Friday, June 24, 2022

I don't love my country

 Love is the wrong feeling one should have for a political vehicle. Love, rather, the culture, the dissent, the revolt, the force that goes out and takes on established power. 

But the U.S.A. as a political entitty? From slavery to the new (reaffirmation) of the second class citizenship of women, the U.S. has done all the bad things. 

What makes me sad is the idea that there's no organized entity that will push back. The Dem party is as useless as a sewing club against a drone missile. We are on our own. But this is where the love goes - cause American culture, the people, are endlessly inventive. I want to live long enough to see them rise up and wipe out this elite. 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The best and the brightest and Google Home

 We were given a Google Home for Christmas. Adam has adopted it as his sister, his chorus, his friend, his advisor, and his conversation partner. Google Home is ill adapted for complex conversations: it can sing a few songs when you ask the right question, and it has a few programmed jokes – but what it never does (under the heavy obligation of never scaring off a customer) is give its judgments about the best and the worst: “what is the best horror movie?” “what is the best episode of The Office?” “what is the worst album ever made?” and so on.

Adam, like me when I was a boy, is an ardent ranker. Although he is only nine years old, he can give you the IMBD ratings for dozens of movies right off the top of his head. I’ve discovered a good way to tease him: by giving some movie he doesn’t like a high, made up IMDB number – or vice versa.

I am tempted to call ranking, and canon-making in general, instinctive. I can see the NYT Bestseller list title in my mind: The Canon-Instinct. But I am not sure what kind of instinct that is, besides one in which comparison and discovering what is more important in a given circumstance is elevated to some fundamental unified force.

As a man who does try, mostly unsuccessfully, to follow Jesus’s precept “judge not that ye be not judged”, I have relegated ranking to a lesser aesthetic activity. That I think James Joyce’s Ulysses is better than the Walking Dead video game doesn’t tell me much about either. Heinrich Heine – whose precepts, unlike Jesus’s, often sound like jokes – wrote a nice dismissal of this canon-making instinct in aesthetics: “Nothing is more foolish than the question, what poet [Dichter]  is greater than the others. A flame is a flame, and its weight isn’t determined by pounds and ounces. Only the flattest grocer’s sensibility comes around with an old cheese scale to weigh genius.”

Of course, Heine was not a physicist. Fire weighs, according to Google Home, about 0.3 kg per cubic meter. Still, what a nice image! One that tugs me back from my critic’s desire to tell you x is a great book and y is a terrible video game. I compromise: I do judge, but I try not to let that get too in the way of thinking. That’s the best I can do.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

In praise of Gregoire Chayamou: macronism predicted!


Philosophy almost always follows the event. The French revolution and Napoleon come first: then Hegel.

In a rare inversion of this order, Gregoire Chamayou’s The Ungovernable Society: a genealogy of authoritarian liberalism came first, in 2014, and then Macron.

Chamayou is one of the rare philosophers to follow Foucault’s work and actually do research. In Chamayou’s case, the research is on one of the turning points of the seventies – the emergence, within enterprises, consulting firms and conservative think tanks, of a grand strategy to fight back against civil rights movement, unions, and the formation of counter or at least a-capitalistic organizations. Although Chamayou does not talk about nudgery – the special addition to the mix identified with the Obama era – his diagnosis of, say, dialogue as a strategy by established power to make itself seem open and to label its opponents as extremists is uncannily predictive of the Macron strategy that has come so undone this year in the legislatives.

One can read the book as a horror story, or as a cynical affirmation of all that we already know. A particularly vivid illustration of this is in the chapter on Nestle’s discovery of dialogue. Nestle, as people of a certain age – my age – will remember, was making tons of money from powder baby formula, marketing  in areas, like Southern India, Central Africa, etc., where water was generally polluted, sometimes enormously polluted – due of course to the marketing of products from another multinational, Monsanto, among others. When this issue was brought up, Nestle dismissed it - which aroused fury among certain groups, which launched a boycott. Of course, in Switzerland Nestle used the tried and true method – suing distributors of pamphlets urging the boycott – to try to censor this (not an instance of cancel culture – cancel culture would only be involved if boycotters said nasty things about celebrities huckstering Nestle products. We have to remember, cancel culture targets people who are un-fireable, thus giving them a victim status that results in NYT op eds and cocktail party chatter) The boycott, especially in the U.S., started catching on – or at least the rhetoric directed against Nestle. Chamayou went through the archives of the people who were hired to undo the damage. It is there he found many communications about the need for dialogue – not dialogue involving third world women giving their kids corrupted baby formula, of course, but dialogue with “respectable” leaders of the boycott, or at least names in the liberal humanitarian set, that would have the strategic effect of creating respectability for those willing to “compromise”, and thus making those who weren’t seem like extremists who had … refused dialogue! Things go swimmingly, dialogue becomes a value in itself, which is always a good thing, as it allowed Nestle to go on selling its products while giving it the seal of approval of dialogue partners.

Transpose this to 2019, when Macron went on a “listening” tour in response to the Gilets Jaunes, and one finds the same thing – the need for “dialogue”, the finding of venues in which the dialogue would be managed the right way, Macron’s creating an image of a leader who listens, etc.

Cynicism only goes so far, however. Here one must supplement Chamayou with the invaluable essay by Erwin Goffman. Cooling the Mark out, from 1952. The problem with the boycotters, dissidents, unemployed disgruntled and dirty masses is that they might feel used. And this, of course, is the problem with marks in a confidence game. Ideally, they will not see through the game, and thus the con men can take to the road, trusting that they will not be caught.

“Sometimes, however, a mark is not quite prepared to accept his loss as a gain in experience and to say and do nothing about his venture. He may feel moved to complain to the police or to chase after the operators. In the terminology of the trade, the mark may squawk, beef, or come through. From the operators' point of view, this kind of behavior is bad for business. It gives the members of the mob a bad reputation with such police as have not. yet been fixed and with marks who have not yet been taken. In order to avoid this adverse publicity, an additional phase is sometimes added at the end of the play. It is called cooling the mark out After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team﷓mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”

As we all know, the coolers of the mark have an institutional position: they are, collectively, the establishment press. And that is their main job – to cool out the marks who bear, in their wounded lives, the impress of the organized con game that is politics in the era of democracy’s decline. In Macron’s case, there was an impressive array of coolers – from Le Monde to Figaro, from BMTV to Le Causeur. But the problem, for Macronia, is that the coolers themselves have interests. It might be in their interest – as it is in the interest of the owner of BMTV – to crown Zemour king. It might be that they can’t persuade their journalists to keep going along. Liberation, for instance, has moved away from Serge July’s neo-liberalism by sheer self-interest – July’s generation isn’t going to buy the rag, and the journalists who write for it just can’t stomach the sheer idiocy anymore – unless of course they can secure rich gigs with Institut Montaigne.

So, France is going through the era of cooling the mark out, and the bumps are going to be wild.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

conversion stories

 All we know is that there are feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to recrystalize about it.”

If an angel took off the roofs of our American minimansions and suburban 3br 2 ba houses, she would find a museum of relicts left by once hot ideas and now dead interests: the wok in the kitchen, the dusty musical instruments in the kids’ rooms, the old magazines in boxes in the garage, a stray paddle from the white water rafting phase, etc. Where, exactly, is the enduring center, around which life crystalizes?

This is the problem posed by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Conversion is the name of the central chapter in that book, for good reason. It was a problem handed down by the puritans. It was a basic American narrative. It is at the existential heart of liberalism, even if liberals don’t know it.
One of the great words among the chattering and political class is “adult”. The great unwashed, the demos, may be “children”, but the elite class – the class that, broadly, embodies liberalism, in its present neo-lib varieties – pictures themselves as adult, a term that allows them, as well, to credit themselves with a youth they have sloughed off.

The opponents or contraries of adults are, of course, kids, teens. And this is no accident. James is very struck by the work of an American sociologist named Starbuck (a truly Melvillian name) who studied teens and religion. From his data, James draws certain conclusions: “The age is the same, falling usually between fourteen and seventeen. The symptoms are the same, - a sense of incompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection and a sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter, distress over doubts and the like.”

For good reason, Jesus said: Verily, I say unto you, if you are not converted and become as little children, you shall never enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
In the long liberal culture of adults, not entering into the kingdom of heaven, denying its existence, is part of the creed. Between a paradise that is essentially lost and a kingdom of heaven that is delusive, liberalism proposes an eternal in media res. At the same time, the society in which liberalism became possible was the same society that, through family household configurations, love marriages, and schooling created a youth culture – extruded from the world of work, but be-blinged with every consumer good. While age is affixed like a snitch jacket to the “adults”, all good things have shifted to the aura of youth. The culture of the aged – the sage – has been flushed down the toilet. The kingdom of heaven, now, is celebrity-hood – the fifteen minute kind, the courtroom kind, theInstagram influencer kind, and so on real world without end.
Among American conservatives, conversion is part of the everyday lingo – as it is not among the American liberals. The pathos of the American liberal is that he is always seeking the liberal under the conservative guise. What is your solution to poverty? What is your plan for health care? When of course under the conservative guise is a convert, who doesn’t think poverty is a problem but a judgment. Although certain conservatives, who tend to the libertarian side, speak of “solutions”, this is not the lingo of the brethren. Meanwhile, conservatives seek the conversion among the liberals. Surely they are secretly converted to something? Communism, pedophilia, something. The idea that, for liberals, conversion is a blank just doesn’t compute. And in fact liberals do, perhaps, worry about that blank themselves. To have no conversion moment, to regard existence as a perpetually in-between state of drift, is a curiously nihilistic attitude to found liberalism on.
This train of associations goes galumphing though my head every time I read a NYT article that analyses puzzles, like “why is the GOP audience not as shocked and moved by the Trump insurrection as we, who know the facts and are the adults, are?” Liberals seem incapable of turning such things into conversion moments – heavens, that would mean demagoguery and populism! Style, sometimes, is substance. Any convert knows this. 


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...