Saturday, March 31, 2018

Marx's hope - or mine

The hardest thing to recover from the wrecks of history is the horizon of expectation that the actors presupposed. Those expectations, that imagined future, all black on black, was intrinsic to the routines and habits that made it the case that people accepted x and came to reject y. The historian can make it easier on him or herself by simply borrowing the economist’s toolkit. It doesn’t really explain expectation, but it gives you a nice labels that you can paste over the gaps – for instance, you can talk about marginal disutility and make a graph.

A more sophisticated stab at the mystery was made by Marx, who assumed class conflict. By assuming an intrinsic violence that exceeded exchange, he opened up history to ethnography. His followers often have a hard time with this – they have a tendency to revert to the economic models of the neo-classicals, with the difference that, for the Marxists, profit is a dirty word, and for the neo-classicals it isn’t. This kind of Marxist will tell you, with a knowing smirk, that everything that happened in Iraq was planned, usually by some bigwigs, motivated purely by profit. Secret plans and the holy elevation of profit are the marks of this line of thought. Marx himself, thank God, was not given to such bogus analysis, since of course he realized that profit and loss has to be reconciled, in the end, with the realities of class conflict. Thus, in his analysis of how Louis Bonaparte became the emperor in France, he is very careful to underline the fact that the working class, which fought for the Republic, was fighting against its own interests, so to speak, insofar as the Republic was dominated by conservative business men, while the bourgeoisie, which did have an interest in preserving the Republic, went, to a man, to Louis Bonaparte’s side. Marx’s analysis – his journalism in general – confronted a fact that he tended to erase in the economic works – the lack of a truly homogeneous class.

This means, as well, that identifying class with its "interest" sacrifices the violence out of which class was forged - the meaning that endows profit with something more than the ability to afford a trip to a higher level fast food joint. That violence, sublimated in a thousand routines, makes up a collective lifestyle. One that, in our time, is snatched from the people to which it was promised at regular intervals. What to do with the anger that results from this is a problem that is left to... nobody, no structure, no church, no organization.

Marx, I think, thought that a working class consciousness could be forged - that it was not some natural demographic product. This was the point of the Communist Manifesto: this is the heart of revolution. Briefly, such homogeneity has occurred, but never, it seems to me, because of some universally shared class identification or recognition – instead, it is always about some collective threat. It is war, not the consciousness of one’s place in the system of production, that produces solidarity. And so that solidarity is, from the beginning, a reactive rather than a productive property.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

on writing novels - joys thereof, and the torments of style

Writing a novel is one of the world’s best occupations, I think. It is what I have spent the last four years doing. And now that my novel, Made a Few Mistakes, is finished (and I am in the true hell of trying to find an agent), my days are brightened by the prospect of writing another novel – in fact, I’ve embarked. I sit here in the ideal circumstances: the quiet of an apartment in Paris, the sun shining in the little ruelle outside our terrace, a coffee cup (natch) on the table, and my fingers a little worn with the hundreds of thousands of letters they’ve run through still playing their old tune, like some band of ancient geezers kicking it up on my laptop keyboard.
What’s not to like?
Of course, this isn’t an opinion that is endorsed by all the best and brightest. Flaubert, whose letters are unsurpassable when it comes to all around bitching, generally viewed writing as a form of crucifixion, with himself playing the role of nail-er and nail-ee. Here, at random, is Flaubert telling a correspondent about his latest production:

“You can not imagine my fatigue, my anguishes, my tedium. As for the rest that you advice me to take, it is impossible. I can no longer re-commence. And besides, how am I supposed to rest, and what am I supposed to do during? As I advance, my doubts on the whole of it augment, and I perceive mistakes in the work, irremediable mistakes, which I don’t get rid of, a boil being worth more than a scar.”

That is Flaubert on Salambo, which might have been his most read work in his lifetime, and is now certainly his least read. We have, of course, the invaluable correspondence on Madame Bovary, which is a sort of novel about the novel.
During the composition of  L’education sentimentale, Flaubert wrote this to George Sand:

“My novel has been going pretty badly for a quarter of an hour. … You don’t know, you, what it is to sit for a whole day with your head in your hands trying to pressure your poor brain into finding one word. The idea flows from you largely, incessantly, like a river. For me, it is a little thread of water. I need a really large work of art in order to obtain a cascade. Oh, I have known them all, the torments of style.”

Generally, posterity has sided with Flaubert in valuing his little thread of water, and has looked down on those writers who flow largely. And I’ll admit, I haven’t really read George Sand’s novels. But myself, I am not one of those people who press my brain to find a word – saving of course those premonitory moments of Alzheimers, when I forget the names of everything. I suppose I am more the child of Bouvard and Pecuchet – it is the words of others that I am always trying to catch. My own words I save for, well, writing my little chronicle of my time, as sieved through my brain. And even there - I'm not sure these are my own words at all. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

the rude French waiter

The rude French waiter is as much of an enduring stereotype as the American cowboy and the English aristocrat. However, in the age of neo-liberalism, rudeness in the service industry is being replaced by the service with a smile ethos. In 1981, when I first came to France, the rude waiter was everywhere. But now, in 2018, in Paris, this species is a definite minority.
This, you might think, is one of the more pleasant effects of globalization. From a French perspective, it might be thought of as "Americanization". Yet the rude waiter phenomenon was not confined to France. Just look at the famous breakfast scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970). The waitress, in this scene, makes no effort to please the customer - an attitude that no longer holds sway even at Waffle House.
Arlie Hochschild, in the 80s, shrewdly saw what was happening and coined the term emotional labor. Or I think it was her. In any case, the wind blew from the U.S., and all over the world you seem much more service with a smile - and as a customer, at least, you probably don't think of the smile as work. But of course, it is. It is consistent with that little extra, that surplus value, that Capital requires.
What is interesting is that in France, this ethos finds its place within a larger French ethos of manners.
In America, instead of manners, we substitute an ersatz intimacy. In the client-service person situation, the client might ignore what would be required in France - the pro forma hello, or good morning, etc. But the client and the service person might overflow with too much information. I remember once getting a hotel room in Houston with A., and how appalled she was that the woman at the desk gave us not only our key, but an update on her wisdom tooth situation.
Manners in France, by contrast, are explicitly oriented towards keeping the intimate and the public apart. This can be confusing for Americans. Take, for instance, the institution of tutoyer. Americans really don't distinguish between you as a familiar term and you as a formal one. When you start speaking French, as an American, this is as confusing, at the beginning, as a sitck shift is if you have always driven an automatic. You are going to be in for some bumps and grinding noises. Myself, I mostly remember to vousvoyer, but in the press of the moment I become inappropriately informal, still.
i find "rudeness" a fascinating topic, because it does seem to mark a certain semiotic-seismic fault line between ways of performing the interaction between strangers - and even familiars. I was raised to be "nice", which is a different thing from not being "rude". But this distinction is not something I would be able to articulate in the American (white, suburban) context alone - it needs to be contrasted in order to be seen.
However, one must continually remember that national characters - our stereotypes - are historically constituted, and historically change. And that, y'all, is what I have to say about that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

mussolini laughs

In 1939, the advertising campaign for Ninotchka consisted of the phrase: “Garbo laughs”. The gag was not an in-joke: even the lowest form of film goer knew that Greta Garbo was supposed to be classy and solemn, an actress for the superior, MGM parts.

It is interesting to think about another advertising campaign, which had come about in 1934-5, and could have been called: Mussolini laughs. In the twenties, Mussolini’s government made a conscious effort to distance fascism from laughter. Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci, in an essay entitled Rire sans eclat – laughing discretely.

The fascist regime was officially serious. They were serious down to the small details. For instance, a memo was sent to the newspapers in 1936 that, after some deliberation, it was decreed that the schedule for theaters would henceforth be anno teatrale instead of anno comico – comico being a word that meant not only comedy, but also theater in general. And Mussolini was very conscious of his photo-geny: while he laughed in private, at things like Laurel and Hardy films, his public presence was unsmiling, and often, scowling. The scowl, though, had been so bandied about by caricaturists outside of Italy that the campaign to show that Mussolini smiles was devised as a counter-blow. It was also part of the campaign to show that Italy was back as a European power. The war in Ethiopia was accompanied by the campaign to show a jovial, or more jovial, Mussolini. Then, according always to Matard-Bonucci, World War 2 returned Mussolini to his official sourpuss image.

During the interwar period, that is, the 20s and 30s, there was a tendency to examine laughter from the angle of philosophical anthropology. The fascination with tears and laughter came about as a dialectical opposite of the anthropological interest in collective emotions – the expression of emotions that were obligatory in certain social settings. Georges Bataille in his dossier on the pineal eye – with its mixture of brilliant insight and brilliant kookiness – made a psychoanalytically charged connection between laughter and excretion: “The interpretation of laughter as a spasmodic process of the sphincter muscles of the buccal origice, analogous to the sphincter muscles of the anal orifice during defecation, is probably the only satisfying one, on the condition that one attends, in both case, of the primordial place in human existence of such spasmodic processes for excretory purposes.” For Bataille, the Mussolinian grimace was at the very heart, then, of fascism: a literal existential constipation.
Buytendjik and Plessner, in Groningen (the Netherlands) were working from another angle on collective psychology and its expressions, such as tears and laughter – the angle of ethology. Bataille, as well, grounded his work in a (mostly poetic) reference to primates, but Buytendjik actually observed animals - frogs - in the lab. These two put into motion a double movement: first, the reduction of human culture to a collectivity of  muscular movements; and second, to building a plane of signs and meanings – on these movements. In this sense, laughter and tears have a privileged place. They are certainly forms of “excretion”, but they are seemingly feeling-driven. Or it should be said that they are interpreted as feeling-driven. Tears that are not provoked by, say, a cold wind or other elements in the environment, are not the same as sweat, even though, physically, the drop of sweat and the tear-drop are pretty much the same. Yet of course even sweat can be captured by emotion – as any reader of thrillers knows, sweat streams down your face when you are exerting yourself to disarm a bomb. The amount of sweat is disproportionate to the amount of exertion – the remainder, then, has to be explained in some way.

Plessner finished his work, Tears and Laughter, in 1941. In a footnote, he discusses whether laughter is “proper” to animals as well. This was a topic taken up in an essay by Robert Musil in his Posthumous Papers of a Living Person. It is a small essay, but well worth putting in this little mosaic.

Can a horse laugh?

A well known psychologist wrote once wrote down the sentence: “… for the animal does knows neither laughing nor smiling”
This encourages me to tell the story of how I once saw a horse laugh. I thought up to now that this is an everyday phenomenon, and didn’t think of making anything special out of it; however, if it is so rare, I will gladly go into some detail.
Now, this was before the war; it could be that since the war, horses no longer laugh. The horse was hitched to a railing that went around a small courtyard. The sun was shining. The sky was darkblue. The air was extremely mild, although a glance at the calendar showed it was February. And in opposition to all this divine comfortableness there was no human counterpart. In a word, I foiund myself in Rome, on a route before the gates, and the border between the modest outskirts of the city and the beginning of the countryside of Campagna.
The horse, too, was a Compagna horse: young and graceful, with a wellformed, small profile, that wasn’t at all pony-ish, but one which a large rider would look like an adult on a doll’s seat. It was being curried by a jolly lad, the sun shone on its pelt, and in its shoulders it was ticklish. Now the horse had, so to speak, four shoulders, which makes it two times more ticklish than a man. Outside of which, the horse seemed to have a particularly sensitive spot on the innerside of its shoulder, and everytime this was touched, it couldn’t help but laugh.
Thus when the curry brush came near the spot, it laid its ears back, became restless, wanted to bump it away with its muzzle and when it couldn’t, it showed its teeth. The curry brush, however, marched happily on, stroke for stroke, and the lips now gave more and more a sight of the teeth in its mouth, while the ears were ever more laid back and the little horse stamped from one hoof to the other.
And suddenly it began to laugh. It bared its teeth. It sought to bump with its muzzle the boy who was tickling it, as strongly as it could, to brush him away; in the same way that a peasant girl would have done this with her hand, and without wanting to bite him. It tried, as well, to turn with its whole body to block him. But the boy had the advantage. And when he came with the comb in the neighborhood of the shoulders, the horse couldn’t hold it in. Its whole body shuddered, it pulled its lips back from its teach, and far as it could, and it behaved for a second exactly like a person, who one was tickling so much that he could not laugh any more.
The learned sceptic will interject that it could not laugh at all. In response let me say that this is correct in so far as of the both of them the one that neighed with laugher was the boy. But both were visibly playing together, and as soon as one of them began, there could be no doubt, the even the horse wanted to laugh and waited for what was coming next.
So learned skepticism should limit itself to the claim that the animal does not have the ability to laugh at jokes.
But the horse is not always to blame, there.


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