Thursday, July 02, 2020

metempsychosis of statues

“A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.”
Thus, Robert Lowell in For the Union Dead, a poem which centers a monument. Among the army of statuary that occupies America’s cities and parks, this is one of the rare statues that is signed by an actual famous artist: Augustus Saint Gaudens. In the later nineteenth century, he was the most famous American sculptor. It was Gaudens as well who made the famous tomb to poor Clover Adams, Henry Adams’ wife, in the Rock Creek Cemetery in D.C.

In the most recent overthrow of a buncha statues of unworthies, one argument is oddly missing: that these things are valuable art pieces. Not a peep is uttered about their artistic worth – it is all a question of history. It is unlikely that anybody knows the names of the sculptors who created their equestrian visions of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson which gallop across Richmond Virginia or Stone Mountain, Georgia. These sculptures were by contract and design of an extreme banality. There was no Greek nonsense – nobody even thought about showing, say, Stonewall’s dick, a la Greek Olympic sculpture.
Evidently, these statues are ways of monumentalizing a race hierarchy – or racism. But I want to poke along in another, related direction and ask about their social existence as objects.
One thing is certain: when you have a mass social phenomenon, you have a system. The question is: what is this system about? If we have read our Barthes, the first thing we want to know is: how substitutable are they one with the other, this banal troop?

If I substituted, say, a statue of Ulysses Grant for Robert E. Lee in Richmond (under cover of night, and carefully keeping the sign that read Robert E. Lee) would anybody notice?
I would imagine the answer is yes. But the substitution would have respected the system’s rules, and helped us think through the limits of substitution – limits within the statuary universe. Here, I would tentatively claim, we get to the totemic limits defining these things in the urban space. For surely these sculptures are rooted in the white culture’s fetishes.
There is a school of cultural studies that has been here. Inspired by such figures as Louis Marin (notice how my reference here itself erects a statue, a fetish, how I am caught within the system I critique), historians have long been fascinated by public “objects”, from stamps and coins to statues. In Paris, which is a city of statuary, I am surrounded by a violent history sedimented in statues and bas-relief whereever I turn – and I love it. I love it as a walker. Statues are simply another set of blurs to the car driver, but to the walker they are presences. Unsurprisingly, historians have picked through the statuary history of Paris for clues to the meaning of these totems. Here’s a nice paragraph from Victoria Thompson’s essay, The Creation, Destruction and Recreation of Henri IV Seeing Popular Sovereignty in the Statue of a King

"At the moment of their creation, public monuments are typically designed to reflect and communicate a single meaning. In reality, they often reflect competing values. This is perhaps most evident in efforts to commemorate some of the major events of the late twentieth century—the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the fall of the Soviet bloc. The intense conflict generated by these attempts has allowed scholars to better under-stand how difficult it is to establish a stable and unifying meaning of an event using a public monument.4 In societies where diverse constituen-cies have a voice, debates over public commemoration reveal how various groups imagine their community and its history.5 And even in societies where the state determines what to commemorate and assigns monuments an official meaning, that meaning is subject to contestation by populations who vandalize, make fun of, or otherwise subvert the official meaning of a structure constantly in public view.6 The destruction of a public monument can similarly elicit diverse reactions, and the traces of its memory can exert an influence over communities long after it has disappeared.”

Thompson’s essay is concerned, in part, with the politics of revolution and reaction – revolution knocked down the statues of kings and saints, and reaction re-erected them. I live within a couple of blocks from the statue of Henri IV (an assassinated King) and a couple of blocks, as well, from the Parc du Temple, which is a third Republic park, a park designed under Napoleon III but really instituted by the Republic that came after Napoleon III’s overthrow. As a sign of the Republican ideal, a statue of Pierre Jean Béranger was erected, by popular subscription, in the park. Béranger lounges, now, in the limbo of forgotten celebrities – in his life, he was famous as a people’s poet, a maker of extremely popular songs with a democratic bent. His statue had a political meaning that was strong enough to incite a symbolic gesture when Paris was occupied by the Nazis – the statue was taken down and melted (it was made of bronze). That bronze then was recast for a statue in honor of the Nazi victories by Arno Breker, Speer and Hitler’s favorite artist. That monument, in turn, was destroyed by the Red Army.

That the fetish is fated to destruction is one of the unconscious principles of modernism. The alternation between the invention of universals and the destruction of people is the fort/da of the bit of history I have experienced, that little chunk of time, 20th/21st century.

Incidentally – two years ago, when I was in Berlin, I went to Treptower Park. There is an astonishing collection of statues there, built by the Soviets, to commemorate World War II. It is as impressive as, say, the statue of Liberty. Those statues are bronze. I wonder if Beranger’s statue, which was melted down to become part of Breker’s statue, which was melted down by the Red Army, didn’t end up there. The metempsychosis of statues – a subject for some Kleistian tale.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020


The poet sings – or so she used to
And there are those who’ve returned to guitar
Or drums to sing the things that are

While others never finished piano lessons.
Otherwise poets are silent as Quakers
And all that song stuff is for fakers

Unless, as I do, whispering and claw voiced
They sample the goods to have a taste
- roll their tongue over the cut and paste

My muse is mainly a tick in the mind
Which throws out of hem my rants and pleas
- fr’instance, this here poem is one of these.

- Karen Chamisso

Monday, June 29, 2020


I don’t remember my first writing lessons. The bubble and squeak of my first letters, those wobbly circles and jerkily disproportionate lines which flowed out of my pencil onto the cheap, thick, lined paper – I can only envision them through their descendants, the degenerate scribble of my declining years, where the bubbles are less bubblicious and have been through the rat race. But I can remember the devises that went into writing – that paper, the thick lines spaced just so and the dotted line between them, the thin, bright yellow pencils with the little intaglio number near the metal band the holds the erasor, and the sharpeners. The little oblong plastic box with the hole in one end for the pencils and the two evil little blades that would bite into the cedar-y matter of the blunt end and shave off perfect little fans of thin thin wood. As well as a dusting of pencil lead, which would somehow get on my fingers.
There was a subtle competition, I remember, between the brilliant hand pencil sharpener and the noiser larger unit you would usually find at the front of the classroom, bolted to a corner of the teacher’s closet. That was crank run, which meant using your whole arm to turn it. It had a thick plastic disc with different sized holes through which to stick different thicknesses of pencil. Somehow, I associated that pencil sharpener with industry – with steel mills and tanks and such. It would make much more racket, which would draw attention, especially if you were sharpening a pencil during a test.
This, then, was the entourage, the court around the monarchical activity of calligraphy. In my case, mere graphie – I have never been a beautiful writer. In the third grade, when we started having spelling tests, I did poorly – it was my poorest subject on the report card. For one thing, I had a sovereign contempt for the homework, which bored me. Lists of words to spell seemed infinitely less interesting than lists of words, such as you would find in the dictionary. I was always a dictionary stan. I don’t remember any real problem with my handwriting as far as teachers were concerned. But it didn’t satisfy me none, as I got older. I wanted to be able to write the address on an envelope with a real piss elegance. I wanted my various scribblings to look more intense in my notebooks. I wanted some famous dead writer’s handwriting, but I only ever have had my own.
In France, I am discovering, handwriting is not dead. One of the standard thumbsucker topics in the U.S. is: Is the computer killing handwriting? The wee-est toddler in Manhattan, we are assured, knows her way around the keyboard. There are keyboards in Paris, even portable phones, but the school system is curiously centered on handwriting. I’ve been assured that Adam must practice his handwriting if he is to get anywhere in the terribly hierarchic French school system. Parents even show each other specimens of their children’s handwriting, worriedly.
I worked, as a grad student in philosophy, on Derrida – but it has only been in the last few years, experiencing the French education system, that I quite understood the social context of Derrida’s emphasis on writing and the place of logocentrism. For the French, the dictée is at the heart of the curriculum. There really is no American equivalent. Teachers in my elementary school never gave us set speeches that we were supposed to listen to and write, that I can remember. Of course, I recognize in the dicteé a genealogical kinship with the classical educational system of the Greeks and the Romans, but the American school system broke away from that family tree when Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod – or something like that. Americans have always been, they like to think, practical.
This has lead to a curious neglect of the oral-to-hand culture in the States. I am rather pleased with the ingrained habit of the dictée and how it organizes, subtly, the whole French system. The hand, here, still leaves its mark on the text. But try as I may, I can’t get too anxious about Adam’s handwriting. I’m just too American.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Jesus’ politics.and mine

As the few who have actually read the Gospels know, Jesus said relatively little about sex. For him, it was a thing that occurred in the structure of families. Jesus didn’t much like families. He was only half joking when he said that he had no patience for him who didn’t hate his mother. He thought if you entered into a marriage, that was the end of it – no divorce for you. Of course, marriage, back in Jesus' day, wasn't the love match it is today, but an exchange between parents and clans in which the individuals exchanged had little say. So this is a hard saying to understand -- was it a way of warning men not to desert their wives and children?
In any case, he looked upon the marriage and family racket as hopelessly perverting -- there'd be no giving and taking of wives and husbands in the Kingdom of Heaven.

There's an  odd strain in the Gospels that shows Jesus's affinity with outcast women. This has been massively understated, since of course churches are male-controlled, but once you think of the society in which Jesus existed, the uniqueness of the protagonist of the Gospels comes into focus. One must always remember not to substitute the bourgeois society of 2020 for the Eastern Mediterranean culture in which Jesus lived. The status of women in that culture was complex. An anthropological generalization about these societies is that  the mother, at a certain age, within a household that often contained grown up sons and their wives, had a large tacit power, even as their recognized political power was null. This power was often exercised massively against the  wives of their sons. Within this society, freefloating women were rare - the prostitute, the unmarried daughter, the woman who'd outlived her entire family, these were types for whom Jesus had an affinity.  It was the outcasts, those who had a position at the bottom of society - the quintessential last - to whom he was called. 

In the only gospel story of Jesus losing an argument, it is a Samaritan woman who rebukes him for making a typically ethno-racist comment to her when she needed healing: that wonderful phrase about how even the dogs under the table were allowed to eat the master's crumbs. That immediately went to the heart of the Jesus's hypocrisy in rejecting her, and he owned it. This is a remarkable instance in the vita, for it is unusual for the revered hero, the sage or savior, to feature in a story of loss of face. But the remarkable thing about this story is that it questions the worth of face.   I do not remember the name of the critic who remarked, about Henny Pollit in  Christina Stead's The Man who Loved Children, that this character understood the  essential "outlawery" of women - the kind of soul formed literally of being outside the law, which refused to recognize in her a sovereign person - but I like that phrase. From whatever source inside himself, Jesus recognized some essential virtue in that outlawery too. This sensitivity to the outlaw prefigures a radical doubt about the law. Paul wasn't making this up entirely.    
Donc, donc, there is that. On the other hand, Jesus had numerous opinions about wealth. He unequivocally thought that the wealthy would not be in the kingdom of heaven. He thought that they were scanty in their sacrifices, and pushy in their lives, and in general a diabolical nuisance. Just getting wealthy, Jesus thought, probably entailed doing things that would send you to Hell. He had no hesitation about saying so. When a rich man came to him who had sacrificed much of his wealth, Jesus famously said that it was harder for the rich to get to heaven than for the camel to get through the eye of a needle. This saying is one that the most literal American fundamentalist suddenly gets all liberal about interpreting - surely he was referring to a narrow street in Jerusalem! Cause otherwise what he said is too terrible! But the meaning is made clear by what Jesus did before he made that comment – he clearly thought that the rich man hadn’t given enough. He hadn’t really destroyed his wealth.
While there is, currently, a great deal of kowtowing to a bunch of pissants who call themselves Christian in contemporary American culture, one can be confident that, if Jesus is within the ballpark of being right, most of the Christian right, from George Bush to Franklin Graham, are going straight to hell. (Although to be clear, I do think the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is a metaphysical place, within the individual and collective consciousness - just as  geographical coordinates of the Kingdom of Heaven are within you). It isn’t really even a close call. All are wealthy. All retain their wealth in the face of a world in which masses starve. All have let these people starve during the whole course of their lives. Some, such as Pat Robertson, have acquired their wealth through such bloody associations that they are obviously immoral. But Jesus really didn’t make a lot of distinctions here. Gays are never condemned by Jesus. The wealthy are, time and time again. As for the clergy that coddles the wealthy and themselves become rich, they are what Jesus called Whited Sepulchers, filthy on the inside with death. Among the certainly and for sure damned, one can spot some easy prey: the creators of the Left Behind series (sin against the holy ghost, wealth), Dr. James Dobson (wealth, refusal to visit those in prison, definitely on the left side of the Son when he judges the quick and the dead), Newt Gingrich (are you kidding me) and many others who are going to go the inferno route.  . It is, of course, my burden that, as a non-Christian I am probably ending up spending the afterlife with a bunch of yahoo evangelical leaders. Just my luck. Although God has infinite mercy, and I can't imagine him so cruel as to put me next to Billy Graham's deluded son. Many of these men are under the misapprehension that Jesus gives his unconditional approval to heterosexuality, confusing viagra with virtue. Jesus made know his contempt for the family whenever he got a chance; his contempt for the mere industriousness that leads to wealth (behold the lilies of the field), his contempt for profiteers on the poor (you have made my father’s house into a den of thieves), etc. As for the membership of the political class, they have as little chance of making it to heaven as a vampire bat has of winning best in show at your local kennel club. If there is one crowd that has beast written on their foreheads, it is this one. Hopeless, from the divine point of view.
However, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out long ago, hardly anybody believes Jesus anymore, especially Christians. Shaw said that Christians are, almost to a man, followers of Barabbas: worshippers of ostentatious power, self-pitying about their cruelties, absolutely unable to sympathize with those lower than them if they aren’t allowed, at the same time, to strip those lower than them of all dignity – in other words, cannibals and freaks and the usual good booboisie you see buying steaks in the grocery store. Shaw thought certain of Jesus’ communistic ideas might work in today’s society. We don’t. That is, as a majoritarian stance, what Jesus taught leads to chaos and cruelty. The Grand Inquisitor is right about that. But as a minority stance, here and there, it is an experiment well worth doing.

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...