Wednesday, August 03, 2011

why american liberalism has the attractiveness of a dripping faucet

The debt ceiling crisis was comedy relief of a high order. Afficianados of American Plutocracy slapstick appreciated the fact that as we were assured that "terrorists" were holding America, or at least Obama, 'hostage', the GAO released its audit of the Fed's very beautiful and efficient welfare system for the rich. It turns out that the Fed loaned out 16 trillion dollars at below 1 percent interest to anyone who owned a Rolls or a hedgefund, making life for the upper crust - squeezed as they were by the pesky recession - so, so much better. It is reported that Citicorps bosses were able, finally, to get dental work and dairy products - poor things were suffering on the street. They were also able to get homes in the Hamptons, yachts, Van Goghs and other perks that keep them mentally agile. We are so lucky.

But I am most amused by the general liberal indignation that the Republican congressmen, elected on the pledge to radically cut federal spending, actually did cut federal spending. It was the vileness of this approach to politics that was especially scorned by NYT editorialists and Dem fluffers. Paul Waldman, the D.C. Dem apparatchik who writes at TAPPED, put it best when comparing Dems to Republicans:

"Let’s say that Mitt Romney is the next president. Are congressional Republicans going to threaten to torpedo the economy if their demands aren’t met? Of course not. First, because their priorities will be basically the same as his, and more important, because they know that undermining the economy is bad for the ruling party. But would Democrats do the same thing Republicans just did? Refuse to raise the ceiling unless they extract all kinds of concessions to move policy more in their preferred direction?

It’s hard to see it. That’s not because Democrats are incapable of playing hardball, it’s just that when they do, it tends to be on a smaller scale. Holding a gun to the economy’s head is something that requires a high tolerance for risk, an indifference to the suffering of ordinary people, and confidence that your opponents will cave before you will. Republicans have more of all three. So what we’re likely to see is that when there’s a Republican president, the debt ceiling will be raised, with some half-hearted attempts by progressive Democrats to get something in return, but when there’s a Democratic president, we go through this whole ugly process again and again."

Holding a gun to the economy's head! So ungenteel. As ideology has lost its savor and importance in the D.C. world, what has become ultraimportant is gentility - good manners. Maturity. The American economy, for instance, obviously needed a transfusion of trillions of dollars into banks and the financial sector so that we could "avoid a depression" - and such is the maturity of the Dems that they did not bother discussing it with the people. Similarly, elected on the promise, in 2006, to end the war, did the dems put a gun to Bush's head, or the head of the American military? No! Because of their love of ordinary people. Ordinary people who elected them on promises that they no ordinary people understand must be compromised by 'political reality".

That the Reps just proved that political reality is a fiction, and that you actually can, radically, use the levers of power to put in place what you promised is something so outre, for the Dem punditocrats, that they can hardly get over it. It makes them all jittery about 'governance'. Governance, of course, is when you elect people on the premise that a campaign is a sort of magic trick - fun for the whole family, but you don't really expect people to be able to draw rabbits out of hats, do you? Similarly, the Dems ineffectuality has been promoted, by these pundits - of which there are many - as an actual virtue. The Dems would never put a gun to anybody's head. They would never put a salad fork to anybody's head. How could they with all the compassion flowing from their heart towards ordinary people?

I thought, two years ago, that the age of the Great Fly, Bush, was drawing to a close. I was wrong. Bush apparently is now the baseline for Obama, who is the very spirit of gentility. We are still very much in the Bush era. And there is no opposition. Stick a salad fork in the belly of American liberalism, cause it is dead!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Explosion, revolution, the third life

Almost the entirety of Juri Lotman’s life was spent in the Soviet Union. As Nataliia S. Avtonomova has pointed out in an overview of the L. & W., this distinguished him from other of the great 20th century Russian critics: Bakhtine, Jakobson, and Skhlovsky. Like these critics, Lotman was what was once called, in Wilhelmine Germany, a ‘cultural philosopher” – which meant a freelance sociologist, historian, critic, and psychologist. Freud used the phrase ‘wild analysis” to speak of a certain use of psychoanalysis – and indeed, although attached to culture and the life of reading to an extraordinary extent, the cultural philosopher did operate in the institutional wilds. Nietzsche, Simmel, Spengler form a certain geneology in this respect. Certain novelists – Mann, Musil, Broch, Canetti – were also wild analysts.

Of course, Lotman did have a university position and a recognized status, but his aim was broader than that of, say, enfolding semantics in a larger semiotics, Greimas’ project, or discovering the motifs of folktales – his aim, like Barthes, was to understand, stuffed to the gills with texts, the cultural currents of universal history in its modern phase under the distancing and clarifying guise of a demasker of myth – a mythographer’s evil twin.

At the end of his life, he toyed with the notion of explosion. The end of his life was the endtime for the battered Soviet hulk. It was definitely not a time of ‘revolution’ – or rather, revolution was directed against those powers which, in the twentieth century, grounded themselves in revolution. I think it is fair to say that Lotman’s ‘explosion’ was a response to the discrediting of revolution, which brought in its train the discrediting of the massive association between inspiration, new ways of living, opposition to routine, and the social space of adventure.

The paradox of Leninist revolution is that it codified and hardened the all encircling institutions – law, money, education – instead of leading to that blessed moment when all the mouse escape all the traps and we blow them up. Instead, blowing things up became what capitalism itself started to pride itself on doing – at the same time revolution was discredited, one began to hear Schumpeter’s phrase, creative destruction, used unthinkingly to praise the new and supposedly eternal order of capitalism dominated by a financial sector that engaged, at last, in the task of laying up its treasures – its derivatives – in the cybersphere to the tune of some 600 trillion dollars. A sum that approaches, in its dreadful fictitiousness, the beasts of the apocalypse.

Lotman was well aware that explosions – or ruptures, to use Foucault’s term – seem to imply a leap in place, a moment of absolute change, which indeed implies that revolution is possible. Foucault of course annuls the gesture by flattening history, separating it from progress, and thus making rupture merely part of a historical strip, which makes it, formally, a chronological movement forward, but takes away its hopefulness. The strip doesn’t really move towards closure, and the cardinal points of the episteme are merely reshuffled, like cards redistributed for each round of a card game.

Explosion, as Lotman uses the term, is connected to but not identified with creation. Or inspiration: Lotman, at a certain moment, quotes a passage in Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights that lays bare the relation between rupture and the ordinary as a kind of nonsense:

“He was a poet nevertheless, and his passion for poetry was indomitable; when he felt this nonsense approach (that was what he called inspiration), he locked himself in his study and wrote from morning till late night. He confessed to his genuine friends that he knew true
happiness only at such times. The rest of the time he led his dissipated life, put on airs, dissembled, and perpetually heard the famous question, “Have you
written a new little something?””

The nonsense is connected to happiness, and happiness is the unquestioned dominant, the total social fact, which frames modernity. More precisely, explosion is the force that connects and disconnects semantic spaces. And this is where I borrow the term, where I check it out of Lotman’s work and put it in my own. It is in this sense that we can, perhaps, think of the spread of the third life over the space of the imperial powers from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 20th century. The third life is the life of reading, of writing, and of its visual and aural counterparts that altogether saturated the natural world with the artificial world – to use highly tendentious categories – and by degrees made it impossible for populations to exist outside of the media sphere. To travel, to work, to eat, to remain in a room in a house or in a public space, all of these things have been flooded by the third life, the life that is neither sleeping nor simply waking but, instead, consists of reading or its counterparts – watching images, hearing music, etc.

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...