Friday, October 23, 2015

the decoder ring

We name our epochs or ages like we name our pets – to give them a handle. Spot may have spots, and the industrial revolution might, in some places, have indicated an enormous increase in manufacturing. But when we fall to quarreling over the name, we are, perhaps, succumbing to magical thinking. Spot may also rove, like Rover, but she still has spots. She thinks of herself in entirely doglike terms, so it is impossible to say that she gives herself something like a name at all.
There is something, well, vocational about a name – a name is also a calling. Mysteriously, an age seems to conjure into being its symbols, which coalesce around what we call it. This happens even on a trivial level. Thus, the post-war era, in which transistors and computer languages figure so largely that it has been called the information age, gave birth, on the level of children’s toys, to the decoder ring.
The decoder ring evolved in the twentieth century about the same time structuralism as a recognizable school of thought emerged in academia and the popular press. Levi-Strauss’s Les structures elementaires de la parenté appeared in 1949, the heydey of the radio show, Jack Armstrong, which promoted a whistling ring and a decoder pin. In the popular memory, which operates much as Freud theorized that dreams function,  these things have coalesced into the “secret decoder ring”. As far as I can tell, the fabulous object itself did not yet exist, as such.
In fact, what we discover at the origin of the decoder ring is a shift in the binary distributing properties to the boys and the girls. A pin, of course, is coded female. A badge is coded male. But in the thirties, when Shirley Temple and Captain Midnight offered decoder toys, the toddler male was often an in-between thing. I remember pictures of my own father when he was around five, in the thirties. His hair rolls down in a luxurious blonde wave, to his shoulders. He wears – or am I wrong about this? – a rather effeminate Buster Brown outfit. This was not due to some aberration of my grandmother, but rather, expressed an entire conformity with cuteness as defined by the upper middle class of that time. In stories from that era, the boy wearing such things was often the target of the street kid – the son of a worker, the kid signalled by his ain’ts and his dirty knuckles and face.
In the post-war era, the fashion for long haired male toddlers dressed in girl-like clothes waned. Pins became badges. And the badges were often surmounted by violent male emblems, like guns, or atom bombs.
Yet the ring remained. This is of interest. The standard WASP prohibition of most male jewelry did not extent to the ring. True, single men did not often, under this standard, wear rings – that was confined to ethnics, with their pinky rings. But the military established a certain acceptance of rings as the kind of insignia that a man could wear without embarrassment.
I could compare, at some length, this prehistory of the decoder ring with the pre-history of structuralism, which also begins in the era of movies and radio shows – the twenties and thirties, when phenomenology, formalist literary theory, and Sausserian linguistics came together in places like Prague or Moscow (where the people who met to hash these things out, like Jan Mukarovsky or Roman Jacobson, were part of circles).
The secret decoder ring came together in a supreme act of bricolage at some point in the late fifties. It was if not the golden era, at least the silver era of prizes in boxes of foodstuffs (of no nutritional value) for kids. Breakfast cereals used these “premiums” to sell their stuff, and in so doing they sold the cartoon that the ring was usually associated with. Sometimes, though, it was other products that promoted themselves through rings. Thus, the cartoon Jonny Quest, which accurately reflected a racist, imperialist mindset that ran through this stage of the American empire, was associated with a magic ring, which seemed predicated on the old idea, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – the ring had forur distinct components (a magnifying glass, a dial a code a signal flasher and a secret message compartment) that were all distinct components of earlier rings.
The classic decoder ring was, indeed, the ur structuralist text. The ring contains two bands. The inner band has inscribed on it the alphabet and numbers 1 through 9.The outer band has a corresponding sequence of letters and numbes. One has merely to establish a turn for the inner ring: say, one notch, to change the a to a correspondence to a to b. Voila, the code! Elemental structures of kinship, indeed – here was all the exogamy and secret names you could want.  

Perhaps the Jonny Quest ring, with its baroque structure, signaled the coming decline of structuralism. It came out in 1965. A year late, in October, 1966, Johns Hopkins sponsored a conference on the latest wave of European thinking entitle, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structural Controversy" at which, for the first time on these shores, Jacques Derrida presented a paper commonly thought to foreshadow the coming destruction of structuralist hegemony: "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences."
The decoder ring, as it were, was broken.

Which is another story.

a day in the life

This weekend we had a late afternoon picnic over at Emerson Reed Park with some friends. The friends had two kids, one five and one seven. We have Adam, now three. The Park is a heterogenous space. There’s a large structure that houses a theater, a typical California house circa 1940 with the Spanish look – whitewashed walls, red tile roof. There are tennis courts, two rows of them, behind large fences with green netting to give the players privacy from the steet, I guess, which go down to Wilshire and up to the right wing of the theater, almost, leaving a little space for a garden and a fountain and some rose bushes in the between area. There is, next to the left wing of the theater, an almost acre area of grass and trees. There is a basketball court, or rather, a large asphalted area that boasts three basketball courts. There is, behind the theater, a sort of garden, with a pathway that leads down to a structure with four bathrooms. Then there’s another house, also Spanish style,  that faces Seventh street. And finally, there is the thing that interests us, a children’s play area, neatly divided into two, which lies next to the basketball court and is separated by a metal fence from it.
These are the features of the park as you would find them on a plat. My description is pathetically 1-D. But the major feature of the park, for the person who first wanders in 3-D into it, is the presence of lounging street people, who are everywhere on the acre of grass and trees, or sitting on the steps of the theater building. Some have shopping carts, some sleeping bags, some nothing. There’s a rule that is spelled out on a sign on the gate to the children’s area – no adult unaccompanied by children allowed. This is very much obeyed.
After one adjusts to the use of the acre, it soon becomes obvious that, like some watering hole in the jungle, the varieties of type all coexist there reasonably well. The basketball court is much used by pickup players, coaches teaching little league basketball, and weekend regulars. The children’s area, which, as I said, is divided, offers a sandy area, swings, a trampoline, a small labyrinth, and a low hanging basketball hoop on its one half, where the children are usually younger, and a more busy jungle gym and slide area, where the children are a bit older. Here there are some picnic tables. Here parents, grandparents and nannies sit. Adam is a traveler in both realms, although sometimes he abandons playing in the sand, swinging on the swing, trying to put the basketball through the low hoop, climbing on the jungle gym, rising and falling on the seesaw, or sliding down the slide, to hang, longingly, on the fence between the children’s area and the adult basketball area and ask, can I play basketball?
He can’t, we explain. He doesn’t like this.
After an hour or so, we all decided to head home. The five year old and Adam decided, though, to charge the seagulls that pick among the lounging streetpeople. So they charged the birds, which skittered off into flights just above the ground, and came perilously close – Adam and his friend - to this or that sleeping body, knowing enough by some instinct to veer off before they actually trod on a limb or ran into a recumbent mass. I thought, as I often do, how insane it is that our contemporary world enfolds a permanent Great Depression within it, which we all see and which we all exclude, not even thinking, from the “we” that is the subject to how we are – watching HBO or wondering whether to put “our” children in the pre-school that costs 24,000 dollars a year.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Mark Bowdon interviews enlisted men! Bystanders applaud. Heroes win!

This paragraph by Mark Bowden, defending his version of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, is the loveliest expression of the pres bubbleI have seen in a long time:

“While Hersh’s story (and Mahler’s) suggests that mine was, in effect, handed to me by administration spokesmen, it was (as the book notes) based on dozens of interviews with those directly involved, including President Obama. One wonders where else the story might come from, since the hunt for bin Laden and the mission to kill him were conducted by government officials, right down to the enlisted men who conducted the raid. Basing a story on those government sources directly involved makes it “official” in some sense, I suppose, but I have never been in the employ of the government, and have carved a fairly extensive career working with complete journalistic independence.

Yes, one does wonder where a story about an event in fucking Pakistan would come from if not from American officials, including the President. Pakistanis? Oh please. Those guys don’t even speaka the English. They couldn’t possibly know anything about what happened on their soil. No, it was enlisted American men – enlisted – the U.S. Army – heroes! – who filled my ears. Enlisted men, not draftees. Of course, there are no uh draftees, but I thought I ought to mention that they were enlisted. Heroes!
This is how the press works, as a not very subtle propaganda machine.
His list of sources doesn’t include one Pakistani. Not one! Not even an enlisted one! Cause they aren’t heroes, I guess.

“I interviewed J.S.O.C. commander Admiral William McRaven, who helped plan and who oversaw the mission, and members of his staff. Some of the others (without listing their job titles) were Tony Blinken, John Brennan, Benjamin Rhodes, James Clark, Thomas Donilon, Michèle Flournoy, Larry James, Michael Morell, William Ostlund, David Petraeus, Samantha Power, James Poss, Denis McDonough, Nick Rasmussen, Michael Scheuer, Gary Schroen, Kalev Sepp, Michael Sheehan, and Michael Vickers. These sources—and others—worked on the case in various capacities for years and were present and often involved in the key decisions that led to the mission.

Why, how somebody would look at that list and say that it was an official government version is just beyond me.
Oh, and here is the telling series of grafs from the Mahler piece that Bowden is replying to:

Eleven days after the raid, an unbylined story appeared on GlobalPost, an American website specializing in foreign reporting. The dateline was Abbottabad; the story was headlined: ‘‘Bin Laden Raid: Neighbors Say Pakistan Knew.’’ A half-dozen people who lived near bin Laden’s compound told the reporter that plainclothes security personnel — ‘‘either Pakistani intelligence or military officers’’ — knocked on their doors a couple of hours before the raid and instructed them to turn the lights off and remain indoors until further notice. Some local people also told the reporter that they were directed not to speak to the media, especially the foreign media.
When I contacted the chief executive of GlobalPost, Philip Balboni, he told me he considered trying to aggressively publicize this narrative when he first posted it. ‘‘[B]ut that would have required resources that we did not possess at the time, and the information against it was so overwhelming that even we had to wonder if our sources were right,’’ he wrote me in an email.
Balboni put me in touch with the reporter, Aamir Latif, a 41-year-old Pakistani journalist. Latif, a former foreign correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, told me that he traveled to Abbottabad the day after bin Laden was killed and reported there for a couple of days. I asked him if he still believed that there was some level of Pakistani awareness of the raid. ‘‘Not awareness,’’ he answered instantly. ‘‘There was coordination and cooperation.’’
Understandably Latif, being Pakistani, wouldn’t know anythng about it. I mean, enlisted Americans! Samantha Power!
It would be totally silly to actually go to Abbottsford and interview the inhabitants. Which is why, thankfully, our American reporters don’t do such things. Imagine there was a fire in say, Chatanooga, and one interviewed Chatanoogans about it… uh, oh, sorry, bad example, since Chatanoogans are Americans, many have enlisted, and all are heroes!
It is so sad that Sy Hersch doesn’t, once, admit how Americans are heroes. He must be violently attacked by all the right people. This will not stand, this act of aggression!

Monday, October 19, 2015

the heteronormative American tone

I have a hunch that the comedy of self-consciousness, in other words, self-consciousnessery, has about exhausted itself. It is the prevailing tone adopted by white male American novelists and writers from about the 90s forward. I’ve been reading 10:04, Ben Lerner’s novel, and finding it both less irritating and less amazing than Leaving the Atocha Station – and this is significant. Lerner’s first novel was to self-consciousnessery what, say, Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans was to metaphysical poetry – it pushes the tone and tic to such an extreme that it undergoes a fatal crisis. Hmm, perhaps my analogy isn’t perfect – to my mind, the self-consciousnessery of LAS produces something interesting, the picaresque rouge as uber-self-conscious American. Perhaps it was the Spanish locale. Perhaps there was a subtle reference to Lazarillo de Tormes or Quevedo.

As David Foster Wallace made clear, self-consciousnessery with its endless fastidiousness and play of retraction and assertion was, in part, a response to a previous generation of asshole writers (Mailer, Updike, Bellow, Roth, etc.). Politically, the self-conscious style was supposed to mark and check the white privilege – heteronormativity, y’all, the great white whale itself, this time as hero. But of course it did no such thing. Updike, perhaps the most assholeish of the previous generation’s writers still set on foot and dealt  in novelistic terms with a host of female and black characters. SC-ery, to my mind, has largely failed to pick up the challenge. Perhaps I can exempt The Corrections from this charge, but otherwise, the story for the women – upper class, college educated, white – largely falls into the same as-it-ever was: women are seen as objects of romance or as failing to be objects of romance. Their interest, in other words, is outside themselves. Esse est percipi, which is one of the great formulas for disempowering the other -  the colonialist principle elevated to a cosmic injunction. Thus, the meaty american story of the last couple of decades is approached only obliquely. That story, of women – mostly upper class and mostly white – experiencing the market place and upward social mobility – escapes the SC-ery trap, which is, perhaps, designed not to trap that historic moment.

As an aside, here, let’s not be heteronormative ourselves about that moment. It is definitely a story of class and race as well. For the vast majority of American women, lean-in feminism is a joke, another management ploy in order to keep labor cheap and disorganized.

Along with 10:04, I’ve been reading a much more obscure book about NYC. Stanley Walker’s Mrs. Astor’s Horse was published in 1935. Walker was just coming off his stint as the news editor of the New York Herald Tribune, a position he held down beginning in 1927. He’d seen the peak of the Jazz Age and its collapse in the Depression. Someday, given the perpetual nostalgia for accounts of New York City low life and glamor, Walker’s book will be reissued. I can just see a NYRB edition, with a preface by Luc Sante. Walker’s tone is keyed to his generation’s wisecracking white male American. It is a language that uses the slang of the ballpark and vaudeville, and that plunges into what the American Mercury, Mencken’s magazine, used to call curiosae Americanae – the eccentric side of American life. Eccentric in the broad sense that includes lynching and the antics of California radio evangelists. It crunches down on electrocutions and adultery among the rich, with the aim of casting an unflattering light on the American booboosie, the eating, drinking, ticket paying esse who loved nothing more than gawking at the spectacles of that which supposedly violated their norms.
Mencken, Winchell, Ring Larnder, and the early New Yorker wits were very good at this. Because it is the kind of writing that presupposes the yawning cretinism of the American middle class, one might be lured into thinking that it is performing a progressive critique. But as the progress of Mencken showed, it wasn’t. It was the kind of satire that does a turn around in the fifth act. Although the businessman is a Babbit, heaven help us if we take the economy out of his hands. Although the ossified WASP is ridiculous as any kind of arbiter, in the end, he is our true bearer of civilization and lets not mess with our current arrangements, lest we get Bolshevism.
Within those limits, though, this enjoyment of the American carnivalesque does give us a point of view from which to see the limits of S.C.-ery, and in particular, the latter’s surprising piety about res publica.
About which more later.  

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...