“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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Who wants yesterday’s papers, the Rolling stones sang a long time ago. Then they became yesterday’s papers. And so will all of us.  
However, I’m doubtful about this, as about all other nuggets of Mick Jagger’s wisdom. Myself, I find yesterday’s papers much more interesting than today’s.

One of the great things about the internet – or no, let me go to 11, here, mes amis – the greatest thing about the internet is that it makes archives so instantly available to us. The prestige of the archive is, in part, derived from the fact that it is inaccessible. Archives conjure up the secret police. In fact, after revolutionary acts – such as the storming of the Bastille – everybody wanted to get their hands on the files of the Parisian police. But it wasn’t until late in the 19th century that a scholar, Francois Ravaisson, put them in order.  And now they are available on Gallica and archives.org and one can read the testimony of a prostitute named Mlle. July about her whipping sessions with the philosopher Helvetius. 

Of course, this may or may not have been true.  To rely on what the police collect and put in an archive for a factual picture of the world is like relying on the astrology column for proof that the General theory of relativity is valid.
But it is interesting.

 Newspapers, with their tabloid flights and their bourgeois judgments, are also filled with interesting items that may be true, or may be false, or end up somewhere in the wasteland between. But their age gives them a certain interest, if you have that cast of mind, that reading today’s papers lack. Sure, if you want to know what President Dumbass said at his press conference yesterday, then go ahead and read today’s Times. Myself, I think what President Dumbass said at his press conference will be much more interesting fifty years from now. It will have the interest of a mystery. Time will lengthen it – how did such a person become president? This is not, really, a question the news will answer.  It can only pose it. The news can tell you about the weather, but it is not very good at telling you about the climate.

Murders, kidnappings, and high end robberies are very good news items to mull over as time goes by. The newspapers of the 20s and 30s were much more unbuckled about crimes – they were all on the tabloid trail. The front pages  Plus, it was an incredible era of crime.
And, not least, the journalistic trade had not yet been absorbed by the journalistic major. Rather, newsmen very often came up from the street. They came at their stories roughly – pretty much the way their readers read them. The front pages were blessedly short of thumbsucker pieces telling us the meaning of it all. Consequently, front pages tended to look like chocolate boxes full of horrors. This, for instance, is a list of the headlines on the front page of the Madera Tribune, a paper that served the Fresno region in California, for December 31, 1937:
CHINESE PLAN GREAT OFFENSE – Natives Flee from Tsingtao
BLASTS ECHO AS PROPERTY OF JAP RAZED – Vigilante Group Organizes to Prevent Lootings by Chinese
MYSTERY OF LITTLE BOAT TOLD POLICE – Adventurer who Sought to Turn Pirate is Blamed for Death of Two
LOYALISTS ARE TRUSTING FATE TO AMERICANS – Volunteer Battalions Are Rushed to Front Lines to Battle Rebels
Hollywood Celebrities Routed in Raid Exclusive Night Club
Navy Mail Plane Crashes Into Bay
This was a paper to come home to. This is what fascinated millions of eyeballs in the evening, after swatting the kids and going to the icebox for a cold one. I’ve instanced this particular paper because one of the stories – about the “Mystery of the Little Boat” – is about a crime that illustrates the hop, skip, jump way secret histories – like crazy jigsaw puzzles – can amass on the Web. The little boat was an “ill-fated yacht” named Aafje, which was owned by a wealthy Santa Barbara “sportsman”, Dwight L. Faulding. Faulding’s boat was chartered by a man named Jack Morgan, who came aboard with his pregnant, 17 year old wife and a nurse. Also aboard was a photographer who often sailed with Faulding and a guy named George Sternack, described as a “guest”. It turns out that Jack Morgan, having absorbed a number of gangster movies, had decided to make the Aafje into his pirate boat, and to that end he plugged Faulding and threw him into the sea, and terrorized the rest of the passengers.
“It had been Morgan's'plan, since he had no money, to steal his provisions at ports that he passed, or
take them by force as the occasion arose, federal men believed. Apparently he was making foi some south sea island where his wife could give birth to their child with the nurse in attendance.”

Morgan’s plan ended abruptly with Morgan, when Horne and Sernack snuck up behind him and one of them bashed in his head with a marlin spike. Then they threw his body in the drink, and sewed an SOS message to their sails. They drifted and starved, until the SOS was spotted by a plane and the coast card cruiser, Perseus, took them in tow.

The Aafje is an interesting craft to track. I am not the only pursuer, here – others have been on the trail, due to the yacht’s later association with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Some information I have gathered comes from websites devoted to that LSD cult.

After the Faulding murder, the yacht was up for sale. Errol Flynn announced he was buying it, on account of the story of Crazy Jack Morgan. But apparently he did not. Instead, it ended up in the hands of Bob and Evelyn Gaylord, who made a troubled voyage in it in the early sixties. Going from Hawaii to California, they were blown wildly off course and ended up near the Aleutian islands, from whence they limped down the West Coast and docked in San Francisco. The boat was sold at some point to a man named Travis Ashbrook, and here it again enters the annals of crime. Travis Ashbrook was a famous surfer; he was also a famous head. Many of the star surfers on the West Coast were attracted to drugs and selling drugs, and, in true sixties fashion, they formed a drug commune that they named The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Ashbrook was an adventurer. He went to Afghanistan in the mid sixties and came back with a load of hashish to die for. Many eventually did. It was the beginning of the Hippie road through Central and Southeast Asia.

In the late sixties, early seventies, Ashbrook bought the Aafje. In Orange Sunshine, Nicholas Shou’s books about the Brotherhood, it is stated that Ashbrook knew about Crazy Jack Morgan, which was one of the attractions of the boat. However, Ashbrook didn’t quite get the point of the story: don’t try to navigate a boat in the Pacific if you don’t know how to navigate a boat. The crew that Ashbrook put together – mostly ex surfers and heads - got lost, along with its tons of Sinaloa marijuana, for weeks on its maiden voyage out of Manzanilla. It finally did, however, make it to Maui, and from the seeds that they brought, they started growing ever more powerful Hawaiian pot – Maui Wowee, famous in song and old codgers’ stories.

Such is only one story, culled by chance from yesterday’s papers. The intersection of the newspaper and the internet, of the ambiguous collection of fact and scoop and the millions of witnesses testifying in blogs and listservs endless has not really been explored, or even scoped out, yet. It is a new form of archive. I don’t even have a name for it. Neo-antiquitarianism?

Monday, October 16, 2017

a prick in the prick system

When O. was president, I often wrote bitterly critical things about what his administration was doing and what was happening in America. But to use the metaphore du jour, I was not entirely woke.

 Trump is a wake up machine. He is, as well, an outgrowth of processes that have been at work in the U.S. since well before the age of Reagan. I think of these processes as the counter-civil rights revolution, not dissimilar to the inertial backwardness that allowed the Jim Crow system to spring up after the Civil War. That took a hundred years to dissolve. Do we have that much time left?

One of the areas where the counter-revolution has succeeded in driving us “back” not to the 1920s, but to, oh, the 15th century under Henry 8, is in the court system.

If Amnesty International weren’t a puppet of the U.S. and the E.U., it would have to mark down the court system in the U.S. as something akin to the court system in Uzbekistan.

Currently, the vast vast majority of criminal cases are never brought to jury trial. There’s a simple reason for this. Although Americans have a formal right to a trial, in reality, that right is abrogated by the threat, which is entirely legal, that maintaining that right will add years to your sentence. We’ve watched prosecutors do this, and judges approve it, without ever questioning it. When your “right” to a trial is loaded down with such vicious punitive consequences, and the prosecution has financial resources far outstripping those of most defendents, what you have is a kangaroo court.

Kangaroo courts depend, lopsidedly, on the vulnerability of the defendents. Thus, when the defendant isn’t vulnerable, when the defendant has money, the system rolls over. The disgusting stuff about Cy Vance, who let Harvey Weinstein pass but whose office routinely jails thousands of poorer offenders for lesser offences, has popped up in the news like some chancre. TheNYT prides itself on covering this, but in fact, the NYT should have shameshame shame for never revealing the way the prosecutor’s office works untilthey have celebrity meat in their mouth. 

You can read the story for its appalling sexism. Or you can also read it as a blueprint for the impunity culture that is the direct result of losing our justice system. It is, in fact, a natural result. The justice system, without justice, becomes a tool of predation. What happened, or didn’t happen, with Weinstein, should be paired with what we know happened, and happens, on a daily basis in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police and the courts essentially mafia the population, and turn working class indigence into lifetimes of misery, one by one, hundred by hundred, thousand by thousand.

“Mr. Weinstein, meanwhile, appeared determined to stay as far away from court as possible. He denied any wrongdoing and quickly retained Elkan Abramowitz, a former law partner of Mr. Vance, as well as Daniel S. Connolly, another former prosecutor turned white-collar defense lawyer.

Linda Fairstein, a former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor who had once written an article in Vanity Fair about her dream of doing a movie deal with Mr. Weinstein, agreed to consult. She was a close friend of Martha Bashford, head of the district attorney’s sex crimes bureau, and facilitated an introduction for Mr. Abramowitz. It was, she said, the type of thing she does for fellow lawyers. “Calling Ms. Bashford to tell her who Elkan was and to ask her to consider meeting with him is the kind of thing I do four to six times every year,” said Ms. Fairstein, who said she had determined Ms. Battilana’s complaint was unfounded. Ms. Bashford declined a request for an interview.”

This is utterly unsurprising. We’ve heard from Weinstein’s victims mostly because they are stars. I think there are probably non-stars – maids, secretaries, etc. – who also have stories, but we will never hear from them.

Cy Vance, Jr. is egregious. When Bill Clinton and Donald Trump’s friend, billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, was sent to prison for basically pimping and raping under-age girls. This was in Florida. He’s operated with impunity for years. If his earnings had been those of your standard pimp’s, he’d be inprison for thirty some years. Since he was a billionaire, he served 13 monthsin a Palm Beach jail. However, he was labelled a sex offender. 

 This is the kind of thing that happens to small fry. So when he got out and moved back to Florida, he petitioned not to be labelled a sex offender.

At a sex offender registration hearing in 2011, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Gaffney shocked a Manhattan judge by recommending that Epstein be classified as a Level One offender — the lowest on the sex fiend scale.

“I have to tell you I am a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” Justice Ruth Pickholz said, according to records. “I have done many (sex offender registration hearings) much less troubling than this one where the (prosecutor) would never make a downward argument like this.”

Gaffney justified asking for the lower level because Florida federal officials had allowed Epstein to plead guilty to just one count — even though Palm Beach police said there were multiple victims.”

Vance’s office changed their tune when the spotlight was played on this particular quid pro quo-bee. The judge made him a class three offender – which, astonishingly, Vance’s department appealed.
It’s Manhattan, Jake. Cy Vance’s job title should be reconstituted. Maybe District Attorney for the Successful. If you are rich, Cy's by your side. 

But though the man is obviously a prick, he’s a prick in a prick system. One that was given away in my lifetime.

Hard to explain this to the future.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

distance effects

I don’t believe that conservatives or Trumpkins suffer, for the most part, from some empathy disorder. There's a discussion of  Corey Robin's book up at Crooked Timber in which there are many mentions, among the commentariat, that the Right is just a mass of moral failure, built on a deeper emotional deficiency. I don't think this is true, or, more to the point, that there is any evidence for it. 

So what makes for the visible lack of empathy among conservative groups for certain groups?  I would look for the way empathy gets into our social action more than for how our neurons work, here. A neural interpretation of ideology might seem real scientific, but it is no more scientific than, say, an atomic view of ideology. It is reductionism in a void - the void being our vast, vast ignorance about how evidence of our neural processes actually work on the higher level of personal and social interaction. Instead, we read backwards, from those interactions to the neural maps. What seems like science is actually slight of hand - the kind of thing that impresses New York Times op ed editors.  

I'd propose, more modestly, that there is a difference in the way distance is interpreted. There’s a famous essay by Carlos Ginzburg, Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance, in which he explores the background to a famous scene in Pere Goriot – the one in which Vautrin proposes (in a sort of colonialist koan} to Rastignac the following thought experiment. http://elplandehiram.org/documentos/JoustingNYC/Mandarin_Distance.pdf Ginzburg If you could gain a fortune just by wishing the death (a wish that would be effective) of a Chinese mandarin half way around the world, would you do it? The point is that distance – and the way we make distances, geographically, ethnically, economically, sexually, etc. – has a global effect on our moral sentiments. I would say that the distance making in the Trumpian era of conservatism is going back to an earlier form of it, at least in the U.S., which last became this virulent after WWI. 

Interestingly, the symbol that Trump wrapped his campaign around is the “wall”, this mythical distance fixer that would forever separate white “authentic” America from Mexico (the brown mixed America, I guess).

It isn’t as if liberal culture doesn’t deal in distance as well. When HRC (and I voted for her, in spite of this) ran as a vaguely feminist politician, she never spoke at all about why, then, she would have ended her days in the state department signing off on appallingly large arm sales to the Saudis. Imagine a politician in the 80s running as a civil rights candidate and at the same time offering major support for the Apartheid South African state. But I think this was another case of distance – both geographical and cultural – that simply excluded Saudi women from the moral consideration that one would give American women.

I’m not sure anybody is a master of the moral distances we exist among. I’m not. So I am not saying I understand how to counter distance effects. I’m just saying that they have to be read into the narrative of our political ideologies in order to understand them.

Monday, October 09, 2017

a free woman

Hugh Kenner defined the stoic attitude in terms that the historian of Greek philosophy might dispute, or at least modify, but that I find definitionally elegant: “the stoic is one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed.”  
It strikes me that I can discern a sort of feminist stoic style in the work of certain twentieth century artists: Christina Stead, Nina Berberova, and Elizabeth Hardwick come to mind. They are feminist in having a strong self-consciousness of themselves as women, and, more extensively, of having an idea of the destinies allotted to women in societies filled with destructive male power; they are stoic, however, in having a certain dryness of perception with regard to the sentimental education by which female collaboration is extracted.  In other words, they, too often for some tastes, sacrifice the bonds of solidarity to the distance required by intelligence. Sometimes this distance asserts itself by denying any feminism at all, as happens in the case of Christina Stead.  
I’ve been reading Nina Berberova’s great autobiography, The italics are mine – the French translation is, I do the underlining – and thinking how tough this woman was. Here  literary career, as far as the metropoles of publishing are concerned, occurred when she was eighty, when her stories and novellas and autobiography came out.
She lived the life of a “free woman”, in Doris Lessing’s phrase. There’s a subtle tonal shift from liberated woman – for to be liberated is to be the subject of emancipation, to be freed – to undergo that passive tense – while Berberova, and Lessing, thought of themselves as existing outside of that passive tense. They were in privileged positions – but the privilege was internal. Certainly that was the case with Berberova, who endured starvation in Soviet Russia, and crushing poverty in Paris, and the Nazi occupation, all without questioning her joy in energy, her own energy.
I’m going to write about her again.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

a visit to the Musee de l'homme

It looked like Adam would like La Musee de l’homme.

Adam likes mummies. He horrified some of his classmates in room 5 in Santa Monica by bringing a book about “buried treasure” to share day that had a chapter on Pompeii with photographs of various lava encrusted victims – a dog, a child, three people. As well, this book had pictures of mummies excavated from a site in South Egypt, in the desert. It was quickly decided among Adam and his friends that mummification follows lack of water.  Dehydration, variously pronounced.
So in Paris, we went to the Egyptian section of the Louvre and Adam saw his first real live mummy. Adam knows that mummy’s are dead. He knows that they are only alive in cartoons and movies that “aren’t real.” However, he knows this fact like an uncertain atheist knows that God is dead. It is a fact that could spring a leak. This makes mummies all the more fascinating.
When we looked on the site for the Museum of Mankind, it bragged that the Museum held more than sixty mummies. It had pictures. Leathery bodies. Leathery faces in that decayed agony, toothless mouths gaping, hands up, as though in a scream, that Adam finds scary and interesting. It is partly bluff, Adam’s way of not “being a baby”. Baby has becomes, somewhere, an insult. This makes me sad, and I reason with him, but there’s no reasoning a boy on the brink of five out of the supposed insult of acting younger than he is.
We got on the bus at Hotel de Ville, and we went to the back so that we could all three sit, and Adam could look at the various buildings rushing by in the October gloom. There’s the Louvre. There’s the obelisk. See the tower? The Eiffel tower he immediately recognizes. It was a flattening day, though, and everything looked smaller and meaner. Until we got off at Trocadero and the Eiffel tower decided to stretch up, up, before our eyes. Up, then, to the Musee, with A. and I thinking, a crepe would be nice right now.
I liked the Museum as soon as we entered the main exhibition space. There was a satisfactory number of skulls – even a superfluity of them. The skulls of chimpanzees. The skulls of Neandrathals. The skull ladder that leads up to Homo Sapiens. I’ve read enough Stephen Gould to know that the ladder image is wrong, but the Museum of Mankind, with its beginnings in the 19th century, hasn’t quite shaken that off. The mummies on the ground were few – but the one on display had also been on display in Adam’s book of mummies. It was disinterred in Peru and shipped here who knows how many years ago. The hands, with long fingers, cradle the face, as though in woe. We, with our living skeletons, bring the memento mori to the skeletons, and to this gray remains of a face. Who really know if the mummy’s owner really did die in horror – in some scene of sacrifice of the kind conjured up by century’s of orientalism.
We went through the first and second floor, marveling, Adam coursing ahead of us like an unleashed dog, on the trail of the next skeleton, the next fossil. As the broad humanid sweep narrows to modern times, one can’t help feeling some decrease in the grandeur of it all. Electricity and plastic may be nice, but they are exhibited, here, as parts of the way human being change their environment. And that change seems, well, trivializing, as compared to cave paintings and mysterious migrations.
Then we ate, with the Tower bulging outside the window. It was good! Tart, sandwhich, salad. Cheap for museum grub. Then we paused, A. and I. The feeling of having walked a long way, although we really hadn’t.

On the way out, we bought things for Adam, including a kit we later regretted, which consisted of a sandy ball in which some shark teeth were embedded. To get them out, you had to file away on the ball. This morning, we are still finding sandy dust around the apartment. Plus, two supposed shark teeth float in the glass we usually use for rinsing in the bathroom.   

Thursday, October 05, 2017

reflections on killing

The rhetoric around killing is always full of euphemisms. Soldiers, in the euphemistic parlance, “protect us”. Drone bombings “target terrorists”. If you crash two jets into the World Center, you’ve committed a massive act of “terrorism”, and if you carelessly evacuate Fallujah and go street by street wiping out armed insurgents, you have “pacified” it.
All involve dancing around putting holes in human beings, burning them alive, crushing their vertebrae, smashing their internal organs, chopping off their limbs, and otherwise butchering them with less surgical precision than is brought, normally, to the butchering of a calf for veal.
So the struggle to define what Stephan Paddock did goes on without questioning the dressing we put around butchery. Nobody wants to say that any nation that bombs another nation in a display of “Shock and Awe” is definitely and explicitly engaging in terrorism. Or that terrorism is the logical, pathological effect of any attempt to sheer off parts of a human being, perforate them, explode them, boil them, incinerate them, poison them, and otherwise operate on what we know about human pain centers.
This has long been noticed by the best observers. When the King of Italy was assassinated by anarchists in the 1890s, Tolstoy wrote a level headed little essay about the moral condemnation allotted to the assassin and withheld from the King, and all the rulers of Europe, and of the U.S., when they directed mass murder as public policy.
Here’s Tolstoy: “When Kings are executed after trial, as in the case of Charles L, Louis XVI., and Maximilian of Mexico; or when they are killed in Court conspiracies, like. Peter Ill., Paul, and various Sultans, Shahs, and Khans-little is said about it; but when they are killed without a trial and without a Court conspiracy- as in the case of Henry IV. of France, Alexander ll., the Empress of Austria, the late Shah of Persia, and, recently, Humbert- such murders excite the greatest surprise and indignation among Kings and Emperors and their adherents, just as if they themselves never took part in murders, nor profited by them, nor instigated them. But, in fact, the mildest of the murdered Kings (Alexander 11. or Humbert, for instance), not to speak of executions in their own countries, were instigators of, and accomplices and partakers in, the murder of tens of thousands of men who perished on the field of battle ; while more cruel Kings and Emperors have been guilty of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of murders.” 
The cut rate go to guy for cutting through the bullshit in modern times has been Orwell – but Orwell’s truth speaking pulls up well short of Tolstoy’s. In fact, one of Orwell’s most interesting essays is about the problem of Tolstoy. But that would take us too far afield.
One thing that was different about Tolstoy’s time was that the technology of murder – beautiful beautiful weapons – and the aesthetics of representation had not merged quite so much. Theater in the nineteenth century was operating at the same time as the quantum leaps in weaponry, but theater did not fall in love with it. It did not feature the Gatling gun. It did not feature the bomb.
Cinema, though, from early on, embraced the weapon as its coeval. There was, perhaps, a recognition that montage and the firing of the machine gun shared a certain sequential form. The bullet was the movies in their most concentrated form. Or at least this is true of certain cinemas – mainly, the American one. From the Tommy guns of the gangster to the truckload of weaponry hoisted about in Arnold Schwarzenegger films, the art of killing has been filmed with undeniable love. Love’s a very powerful thing – according to Lucretius, it is love, not free will, that moves the nations and keeps the universe going. And that love has been absorbed by the populace it was aimed at – mainly masculine, mainly primed, by thousands of suggestions and hints, for violence. And yet, that love didn’t spill over, until the seventies, into weapon sales. In Hong Kong films, where the sequence of pistol, shot, and perforated human body is equally prominent, the “civilian” audience did not take the cue that this was a form of product placement. Not only does Hong Kong have an extraordinarily low homicide rate, which has kept falling even as the violence in HK films went ballistic, but it kept falling after the abolition of capital punishment. Criminologists (who do not recognize, normally, capital punishment as murder – Tolstoy would disagree) often compare Singapore, which has the highest capital punishment rate in the world, with Hong Kong, due to the similarity of their city-nation statuses. Both experienced huge drops in the murder rate in the 90s.
So, too, did the U.S. The difference is, of course, that the U.S. has always had a much higher murder rate than any of its peers. And it still does.
So: why is it that the beauty of weaponry has such a hold on the American heart that we try the weapons out on each other? I don’t have a clue about that. Like the motives for Stephen Paddock’s mass murder, the threads lead, I guess, to everything we hold to be normal – the work defined life, the grim trudging after money purely for the sake of money, the emptiness. Some answer floats there, I think. But this might be a jaundiced view.

Monday, October 02, 2017

We can make mass killings a win-win

Yes, as people from other cultures often say, Americans lack a reverence for life. The mass killing incidents prove it. 8 there in Fort Worth, 49 there in Orlando, 59 and counting in Vegas - on and on and on and on.
But what nobody can deny is that Americans have a sense of fun!
This is why we need to make these mass killing incidents more like the holidays they are.
What I'm proposing is that the NRA, in conjunction with the GOP and maybe Hallmark, come up with the appropriate card for Mass Killing day. Which definitely comes more than once a year! With the line, obviously, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to ...." It will be your city or township soon, don't worry!
Also popular would be, say, "it is too soon to politicize a human tragedy!" GOP politicos would be a big market for a card like that.
But the cards only handle a part of the mass killing event. How about a mascot?
What makes Christmas Christmas? Santa Claus. And what makes it better than Easter? Christmas has a more exciting mascot.
Which means that the mass killing mascot - Sparky is a good name - should be something we can identify with. I'm thinking a skunk with a machine gun. A cute skunk! The mascot, if it catches on, would be just the thing to explain the mass killing holiday to kids, who might otherwise think that their American parents are psychotic and evil for tolerating and encouraging mass killings with mass weaponry. Kids have fears, doctors say. Like the fear of being in a public place, like an elementary school, and being gunned down by someone with legally aquired semi-automatic rifles. But that only happens every once in a while!
So, if we can't make banning semi-automatic and automatic weapons into a reality - and we really really can't! - let's make it more fun.
Now all rise as I play the star spangled banner, please.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

notes on the wheelbarrow


In my family, since time immemorial – which I date back to my fourth year, when I became vaguely conscious of the world – there was always a wheelbarrow. This was because, back then, my dad was a carpenter, or rather housebuilder – he not only did the framing but poured the foundation and did the wiring and put on the roof, etc. – and a wheelbarrow was an essential tool of the trade. Even when he stopped being a carpenter, he kept a wheelbarrow handy for household tasks, or for planting, etc. This meant that a wheelbarrow was always propped up somewhere around the house – in the garage, in a storage hut or greenhouse, under the porch.
There were different wheelbarrows, but the one I remember best was painted a deep blue. It had a pleasing number of dints in the metal part of it. I have nice memories of Dad mixing concrete in this wheelbarrow. The bags would be compact, and yellow, with a string along the top that you could tug to open it. But mostly what you did was plop the bag in the wheelbarrow, and, using a sharp pointed shovel, rip open the belly of the bag. The metal of the shovel would make a nice crunching sound going through the paper and into the dry concrete mix, and a little gray cloud would float up. Then  you’d pull away the sacking and you’d put another bag in, and another, until you had enough, at which point you’d take a hose and add water. Stirring the mixture into concrete was done with the shovel too. As the consistency of the thing approached what you wanted, you would be able to cut pancakes of the concrete from the whole mix and flapjack them one on the other. Finally the mix would be right, and you’d unsteadily lift up on the handles and trot the wheelbarrow to where it was needed.
So I do understand, to an extent, what depends on a wheelbarrow, as per WCW:

so much depends 

a red wheel 

glazed with rain 

beside the white 

For instance, I know that Dad wouldn’t allow the wheelbarrow to just stand out there in the rain, nor would anyone who had to use wheelbarrows daily. That is because the rain would rust the metal of it, and probably be bad for the wooden handles as well. At the very least, you’d put sheeting over the wheelbarrow.

On the other hand, I’m no carpenter. I’d be as apt as any drunken Jersey chicken farmer to leave the wheelbarrow out in the rain. It is one of my major sins, which is not counted in the Bible, a book too much concerned with idols and not with objects – this neglectful attitude towards the thins of the world, this existential sloppiness.  I’m just the kind of guy who’d let his chickens shit in the wheelbarrow as it rusts. That’s no good. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

There is no free trade. But there is a free lunch.

Along the lines of "let no crisis go to waste", the neo-libs are attacking the Jones act, which protects American shipping, as the enemy no. one that has sunk Puerto Rico. Lefties who are "anti-trade" are of course assistants to the undertakers of Puerto Rico. 
This discovery has the additional hedonistic weight that it makes neo-libs the champions of people of color, and the lefties the opponents. 
Now being one of those "anti-trade" lefties, I have to ask myself what I think about the Jones act, of which I was not aware until a week ago. And my response is: the Jones act is suspended in emergencies. And the whole basis of the "anti-trade" lefty opinion is that economic policy should respond to place and circumstances instead of to economic "laws" laid down in Econ 101 books. Ceteris paribus is the equivalent to: how things really are. 

It is interesting that neo-libs have adopted "free trade" as their slogan, and regional trade pacts as their real policy. Thus, discussions of Nafta or the TPP are caught up in the discourse of free trade, when they are exactly the opposite of classical free trade, privileging nation partners. I guess "regional trade pact" sounds a little too much like Warsaw Pact or Axis to make a good slogan.

Freedom has an interesting connotative weight in the popular discourse of economics. If you go to a blog site about economics, you will find that any long comment thread will eventually reveal to you the amazing truth that there "is no free lunch." This old chestnut was often used by Milton Friedman to explain why the government can't do things. On the other hand, everything "free trade" is wonderful. 

Myself, I think Friedman and his ilk got it backasswards. In fact, not only are there free lunches, but all those full faced white econ professors profited enormously from them when they went from their nappies to the first year in college. Yes, Virginia, there is a free lunch. As for free trade, it is far from free - its costs to laborers, and ultimately to society itself (including consumers) as it eats away at the industrial and technical base, is enormous. What it gives to consumers, that lovely group, is conditioned on where those consumers live and what the state of the economy is at that time. Chinese consumers have long "suffered' from the tariffs the Chinese put on foreign goods, and what have they got in exchange? An economy that has grown faster than any economy in history. Poor guys!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

What effect do economists have on the economy

A little Sunday reading from the Archives

We can easily imagine DNA replicating itself without molecular biologists, and the planets revolving around the sun without astronomers. But can we imagine capitalism without economists?

On the one hand, we are always identifying proto-forms of capitalism without contemporaries making a formal theory of it. On the other hand, would the kind of capitalism we know, that which appears in the 17th and 18th century in Europe and America, have developed as it did without the appearance, at the same time, of the political economists? And as political economists developed their discourse – as economics began to regard itself as a science – was capitalism merely a parallel development, one that they studied, or was it a development in which they played a role?

Marx, in the Grundrisse, working in the shadow of the disputes in Germany about theory and ‘materialism’, wrote:

daß die einfachre Kategorie herrschende Verhältnisse eines unentwickeltern Ganzen oder untergeordnete Verhältnisse eines entwickeltem Ganzen ausdrücken kann, die historisch schon Existenz hatten, eh das Ganze sich nach der Seite entwickelte, die in einer konkretem Kategorie ausgedrückt ist. Insofern entspräche der Gang des abstrakten Denkens, das vom Einfachsten zum Kombinierten aufsteigt, dem wirk||16|lichen historischen Prozeß…

“…the simpler categories can express the dominant relationships of an undeveloped whole or the subordinate relationships of a developed whole, which historically already exists, before the whole has developed towards the side that is expressed in a concrete category. Just in so far may the course of abstract thought, which ascends from the simplest to the combined, be correspondent to the real historical process.” – Marx, Grundrisse

I take it that the intellectual space, here, is opened up by the uncertain position of the ‘categories’ by which social life is understood vis-à-vis the dominant relationships of the social whole. Marx doesn’t seem to believe that there is a natural tendency within the social whole to move in a given direction – in this way, he does not have a classically liberal view of progress – but instead, given the presence of subordinate and dominate relationships, posits conflicts in which some agent figures.

Boldly, I take the concrete categories to be expressed in character-making. Or as all the boys and girls like to say now, in the construction of the subject. However, for reasons that have to do with my incorrigibly literary temperament, I prefer the vocabulary of the character to the subject.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

on the pattern of moderate vs. extremist

There is a pattern in American culture, a dialectic between “moderation” and “extremism”,  that repeats itself in many unexpected areas. At the moment, the Democratic party is sponsoring, or involuntarily becoming, a ground for the debate between how far our political demands should go, once we have decided to call ourselves “progressives”. The terms of this debate are similar to the debate about African-American politics that was staged long ago by W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. In a long essay about Dubois that appeared in 2011 in the NYRB, Kwame Anthony Appiah provided a useful corrective to the idea that we can straightforwardly identify extremes -as for instance using Dubois as a marker of the most extreme position regarding African-American politics. In fact, Dubois represented a more moderate idea of the American “promise” than Frederick Douglas:

“The third of Du Bois’s core ideas is a claim about what the main political issue was that faced black America. Du Bois believed for much of his life, according to Gooding-Williams [author of In the Shadow of Dubois], that it was the social exclusion of African-Americans. And he thought that there was work to be done by both blacks and whites on this “Negro problem,” since, Gooding-Williams writes, “in his view, the problem had two causes. The first was racial prejudice. The second was the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.

There is a very different vision of the Negro problem, which Gooding-Williams [ finds sketched out in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In this account, the problem is not black exclusion but white supremacy. The young Du Bois saw the social exclusion of the Negro as an anomalous betrayal of the basic ideals of the American republic; Douglass, more radically, regarded the oppression of black people as a “central and defining feature” of American life, as part of all its major institutions. And oppression, for him, is not about exclusion but about domination. It means keeping blacks not out but down. The solution then can’t be mere integration, the end of exclusion; rather, it requires the reimagination of American citizenship as a citizenship of racial equals, or what Gooding-Williams approvingly calls a “revolutionary refounding of the American polity.”

It is a good idea to keep the debate about the whole program of creating a progressive America – or more bluntly, a democratic socialist one – aligned with these past debates, since they break up the semantic blocks that tend to become routine assumptions when the debaters break out the plates and hurl them at each others heads. Obama was more often compared to Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Dubois, but there is more of Dubois in his policies, or non-policies, than seems obvious at first glance.

Appiah, following Gooding-Williams, sees the influence of the German school of sociology on Dubois, and, especially, on the idea of Souls of Black Folks, where that collective soul is the equivalent of a Herderian Geist. He doesn’t mention Herder’s most famous, or at least influential, follower in the U.S. – Boas. The Boas who encouraged Zona Hurston to collect folk tales and the Mexican revolutionaries to establish museums of anthropology. Geist is in question when we replay, endlessly, the notion of identity vs. class, with the latter representing the social mechanism that creates a culture out of material interest, and the former being the bodily and cultural mechanism that produces mass mimicry, with all its parts: role models, the importance of entertainment as a vector of social transformation, etc.

Dubois was, as Appiah notes, ideally democratic, considering that the governed have a perfect right and responsibility to speak out to the governors; but he was also a proponent of the talented tenth, seeing the other 9/10s as poor, ill educated, ill informed, etc. This is a surprisingly common characteristic not only of the right, but of the left – hence the moral panic about false news, with its implication that the establishment media only engages in fact based reporting as opposed to fringe groups that trade around absurd stories of HRC connected pizza parlor pedophile gangs. In this opposition we simply forget the absurd stories, traded as truth, about Iraq having loads of WMD that the NYT and the WAPO were content to trade in as Bush took us to war. We forget the idiocy of the media during the course of that war, and before – as for instance in the idea that only black proles would believe that the CIA collaborated with drug dealers as it was high mindedly overthrowing democracies we didn’t like in Central America, and the like.
No, it is all the ignorant unwashed.
I’ve not gone into the substance of the struggle for the “soul” of the Democratic party, since what I want to point out is the form. Read Appiah’s essay if you can get ahold of it. It’s here. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/12/22/battling-du-bois/

Monday, September 18, 2017

global climate of opinion change at the NYT

I like the way that the NYT, which in the 90s was in the forefront of news making about global climate change, is now, in the era of Trump, taking the pulse of giant hurricanes and assuring us that the verdict is open as to whether this has anything to do with, what was it? oh yeah, global climate change. And with a change denialist earning a pretty penny from the NYT opinion page - Brett Stephens - they are all lined up to sing in the "moderate" GOP chorus. Sweet.

Why can't we all just get along is the new NYT motto.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Boundaries in play and sentences

Social boundaries originate in two ways: either they are imposed, and thus are handed down from a higher level, or they emerge in an activity among actors, which requires at least tacit agreement. Roger Caillois, in Games and Human Beings, claims that the natural history of the latter kind of boundary goes back to animals. For instance, although animals do not engage fully in games of agon – competitive games – there is, in animal play, a sort of foreshadowing: “The most eloquent case is without a doubt that of those so called fighting wild peacocks. They choose “a field of battle that is a little elevated,” according to Karl Groos, “always a little humid and covered with a grassy stubble, of about a meter, a meter and a half in diameter.’ Males assemble there on a daily basis. The first that arrives awaits an adversary, and when another comes, the fight begins. The champions tremble, and they bow their heads under the incidence of blows. Their feathers stick up. They charge at each other, leading with their beaks, and strike. But never does the fight or the flight of one before the other go outside of the space delimited for these tournaments. This is why, for me, it seems legitimate here, and with regard to other examples, to use the word agon, since it is clear that the point of the event is not for each antagonist to cause real damage to the other, but to demonstrate his own superiority.”
Caillois, here, assumes that the boundary gives a total meaning to the happening. Though serious injury could happen, this isn’t the purpose of the fight – which is why the fight doesn’t go beyond the boundaries of the field. But at no point do the peacocks assemble and point to the limits of the field.
This distinction between boundaries seems pertinent to writing. When you are writing a chapter, you can – because of an order by an editor, or because this is how you work – confine it to a certain number of words. This is supposedly how romance novels are assembled by Harlequin books. However, literature takes over, so to speak, when the boundary emerges from the text itself. In fact, the same thing can be said for other components of the text – the paragraph, the sentence. There is a sentential sublime – there are writers whose sentences, by going beyond the boundaries imposed by convention, seem to be out for a thrill ride. Most thrill riders crash, of course. And the sentence can go beyond, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s one sentence Autumn of the Patriarch, merely by kicking out the stops. Joyce is the master of this kind of thing. But there is another thrillriding sentence that seems, by setting new boundaries, to have divided up the referential world differently. Pynchon does this in Gravity’s Rainbow, and you are either immediately drawn to it as a moth to a flame and spend years trying to exorcise the influence, or you hate it.
Here's a graph from the sequence in which Roger Mexico and Pointsman hunt a stray dog for the laboratory that Pointsman has set up on Pavlov’s model: “The V bomb whose mutilation he was prowling took down four dwellings the other day, four exactly, neat as surgery. There is the soft smell of house-wood down before its time, of ashes matted down by the rain. Ropes are strung, a sentry lounges silent against the doorway of an intact house next to where the rubble begins. If he and the doctor have chatted at all, neither gives a sign now. Jessica sees two eyes of no particular color glaring out the window of a Balaclava helmet, and is reminded of a mediaeval knight wearing a casque. What creature is he possibly here tonight to fight for his king? The rubble waits him, sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an openwork of laths pointlessly chevroning—flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman’s long-gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness. Back in the wreckage a brass bedpost winks; and twined there someone’s brassiere, a white, prewar confection of lace and satin, simply left tangled… . For an instant, in a vertigo she can’t control, all the pity laid up in her heart flies to it, as it would to a small animal stranded and forgotten. Roger has the boot of the car open. The two men are rummaging, coming up with large canvas sack, flask of ether, net, dog whistle. She knows she must not cry: that the vague eyes in the knitted window won’t seek their Beast any more earnestly for her tears. But the poor lost flimsy thing… waiting in the night and rain for its owner, for its room to reassemble round it…”
These sentences go backwards and forwards and cross a lot of consciousnesses, and in the process seem to violate the way sentences are supposed to be compact units expressing some identifiable relationship of author to material, good little units lined up like desks in a class, obeying the rules of Gricean implicature, easily attached to their pronouncers. Owned. But here the ties of ownership, of pertinence, are looser, and seem to wave in some wind from a source that is, well, history’s own, or the paranoid simulacrum of it. There is a drift here in the sentences, something different (but heralded) than the corporate round of consciousness visiting in, say, To the Lighthouse - that table scene! Even that enrages a certain kind fo Great Tradition reader. And it is cert not all right at all for those more comfortable in the Gricean chains, and the cultural order that pounded into place a written grammar of English since the advent of the printing press. The printing press, though, is defunct, as we all know, secretly, screen to screen, and the grammar and agreed upon territory of all the textual units is up for grabs.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Benjamin - at the crossroads of magic and positivism

It is an interesting exercise to apply the method of the theorists to themselves. For instance, Walter Benjamin, who was critiqued by Adorno for developing, in his later years, a method that was at the crossroads of magic and positivism – the power of inferential juxtaposition, learned from the surrealists, and the method of dialectical materialism, learned from … well, kinda Marx, more probably Eduard Fuchs.

I myself like that idea – Adorno’s scorn for magic is part of the package of his own positivism. It is a high calling – methods are high callings, ideals – and Benjamin’s Arcades project, in its final state of gigantic ruin, shows how hard it is to follow.

I’ve been reading some of the fragments contained in volume 6 of the GW, and it is an interesting, rather vertiginous experience, as is any experience in which one finds oneself continually stumbling, continually knocking against the cracks. For instance, the fragment entitle On Marriage, which begins with a wonderful juxtaposition of the mythical and the tabloid:

"Eros, love moves in a single direction towards the mutual death of the lovers. It unwinds from there, like the thread in a labyrinth that has its center in the “death chamber”. Only there does love enter into the reality of sex, where the deathstruggle itself becomes the lovestruggle. The sexual itself, in response, flees its own death as its own life, and blindly calls out for the other’s death and the other’s life in this flight.  It takes the path into nothingness, into that misery where life is only not-death and death is only a not-life. And this is how the boat of love pulls forward between the Scylla of Death and the Charybdis of misery and would never escape if it weren’t that God, at this point in its voyage, transformed it into something indestructible. Because as the sexuality of love in first bloom is completely alien, so must it become enduringly wholly non-alien, its very own. It is never the condition of its being and always that of its earthly endurance. God, however, makes for love the sacrament of marriage against the danger of sexuality as against that of love.”

One has to pause here. First, to listen to what Benjamin is doing – juxtaposing the prose of the “death chamber”, which comes from Police Magazines and tabloid newspapers of the 20s and 30s  - adoring the rooms where the bloody corpse of some victim was found and, as well,  the gas chamber or electric chair where the murderer was murdered by the state – to Greek myth, and then to a very Biblical God. And then one has to ask whether, indeed, death more often befalls lovers than befalls wives and husbands. Here a bit of positivism, a bit more tabloid knowledge, would relegate the Wagnerian Tristan and Isolde to the margin, and the more common family murder to the front. For the marriage that “God” gives us against the unleashed forces of death and sexuality is all too often a scene of violence. Engels definitely knew this. Benjamin surely, in part of himself, knew this too. The criminologists, who now call it “intimate partner homicide”, were on the case in the 20s and 30s. The mythological correlative is not Homeric, but rather the Maerchen of Grimm, where intimate partner violence is a constant companion of princesses and peasants.

However, then, I dispute the point, from the positivist, statistical viewpoint, I grant the power of the forces of sexuality and death, from the magical viewpoint. Benjamin’s surrealist genius in taking from the press the “death chamber” and inserting it into the myth of the labyrinth is in the best high modernist tradition of violently superimposing the archaic on the contemporary. This is a tradition that is moved, obscurely, unsystematically, to protest the allochronism – that long colonial time – which names it the “modern”. But to rescue the archaic by turning to the God of our Fathers means succumbing to a fundamentally reactionary impulse, which fails the test of historicity, and locks marriage into a form that it can’t sustain.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

barthes - the amateur mandarin

I’m reading Tiphaine Samoyault’s biography of Roland Barthes. I’ve learned that when Barthes published The degree zero of writing in the fifties, he had not yet read Blanchot or Artaud, or even – so he told a reviewer – heard of Georges Bataille. Barthes was 36.
Somehow, being an aging hulk myself, I find this a beautiful anecdote. Firstly, because it rather undermines those who are searching for influences by Blanchot or Bataille in Barthes early work – and don’t we all like to see an academicus ocassionally slip on a banana peel? – but more because, secondly, it speaks to reading outside the classroom. The classroom, in the intellectual world created by the post world war II boom in colleges, has become the site of our primal reading, and sometimes our only reading of the “great books”. It is a phrase I have heard all too often – “I read that in class”. In my mind, this is matched with another phrase, usually about something in history – say Watergate: “that happened before I was born.” As if the knowable extent of the world began when a person was born. Both speak to a sort of intellectual shrinkage.

What I like is what Ralph Ellison called the old man at Chehaw Station – the amateur who is a knower, beyond all credentialing. Barthes of course went on to read Bataille and Blanchot and the rest of them. The shock of the new was not subsumed in the canon of the old as his career unfolded – and this is why his work, to me, is that of an amateur mandarin. 

Friday, September 08, 2017

Salut, Kate Millett

We owe a lot to Kate Millett. She was, in a sense, "all over" the seventies, and she burned the notion of "patriarchy" into feminism, and via the national press's fascination with "women's lib", into the national consciousness. But there, I feel, it faded. What was a call to overturn patriarchy and its values became a call to find places in patriarchy. Instead of a critique of the whole value system around the "strong" and the "tough" - these blind, violent impulses - the critique softened to a search for "Strong, tough" women. Understandably - the patriarchy didn't after all fall, but strengthened in the seventies. And it wasn't clear how the politics of sexual politics would actually proceed. Still, the goal set by Millett early on seems to me ultimately the more worthy one: in the 47 years from 1970, the degradation of the environment and the incredible stress that is now normal for most working lives has become worse. That strong and tough are bullshit words, delegating pain hierarchically to subordinate factotums - it isn't the tough president who is out on the frontline, but the soldier, the civilian, the insurgent, who are "inspired" by the strong leader to ever greater feats of barbarism - needs continually to be repeated.

There was an interesting dialogue that prefigured these issues that occurred in 1975 in L.A. at a forum featuring Marcuse and Millett, where the issue was how socialism connected to feminism. Marcuse was never the burning boy of the Frankfurt School, never Mr. Negative Dialectic. So it is good to see him take babysteps towards acknowledging the obvious: that the socialist left, in the name of class struggle, has long subordinated feminist struggle, or distorted it in terms consonant with patriarchy. What that means to me is the need for a double transformation, on the one hand of socialism, and on the other of feminism. Easier said than done! The one piece of good news from the debacle of American politics is that these transformations seem to have become real everyday issues.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The American "something"

Hemingway wrote a short story called The End of Something in the fine beginning of his career, when the stylized silences were new, impressive, and deep, and a terrible story, fossicked from his remains by his posthumous exploiters, entitled Everything Reminds you Of Something, at the end of his career, when the simplicity had turned simpleminded and the hardboiled silences had gone soft and squishy – the kind of thing that make Old Man and the Sea so unreadable. The end of something is all about the masculine refusal to speak its pain, while everything reminds you of something is all about the masculine refusal to shut up, even when it had nothing to say. And maybe there’s a story there.

“Something” in its American splendor is not considered in Mencken’s book on the American Language. Nor is it in Brewer’s phrase and fable, which disappointingly lists only one something-headed item, viz., something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is as if the American something were so pervasive that it never strikes anyone as a phrase or fable. But it surely is, and it surely can be dated, at least in print, to sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when writers like Ring Lardner and Hemingway were discovering in the speech of the folk the ethical sports and monsters of the American subconscious. And Broadway too, and the movies, and the cartoons.
Richard Burton wrote in his diary when the Gemini splashed down about the astronauts: “Sat on balcony until lunch reading newspapers. Learned to our relief that the ‘Gemini Twins’ were back from the Cosmos safely.83 For some reason we both felt oddly nervous about them. It is odd, too, that I almost always think – no condescension intended – of Americans as being gifted and brave but almost always child-like. White, the man who walked for 20 minutes in space, when asked how it was replied ‘It was really something.’ 

White’s comment is a sort of Summa of something – God reduced to gosh, world without end. 

Karl Kraus, that most un-American of essayists, wrote that thought can’t be the master of language, only the servant. Or something like that. I know I’ve read that somewhere. The house is a mess, I can’t put my finger on the book, or the notebook in which I jotted down this bit of intellectual tittle. However, I do know that Kraus’s whole life was a war on cliché, on the deja connu, on newspaper verities. As he said, the newspaper was the black art, the end of the world, the wormwood cast into the waters, apocalypse now with all the trimmings. World War I proved him right. So did World War 2.
 And yet if that Sacher-Masoch colored scene between thought and language is at all true, then it is hard to see how we are going to avoid just the kind of writing and talking that drove Kraus nuts.  For what after all is the newspaper verity than language pulling thought along, or rather, dispensing with thought all together in a simulacrum of thought. In other words, aren’t we all doomed to incantation, to abracadabras of variously elevated tone?

And the opposite of the highminded abracadabras, as the young Hemingway hoped, was in a speech that was modest in its claims, truthful in its sentiment, factual in its slant. This message is made clear in Farewell to Arms. That speech, it turns out, comes with a price – it turns life into a data-filled competition. Into baseball. Or something a bit more exotic among expats. What starts out as a revolutionary stripping of established lies ends up as a flattening of effect. It’s really something.
I’ve always loved the scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when death comes to a bunch of American yuppies and their friends, English gentrifiers. They, of course, take death as a colorful local yokel at first, but eventually he starts to make his point that he is Death. At this point the American man pulls out his pipe and begins to pontificate about the experience they are all going through. This breaks it for Death, who begins a wonderful rant: “Shut up! Shut up, you American. You always talk, you Americans. You talk and you talk and say 'let me tell you something' and 'I just wanna say this'. Well, you're dead now, so shut up!”

“Let me to tell you something.” There it is again, through a hoax dialectic come to mean not, as in Hemingway’s “The end of Something”, that expression must be tied to the particulars, however painful, but to mean, let me fill in all the verbal space. And then let me walk in it, drifting, in a self-contained suit, safely attached to a large white phallic shaft.

That’s something else.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

On Ashbery and a certain tone of poetry bullshittery

I like Paul Muldoon,  mostly. But this paragraph in the obit for John Ashbery in the New Yorker pulled me up short – or rather, while it scrutinized me, I squinted at it:

“He managed this by developing a poetry that was absolutely equal to our later-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century predicament. It’s a simple argument: a world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex; a world that is somewhat incoherent may actually demand a poetry that is itself incoherent; a world in which no conclusions apply may even revel in its inconclusiveness. To read a John Ashbery poem is to be scrutinized by it. It is less a recording than a recording device, a CCTV screen taking us in.
Start with the last line, and ask yourself when you considered all poetry a recording – like, never? And the addition of CCTV screen, which I suppose is supposed to be techno-hip, sort of poses the question – is it a recording device or a CCTV screen – or perhaps a hidden microphone, or maybe – I can be techno-hip too! – it’s a polarization gating spectroscopy device, which is used to probe the intestine. In any case, it is really a poem. And how a poem scrutinizes the reader is perhaps one of those incoherent things about our modern predicament that demands a poetry criticism that is itself incoherent.
If I were to look for a poetry that tried to be equal to “our” predicament, I’d look at Adrienne Rich more than John Ashberry. John Ashbery does fit comfortably in Muldoon’s “our” – Rich was outside the ‘our’, measuring the system that created it, counting the victims.
This, you might think, is a pretty ungrateful way of saying Salut, John Ashbery – but I think Muldoon’s bizarre obituary says a lot about the predicament of a twenty first century infantilism: the pervasive use of an advertising trick of making its product so exciting that the product’s details become secondary. Muldoon’s entire paragraph tells you nothing at all about the specific qualities of Ashbery’s poems. Its hateful, a disservice, an occasion for blowhardery.
I am not, I admit, a great finish-er of the poems of John Ashbery. My grip as a reader is lost as the poem itself becomes whimsical like, oh, a CCTV screen dying in static. But I am able to finish and even like some of Ashbery’s earlier poems. So there’s this, from “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:

“… The soul establishes itself. But how far can it swim out through the eyes/
And still return safely to its nest? The surface/
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases/
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point/
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept In suspension, unable to advance much farther/
Than your look as it intercepts the picture. Pope Clement and his court were "stupefied"/
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission/
 That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,/
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,/
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, /
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay/
Posing in this place. It must move/
 As little as possible. This is what the portrait says./
But there is in that gaze a combination/
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful/
In its restraint that one cannot look for long./
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,/
 Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,/
Has no secret, is small, and it fits/

Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.”

Sunday, September 03, 2017

notes on santa monica

Notes on Santa Monica
Beautiful days. If you live in Santa Monica, you face an iron curtain of beautiful days. Granted, there are worse iron curtains. Still, if you want to write, the days, in the monotonous self-affirmation, can give you the frustrating feeling that there’s nothing here to grip, nothing to fight with. True, there is June gloom, there are a few days in what is laughingly called winter where you keep the heat on almost all day, and days of summer where we tickle close to Dixie. But basically you walk out, the sky is blue, the sun is up, the flowers (all immigrants here) are springing with exotic colors and designer stamens, the cars are expensive, the yoga places and gyms are doing a roaring business, and the ladies in the numerous nails and hair spas are all kneeling before obviously well to do women, helpfully rounding nails and, well, aroma pedicuring, whatever that is. Win/win, obviously, up and down the block and all the way out to the Pacific, which is we know a little worse for wear, a little dangerously warmer, but still licks the shore bluely, in the distance. The joggers and dogwalkers compete for sidewalk space, the tourists are heading for the beach, and everything is as right as an icecream cone in the fist of a child.
I can’t complain. I complain. I was born complaining, a whiner from the first doc’s whack on my buttocks. Still, on our last night, when we went to Loews, ordered drinks, got in the hot tub and watched the sun set over the Pacific, I had to remember that this isn’t normal.
And then I remember other things. How Mutually Assured Destruction was planned out by a buncha the mildest war criminals in history just down the street. How Whitey Bulger retired here. How the sidewalks are filled with half naked homeless people, whose raving speeches, though often devolving into simple curses, are often, as well, much more eloquent and rhetorically interesting than the conversation of the college educated and well off in the line at the Whole Foods. I remember that Carlos Castenada led a strange, mostly female cult just up the street in West L.A., sending his “witches” to recruit on 3rd street. I remember that Santa Monica was “Baytown” for Raymond Chandler, a corrupt little berg with a bunch of hooey clinics where the docs dispensed heroin to junkies with a wink. I even sometimes remember that all the world isn’t white.

Of course, the beautiful days sometimes got up the snoots of certain observers – most notably, Theodor Adorno, whose Minima Moralia is much like a death threat to the whole scene.  More elegantly written, granted, than your average serial killer or kidnapper’s screed. Still, lovely in its roving meanness.

“Every tegument which intervenes between human interactions is felt to be a disturbance of the functioning of the apparatus, in which they are not only objectively incorporated, but to which they belong with pride. That they greet each other with the familiar egalitarian hellos instead of doffing their hats, that they send each other interoffice memos devoid of addresses or signatures instead of letters, are the endemic symptoms of the sickness of contact. Alienation manifests itself in human beings precisely in the fact that distances fall away. For only so long as they are not overwhelmed with giving and taking, discussion and conclusion, access and function, would enough space remain between them for that fine mesh of threads, which connects them to each other, and whereby that which is external [Auswendige] truly crystallizes as what is assimilated [Inwendiges].”

Yes, you can see the death of civilization creeping closer with the death of the custom of doffing hats. Those Europeans! One if reminded of Freud’s reflection that the American custom of “flirting” shows what an essentially unserious society America has produced.
But I understand. The Elvis Costello rule (“I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly”) applies here if it applies anywhere. I’ve heard the rumor that Dogtown – formerly the cheaper part of Santa Monica, running along Main street – lucky to buy a house below 750 there now – was crucial to the birth of Southern California Punk.
But I floated in the pool at Loews, gulped down my margarita, and got sentimental about the four years we spent here. I love it that Adam learned his “American” here. I loved the round of coffee shops in which I wrote and wrote, on a computer that had a French keyboard that was freezing up, one key at a time. Have you ever had that divine moment when you cry out, yes, I would do it all over again, in exactly that order, with exactly those actions, facing exactly those consequences? The eternal sandglass of existence will be turned ever once more, and you with it, you grain of sand! Something like that. Well, that was my Loew’s experience.

Then, next day, we left for Paris.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

suspended belief - Houston and the last two decades

I've noticed an air of unreality hangs about the flooding of Houston. Those of you with memories of the 00s will remember how Gore was mocked for his animations of oceans flooding cities. Hey, the Gulf of Mexico, which is warmer and higher than it was in 2003, just flooded a six million person metro area. The press so far has - understandably - concentrated on happy rescues, people doing things for people. Underneath this news is a sort of failure to express the probable extent of the casualties and what this means economically. This isn't a matter of astonishing videos, it is a matter of the blotting out, for some unforeseeable time, of the 4h largest metro area in the U.S. I feel like our suspended belief in what is happening is cousin to our suspended belief in climate change itself. For two decades, we have mostly acknowledged that climate change is happening. We have attacked this global problem by the pinprick approach. Maybe if I change my consumer habits it will help? Not really. We gotta change our infrastructure. We gotta severely reshape our economy. Capitalism isn't built to solve this problem. That isn't even to say we abolish capitalism, it is simply a call for recognizing its limits and acting accordingly.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Politics of disaster

The people who say, when a disaster happens, that we have to forget politics, are almost always conservatives. It is no wonder that they say this. In a time in which we see the result of the politics that we are pursuing – warmer oceans, urban infrastructures that are grossly underfunded, massive poverty – converge in disasters that then require billions to repair, and that can cost billions – in Harvey’s case, maybe 100 billion – in economic losses, we begin to wonder why we didn't do something before - before, for instance, we had oceans warm enough to nourish monster storms. Conservatives want us to debate these things when we’ve forgotten the disasters that conservative politics has led us into. Let’s not.

Friday, August 25, 2017

the man on the street corner sings

The table went yesterday. The sofa is going today. The lamps are going Saturday. The house is emptying out.

Four years. We’ve raised Adam here. We’ve grown used to the ocean. We’ve developed a taste for certain restaurants. We’ve got our routines.

I have my novel. Four years of writing it here. I’m wrapping it up – oh fateful words! The manuscript is trailed by miles of sleepless nights, the worry that nobody will read it. I have a picture of myself as a homeless man, shouting my Tourette-driven monologue to nobody at two o’clock in the morning.
And I think of Flaubert. Who else?

Flaubert was a crybaby. Every sentence in Madame Bovary elicited cries and whimpers from the sofa. Every punctuation mark.

We know this because Flaubert was also a graphomaniac. While writing his novel, he wrote letters to his friends and lovers – particularly to his lover Louise Colet – going to great lengths to describe what he was doing.

Most of the letters of writers are about anything but what they are doing. What they are doing is the office work. Even Kafka, whose ideas about writing are summed up by the writing machine in The Penal Colony, wrote much more about the work he did at the Workers Compensation Bureau that he worked in than he wrote about writing, say, The Trial.
Though Flaubert pretended that writing was one long tooth ache, he actually enjoyed himself very much. He set up problems and he figured them out. He played chess against the whole of French literature, and Don Quixote. He daydreamed. He wet dreamed. The cries from the sofa were richly enjoyed. He had to share them.

I understand. To find ever more indirections to the spot marked with an x on your mental map is the most fun. As Adam would say, it’s more fun than anything that’s fun. The problem with my long tooth ache, I realize, looking back over the pages, is that the problems may be bigger than my solutions.

This is only when I am blue. When I think that this will never be read. When I’m out on that street corner at two in the morning going fuck fuck f-f-f-fuck!

Really, they ought to publish some edition of Madame Bovary with those letters. And something about poor Louise Colet, the recipient of most of them, a writer herself who had the misfortune to get her writing advice from a whale. Not that she even wanted it – she wanted a little cuddling, a little sex.

Madame Bovary got that. Flaubert and Louise Colet between them created the parable of modernist  dissatisfaction. And we can’t get away from it and back to the happy times before. Never that bliss again.