Friday, January 14, 2022

observations on observations of a non-political man


Thomas Mann, in his crazed Observations of a non-political man – one of the most percipient conservative texts of the 20th century – coined a beautiful phrase to describe a vocational community: solidarity of conscience. Alas, an economic theory based on self-interest has little time for what any observer of ordinary life picks up: a sense of the integrity of work. That integrity, for Mann, was about writing as an art. But you see the same spirit of integrity among carpenters, lawyers, janitors, engineers, etc. The motivations, here, are trans-individual – hence the solidarity. There are audiences and peers with whom one feels – the agent, the writer, the janitor – feels some sympathetic correspondence. Even if the peer is an enemy – or especially if the peer is an enemy. This is where everything becomes tricky. In the passage where Mann introduces the notion of solidarity of conscience, he knows that he has been flailing – that he has been attributing the cruelest motives to his enemy, the liberal German, the advocates of democracy (and in particular his older brother, Heinrich) – and he knows that the flailing had to come out in order that it could call up a countering, although not logically countering, irony. The solidarity of conscience allows him to swerve towards the personal, towards the whole affective presence of the writer. Since the writer is writing as a “non-political man”, the swerve here, or the irony, is that the very presentation, beginning with the high minded commentary on Dostoevsky, has been on the level of demagogy – undermining, fatally, the idea of the non-political. That is fatal, a death blow that is more than just logical, to Mann’s conservative purpose, which is to preserve the non-political as the central cultural fact of the bourgeois “Germany” he wants to defend. In a further irony, after bitching his fill about “civilization” – France – and its imperialism, the non-political is destined to become a European cultural fact in Mann’s polemic.
He knows this. He feels, as wounds on his own skin, the contradictions of his position. There is something debilitating about these wounds – I am irresistibly reminded on the wounds on the body of Gregor Samsa after his transformation into a Ungezeifer – a vermin.

Mann’s dalliance with decadence, or with his homoerotic feelings, is also felt by Mann, in his texts, as a weakness, a draining away, an open wound. It is important to remember that the Observations preceded and overlapped with the work on The Magic Mountain, and that Mann resolved the problem of demagogy by endorsing, in the end, the Republic and its democratic foundations.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Patience and time

 I am continually finding out things about all humanity when I talk to Adam. Of course, all humanity laughs at me and keeps most of its secrets; I have to tip my hat to all humanity for that. But Adam, being nine, and myself, being sixty-four, make a dialogic partnership that is, although as absurd as any other parental relationship, full of meat for the moralist.

For instance, take the issue of patience.
For Adam, patience is simply the waiting room of boredom. Or rather, not the waiting room, but the very office, the execution of the painful business that is always done in offices, and the desire to be anywhere else that comes from being a patient. The patient as sufferer and patience as suffering, for him, are self-evidently linked. For myself, on the other hand, patience is a discipline that one must have to be, well, ethically and existentially right. Patience lies in that grey zone between affect and habit, between cognition and bodily resignation, and it is difficult to put one’s finger on what it is, exactly, that makes it so necessary to wisdom. Is wisdom simply for tired old men? Is it another name for nihilism, of the kindest and gentlest and most ravaging kind? Or is it the fine fruit of a cultivated attentiveness not only to oneself, but to others?
Impatience is, of course, the temporal mode of public life. Sheldon Wolin in a famous essay about the post-Cold War period, What Time Is it?, thought that democracy itself was dying under the onslaught of constant sensation – sensation administered by the socio-economic system of late capitalism:
“Starkly put, political time is out of synch with the temporalities, rhythms, and pace governing economy and culture. Political time, especially in societies with pretensions to democracy, requires an element of leisure, not in the sense of a leisure class (which is the form in which the ancient writers conceived it), but in the sense, say, of a leisurely pace. This is owing to the needs of political action to be preceded by deliberation and deliberation, as its “deliberate” part suggests, takes time because, typically, it occurs in a setting of competing or conflicting but legitimate considerations. Political time is conditioned by the presence of differences and the attempt to negotiate them. The results of negotiations, whether successful or not, preserve time: consider the times preserved in the various failed attempts to deal with the secession crises prior to the Civil War. Thus time is “taken” in deliberation yet “saved.” That political time has a preservative function. is not surprising. Since time immemorial political authorities have been charged with preserving bodies, goods, souls, practices, and circumscribed ways of life.”
This is a curious defence of “leisure”, since its chief example is about the secession crises prior to the Civil War, where leisure was extracted from the labor of that most unleisured class, the slaves. Wolin has been criticized by Mario Feit for not recognizing the demotic and democratic virtue of impatience – Feit taking his template from the fundamental appeal to impatience in the great Civil Rights tradition in the U.S. And indeed, the whole dull tenor of deliberation does make patience seem like a committee meeting.
Patience is not, however, simply deliberation. I like to think patience has a certain generosity to it – it is not just the strategic crouching of one player waiting for another player to fuck up, but a larger sense of strategy and all performance as something to be enjoyed. In patience, the spectator and the actor are joined. Patience, as a cultivated virtue, is indissolubly linked to one’s ability to pop the bubble of one’s egotism. All persons are mortal – that exemplary premise at the beginning of the logic book is the ego-popper which releases us from the trap of strategic patience to the wilds – the bit of wilderness, of lost time, that is a human necessity.

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...