Thursday, December 09, 2021

war culture

  To understand the twentieth century – and our withered own – one must understand war.

There are many interests that converge in the War Culture, and one of the most difficult tasks for the analyst is to separate and sort them. Not only is this task difficult in itself, there is a philosophical difficulty that is rarely mentioned, at least by historians, foreign policy think tankers, and political philosophers. The difficulty goes back to the standard assumption that war is derivative from the State. First we have the state, then we have the wars between states, just as first we have teams, then we have baseball. However, that assumption is rarely argued for. In LI’s opinion, you could just as well have war first – ontologically and historically, Hobbes’ war of all against all – and then the state. In this view, states derive from war, rather than the other way around. Just as Mallarme thought that everything strives to be written in a book, every war, striving to be part of the one war, leaves in its path fragments of itself. Those fragments are states. But war is the shaper. The more powerful the state, the more the culture becomes a war culture.
The philosophical warrant for this goes back to Heraclitus. The Heraclitean view is expressed in a cluster of fragments recently re-translated, along with the whole corpus of Heraclitus’ work, by Charles Kahn in The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. Fragment 51 reads: “Homer was wrong when he said “Would that Conflict might vanish from among gods and men!” For there would be no attunement without high and low notes nor any animals without male and female, both of which are opposites.” 52 reads: “One must realize that war is shared, and Conflict is Justice, and that all things come to pass (or are ordained?) in accordance with conflict. And 53, the most famous of the fragments on war, reads: War is the father of all and king of all; and some he has shown as gods, others men; some he has made slaves, others free.”
Kahn’s commentary on these fragments is interesting. According to him, the criticism of Homer is that he, like most men, cannot see how, behind appearance, there is a hidden fitting together of all things. According to Kahn, in these fragments, Heraclitus formulates four responses to the question: ‘What is it that most men do not comprhend.’
1. “One must realize that War is common (xynos, shared)’. “…in the place of the familiar thought that the fortunes of war are shared by both sides and that the victor today may be vanquished tomorrow, Heraclitus takes xynos, ‘common’ in his own sense of ‘universal’, ‘all-pervading’, ‘unifying’, and thus gives the words of the poets a deeper meaning they themselves did not comprehend. The symmetrical confrontation of the two sides in battle now becomes a figura for the shifting but reciprocal balance between opposites in human life in the natural world…”
2. “Conflict is Justice”. “Vlastos is clrearly right to insist that Heraclitus’ conception of cosmic justice goes beyond that of Anaximander [one of whose phrases is echoed in Heraclitus’ phrase], since he construes dike not merely as compensation for crime or excess but as a total pattern that includes both punishment and crime itself as necessary ingredients of the world order.
3. ‘All things come to pass in accordance with conflict.’ Kahn points out that this echoes the notion of all things coming to pass in logos. Come to pass can also be understood as birth – which then gives us the strange reversal of the 53rd fragment, since birth here comes from the father, not the mother.
4. “And all things are ordained by conflict.” Kahn thinks that the word for ordained is corrupt. But if it is ordained, he sees the ordination as that proper to an oracle.
If one has the heraclitean framework in mind, the idea that war solely serves the interests of states gives place to the question of what interests are being served by war. And this is a useful thing, insofar as states are not homogenous units. Although we are familiar with trans-national corporations, we still seem to grope when trying to understand transnational interests, which are usually attributed to the hegemonic ambition of a given state. And then, too, there is the definition of wars. We like to count them as distinct things, having beginnings and endings. However, we all know that wars might well have continuities disguised by the ceasefires or intervals of peace that supposedly define them into separate wars, and sometimes we acknowledge this by talking of world wars, or of the sixty or hundred years war.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

A drinking song by Karen Chamisso

 A drinking song

In the thirst we inherit from Eden’s milk and water
there’s another thirst under
while the one holds us to the dry steady
the other surveilles each eddy
to lead us, counter-agently
through the counter-stream to a headache laden shore
this thirst, ticked out in a frogman’s sinister togs
dries out eye, brain and liver like so many bogs.
- Karen Chamisso

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The woodlanders of Dekalb Country, Georgia, circa 1970


In one of Thomas Hardy’s early and rather rough hewn novel, The Woodlanders, the central intrigue is driven by the fact that John South’s life lease upon his cottage ends when his life ends. South, at fifty-five, has made his career of chopping up wood – and now a fear has entered his mind that he is about to die, in a moment of karma, with the tree in front of his cottage being the executioner sent to bring him down:
“The tree was a tall elm, familiar to him from childhood, which stood at a distance of two-thirds its own height from the front of South’s dwelling. Whenever the wind blew, as it did now, the tree rocked, naturally enough; and the sight of its motion and sound of its sighs had gradually bred the terrifying illusion in the woodman’s mind that it would descend and kill him. Thus he would sit all day, in spite of persuasion, watching its every sway, and listening to the melancholy Gregorian melodies which the air wrung out of it. This fear it apparently was, rather than any organic disease which was eating away the health of John South.
Although I am awfully fond of Hardy’s novels, The Woodlanders is a sort of sketchbook in which we find the later Hardy’s strong sense of fate tied to a melodramatic form imperfectly translated from George Sand’s country novels – in another instance of Sand’s international influence, which, it could be argued, rivaled Walter Scott’s in the European literature of the time.

I am reminded of John South’s obsession with treefall on this visit to the Atlanta suburbs where I grew up. Atlanta, as any visitor by plane could testify, is arbor-ific. Trees everywhere, fall leaves everwhere, pines and oaks and poplars mixed and every variant of fruit tree brought in by two generations of real estate developers.  I was, at one point in my youth, part of a landscape crew in Atlanta. I planted trees and got rid of kudzu and manned with my teen manhood a blower.  My Dad, on his suburban smallholding in Clarkston Georgia, was an ardent planter of trees, all imports. My friend Mark Criminger, whose news I long ago lost contact with, lived on a corner property marked by a huge oak tree that still lives in my treeclimbing dreams. The woods were not yet cleared in the acres behind the Gentry family house when I was a kid, and we’d make forays there, look for gold, tell each other stories of children who stepped on ground bee nests and were stung to death – the best stories, always, being children killed in macabre circumstances.

Now I’m on the verge of being an old man – sixty-sixy – and I think with a sort of communal jolt that the trees I see on my visits, the trees I recognize, are, many of them, my age or younger. Pines that tower over houses that were only built in the seventies were saplings or less when I was ten. Amazing! There’s a tie of sap that is as strong as the tie of blood within me. A shared time, and a sense of immense but slow woody effort both in the pine and my own boned and muscled bipedal-dom. Their injuries, their broken  branches and evidences of lightning strike, are paralleled by the neural fall from my aging neural network, which every day invents new ventures in forgetfulness.

“As the tree waved, South waved his head, making it his flugel-man with abject obedience. “Ah, when it was quite a small tree,” he said, “and I was a little boy, I thought one day of chopping it off with my hook to make a clothes-line prop with. But I put off doing it, and then I again thought that I would; but I forgot it, and didn’t. And at last it got too big, and now ’tis my enemy, and will be the death o’ me.

South is one of the fool figures Hardy borrowed from Shakespeare: his madness is omen-laden. My trees, though, even if they prefigure my death, are not enemies – they are family.

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...