Saturday, September 08, 2012

perversion and topic grammar

The divide between what is written and what is drawn is often passed over rather hastily in the history of the invention of writing. In Tim Ingold’s Lines, he quotes from an anthropologist in Australia:

“Both men and women among the Walbiri routinely draw designs in the sand with their fingers, as they talk and tell stories. This drawing is as normal and as integral a part of
conversation as are speech and gesture. The markings themselves are standardized
to the extent that they add up to a kind of vocabulary of graphic elements whose precise meanings, however, are heavily dependent on the conversational or storytelling contexts in which they appear. Thus a simple straight line can be (among other things) a spear, a fighting or digging stick, or a person or animal lying stretched out; a circle can be a nest, water hole, tree, hill, billy can or egg. As the story proceeds, marks are assembled into little scenes, each of which is then wiped out to make way for the next.” [125]

What is happening here, one wants to say, is not writing, but illustrating. Yet it seems very much to be the secret sharer of writing. In birth, the creature bursts the shell – but in the birth of a device, the creature often carries the shell with it.

This is a backdoor way into talking about a characteristic of Montaigne’s essays that either enchants or irritates the reader: Montaigne’s inveterate habit of drifting from the topic. Why, for instance, would Montaigne entitle an essay, On the lame (Des Boiteux), in which the topics are fact and cause, reasoning, popular delusions, witchcraft, and an Italian proverb about lame women?

Topic organization in a text is at a level superior to the semantic contents of the text. Those contents have an order of appearance – like the pictures produced by the Walbiri – but in writing, they pass beyond the threshold of erasure, so to speak, and must be managed. In oral speech, there are topic markers too, but they are of a different nature – they are ultimately collaborative, existing in conversation. As we drift to soliloquy, internal monologue, we drift closer to the rigidity of the written – but we gain that rigidity through repetition. There’s an obsessiveness about internal monologue. When I am angry at someone, I often rehearse speeches to that person in my head. But what is interesting is that I don’t simply create one speech – I reiterate it. I rehearse it. I chip away at it, I add to it. I return to it. I seek to dominate, in that speech, the space that could be potentially taken up by my counterpart, my conversational object – the person I am mad at. When I give directions to a person, which is a very strongly topic-directed speech act, I often find myself remembering, afterwards, that I forgot some important point. This is because I am being very consciously on topic – I want my words to correspond to a precise set of behaviors, coordinate with the world.

Contrary to Moliere’s M. Jourdain, who, discovering what prose is from his rhetoric teacher, is amazed that he has been speaking it all his life – in fact, we rarely do. The key to prose is the rigidifying of the topic level. We speak a mixed genre, a hip hop/poetic/prose mash-up. If you have ever transcribed an interview, you will find that loose ends proliferate, and the level of the topic is now weak, now strong.

The empowering of topic cues comes into the writing system at the very beginning of writing, in Mesopotamia, where the archaeologist finds tablet after tablet filled with lists, orders, transfers of property. Michel de Montaigne entered the Parlement de Bourdeaux in 1557, and followed a career path that led him to being elected mayor, unanimously, in 1581. by the council. He was very familiar with administrative forms. The Essais, however, are composed as a long raid on those forms. It is part of their enigma: the essays are pervaded with the sense of Montaigne’s power, his ability to, if he wishes, keep on topic. This is the lawyer’s edge. And to this he adds the power of going cannily off topic – this is the cop’s edge.

To go off topic is to stray, to diverge, to digress. There is, in writing, an implicit structure of following – of directed movement – and straying is a sort of counter-writing, throwing us back upon an oral looseness. One has to remember, of course, that what writing traverses – that discursive space – is not just made up of the verbal, but of mixed elements, physical as well as signifying, sound as well as character, for use as well as for pleasure. To stray is to bump into these sublimated spirits that hover around the text.

“A propos, or out of propos (hors propos) – whatever” This is the odd, jutting fragment of a sentence that marks a turning point  in Des Boyteux. It is with this fragment that Montaigne abruptly shifts from dangerous thoughts evoked by the trial of a witch to a meditation on an Italian proverb. The fragment surges into the focal area of the text as though to testify to its own im-pertinence. By doubting the truth of the fact of witchcraft, Montaigne, theoretically, could be committing an act of heresy. de Lancre, after him, made the case that disbelief in magic was congruent with being on the side of the devil. The thought Montaigne has followed has taken him this close – and then we have a seemingly ribald aside, going from the image of a ‘miserable old woman” who, in Montaigne’s memorable judgment, should be sentence to “hellabore” (a psychoactive drug to  cure mental disorder) rather than “hemlock” – to the lame woman of the proverb: “he does not know the true sweetness of Venus who has not slept with a lame woman”.

Why this “outside of the propos”? Why this deliberate perversity?
The power of the topic level in prose is not only the power to organize an argument, narrative or remarks around an ‘issue’ – it is also the power to shift the topic. That power of shifting – that power of perversity – is sexualized in Montaigne’s digression. What explains the proverb? Montaigne first considers stories about the cause of the particular sexual power of lame women:“… her legs and thighs, not receiving the nourishment that is their due, it comes about that the genital parts above are more full, nourished and vigorous.” The comparison of the social and the human body is a commonplace of humanist rhetoric. In Coriolanus, Menenius Agrippa tells a story in the same vein, about the rebellion of the members of the body against the stomach. In Montaigne’s comment, the perversion of order is literally sexualized. Reading back to the comments on the witch with which Montaigne has been occupied, the implication is, as well, about a perversion in the social order, where the old woman, because of her lesser sexual and social power, may turn to other means to hold her position. In other words, we can find a cause her that made the old woman a witch.

But just as we are about to settle for a naturalization of the witch story, Montaigne switches back to an older topic, the topic that governs the whole of the essay, which is that we should have a rule, in the order of our understanding, to put fact before cause. It is the inversion of this order that is the true perversion he is after: “These examples serve what I said in the beginning, our reasonings often anticipate the effect; be the extension of their juridiction so infinite, aren’t they judging and exercising themselves in inanity, proper, and not in being?”

Perversion crosses perversion, hors propos is shifted by hors propos here. For in losing ourselves in the story of why the woman is a witch, the causes of witchcraft, one has lost the vital first step: are there witches?

The moment in which one can ask, are there witches, is the moment one steps out of the urgencies of the present social scene and retires to a place of thought. This moment is not as facile and unmediated as it appears in a certain rationalist ideology. Just when one wants to congratulate Montaigne as a precursor of the Enlightenment and demystifier of witchcraft, he makes a final move that modifies that congratulations, or, to give it another twist, transforms the “following” within the prose into a kind of “escape”, a flight. Granted, perhaps the belief in witches comes about not because there are witches, but because people say there are witches. The magic of the word is such that it produces the magic of magic. But what does this mean?  “For by the single authority of ancient and public custom of this proverb, I persuaded myself, in the past, that I had received more pleasure from a woman who was not straight, and put this down as one of her graces.” And so it comes to pass that Montaigne’s rule – to first find the fact – crosses another fact – that men are believing beasts, even in heat. “There is nothing as supple and elastic as our understanding.” The suppleness and elasticity, here, stand in contrast to the crookedness of the woman favored by Venus. The high level of the topic instant is itself saturated with sex, here. It is perverted. The essay, it turns out, does not intend to resolve what is  a propos and what is out of propos. And so the essay ends on a note that could either be a straight movement forward, or a limping movement to the side:

“The pride of those who attribute to the human spirit the capacity for all things, causes in others, through spite and emulation, this opinion, that he isn’t capable of any things. The ones holding themselves in ignorance are of the same extremity as those who hold themselves in science. The point is, one cannot deny that man is immoderate in all things: and that he has no stopping point, than that of necessity, and the inability to go on.”  

Friday, September 07, 2012

Oliver Sacks exciting adventure

As every New Yorker and London Review of Books subscriber knows, one begins by being utterly impressed by the sheer stuff that these mags offer, and one ends up like an inhabitant of Vicksburg in 1863, besieged and bewildered as the issues just keep zooming in: there’s another Paul Anderson 14 pager on Nehru! There’s the issue on the Olympics! There’s the short story by Michaelchabonzadiesmithalicemunroe!
Which is how the magazines have piled up in the office, and how I lag behind, reading them. Last night, I finally made my way through the issue in which Oliver Sacks recounts, with an astonishing lack of apology, his drug experiences  from the sixties. I especially like his description of getting the DTs from overdoing the chloral, and – after the initial shock of going home on a bus filled with insect-headed humanoids – resolving to experience the whole thing, rather than checking into a hospital. That’s the spirit! I remember once telling someone that I feared that if I took acid, I get flashbacks, and this person looked astonished: those are freebies, he explained.

It was nice that Sacks was resolutely not hiding those years from the kids. And I like it, too, that he connects being high on an overdose of amphetamines with his first real breakthrough in undertanding how he could write himself. So much for the moralistic idea that drugs and ‘real’ creativity are in two separate corners, and only an amateur would confuse them. Sacks has discovered a nineteenth century book by a man named Liveing on the Megrim, or Migraine:

 “As the intensity of the amphetamine took hold of me, stimulating my emotions and imagination, Liveing’s book seemed to increase in intensity and depth and beauty. I wanted nothing but to enter Liveing’s mind and imbibe the atmosphere of the time in which he worked. IN a sort of catatonic concentration so intense that in ten hours I scarcely moved a muscle or wet my lips, I read steadily through the five hundred pages of Megrim. As I did so, it seemed to me almost as if I were becoming Liveing himself, actually seeing the patients he described.”

That’s the Jekyll and Hyde prose I want my drug experiences to be fogged in!

Sacks, of course, is far from alone. In the 80s, when I had a few less intense drug experiences under my belt (mad coincidences via mushroom, and the unforgettable time I was surrounded by Valkyrie who were bare from the waist up, save for the Viking helmets, via the tab in New Orleans), I sometimes pondered the changes that must be wrought in the mass consciousness of America by the fact that literally tens of millions had taken some kind of mind altering drug. Surely there was a hallucinatory underground that would, by subliminal means, lead us through the doors of perception into the promised land.

Alas, Huxley was wrong – you can easily kick down the doors of perception on Saturday and remain the tv-drowned beancounter the rest of the weak. The bean counter who has tripped does not tread  more lightly in the world, aware that the fabric of reality is a bit fragile, a bit of a con job, a few filaments thrown over the gaping void – no, he’ll still cling to his day job and his day job mindset, he’ll still swallow every biz inspirational platitude you shoot his way.  The mystic/populist mix is a big bust, hosted by one of Blake’s turncoat devils.  

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

on the immortals

When Eric Auerbach enquires about the notion of “figure” and its broader use in rhetoric and literature, he begins by going back to Varro and the adaptation of Hellenic thinking by Roman writers in the 1st century B.C. When I begin thinking about the notion of “mortal” and its use as a category term to denote human beings, I begin by going back to “Bewitched” and the cartoons featuring “Thor”, which I saw as a boy in (it seems to me, now) the living room in the house we lived in on Nielson Court in Clarkston, Georgia. I long for Auerbach’s scholarly depth, but depth must bow to the multitudinous experience that feeds it. Plankton, after all, sustains the whale.

It does seem to me, looking back, that the use of “mortal” for human being was a fact I accepted without thinking about it too much. It seemed that certain creatures – superheros, witches – would think that humans are mortals. But it didn’t seem to me that this meant humans were limited by death. Death, in those pj-ed, tv watching days, was not very clear to me. Certain people died. My mom’s father, for instance, died. But I had a foggy view of my grandfather, who I saw only when we went down to visit D.C., and in my mind, he shared more characteristics with the non-mortals than with the mortals – he seemed remote, powerful, a little scary at the dinner table.

Now I look back and wonder why the category of “mortal” crops up so naturally in American popular entertainment. “Mortal” has, in these shows, a sneer attached to it. Mortals are inferior to --- well, the other side is rarely called “immortal”. According to the Iliad, ““the breed of immortal gods and of men who walk the ground is in no way alike.” Classical scholars distinguish between deathless, athanatoi, and immortal, ambrotoi – the latter, according to Manu Leumann’s Homerische Wőrter (quoted in Seth Bernardete’s The Argument of Action), is related to the pair of words brotos, “gore”, and brotos, mortal. “The gods are called deathless (athanatoi) because they are bloodless (anaimones), for to be bloodless (ambrotoi) is to be immortal (ambrotoi).” Ambrosia is the English orphan born of these deep and forgotten currents. However, in the cartoon world there is a continuing fidelity to the tie between blood and mortality. We bleed, and thus we die. Whereas only ichor, a mysterious thing, flows in the arteries of the gods.

Of course, tv paganism is an odd thing, bursting out of the supposedly Puritan U.S. culture. TV paganism –and its Hollywood and comic book cohorts – does not come out of the addled brains of those who have been reading too much Pindar. So the problem of this cultural pattern, one that is entangled with literacy, is deeper than the toss off word, ‘influence” -  which also holds an effluent inside it – can explain.

If we can drain the blood from a chicken or a goat, we can drain it from a human being – such a thought surely crosses the mind of any pastoral people. Andrian Mihai, in an interesting article in Numen, crosses the notion of mortality and bloodlessness with the co-equal primitives of air and fire. Mihai quotes extensively from funeral monuments, plays and poems to show that the gulf between the immortals and the mortals is not the great abyss between the bloody and the bloodless. According to Mihai: “Etymologically, the root of aither is aithō, ‘to burn, blaze,’ suggesting the sense of ‘pure or clear air.’ It is not only a region of the skies that surrounds the world — the highest and the purest part of the atmosphere (as it was for the natural philosophers up to the nineteenth century), but it is also a certain condition of the sky, its brightness and translucence (Kahn 1994:145). Thus, aither is to be distinguished from aer, the misty or vaporous air, the lower part of the air extending from Earth and up to and including the clouds (Hesiod, Theogony 125).”

Here’s the thing: TV, following radio, is “on the air”. This phrase seems to accompany the earliest broadcasts, and has engrained itself into our imagery of audio/video technology. Nihai claims that the mortals imprison the radiance of the sky within the blood and flesh body. A familiar image. That the aether escapes, at death, is also a familiar image. Air wants to be free. And similarly, to be on the air speaks to another dreamlike escape. The immortals are naturally attracted to the ‘airwaves’.

Thus, a blind shoot of this old fourfold thematic, air/water/fire/earth, finds its way into our TV addled childhoods.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Montaigne and the witches

The witches

“Firstly, private error makes public error, which in turn, makes private error.” –On the lame, Montaigne

In the English speaking world, the credit for the idea that the witches persecuted in the witch hunts of Europe were actually members of an underground pagan cult, trapped like a bubble inside Christendom, goes to Margaret Murray, writing in 1921. But the idea was actually articulated long before Murray in 1862, in Jules Michelet’s book, The Witch. Michelet, familiar with the philologists, used the comparativist method that became a craze for desk bound anthropologists in Murray’s time, like J.G. Frazer. It did not escape Michelet that the ‘odious’ custom of brothers sleeping with their sisters in Basque country, an accusation relayed by Pierre de Lancre, the head of the witchhunting commission in Labourd (Southwest France)  in 1609, reproduces a custom of the mages of Persia.

De Lancre is a mysterious character, a footnote in not only the histories of witchcraft in Europe, but in Montaigne studies. He owes that latter to the fact that he married Jeanne, Montaigne’s great niece, in 1588. In the former, he has figured as a miserable inquisitor, responsible for the death of thousands – Rudolph Reuss’s evaluation in the 19th century – to a faulty old gull, responsible for most probably a couple of executions, and certainly for the flight of two priests and a number of Basque common folk from the Lebourd territory – a twentieth century view. Reuss, who probably read about Lancre in Michelet, took Lancre’s estimate that there were as many as thirty thousand worshippers of Satan in Labourd at face value. Michelet took many other of Lancre’s comments, in his Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demons, at face value as well. This may be because Lancre’s dark reading of the willingness of the women of Labourd to consort with the devil (including much detail about the size of the devil’s penis and his preference for fucking pretty women from the front and ugly women from behind, which Lancre presents – from the testimony of one of his 17 year old prisoners – as self-evident) was read in an inverted way by Michelet, who saw this as an obscure revolt against the bleak hegemony of the church and king.

Jan Machielson, in a fascinating essay entitled Thinking with Montaigne, contemplates Montaigne’s odd relation with two of the doctrinaire demonologists – Lancre and Lancre’s source for certain of his theological claims about the heresy of not believing in witches, Martin Delrio. Delrio was a Spanish Jesuit who, as Machielson points out, was not involved in using the persecution of witches as a cover for the persecution of skepticism, an idea that has persisted from the Enlightenment down to Richard Popkin. Rather, Delrio shows himself skeptical of one of Montaigne’s great reasons for adopting a skeptical attitude to the testimony of witches: the power of the imagination. In addition, Lancre’s writings are evidently, stylistically, influenced by Montaigne. In fact, Lancre honors Montaigne whenever he mentions him. Lancre was a lawyer from Bordeaux, where Montaigne was mayor, and he has an evident respect for him deriving perhaps from the lawyer’s humanism of those circles.

However, it is interesting that Montaigne’s great theme of inconstancy – his idea that, as he says over and over again, the I is the great natural monster, an ever changing Proteus at grips with an ever changing ocean of objects  – becomes, in Lancre’s hands, the reason that the Basques are so attracted to Satan. Instead of rooting themselves to the fields, the Basques in this region, which includes Bayonne, are great sailors and whalehunters. Lancre suspects that the sea, with its bottomlessness and storms, makes these people rootless. Not only that, but the men tend to leave the women alone for long periods of time. Hence, the devil comes in.

Montaigne, in the essay that is most concerned with witchcraft, On the Lame, presents a very interesting critique of the idea that to know is to know the cause of a fact. For Montaigne, this gets ahead of what one wants to know first: is there a fact? Montaigne is wary of the instinct for marvels. The marvel weaves around itself a story about its cause, and that story is then woven around in turn by a larger story, and so on. But what do we know about causes?

This is why Montaigne interrupts his meditations to continually tell the reader about himself. For his telling is telling from a cause, the self. And as the telling is broken, changeable, sometimes implausible, and full of holes – so our sense of causes in the world should be precarious and uncertain. At the same time, Montaigne does have an account of the spread of error, which we have quoted at the beginning of this post. This is one that, twisted in another direction,  has informed Carlo Ginzburg’s notion of the history of witches: that the narratives can be recoded by the inquisitors, played back to the population they are hunting through, and come gradually to be accepted by that portion of the population that is in continuity with the beliefs and practices the inquisitors have hunted. The benandanti first make sense of themselves as being on God’s side, and then, after the inquisitors insist for decades that they are on the devil’s side, they slowly change their mind: but they don’t change being benandanti. This, in fact, seems to be the story in Mexico, as well, with the way the Nahua magicians saw themselves during the 16th century.  

Sunday, September 02, 2012

For Clint

“The world is turning into vinegar.”

Thus spoke the gentleman who bought our desk, yesterday, when he came to pick it up. He was explaining that he and his wife, for “ideological” reasons, now attempt to get all their things second hand. “Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind,” Emerson said. This man’s opinion was that things were now riding all too roughly, and crushing not only mankind but the whole world, the lock stock and barrel of atmosphere, continents and ocean. This is a sentiment I’ve heard a lot of in Paris, lately.

I thought of this guy when I read the portrait of Justin Bieber’s manager, “Scooter,” in the New Yorker this morning [Note: Technically, this way of changing a top is known in rhetoric as the “spitball transition”, and it is illegal in league play. But it is good enough for Limited Inc!]. I learned a lot of things about Justin Bieber in the profile. I learned, for instance, that he was discovered by Scooter on Youtube. This warmed my heart with the infinite flame of love. I still like the Soviet avant-g. idea of the 20s that, as the tools of art are given to the people, the line separating the aesthetic domain from everyday life will be liquidated. Now, the problem turned out that you can’t wish away the sphere of circulation. You still can’t, but, in the classic manner of building the socialist future in the ruins of the capitalist present, Youtube is bringing the tools of circulation nearer the masses. Justin Bieber,  meet Dziga Vertov.

But back to the world turning to vinegar. There is a passage in the profile where Scooter displays his vehicles. Natch. Here’s the passage:

“Braun recently bought a house in the Hollywood Hills. It is a large, modern bachelor pad with double-height ceilings and a wall of windows overlooking the city. To get to the front door, you walk on slate stepping stones through a koi pond. In the foyer are shelves displaying meaningful tokens: a signed copy of the basketball coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid to Success”; a sketch of Braun’s sports car, a hundred-thousand-dollar electric vehicle called the Fisker Karma (“I got one for me and one for Justin,” he said. “It makes you help the environment, but you also don’t have to feel like a pussy”); a poster commemorating Bieber’s performance at the White House, signed by President Obama.”

I spied with my little eye a connection between Scooter Braun and our customer, yesterday: the DIY politics. We live in an era where, in France, the EU, China, the U.S., politics is no longer the art of the possible, but the stylization of the impotent. Government is doing shit, all over the world. As in no other period, we have the tools to Technicolor dream the disasters we are approaching. But it is as if we are in a magnetic sleep. Mock democracy, which is in the stage when the oligarchs pilfer as much as they can, is the new form of democracy. You can demonstrate against it. You can twitter against it. You can make fun of it from the sidelines. It doesn’t matter. Parties exist, now, so that party elites can massage messages, on the one hand, to get an American idolish favorable handcount, and, on the other hand, to amass enough favors for the plutocrats to open the doors for themselves and their families and friends.

Thus, the reaction among the masses of letting a thousand flowers bloom – from buying hundred thousand dollar electric vehicles to writing devastating, Zizek laced critiques of the latest HBO craze. As the world turns to vinegar, there is a mass sentiment that somebody needs to turn around the machine. Or even turn off the machine. But “somebody” is nobody.

Which brings me (spitball two!) to Clint Eastwood (to whom I have three magic words: Krapps Last Tape! Rarely have I ever seen a role and an actor come together with the inevitability of,  well, the historical necessity of overthrowing capitalism. Performance of a lifetime, I’m telling you!)  I watched the Jon Stewart show about the Republican convention, and thought Stewart made a very astute analysis of invisible Obama. But when I went and watched the speech, I noticed that the Comedy Show elided one key moment. It was the moment in which Eastwood said that there are twenty three million unemployed people in the U.S., and he found this disgusting.

I thought that was a beautiful moment; but it was clearly a DIY political moment. The GOP has no intention of finding any way, whatsoever, to hire those twenty three million unemployed people. And Obama’s administration has spent four years stoically never, ever speaking about them. Of course, in 2009, they could have all, every jack, been hired by the government. That would have cost a trillion dollars. But the Obama administration had another New Deal program in place, lending 16 trillion dollars at ultra low rates to Wall Street. That program worked. I’m pleased to say that the 1 percent, who suffered a major  asset hit, started to recover by 2011 and are now on track to continue engrossing more income as a percentage of the national income than they have since 1928. As for their incalculable wealth, well, did I mention the New Yorker profile with the guy buying 2 100,000 dollar electric cars?

Well, Clint was, as anybody could see, mostly off his rocker. And still, that it is only a man off his rocker who dares mention the number of unemployed people in the country shows how we have swallowed the premise of mock democracy hook, line and sinker.

“Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely--(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again)--great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality--(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)--unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire--(Krapp curses loader, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)--my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.”   

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...