Saturday, July 05, 2014

irony and radicalism

 Thomas Mann’s Reflections of a Non-political man is a hodgepodge of self-pity, brilliant cultural analysis, and the special brand of pure ludicrousness that is Mann’s special style, his mark on the German language that he accepts in all its bureaucratic curlicues, letting them lead on until one becomes aware of a certain ridiculousness – as though a line of goosesteppers suddenly found themselves doing the can-can. The book arose out of Mann’s total depressin as  Germany was going down to defeat in World War I, which Mann couldn’t understand or accept. Even worse, the whole thing seemed to bear out the predictions of his  Francophile brother, Heinrich, who made a career, as a novelist, in gleefully attacking the whole order of Wilhelmine Germany.

It leans right, these Reflections, then, but in a very odd and sneaky way – reactionary outbursts are then mugged by subtle qualifiers before they can get too glorious and lyrical; the moans and groans of a patriot are touched up so as to seem almost mockable, a transvestite parody of patriotism, and the pursuit of theses that are based on simple oppositions soon collapse those oppositions, making the reader wonder whether he blinked, somewhere, missed something essential, should we get off the train now, have we missed the stop??? Mann repudiated the rightwing association with his work later in the 1920s, but he didn’t repudiate the Observations. He sublimated them, so to speak, in Magic Mountain, where points of view were not argued by an essayist but by characters thrust into a particular situation and context. In other words, the essayist’s privilege – to vigorously represent a point of view – is ceded to the novelist’s privilege – to give free play to all points of view and – the modernist move – privilege none of them, not even the novelist’s own, so long as they serve the greater pattern. The didactic moment in the story is thus disarmed by form and - a key word for Mann - irony.

In the Reflections, the word irony crops up dozens of times, so often in fact that we begin too wonder what the word means. Mann gets down to really telling us in the last chapter in the book, entitled Irony and radicalism, which presents a view of radicalism that would not have seemed unusual in 1919, when it was published, but that seems peculiar now, for us, who can barely remember when Leftism was a triumphal creed, and every party organizer knew that history was on his or her side. Mann rather brushes by this radical certainty – he grasps the discontent with the order of things as is, but not the ferocious sense of the future. Thus, he calls the radicals nihilists – since the alternative, life as it is lived or utopian abstractions, seems to him to boil down to the notion of better nothing than this.

This notion is not completely dead on the right: although the Hayekian critique of central planning rests on the rather bogus assumption that no central planner can have information complete enough to actually efficiently plan an economy, it really rests on a notion nicely spelled out by Michael Polanyi: there is a kind of information – tacit knowledge – that simply can’t be reduced to the calculable. Life, in other words, is a slapstick affair.

In opposing irony to radicalism – in equating, in fact, the ironist with the conservative – Mann gets some purchase on what irony means for him. I don’t know if, by this point, Mann had read Kierkegaard, but Kierkegaard, another conservative, had sniffed down this path before. For Mann, irony seems to be a way of privileging life over the intellect. At least, that is how it seems to start out. But – just as in Kierkegaard – irony has to be understood as a movement. If the radical choses the intellect over life, the ironist does not simply choose life over the intellect. Rather – the second movement of irony – the ironist understands the impossibility of life without intellect, and the secret longing of intellect for life, for embodiment. The ironist, seeing this, doesn’t have a plan of action – this is the heart of the ironist’s conservatism:

“Still, irony is always irony with regard to both sides: it is directed as much against life as against the intellect, and this takes from it the great gesture, this gives it melancholy and modesty.”
Irony here pokes through the surface of the comic, in which it sees life and intellect or spirit entangled, and sees this eternal wrangle as something melancholy – not richly tragic, but melancholy, which is not just a modern substitute for the ‘tragic’ feeling, but an absolute modification of it.

Mann took irony as his authorial method: though one finds ideas in his novels, and there are characters who spout Mann’s ideas, in fact, one shouldn’t take the novels as a vindication of those ideas,or the characters that spout them as heros. There is a famous dispute about whether, in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s narrator, Zeitblum, is meant to represent Mann’s ideas about Germany in the twentieth century. But given the ironic method, it would make sense that Mann’s ideas, in Zeitblum’s mouth, become something different – something fatally vulnerable to objection – and that Zeitblum himself isn’t quite equal to – quite worthy of, so to speak – the story he tells of his friend, the genius Adrian Leverkühn.  

All this, then, comes out of this 1919 book. But a funny thing happened to the radicals of the twentieth century: they began to combine their leftism with irony, very much on Mann’s terms. It didn’t take long, actually – Weimar radicalism – that spanning Tucholsky, Brecht and Benjamin – already made Mann’s vision of the positivist radical seem outdated on the edges. In the West, by the fifties, no radical intellectual would think of making bombastic pledges about engineering the future without hedging them closely about with irony. In fact, the critique of the privileging of the rational over the living migrated to lefty discourse.  

And yet, the deepening of what one might call the artistic vision of the left came at a price: its increasing impotence. In one of those paradoxes that are worth contemplating, as the left adopted a more and more critical stance towards instrumental rationality populations – including the wage class – came increasingly to regard the inheritors of the right as better organizers of the economy and of social welfare than the left precisely because they weren’t afraid of instrumental rationality – quite the contrary. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The muses have not fled...

When BMW introduced its in-car navigation system in Germany, the system was a model of technological excellence, using a computer-generated voice to give highly accurate information about the car’s location and how to get to almost all city and street addresses. Unfortunately, a large number of drivers had a strong negative reaction to this technological marvel and demanded a product recall.  The problem? The navigation system had a female voice. German drivers felt uncomfortable with, and untrusting of, a “female” giving directions! BMW acquiesced and switched to a “male” synthetic voice.

When I dial a company, the routine is that a pre-recorded female voice ‘answers’ and tells me that I should press one for x, two for y, etc. When I plug in a GPS, a pre-recorded female voice responds to my question, how do I get to Y, with instructions that consist of turn left or turn right and the name of the street or highway all the way there. When I go on a subway, a pre-recorded female voice will tell me “doors closing”. When I go to the licence bureau, I’m handed a ticket with a letter and a number on it that corresponds to a window, and I listen while a pre-recorded female voice calls out the letter number combination  that are will tell me what windows are open.
Not the same voice. But a female voice. Washed of any accent. Blanched, you could say, to the whitest white degree.
There are the ocassional male voices. Right off hand, I can think of the throaty, airplane piloty voice in the airport warning you not to carry packages for strangers or let your bags out of sight for an instant.
But mainly we are surrounded by these fantasmal female voices.
It is as though, in some parody of the 70s feminist demand that female voices be heard, they are now being heard, evacuated of all personality, conveying the corporate message.  From the gnostic philosophy of history, parody plays a major role in the dynamic of universal history – it is a wild card and has no pre-existing political value attached to it. I am tempted to call these omnipresent, instructing and ordering voices the correlate of lean-in feminism, but that would be a cheap shot. Still, I suspect something deeply patriarchal is happening here that is culturally connected to the celebration of corporate CEOs as models of feminism.
I have read little about this phenomenon from a feminist perspective, although surely there is a paper out there. Francois Ribac, in an article in L’homme et la societe (1997), wrote a long essay on what he called La voix re-composée, these “top model” voices that are “re-assuring and dynamic, young and without accent.”  I’m not sure about the young: it is characteristic of these voices that they erase their characteristics. Ribac was interested in the fact that our projection of our own humanity on these voices is in contradiction with the fact that they are blends, synthetics.  They are machines. He traces the history of the voice-off to moments in musical history. This is, to my mind, a less interesting aspect of them, or I should say, I am less interested in the way the synthetic voice emerges in musical history than how it emerged as a corporate voice.
Clifford Nass, who has done a lot of work in the voxsynth field, describes an experiment he made with voices and stereotyping in The Man who lied to his laptop. He created a fake auction space on the web, in which voices describe items.
“Participants clicked an audio link to hear the description of each item read by a “spokesperson.” Half of the participants heard all of the descriptions read by a female voice; the other half heard them read by a male voice. To make the absurdity of stereotyping absolutely clear, we used computer-generated voices that varied only in pitch: the voices sounded more like male and female Martians than anything human. After they were presented with each item, participants were asked about their feelings about the product, the pitch, and the spokesperson.”

Anthropologically, I’d be careful about using the word “absurd”. In fact, anthropologists have found that in the “interface” with the world, personhood is routinely ascribed to beings that the educated elite in the developed countries have learned not to ascribe personhood to. There’s a beautiful and definitive essay by   Sergio della Bernardina, ‘A person not completely like the others: the animal and its status” which mixes field work and the literature on rituals in which cruel things are done to animals to make the point that the cruelty is often seen, by the participants, as a form of justice for the faults the persons – the hunted or sacrificed – committed. Bernardina recounts a ‘game’ in Spain which consists of  burying a  cock up to its neck and then, among the members of the  group that surrounds it, taking turns, blindfolded, in trying to detach its head with the blow of a stick.  The players, or one of the players, repeats a set phrase: “It’s over, m. le coq, to sleep with the chickens.”

In the cases of the voices, this is what Nass found:
“… the “female” voice did a better job selling the stereotypically female products, while the “male” voice did a better job selling the stereotypically male products. In addition, when voice “gender” matched product “gender,” participants reported that the descriptions seemed more accurate. In other words, matching the gender made the descriptions themselves more believable and the voices selling them seem more expert. Given that the voices were not human, the speakers obviously could not know anything about the content nor use the products!”

If we take a clue from Nass and cherchez le stereotype, perhaps we will find that the persistently female voice on the GPS corresponds to the notion that the female sits on the passenger side and the male drives. However, since this stereotype doesn’t override, among German BMW drivers, other of their reactions (although I must admit that anecdote sounds a little too pat), we have to unravel the overdetermination involved in the production and diffusion of these disembodied voices, the muses of our discontents and lost moments.

Monday, June 30, 2014

blackwater killers again

James Risen has a story in the NYT about the Blackwater mercenary force in Iraq here.

I wrote many blog posts about Blackwater as killers. Here's one from October 26, 2007, part of a futile attempt to get justice for Raheem Khalif, President Maliki's bodyguard, who was killed in cold blood by Andrew Moonen, who was then helped by the then ambassador to Iraq, Margaret Scobey, to escape to the U.S. Scobey as I pointed out many times was an abettor of the murder. 

In the culture of impunity that reigns in the US, Moonen never faced charges. Scobey was promoted by the US State department. Khalif's family - well, they are part of the low use throw away population, so no newspaper has cared to interview them. Here's a story from 2010, when Obama's Justice Department was too busy avoiding charging banks for their felonies to charge mercenaries for theirs. 

This is the beginning of my series of posts:

If a big bug gets into your house from the outside, don't you sometimes try to help it back outside, instead of crushing it into its insect jellies?

In the case of butterflies and crickets, we often show some respect for life. So it is with mounting anguish that I have waited, since the news was first reported at the beginning of October, for charges to be raised against Andrew Moonen – you remember Andrew Moonen. Andrew Moonen reduced an Iraqi bodyguard of President Maliki to his jellies last December. It was a Christmas present to himself. Wanting to murder an Iraqi, and having the means and the proximity, being a hired employee of Blackwater in the Green Zone, he got drunk and hunted for one. And in cold blood he slew one. 

This is first degree murder.

He wasn’t arrested. Rather, the State Department in the Green Zone in Iraq, having been informed that he was drunk, that he slew an Iraqi man, and that he was in the custody of Triple Canopy, another private military contractor, did deliberately and with malice aforethought contrive to have Moonen escape Iraq. The acting ambassador at the United States Embassy in Baghdad was fully informed of, and approved this operation. Her name is Margaret Scobey.

Andrew Moonen should be charged with murder in the first degree. Margaret Scobey should be charged with being an accessory to murder. 

I’ve been waiting for a month for some action to develop. I’ve been waiting for some outrage to be expressed. Of course, I am not naïve. In the politics of contrived outrage, killing an Iraqi man ranks much lower than, say, calling the man a faggot among those of liberal sensibilities. If Moonen had been accused of hate speech, an outrage story would race from one fine liberal blog to another. Or if Andrew Moonen had said something mean about America’s fine soldiers. What if he called them phoney soldiers? That would be truly outrageous. But he only took the life of a so far unnamed Iraqi guard. It was only murder. And Andrew Moonen isn’t even a celebrity. He isn’t a Britney. He isn’t a Paris. He is only a ‘security’ employee. He only was having good American fun. He only wanted a fun Christmas, one in which he could dabble in Iraqi blood. He got his wish. And for his murder, they docked his pay. 

Although it is a bothersome even to mention it, it is murder. And though it is even more exasperating in some circles to mention any crimes related to the elite, like Margaret Scobey – who isn’t, like, some hip hop trash that we can casually toss into prison as we would toss an empty beer can in the trash – she was an accessory to murder. Murder is a crime that, presumably, you can still get in trouble for even in D.C. It isn't like perjury, which you can only be charged with if you aren't Republican or connected to a D.C. powerbroker. 

Charge them now. Please, if you read this and you have a blog, consider writing a post demanding that Andrew Moonen be charged with murder, and Margaret Scobey be charged with accessory to murder.

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...