Friday, November 29, 2013

philosopher buffoons

In the Hippias Minor, Socrates challenges Hippias, a vain sophist, over the matter of who is the better man: Achilles or Odysseus. Hippias holds that Achilles was the truest, strongest and best of the Greeks, while Odysseus was the wiliest – polytropos – or the falsest, the most cunning, the most deceptive. But Socrates, surprisingly enough, comes up with an argument to show that either both Achilles and Odysseus are mixtures of the good and the false, or that – if Achilles lies and deceptions come about involuntarily, whereas Odysseus voluntarily takes on the deceivers role, as Hippias maintains – that Odysseus must be the better man. This is the end of the dialogue:

Socrates: Is not justice either a sort of power or knowledge, or both ? Or must not justice inevitably be one or other of these ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Then injustice is a power of the soul, the more powerful soul is the more just, is it not ? For we found, my friend, that such a soul was better.
Hippias : Yes, we did.
Socrates : And what if it be knowledge ? Is not the wiser soul more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : And what if it be both ? Is not the soul which has both, power and knowledge, more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ? Is that not inevitably the case ?
Hippias : It appears to be.
Socrates : This more powerful and wiser soul, then, was found to be better and to have more power to do both good and disgraceful acts in every kind of action was it not ?
[376a] Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Whenever, then, it does disgraceful acts, it does them voluntarily, by reason of power and art ; and these, either one or both of them, are attributes of justice.
Hippias : So it seems.
Socrates : And doing injustice is doing evil acts, and not doing injustice is doing good acts.
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : Will not, then, the more powerful and better soul, when it does injustice, do it voluntarily, and the bad soul involuntarily ?
Hippias : Apparently.
[376b] Socrates : Is not, then, a good man he who has a good soul, and a bad man he who has a bad one ?
Hippias : Yes.
Socrates : It is, then, in the nature of the good man to do injustice voluntarily, and of the bad man to do it involuntarily, that is, if the good man has a good soul.
Hippias : But surely he has.
Socrates : Then he who voluntarily errs and does disgraceful and unjust acts, Hippias, if there be such a man, would be no other than the good man.”
Socrates pulls himself up short, here. How could he come to this conclusion? It is as if the Socratic method had revealed its daemonic side without, for once, the covering irony. But out of this little snatch of back and forth, in a dialogue that never receives very much attention, we see the outlines of the philosophe buffoon. The philospher buffoon stradles the line between the serious and the ludicrous. For him, the norm is vitiated by the normal, that dead even, never traveled thing – that opposite of polytropos, the word, applied to Odysseus, that sets the dialogue into motion. To never test one’s capacity for badness is not goodness, but sloth – the expression of the soul in a bad state. This is the social via negativa. Neither the right nor the left like it. School will not teach it. You have to learn it outside of school, if you want to learn it at all. It is at the root of many liberation movements. It clenched Frederick Douglass’ hand into a fist and made him beat his overseer, which was done as much to honour the bad man as the good man in Douglass’ soul – the whole man, not the candycane liberator, all fucking sweetness and light. In Dana Spiotta’s excellent novel, Eat the Document, which tracks a Weather style ‘terrorist’ named Caroline aka Mary up to the nineties in tandem with a nineties, Northwestern anti-globalist anarchist,  the anarchist actions are called ‘tests’. Caroline, in 1972, has the underground mantra down: Count on bad luck. In 1998, bad luck, for the children of America, is unimaginable.
Well, we are beginning to feel bad luck again, and perhaps on this circuit of the dialectic of the enlightenment we are also coming back to the anti-hero.
In the Tractate of Steppenwolf, that mysterious text magically popping up in the novel, the writer analyzes Harry Haller’s error in thinking that he is divided  between a man and a wolf – for even the wolf has more than two souls. We are, instead, knots of an indefinite number of selves, just like the Indian Gods in the Vedas.
“He would like to overcome the wolf in himself and become completely human, or renounce the human and at least live a unified, untorn life as a wolf. It is possible that he had never really precisely observed a wolf – because then he would have perhaps seen that even the animals have no unified souls, that even with them, behind the beautiful, austere form of the body lives a multitude of wants and circumstances, that even the wolf has its abysses in itself, that even the wolf suffers.” 
The Socrates of the Hippias Minor is closer to the Antisthenes’ Socrates than to Plato’s, closer to the figure who inspired cynicism than the figure who inspired Platonism. After all, the philosophical lineage runs not just from Socrates to Plato to all the history of philosophy that comes afterwards, but also from Socrates to Antisthenes to Diogenes up through many notable  anti-philosophical philosophers, the parasites, Bruno’s ass, Rameau’s nephew, and so on – a bunch of dangerous farceurs. But even the farceur suffers – although the true clown finds the tears of the clown a little too close to kitsch not to laugh at, afterwards.

Monday, November 25, 2013

annals of LA

Right after his daily bread, the human unit needs to feel superior to his coevals. Or some subgroup thereof. Those who lose this feeling are surely clinically depressed – such humility is pathological. Don’t look for it from saints – when God is your personal confidante, your edge is 24 carat. You can no more expect saints to be humble than you can expect the taste of a banana from a rutabaga.
The age old tale of the human unit from the sticks who comes to the big city falls, of course, under this generalization.  Although from Balzac to Franzen it is presented as a progress in civilization, the provincial from the provinces inevitably provincializes his city, or part of it, and proceeds to shoot spitball as the yokels from where he was at, or, in general, who are not counted among the elite of his quartier.
This is one of the reasons I love the NYT Styles section. It is hard wired to look down at the plebes, and it is written, surely, by former country mice, who have now wiggled into what they consider the cool set – aka heaven – and kick others who are striving towards that summit. Myself, like any other human unit, I’m all impressed. Plus of course I share certain of the prejudices.
This Sunday’s Styles section was particularly gratifying. As is often the case, many articles are devoted to looking down upon Los Angeles. When, in the old days – before we moved here in August – I read about L.A., I was basically ignorant of the geography, except of course for the four million hours of tv and film that I’d eyeballed, all set in LA. Now that I’ve gotten here, I’ve decided my schtick will be anti-LA. I’ll compare it invidiously to Paris. I’m confident the Styles staff would approve.  Thus I could revel in the snobbism on display in the story, “A Café where Los Angeles Goes to Wake Up.” The name of the sorry bistro is the Griddle Café, and it is lost somewhere on Sunset Strip. Apparently it is one of those breakfast joints thatevery American town boasts – joints with the bottomless cup coffee and the diabetes inducing pancakes, joints that smell of bacon. I’ve gone to these kind of places my whole life, which definitely shows a masochistic streak, as the experience is always the same. Once I’ve over-replenished myself, my inner teenage anorexic howls in my bowels the rest of the day.
Anyway, there are some great shots in the article. The pancakes of the Griddle are described in sickening detail, down to a truly disgusting gumbo called Mounds of Pleasure, “a stack of chocolate and coconut flapjacks buried in whipped cream, [which] should come with a straw.” Yum! Next to licking the  garbage disposal, I can think of nothing that I would less like to put in my mouth.  But the best shot is a quote from an expatriated New Yorker which, I think, will be my, my poetic summing up of LA:
“Another magazine editor, Janice Min of the Hollywood Reporter, offered this analysis, having moved to Los Angeles from Neew York three years ago: “There is no discovery in LA because  you’re always in a car heading for a specific destination. And because of that, people become very attached to the same few places, whether the food is edible or not, and it is usually not.”

Bada boom! I salute you, Janice Min! And I don’t envy your day at the office today after that crack…

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...