“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, November 15, 2013

American anti-intellectualism

The United States, it is often said, is an anti-intellectual country.  Okay, I admit “often said” is a weasel phrase, which intends to exculpate the author from doing any research.  So doing a little research, one can go to, for instance, Richard Hofstader’s classic “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”. Hofstadter writes that he wrote the book in the 1950s, when it seemed that the Eisenhower presidency was all about actively knocking about “so called intellectuals going around showing how wrong everybody was who disagrees with them” – to quote Eisenhower himself.
Hofstadter does a thorough job of searching out American intellectuals, going back to the Puritan clergy. Of course, he has a more sociological sense of the intellectual, and through that lens can see that far from being an era of disrespect for the intellectual, the Eisenhower fifties enshrined the intellectual as “expert” with far more influence and money than, perhaps, at any time since the scribe-dominated days of Pharoanic Egypt.
However, Hofstadter does not wax very philosophical. I on the other hand am always applying philosophical wax to objects small and large. Nothing is cheaper than philosophical wax! I myself am willing to sell cartons of it for very reasonable prices – buy the perfect Christmas present! But, er, I digress. What I was going to say is that, in my opinion, American culture is not so much anti-intellectual as anti-dialectical.
Of course, the intellectual historian would adduce the American inheritance of a common sense philosophy from England as the reason, perhaps – but I think that is an all too intellectual explanation. Too much superstructural woo woo woo going on there, even for me, who generally find the whole superstructure/base thing bogus.
I, on the other hand, would go back to slavery.
I’d go back by this indirect route. At the beginning of Hrabel’s I served the King of England, the protagonist harks back to his first day working at the marvelous Golden Prague Hotel:
“When I started to work at the Golden Prague Hotel, the boss took hold of my left ear, pulled me up, and said, You’re a busboy here, so remember, you don’t see anything and you don’t hear anything. Repeat what I just said. So I said I wouldn’t see anything and I wouldn’t hear anything. Then the boss pulled me up by the right ear and said, But remember too that you’ve go to see everything and hear everything. Repeat it after me. I was taken aback, but I promised I would see everything and hear everything.”  
A prima facie analysis, grasping only the logic in this passage, would conclude that the boss was mad. After all, didn’t the message to the left ear contradict that with the right ear? And what is all this repetition about? I think, in fact, that is how the American think tanker would naturally read this passage.
However, as Nietzsche acutely saw, dialectics begins in servitude – in slavery – and the logic of both showing that one doesn’t hear or see anything but in actual fact observing and hearing everything is the slave’ s instrument of survival. It is a mark of the film 12 years a Slave – a film I sat through with total attention, a film I have wanted to see my whole life – that certain dialectical hints, on the order of this contradiction between the ears, are voiced.
It was not, of course, beyond Ralph Waldo Emerson to see and understand this contradiction, but it is absolutely characteristic of American culture that  Emerson’s reputation is as an inspirational thinker, a manufacturer of high minded Hallmark card slogans. By one of those great accidents that are fastened onto by the gnostic historian, always on the lookout for intersignes, a boy who was named for Emerson, Ralph Ellison, spent his whole career meticulously elaborating the contradiction between the ears –the contradiction that gives its title to one of his essays:  Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke. Ellison wrote the essay in reply to Stanley Edgar Hyman, who had analyzed “negro culture” from the point of view of the trickster. Ellison takes up the challenge of the trickster, the masked man, but he refuses to allow the white and the black to play roles in a segregated story, even if the story is changed from one in which the black is deserving of enslavement to one in which the black is perpetual victim:
“And it is this which makes me question Hyman’s designation of the “smart man playing dumb” role as primarily Negro, if he means by “conflict situations” those in which racial pressure is uppermost. Actually it is a role which Negroes share with other Americans, and it might be more “Yankee” than anything else. It is a strategy common to the culture, and it is reinforced by our anti-intellectualism, by our tendency toward conformity and by the related desire of the individual to be left alone; often simply by the desire to put more money in the bank. But basically the strategy grows out of our awareness of the joke at the center of the American identity. Said a very dark Southern friend of mine in laughing reply to a white businessman who complained of his recalcitrance in a bargaining situation, “I know, you thought I was colored, didn’t you.” It is across this joke that Negro and white Americans regard one another. The white American has charged the Negro American with being without past or tradition (something which strikes the white man with a nameless horror), just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures, and the Negro knows that both were “mammy-made” right here at home. What’s more, each secretly believes that he alone knows what is valid in the American experience, and that the other knows he knows but will not admit it, and each suspects the other of being at bottom a phony.”
It is part of the dialectic that occurs between two ears to superimpose the serious on the ludicrous. It is part of the American anti-dialectical tradition to insist on separating the two, and to further insist that the two things are allergic to each other. I like Ellison’s way of substituting the “joke” for the “trick”, even if in the end I’m a trope-man, enamored of trick or treat – and actually thinking that the two are one. I am reminded of a man who visited the United States once - Ludwig Wittgenstein.   Norman Malcolm, the man he was visiting at the time of his American journey, wrote in his memoir of the LW: “Wittgenstein once said that a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

geneology of the worse, the better - a rerun

Judas, De Quincey and Lenin: on the worse, the better

The famous phrase, “the worse the better”, is often attributed to Lenin. Supposedly, this is Lenin’s addition to the black book of political strategy, and no doubt in Hell he is discussing it over chess with Old Nick Machiavelli himself.

As far as I can tell, however, the phrase appears in Lenin’s works as a quotation from Plekhanov. In Three Crises, writing in 1917, Lenin sets himself the task of analyzing the revolution thus far – after the fall of the Czar. He remarks that so far, the demonstration, as a political form, has accrued a peculiar importance. And he backs away from the situation to analyze it:

The last, and perhaps the most instructive, conclusion to be drawn from considering the events in their interconnection is that all three crises manifested some form of demonstration that is new in the history of our revolution, a demonstration of a more complicated type in which the movement proceeds in waves, a sudden drop following a rapid rise, revolution and counter-revolution becoming more acute, and the middle elements being eliminated for a more or less extensive period.
In all three crises, the movement took the form of a demonstration. An anti-government demonstration — that would be the most exact, formal description of events. But the fact of the matter is that it was not an ordinary demonstration; it was something considerably more than a demonstration, but less than a revolution. It was an outburst of revolution and counter-revolution together, a sharp, sometimes almost sudden elimination of the middle elements, while the proletarian and bourgeois elements made a stormy appearance.

Contrary to the view that Lenin advocated a strategy of the worse, the better, Lenin was remarking that this strategy was being played out in the Russian revolution. It was a product of the natural history of the revolution, so to speak. The middle elements saw it, precisely, as a strategy because the middle elements did not understand the mechanism of class warfare. Thus, the middle was continually projecting intentions upon the Bolsheviks and the reactionaries, as though both were creating class warfare – when, to Lenin’s mind, the relationship was quite the reverse – class warfare was creating the Bolsheviks and the reactionaries.

Both we and the Cadets were blamed for the April 20-21 movement — for intransigence, extremes, and for aggravating the situation. The Bolsheviks were even accused (absurd as it may be) of the firing on Nevsky. When the movement was over, however, those same S.R.s and Mensheviks, in their joint, official organ, Izvestia, wrote that the "popular movement" had "swept away the imperialists, Milyukov, etc.", i.e., they praised the movement!! Isn’t that typical? Doesn’t it show very clearly that the petty bourgeoisie do not understand the workings, the meaning, of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie?
The objective situation is this. The vast majority of the country’s population is petty-bourgeois by its living conditions and more so by its ideas. But big capital rules the country, primarily through banks and syndicates. There is an urban proletariat in this country, mature enough to go its own way, but not yet able to draw at once the majority of the semi-proletarians to its side. From this fundamental, class fact follows the inevitability of such crises as the three we are now examining, as well as their forms.

Let me admit that I, like Lenin, find class warfare to be operating here before either side becomes conscious of itself; the sides come into existence to express the warfare. However, once they come into existence, they quickly develop a semi-autonomy in which, of course, they try to dominate the field of possible political routines. This is why, even though they come into existence as the expression of class warfare, they remain in existence as the expression of political warfare.

But my interest here is really in that caught middle. That middle of paranoid dreamers. For, whatever the truth about Lenin’s real thoughts, the idea that Leninism follows a strategy of the worse, the better is a very attractive reading of Leninism from the middle viewpoint. I’d claim that it is a reading that precedes the Russian revolution. In fact, I’d like to claim that we can see the seed of the idea in an essay De Quincey wrote about Judas Iscariot.

This essay is best known through a reference to it in Borges’ ficciones. Borges explains De Quincey’s point briefly before moving on to the beautiful heresy of a Swede named Runeberg, who, contemplating the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, came to the conclusion that Judas was, in reality, the true god-man:

“God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible - all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.”

Runeberg’s theory is, in one sense, the final chapter, the logical conclusion of the middle’s paranoid dream. It is a dream that finds a Judas under every rock.

De Quincey, one of the world’s great dreamers, dreams of a Judas who looks much like the Lenin imago of all the Old Cold War boys. His Judas is one of Burke’s “theorizers” – the treasurer of the disciples, the shrewdest among this naïve group, but upon whom “had not yet dawned the true grandeur of the Christian scheme.”

Believing therefore as Judas did and perhaps had reason to do that Christ contemplated the establishment of a temporal kingdom -- the restoration in fact of David's throne; believing also that all the conditions towards the realisation of such a scheme met and centred in the person of Christ, what was it that upon any solution intelligible to Judas neutralised so grand a scheme of promise? Simply and obviously to a man with the views of Judas, it was the character of Christ himself, sublimely over gifted for purposes of speculation, but like Shakspere's great creation of Prince Hamlet not correspondingly endowed for the business of action and the clamorous emergencies of life. Indecision and doubt, such was the interpretation of Judas, crept over the faculties of the Divine Man as often as he was summoned away from his own natural Sabbath of heavenly contemplation to the gross necessities of action. It became important therefore according to the views adopted by Judas that his master should be precipitated into action by a force from without and thrown into the centre of some popular movement such as, once beginning to revolve, could not afterwards be suspended or checked. Christ must be compromised before doubts could have time to form. It is by no means improbable that this may have been the theory of Judas.

This outline of Judas’s relation to Christ sounds remarkably like the relationship of Pyotr Verkhovensky to Stavrogin. It also sounds like the kind of conspiratorial dream that entranced De Quincey, whose own dreams, massive opiate structures, seemed like conspiracies themselves, to whose inward meanings De Quincey had no privileged access, always the small man just outside the glass.

But to return to Lenin’s point, we should ask: why would De Quincey represent a middle that was being crushed? Wasn’t he living in the golden summer of equipoise, the Victorian age?

De Quincey wrote his essay in the Victorian age, but his sensibility, by his own account, was formed in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic age. Older than Hazlitt, he never gave himself to the revolutionary cause. He was a reactionary from the cradle – a romantic reactionary. It was not the Middle’s triumph that he saw, but the long twilight struggle with a growing, secretive mass of revolutionary societies that would do anything to undermine the middle. His politics were the precise correlate of his dreams, which were illuminated, from the inside, by symbols that seem to be stolen from the future.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

contra, reluctantly, david foster wallace

Geoff Dyer recently wrote an essay about how one has an allergic reaction to certain writers. Dyer’s allergy is to David Foster Wallace. Now, Dyer is by no means my favorite essayist; and it makes sense that a writer as encyclopedic as Wallace could repulse an essayist who once wrote about his “reader’s block” – his struggle with reading new material, aka books, which had come upon him counted myself in middle age. Myself, I have very fine memories of reading Infinite Jest lying in bed in New Haven one winter. I wanted the book to go on and on – and in that sense it was, for a long book, not long enough.
However, perhaps something in my tastes has shifted. I recently checked out Consider the Lobster, DFW’s essay collection, to dip into essays that I remembered as being the most hilarious and clever things ever – and I felt something different about them this time. I felt, well, that they were lazy and not so good.
This surprised me.
It was the first essay in the collection, Big Red Son, which is about the Las vegas adult movie awards, that I was beset with doubts.  I was stopped by the sixth paragraph:

“Though the sub-line vagaries of entertainment accounting are
legendary, it is universally acknowledged that the US adult-film
industry, at $35—41 billion in annual sales, rentals, cable charges,
and video-masturbation-booth revenues, is an even larger and
more efficient moneymaking machine than legitimate mainstream
American cinema (the latter’s annual gross commonly estimated at $22.5 billion). The US adult industry is centered in LA’s San Fer-
nando Valley, just over the mountains from Hollywood.1 Some
insiders like to refer to the adult industry as Hollywood‘s Evil Twin,
others as the mainstream’s Big Red Son.”

I was rather dumbstruck that I didn’t remember this, because one thing sticks out a mile, here: this is complete and utter bullshit. I mean, just on the surface, it smelled of cop statistics – the fearmongering exaggeration that one expects from cops announcing the latest drugbust. The universal acknowledgement here was DFW’s way, in an essay in which he employed the famous style of multiple notes, not to note one thing that should be noted.

Granted, at the time Big Red Son was written, the internet was not the automatic equalizer it has since become, but still, just being conscious of what he was seeing, he should have doubted the whole idea that the industry was making 45 billion a year.

So I did a little elementary research myself, to track down these bogus figures. Luckily, someone had been there before me: Dan Ackman, in an article published in Forbes in 2001. Ackman traces the ridiculous exagerations in the size of the porn industry through an ill researched article by Frank Rich in the NYT that estimated it at 10 billion to 14 billion per year through AVN – the industry that sponsored the very awards ceremony that DFW was reporting on – which claimed, again with no source, that the adult video industry grossed 4 billion dollars annually.

As Ackman, acting like someone who understood what references are all about, soon discovers, there are estimates of the porn industry, or aspects of it – which, contra the ‘universality” of DFW’s claim, diminish radically the size of the industry. I am not being  just a factchecking dick here: the very name of the article signifies one of DFW’s major points about the place of porn in America. It was a point too important to research. But Ackman easily cut through the bullshit of what is “universally acknowledged”:

“The 1998 Forrester report pegs the online adult content market at $750 million to $1 billion, which was an increase from its initial estimate of $150 million. When a study admits that its initial result was off by at least 80%, it’s hard to be confident in the new result. In any event, Tom Rhinelander, a Forrester research director, says they have given up trying to put a price on porn–either on the Internet or otherwise.

Ackman’s article is not a work of art, but it has its funny moments, which sort of squash the funny moments in Big red son:

“Its rival research outfit, Net Ratings , tracks the number of visitors to porn Web sites. It says that in April 2001, there were 22.9 million unique visitors to porn sites. This says nothing about how long each visitor stayed or whether they spent a dime. In any event, the number of visitors is less than the number who visited news sites (41.1 million), finance sites (34.2 million) or greeting card sites (25.5 million). When was the last time you heard anyone talk about how greeting card sites dominate the Net?

The gullibility  DFW  displays in this, one of his premier essays, is symptomatic of a certain blinding conservatism in his work. It’s the acceptance of the cop side of things. I won’t mention the hero worshipping essay about McCain’s run for the presidency in 2000 – in 2000, all of America was temporarily hallucinating. Still, to make a hero of a man whose job was to bomb civilians in North Vietnam and who, even then, was transparent about his mad warmongering personality, is too depressing for me to contemplate.

I couldn’t finish the collection, which I once read with true delight. This saddened me. I haven’t developed an allergy to DFW, but something in me, something provoked by the last decade, has shifted.