Thursday, November 12, 2020

genteel and mongrel politics: the Democratic Party trap

 The genteel trap

When Santayana used the phrase “genteel tradition” to refer to a certain strain in American thinking - a romantic avoidance of the real, haunted by Calvinistic rules that equated happiness with sin – the phrase escaped his essay and came to stand for an damning avoidance of the vulgar in American art and by extension, America’s middle class self-consciousness. An editor at Scribner’s magazine, which was popular in the 1920s, wrote that he refused stories that contained “slang, profanity, vulgarity, agnosticism or radicalism.” (quote from The Black Genteel Tradition by Gorman Beauchamp). This rule was, as well, once the rule of genteel politics, and most especially of the Republican party, centered in the Northeast among businessmen.
The Democratic party was quite different. From the beginning, it was the libido to the Whig Id. It welcomed both the Southern planter and the ethnic immigrant, mainly Irish. And it was animated with the anti-Black fevers of both groups. However, by the 20th century, due to this tradition of welcoming, it gradually made way for POC – especially after Roosevelt.
For Santayana, I think, the opposite to gentility was a vulgar pragmatism – vulgar in the best sense, akin to vulgate, a literature of the common tongue. To me, the Democratic party in its period of greatest effect, was not vulgar, but mongrel.
I take the word from Ann Douglas’s great Mongel Manhattan, an attempt at a real synthetic American cultural history that doesn’t dicker with the segregation demanded by the academic inventorists, but sees the black strain in every cultural artifact of white modernism and the white strain in the disjunctions of the great products of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a two-headed monster, this America, at least, or two times x heads, with the white head continually trying to destroy the others, though that would mean the death of the entire body.
It is as a mongrel part that the Democratic party stepped into history. It is as a mongrel party that it reconciled the ethnic bosses, the Cold War, civil rights and social democracy.
And it is the mongrel rawness of the party that the generation after the seventies has tried to kill. Though it speaks with a mongrel voice, occasionally – just listen to Bill Clinton go on about trickle down! – it has adopted the forms and norms of gentility. It has trivialized racism, which is a systematic hole in the pocket of every black household in America, as a lingo rule to guide rich privileged people in talking about those they lord it over. The mongrel democrats dreamed big and loved to press publicly on the levers of power – the genteel democrats dream little and far be it from them to use their power in any dishonorable, viz, helpful to the people they represent, way. Like Scribners, they don’t want any “slang, profanity, vulgarity, agnosticism or radicalism”, which is why, when a shortfingered vulgarian claims the election was stolen cause he lost, they don’t holler back that the election was as close as it was because of systematic Republican suppression of the vote, stealing the rights of the people, which are your property. No, it is all – when President Bush lost, he sent such a gracious letter. Gracious , I tell you!
Depending on your enemy to be gracious is a way to lose everything. Which, I could care less except those schmucks represent us. The Republicans are a faux mongrel party – full of white working class resentment, directed towards propping up the worst excesses of the mostly white plutocracy. It is as if the Confederate part of the Democratic party was cut out and implanted in its opponent.
I’m hoping that somebody in the D side in DC is remembering that they represent a vast constituency, and not a small circle of people who send each other gracious notes. Cause those notes are valuable enough to wipe your ass with, and nothing further.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020


Throwin time away - hattip BLCKDGRD

The story of the structural anthropologist and his deconstructive sidekick (his Sancho Panza, his Gilligan, his Groot). How they go out, like shamen, into the bush to listen to the phrase and fable of the tribe. How they ponder, back in Sherlock Holmes apartment, the cliches they have collected from the folk like songs. How it stitches together into a mythology – the structuralist – and how the weave unweaves itself – the sidekick.


Take the phrases, the binary: wasting time/saving time.

In the wasting corner: masturbation, addiction, hobbies, the masculinist view of emotional expression. In the saving corner: technology, devices for home and work, rationality, investment.

When I was growing up in the seventies, a mark of the way the parental order was being overturned was the elevation of waste to an honorific. Man, you were wasted last night was said not as a reproof, but as a sign of respect, as though the waster had won a battle. Indeed, by being wasted, that is, intoxicated, high, time was wasted in a superbly aristocratic way. Outside, in the parental order, savings were squandered: schoolwork wasn’t done, grades were falling, teens were sullen and alien.

The parental order, for my generation, reasserted itself, but the mark of time wasted was on that generation. And indeed, time saving devices – the computer, the connected computer, the Internet – were touted as ways in which time would be available – for wasting. As it turned out, the more time that was saved, the less leisure there was. Instead of the computer making the office easier, it made the office ubiquitous.

Such is the structure of late capitalist culture. The tear between the stone age metaphysics of our consciousness of time and the physics of time, in which time became the space-time continuum, glimmered before us in films, which can give us the retro-illusion that time goes backwards – a hopelessly Newtonian illusion – and can also give us a sense of how backwards and forwards are not part of the fundamental structure.  But these facts are not part of our stubborn experience. You can go to Santa Monica and send postcards saying: Having a good time in Santa Monica, wish you were here. But you can’t find cards saying: having a good space time in Santa Monica, you are already here – cause that wouldn’t have any meaning for the sender or receiver. Here would crack open, and out of it would emerge something formless.

In The Hour of the Wolf, the Ingmar Bergman film with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, von Sydow plays one of those tormented artistic types who takes his depression out in being mean to women. At one point, von Sydow tortures Liv, his wife, by holding up his watch and demonstrating how long a minute lasts. Nothing happens but the watch ticking, and it turns out that a minute is an infinite thing. Here, time and waste collapse into each other. Indeed.

 I write this in Paris and Margaritaville. Man am I wasted. Wish you were here.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Political advice, of a kind, from your friend and mine: Northrop Frye


In my opinion, one of the worst pieces of advice in all American history is: 'when they go low, we go high.' This is not just appeasement, it is smug appeasement - the kind of passive aggressive gesture that makes you want to go lower. It is a symptom of what George Santayana called America's genteel culture. So what is the counter-model to be adopted by those rejoicing in the ruin of Trumplandia - or its temporary ruin?

American politics is a revenger tragedy, and the liberal difficulty - liberalism in the purest sense - is to disentangle the toils that keep the revengers and the offenders united in the slaughterhouse. One can't pretend the slaughterhouse isn't there. Or lift yourself out of the revenger tragedy by thinking pure thoughts. Who by thinking, as the Man sez, can grow a cubit taller?

The liberal answer must, at last, make peace with ritual. Rituals operate in the now - they have the vaguest sense of the long term. The now has to be welcomed: the spontaneous overflow of gloating, cursing, crying, laughter can't be dealt with by references to page 454 of the U.S. Treasury's report on the budget deficit.

So, how to be low in a limited sense? Here, politicians should turn to their well thumbed copy of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, who gives a good hint for those caught in a revenger tragedy:


"We notice however the frequency of the device of making the revenge come from another world, through gods or ghosts or oracles. This device expands the conceptions of both nature and law beyond the limits of the obvious and tangible. It does not thereby transcend those conceptions, as it is still natural law that is manifested by thetragic action. Here we see the tragic hero as disturbing a balance

in nature, nature being conceived as an order stretching over the

two kingdoms of the visible and the invisible, a balance which

sooner or later must right itself. The righting of the balance is what

the Greeks called nemesis: again, the agent or instrument of nemesis may be human vengeance, ghostly vengeance, divine vengeance,

divine justice, accident, fate or the logic of events, but the essential

thing is that nemesis happens, and happens impersonally, unaffected,

as Oedipus Tyrannus illustrates, by the moral quality of human

motivation involved. In the Oresteia we are led from a series

of revenge-movements into a final vision of natural law, a universal

compact in which moral law is included and which the gods, in the

person of the goddess of wisdom, endorse. Here nemesis, like its

counterpart the Mosaic law in Christianity, is not abolished but fulfilled:

it is developed from a mechanical or arbitrary sense of restored

order, represented by the Furies, to the rational sense of it

expounded by Athene."

So, that's the plan, guys and dolls. Let's hop to it!


Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...