Thursday, May 11, 2023

Critical criticism after my dejeuner



There is a famous passage in Marx and Engel’s Germany Ideology, which was written in 1846, set aside, and published in 1932. It reads:

“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. “

There are two schools of interpretation about this passage. One reads it as a genuine attempt to imagine a society in which the bonds of the division of labor are lifted. The other reads it as satire.

Myself, being Mr. Split the difference, I read it as a comic bit with a serious nub. In other words, I view this as a typical example of Marx’s romantic humor – a post-Hegelian humor which he shares with other disillusioned romantics of the 1840s, like Kierkegaard and his future enemy, Herzen.

This humor is, above all, gleeful. It exaggerates. Exaggeration holds within itself a truth, or a fact – and in this it is opposed to the lie. The lie, to be successful, conforms to the informal rules of plausibility – while an exaggeration, to be successful, flouts those rules. In particular, it takes a fact out of the plausible and subjects it to a field in which we have lost our grip on proportion. Proportion, which we tend to assume, is of course only as good as the other assumptions with which it is bound. Although we all know now, from pop science books, that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause untold changes in the universe – one of those “truths” of complexity theory – this knowledge can’t really be felt, even by those who are at the extreme end of the paranoid spectrum. In this sense, the credo of the new atheist/rationalist crowd – that facts don’t care about your feelings – gets things completely backwards. Without feelings, a whole spectrum of them, facts would not make any sense – they’d be unavailable to you.

Glee, which was taken up by romantics like De Quincy – or even pre-romantics, like De Sade – is thematized as “agony” in Mario Praz’s famous book, The Romantic Agony – which is still worth reading, although I’d bet my De Quincey that it is not on the curriculum for most grad students in literary studies.  Anyway, Marx was fully conversant with that form of humor – like Heine, or like the Russians, Gogol and the early Dostoevsky.

There are complex truths stuck in Marx’s squib. One of the lesser ones is that criticizing is on the same plane as hunting or harvesting. It is one of the structures of a liberal, developed economy – although it is far more important in an underdeveloped, backwards economy like Germany’s in the 1840s than it is in a fully developed one. Still, in a fully developed economy, on its way to a social democracy that allows a certain equality of the quality of life – measured exactly by its freedom from the slavery of the division of labor – there is and must be room for speculation.

Or to sum this up in a good, 1950-ish way: Man is the speculative animal.


I’m a fundamentally bad lego man. I always put my weightiest bits on the top of the column, and the lightest underneath.

So, sue me.

Anyway, I take criticism and literature as important functions in a “developed economy” – which may well be simply a self-justifying gesture that helps me think, well, I am doing my bit. Perhaps my bit is meant to be spent organizing demonstrations, etc.  After all, I am living in the slops of the twentieth century, in a society that seemingly hasn’t budged since the 1980s. The social neurosis is killing us.

However, it is at just such times – times much like the 1840s – that glee becomes charged with lightning. One has to have a strong streak of gleefulness to read today’s newspapers or social media, turning hatereading into exaltation, and one’s enemies into involuntary dance partners. Repulsion, to the gleefully morbid mind, is half of attraction.

This is, I think, where Marx as a dialectician sometimes outsmarted himself. As a publicist and writer, though, he knew his strengths – which is why he ultimately shoved the German Ideology project aside and went on to other projects. The importance of the German Ideology, to me, is that it presents a sort of stylistic key to Marx. Like all the 1840s romantics, glee and dialectics remained his rock n roll, but he was careful with them. He knew that they might open up the world – de-proportion the proportions – but that they were only steps to get back into the world as a struggle.

So I like to think that, through social media, we might, if we overthrow those social conditions that are handily summed up in the term “neoliberalism” – we just might – might – criticize after dinner. Or, as I am doing now, here, after lunch.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Institutional malingering: something is rotten in the States


In the British Medical Journal, September 13, 1913, John Collie, M.D., J.P., authored  a note on “Malingering”, which he connected, like any sensible English utilitarian, with the recent debate about the costs of some sort of National Insurance – just the kind of taxpayer fund that the working class would target with all their illnesses:

“The question of feigning or exaggerating illnesses has of late attraced considerable attention in this country, but it is a mistake to suppose that the condition is of recent origin. Those who have to advise insurance companies know that exaggerated and fraudulent claims are, at any rate, as old as the accident laws.”

Malingering became one of those twentieth century occasions to battle it out about what, exactly, we are to do with diseases of the soul, once we have painlessly and scientifically proven that the soul doesn’t exist. Tricky, that.

I think the twenty first century problem is not the malingering of individual patients: it is the malingering of institutions. In particular, the Democratic party in the U.S. seems to have come down with a nasty case of it. If feigned illness could lead to real death, the Democratic party would be dead by now. It isn't: it is merely zombified. Symptomatically, the party is now presenting its loyal voters with the cute notion that a senile Senator, in a state of health where her best option is to prepare her soul and stay in contact with her loved ones, has no special reason to resign her seat, even if she will never again be able to fill it properly or do her duty. Now, we must preserve her place in the committee that votes on judicial nominations because we don't know what else to do. Otherwise, we would have to work, which would mean appointing a bunch of judges which would destroy the millionaire order that has richly benefitted us all! Besides, really, is it that important, judges  – those petty things that can, for instance, decree the criminalization of the abortion pill. Which we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about!

Institutional malingering should be of as much interest to social psychologists as malingering has been to psychology in general. How is it that the twenty first century consists of chickenshit parties ruling over decayed republics and unable to do any useful thing to avert the catastrophes that are eating up the young and creating suicidal conditions for the old? How is it that the U.S.A., from which I sprang, that country which, while deathdealing on a global scale, also produced a culture within which civil rights movements actually produced change – that unevenly democracy-tending place – how is it that malingering and malice have become its face to the world? From the legalized lynching of the homeless to the tyranny of lunatic judges on the dumbest Supreme Court ever assembled from the hayseeds that invest our law schools, all we see is bad shit.  The political structure is crap, and everybody knows it. The energy to fix it seems to go, instead, into an infinitely self-satisfied establishmentarianism that is all about why we can’t fix it.

Things go bad in small ways at first, and then in large ways, and then all at once. Fortunes collapse, nations go rotten. And we go around with the taste of the institutional malingers in our mouths. This is not how life is meant to be lived.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

The gerontocratic spectacle


When Charles was on the brink of thirty, he made a speech to the Cambridge Union in which he said: My great problem in life is that I do not really know what my role in life is.’  The coronation, which I saw – to the length that any tv watcher could stand it – was in line with that statement.

I don’t think I have seen a tv spectacle that was at once so “spectacular” and so heart numbingly boring since the great OJ chase of the nineties, when television discovered that large numbers of people would watch hours of traffic as long as it was accompanied by commentary and celebrity. OJ, at least, in his prime, did experience beauty. Watching documentaries of his great time as a running back for the Buffalo Bills, even a non-fan of the game such as myself could see that here was twentieth century art, to put up against any ballet or modern dance. The OJ who was chased, the bloodstained golfer and future author of If I Did It, was the aftermath of that transcendence – a flat figure, a NPC.

Charles has brushed up against transcendence, but from his horrendous upbringing to his horrendous marriage to his crowning, at the age of fucking 300, he has always been a non-playing character. In Rosemary Hill’s LRB piece about Charles and Camilla, she notes that throughout his career, the word used about Charles is “sad”, or “terribly sad”. As she also notes, nobody pitied Charles as much as he pitied himself. In this, if in little else, he matched his first wife – a flat figure who was meant to race around with seedy Eurotrash trust funders, but ended up, much to her disgust and his, with a Euro-non-trash trust funder.

The ceremony we saw emphasized how very much we are run by a global gerontocracy. Their messenger boys – the Prime Minister of the U.K, the president of France – are greasy with the task of fucking us all over, which they engage in with business school discipline. From the doddering Archbishop of Canterbury (who, at one point, must kneel to pray some kind of prayer, creating the one drama of the whole tedious scene – would he manage to get up on his feet by himself?) to the closeups of Charles, peering seedily around him under those untrimmed eyebrows, this festival in the retirement home of Westminster Abby begged for some, any ironic counterpoint. Instead of getting what we should have had - a series of torch songs of increasing melancholy – we got a thousandth iteration of tween choral music. In order to retain the innocence of those angelic voices, one noticed that Prince Andrew was not present.

In the end, as much as I hate the monarchy and the spectacle of the monarchy, I ended up feeling sorry for Charles. What a waste of middle manager potential, this guy who, if he had not had a fascoid prince of a father and a mother who clearly didn’t like him and wouldn’t die, could have had a happy life as, say, the VP in charge of petrodollar accounts at some City bank! He’d be retired with Camilla in Spain by now, indulging himself with the local vintages and participating in the gentle art of tai chi!

The song that should have been performed, Ithink, is the cover of the Tears for Fears song from Donnie Darko. But it wouldhave spoiled Charles’ one happy day.


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...