Saturday, December 17, 2022

The heart has its reasons

I recently read Wiliam Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, after seeing an article in the London Review that made a case for it. I can see the case: the writing is exciting for the most part, until it is dragged into that dread sink of genre fiction, the need for a resolution of a problem. I’m down with solutions, I’m a great fan of pacing out London under the shadow of Sherlock Holmes and finding the criminal, but I’m also a fan of things blowing up in your face. And a little too little blew up in the face of Gibson’s coolhunter heroine, Cayce Pollard. I admired her as an occasion for transvestism – the property Angela Carter rather patronized in D.H. Lawrence, all those stockings and dresses – but as an occasion for detection, her advance to the resolution of the problem became increasingly like an exercise in algebra: “solve the problem with a proof as to how you arrived at the solution.”

In solving her problem, Cayce comes into contact with one of those gross “entrepreneurs” of the early OOs, when the book was written. The heyday of the cult of Davos and the invasion of Iraq! Ah, it hurts, it hurts. The tycoon, with the horrid name Hubertus Bigend, is not only a money maker but fancies himself, as tycoon’s do, a philosopher. This means he has read the popular science books we all have read, but has “seriously” absorbed its lessons.  The dialogue between the tycoon and the coolhunter, then, becomes a moment in zeitgeistery of the highest order.

It is from this moment in their dialogue that I received a certain jolt. Here’s the bit:

“It doesn’t feel so much like a leap of faith as something I know in my heart.” Strange to hear herself say this, but it’s the truth.
“The heart is a muscle,” Bigend corrects. “You ‘know’ in your limbic brain. The seat of the instinct. The mammalian brain. Deeper, wider, beyond logic. That is where advertising works, not in the upstart cortex. What we think of as ‘mind’ is only a sort of jumped-up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older, mammalian mind, but our culture tricks us into recognizing it all as consciousness.”

When Pattern Recognition was published in 2003, the useful term mansplaining had not yet been coined – but here, in Bigend’s “correction”, is the thing itself.

The jolt I received, though, was about language. Although Bigend here is trying to explain the ‘mind’ – a thing that has to have airquotes even in the explanation – his explanation turns out to be more mythic and less actionable than the word “heart”. The ‘reptilian’ limbic system is, of course, an old chestnut in the popular science vein. It is ‘reptilian’ instead of just a limbic system because it somehow demystifies the heart, or intuition, or mind – but relies, nonetheless, for its semantic effect on the old hierarchy between the animal and the human. One could as well call it the “higher mammal limbic system.’” 

But lizard brain image has impressed itself on the newspaper reading world. A Washington Post story from May 29, 1969 announced the discovery, by neuphysiologists at Queens University in Canada, of the “holdover from our reptilian ancestors”:

 “This evolutionary cranial inhabitant determs the human herd instinct, man’s stereotyped, obsessive instincts. It plays the primary role in instinctively establishing territory, finding shelter, hunting, homing, mating, breeding, imprinting, forming social orders, determining leadership, and other ancestral traits.”

If this sounds rather weird as a gecko shadow self, it sounds all too familiar as colonialist discourse – with that “determining leadership” being an especially attractive property for the tycoon whose wealth depends on extracting surplus labor value.
“This would make it sort of subprimitive, though it is capable of overriding man’s scientifically acknowledged two brains, a primitive one and the civilized one.”
The geopolitics of brain structure – in one small announcement, the Washington Post in 1969 was explaining why we were in Vietnam – to bring the Vietnamese out of the limbic dark ages!
I am very interested in the vocabularies of the emotions. I think that the decline of the older temperament theory of the body-feeling synthesis, which is something that marks early modernism, has left a hole in our passion-speak. The “heart”, which is an orphan of that earlier way of conceptualizing emotions, has still not been replaced by the “reptilian limbic brain” – though the Bigends of the world correct us sagely on the whole topic. Reminding us that an explanation of an underlying substrate is not an explanation of what that substrate supports, any more than a map is an explanation of the territory.

Friday, December 16, 2022

The Breakfast Cereal Box: our place in the chain


 Breakfast cereal is an emblem of the industrialized food system. If the system had a totem, surely the faces of Captain Crunch, Tony the Tiger, and Snap, Crackle and Pop would be displayed on it. The cereal box I opened this morning to feed my boy, Kellog’s Smacks – which features a froglike creature with big eyes, an open mouth, a startlingly human tongue, and human like hands, splashing about in milk and wheat stalks and larva shaped honey smacks, against a vivid red background – tells me that it provides me with “50 % Vit. D. Daily Needs”. I’m never sure if I should believe this kind of thing, or even really what it means – one bowl? The whole box? On the back it provides me with a printout of “ingredients” and”nutritional facts”. That the words are in English and Arabic points to the global system – this Kellogg’s cereal box has been somewhat vaguely routed or controlled by the Kellogg’s office in Casablanca.

This box is a marvel as well as, given the ecological tragedy of agribusiness, a horror. Marvels and horrors are the familiars of my ordinary life – and no doubt yours, reader. We flip between them with every app and every birdless sky.

The world of commerce, the system of global production and circulation which brought that box to my kitchen, seems, sometimes, to fill the world. It depends, however, on the act of giving. I give the cereal to my boy. My wife gave her time, labor and money to go out and get the box and bring it back home. My definition of neoliberalism is that cultural regime which attempts to completely embed the social in the economic (defined narrowly as capitalism, a market based system of goods and services controlled by capital); however, it is always limited by the fact that it depends, fundamentally, on what Georges Bataille called the “general economy” – the economy of unexchanged energy, generosity, and giftgiving. The further neoliberalism digs into the general economy, the more it undermines itself. In this contradiction, myth is generated.

At least this is one way to locate myth. I am writing under the spell of Roland Barthes mythologies, essays on the quotidien that attempt to decode certain bourgeois patterns of recognition, styles of representation, in order to reveal their mythic dynamic. Barthes  wrote them in the fifties, when he was still using an impressionistic technique. He didn’t quite have together what he meant by myth. His latter essay on myth is confusing, I think, because he retrospectively tries to cast what he was doing in the armature of a more fully developed semiotics. Still, each of those essays has an exhilarating air, as though he were an alien among these ads, sports events, strip shows and automobiles.

Myself, I can sit pretty, given such predecessors as Barthes and a thousand others. Yet I still don’t have the categories to quite understand, for instance, the glue, or – I suspect – starch based adhesive that gives the box its use and mystery. The top of the cereal box is a familiar rectangle divided into two rough triangles traced out by impressed creases. One of the triangles slots under the other. However, to get to that organized state – which we will call the OPENED cereal box – I have to make it so – because the box is eminently closed this morning. It comes closed. It is closed when it finishes its transit of the assembly line. The box is lightly sealed because the contents of the box have to be protected from spills and damage. The cereal, in other words, is very much conditioned not just by the fact that its end use is to be digested, but also by its circulation – its storage, transportation, and distribution on top of shelves in a store. Due to the necessity imposed by the truck, the store manager, and the stock person, I am confronted by a sealed box top. The potentially separable triangles that make up that box top are glued to two interior cardboard flaps. In the face of this, I, an American bred and born in the 20th century, know just what to do: I must deflower this box top. But from long experience I also know that I can make a mess of it. Too much pressure and you tear the thing, destroying the ideal symmetry that would insert the slot snugly under the mouth of the other triangle. If I exert the right pressure, I can break the adhesive bond and the box top will tent perfectly over the contents, which are, as well, protected by being stored in a little wax paper embryo inside. That wax paper, too, I will have to force open – and for that, scissors is your best friend. That is, if they are at hand. On the other hand, if I am too violent, the box top triangles will rip, and instead of tenting the contents, they will raise up, irregularly torn, revealing the grayish paper under the beautiful red die. Every time, then, I open the cabinet and take out the cereal box, its ruinous state will reproach me. This reproach will attach, like fine starch adhesive, to my thoughts about the cereal – I will be inclined to want to hurry up its consumption, and might well toss the box before it is completely void of honey smack pleasure, in the way one hides things one is ashamed of.

This is doubly bad, since not only will the box and the wax paper embryo eventually be tossed into the garbage can, from when they will go to further litter the earth and foul the water, but at the same time I will be wasting food, organic matter, which is even worse.

Thus, much depends on my successfully applying a degree of force: my shame, my eco-citizenship, and my sense of being a good housekeeper.

The need to seal and break a seal – that is, to have adhesives that both adhere and break apart proportionate to the human force brought upon them – is an old old story, going back to myths of seals of wax that lock away vital messages – as for instance in the case of Bellerophon, who was entrusted with a message that, under its seal, instructed the receiver to kill the messenger. That is one mythic facet – the other facet is that of the trap. The cereal box is, among other things, a trap – a devise that closes on an animal and allows the trapper to open it and capture the animal. Traps are part of a technology that goes far back in human pre-history, like fire and writing.

So much depends on that starch based adhesive.

This morning, I successfully applied just enough, but not too much, force and opened the box. Then I poured the cereal into the bowl. As the box is narrow and rectangular, I do this in a rather eccentric way, out of the side of the box. According to Scott Bruce’s Cerealizing America, the box type in which my honey Smacks are stored is called a billboard box. I am utterly at home with this kind of box – it is part of the syntax of boxes that I have dealt with all my life.

Habit makes the habitus. The cereal box is a monument, among other things, to packaging waste. I know this. Yet it is also a nostalgia object, deeply embedded in my childhood and the childhoods of all the kids I knew, the ones who survived into adulthood, the ones who as parents, inevitably, took on the burden of feeding their kids in the morning.  This is why when I, on rare occasion, buy cereal for myself – for instance, oatmeal flakes – and I buy it in bulk, which makes more sense, I find the bag that I use to store it and carry it with me relatively joyless. The bag disenchants the whole cereal box experience. There is no froglike anthropomorph jumping around in the bag – it is simply brown. It is better. It is rational. It is faceless. It is pure. 

And so the carnival is over.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The psychology of experiment: Kierkegaard


There are, in the notes for Kierkegaard’s  Repetition, a number of variations around the subtitle, which Howard and Edna Hong translate as “A venture in Experimenting Psychology”. Kierkegaard also tried “Experimenting Philosophy” and “Experimental-Philosophy”.
This is a suggestive subtitle for a book about – or at least entitled – repetition, since experiment itself is a form of human activity that, ideally, verifies the theories that it is meant to test by creating a situation that can ideally always be repeated by any competent operator. In the dialectical sense in which Constantine Constantius (who may be the experimentor of the book – or may be the subject of the book’s experiment), in a sense the experiment is already repeated even in its very first instance, since it is intended from the beginning to be repeatable – it is designed along the lines of repetition.
But there is another sense in which just the opposite is the case. In Hans Christian Ørsted and the romantic legacy in science, Robert M. Brain points to the Danish scientist Ørsted’s  distrust, perhaps via Goethe or Schelling, of the Newtonian kind of experimentum cruces on the grounds that what the experiment shows may well very with the angle of observation: “It is inherent in the infinitude of Nature that no observer can discover all that is implied by an experiment.” Ørsted is not a negligible figure.  This account from Physics World gives the abbreviated version:
:”While giving a lecture on electricity, electrochemistry and magnetism in the spring of 1820, the Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted noticed something remarkable: the magnetic needle he was using for one of his demonstrations was deflected by an electric current in a nearby wire. The discovery of this (at first sight) simple and feeble phenomenon came as a great surprise to the scientific community. According to established beliefs among leading scientists in Paris (then the centre of physics and chemistry research), an interaction between electricity and magnetism was not to be expected. Therefore, nobody in Paris was looking for such a connection. But as soon as its existence was realized, electromagnetism sparked a new and extremely fruitful area of physics research. Its discovery was a key step towards understanding the unification of the forces of nature, and it is hard to imagine what life would look like today were it not for the countless telecommunication inventions based on electromagnetism.”
Brain argues that the Romantic fascination with the fragment served as an image for the experiment – which, instead of presenting itself as a designed repetition, becomes, instead, an insight into some particular in the infinite stream of nature. Schlegel’s aphorism goes:
“A fragment must be like a little artwork taken totally away from the surrounding world and perfect in itself, like a hedgehog.”
From this point of view, the design of an experiment, and its performance, was as singular as a poem or painting, requiring the high ingenuity of a … well, Dr. Frankenstein or Faust, to name the avatars.
The experiment in psychology calls to its mirror image, or negative: the psychology of the experiment. Which, I believe, is a rather neglected subject. If we take repetition to be at the heart of the experiment, the Freudian hypothesis that repetition is connected to the death drive – a hypothesis that Freudian normalizers in the U.S. considered an embarrassment – then we have at least one entrance to the experimental framework: it must be cruel.
The notion of the experiment as an exercise in cruelty played a major role in Kierkegaard’s battle with the Corsair, when Moller, his opponent, rightly picked up on the cruelty involved in using an ‘experimental’ method on people, or putting a girl in the “experimental rack.” The point of view on cruelty shifts in relation to the terms in which the discourse is expressed – what is cruelty from the ethical point of view is not so from the aesthetic – and from the religious point of view, as Kierkegaard writes in the Edifying Discourse, “… the cruelty consists in the fact that the Christian has to live in this world and express in the environment of this world what it is to be a Christian.”
There is, at this point, a two-fold question: the first is, what kind of ‘experimenter’ is Constantin Constantinus, the pseudonymn-author of Repetition? And the second is, what does it mean to write a text under the sign of the ‘experiment”? How is a text, formally, an experiment at all?
The first question returns us to the romantic view of the experiment. The romantic physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter, as Brain notices in his essay on the Experiment as Fragment, actually classified physics and poetry as similar kinds of fields, and wrote an essay entitled Physics as Art. Kierkegaard’s notion of the aesthetic seems, similarly, to extend to the observation and construction of science as well as poetry. What may seem to be temptation, in the religious sphere, is here a kind of trial and error procedure.
In Repetition, C.C. refers to a story by Justinus Kerner. Kerner, as it happens, wrote the official biography of Mesmer – and it was certainly in Mesmer’s circle that the first ‘psychological experiments’ were carried out. As it happened, many of the ‘subjects’ who became most famous for being easy to induce into trances were women. The Marquis de Puységur left a note about a conversation he had with one of his sonambules, a woman named Genieve. I can’t say that Kierkegaard read these memoirs – I can say that there is an intersigne between Repetition – in which, at one point, C.C. describes himself chasing flies with a fly swatter – and Puységur’s note:
One day I questioned a woman in the magnetic state about the extension of the empire I could exercise upon her. I had without even telling her forced her, as a joke, to give me some blows with a fly swatter that she held in her hand. Well, I said, since you are obliged to hit me, who are only doing you good, I bet that I could, if I absolutely wanted to, make you do anything I wanted; for instance, I could make you take off your clothes, for instance, etc… No, monsieur, she said to me, it isn’t the same; what I am doing doesn’t seem good, and I resisted doing it a long time, but in the end it is only a joke so I yielded, since you absolutely wanted it; but as to what you just said, you could never force me to take off my last garments – my shoes, my bonnet, as much as you please, but after that you will obtain nothing.”
The relation that C.C. establishes with the young man is, one could say, designed as an experiment in suggestion; with the woman he is in love with, one could say, C.C. views her as a side effect – the strong homoerotic band is with the young man; and finally there is C.C.’s own experiment of a return to Berlin. Yet one view of the book is that it is itself – in its totality, including its authorship – an experiment performed by Kierkegaard.
Of course, there are other psychological experiments in Kierkegaard’s works – which seem, at certain points, to merge with the idea of seduction.
It is the links here, always the links:  chains, connections, intersignes, in which an eighteenth century scene of experiment/seduction is played out on a woman - Puysegur’s patient - who resists him, in the end, allowing him the fetish objects - shoe or bonnet - but nothing more. And the odd commonality of the fly swatter to stand out - passed from the patient's hand to C.C.'s, chasing after the revolutionary flies of Berlin.
Under the pressure of the observer's gaze, we watch the experiment as a situation under the control of the pseudonym slip out of his hands, and see it appear in Kierkegaard’s hands, where instead of an experiment applied by C.C. to his 'subjects', it is applied to the text itself - the text is an experiment about experiments. And so we have outlined the first problem, the problem of the first page, the problem of the title.
The problem – psychological? Textual? Scientific? then – such is the way of this slippery signifier – seems to slip at this moment, while we are adjusting our glasses, looking at the screen - where we read the text - out of Kierkegaard’s hands too - or out of his control. For what kind of control does our author behind the author have? Why is it that experiment and seduction, experiment and the female, keep finding each other? And not according to the protocols of the manipulated chance in which the experimenter excels, but according to the protocols of nemesis, of fate, of obsession, of luck, it seems. And the experimenter – who is he, and what are his standards? What are his ‘controls”? What is his institutional background?
The institutional background – science, art, religion – is not just a matter of existential stages. Constantine Constantinus, after all, appears so unattached to economic activity, and so, consequently, at leisure to collect cases, a situation that – perhaps – is the reason the young man in Repetition finds him odd – and later on, decides that he is mad.  If madness is lack of labor – or if madness is labor that is not socially recognized… And if madness creates situations that are, to the madman’s gaze, experiments, although not so recognized by any others in the social order...
Of course, it is true that this has also happened, in the twentieth century, within institutional psychology. The famous Milgram experiment, for instance, about which one can also ask about its double form – for the participants thought they were in one experiment when they were really in another. They thought they were seeing how much pain a subject could take, when they were really subjects testing how much they would obey an order.
The Milgram experiment is, in a strong sense, a gloss on the psychology of the experiment. It is in a line going back to Kierkegaard. And going forward to another figure, a fictional one, who also lacks a socially recognized labor profile.
Who  appeared in 1841, in a story in a magazine published  on the other side of the Atlantic:  Dupin.
“A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow, for the matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better reasoner than he. I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of 'even and odd' attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, 'are they even or odd?' Our schoolboy replies, 'odd,' and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, 'the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd;'—he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: 'This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself, upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even;'—he guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed 'lucky,'—what, in its last analysis, is it?"
"It is merely," I said, "an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent."
"It is," said Dupin; "and, upon inquiring, of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received answer as follows: 'When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.' This response of the schoolboy lies at the bottom of all the spurious profundity which has been attributed to Rochefoucault, to La Bougive, to Machiavelli, and to Campanella."
These trans-Atlantic figures and their experiments. We still live in their shadows.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Physiology and media

I know many people who, while being fully literate and even liking to read, manage to read only a half a dozen books per year. Now, it is the quality of the reading that counts, of course. Yet, I think that there is more going on here than simply lack of time. I suspect that there is an almost physical discomfort with large blocks of reading.
Myself, I am as immersed in reading as a fish is in water; however, my media of reading has changed. Although I still check out books from the library and buy books, the bulk of my book reading is epub or pdf. This is a change that I was never expecting, never even wanted, but that crept up on me like a goodtime habit turned addiction.
This means that I read even large books, such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, on the computer. This has changed the sheer physical process of reading for me. The physiology of it. I have transferred to the screen the feeling I sometimes got from reading of choking. Choking on a too muchness. This is not a criteria that necessarily counts against a book, but it definitely determines the course of reading the book. Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg is a case in point. It took me years to read that novel, because it was too much while at the same time I found it delightful – that is, there were things in it I would think about happily for days. It is a highly erotic book, with that peculiarly ironic eroticism special to Mann. Yet, like the snow in the mountains through which Castorp, in the most exhilarating chapter, skis, the book spread out before me and exerted a resistance, an overwhelmingness, that my mind met with its own resistance. It choked my eyes.
This psycho-somatic resistance comes up for me even more in watching movies.
When I was a single guy, I used to think that my problem with movies (and my problem with tv) was simply with popular American movies. It was the problem of plausibility. Metz, in an essay on movies from 1967, wrote a rather profound bit about this:
“We know that for Aristotle, the plausible (Vraisemblable) (to eikos) is defined as the totality of what is possible inhe eyes of public opinion, and is thus opposed to the totality of what is possible in the eyes of people who know (this last “possible” being supposed to make a unity with the truly possible, the real possible) The arts of representation… don’t represent all the possible, all the possibles, but only the plausible possibles. The post-aristotelian tradition – for instance, the notions of the plausible, of bienseance, of the agreed upon among the French writers of the classics of the 18th century – has taken this idea and enriched it with a second sort of plausibility, not so much different from the first and yet totally absent, it must be said, from Greek philosophical thought: what is plausible is what conforms to the laws of established genre.”
The plausible was always, to my mind, a bit ridiculous. The middle class – that pale aspirational image of the club house set – has produced some rather ridiculous genres, especially when unmixed with the working class, the marginalized. When those two forms of plausibility mix, you get film noir and classic American vaudeville comedy, but otherwise you get unthinking cop shows and rom coms.
There are movie viewers who accept anything; and that is their bliss. There are others who watch for the illogical moment, the break in the chain of the real; there are those who, accepting the supremacy of genre over the real, treat the question of plausibility solely in terms laid down by genre (would superman be able to do this or that? A different question than, say, the notion of a superhero fighting crime in a society founded on crime, say the Apartheid reigning in the U.S. during the golden era of the superheros).
I like watching thrillers with my brothers – on video, of course – because they are sharp-eyed for technical implausibilities in the story. How Hero Y knew about Villain X, or whether he’d have the time to escape danger in Location A and get to Location B in time to save the day – although usually this is on a finer level. They have an engineering mindset that they bring to these logistics.
Mostly the films I watch now are not, alas, with the love of my life, A., since who has time, but with Adam. It is through Adam that have bought into the marvel universe and horror films. I have accepted that there are languages here that are genuine, something to learn. It is not higher learning. But I can’t dismiss it.
However, to go back to media. My real problem with movies is that, as books were transformed by small screens, so, too, movies have been transformed by the way I watch them – not projected on a big screen, but usually on a computer. It is the tv-ization of the movie, and it means that I get squirmy when there is too large a block of watching. My unit is now the 20-25 minute tv program. Sad, that. This may sound like I am talking about being restless with intolerably slow movies, but it is just the opposite. Those movies do operate in 20-25 minute blocks, infilling. Bela Tarr, Tarkovsky – these movies are easier for me to see all the way through. But other movies that I know are good I interrupt, I view in stages. For instance, a film I am watching in bits now: The Return of Dr. Mabuse. I love the beginning of the film, the grit, the silence, the escape. And I love the actors, and what I know of the backstory, how this film was made. But I am breaking up my experience of it into segments – making it into tv units.
Film, for me, seems to tend more to what Barthes called the relay – the advancement from one point to another in a narrative, a sequence of images – with a sheer speed that both confuses me and makes me want to delay the process, impose the tv unit.
I wonder if this is a common problem. I suspect it is a common problem.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Europeans, Africans, Tones, Power

The “strangers” in the European enlightenment, the Persians, Chinese and African kings – they are not only there to be strangers. They are there to show how strange the Europeans – or the European elites - really are. Voltaire expanded the stranger base to aliens from other planets. Rousseau took up the Hurons of Baron Lahontan's dialogues.

The estrangement effect of the stranger helps the philosophe to understand the power arrangements embedded in everyday life.

I found a wonderful quotation from an African king in William Hazlitt's great essay, Reason and Imagination, that I think takes that awareness a great step beyond.

Since we have witnessed the unexpected rise of an old nineteenth century utilitarianism in our day, Hazlitt's struggle with utilitarianism has assumed an unexpected pertinence. Reason and Imagination is one of a number of Hazlitt's pieces - including the portrait of Bentham in Spirit of the Age - that seeks to undermine the hold of Benthamite utilitarianism on the English radical imagination. Hazlitt, as his commentators like to point out, took up Adam Smith’s sympathy based morality as the basis for his own theory of moral sense. But he also took up another eighteenth century theme – one that actually starts with Voltaire – which is the theme of unexpected consequences. He wields this theme as his weapon to attack utilitarianism as a tone, as a sort of common sense ideology – always so appealing to the British.

Hazlitt was well aware that a tone is a power position. Our sounds are territorial. As Hazlitt noted in another essay, On Egotism, the man who comes into a room and announces that he ‘hates’ poetry puts the person who doesn’t at a momentary disadvantage. The statement of dislike seems to be a considered and superior judgment. Hazlitt makes a very clever analysis of this, one that is taken up (although not, I should say, under the direct influence of Hazlitt) by many writers during the 19th and early 20th century, from Herzen to Proust. They felt, in these common conversational habits, the presence of a greater beast – a specter that haunted Europe:

“A man comes into a room, and on his first entering, declares without preface or ceremony his contempt for poetry. Are we therefore to conclude him a greater genius than Homer? No: but by this cavalier opinion he assumes a certain natural ascendancy over those who admire poetry. To look down ujpon anything seemingly implies a greater elevation and enlargement of view than to look up to it. The present Lord Chancellor took upon him to declare in open court that he would not go across the street to hear Madame Catalini sing. What did this prove? His want of an ear for music, not his capacity for anything higher. So far as it went, it only showed him to be inferior to thousands of persons who go with eager expectation to hear her, and come away with astonishment and rapture. A man migh as well tell you he is deaf, and expect you to look at him with more respect. The want of any external sense or organ is an acknowledged defect and infirmity: the want of an internal sense or faculty is equally so, though our self-love contrives to give a different turn to it. We mortify others by throwing cold water on that in which they have an advantage over us, or stagger their opinion of an excellence which is not of self-evident or absolute utility…”
While the utilitarians can manipulate social attitudes, they can’t account for them under their theory. Attitudes atomize into millions of hedonic calculations. Which – to get back to Hazlitt’s Reason and Imagination essay – has a macro effect beyond the individual calculus to the mimetic heart of human social relations. Hazlitt uses an example from the slave trade – which is certainly not just an example. Hazlitt mentions the throwing overboard of African slaves like so much lumber that was reported on a ship in 1775, and writes that it is an instance where the instance flashes a light on the whole: “A state of things, where a single instance of the kind can possibly happen withwithout exciting general consternation, ought not to exist for half an hour. The parent, hydra-headed injustice ought to be crushed at once with all its viper brood.” And he joins this story to an account from an African explorer:
“The name of a person having been mentioned in the presence of Maimbanna (a young African chiefain), who was understood by him to have publicaly asserted something very degrading to the general character of Africans, he borke out into violent and vindictive language. He was immediately reminded of the Christian duty of forgiving his enemies; upon which he answerednearly in the following words: - ‘ If a man should rob me of my money, I can forgive him; if a man should shoot at me, or try to stab me, I can forgive him; if a man should sell me and all my family to a slave-ship, so that we should pass all the rst of our days in slavery in the West Indies, I can forgive him; but’ (added he, rising from his seat with much emotion) ‘if a man takes away the character of the people of my country, I never can forgive him.’ Being asked why he would not extend his forgiveness to those who took away the character of the people of his country, he answered: “If a man should try to kill me, or should sell me or my family for slaves, he would do an injury to as many as he might kill or sell; but if anyone takes away the character of Black people, that man injures Black people all over the world; and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing which he may not do to Black people ever afgter. That man, for instance, will beat Black men, and say, Oh, it is only a Black man, why should not I beat him? That man will make slaves of Black people; forwhen he has taken away their character, he will say, Oh, they are only Black people, why should not I make them slaves? That man will take away all the peole of Africa if he can catch them; and if you ask him, But why do you take away all these people? he will say, Oh, they are only Black people – they are not like White people – why should I not take them? That is the reason why I cannot forgive the man who takes away the character of the people of my country.”
We are still living with this anecdote, the long slander of racism, and the long reply of Maimbanna. In a world built on the bones of slaves, we – me, you - would do well to listen to this history.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Character on and off paper

While doing her fieldwork among the Makassar, a people living on the peninsula of  Sulawesi, Indonesia who are ‘renowned” for their seafaring and fishing skill, Birgit Roettger-Roessler noticed that her informants were uneasy when asked to tell about themselves, and when they did, they told her narratively thin stories about what they did – not why they did it, or what they felt. On the other hand, she found that the Makassar enjoyed gossiping about each other. Roettger-Roessler was disappointed by this state of affairs at first, as the standard notion in the eighties, when she did her fieldwork, was that first person accounts were  more reliable –more authentic. Gossip, however, is, she presumes, the stock that fills up many an ethnographer’s notebook.
However, as she reflected on this curious situation, she noticed that other anthropologists also reported that first-person autobiographical accounts were difficult to get from informants all over the South Pacific, and in Africa. And she concludes, as other anthropologists were also concluding at the time, that there is something very “Western” about first person life stories. This is a large  conclusion pinned to a small reference: St. Augustine’s Confessions. This reference is, I think, itself very Western – the idea that a book has an impact over a thousand and a half years, changing the narrative taboos of ordinary people all over Europe and beyond, rests on a very vague kind of intellectual history.
However, Roettger-Roessler’s work with the Makassar eventually forced her to consider the notes she was putting in her fieldwork journal, where it turned out that there were plenty of life-histories at second hand. The Makassar gossiped. They also would tell about themselves in certain triangulated situations – in ordinary conversation, for instance.
All of these fragments are gathered together under the form of theses about person and self, which define the cosmology eighties anthropologists were interested in. It is interesting that character no longer carries any conceptual weight in this discourse, even though, as late as the nineteen fifties, anthropologists were willing to speak of ethnic ‘characters’, or individual characters within a group. And yet it doesn’t seem that what is being narrated in gossip and rumor, or told in pieces in conversation, among the Makassar is an account of the person or self. Rather, what seems to apply are the traits that character coordinates. Joseph Ewen, an Israeli literary scholar, has proposed that character is a matter of three axes: complexity (of traits), development (action of some kind) and penetration into the interior life (words involving cognitive and affective states). These axes are of use in narration. Outside of narration, they are senseless.
Is there character, then, outside of the text?
On June 18, 1944, a detachment of prisoners from Auschwitz were unloaded at Kaufering, five kilometers from Landsberg  Germany, and collected into a concentration camp there. The prisoners were set to work building large underground bunkers that were intended to protect an airplane parts factory. According to a secret account kept by one of the prisoners, a priest, Jules Jost, about 28,838 Jewish prisoners were kept there, including 4200 women and 850 children.
At the same time, an army doctor named Gottfried Benn was stationed in Landsberg. Benn is of course one of Germany’s most famous twentieth century poets. In 1933, he had sided with Hitler, and written a famous letter addressed to emigrés writers – and really to Klaus Mann – in which he wrote that their complaints were besides the point. When they called Hitlerism “barbaric”, Benn wrote, they were betraying their own intellectual inadequacy and obsolescence: “… this is my counter-question, how do you imagine history moves itself? Do you think it is particularly active in French spa resorts? How do you imagine the 12th century, the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic feeling: do you think that this was discussed? Do you think, in the North of the land from the South of which you now write to me, someone dreamed up a new architectural style? That we voted for domes or towers? That one debated over Apsides, round or polygon?”
The emphasized words were all connected to the weak mode of politics that Thomas Mann, in the Observations of a Non-political man, had connected  to the complex made up of civilization and the intellectual (associated with France) as opposed to culture and the bürgerlich (associated with Germany). But Benn had moved on from the conservatism of Mann – like Ernst Junger, he had moved towards a politics of masculine decision, in which things like debate, discussion, dreaming would be crushed. Crushing –this was what history did. It smashed. It crushed. And it shaped the way nature shaped.
Of course, Benn had left his enthusiasm for Hitler behind him by 1944, but he had not entirely left this idea that history and nature were one inhuman thing. And this ideology – with its proximity to the real crushing of human material going on in a concentration camp five kilometers from Landsberg – was part of the sweep of the Novel of the Phenotype he wrote, with its subtitle, Landsberg Fragments. In the first fragment he poses the aesthetic question in terms that resonate with his notion of a sort of anonymous collective history deciding on domes or towers, when he considers the notion of narrative itself: “Why knead together thoughts in someone, in a figure, in shapes, when there are no more shapes? Invent persons, names, relations, when they are simply futile?” In a sense, Benn is writing about the post concentration camp world –the world in which persons, names and relations truly are futile. And still, one has to ask whether we are not simply being asked, once more, to see an aesthetic category crushed by history; and whether “history” hasn’t been given virtues it does not have, causal powers that are, in truth, tautological: whether we aren’t being sold history as, in fact, the scheme of causes, which would mean that it naturally causes events. Cause, in other words, causes events.
Yet if we take a more generous interpretive approach, we see, in Benn’s notes, indications of a way of thinking about character that preceded the concentration camp. This way of thinking began to emerge in the modernism of the 1914 generation as a response to mechanization, to the artificial paradise of chemistry and consumerism, to newspapers and films, as much as to war.  In the post-war period, the same reasoning under different styles – structuralist, post-structuralist, Marxist – came to the same conclusion: that the bourgeois realism of the character was obsolete. Roland Barthes, in the first cool,scientific phase of his career treats the figure, the personage, in the realist tradition as one that is wholly constructed within the text’s discourse, radically dividing it from its off-the-page correlates: from the critical point of view, it is thus as false to suppress the personage as it would be to make it jump off the paper [faire sortir du papier] in order to make it a psychological personage (endowed with possible motives)…” (SZ) The paper that intrudes here and does such decisive ontological work allows us to understand on the personage on the paper functions in that universe – but in the same gesture it invalidates the ethos in which both sides, paper and off-the-paper, are joined in one social whole.
In Barthes second, hedonistic phase there is a retreat from this high modern ascetism. The text becomes, again, an object of pleasure – an off-the-page pleasure that is satisfied somehow on the page. The text becomes porous, readable, fragmentable, and paper becomes a more enigmatic matter altogether. This retreat does not erase the high modern moment but quotes it – delivering it to the maximum ambivalence in which all liminal creatures, zombies, vampires, leaders, characters, reside. 

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...