Wednesday, November 09, 2022


 “Feeds on meat, carcasses, farinaceous grains, but not cabbage; digests bones, vomits up grass; defecates onto stone: Greek white, exceedingly acidic. Drinks licking; urinates to the side, up to one hundred times in good company, sniffs at its neighbor’s anus; moist nose, excellent sense of smell; runs on a diagonal, walks on toes; perspires very little, lets tongue hang out in the heat; circles its sleeping area before retiring; hears rather well while sleeping, dreams. The female is vicious with jealous suitors; fornicates with many partners when in heat; bites them; intimately bound during copulation; gestation is nine weeks, four to eight compose a litter, males resemble the father, females the mother. Loyal above all else; house companion for humans; wags its tail upon master’s approach, defends him; runs ahead on a walk, waits at crossings; teachable, hunts for missing things, makes the rounds at night, warns of those approaching, keeps watch over goods, drives livestock from fields, herds reindeer, guards cattle and sheep from wild animals, holds lions in check, rustles up game, locates ducks, lies in wait before pouncing on the net, retrieves a hunter’s kill without partaking of it, rotates a skewer in France, pulls carts in Siberia. Begs for scraps at the table; after stealing it timidly hides its tail; feeds greedily. Lords it over its home; is the enemy of beggars, attacks strangers without being provoked. Heals wounds, gout and cancers with tongue. Howls to music, bites stones thrown its way; depressed and foul-smelling before a storm. Afflicted by tapeworm. Spreads rabies. Eventually goes blind and gnaws at itself.


This is a quotation from Linneaus, contained in one of Walter Benjamin’s radio broadcasts, True Stories of Dogs. The broadcast was directed at children – that is, the kind of children that Walter Benjamin might imagine, who seem an even stranger tribe than Linneaus’s dogs.  Benjamin adds:

“After a description like that, most of the stories frequently told about dogs seem rather boring and run-of-the-mill. In any case, they can’t rival this passage in terms of peculiarity or flair, even those told by people out to prove how clever dogs are. Is it not an insult to dogs that the only stories about them are told in order to prove something? As if they’re only interesting as a species? Doesn’t each individual dog have its own special character?

No single dog is physically or temperamentally like another. Each has its own good and bad tendencies, which are often in stark contradiction, giving dog owners precious conversation material. Everyone’s dog is cleverer than his neighbor’s! When an owner recounts his dog’s silly tricks, he is illuminating its character, and when the dog experiences some remarkable fate, it becomes something greater, part of a life story. It is special even in its death.”

It is a bit surprising to hear Benjamin go on like this about dogs – he is associated rather more with the angel of history than the good collie Lassie. But Benjamin, the ultimate freelancer, took all things into his ken. And leaves his mark – here, as elsewhere, it is the description as estrangement that fascinates him. After Linnaeus’s description, Benjamin imagines the dog stories he has read – which most probably tend towards Jack London – with the substitution of the word “dog” by Linnaeus’ description of dog.

It is the fine confusions that result from the substitution of a description for a noun that we begin to wonder about how substitution works at all, and then how noun’s work, and then how we ever convey a meaning in language at all. We are, momentarily, reduced to a muteness.  In Pierre Bayard’s book, Le hors-sujet : Proust et la digression, Bayard begins by asking a simple reader’s question: why is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time so long? He quotes from readers of publishers who rejected the first volume – notably the reader from Fasquelle: “The author concedes that his first volume could have stopped at page 633. But no problem, going forward, for there is almost 80 pages more from that number!

But it could also have been reduced by half, three quarters, nine tenths. On the other hand, there is no reason the author couldn’t have doubled it, or even multiplied it by ten. Given the procedure he employs, writing twenty volumes is as normal as stopping at one or two.”

Here we hear the same exasperation that Johnson felt about Tristan Shandy: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristan Shandy did not last.” This is the eminent classical judgement, which continues in the common sense philosophy to which English philosophers always return. Grice’s rules on implicature, which are beautiful things in their way, tell us that the conditions for perspicacity are the conditions for relaying content – for, in fact, truth itself. Whereas the idea of the digression, the “outside” of the subject – even as the outside moves inside the subject, inside the description – is something too alienating and “odd” to last long.

Proust was one of Benjamin’s sacred authors. It is interesting to think that Proust’s own sacred authors rather skip around the eighteenth century – Saint-Simon’s memoires are rooted in the late seventeeth century of La Bruyere, and Baudelaire is in full revolt against the “stupidity” of Voltaire.

Digression is a great instrument – it puts pressure on the “links” of discourse, as Bayard, who was writing in 1993, saw clearly. And we live and die among the links, us Internet cohorts, now.  

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

why don't you be stupid instead of smart: on unspelling


Does it help that Yeats was dyslexic?

The editors of his letters, where the texts are raw, have decided that Yeats’ spelling was idiosyncratic. That’s a good word. It doesn’t have the same word-injuring psychosis, the same serial killer among the letters, that is baked into dyslexia. Rather, it understands that spelling is a curious procedure, full of mirrors and disorientations.
A spell, as Yeats (who at one point belonged to the same organization as Aleister Crowley, the Golden Dawn) was always aware, was a matter of magical summoning. Spelling, too, is a magical summoning, made domestic by our schoolrooms and four hundred years of rules, so that the words appear under our pens. That the first words we learn to spell are often animal names makes complete sense from this point of view, for animals were, after all, the first things humans drew. But there’s a certain graffiti impulse that lies just outside the spelling book, under which we run away from the rules concerning what to write on and how to write it, and go cave man for real.
I grow old, I grow old. I am too old for emoticons. And graffiti spelling does sometimes assault my sense of the order of things. Yet I am helped by the thought that Yeats was as apt to spell “there” “their” as not. I really am.
A recent article by Rosenblitt and Siegel proposes that E.E. Cummings, too, was dyslexic. Plus, "it is interesting to note", Cummings was lefthanded - although being born in a time where witchburning had ceased but lefthandedness was disciplined against, his schoolteachers and parents tried to cure him of that. Perhaps Cummings work is a revenge on said anti-sinistralists. Perhaps the unlearning that is the mark of certain modernist poets - Rimbaud, Gottfried Benn - is unlearning the spell. Which is a spell in itself. As Michelet pointed out in La Sorciere, the first and primary act of the witch is to discover that backwards - as in saying the Lord's Prayer backwards - is an independent movement, not at all symmetric to forwards. Which is a good way of doing - and reading - poetry.
Or as James Chace put it in some song: "why doncha be stupid instead of smart?" My rallying cry too.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

the twitter comedy


I like twitter. I get a lot of info from it. For instance, when Libgen fails, I always find somewhere on twitter how to access it again.

However, it has an exaggerated effect as a social media platform, since all the meat press – tv, magazines, papers – have an exaggerated sense of it, which they push on down the line. The racists who get their N word jones on twittering and trolling get a lot more attention than the cops apartheid style management of urban life and the systematic racism of the economic system, from job hiring to mortgage making, that does its best to insert a bit of misery into the day to day of  African-Americans.

So Elon Musk’s buying of Twitter has the downside that pretty surely he is going to run it into the ground. However, I am fascinated by the business aspect. I am fascinated by the way Musk is hopping down a path once hopped down by Forbes’ Magazine’s boy genius of 2004, Eddie Lampert.

For those who don’t remember: Eddie Lampert was one of the evil billionaires hatched by Goldman Sachs. After learning how rent-seeking, a totally useless and harmful enterprise, gets you warm praise in the press and among the country club set at the Hamptons, Lampert struck out on his own and eventually bought Sears Roebuck.

The youth of today probably don’t recognize that name – or the name of K-Mart. One has to reach for the references – Sears was the Amazon of its time, K-Mart the Walmart. Sears, when I was growing up, was the family store. This didn’t mean that we liked Sears: quite the contrary. We bought at Sears and bitched about Sears in equal measure. My Grandfather, in the 1950s, got so made at a Sears employee they had a fistfight – or so my Pop used to say. Sears, however, had sales people whoknew their products, and for my family, which tended to treasure power toolsand such, Sears was an Eldorado. Its Craftsman tool line had everything. And atreasonable prices! So I grew up among Craftsman power drills and Craftsman  Electric Hand Saws. Ah, I can hear, as I write those words, the agonizing whine of a blade going through a 4 x 4, the sawdust in a plume behind it. This , as much as rock n roll, was the music of my youth.

Even in 2006, one might be astonished to learn, the capital value of Sears was greater than that of Amazon. In the 90s, my introduction to the world wide web – and even discussion groups – was made via Prodigy, brought to you by Sears Roebuck. But at this point, even, the upper management had lost the thread. Which is what a predator like Lampert was looking for.

The usual buy with debt, dump, pay yourself cycle followed. Unlike Twitter, however, Lampert’s little accountants had noted that Sears had tremendous real estate holdings in cities. Sell those off! Fire half the staff, hire anybody, train nobody, sell of the product lines, create sightlines in stores that told the customer nothing,  let each expedition to Sears be a buying nightmare, take the pensions and, by legal tricks, sever it from the employees who had made the store prosper, and so on. A good recap of the Lampert story, the story of America in the age of Obama and Trump, appeared inInstitutional Investor here.


Musk is no Eddie Lampert. He’s a super salesman, but as a businessman he sucks, and as an investor you could train a duckling to make better decisions. Thus, he has saddled himself with a company that is incapable of giving him a return on his money. He has no big pension fund to drain, he has no real estate to vend. He is paying more in interest on the debt he piled up on Twitter to buy it than twitter will ever pay out. In cases like this, the Sears formula – shit on an American capitalist institution, sit back and watch your fortune grow – will be difficult if not impossible to reproduce. Musk of course has a desire to be up there with the Tech legends (all of them disgusting in their own ways): Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg. I predict that in the future, he will be ranked, instead, with Murdoch, the man who spent 12 billion dollars for Myspace. Myspace, remember myspace?  In 2011, it was sold for 34 million dollars.

Ecce Twitter.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...