Friday, October 02, 2015

The roots of philosophy

Philosophers are all rather proud of Aristotle’s notion that philosophy begins in “wonder” – it seems such a superior birth, so disinterested, so aristocratically outside the tangle of pleb emotions.
For these reasons, that origin story has, for the most part, been more interpreted than questioned.
It is, of course, hard to get clear on these things, which depend on self-reporting. Stories that one tells about oneself are, prima facie, self-interested.
Myself, my “philosophical” thinking has its roots more in worry than in wonder. Worry about the dark. Worry about abandonment.
This morning I saw, very plainly, that is, as plainly as I have seen the clouds in the sky gather and obscure the sun and foreshadow ran –worry coming over Adam’s face, as we were headed to school.
Adam, for a long time now, has accepted and, even more, enjoyed going to school. So I was a little nonplussed that, when we got there, he neither accepted nor enjoyed his destination, but instead stood at the entrance and said he wanted to go home now.
He didn’t dash out to the playground, as he usually does when the kids are out there, leaving me to stow away his lunch. He didn’t say hi to his teachers.
I could already see, rolling him to the school in his stroller, that something was going on. His face had a set cast, and he inflected his non-response when I asked him what was up. Adam, nearly three, has long mastered the grammar of silence. In this, he’s already adult.
So I left him there, in the playground, unhappily and tearfully screaming. I went home feeling like a monster. But I am sure when I come back this afternoon, he’ll be fine.
Novalis, somewhere, proposed that philosophy was nothing more than nostalgia, homesickness.

I’m on my man Novalis’s team today. Sigh. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

why the left doesn't care about the poor. Why that's a good thing.

In the TLS, Paul Collier has penned a review of some left leaning economics books that contains an exemplary rightwing view of what left wing economics is all about. The key sentence is here:
“In thinking coherently about capitalism, a helpful starting place is to ask yourself: why are poor people poor?”
Brandishing this question, Collier proceeds to find the left wing answer inadequate, and offers his own critique of financialized capitalism.
However, for a left winger, this is certainly not a helpful starting place to plunge into an analysis of capitalism. It hasn’t been a helpful starting place since Karl Marx, in 1842, starting reading the French radicals and discovered the economic and sociological category of “class”. Such is the amnesia that has befallen contemporary liberal and lefty-leaning groups, who’ve inherited all the shit of the Third way movement of the 80s and 90s, that they have forgotten their own history, and might well fight Collier over the best way to ‘help’ the ‘poor’. For the better two thirds of the twentieth century, however, leftists would have laughed at this starting point. These thinkers, activists and politicians knew full well that Marx was right, at least about this point. In fact, they asked a much different question, at least outside of the Soviet bloc. That question went: can a system based on the exploitation of the worker be so modified that the level of exploitation goes down, even as the system becomes global?
From this vantage point, we can derive another question: why are the middle class people middle class? A question tentatively answered by Karl Polanyi when he pointed out that the classical liberal consensus broke down in the twentieth century as the state became a very large actor in the creation of the economy. In the US, with the New Deal and the Great Society; in France, with the dirigiste regime; in the UK, with the welfare system; in Scandinavia, with a combination of strong unions and the socialist parties. During this time, state intervention, which included massive public employment, enlarged the middle class beyond all recognition. What had once been a class mainly of professionals, administrators and other actors in the sphere of distribution (workers who, as Marx put it, performed non-productive labor) was now flooded with new members, not all of whom shared the same middle class values, but all of whom shared the aspiration for a middle class life style.
Who paid for this? Capital. The state, by its regulations, its taxation, and its support of labor’s bargaining power, hoisted the middle class on the neck of the capitalists.
There are many reasons this period did not last. Suffice it to say that the middle class era is ending, with the middle class life style now an uncertain matter, and the financialization of households a new phenomenon. It is not a phenomenon that Marx foresaw, but it is fascinating. Marx did believe that under pure capitalism, the level of exploitation would go up until the worker owned nothing. This hasn’t exactly happened. Rather, the level of exploitation and the level of financialization have worked in tandem to this goal. In 2004, the OECD published a report on the indebtedness of American households, divided by income. Those households that made below 64,000 dollars – in other words, the middle class – owed, at that point, approximately 238 percent more than they earned. St. Paul is right: in this world, we must see as though in a glass, darkly. Thus, the period of the “ownership” society under Bush was the period of peak non-ownership. As the crash showed in 2008 up until now, these figures aren’t abstract. Many millions of middle class people literally own nothing. If you sell their main asset, the house, they will only get what they paid for it or less.
Are these the “poor”? By no means. But the left is concerned with classes – the poor are not a class, but a description that doesn’t place their members in the real, capitalist economy. As Marx discovered in 1842, the poor is not the correct description of the working class. It turns a sociological category into an object of charity. The disappearance of the working class as a category, and the substitution of the term “poor”, is an example of Third way and right wing trolling.

Don’t fall for it.   

Monday, September 28, 2015

the essential problem with american patisserie - a snobbish pov

In one of his most famous poems, Baudelaire writes of the albatros who is captured by sailors and held by a rope on board ship, unable to fly, and so mocked by the crew, now by a poke, now by some sailor imitating his limping walk. For Baudelaire, this is the very image of the poet:

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées

Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.

For me, this is the very image of a man stuck in Los Angeles, remembering French boulangeries.
It isn’t that America has any reason to have suck pastries. If you read about the donut, the ur-American pastry, it evidently derives from the same family as the beignet, and all kinds of European fried flour goods. So what happened to it? Somehow, there was a split in the development of pastry, with the Europeans intent on inventing ever lighter, ever more complex pastries, and the Americans intent on creating ever denser, ever mono-sweeter pastries. To want something other at some point would expose the poor decadent American who expressed such deviance to a milieu des huées, and from there it is just a hop skip and a jump to homosexuality and drug taking, as any good Republican knows.
This is not to knock all American cuisine. In Paris, one longs, like a poet, for good coffee – although as numerous articles in the NYT over the last five years have pointed out, Paris has become a hot spot of expatriate baristas, who are slowly weening the french from that simplistic concotion they call expresso (not to mention the horror of Nescafe served as coffee – it happens!). However, I’m old enough to remember (a phrase I seem to increasingly use. Funny, that) when American coffee at its finest was a can of Yuban. Perhaps the greatest contribution of hippy culture to the American scene (besides the Monkeys) was an increased awareness of ingrediants and non-industrial cooking. The completely irritatiing foodies are the result, on the one hand, but on the other, the level of American eating has gone up, at least among the aspirers.

This is why I find the donut a puzzle. The donut shop is omnipresent in American life – hence, the network for distributing a better beignet exists. But where is that beignet? Donut shops, when they respond to what they think is public demand, are concerned to advertise less calorific varieties of donut. I, on the other hand, suspect that donuts are one of those serial foods, like popcorn, so that the calory profile of one donut is not exactly helpful. What is needed, of course, is to attack that serial pattern, to make a donut that is completely satisfying in itself. Patisserie, ladies and gentlemen! I humbly ask this on behalf of all albotrosi  

in defense of the 10 dollar word

When I was thirteen, there was nothing I liked better than to peddle my bike to a library near us, look through a random volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, pluck an obscure word at random – something long and spidery – and try to use it at the dinner table, or in talking to friends, which often required seriously distorting the direction of the conversation in order to find occasion to slip it in. 
I still like the OED, but I no longer go to it to find rare words at random. Still, I appreciate a stunner when I come across one. These words were often begotten by obscure old authors and only surfaced once, in their texts, and were fated to be buried without ceremony in some future dictionary and never know the loving clasp of a live tongue. 
It is this history that makes me bristle a bit when I run into complaints about the arcabe vocabulary of some writer or another, where it is maintained that such vocabulary is stuck up, unnecessary, and show-offy. It seems to me that any writer who isn’t being show-offy has mistaken his or her profession: it is definitely show business all the way down.
That doesn’t mean that I am always for the abstruse. There’s a long quarrel about this in english literature. Thomas Nashe, the elizabethan polemicist, made great fun of his the vocabulary of his enemy, another pamphleteer named Gabriel Harvey. He takes two words Harvey employed – entelechy and adoulce – as the occasion for a nice kicking: “with these two Hermophrodite phrases, being half latin and half English, hast thou puld out the very guts of the inckhorne”. In other words, this isn’t writing, its straining. There’s something to that. It is part of the discipline of showing off that it can’t involve straining, because if it does, one’s pretensions turn against one. So much so that the writer will be accused of being pretentious. And it is no use replying that the taboo on pretension stems from a very reactionary sense of social hierarchy, in which those on top are accorded a naturalness that turns those on the bottom trying to work their way up into either outlaws or buffoons. Because by the time you have gotten that analysis off your chest, your audience will have long turned away and followed other things, usually on their cell phones.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

waves and the room - more Woolf

In Prigogine and Stenger’s book, the New Alliance, they claim that chemistry was tremendously boosted by Buffon. There was a period in the 1770s when certain French scientists, like D’Alembert, began to consider the Newtonian system to be faulty, due to various discrepencies they thought they had found, experimentally. Buffon, however, was having none of it, and in refuting the anti-Newtonians on the theoretical level, he suggested that the universality of gravity had not yet been taken up by chemists, who had clung tenaciously to an old fashioned system of “attractions”. The mathematical faults that D’Alembert felt he had found merely pointed to the need for further research under the grand Newtonian umbrella.
“… and if, up to this day, we have regarded the laws of affinity as different from those of gravity, the fault lies in not having well conceived them, grasped them, embrassed this object in all its extension. The figure which, among celestial bodies, hardly does anything by the law of the action of bodies one upon the other, because the distance is so vast, does everything, on the contrary, when the distance is very small or non-existent.”

It is through the research that was pursued under this unifying charter that, in the beginning of the century, brought about the discovery of radioactivity. Buffon’s comparison was almost literally transferred to the atom in Bohr’s theory of 1913, although I doubt Bohr ever read Buffon. It was in this context that the wave became one of science’s reigning symbols. From 1900 until the 1930s, waves were much in the news, and not only due to physics, but due, as well, to technology. The wave was associated with the radio, and the radio promoted a view of the world as a sphere of invisible waves.  In 1919, Victor Tausk’s famous essay, On the Origin of the Influencing Machine in schizophrenia, he points to a recurrent image in schizophrenia, in which patients claim that a kind of devise exists that influences the patient’s and other’s thoughts and feelings. In a footnote on the devise, Tausk notes that “It produces, as well as removes, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain.” The patient isn’t the only one – as radios came on the market, it was the rare customer whose “knowledge of physics” could explain how they worked. But that they worked by means of waves (rather than, mostly, rays – I think one could probably trace a change from rays to waves, the effect of cultural themes, in the 19th century)  was something all knew.
I am not quoting Tausk to intentionally pathologize  Virginia Woolf, although I’m afraid that, given our knowledge of her breakdowns, I am a bit. However, Woolf’s own texts are not reticent about what she experienced during periods of mental disorientation, and I don’t think one can discount these experiences in the way she wrote, the themes she elaborated.
Heinrich Hertz, the man who discovered radio waves, spoke, in general terms, of replacing such terms as energy and force in mechanics with his threefold categories of time, space and mass, and deriving his mechanics of “hidden mass” and “hidden movement” from these – much to the dismay of philosophers like Mach. That hiddenness, that invisibility, combines with the notion of waves to create a certain popular mythology. Oliver Lodge, who took Hertz’s theory, popularized it in England, and arguably made the first radio receiver, was as famous, in the 1920s, as a parapsychology researcher. He took the model of the radio very far – in the twenties, he propounded the theory that the eye “is like a revieving instrument for detecting radio waves of an extremely short and definite length. It was the first wireless receiving set employed by man.”   
With authorities like Lodge – authority-eccentrics – using the notion of invisible waves to reinforce a rather pre-scientific world view, I hope I am not pathologizing Woolf by suggesting that both her illness and her peculiar awareness of contemporary fact made waves an irresistable image of the stability-in-instability that she was after. I have not been able to find out when she first bought her own wireless set. But there is a quotation in her diary from 1918 that shows how radio waves, voices, and information come together in a complex. She records a meeting with a high government official, who tells her about the latest developments on the front in France.
“I tried to think it extraordinary but I found it difficult – extraordinary, I mean, to be in touch with one who was in the very center of the very center, sitting in a little room at Downing St. where, as he said, the wireless messages are racing through from all over the world, a million miles a minute. Where you have constantly to settle off hand questions of enormous difficulty and important – where the fate of armies does more or less hang upon what two or three elderly gentlemen decide…”
This crisscrossing of messages, and the sorting of them, is reproduced and suitably transformed in many passages in Jacob’s room where an entire collectivity is taken into account, with the authorial voice wandering among it, and commenting on the enormous difficulty and incompleteness of knowing where to begin, how to penetrate, what it means. This is a collectivity in which Jacob floats. It is to the decisions of two or three elderly gentlemen, who take this collectivity, this Europe, to war, that Jacob is eventually sacrificed.
This, then, are some of the significations of the wave.  The wave is the form taken by what is in motion, whereas the room is a retreat from what is in motion – this, at least, is one of the values their opposition has in Jacob’s room. You can be mounted on a wave, but not for very long. Woolf has a description of Jacob’s attempt to hunt like the gentry which seems, almost,to derive from Muybridge’s famous series of photos. It gives us, or me at least, the kind of wave reference which I think goes all the way through the novel:
A few moments before a horse jumps it slows, sidles, gathers itself
together, goes up like a monster wave, and pitches down on the further
side. Hedges and sky swoop in a semicircle. Then as if your own body ran
into the horse's body and it was your own forelegs grown with his that
sprang, rushing through the air you go, the ground resilient, bodies a
mass of muscles, yet you have command too, upright stillness, eyes
accurately judging. Then the curves cease, changing to downright hammer
strokes, which jar; and you draw up with a jolt; sitting back a little,
sparkling, tingling, glazed with ice over pounding arteries, gasping:
"Ah! ho! Hah!" the steam going up from the horses as they jostle
together at the cross-roads, where the signpost is, and the woman in the
apron stands and stares at the doorway. The man raises himself from the
cabbages to stare too.

So Jacob galloped over the fields of Essex, flopped in the mud, lost the
hunt, and rode by himself eating sandwiches, looking over the hedges,

noticing the colours as if new scraped, cursing his luck.”

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...