Saturday, April 11, 2020

Two poems by Karen Chamisso

I. Unnamed
Found-and-pound her little mut me
Found-and-pound we all become
Found-and-pound was she
Tubed up so that the broken drum
Of her lung could still functi
Myself the one whacked out without conjunction
I woke with her bad breath in my mouth
After her death everything went South
For a long while.

II. Pastoral, maybe
My poem fell into the wrong crowd
as I was visiting the  Garden Center
in my SUV with  and Jake, our gardener, driving.
Huh huh huh
To buy me a magnolia stellata sapling or a loud
Japanese plum  - huh huh huh
It peered instead at the bottles of Ortho Orthene on the shelf
“kills the queen and destroys the mound” it read to itself
And suddenly it knew that it had taken a side
Huh huh huh
When Troy was destroyed with every kind of  -cide
Hum hum hum
So don’t think a flower, carefully etched, can save you
From returning to the mound with some kind of bait
And thus I pushed my cart through the Garden Center gate.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Breaks


According to Robert Craven’s 1980 article on Pool slang in American speech, breaks – as in good break, bad break, those are the breaks – derives from the American lingo of pool, which is distinct from  British billiard terms. The difference in terminology emerged in the 19th century, but  he dates the popular use of break (lucky break, bad break, the breaks) to the 20s.

 I love the idea that this is true, that the Jazz age, the age of American modernity and spectacle, saw the birth of the breaks. If the word indeed evolved from the first shot in pool – when you “break” the pyramid of balls, a usage that seems to have been coined in America in the 19th century, as against the British term  – then its evolution nicely intersects one of the favored examples in the philosophy of causation, as presented by Hume.

Hume’s work, from the Treatise to the Enquiry, is so punctuated by billiard balls that it might as well have been the metaphysical dream of Minnesota Fats – excuse the anachronism – and it has been assumed, in a rather jolly way in the philosophy literature, that this represents a piece of Hume’s own life, a preference for billiards. However, as some have noted, Hume might have borrowed the billiard ball example from Malebranche – whose work he might have read while composing the Treatise at La Fleche. But even if Hume was struck by Malebranche’s example and borrowed it, the stickiness of the example,  the way billiard balls keep appearing in Hume’s texts, feels to the reader like tacit testimony to Hume’s own enjoyment or interest in  the game. Unfortunately, this detail has not been taken up by his biographers. When we trace the itinerary of Hume as he moved from Scotland to Bristol to London to France, we have to reconstruct ourselves how this journey in the 1730s might have intersected with billiard rooms in spas and public houses. In a schedule of coaches from London to Bristol published in the early 1800s, we read that there is a coach stop at the Swan in St. Clements street, London, on the line that goes to Bristol, and from other sources we know that the Swan was famed for its billiard room. Whether this information applies to a journey made 70 years before, when the game was being banned in public houses by the authorities, is uncertain. 

 One should also remember that in Hume’s time, billiards was  not played as we now play American pool or snooker. The table and the pockets and the banks were different. So was the cue stick  – , it wasn’t until 1807 that the cue stick was given its felt or india rubber tip, which made it a much more accurate instrument. And of course the balls were hand crafted, and thus not honed to a mechanically precise roundness.


If, however, Hume was a billiard’s man, one wonders what kind he was. His biographer Hunter speaks of the “even flight” of Hume’s prose – he never soars too much. But is this the feint of a hustler? According to one memoirist, Kant, too, was a billiards player  – in fact the memoirist, Heilsberg, claimed it was his “only recreation” – and he obviously thought there was something of a hustle about Hume’s analysis of cause and effect, which is where the breaks come in.
There’s a rather celebrated passage in the abstract of the Treatise in which Hume even conjoins the first man, Adam, and the billiard ball. 

The passage begins: Here is a billiard ball lying on the table, and another ball moving towards it with rapidity. They strike; and the ball which was formerly at rest now acquires a motion.” 

Hume goes on to describe the reasons we would have for speaking of one ball’s contact causing the other ball to acquire a motion. The question is, does this description get to something naturally inherent in the event?

“Were a man, such as Adam, created in the full vigour of understanding, without experience, he would never be able to infer motion in the second ball from the motion and impulse of the first. It is not anything that reason sees in the cause which makes us infer the effect.”

This new man, striding into the billiard room, Hume thinks, would not see as we see, even if he sees what we see. Only when he has seen such things thousands of times will he see as we see... “His understanding would anticipate his sight and form a conclusion suitable to his past experience.

Hume’s Adam is an overdetermined figure. On the one hand, in his reference to Adam’s “science”, there is a hint of the Adam construed by the humanists. Martin Luther claimed that Adam’s vision was perfect, meaning he could see objects hundreds of miles away. Joseph Glanvill, that curiously in-between scholar – defender of the ghost belief and founder of the Royal Society – wrote in the seventeenth century:

“Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew'd him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo's tube: And 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper World, as we with all the advantages of art. It may be 'twas as absurd even in the judgement of his senses, that the Sun and Stars should be so very much, less then this Globe, as the contrary seems in ours; and 'tis not unlikely that he had as clear a perception of the earths motion, as we think we have of its quiescence.”

However, this is not the line that Hume develops. His Adam has our human all too human sensorium, and is no marvel of sensitivity. Rather, he belongs to another line of figures beloved by the Enlightenment philosophes: Condillac’s almost senseles statue, Locke’s Molyneaux, Diderot’s aveugle-né. Here, the human is stripped down to the basics. Adam’s conjunction with the billiard ball, then, gives us a situation like Diderot’s combination of the blind man and the mirror – it’s an event of illuminating estrangement.


Hume’s point is to lift the breaks from off our necks, to break the bonds of necessity – or rather to relocate those bonds. In doing so, he and his billiard balls are reversing the older tendency of atomistic philosophy, which was revived by Gassendi in the 17th century. Lucretian atoms fall in necessary and pre-determined courses, the only exception being that slight inexplicable swerve when the atoms contact the human – hence our free will. Hume, who had a hard enough time  with Christian miracles, did not, so far as I know, discuss the Lucretian version of things even to the extent of dismissing it.

To be a little over the top, we could say that the eighteenth century thinkers disarmed necessity, exiled Nemesis, and the heavyweight heads of the nineteenth century brought it back with a vengeance, locating it – in a bow to Hume, or the Humean moment – in history. Custom. From this point of view, Hume was part of a project that saw the transfer of power from God and Nature back to Man – although we are now all justly suspicious of such capitalizable terms.


But the breaks survived and flourished. There is a way of telling intellectual history – the way I’ve been doing it – that makes it go on above our heads, instead of in them. It neglects the general populace, the great unwashed. Book speaks to book. To my mind, intellectual history has to embrace and understand folk belief in order to understand the book to book P.A. system.
Which is why we can approach the breaks in another way.

In 1980, I was going to college in Shreveport, Louisiana. I went to classes in the morning, then worked at a general remodeling store from 3 to 10. I worked in the paint department, mostly. At seven, the manager would leave for home, and Henry, the assistant manager, would let us pipe in whatever music we wanted to  - which is how I first heard Kurtis Blow’s These are the Breaks. I also first heard the Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers delight this way, and I still mix them up. I heard both, as well as La Donna and Rick James, at the Florentine, a disco/gay bar that I went to a lot with friends – it was the best place to dance in town. Being a gay bar, it was always receiving bomb threats and such, which made it a bit daring to go there. We went, however, because we could be pretty sure that the music they played would include no country or rock. It was continuously danceable until, inevitably, The Last Dance played.

At the time, I was dabbling a bit in Marx, and thought that I was on the left side of history. At the same time, 1980 was a confusing year for Americans. The ‘malaise’ was everywhere, and nothing seemed to be going right – from the price of oil to the international order. There were supposedly communists in Central America, African countries were turning to the Soviet Union, and of course there was the hangover from the Vietnam War – the fantasy that we could have won that war had not yet achieved mass circulation, so it felt like what it was, a plain defeat.
I imagined, then, that the breaks were falling against a certain capitalist order. In actuality, the left – in its old and new varieties – was vanishing. Or you could say transforming. The long marches were underway – in feminism, from overthrowing patriarchy to today’s “leaning in”; in civil rights, from the riots in Miami to the re-Jim Crowization of America through the clever use of the drug war; and in labor organization, from the union power to strike to the impotence and acceptance that things will really never get better, and all battles are now rearguard.  

My horizons were not vast back then – I didn’t keep up with the news that much, but pondered a buncha books and the words of popular songs. But I knew something was in the air. As it turned out,  Kurtis Blow’s breaks were not going to be kind to my type, the Nowhere people, stranded socially with their eccentric and unconvincing visions. However, after decades of it, I have finally learned to accept what Blow was telling me: these are just the breaks. That is all they are.
You’ll live

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Do we lie to ourselves? The argument against

 It is a commonplace that we “lie” to ourselves. In 2012, the psychologist Dan Ariely published a book on dishonesty with the title “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: how we lie to everyone (especially ourselves)”. The reviews and responses to the book never questioned the parenthetical – the notion that we lie to ourselves seems to lie in our stock of accepted truisms.

I want to tussle with that truism. I think it is wrong, for interesting reasons.

What is a lie? It would seem to require two parts. One part is that it is the communication of a falsehood. The second part is that the person communicating the falsehood both, a., knows it is false, and b., what to induce the recipient of the message to believe it is true.
Lying is one of the classic social phenomena of childhood, at least in the bourgeois West. A child, for instance, is warned that some fascinating piece of their parents’ bric-a-brac is fragile and not to be handled. A vase, a commemorative plate handed down from the great grandparents. The child, nevertheless, does in secret handle the object, and breaks it. 

When the parents discover the breakage, the child denies having handled the object. The words “lie” and “lying” get bandied about.

This is a form of deception that seems to correspond well to our notion of the double requirement of the lie.

However, there is another scenario from childhood in which the word lie comes up. In this scenario, a parent promises x, say ice cream cake on Sunday. And then doesn’t deliver on the promise – the parent tells the child that he or she forgot to get the cake. And the child, who let us say has been extra good in anticipation of the cake, feels cheated, hits out, and says that the parents “lied”.

The lie here seems to fit not so well with our paradigm. There is no evidence that the parents, at the time of the promise, were thinking that they were not going to get ice cream cake. In other words, the intent to deceive was not part of the original scenario. This scenario is quite common and recognizable. For instance, the same child grown old promises himself that he will resist sweets. He’s been told that he is not supposed to eat sweets by the doctor. So he makes a resolution – which has promise-like features, since it is, a., sincere, and b, about future activity – not to eat sweets. And he succeeds so well the first day that he decides that it wouldn’t break the spirit of the resolution to reward himself with one sweet. And then another sweet. And so on until he realizes that he has broken his resolution. Between the resolve and the breaking of the resolve he has “deceived” himself. He might even be tempted to say: I lied to myself.

Yet: it is hard to see the second case as a matter of lying. The reason is pretty simple: the lie depends on the liar knowingly communicating a falsehood. This requires that the liar have an idea of what is true and what is false, leading into the lie. Now, if I lie to myself, am I saying: there’s one self that knows what is true and what is false, and one self that is being deceived and accepts as true what is false?

Psychologically, this seems to promise the infinite growth of selves, each one hiding the truth in order to lie to the other one down the chain. This leads to a picture of selfhood that is, to say the least, different from the Western norm. The self in this picture is inherently neurotic. In which case one wonders whether the condition of knowing the truth from falsehood could ever be fulfilled.

You will have noticed that the lying scenarios I laid out to explain lying are taken from childhood. I do think Freud is on the right path in looking for the models of the self in the development of the child. And of course neurosis makes no sense if the self is identical with one consciousness - we have every reason to believe that most of our perceptions and "thoughts" are unconscious. But that doesn't mean that the unconcsious is a self, a different self. Perhaps it is preliminary to or the accompaniment of the self without itself being self-like.

The above argument leads me, at least, to think that when we speak of “lying” to ourselves, we are thinking more of the promise breaking form of deceit than the standard lying form of deceit. This has important consequences for thinking about self-deception and the communicative regime in which the self is defined.

Monday, April 06, 2020

The Trick Book

“D’you know the difference between a big cat and a little one?”
A big cat’ll claw your eyes out
But a little pussy never hurt no one.”
We  hold these truths against our sometimes doubt

And write them in our trick book as lore:
L'effronterie, la complaisance et la metamorphose,
Said poor Anne-Joseph Théroigne de Méricourt,
Describing both whore’s art and what we expose

In making poems as the big cats do.
Aren’t we prophetic strumpets every one.
Rowdy girls who will cut you  
And little pussies having little pussy fun

writing our trick book in the margins of the Norton Anthology:
sisters, let’s take back our gynecology.

Karen Chamisso

The Kaleidoscope and Schopenhauer: an entertainment

In the chapter on the "metaphysics of the beautiful and aesthetics" in the second volume of the Parerga and Paralipomena, Schopenhauer discusses history. In 1851, when the essays came out, Schopenhauer's stance against the philosophical importance of history made him seem, pleasingly, like some archaic remnant of the eighteenth century. He was willing to suffer this reputation, and even enlarge on it. History at this time is, of course, associated with Hegel, and even if Hegel did not recognize, in Schopenhauer, his unmasker and foe, Schopenhauer definitely took Hegel as the touchstone of what Leon Daudet later labelled "the stupid 19th century" - the stupidity being, at its very beastly heart, the idea that there was a dynamic axis to history.
In the essay on history, Schopenhauer casts himself as a moralist, an intemporal observer, a user of classical exempla. And he comes up with this image:
He who, like myself, cannot help seeing in all history the same thing over and over again, just as every turn of a kaleidoscope continually reveals the same things, but in different combinations, will not be able to share all this passionate interest; nor, however, will he censure it.
According to the toy historian Paul Hidebrandt, the kaleidoscope, which was invented by the Scottish scientist David Brewster in 1817, aroused “such enthusiasm among all social circles that the victory of the kaleidoscope over the Chinese puzzle or tangram game was even celebrated in Paris with an engraving: the goddess Kaleidoskopia, with her emblems, a tube and a pattern sheet, stands on a Chinese person crawling on the earth, before whom lies his board game on the ground.” However, supposedly the Chinese became enamored of the ‘tube of ten thousand flowers” themselves, and began to manufacture them en masse.
Borges notes Schopenhauer’s kaleidoscope comparison in "the Wall and the Books" in Other Inquisitions, and writes of it: “For if the world is the dream of Someone, if there is Someone who is dreaming us now and who dreams the history of the universe (that is the doctrine of the idealists), then the annihilation of religions and the arts, the general burning of libraries, does not matter much more than does the destruction of the trappings of a dream. The Mind that dreamed them once will dream them again; as long as the Mind continues to dream, nothing will be lost…”
A quick search through a couple of Schopenhauer biographies has not brought me any information on when the great man collided with the kaleidoscope. But it would be easy to believe that he saw one early on, perhaps in 1817, because it was at that time that Schopenhauer was most closely involved with Goethe's optical work. Goethe was a friend of Schopenhauer’s always fearsome mother, Johanna, and Johanna wanted her son to get into Goethe’s good graces. Unfortunately, Schopenhauer deviated from the anti-Newtonian program on color laid down by Goethe – he rationalized it into a system having to do with the sensitivity of the retina. Goethe was particularly infuriated that Schopenhauer betrayed him on the issue of “white” – which, as Newton said, contained all colors, and which, according to Goethe, did no such thing.
A stronger metaphor using another children’s toy is employed by Lorenz Oken. I image Schopenhauer knew of it. Oken is writing in 1805, before the kaleidoscope. This is from his Physiophilosophy:
“All things are created in time; for time is the totality of Singulars. Time is no stationary quantity, which is always changing itself into something new during its progressive flux. It is not a continous stream, but a repetition of one and the same act, namely, the primary act, like as it were to a rolling ball, which constantly returns upon itself. There is no endless, still less an eternal thing; for things are only positions of time. Time itself is, however, only repetition…”
Two children’s toys, two similar points about time - except that Oken’s is a more radical stance. Schopenhauer was stuck, due to his system, with defending some version of Kant’s notion of the aprioris of experience. Myself, what I find interesting here is the connection between seriality and eternal repetition. The notion of a repetition that creates a difference connects Schopenhauer and Oken to a passage in De Quincey that you would not normally put in this association. It comes in the section of the Opium Eater entitled The Pains of Opium. The text wavers between a description of the hallucinatory pains of opium and a lingering repetition of them, arousing the suspicion that pain and pleasure melt into each other in ways that are going to elude classification.
“Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s, Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aërial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.”

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Bad Years

I’ve been thinking about other bad years; for instance, those between 1845-1849 in Ireland.

Ireland, it is estimated, had a population in 1845 of around 8 million – a figure that would not be achived again in more than a century. The mass of the population consisted of poor laborers and smallholders. They survived, to an astonishing extent, on the potato. It was the staple – the potato was to the Irish household what steak, potato, veggies and desert are to the  the contemporary American household. The economy was largely agricultural, and the cash crops – grains, for instance – were exported to England.
The potato blight was brought to Europe from the U.S. It started in Belgium – which in all during this period suffered perhaps as many as 40,000 deaths – and spread to Ireland.

Ireland, at that point, was “joined” to the UK, but was in reality ruled as a colony. In the 1840s, in England, the new theories of free trade and non-state interference – old style liberalism – had come to dominate all right-thinking thought. Before, in Ireland, there had been food shortages, but they were met with state intervention, the hiring by the state of a labor force, the stocking of supplies and their distribution, etc. But by the 1840s, this kind of thing, the long noses of the Oxford intellectual and ministerial assistant looked down at these relics of barbarism.  

Ciara Boylen, in her chapter on the famine in Princeton History of Modern Ireland, has a good summary of the British response to the starving to death – or, really, famine fever, typhus, and other of the horrible messengers of  death.

”Despite some very notable examples of intervention, in general the response of the state to Famine relief was characterized by a reluctance to interfere in the Irish economy. The circumscribed level of state intervention has been explained by reference to a complex nexus of opinions, tenets, and doctrines, the most im-portant of which were an adherence to the assumed dictates of classical political economy, in particular the doctrine of laissez- faire; a providentialist belief that the Famine represented an act of Divine will; prejudicial views on the moral failings of Irish landlords and tenants alike; and a perception that the Famine represented an opportunity to accelerate economic and social regeneration in Ireland. Repeatedly aired concerns over the sanctity of the operations of the free market were voiced alongside warnings that a country already suffering from a severe want of industry and self- reliance might be corrupted and debased even further by the provision of gratuitous and profligate relief. As such, it was not merely the objective laws of the market that had to be obeyed, but the particulars of Irish conditions.”  

These reactions, in the aftermath of the Irish famine, did not fill the pundits, thinkers, and state actors who had them with shame and remorse. Rather, they congratulated each other on a dirty job well done. Coinciding with the famine, the large landholders started a campaign of evicting their tenants, and expanding the business of exporting grain and cattle. After the famine, there was a twenty year stretch where famine in the British empire was mostly uncommon, until the first of the great Indian famines struck in the 1870s. 

As Mike Davis shows in his invaluable book, The Victorian Genocide,  the British rulers of India acted according to the same rules, valuing the economy first and blaming the enormous losses of life – the one in the 1870s took an estimated 13 million lives. Lord Lytton, the half mad  Viceroy of India,decided in 1877 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s crowning as the Empress of India by staging a weeklong banquet in Delhi that entailed 68,000  meals for British officials, maharajahs and satraps, the most expensive meal in the world, according to the newspapers. In the meantime, in labor camps where the British grudgingly herded starving Indian peasants, the food allowance for adults was one pound of rice per diem, without anything else – no proteins, no veggies, etc. It provided less calories than were enjoyed by the inmates of Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp.  Interestingly, the officials sent out into the “field” all believed the famine reports were exaggerated. No need to panic, and probably an excuse by lazy Indians not to work.

Bad years, bad policies. Yet I – at least -see every connection between this variety of Anglo liberalism – the liberal terror famine mindset – and the response of the Anglophone countries to the corona virus. The same notion that this was all exaggerated. The social Darwinism. The placement of a free enterprise system above everything else. The maximum incompetence, which is generated not by incapacity, but by the refusal to build capacity. 

As it was, so it shall be – is this the law to which we must bow down? Or is there, perhaps, a better way?

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...