Saturday, November 22, 2014

the agony of not writing.

There is a plot of a short story by Sigizmund
Krzhizhanovskii that I would love to read, although I don't think it has been translated into English, yet, and I only read a summary of it by a russian scholar: “The Life and Times of a 
Thought”. The thought occurs in Immanuel Kant's brain, where it is happy and everything is glorious. And then it has to be written down, which depresses the thought utterly. Apparently, writing is to a thought what the rack is to a man being questioned by the Inquisition. What an idea!

Which brings me to this post. I’ve been pondering the Krzhizhanovskii story. I recognize in it not only a familiar modernist trope (writing as the scene of the agon – Flaubert’s famous throes of dispair on his sofa as he tears apart and rebuilds a single page in Madame Bovary), but also a human predicament. As literacy spread in the early modern era, so did the introduction of a writing system into people’s lives. Literacy did not always mean the ability to write – in France, for instance, many girls were taught to read but not to write. However, that disymmetry soon passed. Reading and writing seem irresistably attracted to each other, unlike, say, music and being able to read and write music. We have a hard time, now, imagining reading without writing.
Yes, then, writing as agon is a very recognizable social fact. As an editor of academic texts, I run into it in the highest reaches of the written. But the other side of the story is writing as an irresistable compulsion. Don’t take my word for it – look at the trillions of words freely poured out on the internet, writing that issues from no professional demand. Myself, I can step out from the billions who do this and offer my own not so unrepresentative experience of graphmania, in which the terms are reversed, and one suffers from the agon of not-writing.
I don’t know how far back my scribbling disease goes. I do know that by the tie the Internet reared up and ko-ed me, I was a definite notebook man, trailing acres of crabbed script around in all these ruled and unruled notebooks which promised, deceitfully, on the blank front page, to be the place, finally, where life and writing would converge.  Most of those notebooks I’ve lost over the years – some I’ve stored here and there, like a squirrel storing nuts. Since moving to LA, I’ve filled three or four notebooks, and of course this doesn’t include the fine flights of typing on the laptop.

I am not a “thought is language” mook – of course thought can exist unthought and unvoiced, just as an unfledged bird can exist in an egg.  However, the more one writes, the more the transition from thought to writing begins to change. Or, rather, scratch that, the more the revolution takes place, the transvaluation of values. Thought, which was once the master of writing, becomes increasingly the excuse for writing – rather than boarding the train of the sentence, the sentence hijacks the train of the thought. It is as if, in the movie in my head, I’ve increasingly become more interested in the subtitles than the images. Give me the subtitles alone!  I shout, sipping my coke and dwning my popcorn there in the dark.

I don’t think I am describing the existential position of an effete literatus here, either. Every self help book, at some point, advises writing things down, under the pretence that this will materialize one’s attention – as if that attention were some pre-existent, ambient thing. There are millions of live diaries, tweets, fb posts, comments in comments sections, etc., indicating to me that there are millions of people who write not only because it is required by whatever they do to bring home the bacon, but because they need to write.

Although email assassinated the US Postal service, I don’t accept the idea that it assassinated the letter. I have received thousands of letter-like emails – a thousand-fold more than the actual letters that I have received in my life. And children, my life has been long – I’m an ancient mariner who remembers the days of stamps and envelops.

Getting back to an earlier point – if in the 17th century there were thousands of peple who could read and not write, perhaps more than could do both, in the Internet age a weird inversion has occurred. Of course, the people who write, now, can read, but I suspect the decline in reading that thumbsuckers so lachrymosely lament in the papers and the high concept journals is connected to the veritable explosion of writing. I read many e-books and I’ve remarked that in the midst of reading them, even those, like Conrad’s Nostromo, that I am enjoying immensely, there’s a certain current of impatience that disturbs the placid, passive flow of the reading. Partly, of course, this is because my computer connects me up to the aforesaid trillions of words, so I suffer from over-choice. But partly too from the consciousness that I could be reading some irritating thing on the New Yorker blog and writing about it. It is as though I am chafed by the restraint of being a mere reader, a bystander.

This is writing as a pathological condition, and a very good reason to become a Buddhist.

Marx and the machine man

“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”.

“ “While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor, and the wealth and refinement of society, it leads to the impoverishment of the laborer until he sinks to the level of the machine. While labor incites the accumulation of capitals and thus the increasing well being of society, it makes the laborer ever more dependent on the capitalist, thrusts him into a greater competition, drives him into a rush of overproduction, from which follows an equivalent slump.”  - Marx

Leszek Kolakowski has written that Marx, unlike the socialists of the 40s, had a firmer grasp of the fact that capitalism was rooted in de-humanization. His economic analysis does not marginalize this insight, but builds upon it – which is why Marx never puts the market at the center of economic analysis, even as he is able to represent the reasons that mainstream economists do so.

In the Economic-Philosophical manuscripts, the figure for that de-humanization is the machine.

Not, I notice, an animal. Traditionally, the poor were compared to animals. Animals themselves occupy an ambiguous status in the popular mindset. Sergio della Bernardina, who did an ethnographic study of various rituals of cruelty to animals, from bear baiting to hunting, found that the concept of the person, outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, not an absolute.  How personhood intervenes in social practice can’t necessarily be predicted from our definition of personhood – in the cases Bernardina examines, the tormenting of a bear or a bull before it is killed does not happen because its tormenters lack a sense of the animals personhood, but precisely because they want to provoke aggression on the part of the animal to which they can respond, shifting the blame for the animal’s death to the animal itself as a person responsible for lashing out, for acting badly.

Since the sixties, it has been a popular theme among some  environmental historians have pursued that Christianity, by entrusting nature to man, devalued the environment. I think this is a misinterpretation of the Church’s larger history, which put it in the broad ancient tradition which, while it certainly did not ascribe property to animals, did understand them as dwelling things - they did have holes and nests. They had families. Christian iconography is actually replete with peaceful animals, with the redeemed sheep, with the dove, etc.

The animal might not have a property relationship with the world – they could be hunted, they could be sacrificed, they could be eaten – but they were, of course, God’s creation.

Not the machine. The machine not only has not property claim on the world – it has no home. It has no family. The son of man would not say, the chariots have sheds, the hammers have a box – although he’d know it, being a carpenters son. In the double logic of the dissolution of the human limit, when Descartes and the early modern natural philosophers compare the animal to the machine – and man, too – they both advance a new claim about the human relationship to the world (dissolving any limit to its use) while advancing a new and unrecognizable form of human – the man machine, the Other – as the human subject.

The poverty of the worker, who sinks to the state of a machine, is the flip side of the glory of the proletariat, the Other who is the subject of universal history. What does the poverty consist in? Marx sees it, of course, in terms of wealth – but also refinement – the “Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft.” I would call this poverty an imprisonment in routines. It is hard to resist jumping ahead to Freudian terms, having to do with obsessive behavior and neurosis, which, after all, is the mechanical coming to the surface – the arm or leg that doesn’t work, that has returned to dead matter.

A note more here onthe machine. It is easy to forget that the Descartes or Le Mettrie’s machine was an automaton, an entertainment. Court societies love F/X, whether it is Versailles, Hollywood or D.C. – but in real material terms, the automata did nothing more than demonstrate the uses of a winding mechanism. What Marx is talking about is not that kind of machine.

As Schivelbusch nicely puts it at the beginning of The Railway Journey, the Europe of the eighteenth century, which was still the Europe of wood and woods, of energy supplied by streams and forests, was losing its woods. He quotes Sombart – and I am going to give some elbow room here to exaggeration and the blind eye turned to the forests in America. Still, wood was becoming more expensive, and in this way an opportunity opens up for other means of energy and structure – notably, coal and iron. To which one must add that water, too, but in a new form – as steam – is part of the complex. In one of the historical ironies that the economic historian scrupulously skirts, even the Corn laws, decried for two centuries, actually contributed to the industrial revolution, for, by raising the price of grain and thus of keeping horses, they “helped replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way shortage of wood in 18th century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production.”

So, the older elements of life – that obsession of the romantics in perhaps the last final bloom of eotechnical Europe – were being reconfigured before Marx’s eyes. When Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845, he took the messagerie – the stagecoach – to the Belgian border. In 1848, when he was kicked out of Belgium, he took the train back to Paris.

For Marx, the machine like worker is not, here, the automaton, but rather one of the new machines which incorporated an unheard of precision and standardization.

Schivelbusch, interested in how the consciousness caught the phenomenological changes being wrought by the machine, quotes a wonderful passage from an advocate of steam engine powered transport in 1825, who describes the imperfect movement of the horse: ‘the animal advances not with a continual progressive motion, but with a sort of irregular hobbling, which raises and sinks its body at every alternate motion of its limbs.”[12] Similarly, Schivelbusch notes that the steam boat was admired at first because it did not tack – it could move against the current and the wind.

A culture picks up in its proprio-phenomenological net such major changes to its habits, but often doesn’t express their novelty, because the vocabulary to express it is lacking. Marx is a monument of the modern moment because, among other things, he understood that the vastness of the changes taking place around him called for the deployment of an entirely different understanding of the world.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

the homeric cliche

In Les Fleurs de Tarbes, Jean Paulhan’s exasperated tract (which holds a position in modern French literature similar to that held by Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise in English lit ), Paulhan puzzles over the growth, in literature, of what he calls a “terrorist” ethic – an ethic that proscribes all cliché, all “literary-ness”, that makes literature only out of renouncing literature, or hunting it down and exploding it. As he points out: “ The classic poets welcomed proverbs cliches and common sentiments from every direction. They welcomed abundance and gave it in back to those around them. But us, we who have little, we risk at every instant to lose that little.”

The “war on cliché” – to use Martin Amis’s hackneyed phrase declaring his allergy to hackneyed phrases, which as is the way of allergies is a disease of the immune system that is constructed to fight disease, a disease that turns on the immune system’s excess - was first declared in France. Independence from the commonplace, and a horrified attention to the way thinking is done through commonplaces was in a way the primary stylistic gesture of Flaubert, Baudelaire,  Bloy and Peguy – to name just four diverse writers of the time. It is as if, in the proverbs that were once considered a sort of common good, the writers discovered with these fantastic, power mad little machines who were actually thinking for us. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that each of those writers was profoundly anti-democratic, for the cliché is like the sum of votes on thought, it is elected by a majority.  And this seems profoundly wrong, for instead of the brain directing the mouth, what came out of the mouth directed the brain.

Henry James, among his other distinctions, is an essentially cosmopolitan writer – he knew Flaubert, he knew George Sand, he knew Turgenev, and he knew them as an artist knows another artist. But in his late style,  one notices that he returns to the classic style as Paulhan describes it. It is, though, a return full of ‘discriminations”, to use the Jamesian word.

I would call the note that runs through the late work the Homeric cliché. Just as the Homeric metaphor unfolds, metynomically, into a narrative, the Homeric cliché, as James uses it, takes the proverbs and cliches of the newspaper and the country club and makes them entrances to the higher impression towards which the authorial presence, and the authorial presence’s characters, strive.

Notice that even the entrance, in James, is labyrinthian – it is full of feints and false doors.  Here’s an example of what I mean. Allusions to apples, orchards, and golden fruit – all circulating around the cliché of fruit falling into one’s hand – are played out in this description, in The American Scene, of James taking a ride on the Staten Island Ferry:

“Nothing could have been more to the spectator's purpose, moreover, than the fact he was ready to hail as the most characteristic in the world, the fact that what surrounded him was a rare collection of young men of business returning, as the phrase is, and in the pride of their youth and their might, to their "homes," and that, if treasures of "type" were not here to be disengaged, the fault would be all his own.(6) It was perhaps this simple sense of treasure to be gathered in, it was doubtless this very confidence in the objective reality of impressions, so that they could deliciously be left to ripen, like golden apples, on the tree--it was all this that gave a charm to one's sitting in the orchard, gave a strange and inordinate charm both to the prospect of the Jersey shore and to every inch of the entertainment, so divinely inexpensive, by the way. The immense liberality of the Bay, the noble amplitude of the boat, the great unlocked and tumbled-out city on one hand, and the low, accessible mystery of the opposite State on the other, watching any approach, to all appearance, with so gentle and patient an eye; the gaiety of the light, the gladness of the air, and, above all (for it most came back to that), the unconscious affluence, the variety in identity, of the young men of business: these things somehow left speculation, left curiosity exciting, yet kept it beguilingly safe. And what shall I say more of all that presently followed than that it sharpened to the last pleasantness--quite draining it of fears of fatuity--that consciousness of strolling in the orchard that was all one's own to pluck, and counting, overhead, the apples of gold? I figure, I repeat, under this name those thick-growing items of the characteristic that were surely going to drop into one's hand, for vivid illustration, as soon as one could begin to hold it out.”  

This multitudinous weave of a trite phrase concerning golden apples into an account of business men, the sea, the cheapness of the ticket,  and the appearance of New York creates a sort of counterpuntal music out of a cliché – and as always, there is the sexual undertone, with the “fruitiness” and the “thick growing items” playing a role that you don’t have to be Freud to find superfluously suggestive.  James has a way of continuing at it – just as you think he’s forgotten that orchard, he returns with it. The cliché is treated  hologrammatically, and instead of the narration that the Homeric metaphor unfolds, in which the comparison becomes the unfolding of an episode in a world of episodes,  we have an impression, a sort of aura around a narration, that  situates, or, because it is a matter of impression rather than precision, concentrates a narratively tending consciousness. The narrative, always, is about not losing the supreme  things – life, intelligence, the chances of attention -  and yet the loss of these things is always the fatality to which, factually, this determination falls victim. There is a certain choral mockery, then, in these cliches. Listened to closely, they reveal not the wisdom of the people, but the implacably boxed in places of their origin – one senses their evolution in the resorts of the upper classes  where they really do operate as a way of thinking or, as is mostly the case, a way of walling off any thought.  In his own way, James, too, becomes one of the writer-terrorists of Paulhan’s essay, while avoiding the logical inconsistency that Paulhan very gleefully points out, where the avoidance of the already said must either lead to the incomprehensibility of the never said or the clichéd antithesis to cliche that founds the campaign against the already thought in an ideology of originality blind to its own contradictions.

James’ Homeric cliché was not passed along to any inheritor, althoug h you do find a figure like Santayana, whose prose is less William Jamesian than Henry Jamesian, occasionaly resorting to one. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

NYT columnists Nocera and Kristof divide up the compassion-labor

At the NYT, the columnists have seemingly decided to divide up the labor of compassion. It has fallen to Nicolas Kristof to worry about the Cambodian orphan and the Thai sex worker, and it has fallen to Joe Nocera to worry about the oppressed billionaire.
Last week, Nocera was very worried about BP, which was on the verge of being plucked by no account peasants. Hasn’t the company suffered enough for killing ten men and destroying the Gulf ecology for a year? It is all on account of trial lawyers, Nocera gravely intoned. You know, if the justice system would simply secede entirely from the jury system and allowing the poor to have lawyers, we could get some things done in this country.
Today, Nocera is shedding copious tears over various Russianbillionaires, represented by Bill Browder, who made a pile in Russia during thetime that Nocera euphemistically calls the Wild West period – Yeltsin’s time, when all corruption was excusable because it was in such a good cause! – and is now trying to get the West to take revenge for the imprisonment and death of one of his partners,   Sergei Magnitsky. I am not going to deny that Magnitsky was barbarously treated by the Putin regime. Perhaps it is right for the US Congress to respond by a special act, named for Magnitsky, aiming at making his tormentors in Russia pay for his death.
But, ever the curious goof, I do wonder how it is that in the nation with the largest imprisoned population in the world, the US Congress doesn’t seem interested in passing acts in favor of US citizens.
Here’s how Magnitsky died:
Browder pleaded with Magnitsky to flee the country, as his other lawyers had done. But Magnitsky insisted on investigating — and speaking out about — the fraud that had taken place. For his troubles, he was imprisoned in 2008. By summer of 2009, he had developed pancreatitis, which went untreated despite his pleas. He died that November. Browder says that when he learned of Magnitsky’s death, it was “the worst news I had ever received in my life.”
And here, for instance, is how an Arizona prostitute died, around the same time as Magnitsky, according to the Phoenix Arizona New Times:
“The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has chosen not to prosecute Arizona Department of Corrections staff in the death of inmate Marcia Powell.
Powell, 48, died May 20, 2009, after being kept in a human cage in Goodyear's Perryville Prison for at least four hours in the blazing Arizona sun. This, despite a prison policy limiting such outside confinement to a maximum of two hours.
The county medical examiner found the cause of death to be due to complications from heat exposure. Her core body temperature upon examination was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. She suffered burns and blisters all over her body.
Witnesses say she was repeatedly denied water by corrections officers, though the c.o.'s deny this. The weather the day she collapsed from the heat (May 19 -- she died in the early morning hours of May 20) arched just above a 107 degree high.
According to a 3,000 page report released by the ADC, she pleaded to be taken back inside, but was ignored. Similarly, she was not allowed to use the restroom. When she was found unconscious, her body was covered with excrement from soiling herself.”

It is perhaps unfair to ask Nocera how the Marcia Powell bill in Congress is faring. Powell was nothing. She wasn’t even Thai or Cambodian, so in the division of compassion neither Nocera or Kristof have any reason to care about her. And yet, somehow, I find it leaves a certain, well, taste in my mouth when I see NYT liberals or neo-liberals go on about the human rights wrongs – especially against billionaires – of the Putins of the world. When Jimmy Carter started the American foreign policy shift towards human rights, there were already 450 000 americans in prison. The rate of growth since then has the look of, maybe, something not so humans rightsish – according to the ACLU:
“From 1980 to 2010, the United States prison population grew over 11 times faster than the
general population. During this time, the general population increased by 36%, while the
state and federal prison population increased by over 400%.”

Bad boys bad boys whatcha gonna do? In any case, as we all pray that the exiled billionaires from Russia get back the possessions they so cleverly stole during the “wild west days” (oh those bad boys) and can investigate the corruption of the Putin clique, we also might spare a little time, o a second, a firefly’s flicker, to such as Marcia Powell. They deserve nothing and should, of course, die on the street – but think how much it cost the taxpaper to build a cage to keep her in while she boiled to death in the Arizona sun! Really, perhaps we should charge her family for those expenses. 

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...