Saturday, May 14, 2011

Music of the spheres

Caillois’ notion of play and games, outlined in Games and Man, attracted an influential attack, “Homo Ludens Revisited”, by Jacques Ehrman in 1968. Ehrman’s article is one of the first really deconstructive articles published in America. It appeared in the Yale French Review, which was establishing itself at the time as the bridgehead of a Tel Quel sensibility in the United States.

The attack took on the underlying binaries, such as Ehrman saw them, in Caillois’ essay. The strategy of showing an underlying incoherence in the binaries, either as an overlap of their extensions or as an insufficient motivation for the arguments based upon them – either as too much or too little – went on to become a common feature of American literary criticism. Deconstruction in America became a form of demasking – which is an especially pertinent term for the criticism of an essay that poses the question of the function of the mask.

Ehrman ostensively directs his attack at Huinzinga, but the emotional onus is really on Caillois. Here’s where we begin:

“Play or seriousness. This alternative is sometimes treated as a dialectic: play and seriousness which, in turn, implies a whole series of others: gratuitousness and/or utility; play and/or work; play and/ or everyday life; the imaginary and/or the real; etc. . . . The concepts here placed in opposition or in parallel are found constantly in Huizinga - as in Caillois, moreover, and in an even more pronounced way, since the latter's definition and classifications of play lead him, as we have indicated, to delimit too categorically the sphere of play by opposing it to the real, to work, and so forth.”

Ehrman develops his criticism in terms of the idea that one cannot call upon the real or the serious to do one’s conceptual work, as these terms are both too vague and too all encompassing. If play exists, it must, by definition, exist in everyday life – and thus play cannot be defined over against everyday life.

“For finally, if the status of "ordinary life," of "reality," is not thrown into question in the very movement of thought given over to play, the theoretical, logical, and anthropological bases on which this thinking is based can only be extremely precarious and contestable. In other words, we are criticizing these authors chiefly and most seriously for considering "reality," the "real," as a given component of the problem, as a referent needing no discussion, as a matter of course, neutral and objective. They define play in opposition to, on the basis of, or in relation to this so-called reality. As the criteria against which play is measured are external to it, its nature remains necessarily second in relation to the "reality" that serves as its yard- stick and is therefore considered "primary" (cf. Huizinga: "Play al- ways represents something," p. 35). But it is legitimate to wonder by what right "reality" may be said to be first, existing prior to its components - play in this case (although it might just as well be some other object of the social sciences) - and serving as their standard”

In moving from criticizing the vagueness of ‘ordinary life” to the implicit claim that play puts it into question, however, Ehrman opens himself up to the charge that some supposition, here, is being assumed rather than argued for. For what does Ehrman mean by the ‘status’ of ordinary life? Is it the status of something that doesn’t exist? And how does this status exist? In what society or culture? If it is the culture that allows Caillois and Huizinga to use these terms (and their allied syntagmas – in particular, work) is unmasked by Ehrman, he perhaps owes us an account of this status and its construction. But no geneology is forthcoming in Ehrman’s essay. Nor is there any attempt to overview Caillois’ essay beyond remarking on the ideologically motivated argument that defines play in opposition to work, games in opposition to ‘the real’, the ludic in opposition to the earnest, etc.

I can grant Ehrman’s objections to the unanalyzed role taken by those oppositions in structuring the argument that Caillois makes, but I am, as well, unconvinced that the contradictions or tensions here vitiate the essay. In fact, the essay produces what I would call doxic moments – moments in which plausibility structures the conceptual given, rather than a logic of definition – in order to use its contradictions to build a history. And this is not an unworthy task, though it is shot through with a Eurocentric and ethnocentric vocabulary.

One should begin by putting Caillois’ essay in the context of his project, about which he wrote extensively: diagonal science. As we have noted, Caillois was attempting to create ‘transversal cuts” across the disciplines to explain or observe phenomena that are, indeed, obscured by the assumption that the division of the sciences corresponds, exhaustively, to the division of the natural kinds. In this, he is making a move that goes sharply against the definition of ‘seriousness’ as something appertaining to our present epistemological arrangements. He is, indeed, willing to risk appearing like a savant freak, a kook. At the base of this effort is Caillois’ sociological interest in the economy of sacrifice. Sacrifice and the sacred are constant preoccupations within his work. This, unfortunately, one would never know from the attack on the micro-level of the play essay by Ehrman.

Like many savant freaks, Caillois had a fondness for new classificatory schemes. The ‘science’ of games was, at the time he wrote his essay (1958), a terra incognita, an unnamed blank space, waiting for the first explorer to name its parts (a colonialist metaphor! And meant to be so, since there is no point in denying Caillois’ inheritance from a colonialist mindset, even as modified by an extensive acquaintanceship with anthropological reports). I have found some of those categories – such as ilynx, or vertigo – extremely helpful.

But what is missing in Caillois is a larger sense of how play or a game self-enclaves. Here, Ehrman is certainly correct, even if his categorical rejection that such a story is possible seems unwarranted. I think that Caillois can be usefully supplemented by Simmel’s hints about the three encircling institutions in modernity: the law, education, and money. Sphere calls to sphere, circle calls to circle – or evokes further circles, to use Caillois’ term. About which I will write more in my next post.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Amie's site

In the seventies, Roland Barthes turned to the particular and the neutral, towards fascination and love, which altogether formed the third stage in his ‘semiological adventure.’ Here, political engagement gave place to a hedonism that was also, of course, an openness to pain, for pain is the vulnerability intrinsic to pleasure, the complement as well as the adversary, the deepening and that out of which sweetness comes as a sort of startling new premise into the world – for if the world holds such sweetness, surely it must be a different and stranger place than one took it for. What one took it for was indifferent – because it is indifference, rather than pain, that is the real opposite of pleasure, its real annihilation. Pain and pleasure can both be unbearable, but indifference is all too bearable.

Pain, then, is also part of the process. In particular, the pain Barthes felt was the loss of the person he most loved his mother. The first photo in his 1975 book, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, is not of himself, but of his mother, alone, on the beach. In 1979, after she had died, Barthes looked back on that photo in La Chambre Claire. In section 25, he sets the scene of arranging photos of his mother after her death, writing that he did not ‘love’ any of them except the one “that I had published where one sees my mother, young, walking on the beach at Landres, and where I ‘rediscovered’ her walk, her health, her radiance…” The rest, however, were tugged by indifference, or what Barthes calls history – that space in which the ones we know are only, only jurisdictionally recognizable – one may testify that these are photos of one’s mother, but there is a fissure between that testimony and the mother one knows.

In this book on photography, Barthes develops the idea of the punctum. The punctum is another name for Barthes’ beloved ‘detail’ – the effect of the real, this time seen outside the framework of that eternal couple, nature and culture. The punctum is contrasted with the studium. We may read, or scan, a photo, but what interests us, he claims, is the moment when something is released from the picture, “like an arrow, and comes to pierce me.” The cut or wound of that arrow, and the point of the arrow, are both designated by punctum – it is the base of punctuation and of puncturing. It is the pick, the little hole, the little spot. The stain.

All of which brings me to the point of this post. My friend Amie died last year. I wrote about this in a post in December. I have no photograph of Amie – in fact, I don’t know what she looked like, I have her voice in her emails and comments but not her physical presence of its grain – and yet I have a stong and overwhelming sense that we were intellectual companions, and that what I was doing, in Limited Inc, trying to assemble a book, The Human Limit, had to do, by every sort of coincidence and sign, with her project and her reflections. Her project was writing a treatise of some kind on soundtracks, which would bring together her love – her taste – for certain films and her fascination with sound as meaning and accompaniment.

The puncture created by her death in my world may be a small detail – the hole that punctures a balloon may be only the width of the point of a needle – but it is a telling detail to me, a proportion of volume to loss that still astonishes me. And I resent death not only for taking Amie, but also for taking her unfairly, before she had her chance. I don’t forgive the world this.

In the face of that loss, Amie’s friends have set up a blog on which some of her writing is being put up. The site is called Peirates. Mark it reader.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The dirty decade(s)

I find it cruelly amusing that the media and the power elite in America, at the moment, are having a fake wonder moment - why, OBL was in Pakistan of all places! I can only compare this to discovering that the tooth fairy is a fake, or that no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Did anybody, year after year, think he was anywhere else? I, luckily for my told-you-so tendencies, although unluckily for my mental health, have long kept a blog, Limited Inc, and from the end of 2001 until the assassination of OBL, I have had no doubt about the status of the tooth fairy or of Osama bin Laden.

So why was I so sure? well, for one thing, I did not rely on the American media for my news. During the Bush years, a whole new method of managing consent was devised, in which the media could continue to pretend they maintained a critical function towards our governors whilst doffing their hats, bowing and scraping, and generally retailing nonsense. They straddled servility and 'freedom' by displacing the news into another time zone, one in which important events were reported years after they had happened, and in fact years after the relevant players in the media knew that they had happened. This technique proved so successful that it has been deployed to report the current economic crisis.

In any case, shortly after, or even during, the Kunduz airlift in 2001, the newspapers and the tv knew that it happened. They just didnt emphasize it. Thus, our narrative of the Great War in Afghanistan is missing a crucial piece. In our narrative, the Americans and their heroic allies, Pakistani and Afghan alike, advanced relentlessly against the arch-fiend Osama and the Taliban, mopped up territory with that supreme ease for which our GIs are celebrated, and had Osama all cornered in his hidey hole when he found a magic poney and escaped, perhaps to the North Pole, perhaps to Tahiti. In reality, the winter of 2001 showed, in miniature, that we were lead by a group that combined the cynicism of the street-corner pimp with the competence of the Three Stooges trying to screw in a lightbulb. Rumsfeld's generals, a lickspittle crew, withheld American troops even though they had them in positions where they could have advanced and, say, hardened the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was well perceived by all players in the area, including India. It was simply not perceived by Americans, who still didn't understand what had been spawned in December, 2000 by our country club Supreme Court. Meanwhile, as Seymour Hersch wrote in one of the first articles about Kunduz, the administration did this: American soldiers combined with irregulars from the Northern Alliance surrounded the the northern hill town of Kunduz, which was on the way to Tora Bora. Embarrassingly, our friend and ally, Pakistan, had, while agreeing to all our Commandante's terms so stirringly laid out for them - we wasn't taking no shit after 9/11! - calmly pocketed American money and went on doing what it had been doing before 9/11, supporting the Taliban and the Taliban's ally, Al Q. Thus, Kunduz contained more than a peck of Pakistani SSI men. What to do, what to do? The gulls in America might not understand the friendly relationship we had with Pakistan, but our governor's did. Thus, American soldiers were treated to the sight of Pakistani aircraft lifting out whoever the fuck they wanted to from Kunduz. And the Bush administration than mounted its usual m.o. - lie blatantly. As Hersch reports:

"Even before the siege ended, however, a puzzling series of reports appeared in the Times and in other publications, quoting Northern Alliance officials who claimed that Pakistani airplanes had flown into Kunduz to evacuate the Pakistanis there. American and Pakistani officials refused to confirm the reports. On November 16th, when journalists asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the reports of rescue aircraft, he was dismissive. “Well, if we see them, we shoot them down,” he said. Five days later, Rumsfeld declared, “Any idea that those people should be let loose on any basis at all to leave that country and to go bring terror to other countries and destabilize other countries is unacceptable.” At a Pentagon news conference on Monday, November 26th, the day after Kunduz fell, General Richard B. Myers, of the Air Force, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the reports. The General did not directly answer the question but stated, “The runway there is not usable. I mean, there are segments of it that are usable. They’re too short for your standard transport aircraft. So we’re not sure where the reports are coming from.”"

Well, if the big and the powerful said it, and if they are, gosh almighty, generals too - why, who are we to believe our own peepers? However the gulls in America swallowed this bullshit, however, the players in Afghanistan and Pakistan had their eyes opened. For what possible reason would American generals not only not order their soldiers to adhere to the first rule of invading a country, but allow Pakistan to actually airlift out the very people Americans had supposedly come to kill?

Definitely Osama bin Laden, in his hideout, got the message loud and clear: not only would the administration not be averse to him getting 'lost' in Pakistan, but they would even lie and send up fog and generally pretend that this hadn't happened. It turned out that things went even better than planned for all participants: Pakistan got its aid, OBL and the Taliban got their bases, Bush got his GWOT (allowing him to invade Iraq, the one country in the Middle East that did not have its hand in OBL's pie), and the American media got to bask in being all patriotic and shit. This is an act they are still all about today, although they've moved on: now patriotism and shit means destroying entitlements for the middle class cause we - that is, we happy few, we who have been somewhat advantaged by TARP and the nine trillion in low interest/no interest loans handed out merrily by the Fed - can't afford them any more! Nh uh.

The transition period between democracy and plutocracy is always dirty. It is strewn with lies, betrayal, mass murder, and the corruption of the very fonts of information - and that is what we see all over the former democracies at present. In the U.S., these things are simply writ larger. At one time, in the 90s, people spoke of the new gilded age. 9/11 put a stop at least to that. This is the dirty era. It has left its unforgettable taste in every mouth, on every tongue. And we are not through with it yet.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Deleuze, Guattari, Caillois and the lobster

On page 53 or Mille Plateaux, there is a picture of a lobster under one of the puzzling titles, all attached to a puzzling Chronotope, in that loaded gun of a book – a book that translates universal history into the Pynchonian idiom of the shaggy dog story.

I was not thinking of that book when I began my own lobster’s tale, but surely Geoffroy’s homard is not so far away from D and G’s appropriation of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. The story is told in the Professor’s voice (and remember, that voice becomes more and more animal as the tale moves on), and the choice of the lobster is emphasized from the beginning:

Dieu est un Homard ou une double-pince, un double-bind. Ce
n'est pas seulement les strates qui vont par deux au moins, mais
d'une autre façon chaque strate est double ( elle aura elle-même
plusieurs couches ). Chaque strate présente en effet des phénomènes
constitutifs de double articulation.

(God is a lobster or a double-claw, a double bind. It is not only the strata which pair up into twos at the very least, but in another fashion each strata is double (it will itself have many levels). Each strata presents, in effect, phenomena constitutive of a double articulation.)

One has to remember that Professor Challenger’s assertions are not signed by Deleuze and Guattari – no more than Socrates’ are signed by Plato. And who is this Professor Challenger? “The professor besides was neither a geologist nor a biologist, not even a linguist, an ethnologist, or a psychoanalyst, and it has been a long time that we have forgotten just what his specialty was.”

The tale of the lobster, or of analogies in science, is indeed a tale of specializations. In a wonderfully synoptic passage in his Philosophy of Money, Simmel writes that, in the modern condition, there are three inescapable large social factors – Mauss might have said total social facts – which engage all citizens: Law, Money, and “Intellectuality” – education/science. The tale as told by Simmel would go like this: where the early modern person could well escape the law (there was no real developed system of policing in Europe before the 18th century, and it took Napoleon’s troops to introduce a real police network in the German and Italian countryside in the 19th century), and could as well escape education, and could live largely on barter and home grown products (thus avoiding, for the most part, monetary transactions), it was impossible to escape religion. Modernization made religion escapable – in fact, one of the reasons the question of religion became so heated, and existed as a long time as one of the essential liberal parameters, was just the question of its escapability. But at the end of the modernization process, there was a new order of social factors that encircle the individual. One of them was the massive fact of education and science.

And it is by this route that we proceed to the science of analogies and exactly what kind of specialization such a science entails.

Geoffroy and Fourier, to be sure, were working in different intellectual domains in the 1820s, but they both inserted a notion of analogy that pointed to function, and operated through distortion – that is, the distortion of the impressions of common sense. Common sense sees the lobster crawling about on his belly – Geoffrey sees the lobster crawling about on his side. Fourier saw that underneath the homogenous desire is a world of perverse ones, a world that requires analogical vision. Analogy, thus, is not simply surface resemblence – for the surface is another strata, to speak like Professor Challenger, whereas the deep structure has a different form and content.

This is an intellectual discovery that is continually being made by Challengers and Columbuses. Among the discoverers is Roger Caillois.

Caillois is a man whose ‘specialization’ has also been long forgotten. Surrealist, student of Mauss, companion of Bataille, enemy of Borges, philosopher – and the sole practitioner of diagonal science, which takes up the utopian methodology of Fourier and seeks to reknit the disjecta membra of the world, or the map of the world, that has been dissected and allotted to various scientific disciplines. Caillois was fond of symmetries, crystals, and of metaphors that crystallized commonalities that are rejected by all the scientific specialists, each equipped with one lens of the great fly eye that views the entirety of the world, its formulas and their flow, each adjusted to a strictly delimited tissue of experience.

“Man, for the price of a thousand triumphs, a thousand victories ove rthe most specious ambushes, has without doubt distributed the givens of the universe according to the most fecund, the most coherent, and the most pertinent classifications. But this perspective surely does not exhaust the diverse combinations that are possible. It leaves to the side the transversal progresses of nature, of which one observes the power in the most far apart of domains, and of which I am going to give some poor examples. Such progresses straddle the classifications in use. Science can do little to restrain them as they are by definition interdisciplinary. They demand, besides, in order ot appear, the approaching of givens that are distant from each other, of which the study is pursued by specialists necessarily living in constant ignorance of each other’s work. However, one cannot exclude that these transversal cuts fill an indispensable role in explaining these phenomena which, in isolation, appear each time as aberrant, but of which the signification would appear for our better perception if one dared to align these exceptions…” [O, 482, my translation]


olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...