Saturday, November 20, 2021

The American creepshow


America creeps me out.

Hark: even in the complaint, hear the native woodnotes wild. “Creep” – the b-side of the American aesthetic. Creeps and creepiness, our politicians, our lynchers old and young, our gothic. D.H. Lawrence, who fought the fight against gentility, was still its prisoner when he wrote, deducting from Squire Cooper’s tales, that the American hero was hard, isolate, a killer. The American hero is indeed a killer, but of the most self-pitying, the most incel kind. He can’t wipe out a high school class with Dad and Mom’s semiautomatic rifle without shedding a tear over his own victimhood. He can’t lynch a black man (either robed in the classic white sheet or in the blue uniform) without “protecting his family” or his 2nd amendment right to maximum creepiness. His counterparts ride the airwaves and chair congressional committees, win elections as Senators and Presidents, and exude creepiness, annexing politics towards that final goal. That we take that creepiness as fascism does it the high honor of imputing an ideological motive to a pathological tease. It is all the Halloween, the Friday the 13th Universe, where even the final girl is simple more bait continuing the series.

So: America creeps me out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

American anti-intellectualism


The United States, it is often said, is an anti-intellectual country. Okay, I admit “often said” is a weasel phrase, which intends to exculpate the author from doing any research. So doing a little research, one can go to, for instance, Richard Hofstader’s classic “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”. Hofstadter writes that he wrote the book in the 1950s, when it seemed that the Eisenhower presidency was all about actively knocking about “so called intellectuals going around showing how wrong everybody was who disagrees with them” – to quote Eisenhower himself.

Hofstadter does a thorough job of searching out American intellectuals, going back to the Puritan clergy. Of course, he has a more sociological sense of the intellectual, and through that lens can see that far from being an era of disrespect for the intellectual, the Eisenhower fifties enshrined the intellectual as “expert” with far more influence and money than, perhaps, at any time since the scribe-dominated days of Pharoanic Egypt.

However, Hofstadter does not wax very philosophical. I on the other hand am always applying philosophical wax to objects small and large. Nothing is cheaper than philosophical wax! I myself am willing to sell cartons of it for very reasonable prices – buy the perfect Christmas present! But, er, I digress. What I was going to say is that, in my opinion, American culture is not so much anti-intellectual as anti-dialectical.

Of course, the intellectual historian would adduce the American inheritance of a common sense philosophy from England as the reason, perhaps – but I think that is an all too intellectual explanation. Too much superstructural woo woo woo going on there, even for me, who generally find the whole superstructure/base thing bogus.

I, on the other hand, would go back to slavery.

I’d go back by this indirect route. At the beginning of Hrabel’s I served the King of England, the protagonist harks back to his first day working at the marvelous Golden Prague Hotel:

“When I started to work at the Golden Prague Hotel, the boss took hold of my left ear, pulled me up, and said, You’re a busboy here, so remember, you don’t see anything and you don’t hear anything. Repeat what I just said. So I said I wouldn’t see anything and I wouldn’t hear anything. Then the boss pulled me up by the right ear and said, But remember too that you’ve go to see everything and hear everything. Repeat it after me. I was taken aback, but I promised I would see everything and hear everything.”

A prima facie analysis, grasping only the logic in this passage, would conclude that the boss was mad. After all, didn’t the message to the left ear contradict that with the right ear? And what is all this repetition about? I think, in fact, that is how the American think tanker would naturally read this passage.

However, as Nietzsche acutely saw, dialectics begins in servitude – in slavery – and the logic of both showing that one doesn’t hear or see anything but in actual fact observing and hearing everything is the slave’ s instrument of survival. It is a mark of the film 12 years a Slave – a film I sat through with total attention, a film I have wanted to see my whole life – that certain dialectical hints, on the order of this contradiction between the ears, are voiced.

It was not, of course, beyond Ralph Waldo Emerson to see and understand this contradiction, but it is absolutely characteristic of American culture that Emerson’s reputation is as an inspirational thinker, a manufacturer of high minded Hallmark card slogans. By one of those great accidents that are fastened onto by the gnostic historian, always on the lookout for intersignes, a boy who was named for Emerson, Ralph Ellison, spent his whole career meticulously elaborating the contradiction between the ears –the contradiction that gives its title to one of his essays: Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke. Ellison wrote the essay in reply to Stanley Edgar Hyman, who had analyzed “negro culture” from the point of view of the trickster. Ellison takes up the challenge of the trickster, the masked man, but he refuses to allow the white and the black to play roles in a segregated story, even if the story is changed from one in which the black is deserving of enslavement to one in which the black is perpetual victim:

“And it is this which makes me question Hyman’s designation of the “smart man playing dumb” role as primarily Negro, if he means by “conflict situations” those in which racial pressure is uppermost. Actually it is a role which Negroes share with other Americans, and it might be more “Yankee” than anything else. It is a strategy common to the culture, and it is reinforced by our anti-intellectualism, by our tendency toward conformity and by the related desire of the individual to be left alone; often simply by the desire to put more money in the bank. But basically the strategy grows out of our awareness of the joke at the center of the American identity. Said a very dark Southern friend of mine in laughing reply to a white businessman who complained of his recalcitrance in a bargaining situation, “I know, you thought I was colored, didn’t you.” It is across this joke that Negro and white Americans regard one another. The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition (something which strikes the white man with a nameless horror), just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures, and the Negro knows that both were “mammy-made” right here at home. What’s more, each secretly believes that he alone knows what is valid in the American experience, and that the other knows he knows but will not admit it, and each suspects the other of being at bottom a phony.”

It is part of the dialectic that occurs between two ears to superimpose the serious on the ludicrous. It is part of the American anti-dialectical tradition to insist on separating the two, and to further insist that the two things are allergic to each other. I like Ellison’s way of substituting the “joke” for the “trick”, even if in the end I’m a trope-man, enamored of trick or treat – and actually thinking that the two are one. I am reminded of a man who visited the United States once - Ludwig Wittgenstein. Norman Malcolm, the man he was visiting at the time of his American journey, wrote in his memoir of the LW: “Wittgenstein once said that a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).”



Monday, November 15, 2021

perspectivalism: a small defense


No discussion of perspectivism should neglect Blakes’ couplet:

“How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense World of Delight, clos'd by your senses five?”
Delight is a special word for Blake. Delight, etymologically, comes from the Latin for charm or entice,
delectare, and is related to delicious. A false cousin is the French word délit, meaning fault or sin, and coming from delictum – a relationship that Blake might have liked. In a famous couplet found in Auguries of Innocence, Blake writes: “Some are born to Sweet Delight/Some are born to Endless Night.” The verb “born” may make this seem a matter of temperament – for which Blake had a healthy respect – but the larger meaning is birth into society, where the determinants are class, sex (gender) and race. The birds, for Blake, are always delighted – except when they are caged. Another verse from Auguries of Innocence claims “the Robin Redbreast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a rage”.

Blake wants to give voice – or song - to that particular view of heaven. The voice in which delight and rage are judged comes from the Devil in the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, who has this to say:

“All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:--
1. That Man has two real existing principles, viz. a Body and a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True:--
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Reason, in Blake’s terms, has a positional essence – it is a formal thing, rather as it is in Kant -- although Kant comes to that formalism much more reluctantly. As the bound of energy, or eternal delight, Reason both participates in and negates life. This, at least, in its proper place. But in the Bibles or sacred codes, Reason is set up as something more than a bound – it is set up as a separate essence, independent of energy. This is the great fiction of oppression – that Reason is life. Since it is, in fact, the bound set on energy, according to Blake, the Life of Reason is death in life, and the God that torments those who follow their energies is the God that lives off death.

Blake, of course, did not see this as the opposite of Jesus’ teachings – but rather thought those teachings affirmed delight. The great renewal, the life more abundant, the life without the law (that fulfilled the law), was what Jesus was striving for. And of course, before Blake’s eyes he saw the Kingdom of Heaven in full revolt -- he saw Jesus' successors in the Jacobins, and the dance around the liberty tree.
I think Blake’s perspectivism, although without the Blake reference, comes out as well in Nietzsche, with his quite opposite view of Jesus and the dance around the tree of liberty.
Here’s a passage from the preface to Beyond Good and Evil:

Let’s not be ungrateful to them [Platonism and the Vedanta philosophy], even as it must also certainly be confessed, that the worst, most boring and dangerous of all mistakes up to now has been a Dogmatic mistake, namely, Plato’s invention of the pure mind [Geiste] and of the good in itself. But now, where it has been overcome, where Europe breathes out from this nightmare and at least enjoys a healthier … sleep – here we are, whose task is the awaking itself, the inheritance of all the force which the struggle against this error has bred [grossgezüchtet]. This meant standing Truth on its head and denying the perspectival, the fundamental condition of all life, in order to speak of minds and of the good as Plato has done; yes, one might ask, as a doctor would, how did this disease attack the most gorgeous animal [Gewächse] of antiquity, Plato? was he really corrupted by the evil Socrates? Was Socrates, in fact, a corruptor of the youth? and did he deserve his hemlock? But the struggle against Plato, or, in order to say it more intelligibly, and vulgarly, the struggle against the force of the Christian-churchly for millennia – because Christianity is Platonism for the people – has created in Europe a splendid tension of the intellect [Spannung des Geistes] as there has never before been on Earth; with such a taut bow, one can now shoot the furthest goal.”

Gratitude and struggle are the things we pick out of that quotation. The mistake often made by critics of perspectivism is to presuppose that  perspective is stable, that it is pre-given, that it is perfectly defined. In fact, quantifying over perspectives is tremendously difficult – it is the same kind of difficulty encountered when quantifying over events. In our opinion, the mistake is shared by those who claim to be perspectivists, when they come out with the moral rule that one cannot judge another perspective or -- perspective's stand in - culture. How can I judge is the cry in the classroom and on social media. This is not a rule derived from perspectivism,  but from its enemy – Night. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what Blake's bird knows, which is the coupling of delight with a certain cruelty.

It is of the essence of perspectivism that, among all possible perspectives, there is no single one that can encompass all the information found in every perspective. In other words, perspectivism claims that there is no God’s eye perspective. The myth takes that to mean something like: there are no universals. The two claims aren’t equivalent. It may well be that there are invariants across perspectives. But this does not mean that you can make, out of those invariants, a sort of uber-perspective. There are no back doors to the God position.

Furthermore, these invariants aren’t necessarily “truths”. I suspect that there are invariants that are fictions. Now, it is at this moment that someone inevitably pops up, a smirk on his face, and says, aha, how can you talk about truths and fictions if everything is just a perspective? This objection comes down to saying that truth is an extra-perspectival process. To which the reply, properly, is: so what? If it is true (that the truth is extra-perspectival), it amounts to saying that there is an invariant across perspectives. And if it is false (I believe it is false), this means, merely, that truth claims are judged on their relation to perspectivally specified frames of reference. In both cases, truth is not grounded in reality, but in procedure. What is at stake here is not really the truth, but something that is more like the reputation of the truth. The reputation of the truth is that it is a good. The reputation of the truth takes the truth to be more than it is – a selection procedure for statements. One of the hallmarks of modernity is the divorce between truth and its reputation. That divorce has been taken hard by foundationalists.

Another myth about perspectivism makes it equivalent to that extension of the liberal ethics of tolerance in which it is claimed that cultures are equal. This is, in some ways, a throwback to the Leibnizian notion of monads – those windowless things. It is as if cultures grew up in perfect autonomy and independence one from the other. Nietzschian perspectivism is quite different, and in this does not share the Blake-ian thought that the human animal can become like the bird – existing in the element of delight.  In N. perspectivism, perspectives – and for the moment we will treat cultures as different perspectives – are constituted by the assimilation and rejection of other perspectives – a constant will to power. The liberal ethos of tolerance, according to Nietzsche, could only arise after the liberal culture had sufficiently disenfranchised rival cultures to the extent that it could patronize them. This is a agitated point in Nietzsche’s writing – it is, on the one hand, a point at which a culture has come to the summit of its power, and, on the other hand, it is a point at which a culture manufactures the kind of nihilism – the kind of misunderstanding of its own historical dynamic – which undermines it. Nietzsche was inclined to describe this moment in medical terms. Indeed, Nietzsche is famous for using the metaphors provided by medical terminology – of sickness, health, strength, weakness – to diagnose (another medical metaphor) Western culture. Nietzsche went to the extent of identifying certain of his texts with convalescence itself – they were convalescent acts. Metaphor, here, is supported by metaphor.
Such, then, is the sermon on perspectives.
One p.s. Perspectives, as I said,  are very difficult to quantify over, which means that they are difficult to individuate. Since the tribe of analytic philosophers have a superstitious belief that knowledge begins with quantifying over its object, they have a hard time with perspectives. Thus, they tend to get impatient with Nietzsche. However, this is a superstition. You cannot, in classic analytic fashion, quantify over electrodynamic fields, as Maxwell described them. Physicists are rightly not worried about that.

The great point to keep in mind is: perspectivism is neither incoherent, nor nihilistic, nor philosophically untenable. And it makes a damn good alternative to foundationalism, which is not, in my opinion, entirely compatible with a scientific image of the System of the World, to use Sellar’s terms. I’ll trade the old stuffed Owl of Minerva for Blake’s songbird any day.























Sunday, November 14, 2021

Keep the dogs hungry - Western policy in the Middle East

 In spite of the delusions of the Stay in Afghanistan crowd - whose heartfelt solidarity with the women of Afghanistan does not seem to have caused them any lack of sleep - the policy of the Western states in the Middle East is exploitative and heavily tilted towards exemplary slaughter, such as the slaughter in Baghuz that the NYT is headlining today.

Here's a little Sunday history regarding the background of the great "nations of the free world" policy in Oman. For the history minded.

“Keep the dogs hungry and they will follow you.” That, according to journalist Chris Kutschera, was the motto of Sultan Said bin Taimur, who ruled Oman and Muscat, as it was called, from 1932 to 1970. .
“There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.
No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.
No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours. But one day the dogs got too hungry, and they tore the Sultan almost to death.”
The politics of the Arabian Peninsula in the fifties and through the sixties were shaped by a number of rivalries: that between the Saudis and Nassar; that between the Americans and the Russians; and that latent and silent struggle between the declining colonial power of Britain and the Americans. It was part of the last named rivalry that Britain took the side of Oman in its border dispute with Saudi Arabia – which regarded Oman much the way Saddam Hussein regarded Kuwait. Sultan Taimur was an anglophile. Although foreigners, including Brits, were not welcomed to roam the country, British military men provided the real security advice and structure in Oman. It was the British who helped Taimur put down various revolts against his power. What the British couldn’t quench, immediately, was a revolt that sprang up in Dhofar, that region of Oman that bordered The Democratic Republic ofYemen. The original insurgency was simply that of the aggrieved, but it evolved into that third world special, Marxist revolutionaries. The two division of what eventually became known as the “Popular Front for the Liberation of the occupied Arabian Gulf” were named after Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara – names that are a little hoary, now, but that, in the sixties, had enormous magical power. The Marxists wanted to secularize, provide health care and education for women, etc., etc. – all of the things that Western policy in the Middle East was dead against for fifty years. So naturally the British had to do something. What they did was “loan” Oman use of the SAS, and build the Sultan (who had forbidden the use of glasses as an intolerable modern affront) an air force. There’s a nice, Kipling-esque account of the war on this Small Wars site. It would probably be accurate to call the Dhofar war the last classic colonial struggle undertaken by the British.
The impediment to stopping communist subversion in the Persian gulf, it turned out, was the incorrigibly backwards Taimur. So he was overthrown in a coup that is surrounded by the usual Cold War murk – the Brits most likely pulling the strings, but no chain of evidence leading directly to any order. Thus they elevating his British educated son, the present Sultan, Qaboos, and kicked the war into higher gear.

“By July 1970, the province of Dhofar in western Oman was almost entirely in the hands of Communist-backed rebels belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). The Sultan of Oman had failed to recognize the danger and had done little to gain support among the indigenous people of Dhofar. The province was ideal guerrilla country, being dominated by a range of mountains in which the Sultan's Armed Forces found it difficult to operate. On 23rd July, the Sultan's son Qaboos bin Said, seized power in a palace coup to try and save his inheritance. He immediately introduced policies based on British counter-insurgency operations (COIN) and new government agencies were set up, designed to modernize Oman and persuade the ordinary people that the Sultan was worth supporting. Elements of 22 SAS were sent to help the expanded SAF defeat the PFLOAG.”

However, the British ability and willingness to sustain a war in the Arabian peninsula in the seventies was dependent on the rotten financial situation of the British economy, as well as emergencies closer to home, as in Northern Ireland. So Sultan Qaboos turned elsewhere – namely, to the Shah of Iran. Not only was a generation of British military men trained in the Dhofar war – by the end, it became an exercise field for the planes the Americans had sold the Shah .

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...