Saturday, August 11, 2012

Self and character

While doing her fieldwork among the Makassar, a people living on the peninsula of  Sulawesi, Indonesia who are ‘renowned” for their seafaring and fishing skill, Birgit Roettger-Roessler noticed that her informants were uneasy when asked to tell about themselves, and when they did, they told her narratively thin stories about what they did – not why they did it, or what they felt. On the other hand, she found that the Makassar enjoyed gossiping about each other. Roettger-Roessler was disappointed by this state of affairs at first, as the standard notion in the eighties, when she did her fieldwork, was that first person accounts were  more reliable –more authentic. Gossip, however, is, she presumes, the stock that fills up many an ethnographer’s notebook.

However, as she reflected on this curious situation, she noticed that other anthropologists also reported that first-person autobiographical accounts were difficult to get from informants all over the South Pacific, and in Africa. And she concludes, as other anthropologists were also concluding at the time, that there is something very “Western” about first person life stories. This is a large  conclusion pinned to a small reference: St. Augustine’s Confessions. This reference is, I think, itself very Western – the idea that a book has an impact over a thousand and a half years, changing the narrative taboos of ordinary people all over Europe and beyond, rests on a very vague kind of intellectual history.

However, Roettger-Roessler’s work with the Makassar eventually forced her to consider the notes she was putting in her fieldwork journal, where it turned out that there were plenty of life-histories at second hand. The Makassar gossiped. They also would tell about themselves in certain triangulated situations – in ordinary conversation, for instance.

All of these fragments are gathered together under the form of theses about person and self, which define the cosmology eighties anthropologists were interested in. It is interesting that character no longer carries any conceptual weight in this discourse, even though, as late as the nineteen fifties, anthropologists were willing to speak of ethnic ‘characters’, or individual characters within a group. And yet it doesn’t seem that what is being narrated in gossip and rumor, or told in pieces in conversation, among the Makassar is an account of the person or self. Rather, what seems to apply are the traits that character coordinates. Joseph Ewen, an Israeli literary scholar, has proposed that character is a matter of three axes: complexity (of traits), development (action of some kind) and penetration into the interior life (words involving cognitive and affective states). These axes are of use in narration. Outside of narration, they are senseless.

Is there character, then, outside of the text?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

From theophrastus to william burroughs: the proto-history of the routine

James Diggle, in his edition of Theophrastus’s Characters, claims that the work should be translated as something like Behavioral Types or Distinctive Marks of Character. The metaphor, still working on a flat surface, was a drawing, or the portrait. But the drawing was of a general type – generated from out of Aristotle’s typology of vices, as well as the vices of other moralists of antiquity. It was the character-defining vice that concerned Theophrastus, who took the medical view of them as aberrations from the soul’s true state of health. A German classicist in the nineteenth century defined Theophrastus’s notion of character as “the sum of individual symptoms of an ethical concept.” [Immisch, 1898] This strikes the right note – one notices that the characters –the toady, the chatterbox, the oligarchic man, etc. are not characters in stories so much as they are lists of characteristics, one following the other, with the same kind of identifying zest that is put into enumerating the colors and songs of birds in a birdbook. The birds are lifted out of the forest and individuated, just as the characters are taken out of the city and individuated.

The social space in which this kind of individuation happens is comedy. Theophrastus, it is said, “would use all kinds of movements and gestures” in his lectures. “Once, when he was imitating a gourmet, he stuck his tongue out and licked his lips.” The modern American gets this, for we have seen it thousands of times on television, and we have done the same thing at parties and seen people who are good at doing this kind of thing. It is called a “routine”.

Where did routine come from? It is a burlesque/vaudeville word. The OED’s first citation for it as a stage term is from 1926, but that seems pretty late. Searching around in Google Books, I came upon Brett Page’s 1915 Writing for Vaudeville. Page footnotes the term routine, as though his readers may not have heard of it:

Routine – the entire monologue; but more often used to suggest its arrangement and construction. A monologue with its gags and points arranged in a certain order is one routine; a different routine is used when the gags or points are arranged in a different order. Thus routine means arrangement. The word is also used to describe the arrangement of other stage offerings – for instance, a dance: the same steps arranged in a different order make a new “dance routine”.

Page’s suggestion for writing the gags is uncannily like the compositional method in Theophrastus’s Characters – which has long puzzled scholars, who are not sure what the book was composed for.

“Have as many cards or slips of paper as you have points or gags. Write only one point or gag on one card or slip of paper. On the first card write “Introduction,” and always keep that card first in your hand. Then take up a card and read the point or gag on it as following the introduction, the second car as the second point or gag, and so on until you have arranged your monologue in an effective routine.”

“Then try another arrangement…”

The routine is the tentative narrative of the list – it emerges from the list, viewed as a form of compulsion. William Burroughs called the episodes in his novel Naked Lunch “routines,” for the book moves more around gags than around characters in the novelistic sense – and so joins up with the Theophrastian character, which was originally a gag, an ethical symptom.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Goodbye, Mr. Nudge

This is probably sad news for the president. If Larry Summers was the brains of the Obama response to the Zona – the Great Recession – the very spirit of Obamaism is Cass Sunstein.  Obama’s general policy of compromise with all men (as long as they were rich, and to the right)  is embodied in a man whose major policy idea is government by “nudging”. Instead of the bad old liberal days, where the government corrupted men’s souls by guaranteeing them healthcare and the like, the new new liberal eschaton was to be brought on by a government that simply, quietly poked a finger in the back of the citizenry.

Sunnstein was the head of a corporate hogwallow called the OIRA – the office of regulatory affairs – about which we have these glorious stats, from a previous article by David Dayen at FDL:

“While the rest of the public might not know about OIRA, lobbyists have the office on speed dial. Industry groups visit OIRA largely for one purpose: to reduce regulation. Steinzor’s analysis found that industry representatives outnumber public health and safety advocates by almost 4 to 1 at OIRA meetings.
Jim Tozzi helped create OIRA and worked on regulations under five presidents. He says the tilt toward industry is to be expected.
Regulations, he says, “increase the cost of industry. So they have more direct skin in the game.” In contrast, he says, environmental groups’ members “don’t have skin in the game, because they just say ‘they’ll cough their lungs out’ or something like that.”
I’m staggering from that comment, but let’s get to the data. The Center for Progressive Reform studied the records of 1,080 OIRA meetings over two Administrations. They found that OIRA changed 84% of all environmental regulations, and 65% of others, under the Obama Administration. This is an increase over the Bush Administration.”

So many people despair at the radical lefty flank that doesn’t appreciate the greatest president ever as he matches off against  the man from Glad. These defeatists are regularly scolded in the pages of American Prospect and other stalwart liberal mags. And how right they are, for just think – if Obama has trumped the Bush administration by turning even further right on the environment, just think how bad Romney will be! On the other hand, not much has happened environmental-wise on Obama’s beat – just the attempted murder of the Gulf of Mexico by BP and the advent of the heat death planet. I mean, we hardly have any skin in this game, and if the heatdeath planet keeps spiraling out of control, the lack of skin will be oh so literal. Which is why, as Obama puts it,  Cass Sunstein “years of exceptional service” have been so important. The only question, I guess, is who the service has been for, exactly.

Sunstein is retiring to a Harvard post, where he will manufacture more fabulous  ideological pudding for the next generation of fabulous centrist Democrats. Democrats who won’t be mislead by the rather minor damage of “coughing your lungs out”, but will, of course, troll some concern about all the expectorated bronchi during the election, thus making electing them the most important thing anybody has ever done or ever will do!

For more info on the ‘most influential liberal legal theorist” of his generation, Mr. Sunstein his own self, here’s a NYT Magazineprofile

The profile is in that special, brownnosing mode that just makes the reader go quivery inside with the sense that one is touching greatness. Here’s a graf:

“Sunstein, who is 55, has an almost childlike excitement — his e-mail messages end in long strings of exclamation points, and when other academics talk about his mind, they do so in the way people talk about the ballet, as something precious that ought to be preserved.”

Uh, yeah, I know! Everybody I know was talking about ballet and preserving it just yesterday, at the Quickburger.

“Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again, after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was…”

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 ...