Saturday, December 14, 2013

holmes 1

One of the great ideas of childhood is spying.
The conceptual schema you use when you are eight is far from a computer program, with its tight binaries. It resembles, instead, a bunch of brightly colored hot air balloons, trailing strings that you crush in your hot little palm.
Spying was a particularly grand balloon. There were two types of spying: one was on animals, the other on humans. Spying on animals meant lurking behind a tree or stepping carefully down a path to view a dog or a cat or a raccoon or a bird doing something doggish, cattish, raccoonish or birdish that, presumably, would have been disturbed if your approach had been sensed. The other kind of spying was on sisters, brothers, neighborhood kids, and sometimes grownups like at a party where the party was upstairs in your house and the kids were supposed to be downstairs gathered around the tv and instead you were hiding in the shadow of the hallway taking in adult laughter and jokes and shit.
Spying is a peculiar form of seeing and hearing. Usually the senses are mere vehicles for capturing sense objects, but in spying, the objects were given a somewhat spurious glamour by being observed or heard without the object knowning that she or he was being observed or being heard. A remnant of this is still with me. When I go into a store and I look at the monitor that broadcasts what the cameras throughout the store are showing, the store looks automatically more interesting, more tabloid, more like a crime scene, rather than a buncha trails to the peanut stand and the cooler with the beers.
The glorious idea of spying was eventually combined with the glorious pasttime of reading. This happened at some point in the fifth or sixth grade, and I know exactly the point of fusion: the study in scarlet. Or perhaps another Sherlock Holmes stories. I devoured them all at that age.
Now, by then I was fairly well acquainted, as a faithful Baptist Sunday School goer, with the Bible. The Bible was a great book partly because certain sentences were supposed to leap off the page and lodge in your memory and conscience. It was that kind of book – biblical, you might say. It turned out that the Sherlock Holmes saga was the same kind of thing. Certain situations, certain dialogues, certain sayings of Holmes carried that same talismanic weight. I can still recall being blown away when Holmes, in The Study in Scarlet, disclaims any knowledge of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, about which Watson has just informed him:
"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
"To forget it!"
"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
In spite of the fact that my bent was to the fool’s position – I was a boy who liked nothing better than an odd fact, or any fact, the population of Bristol, Virginia, for instance –this struck me as a view to contend with, rather like offering your right cheek to a person who had just slapped you on the left cheek.
There were, as well, Holmes’ hints about how to go about spying on people – or being a detective, which came to the same thing. In a Case of Identity – a rather obscure story, really, the one about the typist with the inherited income whose stepfather tries to prevent her from marrying and moving her income away from home -  Holmes’ presents the difference between observation and seeing that was, to me, as the burning coal was to Isaiah:
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“How often?”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
This little passage has clung to me ever since I read it, in almost irritating way, and I think of it often when I climb the stairs from the garage to our apartment. I’m old enough now to suspect that there are some steps missing in this parable of the steps. For instance, it is obviously possible to know the number of the steps and never to have seen them – in which case I am not sure we would speak of observation. This problem leads us to the necessary and sufficient conditions for distinguishing seeing from observation, and perhaps leads us to doubt Holmes’s pat common sense.
This, of course, leads us to Holmes’ famous method. First, a little excursis.

In the great age of the British Renaissance, which stretches – if one pulls hard enough – from Bacon to Newton, the most advanced thinkers wanted to free science from the cage of logic. Following Bacon, the way they did so is subordinate deduction to induction. The latter was what let us out of the dreary deducing of what is the case, and freed us to observe what is the case, or to bend circumstances in such a way that we could observe it in experiment. In this sense Newton – to the embarrassment of philosophers of science since – was quite serious about his hypothesi non fingo – I make no hypotheses. In the nineteenth century, this became a problem, because philosophers – notably Mill – were worried about what science was doing outside the cage of logic. In the twentieth century, of course, attacking induction became something like target practice for philosophers, who from Mach to Popper were down on it. And yet the hypothetical-deductive model, to us, seems more than a little musty, since we have crept back toward’s induction’s corner, with our little Bayesian nets all aquiver. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

a story from texas

There are few states in the Union that love Jesus as much as Texas. And there is no state in the nation that loves rich people as much as Texas. But there’s always been a debate as to whether Texas loves Jesus or rich people more.  As a subtheme to this debate, there is the vexing question of Jesus’s own pronunciamento that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle Texas Christians fasten, instead, to the parable of the talents as a more reasonable picture of Jesus’s own Texashood – for surely the point of the parable of the talents – that is the one in which the bad servant buries the money his master gave him before going on a trip instead of investing it –  is that Jesus wants you to be rich. Jesus, wept – but that’s the problem with using a metaphor among a group of literalist monomaniacs.
In any case, the solution to the problem of what Texas loves most was recently solved in Dallas, where Judge Jean Boyd, one of God’s own Party, heard the case of Ethan Couch, a sixteen year old who, drunk on stolen beer, plowed into a car by the side of the road and killed four people, while injuring a handful of others. One of the killed was a youth minister. Now, we know a little about Texas justice: we know, for instance, that a black man or even a cracker from a broken household would not be allowed to run over and kill a man of God without condign punishment. But in Couch’s case, Judge Boyd faced a real dilemma: Couch was the son of a very wealthy man, Fred Couch, the owner of Cleburn Metal Works in Fort Worth. Thus you can see the knotty value problem: does Texas love the rich more than Jesus?
Well, in the end it was no contest. Harder it is to obey Jesus’s injunctions about the rich than it is for the savior to slip into an exlusive Fort Worth country club (Jesus, ahem, was a, ahem, Jew): Couch was punished, as the whole world knows now, by being sentenced to a resort/therapy center, with a cost of 450 thou a year.
He will not serve in a Texas jail because, as his lawyer pleaded, he had a case of affluenza – so wealthy are his parents and so spoiled is the child that he doesn’t understand how to be responsible.
“Affluenza” has quickly become a laugh word – but before it was a Dallas psychiatrist’s diagnosis, it was a term of art employed, in the nineties, to criticize the result of “selfish capitalism” – it was defined as a sort of keeping up with the Trump’s disease, which resulted in outbreaks of minimansions and SUVs. Couch’s psychiatrists and Judge Boyde, however, have troped this idea brilliantly by making being rich not only a condition better than any  other on earth, but, as well, a get out of jail card to be employed whenever the rich get into trouble, since it proves they are abnormal. Indeed, they are – that is the whole meaning of being in the one percentile class.
However, the cause of this cause celebre, Ethan Couch, obviously has some good years ahead of him. He is already the stuff out of which successful private equity movers and shakers are made.  There’s something Romneyesque about the lad, who will go far.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Marx and modernity's sensorium

Like any other writer, Marx is not all one block, even though he is often received as one block, labeled Marx. Marx often changes his mind, or at least his perspective, for instance, revamping the way he used alienation in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts to how he uses the notion in the German Ideology and again in Capital, vol. 1. However,  Marx never simply erases or annuls the conceptual contents he has used in the past – rather, he continually switches from the content to the form and back again to both ironize a content and locate it in a conceptual system that is always at work, one way or another, in the practices of everyday life. It is usual to attribute this method to Hegel, but myself, I think that is being much too philosophisch. Lenin once remarked that “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” – and I would say, along similar lines, that Marx’s method equals Hegelian dialectic plus the railroad. That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but Marx was well aware that one of the unintended results of technology was a revolution in perspective. While it is easy enough, abstractly, to dream of going sixty miles an hour in a vehicle from point a to point b, the “industrial experience” (to use Schivelbusch’s term) of being a railroad passenger and seeing something never seen by human beings before – to wit, a landscape going by at sixty miles an hour - was a distinct and disturbing sensation, one that had to be absorbed by nineteenth century populations, along with other industrially created perceptual experiences. The list of technological improvements in the Communist manifesto is also a list of changing sensory models. Thus, if Marx takes over and revamps the technostructure of Hegel’s dialectic, it is in coordination with the questions posed by modernity’s sensorium. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

the wilderness of piss and a story

In one of the non-serious seasons of my life – I’m referring, of course, to the grad student years – I too was arrested in a protest aimed at getting the University of Texas to divest from investments in what was then apartheid dominated South Africa  - which, in retrospect, was rather like protesting a leech to give up blood. But it was worth the old college try.
In New Orleans, in my pre graduate student days, I’d been a member of an organization dedicated to keeping Reagan out of Nicaragua, which meant in effect making a sign and waving it bravely as we marched down Canal street, while on the other end of Canal street, anti-Castro Cuban emigrants waved their own sign and hankered for our blood. A good time was had by all, and if we weren’t entirely successful, we did provide gainful employment to the not so undercover cops who’d hang in the demonstration and try to secretly photograph us – an art in which they’d been imperfectly instructed. I fear these guys, otherwise, would have had to make their living the honest way, by selling their blood to the blood bank – we aren’t talking a high level of competence here.
But when I went to UT I became pretty politically indifferent. Of course, I was a grad student, so I considered myself terribly political and radical, deconstructing the whole Western order of things, which, all things considered, did not make them quake in their boots at the highest levels of the FBI.
Still, I did go to some demos. As I remember the sequence, probably wrongly, it all started when my friend, Janet, along with some other friends of hers, was arrested by the UT security cops for speaking up to loudly to a small crowd in the shadow of UT’s Phallic symbol. I remember a photograph splashed in the UT student newspaper, and it seemed from the photo that the cop was getting an earful. Perhaps, one can hope, a lifechanging experience! This, then, was the inspiration for making the world historical leap from savaging John Stuart Mill’s little known Essay on Liberty and the Bubble Gum Trade (an obscure work that was obviously the key to the whole oeuvre) to practice, which I spelled praxis at that time.
The divestment issue got mixed up, quickly, with the free speech issue. When my friend was arrested, the rule was that you couldn’t have any demonstration in the shadow of the Phallic Symbol because it would disturb the post-prandial slumber of UT’s president, whose inspirations came out of these afternoon naps – new advances in East Austin for the University, destroying poor folks’ rentals right and left – cutting down on extra costs by eliminating insurance for TAs – just wonderful stuff. At the time, the administration had the right to ban anything or anyone at anytime on the campus. The rules for UT had been written, apparently, by the same committee Enver Hoxha used in Albania, with outstanding results vis a vis law and order and all.
Well, critical mass was soon achieved, as everybody who hung out in the student union café got arrested protesting South African investments and free speech. It was a glorious moment. Myself, I was particularly proud of the fact that we – that I – was actually handcuffed. Admittedly, they used these plastic handcuffs that underestimated my dangerous nature – hadn’t I just shown that John Stuart was being racist phallocentric and centrophallic about the bubble gum trade? To quote Nietzsche, I was obviously dynamite. However, I consoled myself that they underestimated Clark Kent, too. The upshot was that the Enver Hoxha advisory board came up with new rules of engagement on the UT campus for free speech – an area was actually designated! A victory that was heard round the world.
Meanwhile, of course, as we now know, a crewe of hoodlums and halfwits, also known as Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy team, were banding together with the racist South African army to throw back “soviet aggression” in Southern Africa. The endgame, however, was exactly the reverse of what Reagan’s hoods were expecting – as soon as the “soviet threat” as well as the soviet union ceased, the thousand year reich of whiteness in South africa crumbled. In the post cold war era, there has been a distinct lack of moral leaders – in fact, as I was writing this, I was trying to think of one besides Mandela. Vaclev Havel was the only other person who sprang to mind, and Havel, notoriously, became a true blue supporter of the occupation of Iraq, which sorta puts him out of running in the moral sweepstakes, unless you excuse the mere 450 thou dead Iraqis and the two million refugees. I don’t.

But we all know that we’ve been living in a piss wilderness since 1990 or so: the turn inward, to private liberations, and the great advance of public squalor, are the hallmarks of our not so great times. This, I think, is why Mandela’s death is being felt so much. 

The synthetic progressive

I have been searching for a term to encompass one of the great features of capitalism – the non-necessary synthesis. I guess I will call it ...