Saturday, April 14, 2007

blasts from the past

Mike Davis has a new book out on the history of the car bomb. LI wanted to review this book, but we have fallen behind on our querying, and so … here it is April, and the book is already out there.

But lucky internauts don’t have to spend no stinking money nowadays to get to the heart of the heart of it. Davis spun the book out of two articles he posted with Tom’s Dispatch, here and here.

Davis is ragpicking history here – but what rags! His conceit – that the car bomb is the poor man’s bomber airplane – is one of those immediately clarifying images – especially for those who are familiar with Sven Lindquvist’s oneiric history of air bombing. Lindqvist did a lot of vampirehunting through the vaults in his book, ranging through the dream images of literature as well as the newspapers, the military reports, the testimonies. He grasps the idea that the war culture is not just found on the battlefield:

“In an illustration in Jules Verne's The Flight of Engineer Roburs (1886), the airship glides majestically over Paris, the capital of Europe. Powerful searchlights shine on the waters of the Seine, over the quays, bridges, and facades. Astonished but unperturbed, the people gaze up into the sky, amazed at the unusual sight but without fear, without feeling the need to seek cover. In the next illustration the airship floats just as majestically and inaccessibly over Africa. But here it is not a matter merely of illumination. Here the engineer intervenes in the events on the ground. With the natural authority assumed by the civilized to police the savage, he stops a crime from taking place. The airship's weapons come into play, and death and destruction rain down on the black criminals, who, screaming in terror, try to escape the murderous fire.”

That sense of who get blasted and who doesn't, that divide into acceptable and unacceptable victims, is of course still the flowsheet of our history, and its miseries.

America has always tried to be first with the weaponry, and if the poor men use car bombs, by Jihad, we are going to use them too! So, as Davis points out, we began to sponsor them in Lebanon, against Hezbollah:

“Gunboat diplomacy had been defeated by car bombs in Lebanon, but the Reagan administration and, above all, CIA Director William Casey were left thirsting for revenge against Hezbollah. "Finally in 1985," according to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward in Veil, his book on Casey's career, "he worked out with the Saudis a plan to use a car bomb to kill [Hezbollah leader] Sheikh Fadlallah who they determined was one of the people behind, not only the Marine barracks, but was involved in the taking of American hostages in Beirut… It was Casey on his own, saying, ‘I‘m going to solve the big problem by essentially getting tougher or as tough as the terrorists in using their weapon -- the car bomb.'"

The CIA's own operatives, however, proved incapable of carrying out the bombing, so Casey subcontracted the operation to Lebanese agents led by a former British SAS officer and financed by Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar. In March 1984, a large car bomb was detonated about 50 yards from Sheikh Fadlallah's house in Bir El-Abed, a crowded Shiite neighborhood in southern Beirut. The sheikh wasn't harmed, but 80 innocent neighbors and passersby were killed and 200 wounded. Fadlallah immediately had a huge "MADE IN USA" banner hung across the shattered street, while Hezbollah returned tit for tat in September when a suicide truck driver managed to break through the supposedly impregnable perimeter defenses of the new U.S. embassy in eastern (Christian) Beirut, killing 23 employees and visitors.”

But Lebanon was much too complex a field for the U.S. to operate in with any assurance. In the 80s, the golden era in which uncle sam’s cartoon heroes took on the evil empire and invented the forms that would later be used by Al qaeda to attack the U.S., all the shit gravitated to Afghanistan. We already know that the U.S. and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia set up the international network to shuffle around men and money that is with us today, and that will no doubt be used when the U.S. or the U.K. or France or Denmark or wherever is attacked again. What fascinates Davis is the way the CIA – probably in a peek moment, a blue orgasm of deep ops – actually spread the technology of car bombing:

“U.S. Special Forces experts would now provide high-tech explosives and teach state-of-the-art sabotage techniques, including the fabrication of ANFO (ammonium nitrate-fuel oil) car bombs, to Pakistani intelligence service (or ISI) officers under the command of Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf. These officers, in turn, would tutor thousands of Afghan and foreign mujahedin, including the future cadre of al-Qaeda, in scores of training camps financed by the Saudis. "Under ISI direction," Coll writes, "the mujahedin received training and malleable explosives to mount car-bomb and even camel-bomb attacks in Soviet-occupied cities, usually designed to kill Soviet soldiers and commanders. Casey endorsed these despite the qualms of some CIA career officers."

Pynchon's novel, Against the Day, features Webb Traverse, a dynamite addict from the old mine wars back in the Rockies in the nineties - wars of the owners against the unions - who gets lost in the arcana of dynamite - for, as is usual in Pynchon, matter at the deeper levels is not physical so much as gnostic. Webb and his Finn buddy Veikko celebrate new years, 1899 with a little home anarchy, attaching fuses to a railroad bridge:

"Four closely set blasts, cracks in the fabric of air and time, merciless, bonestrumming. Breathing seemed beside the point. Rising dirt yellow clouds full of wood splinters, no wind to blow them anyplace. Track and trusswork went sagging into the arroyo.

Webb and Veikko watched across a meadow of larkspur and Indian paint brush, and behind them a little creek rushed down the hillside. "Seen worse," Webb nodded after a while.

"Was beautiful! what do you want the end of the world?"
"Sufficient unto the day," Webb shrugged. "Course."
Veikko was pouring vodka. "Happy fourth of July, Webb."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oraison funebre for Kurt Vonnegut

The old men are dying in a sordid time. They trooped off at 19, 20, 21, and saw something form that they spent their lifetimes trying to understand – they saw the synthesis between affluence and war, they saw the latest and maybe last form of the war culture that had risen up on its immense hind legs long before then and before Goya saw it from the rear and painted it and before it was lamented by Jeremiah and that had grown to niche in the sea, the land and the air, they saw the war which we eat in our bread and drink in our tap water today, that educated the kids in suburban schools and spread the suburbs out on the off chance that there would be survivors on the tenth circle, the twelfth circle, the twentieth circle out from ground zero. They saw the multiple shapes of the same worldwide system of production, called, for a while, communism and capitalism, battling it out but in fundamental agreement about sucking the earth dry on the short time horizon – here, destroying Lake Aral, there, mining to death the great Ogallala aquifer, growing cotton where even the devil never intended it to grow, promoting the usurpation of corn above all the grasses and fruits and vegetables of the world, monoculture without end. They woke up in the sixties, as America was attacking a place in Southeast Asia with all its might to protect a fictitious sovereignty and a mockery of democracy. They knew this was out of Conrad:

“Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech -- and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives -- he called them enemies! -- hidden out of sight somewhere.”

They all knew the kill ratios had improved considerably since then.

Vonnegut. James Jones. Mailer. Vidal. Styron. The poets of course have died a long time ago, because poets, before they were taken up in the great mother ship of the university and never heard from again, couldn’t stand it. Lowell didn’t go anyway – a conscientious objector, spent the war in jail.

Since world war two, has there ever been a more sordid decade to die in? There have been much more murderous ones, of course: the sixties and seventies, with the CIA sponsored mass murder in Indonesia, the U.S. army’s mass murder in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, Mao’s insane boxer rebellion Marxism starving the countryside, the tilt towards Pakistan heralding another half a million dead in Bangladesh (their bodies are stacked high in Midnight’s Children), Biafra (about which Vonnegut wrote a beautiful, despairing essay), and etcs. that have faded into that portable mass grave, the encyclopedia. But every decade has also had its power and its glory, and the murders always did seem, at least, to be getting us somewhere. Like the iron filings on a paper sheet lining up to represent the mysteriously beautiful field of force of the magnet beneath, the cadavres seemed to promise a pattern. But this decade? Never have the children been better behaved, never has the credit flowed so headily, never have the fathers so set our teeth on edge – not even with lies, for lies do require some backing plausibility, some reason to believe them. The collective collapse of a civilization can be measured by the effort it puts into believing the lies it fabricates: this civilization puts no effort into believing them, and every effort into fabricating them.

So: it is a sad thing to die in the reign of the Fisher King, Jr.
Sadly, sadly and nobly, the old men have roused themselves. They’ve squawked – since they can no longer bellow, the steer musculature for the bellow hangs precariously on their bones now – that this is something new. The war culture, whatever it did, wore a head. The head was a metal box with wires in it; the head came to a sharp point at the end, and at the base it had metal fins; the head was a mushroom cloud. But it was a head. The new thing is that there is no head there. This was definitely a new avatar of the alien.

Kurt Vonnegut, of course, rose through the ranks in a much different way than, say, Mailer, or Vidal. He came through genre, while they eventually fell, at least intermittently, back on it. What Vonnegut did was find a way to write what Musil called the essayistic novel – the novel that finds a living place, one with a scene, characters, a plot, for the essay, which is not philosophy insofar as the thoughts still have a skin warmth to them. They haven’t been thrust far enough from the body that thought them to take on that icy, abstract cool. He was a less pure novelist, in that sense, than Philip Dick, closer to someone like Calvino – or like the Twain of the 1890s, who often floundered to combine the message and the accoutrements of the prank. There was always a practical joke at the center of Twain’s fiction – but Vonnegut’s was only a practical joke once removed, as a metaphor. Twain never experienced anything like the WWII. He saw the country of his childhood rot in the gilded age, watched the trusts make corruption decorous, and found he could neither swallow nor spit out the poison in his children’s deaths. Vonnegut’s beginnings were, famously, less blessed. He survived the firebombing of Dresden – as did another now famous literary figure, Victor Klemperer. Fire responds to fire – the fire that destroyed Dresden on February 13, 1945 was of the same flame as that which destroyed Dresden’s synagogue on the night of 9 November 1938, even though the happy German crowd in 1938, entertained by the torching and the fortuitous torture of a Jewish teacher, forced to bow to the crowd and take off his hat, couldn’t see the obvious message in those flames. What power, high on its arrogance and so indebted to its power that it can only up the ante, ever has?

Vonnegut subtitled his most famous novel ‘The Children’s Crusade”, and the way it got that subtitle is incorporated into the book in the first chapter, when Vonnegut goes to visit his ‘war buddy’, Bernard V. O'Hare, and discovers that O’Hare’s wife doesn’t like him. And then she tells him why:

“Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. "You were just babies then!" she said.
"What?" I said.
"You were just babies in the war -- like the ones upstairs!"
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
"But you're not going to write it that way, are you." This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.
"I -- I don't know," I said.
"Well, I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
* * *
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: "Mary," I said, "I don't think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll call it 'The Children's Crusade.' "

Kurt Vonnegut did as much as he could to take the piss out of the ‘glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men’. He lived to see their children set fires that call to other fires in the future, fire to fire. News of his death comes on the same day that the Pentagon announced “that most active duty Army units now in Iraq and Afghanistan and those sent in the future would serve 15-month tours, three months longer than the standard one-year tour.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

the wiring diagram of scandal: Imus

Instead of the post I had planned, about European savages and the Heart of Darkness, this seems to be an editing day. Besides, there is much more interest, apparently, among my disgruntled readership, about Imus. Disgruntled at me, LI, for making my fine media analysis of this scandal! Questioning LI's media chops and novelistic sensibility!

Scandals and outrages have a wiring diagram, a simply path between connectors, and you simply have to plug the wire in according to the scandalized object. Is it, as in Imus' case, race and sex? We know how first there is the denial, then the trivialization, then grief, then anger, until finally we reach the normal equilibrium of self righteousness. In this case my two commentators, Northanger and Patrick, think I am off the track, here. Instead of continuing that thread on the subversive post, I'm putting up this one, with the nice picture of Mme Castiglione, Napoleon III's mistress, and an Italian spy, and a very strange partner in one of the more interesting series of photos to come out of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, if you want even more sexism, this time covered in a tasteful sprinkling of science factoids, check out Nicholas Wade's Time article here.

Congrats, LP

Congratulations to my friend on the Lumpenprofessoriat blog for getting tenure!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Some cold words about war

LI has noticed a very American thing in the papers: an unconscious reversal of one of the benchmarks of the Bush escalation. The pro-war people and the anti-war people are seemingly agreed that one of the benchmarks of the success of the escalation is a downturn in American casualties. This is … wrong. And very typical of the struggle for the soul of the American war machine since Grant and McClellan’s day – I refer you to various tiresome posts I’ve made on this point. The number of American soldiers killed per diem since American forces concentrated in Baghdad has gone up. But – and here is the sick thing about war – it has gone up way too little, if what the Americans really intend to do is pacify Iraq. This points to the central flaw of the American strategy - it refuses to confront violence on every front in Iraq, but allows the carriers of violence elbowroom in which to operate. You often see hawks bemoaning the 'restrictions' on the American military. Just let em go! Except that the increase in American casualties is what would inevitably result, no matter what other consequences one would see. When Americans start seeing sixty soldiers killed per diem, as in Vietnam, the hawk dream would truly be over. The Bush idea - all war, no sacrifice - is founded in a pile of deep, smelly shit, and would quickly be exposed as such if the Bushies actually went for real war - and thus, real sacrifice.

The Petraeus strategy is nothing more than pork and beans counter-insurgency. This means, in some ways, shedding the defensive sheathe within which the American military operates. American military technology has always been a straddle between the McClellan pole – affording maximum protection to American life and limb – and the Grant pole – visiting excess devastation on the enemy, no matter what the cost in American lives. The logical end result of the dialectic is in such things as the firebombing of Japan, one of the greatest war crimes ever committed. This was justified, by all concerned, as a way of saving American lives. By establishing that as a standard, one can, of course, justify unlimited and unregulated warfare. The McClellan-Grant dialectic is, obviously, a subset of the dialectic of vulnerability that is at the heart of the American war culture.

However, wars are unlike bowling, in that there is no machine to exactly place and line up your pins. Going into war with a rigid set of parameters, Americans will be placed at a disadvantage if the war does not conform to those set of parameters. This is why, back in 2004, when great military minds like Christopher Hitchens (ho ho ho) were mewling on about how America can’t lose the war in Iraq, militarily, they were talking out of their assholes. In the same way the same position, voiced about the Vietnam war, long ago, was also pointless shit. Wars aren’t defined by what the American military can do best – they are self-defined. There isn’t an arbitrary divide that allows one to divide the political and the military in a war, as opposed to a war game. War games have no casualties, and cost very little. Wars have casualties and, the way Americans fight them, cost a lot. Cost is a time line – credit always comes with a clock inside it, ticking away. When you read military men saying, in some Washington Post article, that the war will last for another five years, you are hearing military men saying, we lost the war. It’s over with. Another five years, at current costs, would be well over 700 billion dollars. Against this, the insurgents and the militias are going to spend, tops, maybe 500 million dollars. That is the huge insurgent advantage when facing a better equipped army that can neither sluff off that equipment – thus, perhaps, extending its time of action, at the expense of dramatically inflating its casualty figures – nor unleash the weaponry it has spent the most on.

Oh, fuck it. I’m gonna quote myself. This is my post from February 13, 2003 – from before the war. I think it stands up pretty well:

"A few days ago we mentioned McClellan and Grant as the two poles of the American attitude towards war. The more we've mulled over this point, the more we think there is a tasty essay here. The point is simple. Empires persist because of a willingness of the citizens of the empire to endure a certain constant level of casualties in the course of maintaining the empire. If we take the British empire, for instance, its expansion through numerous small wars in the nineteenth century was made possible, at home, because of a willingness to sanction an annual tribute of British lives to the ideal of maintaining and expanding the empire in India, Central Asia, and Africa. From the Sepoy Mutiny to the Boer War, this willingness was often tested, and rarely provoked the kind of backlash that would rein in the imperial ambitions of the British Government.

In contrast, the United States did not seek that kind of empire. Briefly, the U.S. embarked on an expansion at the turn of the century, but in comparison to the French, the British, and even the Germans, the American effort was relatively minor. A recent book by a Wall Street Journal writer, Max Boot, documents the many small wars that America has engaged in to shore up the idea that Empire is, indeed, in the American grain. However, more significant is the rarity of any long-term occupation resulting from those wars. Occupation means more than soldiers being stationed in a place -- it means the gradual transfer of a whole administrative apparatus. This was the backbone of the British empire, but only the Phillipines, and, briefly, Cuba, tempted the Americans to do likewise. There's a reason for that: while Americans have traditionally shyed away from situations that involve attrition over the long term. It is that reflex which dooms the imperial project.

It is not that Americans are averse to bloodshed. While the British were constructing their empire out of multitudinous border wars, Americans did endure, in the Civil War, violence of a much more concentrated and horrific kind. And in the twentieth century, the U.S. engagement in World War I and II also saw committment to wars which were comparable, in terms of casualties, to any of the participants. However, I think the pattern of American behavior is more normally represented by the Korean and Vietnam war. In both wars, the reality of high casualties and the expectation that optimal victory would exact more of the same had a determining effect on the American conduct of the war. General Westmoreland once said, famously, that more American lives were lost on the highways during the sixties than were lost in the Vietnam war. This was taken, and should be taken, to be a callous statement. Nevertheless, the callousness it reflects is necessary for any sustained imperial effort. There are no painless empires.

This American pattern is often ignored by American policy makers. The latest example is the kind of ambitious policy in the Middle East being promoted by the circle around Paul Wolfiwitz. According to this circle, America is, in reality, an empire. So using that imperial power, we can remake social and political situations that we don't like in our image. The language of empire now fills our foreign policy journals, as well as conservative weeklies. The opposition to the Bush administration's aggressive plans in the Middle East has concentrated mainly on the cost of war in the narrow sense -- the cost, that is, of invading and defeating Iraq. However, the real question is about the cost of the war in the larger sense -- the cost of exposing an occupying force to the constant attrition of a guerilla war, and to the unexpected violence of factional conflict. This is where the imperial model has failed in the recent past, from Saigon to Somalia. Empires require some legitimation that goes beyond the mere aggrandizement of power. Americans have never accepted any legitimation, over the long run, except national defense. Neither glory nor ideology have garnered American support for a war.

To explain the paradox of American power -- that combination of a high level of military spending with a low level of acceptable risk -- I believe this, it is useful to use McClellan and Grant to represent the two poles of the American dialectic. Both McClellan and Grant started from the same premise: the prerequisite to fighting a war was amassing a force disproportionately greater than the enemy's. However, while the strategic premise was the same, the tactics were much different. McClellan Civil War career has become infamous for the chances he refused to take. He was tender for the lives of his men. It was a this caution that doomed his Virginia campaign of 1862. As one private wrote, "We are at a loss to imagine whether this is strategy or defeat." (Gallagher)

Grant's tactics were very different. He used the advantage of a more numerous army to raise the level of casualties he would accept. This made it possible to continue inflicting casualties on the enemy in a more prolonged way than was ever seen before, in the campaign. The general stress broke the army of Northern Virginia. It is easy to forget that Grant's ultimate success was preceded by general shock at the the bloodletting he was prepared to countenance -- a shock that so shook the Union side that Lincoln, in the middle of the election campaign of 1864, thought he was going to lose. Grant's position was made plain in a telegram Sherman, with whom he was in perfect agreement, sent to Halleck, one of the incompetent Union commanders, after Vicksburg:

``War is upon us, none can deny it. It is not the choice of the Government of the United States, but of a faction; the Government was forced to accept the issue, or to submit to a degradation fatal and disgraceful to all the inhabitants. In accepting war, it should be `pure and simple' as applied to the belligerents. I would keep it so, till all traces of the war are effaced; till those who appealed to it are sick and tired of it, and come to the emblem of our nation, and sue for peace. I would not coax them, or even meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it....

This is the kind of language spoken by legendary American commanders, like Sherman, Grant, Patton and Macarthur. The words are stirring. We shouldn't be deluded, however, into thinking that the feelings are typical. McClellan's caution has never been submerged by Grant's boldness in the mix of American foreign policy and military strategy. In fact, it is the McClellan pole that drives the fundamental US military strategy of the moment: replacing the manpower of battle with military technology. The goal is to achieve Grant's objective with McClellan's tenderness for American life. This works in the case of those military engagements that can be decided solely by weaponry. However, occupation is, by definition, not one of those strategies. In fact, by raising the optimistic vision of a bloodless (at least for our side) war, it prepares the guerillas advantage -- blows struck against the occupying forces will be illogically magnified because they are judged against the background of a military technical utopia.

The best argument against the imperial design of the Wolfiwitzes is to appeal to the reality of this American pattern, in which the cost of an enterprise is judged rigidly against the benefit it brings. The benefit brought by regime change in Iraq is obvious -- but the benefit wrought by invading and occupying Iraq is not. The landscape, as it appears to D.C. foreign policy honchos, is one of overwhelming American power. But the landscape since 9/11 has changed. Guerillas may not possess nuclear missiles, but they can forge the weapons of mass destruction out of boxcutters and American airliners. in treating Iraq as though it were merely a problem amenable to a Grant-like solution, we are putting ourselves into a situation in which all alternatives are impalatable. Assuming that 9/11, and the suicide bombers in Israel, are omens of things to come, the occupying U.S. forces in Iraq will be subject to the constant low attrition of guerilla warfare, with its morale breaking concomitants: a desire to strike blows against a dispersed enemy driving general dispersed acts of mayhem against the native population, which in turn creates mutual distrust between American forces and the native population, which in turn creates a gap between the ostensible reasons for the American presence (that they somehow 'represent' the aspirations of the native people) and the reality of it. Bush is edging into a situation in which the choices will be an unacceptable withdrawal from Iraq, and an unacceptable occupation of Iraq.

This situation should look familiar. It is Vietnam.

Monday, April 09, 2007

eureka! LI figures out what has been bugging us about the term 'subversive'

It struck me today that I was on the wrong track.

I’ve been searching for some use of subversive in art or literary criticism in the 19th century. And I have found texts that are about things that I associate with subversion – for instance, many, many texts about overturning conventions and rules in painting, poetry, fiction. And I have been doing what seems natural - grouping them together, looking for the subversive theme, style, attitude. Yet the actual use of the word subversive is lacking. That isn't a big deal, but it was available. It was certainly as there for Baudelaire or for Delacroix as for me. Yet ... the first use of it in the modern sense that I’ve found, so far, is from a Lionel Trilling essay in the 30s.

And then it struck me: I was not seeing the blank where the blank was. To see a blank is not always the easiest thing. Especially when you are vampire hunting in the vaults of history. Artists, writers and critics wrote in the beginning of the 20th century wrote about revolutionary art. Or they wrote, under the influence of Zola, of experimental art. The blanks were filled in, but not the blank that I thought I was just so naturally filling in. Today, you can find a thousand titles referring to the ‘subversive tradition in Spanish renaissance poetry”, or the ‘subversive Shakespeare,’ but oddly, none of those titles actually quote uses of subversive by the poets or playwrights they are analyzing. Rather, our modern day academic uses the word ‘subversive’, unconsciously, as an instrument, without worrying too much about when it was invented. But LI has been worrying about when it was invented, when it became such a critical commonplace. Thinking about it as competing with experiment and revolution is actually very clarifying. Experiment, linked to modernism by every bond, seems not to enjoy the prestige it once enjoyed. And revolutionary? Nobody is writing about, say, the revolutionary tradition in Spanish Renaissance poetry. Why? because revolution has a bolder profile that would call for some self-consciousness. Delacroix painted the revolution of 1830. When Russian futurists wrote manifestos back in the 1920s, they didn’t call for a subversive literature – they called, explicitly, for a revolutionary one. But who among all of these writers called for a subversive art?

Which makes LI suspect that the normalization of subversion as a critical category is not linked to the rise of feminism, or gay studies, or post-colonialism – but is linked, much more interestingly, to the post 1968 loss of faith in revolution. This has a jarring effect on my sense of the politics of ‘subversive’.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

what is that noise of creeping and crawling in the family vault

It is difficult for us in such a short space of time to get together all the reflections which a work of this nature naturally gives birth to; we can only lament here publicly on the kind of frenzy which seems to agitate these turbulent spirits that the love of liberty and independence carries into excesses, and which makes them envision happiness in the subversion of all rules, of all principles, and in the destruction even of those laws that up to now have been the security of the proprieties not only of the family, but of the person and even of the sovereign

--- The warrant [arrêt] for the pamphlet, the Inconveniencies of feudal rights by Pierre Francois Boncerf, which was burned in Paris in 1776. Boncerf was a lawyer, the clerk of the great physiocrat, Turgot, and his pamphlet was directed against serfdom on economic grounds – a small moment in the Great Transformation of the European economy.

LI feels like we have distinctly advanced on this whole subversive festuche and debauch we’ve got going. It is definitely a step forward to look at it in terms of insiders and outsiders, as per our last post on the subject, even though subversion doesn’t originally – that is, when the word starts appearing in the sixteenth century - locate the inverting force it denotes. What we are looking for is the souterrain of history in which a word finds its connotative field. Criticism is a sport like vampire hunting, one has to be willing to get down in the vaults, open up boxes that have been closed for centuries, breathe a miasmatic air.

So we see how subversion is used in a judicial sense by the police in the year Adam Smith wrote the Declaration of Independence. Or something like that. Like the wind that ‘subverted’ John Evelyn’s trees in the late seventeen hundreds, Boncerf’s pamphlet aims at knocking down a system of proprieties. However, if we look at who Boncerf is, we get the picture of the semi-insider, a lawyer, Turgot’s secretary, a made young man. Boncerf, it turns out, is one of the physiocrats who, far from trying to subvert the public order, is a reformer intent on saving it. In his view, serfdom is an economic offense, just as liberty is about property – not the proprieties that bind it in. The insider/outsider is of a type that requires the most delicate handling. A type that the guardians of public order have to be especially vigilant about. Subversion often acts anonymously, it often acts secretly – or at least these are the connotations to which it is destined as it goes down the surveillance track. As it appears in legal documents and reports, as it functions in the courtroom and the newspapers. And as subversion, by being secret, can infiltrate the inside, the public order itself, as it steals the codes, the plans, the blueprints, the information, as it deforms the tramsmission of orders, spreads rumors, gossips, blackmails, then it has to be adapted to staying inside by the various devices used by the covert - becoming invisible, planting bugs, spying through keyholes, etc. The association with secrecy is formed in the police file, but it soon has a natural existence outside of the police file. So the question is: if the spirit of subversion makes the hop into the arts, will it use its history? Will it lay low, will it disguise itself?

Let’s now jump ahead to another subversive scene. This is from the report filed by Billaud-Varennes in 1794 to the Convention, on “the necessity of promoting the love of civic virtue by public celebrations…” Public celebrations – not least, executions – have certainly been promoted by the Jacobins. But 1794 is a reaction to the terror. So Billaud-Varennes looks back:

“We must confess that the delirium that took possession of some actors was shared by the authorities as well.

They had ordered the disappearance from all the old plays of the noble titles, to be replaced by the title of citizen; so well that in the place of duc, marquis, count or baron, one substituted the word citizen without even bothering with whether the change violated the rime or measure of the verse. The actors of the theater of the Republic avoided, as much as they could, these gross inconveniences, in making a little less ridiculous changes; but they were obliged to sacrifice all theatrical illusion for fear of losing an eye or an ear from ignorant sans-culottes, and one saw Greeks and Romans, Venetians, Gaulois appear on the stage with the national colors; the women themselves were not exempt from this absurd subjection, and Phedre did not declare her flame for Hippolyte but with a chest ornamented with a large tricolor cocard. But the spirit of subversion did not limit itself to revolutionizing the theatrical costume; one attacked the masterpieces. Even those tragedies that breathed the most ardent love of liberty and the strongest hatred for despotism were obliged to pass by a purifying scrutiny, and only obtained their certificate of civism after one had taken away some hundreds of lines, which were not apropos. How to suffer, for instance, that the death of Cesear was soiled by the counter-revolutionary discourse of that moderate, Anthony?”

The spirit of subversion in this moment was, indeed, the public order. The opposite of the secret is the bacchanal. The policeman's nightmare. It spreads, it infiltrates, the audience and the stage. One wonders about the aesthetic effect of this on the spectators – surely the prehistory of the absurd, of the revolts of the modernists, the dadaists, surrealists, etc, the whole dwindling tradition, has too much ignored performance? Because theater is live, and dies, the influence of performance on writers and artists before the movies is, LI thinks, probably very underestimated. The idea of putting on, say, Cid, with the substitution of “citizen” for any of the monikers of the nobility in the play, really makes it a wholly other play. The noble spirit of the classic plays is, for the contemporary spectator, wholly theatrical and make believe anyway, but this is the moment, in 1793, that made that presupposition possible – that in a sense cuts us off from classical theater forever.

It is time, I think, to jumpcut to Delacroix, Champfleury, Baudelaire, the Exhibition Universelle, and the phrase, “Le beau est toujours bizarre”.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...