, what is it? It is, at least, that rare moment of apperception wherein one finds oneself amid both those things that are real and their unreal relations and affiliates, where simulacra are welcomed, as are shadows and echoes; where poses and masks are intimate and alluring.
“Beauty” as a word can only emerge (as it did), don't you think, Holly dear, after all the bother of the period of courtly love? One does not take on burdens and challenges inspired by beauty, one does no great deeds intoxicated by beauty for beauty, no matter how delirious one might become in the presence of beauty, there is neither obedience, nor loyalty, nor service to beauty (unless, of course, one is engaged in some part of the all so pernicious "beauty industry"; but that is far far apart from my fixation at present), while there may be inspiration in the seeing, there is nothing particularly ennobled by such inspiration. Ah, ideals, and idealistic and idyllic ways of telling of them!
A small confession, Holly dear, I am a limited man, a man devoid of grand themes and epic scales, without even the slightest hope of a Form. I have only and merely my few tales, fewer of which I know very well at all. I write to you only as an admirer of beautiful women.

The beauty that recurs as opposed to the fashion of a time; the beauty that remains, adorned or not; yes, that's the one. While a pretty girl may be like a melody, a beautiful woman is a requiem.

Perhaps, Holly dear, you became only a motif or a type. But be of good courage: becoming a woman of substance was never in your stars… to your benefit, if I don’t say-so myself. You will, like every other beauty, remain at a distance, connected to me no matter that distance, in fictive space, or otherwise. My shame, indeed, should either of us take the guise of the Object – that is reserved for my indiscretion: that I might become a nusiance and bother, interrupting your view of what it is that is of you attention.

Diana at her Bath? Pierre Klossowski? How might I get from mere beauty to the divine? All reasonable questions Holly dear.

“Only divinity is happy with its own uselessness.” There is, for us mere mortals, a terrifying vertigo to this aimless and useless existence; we require obscurity and false clarity. Here is the intimacy of divinity and beauty: beauty is its own uselessness; beauty requires as little relation to the sexual act as does love or the needs of procreation, as does any divine one.

Apprehending beauty is the end of the waiting that is integral to every other moment not proximate to beauty (moments unto that ceaseless cycle).

Again, under threat of boredom: What does beauty DO? The same question might be posed to divinity of mythological time: the tale of the gods is what they DO. “This mountainous horizon, these woods, this vale and these springs, do they thus have no reality except in her absence? […] The more absorbed I become in the appearance of these objects, the better I see what the breeze is tracing: her forehead, her hair, her shoulders – unless a more blustery wind is creasing her tunic farther into the hollow of her thighs, above her knees. […] More than ever I experience the dignity of the space as the most reasonable enjoyment of my mind, the moment her forehead, her cheeks, her neck, her throat and her shoulders take shape there and dwell there, the moment her unendurable gaze explores and her nimble fingers, her palms, her elbows and legs slice and strike the air.”

From the affect of beauty on the beholder, to Diana’s visage at her bath: “…yet this body, in which she will manifest herself to herself, she actually borrows from Actaeon’s imagination.”

I, in the company of a beautiful woman can no more dominate her than I might submit myself to the her; I can only be submitted by that unknown force of beauty and that made that moment of the encounter inevitable.

One visage of that force is the Daemon, the intermediary between the god and man, between the beautiful and the beholder: “It is I who teach you this, O Actaeon, I whose external form, malleable to the will of the gods, so well lends iteslf to espousing their unfathomable intentions in order to give your senses proof of their arbitraty existence.” Beauty interrupts the continual and recurring flow of obscurity unto arbitrariness. In mythological cases, the Daemon functions as the interruption, in other more temporal and far less dramatic moments, beauty does so.
Such an interpretation: the encounter of Acteon and Diana at her Bath: “This incidence still belongs to the world of irreversible and uninterrupted space: the danger, the risk – like that of the hunt and the bath after the hunt – lies in the fact that the sacred grove of Diana’s bath is situated in this same space, and that numerous paths which seem to lead nowhere run into that very place.”
Yes, it is that “morose delectation” of Actaeon that I savor every so often.

“’What I saw, I cannot say what it was.’ Not that what one cannot say, one might not more fully understand, nor that one cannot see what one does not understand. Actaeon, in the myth, sees because he cannot say what he sees: if he could say it, he would no longer see. Yet Actaeon, meditating in the grotto, confers on Actaeon suddenly busting into the sacred in which Diana is bathing, the following remark: I shouldn’t be here, that’s why I’m here. The real experience, however, would boil down to an absurd proposition: I was supposed to be here because I was not supposed to be here.”

Nunc tibi me posito visam velamine rares
Si poteris narrare, licet - Ovid
[Now you may tell you saw me here unclothed,/If you can tell at all.]

“As soon as one analyzes these words, one notes in them both the provocation and the irony […] The provocation: Say it, then, describe Diana’s nudity, describe my charms, that no doubt what you’re waiting for, what your fellow men would love to know. The irony: If you can tell at all!”

A beautiful woman, then, is a fragment that is not of a whole, before or after the encounter with her. The “system” of her beauty is never wholly psycho- or social. Her beauty is without the obligations of language and consciousness (thus, speechless and thoughtless). “She is a beauty, no matter her features.” – Diana Vreeland. If you can tell at all. The particular features of a beautiful woman are accidental; she is a phantasm without essence. As a phantasm, possession is without concept.

Yes, Holly dear, you are sterling, like every beautiful woman; never once did you go lightly or gently.

But now my imagination has taken-over, trespassing both beauty and fantasy. I have failed to even indicate the beauty of a woman that arises only in conversation; you and I, of course, will never converse.
I remain,

Sunday, March 28, 2004


The principal objections to democratical or popular
government, are taken from the inequalities which arise among men
in the result of commercial arts. And it must be confessed, that
popular assemblies, when composed of men whose dispositions are
sordid, and whose ordinary applications are illiberal, however
they may be intrusted with the choice of their masters and
leaders, are certainly, in their own persons, unfit to command.
How can he who has confined his views to his own subsistence or
preservation, be intrusted with the conduct of nations? Such men,
when admitted to deliberate on matters of state, bring to its
councils confusion and tumult, or servility and corruption; and
seldom suffer it to repose from ruinous factions, or the effect
of resolutions ill formed or ill conducted. – Adam Ferguson

Ill formed resolutions, and ill conduct in carrying them out, were at the heart of the Clarke controversies this week. LI watched with our most jaundiced eye as the Bush administration tried out a defense compounded of contradiction, denigration, and denial. None of them have worked very well, because they rebound against a solid fact: before 9/11, the mind of the Bush administration gave less thought to Al Qaeda then they did to raising the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water. It was a non-agenda item.

However, the real question is whether the Bush mindset has changed in such a way as to secure us against terrorist attack. Us, in the narrow continental sense, and us, in the sense of the U.S. and its allies.

Although we generally avoid the vaguely repulsive experience of reading the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer – he is one of those columnists who seems to spit as he writes – his column about Clarke made the one sensible case against him, even as it buried the case in the usual Right Wing rolodex calumny. Clarke, in fact, should have apologized to the families of the WCT, because he, more than anyone else, was the architect of Clinton’s failed anti-terrorism initiatives.

“It is only March, but the 2004 Chutzpah of the Year Award can be safely given out. It goes to Richard Clarke, now making himself famous by blaming the Bush administration for Sept. 11 -- after Clarke had spent eight years in charge of counterterrorism for a Clinton administration that did nothing.”

Unfortunately, Krauthammer undermines his own point by exaggerating it to the point of caricature. Still, the Clinton administration did not do enough. And what it did do should have been done differently. There, we would have to agree. The problem is, what Clinton did wrong – responding with military force to Al Qaeda without jacketing that force in the full panoply of political pressures on those states in which Al Qaeda operats -- has been taken up by the Bush administration as a strategic panacea. The result of taking the Clinton doctrine to absurd extremes is shown in the overthrow of the one country in the Middle East that we know was not, in any major way, connected with the jihadists in Afgahanistan. All the eagerness that Bush’s apologists have shown in trying to pin some connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein stands in almost comical contrast with what we know about the connections between Al Qaeda and two of our allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. We know, and the whole Arab world knows, that if we are really trying to justify a war with a country on the basis of known, prolonged and sustaining relationships between that country and Al Qaeda, our soldiers would be in Riyadh and Islamabad.

Clarke’s failure, we think, comes from his obsession that Al Qaeda could only be dealt with by military force. We think that the Clinton administration should have been out there shaking its finger at the Saudis, at Pakistan, at Malaysia, at Indonesia, at Egypt – at every country where the terrorists have comfortably found niches.

Clinton didn’t do it. Bush, with the evidence before his eyes that something had to change, decided to relapse into the old groove. Clarke has surprised LI by showing that Bush shared the Iraq obsessions of his Defense Department subordinates. We assumed that Bush was more, well, sane than the Rumsfeld crew. We are still not sure we buy Clarke’s evaluation of Bush’s motives. But post 9/11, we have watched as the Bush administration, behind its rhetoric about a new kind of warfare, are engaging in just the kind of mistaken strategy that shows they have learned nothing from the past. The justification of this is comic: the war on terrorism, we are told, is going to last thirty years, fifty years, a century. Actually, it should have lasted precisely two years. By this time, Al Qaeda networks should really have been rolled back. Instead, they have further embedded themselves in the Mediterranean periphery.

Clarke’s claims about the Bush policy were being tested out even as he spoke last week. Unfortunately, the press was only interested in the sensational side of it, and soon let it sink to page B-12 or whatever. Two things happened in Pakistan. They are summarized by a Week in Review piece in the NYT:“On March 18, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, gave a television interview in which he described a pitched battle between Pakistani soldiers and 400 to 500 militants and set off expectations that Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been surrounded.
Two days later, military officials were playing down talk of Mr. Zawahiri's encirclement as "conjecture." And by the end of this week, a fresh audiotape message purportedly from Dr. Zawahiri emerged - taunting the government with a defiant call for General Musharraf's overthrow.”
The October surprise in the current election was supposed to be the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden. But it looks increasingly like another surprise, one not so pleasant for Bush, might occur – the toppling of the Mussharef regime. In fact, Pakistan is the one country in which stateless terrorism could actually metastasize to encompass the organs of the state. If this happened, or even if there is a bloody revolt, the Bush doctrine would not only take a fatal hit – it would open up a threat both to this country and to India that is a level larger than any terrorist threat ever before.
So, next week, we will do another post on Pakistan -- October Surprise II

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...