Saturday, July 16, 2005

five hundred years of madness

There was a series of experiments on humans conducted in the twenties that would have warmed Dostoevsky’s heart. Warmed? Well, perhaps the temperature of that word is incorrect. Put it like this: these results would have cheered up the Underground Man.

The problem was a military one. How does a company of soldiers orient itself in the fog? The problem extended to orientation itself. My current fascination with McManus’ book on handedness turned me on to the experiments of one Asa A. Schaeffer of the University of Kansas. Schaeffer took advantage of Kansas’ outstanding trait – flatness, no trees. He put people in the driving seat in cars, blindfolded them, and had them drive straight. He blindfolded other subjects and had them swim, or walk. The results were reported “in a paper entitled Spiral Movement in Man,(Journal of Morphology and Physiology, Vol. 45,No I, March, 1928). He finds that whether walking, swimming, rowing a boat, or driving an automobile, the tendency of a blindfolded person is always to follow a spiral path.” Nature does not abhor a vacuum more than man abhors a straight path.

In a sense, this is the full horror of modernity – the massive imposition of straight paths on spiral seeking creatures. Skyscrapers, the prohibition of LSD, deadlines, formatting – it is all the subtlest of tortures that makes our lives intolerable. Man makes jam -- traffic jam -- out of the straight lines that the masters lay down for him. We long for the spiral. Dostoevsky knew this long ago, and so did Kafka.

According to McManus’ site:

“In the studies (Schaeffer, 1928; see Ludwig (1932 pp.327-330.), 57% of people turned to the right and 43% to the left, the size of the circles being surprisingly small, a diameter of about 18 metres when walking or swimming, and about 50 metres when driving. Ludwig speculates that one side is somewhat stronger than the other, and that the difference is accentuated as the person becomes tired, when walking or swimming (but not driving), accounting for the ever tightening spiral. Schaeffer (1931) also carried out studies of protozoa and found that in the majority of cases they spiralled to the right. Bracha et al., 1987. Slight turning tendencies can also be recognised in subjects wearing a backpack attached to a set of detectors, and suggest that slight noises to one side, or carrying a heavy object on one side can cause veering (Millar, 1999). A similar tendency of right handers to turn to the right can be seen in the stepping test used by Previc and Saucedo (Previc & Saucedo, 1992).”

So – take In the Penal Colony. Query: when the sentence is inscribed on the chest of the prisoner, is the handwriting to the left or the right? Perhaps the intolerable compromise of printing, with no handedness to the words at all, destroyed the whole mechanism of a rack in which, in his last throes, the human being tosses bodily to the right. The same disconnect between print and the spiral tending human probably makes this epoch of printed matter -- a short period, actually, starting in the 15th century -- ephemeral. The assault on the unconscious of us spiral tending writers and readers lo these many centuries is being repaired by the blessed illiteracy of eight hours of tv per day. I don't know if that is enough.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Some good things about our President

LI has often had harsh things to say about President Bush. But fairness requires that we also praise the President when he is right. Lately, we’ve been thinking that Bush must have received intelligence that Osama bin Laden is particularly vulnerable to humor. The man has several congenital diseases, and the frail system might shake itself mortally out of shape if subject to enough fits of laughter.

That explains much of the policy we are pursuing in Iraq, and throws a flickering light on the unexpected keenness of our Texan president, known for his pratfalls on bikes already. From class clown to strategy leader – such things can only happen in America. For instance, this story, from the Kurdish press, shows how cleverly Bush is pushing the “fatal joke” plan:

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa stating that the future Iraqi state will be called “The Islamic Federal Republic of Iraq.” On 10th of July, al-Sistani had issued another fatwa in which he stated, “The Iraqi constitution must not contradict with Islam.” Al-Sistani, who in the past has stated that he would not get involved in Iraqi politics, daily issues decisive fatwas on the way the Iraqi socio-political system is to be shaped, which has so far meant that al-Sistani has practically overridden the work of the committee that is responsible for producing the new Iraqi constitution. It has also been noted by observers that the Shiia bloc uses al-Sistani as, what has been termed, a “pressure-pump”. Whenever the Shiia bloc wants to impose an issue over the Iraqi Assembly and the Kurdish bloc, they request al-Sistani to issue a fatwa. As it is known, “Fatwas” are non-negotiable.”

And so 1700+ American soldiers have died, 15,000 have been wounded, 200 billion dollars has been doled out, 28-100,000 Iraqis have died so that we can proudly plant the Islamic Federal Republic in Mesopotamia. Good job, neo-cons. I suppose the root of our success, here, begins with the brilliant beginnings of our campaign, when we made secular democracy synonymous with a noted Middle Eastern fraud, Ahmed Chalabi. That ploy "failing" (as we knew it would), we then sealed the deal by supporting known car bombing terrorist Allawi as the next representative of all things secular. Of course, Allawi greenlighted our attempt to purge the Sunnis from participation in Iraq's political structure by razing Fallujah. Success followed success, although you would never know this from the press, who seem totally out of the loop as far as our higher strategy is concerned. Since then, all elements have converged as planned to make Iraq a showcase of Islamic fundamentalism – and to overthrow the risible physiology of the A.Q. leadership. Future historians will probably speculate about when Bush got the idea. Surely he watched Monty Python in his younger days, when he was serving in a unit in defense of the Gulf Coast. I'd guess he saw the skit about the killing joke, and it stuck in his mind. The minds of great scientists are mysteries, and Bush's mind is no different. Those who criticize his intelligence are simply fetishizing the verbal. That isn't how Bush stores up his mental material.

So, there you have it. Those who accuse this President of a disconnect from reality should connect the dots and smell the coffee. America is proud and strong today, and as we dot the map of the Middle East with more Islamic republics, we will be ever stronger and ever prouder.
My friend D. sent me a little CD the other day. It had the Rage against the Machine song on it, Killing in the Name of. D. is an old Metallica fan, from before they had an on-call psychoanalyst. Myself, I love noise, but I am not a metal person. I particularly hate the voices that a lot of metal music features, in which some singer has to assume the precise sound that would be made by the Cowardly Lion on meth – a fake monster voice, full of empty volume and scatchiness.

All of which gets me, by a detour, to today’s topic: La Salamandre and Nietzsche.

A couple of days ago I saw Alain Tanner’s La Salamandre. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It was made in 1971, and Tanner had obviously seen his Godard, his Antonioni. It has the political language of Godard, and it has the dissipative structure (minus beautiful dresses and garden parties among statuary) of Antonioni. But the political language – exchanged by two down and out writers, one of whom makes his real money as a part time house painter – is all quoting the quotation. In fact, in the 80s, when I was a grad student, this had come to be the default style. Language inspired, distantly, by Marx, or Adorno, bantered about and at the same time made into an elaborate in joke. Being taught how to analyze, with the old male elegance, the oppressive structures that one hadn’t a chance of overturning or gaining the slightest bit of power over. And the dissipative structure wasn’t about the vanishing of purpose so much as the omnipresence of impromptu – each character making things up, including jobs and ends, as he or she went along. There was, of course, a firm sense in La Salamandre that after the trente annees glorieuses a form of capitalist paradise had been established. But all the characters were well aware that this was a predator’s paradise, and they were prey.

The plot of the film is simple. A young woman, maybe twenty, is accused of shooting her uncle in the shoulder with his army rifle. The scene is set in Switzerland. Two writers are paid to write a screenplay for tv about this fait divers. Both writers sleep with Rosamunde, the woman, played by Bulle Ogier. Rosamunde is the name of a sylph, and Ogier’s face alternates between lighting up, beautifully, to show the sylph, and plunging into sallow and slack darkness, the sylph turned tree, or at least like the trees in Dante’s infernos, the bark over the suicide. Rosamunde had a wild hair in high school, then got jobs like the first one we see her doing: working on the assembly line in a sausage factory, holding the skins that are filled with sausage meat shot from a tube.

Rosamunde is prey. While the two writers have a certain intellectual distance from predator’s paradise, or at least pride themselves on it, Rosamunde is pure prey. And… and this is what I like … and she responds to being prey by quitting frequently and listening to the 1971 equivalent of metal. Just noise, although recorded without the modern technology. She bobs her head, turns up the record player of the juke box, becomes vacant.

That’s the prey deal. We can do little to deny the predators. They have the power to occupy our desires, our hours, our minds. Their photos, films, demands, schedules, signatures on our paychecks, politics and wars go on whether we want them to or not. But Rosamunde can choose to be invaded by noise.

Which is where I thought about Nietzsche. Particularly that Nietzschoid saying that lept from the page right onto the walls of innumerable public toilet walls: that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. There is a certain fate to grafitti, because that saying is all about shitting in a public toilet. That which doesn’t kill me isn’t what is outside me. It is what invades me. The site for the mythical invasion is just that encounter of the asshole and the public toilet plastic seat. The myth about getting disease here is really about something aberrant in this glitch in the system, since Americans are generally so careful about their hygiene. But let down your pants once and the Alien crawls right into your gut. That is what the predators do. The mimicry of that act, and the momentary release from it, is to fill oneself, to let oneself be invaded by noise. Rosamunde, nodding her head with a totally vacant look to the wordless electric guitar sounds, wrung my heart. This is, in a sense, what we do at LI. Every post is, essentially, noise. Meaningless noise, boom boom boom. But it brings a small relief, it produces a gap between invasions of the predators, who rule and who will always rule, with maximum greed, lust, and callousness the little paradise they’ve trapped us in. Their pictures, their politics, their celebrities, their gossip, their cars, their restaurants, their money, their businesses, their porno, their church, their gods,. their bozo leaders and bozo adulations. It is a joke to think that the prey will have any effect on this, but somehow every invasion – if I can choose it, if I can turn the volume up -- makes me feel stronger.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

L'affaire du collier

"Spoke to Rove on double super secret background for about two mins before he went on vacation ..." Cooper proceeded to spell out some guidance on a story that was beginning to roil Washington. He finished, "please don't source this to rove or even WH [White House]"

Some Time journalists have expressed concern that the company's decision could have a chilling effect on their relations with sources and could hinder their newsgathering efforts.

"We're very much worried about what kind of signal this sends," Ms. Tumulty said. In Washington, she added, "confidentiality is the lubricant of journalism."

In re the summer’s mini-Rove scandal: LI has been searching for historical parallels to write about Matt Cooper’s revealing email, as published by Newsweek. It throws a nice light on the mores of the press corps. This is how the sausage is packaged (incidentally, last night we saw Alain Tanner’s excellent film, La Salamandre (1971). So we have seen how sausage is really packaged). We all knew that most stories in the media peddle a pro-government, pro-corporationist agenda; but the question is, what do the puppets, ie the journalists, think they are doing? How does a corps that exudes such arriviste arrogance negotiate its own perpetual surrender? It takes a major event – for instance, being led into a war desired by a lobby in D.C. – to show us that the techniques that sell tickets to and toy spinoffs of The War of the Worlds are now routinely used to sell every war and policy lurch. It is a world of press releases, with the voice of the third person narrator in your average news story turning out to belong to somebody from the dread State or the dread Corporation or other of the infinite band of dimwits working the American hypno-zone. They have simple desires. They want to steal your money, kill your brothers and sisters, and erect a large tombstone over your every opportunity for joy. The journalist has the complicated but rewarding task to make this seem inevitable – as inevitable as seeing the latest movie or watching the latest tv show. Press criticism has become a lazy blogger past-time. The point of it, though, is to pluck out those moments of ersatz necessity and lay them bare in all their essential ridiculousness. Though it is true that murder and the destinies of nations are at stake, it is also true that fate, here, is operating in the comic mode.

Incidentally, a story about Rove in the NYT this morning ends in this appropriately lubricated manner: “A former official who has worked for Mr. Bush said: "This president is Mr. Alamo. He sees the hordes coming over the hill and he heads for the barricades. And not to raise a white flag."

Wow. Former official risks all to deliver world class flattery to former boss. Punishment: a three hundred per job on K Street. No wonder the NYT scribe guaranteed him anonymity. Just think – if there were more Cooper like surrenders of anonymous sources, we wouldn’t have such choice bits to thicken the stew of sycophancy and propaganda. Our very freedoms would be threatened.

PS -- Press auto-fellation watch:

This, from David Carr's review of In Cold Blood in today's NYT:

"Fame and all of its discontents were persistent obsessions for Capote, which might explain why he seemed willing to do almost anything to obtain them. While reporting "In Cold Blood," the masterwork that serves as the frame for both films, Capote told some lies to tell a truth. As such, he became an object lesson in how journalistic truth is told and obtained. It is easy to forget in the current context of journalists willing to go to jail to protect sources that much of the profession involves less noble imperatives."

PPS -- LI sometimes worries that our p.o.v. is so from Mars that we are separated, forever, from our fellow mooing herds of Americans. We too, wait in the slaughterhouse stockyard. But somehow, we don't have our little bovine head on straight. In any case, the views given above are reflected in this article in the NYObs by Christopher Lehman.

Monday, July 11, 2005

chiral up!

Lately, LI has been enjoying Chris McManus’ book Left Hand, Right Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures. We love an omnium gatherum, of which this is a superior instance. Also, handedness is naturally of interest to the philosophically minded. It comes as no surprise (although, actually, it did come as a surprise) that one of the great pioneers in the study of the problem of handedness was Immanuel Kant. Kant thought that the dispute over absolute or relative space – the dispute between Newton and Leibnitz – could be resolved by considering right and left. Kant was, as always, right (a word etymologically connected, as all handedness researchers assure us, to the superstitious reverence accorded to the right hand, just as superstition accords ill luck to the left – the left is “cack-handed”), although as always, he was also wrong.

In 1768, Kant wrote a little essay entitled Von dem ersten Grunde des Unterschiedes der Gegenden im Raum (usually translated as On the basis of differences between regions in space) about absolute and relative space. You will remember that Leibniz’ argument against absolute space capitalized on the anxiety caused by the loss of discernability – L.’s idea being that one region of absolute space would be absolutely identical to another. This would mess up the cosmic bookkeeping of God himself. Kant’s first theory about space (he changed his mind later, when he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason) sought to find the answer in the dispute between Newton and Leibniz in considering incongruent counterparts: the left hand and the right hand are the most “at hand” examples. The metaphysical dimension of the problem would be on the way to logical solution if we could find some fundamentally right handed spatial object – something asymmetrical to which all parties could refer.

Now, as McManus notes, the problem of transforming a one dimensional shape on a plane facing one way into its incongruent counterpart facing the other way has been solved by the trick of assuming another dimension, in which the first object can be flipped. What is the medium of that third dimension?

Remember, the argument is ultimately about discernability. Here’s how McManus puts it:

“If space could be described adequately in terms solely of the relationships between objects, as Leibniz…argued, then objects that are different could be distinguished by different interrelationships of their components. [in other words, the differences would be expressed by internal configuration -- LI]. … That, though, is not the case with my own right and left hand. All of the angles and lengths are the same in my two hands, yet still the hands are indisputably different. I cannot put my right glove on my left hand or my right shoe on my left foot [although I can try, as I discovered a few days ago, trying to put a right sandal on the left foot of the squirming two year old son of a friend of mine. The child, being an inveterate Kantian, baulked-LI]… For Kant, the conclusion is inescapable: there must be something against which right and left can be compared – and that could only be space itself: “Our considerations … make it clear that differences, and true differences at that, can be found in the constitution of bodies: these differences relate exclusively to absolute and original space.’ Even empty space must have some absolute structure against which it can be said that our right hand is not the same as our left.”

Kant’s paper has created a sub-industry. Pooley’s paper, here, defends the Leibniz-ian view, modified by contemporary physics, against Kant.

“I will side with most—although admittedly not all—philosophers in defending an account of incongruent counterparts according to which they are intrinsically identical.3 Moreover, I will defend a relational account of handedness according to which the difference between incongruent counterparts is grounded in their relations to each other and to other material objects. Kant thought that there were reasons to reject such an account. Initially he concluded that the difference between left and right hands did indeed come down to a difference in their relational attributes, but that these involved relations to “universal space as a unity” (Kant,
1992 [1768]: 365). Not long after reaching this conclusion, he also rejected this substantivalist account of handedness. Instead he now believed that the difference between incongruent counterparts was fundamentally incomprehensible: that it could only be grasped in perception, through a “pure intuition,” and not by any “characteristic marks intelligible to the mind through speech” (Kant, 1992 [1770]: 396).”

We will return to handedness in another post But we should include, here, the most wonderful bit of Kant’s essay. Like Condorcet and Locke, Kant liked the Enlightenment notion of an imaginary problem (which has become, as philosophers have grown into thinking of themselves as scientists without portfolio, into “thought experiments’). This is Kant’s

“ . . imagine that the first created thing was a human hand. That human
hand would have to be either a right hand or a left hand. The action of the creative cause in producing the one would have of necessity to be different from the action of the creative cause producing the counterpart.”

Has Borges somewhere taken up this absurdly beautiful idea? LI, at least, finds it ravishing, and would like to worship that unknown God that created, as his first magic trick in the as yet uncreated universe, a human hand.

Of course, this might actually have been God's first trick in all earnest -- given the handedness of the electrons.

dissociative politics

The Plame affair is a curious cultural relic. It revolves around an utterly revolting law that prevents the names of covert CIA operatives from being leaked. This unnecessary constraint on our civil liberties was passed in 1994, meaning that we somehow managed to trundle through the Cold War without it. The Alice in Wonderland aspect of the case begins with the law, which has suddenly become a sacred thing, next to the flag and motherhood, in the liberal ‘sphere. Taking down America’s imperial ambitions, or at least making them transparent, is never going to occur if the transparency is blocked by a trumpery law. Novak is an utterly ridiculous figure, in LI’s view, but we are glad he revealed the inner workings of this particular action. Far from being a traitor, actions like Novak’s are necessary if we are ever going to rein them in.

Laws like the non-disclosure law are not, however, ever about treason, but about court society. The exist in order to create vectors of blackmail and blackguardism. The second Alice in Wonderland aspect of the Plame case is that it shows us how American foreign policy – a thing of D.C. cabals – is enacted. Joseph Wilson might well have been the right man to send to Niger to check on the bogus yellow cake story, but it is nevertheless of high interest that his wife put in a word for him. Who does put in words for people in that place? Who puts in the word for Chalabi? Who put in the original word for Pearle? At least the investigation has opened up that mechanism a little, so that we can see springs operating against springs. There is a distressing American habit of respecting the governing class. The governing class in D.C. is no more respectable than it was in Byzantine courts – indeed, a lot less respectable. It consists of circus performers, praetorian guards, satyrs and whores. Unlike the Byzantine court, there is a lot less learning among them.

The third Alice in Wonderland thing is how journalism works through the blackmail vectors. Obviously, journalists are used as the knights for complicated in-fighting, whispering a little info here, spreading a little gossip there. Basically, journalism operates to weed out any bit of talent or dissent that appears to threaten the cabal form. Judy Miller’s role is particularly interesting, since she was basically an operative in Operation Lie mounted by the belligerents in 2002-2003. Diffusing information that the white house wanted diffused allowed her to play the game of then bouncing the information off the white house or the collection of neo-con eggheads and sycophants with White House connections.

Bringing us to the fourth Alice in Wonderland thing, the use of jail. LI has always wondered at the American addiction to jail. In our opinion, jail is properly the place for the few truly dangerous criminals – rapists, murderers – plus the occasional incorrigible robber. Mostly the people in jail should be under house arrest. There is, of course, no incentive for the purging of the jails, and every incentive to build more of them. We would support with all our Mighty Mouse powers a politician who proposed creating anti-jail incentives – for instance, tying one hundred fold increases in social welfare to increases in the jail population. But to jail everybody must go, it seems…

In Antonio D’amascio’s Goodbye Descartes, there is a story about a nineteenth century railroad worker who suffered a horrible accident that made neurological history. An iron rod, accidentally propelled by a mistimed explosion, entered his skull at such speed that it entirely left the head, exiting out of the top of the skull, and taking with it some frontal brain matter. The worker survived, but his personality was utterly changed. He became unable to understand goal oriented action. Or rather, he understood it intellectually, but he couldn’t incorporate himself into any larger plan. As D’Amasio puts it, he was dissociated, with his intellect disconnected from his pragmatic life.

Dissociation is a very good term for D.C. politics. Politics on this level is not about ideology – ideology is secondary. It is about the dissociation of power as its own goal. Judith Miller, Christopher Hitchens, CNN, Fox – they are all products of the dissociative form of governance we suffer under.

Since we are talking about jail, we must talk about another issue, however heavily it weighs on our heart. Yes, LI is terribly sad that Li’l Kim’s going to the slammer. Not that we are surprised. In the slammer’s terms, this was a slam dunk. But listen to Shut up bitch for the Queen Bee's response to her critics. Like the Elizabethan wits, Li'l Kim has taken the opportunity to make a little artistic use of an unfortunate predicament. But hasn't she always? Ah, women like Li'l Kim have wrought complete disaster on my heart forever. Why is it I treasure every tantrum and twist of mood? I don't know. And I don't care.

Kimberly, if you are out there, listen: Kit Marlowe was killed moving in similar circles to those of Ms. Bella Mafia, and he got 'a great reckoning in a small room", as Shakespeare said. It happened like this: so hapned, that at Detford, a little village about three miles distant from London, as he meant to stab with his ponyard one named Ingram, that had invited him thither to a feast, and was then playing at tables, he quickely perceyving it, so avoyded the thrust, that withall drawing out his dagger for his defence, hee stabd this Marlow into the eye, in such sort, that his braines comming out at the daggers point, hee shortlie after dyed."

Ingram? As you would expect, look for the man with dubious connections to the cops, down to a fake weapon laydown, rumors, and a skewed inquest. Then another Elizabethan, Ben Jonson, killed an actor with whom he'd previously been in prison, guy named Gabriel Spensor. You will appreciate that Spensor was murdered because he claimed that the Chamberlain's Men were better actors than the company Jonson preferred, the Admiral's Men. Shades of a certain incident for which you are playing the patsy.

So Kimberly -- if you need a prison correspondent, and this message in a blog bottle reaches you, write me at We won’t rat you out, take that as a solid fact. And since we have piss poor aim, our firearm skills aren’t gonna get you in trouble either. We will always be there for ya…

Ain’t no mountain hiiiiiiiiiiiigh enough
(shut up, bitch)

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...