Friday, September 19, 2014

blood from a stone

Saakashvili, in his time, was a favorite of both the NYT and the Bush Whitehouse. Now we know that he fortified his backbone with “bite massage” while he was standing tall for democracy and against the current incarnation of Satan, Hitler and Stalin – Putin is who I’m obviously talking about, for those of you who are behind on today’s fave devils. Of course, being in power and challenging the enemy of all mankind is a tiring job, and we shouldn’t question the perks of office, like the state paying to fly out the  masseuse that gave him the said bite massage, Dorothy Stein. In fact, we shouldn’t question any of the money that disappeared during his time in office.
It is a funny thing about mysteriously sourced wealth. When it flies out of a country by way of dictators or funny presidents, the U.S. and Western european media people and scholars and governments tut tut about the corruption of these backwaters. They are so corrupt! And yet, apparently there is no taint in taking that mysteriously sourced wealth. Nicholas Shaxson, in Treasure Island, tells the story of the Corruption Index – a way of mapping the peculation of countries that receives a lot of press attention, and that lets us know just how filthy Nigeria or Iraq or Georgia is when it comes to bribe taking and the lot. This index, concentrating on that kind of dirty money, usually makes the US, the UK, Switzerland France and all the others seem like wholesome and uncorrupted paradises. But a lesser known index was established by the Tax Justice Network in 2009, to rank countries according to how much secrecy they provide to global finance. In other words, how many hidey holes they have for just that dark money. And on this index, the US is no. 1. The UK is number 5. And so on.
If, as some estimate, trillions of dollars have been taken out of the poorest countries over the last three decades, we know where it went. Miami. Houston. London. Paris. Geneva. Mysteriously funded Williamsberg.
And this is, somehow, not as funny.

It is not bite massage, but the vampire’s kiss.

fictionable world

“Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation.” This is one of the wonderful lines in Wallace Stevens “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” – a poem that makes much of that “toward”, that motion which, seemingly, is oriented towards an endpoint that is itself on an absolute scale – it is supreme – and at the same time – being “a supreme fiction”  – seemingly, diminishingly, not the only one, leaving us rather puzzled about the entire movement and meaning that will be convened in the poem’s sweep.  
 I am thinking about this poem in relation to Michael Wood’s Literature and the Taste of Knowledge. The book gestures a lot to Empson, since it is made up of Wood’s Empson Lectures given at Cambridge. Levi-Strauss once said that totem’s are good to think with, and one could say the same for this book: it is in that way evidently totemic. Like a good totem pole, it mounts one head on another, beginning with Henry James and ending with John  Banville – it is mostly novelists – and so we have can think of the tradition that is being performed. But there is also the strange notion of the taste of knowledge. Wood  procedes to mutilate or distort the idea of knowledge until we give up our simple idea that we know what knowing is, and take another look.
It is a book that quotes philosophers, but isn’t philosophy – rather, it is at the crossroads of philosophy and literature, which is not a spot haunted by many philosophers, unfortunately.
But here’s the thing I latched onto in reading Wood’s book – the idea of fictionable worlds. The lovely phrase comes originally from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, where it is a play on the fashionable world. Wood sees the immense idea that could be here, and how it helps us to think about fiction by asking whether there could be a world without fiction. How could a world actively resist its fictionability? Perhaps this is the melancholic idea behind Adorno’s famous phrase about there being no more poetry after Auschwitz.  There is a point in which the fictionable impulse dies.  
That at least is one possible reading of the limits of the fictionable world. However, realistically,  there has been poetry after Auschwitz, and there have even been novels about Auschwitz.
So lets find another point of entry to the fictionable world, one that Wood doesn’t deal with, even as he intimates the direction I want to go in. That point of entry is the error, the mistake, the misperception.
The comedy of errors is, in Shakespeare, essential to comedy at all. Without mistakes of identity, disguises,  mishearings and misinterpretations – think of Malvolio, for instance -  there would be no comedic business.
Two of the great novelists of the twentieth century – Nabokov and Queneau – are specialists in the mistake. Pnin, for instance, is wound around a mistake that is signaled at the very beginning of the book by the omniscient and ominous narrator – Pnin is on the wrong train. From whence he proceeds to the wrong bus. Queneau, in Chiendent, sets the plot in motion with a mistaken inference by the terrible Madame Cloche, who thinks that Pierre Le Grand and Etienne Marcel are planning to rob pere Taupe. This misunderstanding has many levels. It derives from a misunderstanding of a phrase that Cloche overheard; and it leads her to infer that Pere Taupe, contrary to his appearance as a miserable quasi-bum, is actually a mythical miser.
If the world and logic were one and the same thing, these errors would cancel themselves out. They couldn’t cause anything, because they wouldn’t have any substance. From the moment that we see that logic and the world are two separate things, we see how the world is fictionable.  We see the work of error, we see how it blooms in the world. Michael Wood touches briefly on a question that was once vexatious – what use is art, or how can art be useful – to get to the question of how literature knows things. This locution – taking an object that is known and making it a knower, as in such book titles as “what buildings know” or “what poems know”, etc., is a contemporary fashion that, I can’t help but think, was helped along by the fact that computers, which we all use, seem to do things like knowing. In the early modern era, the displacement of knowing from the consciousness to the object was a principle in alchemy and, in general, occult knowledge. Even then, the fact that a place “has a memory” – a theory of Cornelius Agrippa – was not attributed, ultimately, to the place, but rather to spirits.  The question of the cognitive function of literature is, though, a bastard continuation of the great aesthetic debate between the old purists, the high modernists, for whom literature was autonomous and removed from the world of use, and the counter-modernists, the realists (socialist and otherwise), for whom literature was a means to an end – usually consciousness raising, sometimes outrage, sometimes pointing out a social ill.
That debate, while it is no longer conducted on the lofty, Adorno-ian plane, is still definitely around. My own tastes are mostly for the high modern monuments, but I don’t think my tastes encompass all literature, and it is easy to see how a literary work  could also be didactically important, or raise consciousness, etc.
We could look at this another way by using elements of Victor Turner’s idea of “ritual process”, and in particular the ideas of anti-structure and liminality. Turner writes of these things under the general notion of communitas – a non-structured, non-hierarchical gathering that inevitably hardens into organization.  But I think of this non-structured thrusting of the liminal as something larger than communitas. It is, in fact, the fictionable world, the world in which mistakes actually produce ontologically real events – in which the nothing of falsehood is a cause. The world in which we pretend logic and the world are identical bears a name: the serious world. But the world in which logic and the world suddenly separate is harder to name. It is the ludicrous world. It can be terrible, or terribly funny, or both.

That is an aspect of the world that fascinates me. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

the war of the geriatric fantasists

Going to war with ISIS without even a discussion seems to be the order of the day.
Myself, let me play the crow and croak doom upon the whole business.
There were two news items recently that made me think that, once again, the war will be fought in such a way that it will be unwinnable. Not that IS might not collapse, but it will only give way to some similar organization.
The two news items are:
1.      The NYT story about IS oil that includes this graf:
Western intelligence officials say they can track the ISIS oil shipments as they move across Iraq and into Turkey’s southern border regions. Despite extensive discussions inside the Pentagon, American forces have so far not attacked the tanker trucks, though a senior administration official said Friday “that remains an option.” 

And the hearings today included this passage:      
2.    “It really comes down to building a coalition,” Dempsey replied [to senator Lindsey Graham], “so that what the Arab Muslim world see is them rejecting ISIS, not us…”
“They already reject ISIL,” Graham interjected. “Do you know any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL?”
“I know major Arab allies who fund them,” Dempsey replied
Yeah, but do they embrace them? They fund them because the Free Syrian Army couldn’t fight Assad. They were trying to beat Assad. I think they realized the folly of their ways. Let’s don’t taint the Mid East unfairly.”
I don’t think a lot of people have noticed the undercurrent in that exchange. They don’t just fund them because they were trying to beat Assad, they were urged on by Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator McCain to fund them. The tainting Graham doesn’t want is the tainting of his own hideous record. There was a nice article about it in the June Atlantic.

It will of course go down the memory hole that today’s hawks were yesterday’s material allies of ISIS. Today’s doves – myself for instance – will of course be lined up as avid supporters of our beheading friends when we point such things out, now that we have decided, in the typical American way, to declare war (except not a really really war so we can tiptoe around the constitution) against those terrorists.
The American way of war, both in D.C, and the press, is to look at it like a video game. And like a video game, the forces appear where they are when you turn it on. They are programmed into the game. Thus, there is no real history between the players.
And since they are programmed in, there is no need to ask questions about even the recent past. You would think, if we are at war against IS, that we would talk about their run of luck. After all, what we are proposing is that our allies come up with forces and throw them into battle against ISIS. Hmm, but what we are ignoring is… we already have trained allies and they have already thrown themselves into battle against ISIS and so far ISIS has destroyed them. I have not read all the transcript of the Senate hearing, but I can’t imagine that any senator spoke up and asked, let’s go over what happened in Mosul, when ISIS took it in June, and then proceeded to grab most of the Sunni heavy region of Iraq. Patrick Cockburn put the case very well back when that happened in the Independent, June 15, 2014:
“It is difficult to think of any examples in history when security forces almost a million strong, including 14 army divisions, have crumbled so immediately after attacks from an enemy force that has been estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 strong.
But once again, this fact – that the US not only assembled an army but a huge army, armed it with the latest equipment, and trained it, and watched it fall to pieces against ISIS – is treated as an irrelevancy, a little something to be sucked down the memory hole and not bother an important general with. Because this time we are going to train an army, a huge army, from various moderate terrorist groups on our side – oops, I meant freedom fighters – and this army, which will have had no experience, is going to be vastly well equipped, and it wil just roll ISIS like a heavyweight KOing a featherweight. Now, that the recent past shows that this is an absolute fantasy doesn’t mean that we can’t turn off the video game and then turn it on again and start over. And besides, as I have read in many a news report, it is the “universal” conviction in DC that we have to stop the ISIS.

We’ve been at war for thirteen years. We’ve learned absolutely nothing, and we are still led by geriatric fantasists.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...