Saturday, June 27, 2009

towards the republic of Cocagne

“Man is, of course, at home in history, but from your words one could infer that he is only a guest of nature’s as though there were a stone wall between nature and history. It seems to me that he is at home in both, but not dominant in either… In history man labours under the delusion that he is unhampered and free to do whatever he chooses. All this is the bitter trace of dualism which has long made us see double and waver between two optical illusions. Though dualism has long lost its crudeness, it lingers inconspicuously in our hearts. Our language, our fundamental conceptions, become natural out of habit and repetition, obstruct the truth. Had we not know, from the age of five, that history and nature are two different things, we would have no difficulty in understanding that the evolution of nature passes imperceptibly into the evolution of man, that these are two chapters of a single novel, two phases of a single process, far removed from one another at their perimeters, but very close at the centre.” (394)

Herzen was of a generation of Russian writers who all came under the influence of the romantic philosophers, Schelling and Hegel. In Herzen’s case, he undertook a long therapy after immersion in the romantics, with the goal of ridding himself of idealism of any kind. It is interesting to compare Herzen in this respect to Marx. The latter’s reading in 18th century materialism gave him the ground plan for countering idealism as a mode of historical understanding, even if Marx astutely understood that the old fashioned materialism, which had hardened in the shell of an outmoded sensualism, collapses as an explanation for society unless one can instill into it some dynamic. As all the world well knows, for this, he turned to Hegel’s dialectics. Herzen did not move towards materialism, which for him would have meant returning to the fashions of the court of Catherine the Great. Rather, he developed the idea of folding history into nature and nature into history, a thematic that has had a long life in Russian thought. Herzen was impressed by the Spinozan principle that existence was always extreme – that is, that there is no gradation in what exists, but that what exists exists on its extremest edge – and he incorporates this idea into his view of progress in history and the perfection of man. The result was that Herzen’s philosophy of nature and history contains a continual tension between the idea of the extreme – an idea that results of viewing politics in terms of the morphology of an organism, with no real normative dimension – and the organic metaphor, in which a society or movement grows old and weak, or, on the contrary, appears young and fresh. Only under the latter analogies was it possible to talk about progress and perfection. And, remember, Herzen was at the core a radical – he of course wanted to overthrow both the old order of autocracy and the new order of the bourgeoisie. Yet, here’s the rub: if we apply the rule that all that exists exists as much as it possibly can, there is, in fact, no weakness nor strength. There is, absolutely, no progress. Both the young and the old exist as much as they can exist. Only from the viewpoint of the young are the old weak, and only from the point of view of the old are the young strong.

What came of age in 1848 were the twin impulses of the French revolution, aptly summed up in one of those marvelous phrases that entered into the underhistory of Europe’s intellectual life, Danton’s statement about St. Just:
“Je n’aime pas cet extravagant. Il veut apporter à la France une république de Sparte, et c’est un république de Cocagne qu’il nous faut.”
It is a Republic of Cocagne that we need. And if, after all, material conditions make the man, why not? The task of perfection can be laid aside, indeed, as an extravagance… Fastforwarding to the Cold War era, the doctrine that perfection was pernicious became one of the ideological building blocks for anti-communism and the shadow of anti-communism, cast back all the way to 1793. For, by cleverly pretending that the old order and its atrocities never existed (and while the September massacres were trotted out by the Furet circle around Debats as often as possible, as crocodile tears were shed over the Vendee, not a peep was heard about Saint-Domingue, or about famine and massacre in the 1760s – just as the global sins of the capitalist order, the famines from Ireland to India, also disappeared at this time from the historical record, poof), one could easily pretend that virtue leads to totalitarianism. How much better to roll about in capitalist Cocagne!

ps- I ran across an anecdote in Marie d'Agoult's Histoire de la Revolution de 1848 that beautifully illustrates the contrast between Sparta and Cocagne. According to d'Agoult, when the King fled, the populace overran the palace. Later, crowds met the Royal Guard, who were confused as to what was going on. The crowd, having loosened up with wine, embraced the Guard. And amongst the crowd, there were people carrying spikes and bayonets - but unlike 1789, on these spikes and bayonets were impaled not the heads of royalist officers, but sides of ham and beef. The raid on the palace had concentrated particularly on the royal kitchens.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

note on the the calendar as a prison

There’s a certain magical attachment in history to years. A year serves not only as an organizing principle, but also as a spell – it gathers around itself a host of connotations, and soon comes to stand for those connotations. Yet, what would history be like if you knocked out the years, days, weeks, centuries? How would we show, for instance, change? In one sense, philosophical history does just that – it rejects the mathematical symbols of chronology as accidents of historical structure. These are the crutches of the historian, according to the philosophical historian. Instead, a philosophical history will find its before-after structure in the actual substance of history. In the case of the most famous philosophical history, Hegel’s, a before and after, a movement, is only given by the conceptual figures that arise and interact in themselves. To introduce a date, here, is to introduce a limit on the movement of the absolute. A limit which, moreover, from the side of the absolute, seems to be merely a superstition, the result of a ceremony of labeling founded on the arbitrary.

On the other hand, perhaps, under the mask of the arbitrary, there lurks the new, a moment of some kind that breaks absolutely with the absolute.

Now, in the case of understanding the history of the social meanings given to the passions, there are two opposite, guiding assumptions you can make. You can either assume that what is felt –affection, the feeling-mood, the emotion, whatever we are going to call this difficult feeling – is always the same - that is, there are no new emotions – and that what one is dealing with in the before-after framework is simply new codes or forms into which the emotions are coaxed. Or you can assume that an emotion can be new. The latter, you might think, is ruled out by neurology. I’d argue, however, that neurology can merely rely on mapping the brain according to the subject’s own interpretations of activity, and, in general, the emotional labels at hand for the neurologist. Here is where the term “mapping” is misleading – the mapmaker can easily map a new river or mountain or island – but the neurologist doesn’t have enough information to know what would be “new” about some neurological event. The neurologist can induce brain activity that he or she has never observed before, but whether this new activity is simply the way the brain has always operated, and is being observed now for the first time, or whether this is really new activity – we do not have enough of a concrete sense about the relationship between these brain activities and their cognitive or affective outputs to say. On the ordinary level, we are inclined to think that people can have new thoughts, but not new feelings. I can discover a truth about energy, but I can’t discover a new feeling that is a little like love and a little like sadness. Rather, I am just mixing together my primary emotions. Why should this be so, though?

In a history of the sentiments, or, rather, in most histories of the sentiments, what is at stake is not new emotions, or the extinction of old ones. Rather, it is on the level of the intersubjective, the level of the expression of emotion, that we find our changes, our before and afters. However, it is easy to shift from the intersubjective to the subjective – to speak, for instance, of love being “invented”. After all, the codes and forms in which emotion is expressed should have an influence on the persons who fall under these codes and forms.

By this route – by looking at how codes and forms gain the upper hand – we can return to chronology, we can snap together dates and doings. But it is always approximate, always relative to the domination, within a society, of codes and forms. And how those codes and forms displace others is not an easy story to tell, nor is it easy to confirm that these things are happening.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


After Louis Napoleon had finally crushed any hope for revolution in France, Herzen published a letter – which he included as his fourteenth letter in the Letters from France and Italy – in which he draws some conclusions about the morphology of revolution. Some of his observations seem particularly applicable to Iran – which is no surprise. As Herzen observed, revolution no longer has a definite place, but, like a drop of mercury in a heated pan, jumps from one place to another. I found this passage pertinent – as pertinent as a knife in the heart:

“It has at last fallen into ruin, that decrepit world which survived its own self [this sounds much better in French: Il s’est enfin écroulé, ce monde décrepit qui s’était survècu a lui même] , which dissolved itself, which divided into two opposing principles, clever world, which at last came to lying and the confusion of all ideas, to pussilanimous concessions, which was arrested before impossible combinations. Everything that this world had reconstructed of the past, everything that it had painted freshly on varnished wood, all the productions of its old age second childhood – all this has fallen into ruin like a house of cards. There are no more confused reticences sustaining false hopes. The black night that one awaited has come – we advance with small steps towards the morning.”

Herzen’s vision was cleared by being in exile from one decrepit world – my vision is clouded by being part of a world that is in the midst of surviving itself as it faces the consequences of its own impossible economic combinations, its consumer society feudalism. But my eyes are clear enough to see that perception does not bring into being the nature of things. The U.S. establishment has settled it among themselves that the reformers were aiming at Americanizing Iran; for the U.S. establishment firmly believes in the Americanization of our enemies, while quietly supporting the non-Americanization of our friends. Thus, the outpouring for the demonstrators who have been killed in Teheran and Isfahan, and the turning away from the inhabitants of Gaza who, a mere six months ago, were treated to a terror war and died in their hundreds. In its search for comments from the “Arab” world, the New York Times published a Syrian activist, Rime Allaf, who spoke the obvious:

“Images like the distressing video immortalizing Neda Agha-Soltan as she lay dying in Tehran, inexplicably murdered, have also triggered conflicting emotions and sad questions on whether she died in vain. With so many people not actively espousing the position of any side, reluctant to shake a status quo, which, for all its problems, remains safer than the alternatives seen from Iraq to Afghanistan, the burden of experience is heavy. Dissent of any kind — even mild civil disobedience — has been brutally repressed throughout the Arab world replete with its own religious rulings, kangaroo courts and sham elections.
To add insult to injury, not only has people’s self-determination never received the backing of the international community, it has also been suppressed with the blessing of the world’s superpowers, eager to keep friendly regimes in power.
This is perhaps why Arab reactions to Iranians’ turmoil have been somewhat subdued. If the Iranians are so strongly supported in their quest for freedom, they wonder, why have Arabs’ own struggles been ignored, their own suffering been dismissed and their own Nedas been nameless? Why were Arabs’ own cries invoking God incessantly reported, in English, as calls to “Allah” in a perceived attempt to further alienate them, as if they believed in a different god, while Iranian cries of “Allahu akbar” have been correctly translated as “God is great” and repeated in unison by twitterers around the world?
With the wounds of Israel’s war on Gaza still open, many Arabs are particularly stunned that the indifference with which Palestinians deaths were received has turned into an international solidarity campaign for Iranians throwing rocks at their oppressors and shouting “we have become Palestine.”

Just as Americans look for Americanization to end the tv show dramas of other people’s history, the left looks everywhere, now, to see its own image. It is the narcissism of a corpse. The first question of a healthy political movement is – how do we support emancipation? The first question of a sick political movement is: what do we, as a movement, feel about supporting emancipation? My own answer to that is: fuck you. Those who have to enroll their immediate responses to the world in some baroque and pointless schemata have deadened the very nerve of politics.

Who can predict what happens next in Iran? We see the absolute dark, but it is not us, not LI, who must make the small steps towards morning. In relation to the U.S., we stand as we have always stood: abolish the sanction regime, recognize reality. This step should have been taken in 1990 – by not taking it, the U.S. has stripped itself of credibility and the instruments that could support those having to take the small steps. The demonstrations were a blow against the corruption of the current Iranian regime, but also a blow against the monstrous mechanism that keep blindly at work in the Middle East, spinning oil into blood.

Amie sent me a video and a poem by Forough Farrokhzad: The Wind will carry us. She suggested I link it, in honor of Neda. The link contains the words of the poem, which begins:

“In my small night, ah
the wind has a date with the leaves of the trees
in my small night there is agony of destruction
do you hear the darkness blowing?
I look upon this bliss as a stranger
I am addicted to my despair.”

How many have become addicted to despair! Me, something hollers within. How about me! However, I looked around and found, as well, a more streetwise ballad by Kiosk, Eshgh e Sorat. It is pretty fantastic. The video was made by Ahmad Kiorastami, who talks a bit about it here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Where does a revolution happen?

-photo by Gilles Peress

One possibility is that it happens inside, in the spirits of the people. But this is a frustrating notion to the philosopher – as frustrating as it would be to a bank robber to be handed a safe with all the money in it, and no combination to open it.

As we noted with Georg Forster, the enlightenment project, which bound the governors to the governed through happiness, immediately creates a set of new problems. One of those problems is posed by the claim that the collective happiness was, indeed, achieved in the old order. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – strong indication that man prefers chains. Inequality, far from leading to happiness, is central to the way homo hierarchicus views the world.

But already the answer to the puzzle, here, had made its way into the enlightened progressive consciousness. The key was in human perfectibility. The old order’s original sin was in creating a system that forever blocked human perfectibility – and in this way, crushed the possibility of the future enjoyment of all of our qualities.

If we take this position, practically, then – the revolutionary says - we should strive to blow up the impediments to future delight. And if that means establishing, for a transitory moment, a political organization in which the governors, members of a revolutionary party, are incomparably more unequal to the governed, so be it. For only by a truly sudden blow can one penetrate into the heart where the chains are forged and stop it at this business. Centuries of ingrained comformism and submission must be liquidated.

But – if we are still philosophers – this solution leaves us uneasy. Not simply because of its betrayal of democracy, but rather, for its too easy assumption about interiority. It is here that Hoffmann’s stories, with their doppelgangers, have the effect of … making the political uncanny. Once granted that man projects, and one can imagine the extension of projection into the political sphere quite easily. That snarling little changeling, Little Zaches, might have gained his powers from a fairy and lost them to a magician – but his transit through the state parallels the career of many politicians. And, in fact, many political and economic systems have so learned to manipulate and broadcast projection, used the supposedly freeing techniques of enlightenment to devise ever cleverer chains, that the philosopher can sometimes spend all his or her time dodging – retreat to a perpetual round of critique.

Herzen, witness to the brief rise and ugly fall of the revolution of 1848 and a reader of the ‘reactionary’ Hoffmann, responds to these problems by splitting his responses, allocating roles in the series of monologues and dialogues that make up a book intended as a gift to the future – a gift to his son. Who, at the time of the writing, is too young to read. But when he could read – or, as we know actually happened, when Herzen’s daughter read, for his daughter was his real executor – was he or she supposed to know which side Herzen was on? Because the dialogues don’t place the reader in the easy position of seeing through the characters to Herzen’s side – the reporter, the doctor, the exile in the beginning dialogue, all seem to carry the author’s warmth; but that warmth also extends to the romantic, the woman who admires Rousseau, and to a certain tendency in the monologues that is anything but cool and diagnostic. There is a Hoffmann-esque zigzag here – a streak of Gogol in Herzen.

You think you know me
that's your trouble
Never fall in love with a body double... jamais

Sunday, June 21, 2009

of what is the statue guilty, your honor?

It's a wicked life, but what the hell
Everybody's got to eat

Around March 4, 1848, Alexandre Dumas wrote a public letter Emile de Girardin, the editor of the newspaper, The Press:

‘Yesterday, I walked across the court of the Louvre and I saw, with astonishment, that the statue of the duc D’Orleans was no longer on his pedestal.

I asked if it was the people who had knocked him over; they told me that it was the governor of the Louvre that had had him taken off.

Why this? From whence comes this prescription that digs into the graveyard?”

The Prince - the Duc D'Orleans - was a famously liberal patron of the arts. Among the artists he supported was Delacroix. He was a friend of Hugo and Dumas. And he'd fled with the rest of the royal court in February.

After recounting an anecdote about the disagreement between the Duc and the King, Dumas continues:

“The people, this people who are always just and intelligent, knew this like us, and, like us, understood it. You can go to the Tuilleries and see that the only rooms respected by the people are those of M. le duc d’Orleans; why thus be more severe than the people towards that poor prince, who has the happiness to no longer belong anywhere except to history?

The future is that block of marble that the events can chisel as they will; the past is that bronze statue tossed into the mould of eternity.

You cannot do anything against the man who no longer exists.”

Dumas ended with a flourish:
“The republic of 1848 is strong enough, I believe, to consecrate that sublime anomaly of a prince remaining standing on his pedestal in face of a royalty falling from the heights of its throne.” (Mes betes, p. 238 – my translation)

Freud supposedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But a statue is never just a statue – as is easily shown in world history. One easy way to tell if a revolution has arrived in a given place is: what is the casualty count of the statuary?

Dumas was a violent republican who tried to raise a troupe to go to Paris to support the workers. But, as he explains in My animals, his was a politics of temperament:

“Composed of a double element, aristocratic and popular - the former by my father, the latter by my mother – nobody other than me unites in such a high degree in a single heart the respectful admiration for all that is great, and the tender and profound sympathy for all who are badly off… I have a cult for those I have known and loved in misfortune, and I don’t forget them, unless they have since become powerful and happy; thus, no fallen grandeur passes before me that I don’t salute, and no merit extends its hand to me that I don’t shake it. It is when the whole world seems to have forgotten those who are no longer there that, like an importunate echo of the past, I cry their name outloud.” (239)

Modern political theory warns about nothing so consistently as it does against adventurism. According to the adventure-ist theory, one must be logical – and logic has no worse enemy than mercy, which is whimsical, and points to a whimsical attitude - an aristocratic attitude - towards the world. The political system can, according to this view, encounter and integrate chance - which is what an election is - but not whimsy. Chance, it should be said, is not pure chance, but chance as it has been determined by parties. Of course, the question that hovers over the whole political system is - where did the judges come from? the men of affairs? the ranks? the institutions? Track their courses, and - the adventurer might reply - one finds not an evolution from logical principles, but a concantination of chance pathways. Adventure is at the root of it.

From the adventurers point of view, it is not that the new governor's are finally condemning old vices in the symbolic personage of statues. Rather, they can't stand the cold, measured gaze of the past.

Herzen catches this dichotomy too – it is what makes From the Other Shore such a torn and tearing text. His analysis of what happened in 1848 is, as well, an analysis of the revolutionary consciousness – it is as if he is tracking the interior history of the spirit, and the exterior history of events. Dumas, traversing the court of the Louvre, sees immediately the horror that befalls a culture in which a bureaucrat, with a flick of a pen, can condemn a statue to death. Herzen sees the horror that can befall a person who cannot sign that death warrant:

“I shall make my way, a spiritual beggar, through the world, my childish hopes and adolescent aspirations uprooted. Let them all appear before the court of incorruptible reason.

Man houses a permanent revolutionary tribunal within himself, an implacable Fouquier-Tinville, and even a guillotine. Sometimes judges fall asleep, the guillotine rusts, the fals notions, outdated romantic and feeble, come to life and make themselves at home, when all of a sudden some terrific blow rouses the heedless judge and the dozing executioner, and then comes the savage retribution for the slightest concession, the slightest mercy or pity shown leads back to the past and leaves the chains intact.” (373)

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...