Friday, March 31, 2023

Therapeutic nihilism and us


In these days of evil on the telly – and on the computer screen and in the climate shift, etc. etc. – my mind has been drifting towards the topic of therapeutic nihilism. In a sense, when peeps say we can imagine the end of the world more than we can imagine the end of capitalism, they are positing some natural power in capitalist arrangements that is powerfully reminiscent of the state of medical science in 1844, when the Viennese doctor, Josef Dietl, published his manifesto in the Zeitschrift der K.K. Gesellschaft der Aerzte zu Wien that proclaimed the proper scientific limits of medicine.

“Why don’t we demand of our Astronomers to turn the days into nights, of our physicians that they turn winter cold into summer heat, our chemists that they turn water into wine? Because it is impossible, that is, because it is not grounded in the principles of their sciences, and because astronomers, physicians and chemists are upright enough to confess that they couldn’t do it. But then, why do we demand that our doctors heal lung diseases, dropsy, arthritis, heart disease, etc.? Are these demands somehow grounded in the principles of his science? Absolutely not!”

The list of diseases is impressive, and impressively, we don’t have a “cure” for arthritis, for instance, even today. But the twentieth century not only saw the invention of airconditioning, turning summer heat into winter cold, but an amazing structure of therapies that could address the body’s ills in a manner undreamt of by Dietl.

In 1844, this world of cures – or therapies that could alleviate illnesses, such as insulin for diabetes – seemed extremely distant. It was an unimaginable world.  Dietl’s nihilism was a reasonable belief that the cure was an area not of science, but of chance. However, this did not mean doctoring was substantless: “The doctor must be valued not as an artist of cures, but as a scientific researcher [Naturfoerscher].

I often take this stance towards Marx. The communism he strove for depended, of course, on the thoroughness of the capitalism that he diagnosed. In a strong sense, it arose out of it, like … well, like the response of the body to a disease. The analogy is inexact, however. This body is the disease, and its cure is a new body, arising from the old one. Resurrection.

We all know how the resurrection belief has worked out – it has become a master trope in our metaphoric imagination, but it has less of a grip on our sense of the real future. Although, of course, literally billions  of people believe that it will, more or less literally, happen.

In the case of our political economy, it is easy to see that most economists are even more mired in a nonsensical world of cures than that of Dietl’s colleagues. To believe that you cure inflation with unemployment and then you heat things up until unemployment sparks off inflation is to have the most primitive sense of the general economy. It loses sight, in fact, that the economy is not a master but a servant – a servant of the social whole. Its only reason, its only footing in humanity, is to make the quality of human life better. It it doesn’t serve that purpose, kick it to the curb, start over. To rephrase slightly the slogan of the Wat Tyler rebels: “First we’ll hang all the economists.”

In fact, as it proved, therapeutic nihilism was not so nihilistic as all of that. Diagnosis eventually lead to water being turned into wine, or at least to an Austrian physician discovering blood types in 1901 and blood transfusion becoming a real thing after the discovery of anticoagulants, research that was hurried up because of (natch) war, as in World War One. Turning water into wine was nothing compared to transfusing blood properly and easily to a patient, but the creep of blood blood blood in the twentieth century mapped the creep of cure cure cure. Diagnosis, the left hand, found cure, the right hand.

A hopeful story. We are not mired in a world of therapeutic nihilism forever. We don’t have to accept that.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Saving the heritage: France's system of retraite


Lucie Mazauric was a museologist of the rarest sort – a Radical Socialist (along with her husband, Andre Chamson), a resistor, and a key member of the “circus” – mi-clochard, mi-aristo, as she puts it – who hid France’s museum treasures, its Da Vincis and Delacroixes, from the Nazis. In Ma Vie en Chateaux, she gives an account of this adventure: the finding of places of safety, the gathering of equipment to guard the treasures, especially fire-fighting equipment, the getting trucks together to convey it, on short notice, from one place to the other.

“But this happy specialisation, even as it filled us with pride, didn’t prevent our trucks from becoming ever more dirty at every new displacement, and our personnel ever more tired. We trailed after us a miserable baggage that gave us the air of travelling, not too prosperous, jugglers. In the end, the cases were worn out, the nails were lost, the gas was hard to find, the wrapping had lost their initial freshness. However, we buckled the buckle, the paintings were returned to their hanging places nail by nail, the sculptures pedestal by pedestal, and we had to marvel at it all.”

I have this feeling about that other French treasure: the social security system. A work of eighty years. While the Macronists are destroying it now, out in the street, with the air of down at heels jugglers, our protestors, our strikers are determined to save it. And we will have it back, every nail and pedestal of it, so to speak. I don’t believe France will lose its heritage because a lot of jumped up suit, clustered around their suited and rolexed Ubu Roi, have decreed it so.

Vive La France!

Monday, March 27, 2023

the great American sarcastics


Although listings of the top 100 novels or authors or movies or albums or whatnot are often contrived and set at large in the world as the most shameless kind of clickbait, we rarely have listings of the one hundred greatest sentences, or lines. I think that one of the greatest and most influential sentences of the twentieth century is the one at the beginning of England Your England: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

Orwell’s sentence had, I think, a tremendous influence on the whole WWII generation of American writers. In a literal sense, this situation, turned around, is the whole songline of Catch 22. Yossarian very correctly thinks someone is trying to kill him – precisely because he is one of the highly civilized human beings trying to kill other human beings, from civilized to not yet toilet trained, in the cities he is dropping bombs on.

Kurt Vonnegut’s entire style was based on seeing in this alienated way – that is, alienated from the not-seeing required for patriotism, hierarchy and the whole cultural extent of the defence of liberal capitalism. It is a seeing that Carlo Ginzburg, in an essay on the proto-history of estrangement, brought back to a very old stoic discipline – the kind of disenchantment by the real in which Marcus Aurelius instructed himself.

Here's a marvellous bit by Kurt Vonnegut that seems to have dropped out of Orwell’s sentence and landed squarely on American culture in the last half of the twentieth century.

“Reading is such a difficult thing to do that most of our time in school is spent learning how to do that alone. If we had spent as much time at ice skating as we have with reading, we would all be stars with the Hollywood Ice Capades instead of bookworms now.

"As you know, it isn't enough for a reader to pick up the little symbols from a page with his eyes, or, as is the case with a blind person, with his fingertips. Once we get those symbols inside our heads and in the proper order, then we must clothe them in gloom or joy or apathy, in love or hate, in anger or peacefulness, or however the author intended them to be clothed. In order to be good readers, we must even recognize irony—which is when a writer says one thing and really means another, contradicting himself in what he believes to be a beguiling cause.

"We even have to get jokes! God help us if we miss a joke.

"So most people give up on reading.

One of Orwell’s essays is called, self-flatteringly, In front of your nose, as in “seeing what is…” There Orwell speaks of the trouble, the absolute bother, it is to see what is in front of you. Orwell, like anybody raised as he was raised, could see what was in front of his nose as long as he was facing in a certain direction among a certain sort of people – mostly of the masculine flavor. But what he did, at best, was see that this is, exactly, how he saw. It is, in fact, exactly how I see – and must re-see and re-see in order to see at all. There was a rightwing trend, a few years ago, for “stoicism”, with stoicism confused with masculinity, as defined by the Skull and Bones club. That isn’t stoicism at all. Stoicism is for slaves, as Nietzsche saw, and in as much as Marcus Aurelius could become familiar with it, it was a technique that royally dethroned him.

So most people give up on reading, as Vonnegut writes, because it is more work than it looks like. The slave’s inner voice is tuned in to sarcasm – because, as its etymology of “tearing flesh” tells us, the slave sees that the whiphand doesn’t rule because it is right,but because it holds the whip. The stoic see that Jesus’s admonition that we love one another and forgive our enemies elevates us above any God that condemns to the whip – to the “gnashing of teeth”, sarkazein. That God, having forgotten to forgive, has forgotten the essence of divinity, the love without limit. And in the profane world of gnashing of teeth, highly civilized human beings will spend oodles of time and trillions of dollars trying to find ever new ways to kill you.

The great American sarcastics saw that, at least, clearly. In front of their nose.  

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...