Saturday, December 19, 2020

A ticklish situtation: me and clever Hans


“A well regarded psychologist once wrote down the proposition: ... for the animals are not capable of smiling and laughing.” – Robert Musil, Can a horse laugh?

When I was a kid, I was subject to a peculiar syndrome. Kids all laugh, of course – or at least this is true in the normal course of events, social and neurological. And I laughed, too. But unlike most of my friends, I was sometimes truly overcome by laughter. A joke, or something that I found funny, if nobody else did, would sometimes set off an almost epileptic series of laughs. I would begin to choke on laughing, and then that I was laughing and choking would itself seem funny. Soon I was panting between laughs, crying, walking around, rolling on the floor. I could not stop myself. Every time I did, every time I was able to make myself pause, something would happen – my parents or my friends would say something, or I would, fatally, think something – and I’d be off again. This didn’t happen all of the time, thank God, but it happened enough that I got a reputation for being an easy laugher. My friends, sometimes to target me, in a teasing way, would tell me a joke at the wrong time – like when I was drinking milk in the school cafeteria – which would have a disastrous effect on me.

Over the years, I stopped having these fits of laughter – for the most part. I have had them a few times since I got married. For instance, last night. We were playing a dice tic tac toe game with Adam. And arguing about rules. Games are fun, but arguing about rules is divine. I’ve always thought, which is why few people volunteer to play games with me. Anyway, one thing led to another and that we were arguing about the O or the X seemed funny to me, and then funnier, and then the funniest thing that ever happened, and I could not stop laughing. Luckily, I was not eating. This went on for five to ten minutes, alarming my wife and delighting Adam.

Perhaps I was laughing at the whole year.

In the Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, Robert Musil collected a lot of his ephemera – and Musil’s ephemera is worth the collected works of most authors. One of the essays is about a laughter and the beast – the beast in question being a horse. This was in the days before World War I – “since the war, horses have stopped laughing”.  According to Musil’s biographer, Corino, in August 1913 Robert and his wife, Martha, took their honeymoon in Italy. The countryside was very close to Rome at that date – Italy was where Europeans from France and Germany went to enjoy a vacation from modernity, which of course made all the Italian futurists spit. The horse in question was a workhorse – no pony, and no battle or police horse, but a fine young beast on a fine sunny day. Musil observes that horses, who have four “shoulders” and so four armpits, are approximately twice as susceptible as human beings to being tickled in these vital areas. A boy was petting the horse, “... this horse seemed to have a particularly sensitive spot on the innerside of the shoulder, and everytime when it was touched there, it could not keep from laughing.”

The boy, of course, decided to stroke it just there with the grooming comb, and predictably the horse tried to get out of being tickled: it wiggled away, and it tried to butt the boy away with i “its nose, but it was no use.

I recognize this tickle situation – who doesn’t? “And when he came close to the armpit with the comb, the horse could no longer stand it: he turned on his legs, his whole body shuddered and he drew his lips back from his teeth, as far as he could. He acted, for several seconds, exactly as a person does who one tickles so much that he can no longer laugh.”

The mysterious connection between the tickle and the laugh – the pleasant torture of the whole thing – is a strong element in our natural histories, I think. It extends from sex, with its masochistic properties,  to the whole general humor that makes up “being happy” or “being unhappy.”

p.s. Musil, according to Corino, was a school friend of the psychologist Oskar Pfungst, best known for his work on “clever Hans”, a horse who could supposedly add numbers and distinguish colors. Pfungst showed that Hans were really just responding to unconscious signs made by his owner – which, in my opinion, is much more impressive than adding up 2 plus 2, although it leads only to Houyhnhnm sociability instead of accounting.

Friday, December 18, 2020

A few kind words about pretension


Is there anything to be said for pretension?

Simon During’s thumbnail review of Lisa Robertson’s Baudelaire Fractal used the word pretentious, and then semi-takes it back: “Because it’s not only pretentious, it’s jaunty too which undercuts the abstract flim flam.” (see on Facebook)

There is nothing more damning, in money culture, than pretension. Just as there was nothing more damning, in the culture of the nobility, than the Pretender – claiming an inherited office to which one has no bloodtie. Pretend comes from the Latin world for stretch – to stretch before, to hold something out. “Stretching”, here, is cutely caught up in an Americanism – the stretcher. To tell a stretcher is to exaggerate, or even lie. It is a word I associate with Mark Twain – there’s a sort of unconscious etymological narrative in Huckleberry Finn that makes the stretcher a fundamental part of the tale, which includes a Pretender – a false claimant to the French throne. A flim flam man.

When examining the semantics of the truth in ordinary language, few philosophers pause to consider stretching. As any child knows, though, you can take a realistic representation – a picture, say – and stretch it to make it funnier. When I was a kid, we would get silly putty, which came in a little plastic egg, and stretch it out over a comic book picture. Then we would peel it off and the picture would be imprinted on the putty. And then you’d have some fun stretching it.

Now here’s a toy for you mimesis freaks out there.

Pretension and stretching are bound at the hip. Jesus, in a Wittgensteinian mood, once asked: Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? The answer, in nature, is nobody – but social stature is a different matter all together. We frantically devise measures for that – from who has the longest yacht to who has the most publications. Within these systems, there develops quite a horror of stretching, which messes up ranking. And without ranking in neo-liberal culture, what do we have?

Yet if we are ever to get anywhere as aesthetic beings – and no matter how the money culture tries, it can’t reduce the aesthetic completely to the price system – we have to have some stretch in us. We have to pretend. We have to have pretensions. The critic, who also has to have pretentions, feeds on cutting down the pretensions of others – and in fact the critic represents our general tendency, in our small circles, to whack away at those who get too big for themselves, who stretch – but too much whacking and the field is bare. I immediately grow suspicious when I hear something described as pretentious, since I know of the innumerable things that are not pretentious that clutter our sensoriums day and night (I’m leaving, as a tip to the pretenders, here, the “s” on sensoriums – I’m def not writing sensoria!). And I know that there is an army out there waiting to pounce on poetry and art and leave a big dump on it – their grumus merdae. So I grow wary around that “pretentious” word.

Those who never stretch will shrink in the end, is my feeling.  Crying: I’m melting! I’m melting!


santa monica, 2009: for leandra


Out of lunch we made a nest

The wine, the salad,  the cigs at the end

And lined it with the bleeding rests

Of our talked down, forked over, knifed over friends


You and I, Leandra: behind you the  sea

Huffed and puffed crawled back and forth

On the beach where the pelicans pee

And the kids get their skin’s worth


Of sunlight – its so Muscle beach here.

We laughed like witches, immune, apart

From anyone’s poisonous batch of tears

From anyone’s slushy and broken heart.

-Karen Chamisso







Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Letter from Paris


This plague winter, I walk out into the streets of Paris under the semi-permanent concrete of clouds, my mask in place, my glasses steaming up from my warm breath, and I distinctly feel, under my feet, something slippery, something creaking. There’s something precarious, something about the sidewalks, the spotty traffic, the masked pedestrians that have a slightly demoralized look. The closed up windows of the restaurants, the yawning awnings of the cafes, all the sidewalk tables gone, the measured influx of customers in the shops that are open, shops sporting, as jauntily as they can, the marks of the Christmas season – reminiscent not so much of the usual commercial bacchanal as of a retirement home stirring up the ashes of nostalgia. Something. Paris reminds me right now of some scarred old dreadnought heading out into cold and enemy infested seas. This is all my illusion, but illusion with a respectable geneology – for one of the staples of modernity is the image of Paris in ruins, another capital city undone: Ninevah, Jerusalem, Rome. There’s a fine line in French literature, going back to the some of the minor writers of the Enlightenment, like Mercier and Volney, who dreamed this dream. Giovanni Macchia, the great Italian scholar, wrote a book about it, Paris en ruines, which, in the French translation, was prefaced by Italo Calvino – a connoisseur of cities, visible and invisible, and an inveterate refugee in Paris. Calvino’s essay is very much part of its time – I believe the late eighties – casting its eye over the changes wrought in Paris by the great commandatore of the seventies, Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, symbolized by the Beaubourg, on the one hand, and the destruction of Les Halles, on the other. Speaking of the radical writers who subjected Paris to their scrutiny, like Zola, Calvino unleashed this fine parenthetical remark: “and it is not by chance, we can add, for even in May 1968 the barricades were given birth like an evocation of the topography of the old districts, the same as for the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, which confirms how much the mythological and archaeological  element is inseparable from the idea of revolution.”

The barricades haven’t risen up this year, in response to the Macron government’s massive incompetence. We have, recently, had cars burned, and policemen doing their usual job of beating random innocents. The revolt of the base level of the French population, the gilets jaunes, has been put on hold. Even when it was going at full throttle in 2019, there was not much barricade action, just a little graffiti, broken glass and some bits chiseled off the Arc de Triomphe, truly horrifying the bien-pensants: is this the way we treat the cash cows of tourism?

If we were superstitious, or sensitive readers of signs, like the medievals, we would have been more alarmed by 2019’s omens. Not just the post-modern jacquerie – for didn’t the cathedral itself, Notre Dame, burn? What was this a sign of? It seems, now, so utterly appropriate. You can walk across the Pont Saint Louis and get a hinder glance of the old thing, all its charred flying buttresses and exposed gargoyles – the passer-by’s instinctive gaze upward is greeted by what any sensible person up until 1700 would see as an indictment of the social order.

Ah, there it is again: the creaking.

Sometimes, I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning. And I swear I hear something.


Moi qui tremblais, sentant geindre à cinquante lieues
Le rut des Béhémots et les Maelstroms épais,
Fileur éternel des immobilités bleues,
Je regrette l’Europe aux anciens parapets !

Monday, December 14, 2020

Kant on boredom and play - a note for the late capitalist peon

  “... men demand activities, even such that include a certain element of coercion mixed in them. Just as false is the idea that if Adam and Eve had remained in Paradise, they would have done nothing but sat together and sung arcadian songs and observed the beauty of nature. Boredom would certainly have martyred them as well as it does other men in similar positions.” - Immanuel Kant's   The Metaphysics of Morals, my translation

Boredom in the Metaphysics of Morals appears as a theme and a term (Langeweile) in the context of ‘play’ – and notably, playing cards.

In a more extended consideration of the sources of playing in the lectures collected in  the Philosophical Anthropology essays, Kant  elaborates on the hookup of Eden, work, play, and boredom – for it turns out that, in circumstances where our needs are abundantly satisfied, boredom comes into play as the motive pushing us to work or to certain forms of play. It complicates an old equation that posits lack, or need, as the driver of work, or productivity – since boredom is not the same kind of lack as other lacks. What it is, however, is hard to say. “Boredom is the quintessence of unnamable pain.”

The importance of boredom in universal history has never been truly qualifed, since the topic seems to lead, by a neurotic defensive gesture, to moral shamemaking. Kant makes a good effort, though, to cast off the bourgeois shackles and examine the phenomenon coldly, beginning with a cultural universal that reaches all the way into the Canadian wilderness:

“The passion for play [zum Spielem – gambling is implied] is met with in every nation, even the Canadian savages like to play, while Chinese are given over to play to the point of mania, so that they bring their wives and children and even themselves into slavery through play. The interests [stakes] in play serve to enliven it and contain therefore such great charms that it constitutes the pastime for most of our society. The cause is that fear and hope continually change places in play…” [257]

The reasonable man, for Kant, then, plays with that alteration of fortunes in mind. Underneath this reflection, one hears the cracking and downfall of a long humanistic ideal – that of the good life as constructed in the classic tradition. It is not to mediation that the ideal subject, satisfied in all of his needs, turns – but to a flight from boredom. Play, gambling, is a way to make life adventurous again.

“A rational man, who sets down to play, can not have gain as his intent [Absicht], but he must believe, that he at least in the end must be paid for his stakes. Therefore his intention must be something else other than gain. During the play his intention is, of course, only to win, but he did not undertake participation in the game to do so. Here it is a purely a question of hope and fear, that are fundamentally vain; but one is distracted during these circumstances, and has distracted oneself from the one that one calls boredom. Such an evil, which is what boredom is, one commonly doesn’t know how to name, nor what countervailing means to apply to it. This evil of boredom springs out of the lack of activity.” [258]

The division between the game as a whole – which is played for the sake of being played – and the different moments of the game, the hands – which are played to be won – gives us, then, an activity that isn’t ‘serious’ – and yet one that fools boredom, playing its own game in the margins.


The boredom motif is oddly untouched by those economists looking at the hyper-financialization of late capitalism, where the incentives are all supposed to be about gain, or, for those on the left, about power. How much of a role does boredom play in the financial markets? Myself, I think boredom is the shadow side of speculation. We are prisoners of the boredom of the rich, we who are playing our games far below theirs.


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