Saturday, November 25, 2017

spinoza and the american predicament

There have been innumerable searches for the roots of the American predicament that resulted in the election of Donald Trump. I came across this passage from Spinoza that provides a general framework for the racism, ignorance, stubbornness and despair that goes into giving your heart to a senile bully:

“Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, over-confident, and vain.”

The rules, of course, that once governed at least certain circumstances in the capitalist world – rules that countervailed the rule of the richest and the most powerful – were long ago re-constituted in the U.S. by both the Dems and the Republicans. They called it de-regulation, or privatization, and what they were really doing was abolishing rules that limited the behavior of the great holders of private power. Meanwhile, fortune’s greedily coveted favors – which is the real name of “being competitive internationally” or whatever flavor of bullshit is being put out by the Harvard Business School this season – were what the working class, the creators of value, were encouraged to strive for – a sort of clientelism that destroyed all the long built up solidarity and substituted an ethos of dog eat dog. The end result was, as Spinoza well saw in circumstances of similar reaction, a visible increase in credulity.

Political superstition, at least, comes about when the conditions that support superstition are put in place. They have been in place for decades. We are now seeing what this leads us, Gadarene swine that we are. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Reviving the ostinato genatalia - not a good idea!

Years ago, the art historian Leo Steinberg wrote a book about the sexuality of Christ in renaissance paintings, in which he pointed out that the ostinato genitalia was at the center of many paintings of the Baby Jesus. This was consistent with the culture of this late medieval, early modern period.
Who knew that digital phone cameras and the internet would democratize the ostinato genitalia, so that any freaking Senator, movie producer, magazine writer or talk show host would be on it like mustard on a hotdog? To the Charley Roses, the Weiners, the Louis CKs, the Rep. Joe Bartons - buddy, the late middle ages were a long time ago! Put your rocket back in your pocket, please. And also, resign?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The black and white world - the soul of the banal

The central trauma of cinema, for many writers, was the transition to sound.

For me, though, it was the transition from black and white to color.

This is a matter, partly, of my age. Being born in 1957, I well remember black and white television sets. And I remember how common black and white photos were. Color television came well after color in the movies, but during the era of black and white televisions, black and white movies from the thirties to the sixties were common fare.

Frankly, I haven’t owned a television in years, so I don’t know what the lineup is, but I imagine the spate of black and white films that I was fed from the 30s and 40s has slowed to a trickle.
The effect of black and white film and photography on me has been profound. Firstly, it has taught me the insufficiency of color words – black and white have been used so variously, the tonal scale creates such differences between one black and white picture or film and another, that our color language seems primitive, a relic that we are using to explain a cultural product that surpasses or transcends our culture.

But secondly, it has given me a very childish view of history.

In this naïve view of history, everything in the nineteenth century and everything in the first half of the twentieth century happened in black and white – or at best, sepia. The Civil War, World War I and II, were all fought in black and white. The cities – New York, London, Paris – were black and white. Nudes were black and white.

Then came the second half of the twentieth century up to now. The long present is in color. It is as if colors were invented in 1950. I know, there was color photography and film before then, but it was not dominant. And with color came a loss of depth.

Black and white images seem, to me, to somehow find, in the banality of the world, the grain or soul that escapes that banality, whereas color simply floods the zone with banality, makes it inescapable. This is ontological nonsense, of course, yet it certainly makes an epiphenomenal sense. After all, we know that, for instance, Greek statues were painted, but the way we view them, and the way they were viewed in the Renaissance, and the way they have leaked into our sense of what a statue is, is uncolored. The restoration of the statues of the ancient world always stops with putting the pieces together; we never paint them.
Similarly, we can “restore” color to the black and white portrait Nadar made of Baudelaire – in fact, I think it has been done. I’ve noticed more and more color versions of photos that were originally shot in black and white. But to me, there is something deeply wrong with this. Instead of bringing Baudelaire closer, it seems, instead, to zombify him, to take him out of that world of canonical black and white and string Vegas-y Christmas lights on him.  

The black and white world is one that I dream in; I only live in the world of color.

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...