Saturday, April 30, 2011

cherchez the lobster 2

In 1763, according to Linda Hanas, John Spilsbury, a printer, began to sell an item he called the “dissected map” to children in London. Interestingly, Spilsbury had worked as an apprentice to Thomas Jeffreys, who bore the title of Geographer to the King. But though Spilsbury is generally credited as the first jigsaw puzzle maker, there are other candidates. However, as Ann Douglas Williams points out in her book on the history of the jigsaw puzzle, Marie-Jean Le Prince de Beaumont was using “wooden maps” to teach children in 1759, which gives her a priority. The name should ring a bell among LI readers – we have mentioned Le Prince de Beaumont and her connections to the proto-Enlightenment in Rouen in a previous post. That the author of Beauty and the Beast would see, in the map, a labyrinth, is an almost too beautiful intersigne of the connection between the mythic and the enlightened, the battle of the moderns versus the ancient and the discovery of the Volksmythologie. A folk mythology that was, as is always true of the Europe of the classical age, caught, as well, in the toils of a colonialist tension – for maps were colonial and imperial instruments, making rational labyrinths of imperial power out of blank wildernesses and their blank inhabitants, all the dead indians and africans.

But there is another intersigne here – for it is in the 1760s that Kant was writing his papers on space and orientation, culminating in his paper on incongruent counterparts – left and right hands, etc. – in Von dem ersten Grunde des Unterschiedes der Gegenden im Raume" – Of the basis of the differences of areas in space – which is when Kant ‘flipped’ sides and went from a relational and Leibnitzian view of space to the absolute view of Newton.

There was no instrumental optical revolution in the period between the 1760s and the 1820s, when Geoffroy proposed the law of analogies, but there was an intellectual optical change that recuperated the folk mythology of analogies into a structural system of homologies. This optical movement is characterized by its full acceptance of what one might call a clarifying distortion – only by means of cutting up a whole, or of positing changes in a fourth dimension, or of moving away from a view of up and down given by common sense, do we understand fundamental structures.

It is within the city, which combines the features of a jigsaw puzzle and the reconstructed skeleton of an extinct beast, do we get this new sense of what allegory can do – that is, we get a sense of how poetic allegory can merge with hard sociological fact.

It is on this basis that I think we can understand the diagonal science of Caillois, and the sort of allergy to analogy of Roland Barthes.

Friday, April 29, 2011

cherchez the lobster: modernist analogy

To discover the source of the philosophy of analogy in the 19th century, cherchez le homard.

In 1822, Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire published his General Considerations on Vertebrae in which he announced the law of analogies – that is, he announced that living beings could be considered to have analogous organs or organic plans when such organs or plans were connected according to the same order. To show this, he took the lobster as an example. When we consider the lobster’s body plan by imagining the beast horizontal to the ground, we get one sense of the order of those connections – but if we imagine them “swimming on their sides”, our dissection of the lobster shows that the order of its organs are analogous to those of vertebrates. This, in turn, shows that we have a false view of the how the lobster moves – if he moves in a way that seems, from our perspective, right side up, from the perspective of the ‘law of connections’ he is moving on his side. “What our law of connections demands absolutely is that all the organs, in the interior as well as the exterior of the animal, be in the same relations with regard to one another; but it is indifferent in itself that the cavity containing them lies on the ground by applying one or the other of its surfaces.”[translation in Hervé Le Guyader, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: a visionary naturalist]

Geoffry Saint-Hilaire’s law of connections – or law of analogues – entered into the mainstream of biology after being contested by Cuvier in a famous debate in 1830. On the one hand, within biology, his work was taken up by Robert Owen, who developed his own law of homology of body plans, taking it to be evidence for the history of connections between different species – a point that was picked up by Darwin - and on the other hand, the notion that you could manipulate an image to find analogies to other images was taken up by literature. Balzac thought that Saint-Hilaire’s laws could be applied to the Comedie Humaine, and gave him credit in his preface, from which I quote the Victorian translation:

“The idea originated in a comparison between Humanity and Animality.

It is a mistake to suppose that the great dispute which has lately
made a stir, between Cuvier and Geoffroi Saint-Hilaire, arose from a
scientific innovation. Unity of structure, under other names, had
occupied the greatest minds during the two previous centuries. As we
read the extraordinary writings of the mystics who studied the
sciences in their relation to infinity, such as Swedenborg, Saint-
Martin, and others, and the works of the greatest authors on Natural
History--Leibnitz, Buffon, Charles Bonnet, etc., we detect in the
”monads” of Leibnitz, in the “organic molecules” of Buffon, in the
”vegetative force” of Needham, in the correlation of similar organs of
Charles Bonnet--who in 1760 was so bold as to write, "Animals vegetate
as plants do"--we detect, I say, the rudiments of the great law of
Self for Self, which lies at the root of /Unity of Plan/. There is but
one Animal. The Creator works on a single model for every organized
being. "The Animal" is elementary, and takes its external form, or, to
be accurate, the differences in its form, from the environment in
which it is obliged to develop. Zoological species are the result of
these differences. The announcement and defence of this system, which
is indeed in harmony with our preconceived ideas of Divine Power, will
be the eternal glory of Geoffroi Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier's victorious
opponent on this point of higher science, whose triumph was hailed by
Goethe in the last article he wrote.”

Balzac assimilates Geoffroy’s discovery to the theme of physiology – the tableau of the city, or nation. Yet in fact the law of connections has a deeper poetic power, in that it wipes away the impression we gain unconsciously from our first degree analogies – for instance, that we know the upside and downside of a lobster by eye, having a sense that all creatures walk upright – by a deeper, dissecting vision to the connection of the organs underneath – which gives us body plans that we don’t recognize at first, such as the creature that walks on its side.

This vision is actually more pertinent to the way Balzac’s Human Comedy plays itself out, where the law of connections underneath appearances often propel the plots – plots that are the ‘Reverse side of History’. Balzac’s acknowledgment of Swedenborg is more pertinent to his achievement than the Enlightenment physiologies. As we know, it was also pertinent to Baudelaire’s theory of correspondences. In a letter to his friend, the Fourierist Alphonse Toussenel, Baudelaire wrote:

“I have said for a long time that the poet is sovereignly intelligent, that he is the supreme intelligence, - and that the imagination is the most scientific of faculties because it alone understands the universal analogie, or what a mystic would call correspondence.”

Baudelaire’s successor in the field of the law of connections is surely Mallarme. In Mallarme’s poem, “The demon of analogy”, the poet walks down the street imagining a wing gliding over a stringed instrument and the words “the penultimate is dead.” At a certain point, after playing with the words and then letting them ‘err’ upon his lips, he sees an image of his hand making a caressing motion, as though he were about to play the stringed instrument, reflected in a window, which, to his freshened gaze as he tears himself away from the toils of the line, reveals itself as the window of a shop selling old stringed instruments, which are hung up on the walls, and having, as a décor, potted palms scattered on the floor, under the branches of which old stuffed birds are displayed. “I fled, bizarre, a person condemned to bear, probably, the mourning for the inexplicable Penultimate” The image of the person fleeing from his mirrored semblable is heightened by the use of the word ‘personne’, which, of course, means nobody when used with the negation of the verb. The negation of the fleeing leaves us with the man and his image, a nobody, fleetingly impressed upon the shop of a seller of old instruments such as you may find down some crooked street in Paris. The doubles in this moment are such as one comes upon wandering the city street – such was Freud’s experience, related in his essay, The Uncanny.

Tomorrow, I will extend this meditation to Roger Caillois and Roland Barthes. Enough for the morning!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Freedom as a form of adventure

There is an overlap in the period of what Polanyi calls the Great Transformation – the period between the seventeenth and twentieth century – between various models of the modernization process. There is the theme of the liberal historians, taken up by Habermas in the sixties, that assigns to this period the creation of the bourgeois culture of sociability, which is identified with the schismogenesis of a private and public sphere; there is the theme articulated by Foucault that assigns to it the creation of the disciplinary society. And of course there is the Marxist analysis of it as the first epoch dominated by the capitalist mode of production, with all its cultural and political effects, from the creation of new class divisions to the establishment of new spaces and times – the space of the circulation of commodities, and the times - of abstract labor, of the turnover of commodity capital, etc. – in which whole populations begin to live.

There are other spheres that I would like to put into play here - for instance, the sphere of play, or entertainment, which seems to be shaped by the forces proposed by all three ways of seeing the 19th and 20th century; and similarly, the sphere of freedom, which – taking up Heine’s half serious suggestion, is not one thing, but something different according to radically different heuristics – an Anglosphere individualism, a Gallic equality, a Germanic utopia.

One of the tendencies of these explanatory models is to propose that all traditional usages and forms are purged, in modernity, to make room for building our iron cage. Myself, I hold, on the contrary, that the modernization process could not happen without a level of secondary elaboration in which traditional usages and practices come back. The weak ties are not broken, but they are stretched.

- Working with the above background, I want to look at freedom as a mode of adventure in Heine. I am not going to bind my connections close, here, but grope blindly for them. If they come to my hand, let them come.

Heine left Germany, in 1827, just as his book, Die Reisebilder, was being published. He had been living in Hamburg at the time, and not like the Hamburg bourgeoisie. This was the same Hanseatic bourgeoisie into which, in Lubeck, Thomas Mann was born at the end of the century. In the Magic Mountain, there is a scene in which the young Hans Castorp, whose mother and father have died, remembers his favorite object in his grandfather’s “Cabinet”, the baptismal bowl that had been used to baptize generations of Castorps, on which was inscribed the names of seven generations of them.

“The name of his father was there, that of his Grandfather himself, and that of his Great-Grandfather [Urgrossvaters) and then doubly, threefold, and fourfold the prefixing syllable ‘Ur’ [Great] in the mouth of his guide, and the boy listened to the Ur-Ur-Ur with his head inclined to the side, a reflective or even thoughtfree-dreamy inward look in his eyes, and his sleepily reverent mouth open, listened to the dark sound of the tomb and of buried time, which still expressed a piously guarded connection between the present, his own life, and that of the deeply sunk past, and this had a peculiar effect upon him, which was expressed on his face.”

Heine, in 1827, was particularly impatient with, stifled by, the huge burial mound of the Ur-Ur-Ur of the ancien regime. The romantic school had burned itself out – the Napoleonic wars had been fought in vain, it seemed – and so he set out in search not of the picaresque, as in his trip to Italy, but in quest of freedom. Political freedom.

On the eve of leaving Hamburg to travel to England, he wrote in a letter to a friend about the atmosphere of complete stagnation in Germany: ‘I even doubt that the book [his Reisebilder] will be forbidden. But it was necessary that it be written. In this dry, servile time, something must happen. I’ve done my part and am ashamed of those hard hearted friends who once wanted to do so much, and are now silent.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

confit de Hitchens

I had supplied myself with the proper material to take care of the three hours it would take for the train from Montpellier to reach Paris: an omnibus book of Maigret mysteries. A. had supplied herself with a stack of newspapers, among them the Sunday Observer. My eye was caught by the headline of the lead story in the Culture section: Amis on Hitchens. I decided, in the middle of one of Maigret's search for the murderer of a rich bourgeois in the Sixth Arrondissement, to sneak this section of the paper from A. and read the article, because the very headline gave me a feeling of ghoulish pleasure: for if, as I think is the case, Hitchens sacrificed not only his standing as a moral entrepreneur, but his art as a writer, in order to play the minstrel to the Cheney-Rumsfeld set of neo-colonialist wankers, then isn’t the most appropriate of all punishments that of being lauded in the suet-y prose of his friend, a man who has puzzlingly sacrificed his talents as a satirist of the bourgeois egotist and the lumpen blowhard to fabricate a string of almost unreadable fictions that use the twentieth century’s great crimes as the dollhouse furniture for his pathetic misreading of his own talents? Very much in the way Jerry Lewis latching onto muscular dystrophy as his way out of clownhood, Amis has latched onto genocide - it is his very own telethon. The novels dare us to laugh at him. He is no clown, but a thinker! Both Hitchens and Amis are pros who have systematically blown up their prose, caricaturists who have become caricatures.

How far Hitchens has fallen can be measured by comparing his Slate columns to his earlier work. Here is Hitchens in 1989, reviewing a book by Gordon Brown in the London Review of Books:

“It is rather a pity, considered from the standpoint of the professional politician or opinion-taker, that nobody knows exactly what ‘credibility’ is, or how one acquires it. ‘Credibility’ doesn’t stand for anything morally straightforward, like meaning what you say or saying what you mean. Nor does it signify anything remotely quantifiable – any correlation between evidence presented and case made. Suggestively perhaps, it entered the language as a consensus euphemism during the Vietnam War, when ‘concerned’ members of the Eastern establishment spoke of a ‘credibility gap’ rather than give awful utterance to the thought that the Johnson Administration was systematically lying. To restore its ‘credibility’, that Administration was urged, not to stop lying, but to improve its public presentation. At some stage in the lesson learned from that injunction, the era of post-modern politics began. It now doesn’t seem ridiculous to have ‘approval ratings’ that fluctuate week by week, because these are based upon the all-important ‘perception’ factor, which has in turn quite lost its own relationship to the word ‘perceptive’.

When the Tories first hired a public-relations firm called Colman, Prentiss and Varley, back in the dying moments of the Macmillan regime, they got a fair bit of ribbing from cartoonists like the great Timothy Birdsall, and a certain amount of ‘negative feedback’ from their own more fastidious supporters. The Labour Party in those days was sternly opposed to the pseudo-science of PR and polling, and to the political hucksterism (such as the interviewing of candidates’ wives) that went with it. Having won and lost a number of elections since then, and having seen Conservatism reinstated to an extent unguessed-at, Labour’s leadership is now agreed on at least one big thing, which is that the battle of image, perception and credibility is what counts.”

The first sentence is the weakest, as Hitchens does not regard it as a pity that nobody ‘knows’ what credibility is – rather, he regards it as a scandal that credibility functions as though it has meaning, which is its use: to create a political vernacular that is wholly useless for promoting political change. Thus, the drift towards plutocracy is well screened from being spoken about or recognized by a complicit political elite and a media which no longer functions as a thought police for the simple reason that it has eliminated thought among both its manufacturers and audience. But after the first sentence, every sentence hits, because Hitchens mind is stocked, at this point, with the analytical tools of the Left – an excellent training for tearing down the scrim of establishment chat.

Now, here is the beginning of the "Fighting Words" column on October 16, 2006. Hitchens is writing aboutthe recently issued Lancet article reporting on an epidemiological survey that tallied up the cost of the American occupation of Iraq in human lives.

“The word lancet means either an old-fashioned surgical knife used to open a vein for the once-popular cure-all remedy of "bleeding" or "bloodletting," or (in architecture, especially Gothic) a rather narrow window. Both metaphors seem apt for the British medical journal of the same name, which appears to be seeking a reputation for conjuring bloodbaths and then reviewing them through a slitlike aperture.

In its latest edition, the Lancet publishes the estimate of some researchers at Johns Hopkins University that there have been "654,965 excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war." The figure is both oddly exact and strangely imprecise: It does not clearly state, for example, that all these people have actually been killed, but it does suggest a steep climb in the Iraqi death rate. In its attribution of cause, it is also more vague than it may appear. These deaths are the claimed result, be it noted, of "the war."”

Although I chose this column at random, it is a good example of what “fighting words” means. Or rather, it helps us understand why the title is such a ghastly, tasteless, and unconsciously appropriate symbol of the moral displacement that was at the heart of Hitchens’ turn to Bush. Words, as Hitchens in 1989 would have pointed out, don’t fight. They don’t bleed. Pound your words as hard as you like, but they cannot, like swords, be turned into ploughshares. But Hitchens was a hero to the set who chose to believe that they were fighting by, well, calling anti-war people names, and making money on defense industry stocks. Hitchens’ D.C. friends, in other words.

But whatever the political slant of his views, I’m as concerned with his way of presenting them. Thus, the interesting fact is that Hitchens analysis of Lancet magazine does not, in fact, analyze the magazine at all – it is a work of ‘credibility’ journalism of the lowest order, betraying the same language fetish as the rebarbative use of “fighting words” to portray the beneficiary of getting other people to fight for one.

The article itself contains the clackery that Hitchens now specializes in, and that was done much better by the old line conservative columnists like Westbrook Pegler or Robert Novak, who at least knew how to put a little steak tartar in their dyspeptic harangues. Hitchens method is to point out that the Lancet had previously published epidemiologies that put the number of people who died in Iraq as a result of the Bush Clinton sanctions at 500,000 plus. He doesn’t dispute these figures – rather, he simply insinuates that these figures have been ‘dropped’ by the anti-war crowd. Like so much of Hitchens’ drive-by style of journalism, this reflects a hazy impression, and it is undisturbed by any epidemiological attempt to see if it is true – like, say, going to Factiva and looking up how many references to the Lancet sanctions article you find after 2001.

Hitchens isn’t stupid – far from it. So at this point in his column, he has three choices: give us a reason to think the figures are wrong; withdraw any support for using epidemiology to determine the price in human life of a policy; or find a way of distracting us from what is going on.
What he does is mix up a cocktail of all three. This is credibility saving that wouldn’t fool a goose.

“There have been several challenges to the epidemiology of the Lancet/Johns Hopkins team concerning their definition of a population sample. And it's been noticed that Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of the magazine, is a full-throated speaker at rallies of the Islamist-Leftist alliance that makes up the British Stop the War Coalition. But I see no reason in principle why anyone who endorsed the liberation of Iraq, and who opposes the death squads of the Baathist/jihadist "insurgency," should want or need to argue that the casualty figures are any lower. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that they are correct. We then enter an area of evidence and reasoning where epidemiologists are not the experts.”

What exactly is that ‘area of evidence’ into which Hitchens wants to divert his readers?

In one sense, this really is the existential problem facing the essayist, and his degenerate descendent, the pundit – they have no expertise. In fact, at their best, they are opposed to the very idea of expertise – that knowledge can be divvied up into various specialties as a sort of administrative decision by the powers that be. The essayist pits the power of his experience against the established power of the abstraction of experience, even as he raids the various disciplines for his facts and illustrations – for his poetry and his amateurism. Yet in so doing, he never mistakes his poetry for an act – his humility comes from his recognition that words don’t fight.

And yet, as he is also, institutionally, close to the journalist, he is constantly tempted to think that he is an actor – that he, the eternal bystander, is the real star. His temptation is always to become a blowhard – to harden and narrow his experience until it becomes an utterly predictable spout of verbiage in search of an act. The attraction of war for such a type is obvious – here, the bystander stands so close to ultimate acts that the illusion that one is an actor becomes almost overwhelming. It is precisely this blowhard Hitchens that Amis lards and lards and lards, until one feels that he is serving up Confit de Hitchens.

Hitchens deserves it.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

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