Saturday, November 21, 2015

the weather of modernism

Kathryn Schultz, in her clever essay on weather and literaturemisses, I think, an opportunity. Her notion is a good one – that a change occurs in the uses of weather between the Victorians and the modernists.  But she confines this insight to the narrow range of Anglo writers. To my mind, the difference in uses – the difference, that is, in what one might calll the cognitive temperament, the mood around what one knows – is exemplified by the opening of Bleak House (to which Schultz makes reference) and the opening of Man Without Qualities (to which she doesn’t). If ever there was a book that was in dialogue with the conventions of the Victorian novel, it is Musil’s book.  Famously, Dickens begins Bleak House with a prose poem about the London fog:
“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”
The booming foghorn like repetition of fog, provides the real punctuation here for sentences that themselves become foggy, that tend to end either before the verb and object arrive, or to creep along embracing descriptively bits of geography. The sentences extend so much that they seem to go down the reader’s throat, much as the fog gets into the breathing of Londoners – and as the passage relies heavily on sentences as units of breath, the effect is enhanced, feeds back into itself.  
Here, by contrast, is the way Musil begins Man without Qualities:
“A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination  to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising  and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.”
Like Dickens, Musil starts out on a note of humor, bringing together the forces of weather – which have been mathematized – and the city. However, the contrasts here are different.As Schultz points out:
“Yet the weather in “Bleak House” is unmistakably symbolic: the mud is that of a hopelessly sullied culture, the fog that of an opaque and unnavigable legal system. As in earlier, religious stories, meteorology here is morality, and the prevailing conditions leave everything hidden, murky, and stained.”
Musil’s dialectical point will be, eventually, that mathematization is not a value neutral application of science to the world – but on the contrary, is full of moral quandries. For instance, how are we to live with it? Just as the Viennese circle failed, ultimately, to create a language of self evidence in which truth would be a grammatical function fully encompassed in the language’s semantics, Ulrich, the hero of the man without qualities, will fail to not have qualities – that is, to live precisely. In Musil’s binary, precision cannot do without soul. And yet, it creates a world that seems to have chased away all the spirits – even if, in a final moment, it must return to the subject that created it.
These are both moments in the larger event of capitalism, I would say. Or, more accurately, in the development of an industrial system of production under capitalism.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The anti-Muslim/saudi impunity paradox

One of the great paradoxes of the last two decades has been the simultaneous demonization of Islam in the West, and, at the same time, the impunity of one of the central Islamic states, Saudi Arabia. The attacks in Paris have revived the former, while depending on the latter. So far, so good. But why is this not, at least in the media, a hot issue?
To find some answers, I’d urge the curious to turn to the home page of a financial entity with the impressively ominous name, Kingdom Holding. 
The grandson of two of the Arab world’s most celebrated figures – King Abdul-Aziz Alsaud, founder and first ruler of Saudi Arabia and HE. Riad El Solh, iconic statesman in Lebanon’s drive for independence – Prince Alwaleed has always been inspired by the uncommon achievements of his family line.”
What we are being told, here, is that Abdul-Aziz Alsaud is essentially a representative, or a member of, the Saudi government.
As such, it is a little surprising that the Kingdom Holding company hasn’t provoked a few questions. According to the New York Times, the Kingdom Holding company, from around 1999 until 2014, held a six percent stake in News corporation. Alsaud used the stake to vote with Murdoch, even as, due to the scandals in Britain, Murdoch’s management came under some stress.

In other words, the company that owns Fox news was partly owned by the Kingdom.
In 2014, there was a reorganization of Murdoch’s company, and the Kingdom moved its investment to the entertainment arm of Fox.
But not to fear! It was also making a strong play for Times Warner stock. The Kingdom site is proud of the relationship:
KHC’s interest in Time Warner results from a 1997 USD 145m market purchase of a 5% interest in the pioneering Internet company Netscape. Netscape was subsequently sold to AOL which then merged with Time Warner. KHC had identified home and business Internet services as an area of extraordinary opportunity, and the Netscape position was KHC’s first entry into the technology sector, long before Internet-based stocks became unsustainably overvalued.
Within the first sixteen months of the initial investment, Netscape yielded an extraordinary internal rate of return of 90.6% per annum, with the company’s shares skyrocketing in value due to the surging demand for Internet stocks and announcement of AOL’s proposed bid. KHC deepened its relationship with Time Warner in 2001 and 2002 with the purchase of additional share holdings. AOL and Time Warner separated in 2009.
The relationship between KHC and Time Warner remains extremely strong, with the management of Time Warner believing that potential exists for KHC to act as the company’s regional investment partner for the Middle East.”
So, our original paradox can be restated. How is it that media – and Fox and Times Warner between them own a large part of the media that reports news and opinion to American – can host shows that are so overtly anti-Moslem? Take Bill Maher. The man has made a minor career of Islam-dissing. He loves nothing better than to knock down experts in Islam – like, uh, Ben Affleck – with his broad knowledge of the subject.
And how is it that, at the same time, it is not controversial for the US government to, say, sell a billion dollars of bombs, as they did this week, to Saudi Arabia, when Saudi Arabia has been on a campaign of both starving the Yemen population  with a blockade and bombing the cities, with an untold number of civilian casualties? Untold, of course, because you won’t be told this on Bill Maher’s show, or on Fox news, for two.
My theory is: the anti-Moslem rhetoric in the US really effects Moslems who, in Saudi Arabia, would be in prison anyway. In the US, Arabic women, for instance, drive cars, vote, have a civil life, drink, have sex, and in general participate in the life of women in the US. The effect of Maher’s rhetoric means, merely, that a few mosques will be bombed, Arabic kids will be beat up at schools, etc. – the usual hegemonic cruelties. Given that the Saudis have engaged in war almost exclusively against other Moslems – in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria – it is not surprising that Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdul-Aziz has never taken his good friend Rupert Murdoch aside and said, can the anti-Moslem crap.
Nor is it curious that opinion riots against the evils of Putin periodically break out in the Western media, with tons of tears shed over the jailing of dissident billionaire Khodorovsky, whereas the occasional execution by beheading of a sorceressin Saudi Arabia – which is what happened toAmina bint Abdel Halim Nassar in 2011 – produces a yawn. You would think that the elevation of the Saudi delegate to the head of the Human Rights commission at the UN this year would provoke a media storm, given the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia. But it didn’t. Here was the Obama administration’s response, via the press conference of State Department spokesman Mark Toner:
“Asked whether he thought it was “appropriate for them to have a leadership position,” Toner said, “We have a strong dialogue, obviously a partnership with Saudi Arabia that spans, obviously, many issues. We talk about human rights concerns with them. You know, as to this leadership role, we hope that it’s an occasion for them to, you know, to look at human rights around the world but also within their own borders.”
“But you said that you welcome them in this position,” another reporter said. “Is it based on improved record? I mean, can you show or point to anything where there is you know, a sort of stark improvement in their human rights record?”
“I mean, we have an ongoing discussion with them about all these human rights issues, like we do with every country,” Toner said. “We make our concerns clear when we do have concerns, but that dialogue continues. But I don’t have anything to point to in terms of progress.””

Frankly, Toner’s last remark surely earned him some reproach. Look at the fantastic progress Saudi Arabia is making in terms of ridding itself of witches!

In any case, and this is the point of this post, I’d like to start a campaign to pressure Maher into inviting the head of the Kingdom to debate Islam with him on his show. Of course, Maher is just foam on foam, a show that doesn’t even rise to the level of intellectual masturbation, but it would be fun to see him confronted with a little consequence for his views. Because, as Maher well knows, he can do what he wants on his HBO show (HBO is owned by Times Warner), but he probably doesn’t want to travel the career path of Glenn Beck. Yes to controversy that is as thin as yesterday’s bigotry, but no to endangering a “warm, valued, and long-term relationship.”

And hey, I’m wondering what Congress or the media would make of the idea of a Chinese company,or an Iranian one, owning a six percent stake in a major news network. Hmm, they might kick!

Monday, November 16, 2015

France isn't at war with radical Islam. It is allied to radical Islam. It is at war with Daech.

I should read soothing things before I go to bed. Alas, instead, I glanced at an opinion piece in Marianne. It starts out with the obvious: France is at war. Then it immediately goes off the tracks. France isn't at war with Daech. No, France, according to this genius, is at war with "radical Islam."
This would come as surrprising news to French corporations, who've had a boom year selling to the heart of radical Islam, Saudi Arabia, or to the French government, which has supported radical islam in the war in Yemen.
The difference between the ideologies and domestic policies of Daech and the Saudis depend on the fact that Daech is trying to become a real geopolitical power and the Saudis already are one. Otherwise, both are ruled by a particular interpretation of Shari'a, both behead, both make crimes out of such things as sorcery, both absolutely deny civil rights to women, etc., etc.
Ideological fog machines are a standard part of war. But we've been living with this fog for too long. It is poisonous. If a major paper publishes a piece that misrepresents the most obvious fact about political reality right now, it bodes ill for what comes next. We saw this in 9.11. What is true is that the West, in the interest of combatting Arab nationalism and communism, allowed and even encouraged the Saudis to spend money founding mosques worldwide, which have grown into the cheering section for jihadists. Daech, piggybacking on this network, has recruited thousands of supporters. This isn't surprising. France, and the US, and the West in general, are always trying to recruit supporters from their networks in the Middle East.
What protects Daech is pronouncements such as that in Marianne. If you can't identify your enemy, your war is fucked from the get go.
Where did the French planes that bombed Raqaa take off? From fields in the Gulf states. Meanwhile, other figures in the Gulf states gave Daech its startup money and are continuing to fund Daech.
France is allied with radical Islam, and fighting a group that is held together, ideologically, by a variant of radical Islam. These are the facts. Look em in the face, or continue this bumbling through the mindfield that simply leads to endlessly more war and terrorist attacks.
All of which is not something I wanted to think about last night. I wanted to think about the thriller I was reading.

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...