Saturday, September 19, 2015

the casualties of utilitarianism

“ I could write the history of every mark and scratch in my room…” Virginia Woolf

Both John Stuart Mill and Virginia Woolf were products of families prominent in the history of utilitarianism. In fact, Woolf’s uncle, James Fitzjames Stephen, wrote a book against what he took to be  Mill’s apostosy from utilitarianism, which you can’t be more ultra than that, while her father, Leslie, whose eminence in the Victorian world was as unimpeachable as the Queen's, made time from during his vast labors to write the canonical history of the English utilitarians.

Famously, John Stuart Mill, educated according to his father’s, James Mill’s, notions, suffered a great breakdown in his youth, which he attributes, in a way, to the creed in his autobiography:
“For though my dejection, honestly looked at, could not be called other than egotistical, produced by the ruin, as I thought, of my fabric of happiness, yet the destiny of mankind in general was ever in my thoughts, and could not be separated from my own. I felt that the flaw in my life, must be a flaw in life itself; that the question was, whether, if the reformers of society and government could succeed in their objects, and every person in the community were free and in a state of physical comfort, the pleasures of life, being no longer kept up by struggle and privation, would cease to be pleasures. And I felt that unless I could see my way to some better hope than this for human happiness in general, my dejection must continue; but that if I could see such an outlet, I should then look on the world with pleasure; content, as far as I was myself concerned, with any fair share of the general lot.
This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event of my life.”

Woolf’s breakdowns, at the end of the century, are well known as well, although less often connected to the Stephen family’s place in English thought. In Virginia Woolf’s memoir of moving to Bloomsbury from her father’s house in Hyde Park in 1904, the year her father died, she uses the move as a way of symbolizing the end of the Victorian era – the “shadows of Hyde Park” – and the beginning of a new era. During the transition, she was mad. It was the second time she was mad.
“While I had lain in bed at the Dickinsons’ house at Welwyn thinking that the birds were singing Greek choruses and that King Edward was using the foulest possible language among Ozzie Dickinson’s azaleas, Vanessa had wound up Hyde Park Gate once and for all. She had sold; she had burnt; she had sorted; she had torn up. Sometimes I believe she had actually to get men with hammers to batter down – so wedged into each other had the walls and the cabinets become. But now all the rooms stood empty. Furniture vans had carted off all the different belongings. For not only had the furniture been dispersed. The family which had seemed equally wedged together had broken apart too.” –Old Bloomsbury.

Now, a philosophy by itself doesn’t often cause people to hear birds singing Sophocles. But I would claim that there was something in utilitarianism that was connected to both of these breakdowns. It was, in part, the contradiction at the heart of the utilitarian synthesis of 18th century hedonism and the calculation of self-interest. While that hedonism was the starting point, the massive industrial structure of the calculation of self-interest that was flung across the 19th century rather buried it. At the very least, in the dialectic, the douceur de la vie was distorted beyond recovery. There was, of course, a line of Victorian intellectuals who recognized this very well – and mostly they fell on the right. Mostly, reactionaries. From Carlyle to Dickens to Ruskin, there was a great, screaming sense of the sacrifice made to the calculus of rational self interest. And yet, it had the effect that it became hard, if not impossible, to recapture what the 18th century meant by hedonism. Dickens, for one could only, at the furthest reach, imagine happiness as owning a house free and clear with a pretty housewife to occupy it (and sneaking around with one’s mistress to make it tolerable). Carlyle imagined fascism, and Ruskin a return to the era of the Gothic.

Interestingly, at the time that Woolf was having her second attack of madness, she’d been reading one writer who was very much on the quest for a more 18th century version of happiness: Walter Pater.
I’ve been reading Jacob’s Room, and thinking about these things,  which I think converge in that novel. But I’ve also been thinking about what it meant for Woolf to move out of Hyde Park – out of the Victorian era – and into the modern era. In Jacob’s Room, at least, I think the complexities of the end of utilitarianism as a creed are taken into an opposition that runs through the narrative between the room and the wave.  

I think I’ll pick at this thread tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

the politics of the headline: corbyn mythologized

Using Barthes’ sensibility to analyze the myths circulated during the recent Labour leader campaign, I think I can safely say that charting the way Jeremy Corbyn was turned into a threat means understanding the work of one particular tool: the headline.
Two days ago, the headline actually burst into the content of the news itself when an editor at the Daily Telegraph, which presents itself as a non-tabloid conservative paper, had to back down over his headline for Corbyn’s appointment of John Mcdonnell to his shadow cabinet: Corbyn has just appointed a nutjob as his shadow chancellor.  Today’s foxhunting set don’t go for that chav stuff, which is so much for the maid, so the editor eventualy changed the headline.  
In the process, though, he briefly lit up the politics of headlines.
As writers know, and readers, for the most part, don’t, the headline is not composed by the writer of the story or the review or column. Headlines are thus, peculiar things, true relics of, if not the death of the author, at least his or her continued subservience to the institution or patron for whom they write. On the one hand, the headline must tip the reader into the story in some way, while on the other, they must also operate to show how the reader is to read the story. In this second function, headlines are more akin to the answer to riddles, or the punchline to jokes, or the moral of fables, than they are to the entry in a dictionary or encyclopedia. That is, headlines are less indexical, or denotative, than oracular, or connotative.
They also exist systematically, which means that headlines can be treated as a genre, with certain conventions. The Telegraph editor’s mistake was one of misunderstanding the headline convention that is given by the paper.
Tabloids, of course, are famous for exploiting certain conventions of the headline – transmuting the typographical excess of the headline into a more general rhetorical excess. Readers of the NY Post or the Sun know that the game is all in the headline, and that the rest is, for the most part, filler – thus neatly reversing the “normal” relationship between text and title. Non-tabloid papers also transmute the excess of the headline, but in a different way: here, the libidinal possibilities of the headline are sublimated. It is the quintessential bourgeouis act, act least in the classic Weberian sense – like the capital that is accumulated by the bourgeois and spent prudently, the headline’s typographic independence is made subservient, for the most part, to a more nuanced interpretation of the text that follows. One might say that the non-tabloid paper understands itself to have an indexical responsibility.  Thus, the print is normally smaller, the use of slang lesser, the spirit of gleefulness, when released, turned into giggliness rather than sadistic display, and so on. Of course, just as the answer to a riddle is different than the answer to a mathematical problem (the riddle both solves a cognitive disjunction and exploit the shock of it, for one thing; for another thing, a riddle limits its systematic effect), so, too, is a headline different from merely a paraphrase. It is in this difference that a certain politics ranges.
One noticed – readers noticed and commented on – the sudden appropriation of tabloid like headlines by the Guardian and the Telegraph as Jeremy Corbyn moved from being a political eccentric to the leader of Britain’s second largest political party. Here, one feels, the headline, in all its implication, started driving the news. Private eye made a funny comparison of what Corbyn said and what he was reported to have said – underlining the systematic bias of the newspapers. The abridgement and distortion of Corbyn’s comments – whether about Hamas and Hezbollah or about Osama bin Laden or about segregating trains at rush hour between men and women – is not something I’m going to go over one more time. Rather, I want to point out that the spirit of the headline, with its capacity to seemingly contain a whole truth while actually operating a fiction-making abridgment, infected, as it were, the reporting itself.
This does not exhaust the meaning of headline politics in this instance, though. For passing beyond the effects of the text, there is also the total effect of the headline in the newspaper context to consider. A headline, after all, announces something new. In the case of Corbyn, much of what was reported wasn’t new at all – he has been a remarkably busy speaker over time. But the effect of the headlines was to make it seem as though new information was being dug up about Corbyn – or, to put this inversely, that Corbyn was hiding his past. This is of course an especially important maneuver in modern image management, so much so that we have a name for it now: gotcha journalism. It is not just that the figure who is “gotten” is exposed, but the exposure implies that the figure has been busy hiding. It makes the newspaper’s research, which is not actually very much work, nowadays, what with Google, seem like an “investigation.”

There is probably much more to say about this rich topic, but now I have to pick my son up from school. So that is it.

Monday, September 14, 2015

barthes on myth

In “Myth today,” Barthes’ methodological supplement to his series of decoding essays on quotidien life in 1950s France, Barthes tells us that he the “myths” he analyzes are products of language – of what he calls a peculiar “theft” of language – and are not contents. Unlike the usual study of myth, which proceeds from fictions like the God of the Sea or unicorns, Barthes view is that myth names a procedure. “Myth is not defined by the object of its method, but by the fashion with which it offers it.”
This linguistic fashion or mode leads Barthes to make some great generalizing remarks, in order to establish the semiotic norm within which myth is found. Myth, according to Barthes, always operates on the level of tokens (valant pour) rather than types. Within the system of tokens, “myth is a particular system in that it constructs itself in deriving itself from a semiological chain that pre-exists it.” To understand how this works, Barthes borrows an example from Paul Valery. Suppose that you, like Valery, are a fifth grader and you are learning Latin. You open your Latin book and you find an illustration of a lion and under it the phrase, quia ego nominor leo. This means, For me, I am called a lion. What is the real meaning of this? It is not that you are meant to think, this lion is saying he is called a lion. Rather, you are meant to think, this is how a subject accords with its object grammatically. Though the presence of the signified – the lion being called a lion – exists, haunts, the example, that primary meaning is subsumed in the larger meaning, which is implied in the entire situation that involves Latin class, the student, the book, and the illustration.
“On the plane of language, I will call the final term of the first system, the signifier, the sense… on the plane of myth, I will call it the form.”
This distinction doesn’t specify what is special about myth, but simply puts it in the set of such exemplifying gestures. Myth does have a property that distinguishes it, which is the way it empties or deforms the sense – in this way, it performs a “theft of language”. The theft of language – or the theft of the signifier – is what myth does. Although it can’t do without the signifier, which operates as a constant variable, it can also not do with returning to the signifier – for that means demythifying. This is the second of the three different types of reading of myth. The first does make the logical move from the sense to the example. This, for Barthes, is a cynical moment in the rational production and use of myth – it is the p.r. man’s gig. The third reading is simply to fall for the whole thing, to respond to its dynamic, to understand its non-presence as presence.
This semiological reading of myth, in Barthes, is associated with, but not entirely implicated by, his ideological reading. In this reading, what characterises all myth is that “the mission of myth is to ground a historic intention in nature, a contingency in eternity. For this gesture is that of bourgeois ideology itself.”   
This is Barthes great theme, however much he turns to different ways of wrestling with it.


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