Friday, April 08, 2005

While infantile papolatry still holds sway at the major ‘liberal’ dailies, the coup in Mexico went off like a wet firecracker. Via the King we went to Al Giordano’s Narco News. explains:
On Monday the owners of Televisa and TV Azteca, Emilio Azcárraga Jean and Ricardo Salinas Pliego, respectively, were called to Los Pinos (the Mexican presidential palace). One doesn't need to guess the motive for the discussion.
Next it was the radio broadcasters' turn, and one of them commented: "The President told us: Andrés Manuel must be disappeared!"
Neither station has aired nary a minute of the proceedings now underway in the National Congress (since 10:15 this morning), where the "desafuero" will be debated for many hours and voted on today.
President Vicente Fox, one of the intellectual and material authors of this coup d'etat against Mexican democracy, in an attempt to change the subject, then fled to Rome for the memorial services for the pope.”

Sounds like an Otto Reich special. You remember Reich – the king of soft coups Just as Syria regards Lebanon as too important to leave to the Lebanese, the U.S. sees itself as the natural colonial master of the Southern Hemisphere, and reserves for itself the right to intervene both militarily and with behind the scenes puppet pulling. Instead of blowing Lopez Obrador up, Bush’s ally, Fox, and the PRI, decided to take out his batteries. Fox, whose campaign relied on the same dirty money from the same oligarchs that financed Salinas and Zedillo’s campaigns in previous years, has had the gall to state that “no man is above the law” as he helped arranged this revealing blow against an honest election. As usual, the best reporting on the affair in the U.S. has been at the L.A. Times. Here’s a nice graf from their report:

“In response to Fox's argument, several legal experts noted that in contrast to this case, allegations of massive fraud in Mexico, such as the $140-million Pemexgate scandal, have gone unpunished. In that case, funds earmarked for oil union workers were allegedly funneled to the PRI. Fox himself has been implicated in a campaign spending case dating from the 2000 election, which has yet to come to trial.”

If Lopez Obrador does make a run for the presidency from prison, it will make for some very pretty tergiversation in the American press, which was so gung ho about democracy in the Ukraine. The American press doesn’t like lefty populist types in South America: too much U.S. money is at stake to fuck around. That’s when you roll out the defense of free markets. So nice, those free markets. And you can’t have the Chavez’ of the world mucking about with em. Somehow, Chavez works his magic even though, according to the Washington Post, he’s made his country much poorer. That’s actually pretty funny, considering the stream of billions pumped out of the country by the free marketers that ruled the country like brothel keepers in the eighties and nineties, with nary a bad word from the Post. Funny how those deluded poor keep voting for Chavez, too.

A friend of ours in Mexico City, who has expressed rather vehement disgust with various of the Mayor’s failings (she pointed out to us, when we were down there, some obvious make work road construction – for instance, long orphaned concrete ramps for bike riders that were accessible only via flights of stairs and/or the highway), is also disgusted with the move to impeach him.

Now, back to the ever fascinating topic of both beatifying the late pope and giving him a lifetime Oscar for best performance in medieval clothing.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

In this, the fifth year of mourning the pope – or is it just LI? We’ve found the usual papers (the NYT, the WashPost) particularly boring lately, like some subdeb Elizabethan pageant play. The news from the war, which is washed through the mind detergent of American propaganda to make it as sweet as Momma’s sheets, pokes out the occasional factoid – the blown up American soldier in Anbar province, the general who claims that the insurgency is on its last legs just before two concentrated attacks on Abu Ghraib prison, the number of prisoners now being held captive by the Americans mounting to over 12,000, the dissipation of legitimacy as the American designed pre-constitution in Iraq did its job and effectively crippled the government before it began – yes, these things poke out as the usual imperial cruelties. But the blood has rushed to the head one too many times. There is a beautiful line by Thomas Paine, which we culled from the biography. Paine was deeply interested in the letters of Junius, which inflamed England in the 1770s. His ‘"brilliant pen," he [Paine] afterwards wrote, "enraptured without convincing; and though in the plenitude of its rage it might be said to give elegance to bitterness, yet the policy survived the blast."

The shoddy material out of which Bush had designed his ad hoc power plays could be blasted by a pea shooter – which is a weapon much too mighty for the American press to manipulate. Pea shooters are partisan, and to be avoided. Rather, one treads a margin slightly to the left of Fox news, and more than slightly right of reality. And the policy still stands. And stands. Hence, perhaps, our ennui.

So instead of the NYT, we went to the Financial Times and read Adrian Turpin’s fascinating April fool’s day account of the Koestler Para-psychology unit at the University of Edinburgh

Here’s a description of the faculty:

“Caroline Watt, acting head, is a thoughtful, quietly spoken psychologist whose work includes studies on the childhoods of people who claim paranormal experiences and an investigation of ghostly incidents in Edinburgh’s underground vaults. One of three research fellows, Peter Lamont, is a former professional magician and the world expert on the Indian rope trick. Much of his work is about the history of deception. Fiona Steinkamp works part time. A philosopher, one of her interests is the possibility that humans can predict the future. Dr Paul Stevens, by contrast, trained as a physicist. His current research involves testing people to see whether their bodies react to the emotional state of a person in another room, then comparing this to the effects of very weak, low-frequency magnetic fields. Stevens is a science-fiction fan but engage him in debate and you realise he doesn’t have a credulous bone in his body. Together this small team supervises eight postgraduate students.”

How LI missed out on becoming a part of this team is a mystery to us. We’d be perfect for investigating the haunting of underground places.

The article does a nice job of condensing two decades of controversy about psi. Psi experiments are always, shall we say, unusual. This early experiment seemed allegorical, to our jaded eye, of the way contemporary capitalism works:

“The first Koestler professor arrived from America in December 1985. Robert Morris was a psychologist who had worked at Duke University in North Carolina under the famous paranormal researcher J.B. Rhine in 1960. There he had taken part in some unusual studies. In one, rats were tested for their psychic ability. Having heard stories of dogs that ran to their master every morning except on the day they were due to be put down, Morris decided to see whether a similar phenomenon could be observed in the lab.

"Sixteen rats were each released for two minutes into an 8ft x 8ft box marked with a grid of small squares. Notes were taken of how many squares each rat entered - a measure of how active they were. After this, eight of the rats were selected at random to be killed. “Half of the animals that lived were active enough to leave their original square,” Morris concluded, “whereas none of the animals that died showed such activity.”

That certainly sounds like the last part time job I had.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

bellow is dead

The passing of a mere pontiff is, after the hustle and bustle is done, as nothing compared to the passing of Saul Bellow – Bellow was a real genius. Was he, as Roth said, one of the two great American novelists of the 20th century (the other being Faulkner?). We’d say no. We don’t think American literature maps out like this, with novelists making their marks over their whole career. That is a credible way of approaching, say, Dickens, or James, or even Woolf – but it breaks down in the U.S. in the twentieth century. In one way, that is the crack up that Fitzgerald complained of – the quiet but devastating segregation of art and career. Every garbageman in America has a career, which is why the American novelist often operates out of sheer envy – it is envy that sharpens the eyesight.

There is nothing in Bellow that is as good, we think, as Invisible Man, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or Blood Meridian. But – and this is where the Faulkner comparison comes in -- Bellow really created an oeuvre, unlike Pynchon, Ellison, McCarthy, et al.

There is one thing about Bellow that we haven’t seen mentioned: Bellow operated as a counterweight to the suburbanization of the U.S. The hustlers that ring the changes in his novels are all incredibly urban – urban to the pores. They none of them long for the nirvana of the suburbs – the nirvana of being attached to the main only by highly guarded access routes: the highway, tv, the internet. Bellow’s people actually like the way the body can absorb the images of the crowd, they like the anecdote, they like character, they feel that this is living. Recently, we had to review the latest novel by Jonathan Safron Foer, a terrible mess that follows an implausible eight year old around New York City as he “investigates” a small mystery left to him by his dad, who was a victim of the 9/11 attack. I liked Foer’s first novel, which just skirted sentimentality by ingenious exaggeration. His second, though, achieves the intellectual level of a socially responsible book for the children of divorced parents, ages 5 to 8. It is, in other words, an utter disaster. Not content with simply milking 9/11 for easy tears as thin and tasty as those shed over some Hallmark get well card, Foer also goes on to milk the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima. All the people that died, man. And all the cute kids they left behind. Don't those kids deserve hugs?

But what is most interesting about it is Foer’s complete and utter lack of interest in careers, in hustling, in deals. This is the genuine mark of suburbia – employment is what you go home from, you get away from. It is so boring to Foer. So boring that this happens: at a certain point in Foer’s novel, he asks us to believe that a character who only communicates by gestures and by two words tattooed on his hands rises through the ranks at a jewelry business in the fifties to become the owner of one. Except he doesn’t ask us to believe that – he throws the information in, in a couple of sentences, like catch up info in a daydream, so he can get on to the main business at hand: the utter cuteness of his main character, and how utterly bad it is that human beings die in bombings. So we are not left to ponder the idea that, in a business drenched in talk and dealing, a man who operates at, shall we say, a disadvantage rises effortlessly through the ranks. We aren’t left to ponder the world outside the airless vacuum of the progressive children’s story.

This is where Bellow has such authority – he does know how people rise through the ranks in America. He knows that it happens in broadly the same way in academia as in construction, or organized crime – he knows that there are betrayals everywhere, that there is sex everywhere, that there’s a hunger extending beyond the dinner table or the table at the best restaurants. He knows that money is power and joy and guilt, that it builds up from boys' treasure hunts to the moments of panic and exhilaration that put one person on the street and another in a spectacular office in a skyscraper. And he is after all that.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

piss factory

LI was buying groceries the other night, when we overheard a conversation between the guy ahead of us and one of the cashiers, a man who had some illness that made his movements angularly spastic and gave that uncertainty of pitch to his voice to make one suspect that his brain is somehow diminished; although, in reality, it isn’t, and he eventually does with his body what we can do with ours, although following a different nervous routine to do it. The two were talking about a common acquaintance, and it soon became obvious that the cashier and the customer had met when the cashier and the customer’s wife worked up in Round Rock, at the Dell factory. The cashier said he had been “delled” – fired for something.

We are interested in mentions of Dell, because more than once we’ve thought about applying for a line job there ourselves. Ten bucks an hour, and all the bad vibe labor atmosphere you could swallow – as many people who have worked at Dell have assured us. In general, we have a certain nostalgia for factory work, although nobody in our family (save a stray uncle) ever really went from (as Springsteen put it) the mansions of pain to the mansions of fear, or something like that. Any lefty is automatically interested in manufacture – wasn’t this, at one time, the key to our world, the commonality among the constituency? The key has been withdrawn, the constituency fucked over. Take the Amtrack from New York City to New Haven and it is like a Disney train touring the gutted factory exhibit. Anyway, we found the new Granta issue about factories interesting. Here’s the first graf of Luc Sante’s essay:

“I was fated to work in a factory. I was born in a Belgian textile-factory town, and my ancestors had worked in the mills for at least two or three centuries before I came along. Almost all of them were employed by Simonis, once the most prominent of many local makers of worsted cloth, now the world's leading manufacturer of billiard-table baize. It is very nearly the last survivor of a once-crowded industrial hub. My father managed to avoid working in the textile plants, but he couldn't help being employed by ancillary businesses; there wasn't anything else. When I was born he had been working for about five years in an iron foundry that made equipment for the plants. When the industry collapsed a few years later the foundry, like so many other local businesses, fell with it. We emigrated to the United States, where the initial promise of new and fulfilling employment soon gave way to uncertainty, then near-despair. Eventually my father was hired by yet another factory, which manufactured pipes and rods from a hard, resilient, slippery synthetic that for household applications is trademarked Teflon. He worked there until his retirement at the age of sixty-five. Immediately thereafter he began displaying symptoms of Parkinson's disease, unprovably but almost certainly the result of twenty-seven years' daily exposure to ambient powdered fluorocarbons. Dementia followed a decade later. His death at eighty came as a consequence of his refusing food and drink for a week, a mode of death known in nursing-home jargon as 'Alzheimer's suicide'.”

Sante’s description of working to pay for college at a plastics factory reminded me of one of my brother’s first gigs. He was around eighteen, and we were roommates – his first place outside my parents’ house. He’d gotten a job at a factory that made something – could it have been containers? I forget, now – that required immense amounts of cutting. Unfortunately, the workers, in order to endure the grinding tedium of the place, were almost always either stoned or drunk. This had a deleterious effect on their reaction time when it came to removing a limb or a hand from the way of a cutter – hence, your general OSHA meltdown. That job put me in a sweat – the more my brother worked there, the surer I was that he was going to become a victim. Luckily, he began to believe the same thing, and so he quit.

The bloody sacrifices of brain and body that have gone into building up an American governing class that has turned out to be as untrustworthy, incorrigibly rapacious, and utterly devoted to endless military aggression as has ours, in the age of Bush, makes for melancholic reflection. Unless you have strict periods in which you guillotine certain members of the ruling class to put the fear of God into them, they are useless -- apparently there is some pre-set program inside them that incites them, lemming like, to historic disasters. Perhaps it is the vast bad karma that floats up from all the cramped muscles, the boredom, the monkey-fying of the brain, the global effect of the system upon numberless bodies.

Two other grafs. This is after Sante’s description of working in the plastic factory:

“I was about to be sprung from my class status. My father worked in a factory, my parents owned a tiny house and a secondhand car, they were socially awkward and didn't speak very good English; I didn't really know what a rise in status would entail. I had no desire to work in finance or to join any clubs. All I knew was that I would be avoiding the sort of life to which my parents had been sentenced. Nevertheless, I referred to myself as working class, and was even more insistent about it in college, when I met kids from fancy backgrounds. This was partly in emulation of my proudly Socialist father, partly because I was an outsider in so many ways that I had no choice but to be defiant about it, and partly because it was 1972. Revolution, the great panacea of a few years earlier, had definitively been scratched, but hopes had not yet crumbled.

Neither had a certain romantic notion of the working class. The United States was famously supposed to be classless, of course, but then almost everybody knew better. In 1972 the working class (along with a few other more or less murky categories, such as 'street people' and 'our brothers and sisters in prison') was still being floated among middle-class would-be revolutionaries as an edifying model for imitation and as a permanent source of guilt. It was a bit complicated, because 'hard-hats', unassailably working class, had beaten up antiwar protesters on the streets of New York City and been hailed as pillars of the Silent Majority by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. But there remained the lingering aura of the Wobblies, of the miners' strikes and auto-workers' strikes of the 1930s, as well as a cascade of images from the Paris Commune and the October Revolution and the Long March. We imagined basking in the radiance of that aura when we wore our blue chambray shirts and listened to the MC5, not suspecting that within a decade or two so much of American industry would be exported or terminated. Then the remnants of the working class would either be handed neckties and told they were middle class, or forced into fast-food uniforms and told they didn't exist.”

Note: the website has accidentally reproduced Sante’s article twice. Read it.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Here lies the Coalheaver

Having fallen out of love with the daughters of Urthona, LI has been curious, lately, about this place. America: did it ever harbor the fine, high promise of lifting the man forged manacles of an artificial and perverting social necessity from the human soul – did we ever have territories to light out to, or was it all gamed from the get go? We decided that it was time to read Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine is a puzzle. We’ve been reading the American Crisis. Talk about your embedded reporter – Paine joined the Continental Troops in New Jersey and watched Howe’s troops march from New York City to Philadelphia, capturing the latter in 1777. As he puts it, beautifully, in the American Crisis, I:

'Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them. Britain has trembled like an ague at the report of a French fleet of flat-bottomed boats; and in the fourteenth [fifteenth] century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment! Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world. Many a disguised Tory has lately shown his head, that shall penitentially solemnize with curses the day on which Howe arrived upon the Delaware.”

Now that is language for you. If there is any use to polemics, it is that they aid the “mind growing through a crisis” – they record that experience in garish knife strokes grooved into the mind, so it glows through the posterior amnesia that we’d like to settle down over the pains and gaps of the past, over the sheer excessive loss, over our overwhelming stupidity. It is curious to think that Paine should know this so well in 1777 – or so well in 1776, when he wrote Common Sense. Paine, after all, was a very recent immigrant from England, and had, until then, made a series of blunders both in Thetford, the village in which he grew up, and London, to which he immigrated in the vain hope of promoting himself, which included a failed marriage, various failed businesses, and little formal education. How he got his voice and his conviction is a bit of a mystery – or at least, to us, the inheritors of the monuments of the privileged classes and their shills, insofar as working class cultural zones open and close in history and leave dark tracks outside the main course of it layed down for those who know how to see it, or want to see it. Not that there is a complete divergence – quite the contrary, at crucial moments the natural order of things is shaken by lumpen or working class energy all the way to the top. But the top has amazing powers of recuperation, generates amazing tentacular re-births, and has to be chopped into bits by every succeeding generation all over again.

At Thomas Paine org there is a set of online bios, including one by Robert Ingersoll and one by Thomas Alva Edison. Conway’s bio, done in 1890, is very quaint. In this passage, a working class cultural zone is briefly glimpsed. The twenty seven year old Paine moves to the small English village of Lewes to take a government position there:

"Paine" was an historic name in Lewes also. In 1688 two French refugees, William and Aaron Paine, came to the ancient town, and found there as much religious persecution as in France. It was directed chiefly against the Quakers. But when Thomas Paine went to dwell there the Quakers and the "powers that be" had reached a modus vivendi, and the new exciseman fixed his abode with a venerable Friend, Samuel Ollive, a tobacconist. The house then adjoined a Quaker meetinghouse, now a Unitarian chapel. It is a quaint house, always known and described as "the house with the monkey on it." The projecting roof is supported by a female nondescript rather more human than anthropoid. I was politely shown through the house by its occupant, Mr. Champion, and observed in the cellar traces of Samuel Ollive's -- afterward Paine's -- tobacco mill. The best room upstairs long bore on its wall "Tom Paine's study." The plaster has now flaked off, but the proprietor, Mr. Alfred Hammond, told me that he remembers it there in 1840. Not far from the house is the old mansion of the Shelleys, -- still called "The Shelleys," -- ancestors of a poet born with the "Rights of Man," and a child of Paine's revolution. And -- such are the moral zones and poles in every English town -- here in the graveyard of Jireh Chapel -- is the tomb of William Huntington S. S. [Sinner Saved] bearing this epitaph:

"Here lies the Coalheaver, beloved of God, but abhorred of men: the omniscient judge, at the grand assize, shall ratify and confirm that to the confusion of many thousands; for England and its metropolis shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. W. H : S. S."
While Paine was at Lewes this Hunt alias Huntington was a pious tramp in that part of England, well known to the police. Yet in his rubbish there is one realistic story of tramp-life which incidentally portrays an exciseman of the time. Huntington (born 1744), one of the eleven children of a day-laborer earning from seven to nine shillings a week in Kent, was sent by some friends to an infant school.

"And here I remember to have heard my mistress reprove me for something wrong, telling me that God Almighty took notice of children's sins. It stuck to my conscience a great while; and who this God Almighty could be I could not conjecture; and how he could know my sins without asking my mother I could not conceive. At that time there was a person named Godfrey, an exciseman in the town, a man of a stern and hard-favoured countenance, whom I took notice of for having a stick covered with figures, and an ink-bottle hanging at the button-hole of his coat. I imagined that man to be employed by God Almighty to take notice, and keep an account of children's sins; and once I got into the market-house, and watched him very narrowly, and found that he was always in a hurry by his walking so fast; and I thought he had need to hurry, as he must have a deal to do to find out all the sins of children. I watched him out of one shop into another, all about the town, and from that time eyed him as a most formidable being, and the greatest enemy I had in all the world."

I've seen that exciseman. He operates as a narc, a counter-terrorist agent, and an advisor to Donald Rumsfeld.

Paine obviously comes out of the same roots that brought forth William Blake – and Shelley.

LI will have more to say about him in another post.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...