“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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

my howl

During the Bush years, I wrote this. Sort of still believe it. Although my tie to America has weakened considerably.
I gotta ask sometimes about my own divided sense of, affection for, the Homeland. It’s the crow’s own country for us, which I crisscross in my imagination on black wings, the smell of carrion and white magic in my birdie nostrils. But is it by any stretch of the imagination my country still? Or have I been simply completely fucked out of it? After all, I pepper it with every pot shot in my cap gun, and it would be a fair reading of what I say about these states that I generally view it as a savage hoedown of decrepit holy rollers ruled over by the most thieving gang of imbecile oligarchs ever to drool over a bribe or start a vanity war. So am I yankee doodle dandied out? Or am I in the position of the Pilgrims way back there in the seventeenth century, carrying the cursed language on my tongue but looking for kingdoms other.

Well, pardners, close combat vituperation is as native to the red clay and purple mountain’s majesty in which my testicles dropped as a preacher sex scandal, so there is that. I’m of this country, and take my privileges accordingly. I don’t possess a pair of calipers to measure American wickedness against some other and potentially more moral destination. I weigh it against my expectations, and its own philosophical claims – for what other nation is as philosophical as the U.S.A.? We invented the absolute weapon, then built 40,000 some missiles to convey it, and by that act proclaimed ourselves the end of history and an end in itself. No country was ever bold enough, or fucked up enough, to think so highly of itself as that. We wuz followed up to the heights, sure, but it was us that got there first. What other nation had the brass balls to claim that if, by some godawful chance, we were attacked, we reserved the right to destroy humanity? Okay, the aforesaid Soviets, but that didn’t work out too well for them, did it? The US runs me ragged, but it is way and wicked rich in every material and metaphysical oddity, which is a comfort. Yes, I expect that in my lifetime things will get much harder here for my class (the stragglers and strugglers); I expect the rich shits, whom to lay a sexual name on disparages itself, to acquire ever more power, and the American majority to refuse to do the rational thing and string them up, or strip them down, or in other ways put the fear of god into them. I could say that the Americans of my time just became servile asskissers, but I know the lack of fight is because the majority is tired and is driven by debt like the sinners in some Memlinc hell are scourged by demons. But I also expect wild souls to cross all expectations, who knows how: some minor redeemers, some jammers in the war machine. Sitting in the belly of the beast, I count on some regular people to wake up and pinch it hard. There will be noises off in the American underground, and I don’t want to miss that.”
In a coupla months I am alighting for foreign shores. I’m sorta sick of America, but I still think I stand with both the diss and the hope.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

where do superheroes come from?

Since the unexpected intersection of my life and the lives of superheroes has been willed into being by Adam, I’ve been thinking about superheros and their place in the American wetdream. One of the ways I go about understanding something (which is a way I have of feeling superior to it) is to find the root of it, the precursors, the historico-etymological unconsciousness from which it was called forth. So I thought that maybe this was found in such proto-fascists as Carlyle.
My advice is, if you think that Carlyle’s essay on Heroes in history is the royal road to the birth of Superman, forget it. Don’t blow the dust from that volume! I am a big fan of the 19th century essayists, but Carlyle is simply too bogus. With respect! Coleridge, De Quincey, the whole Romantic crewe were, like Carlyle, into German literature, but unlike him, they didn’t transform it into dyspepsia and fascism. I remember reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and liking it, but the Hero book, which started out as a series of lectures and was listened to, at so much per seat, by a group that dwindled as it became apparent that Carlyle’s Scot’s accent was here to stay, is not the background to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the great mutants that have now put the lock on our popular culture.
My search for the origins of the superhero cult made a necessary stop at Jill Lepore’s book on Wonder Woman – which Lepore traced back to the peculiar crossroads between utopian feminism and criminology, all staged with Harvard in the background. Wonder Woman was, from the beginning, a super hero like no other – not only because she was a woman (and got the usual comic book sexism thrown at her. Jules Feiffer, in his book on the history of super heroes, claims she is too flat chested. Wha???), but because her back story was expressly mythological. She was not a laboratory accident, or a military experiment, or a creature from another world. Lepore’s was an exemplary intellectual history. B-b-but I was looking for a key to the entire mythology, rather like dotty, repressed Causaban in Middlemarch, and it seems to me that there has to be more – some horizon of possibility that gave  superheroes such enormous importance in American culture.  My suspicion – or theory, since my suspicions have a way of becoming theories overnight – is that the super mutant ethos and fascination is tied into newspaper culture. A culture that, in spite of the efforts of such as Barthes, is too little interpreted from the lit crit aspect.        
My theory, untested by historical research, is that the superhero and his or her obsessions arise in close proximity to the racket of the newspaper format. Newspapers jumble together, in columns that stand next to each other but maintain a monad’s distance, war, crime, weddings, weather, politics and everything else. It is as if news were always a traffic jam. In particular, crime stands out. News media loves crime. So do readers. But with the love of crime stories goes the fear of crime fact. It strikes me that the obsession of superheroes with crime is one of the keys to the mythology. Carlyle’s heroes don’t even bother with crime. They are concerned with founding society and changing consciousness. They are saints, writers, and statesmen. They are certainly not policemen. In Greek and Norse mythology, the heroes are involved with sacred transgressions. They care about sacrifice, not about bank robbery.

Lepore’s exploration of the origins of Wonder Woman takes up this theme. William Moulton Marston, her creator (or one of them. Lepore is very clear about the collective input into this invention), was also one of the inventors of the polygraph machine.

The standard history of superheroes usually begins in the 1930s, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The 30s, too, saw a crime wave the like of which was not seen in the US until the 70s, the Great Depression (which undermined rules about property crime by showing the criminal behavior of the most propertied), and the rise of Fascism. All of which might have something to do with the way that Superheroes were both obsessed with crime and incredibly submissive to the powers that be. One might expect that a man of steel from another planet would have some sympathy with the man of steel from the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Stalin, but there’s no trace of revolutionary in his actions or thoughts. The only revolutionaries are the arch villains, who are still ultimately tied by the hip to the forces of order – they are weirdly willing to destroy the social order to make money, the ideal representative of the social order. There is some blip, some slippage in the thinking of the villains, which may be why they don the clothes of carnival mutants and engage in lumpen-revolutionary acts, out of some tabloid nightmare.


   

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Poem for Stevie Smith


Isn't it dishonesty
this felt disproportion
between the gaps in my head
and the words in my mouth?

What I do around here
What I do
Is lie in bed
Dressed in Grandma's clothes.

In the movie
The old samurai
Dusty at the entrance to the village
Unsheathes an eloquent sword

With a rusty gesture.
I can identify.
To take strategies from the fox
Arbitrager’s carnivore

To fill my hunger
Clucking like an old hen
With oafish bit players
Instead of dangerous prey...

Oh chateaux – oh bandes dessinées!
Maybe I should exit stage left.
It's the dishonor I can’t stand.
Not the woodman’s necessity sharpened axe.

Monday, June 19, 2017

we become heat tourists


Because my love had a gig in Phoenix, we hied it outta tow last Friday after Adam’s graduation. The temperature in Santa Monica when we left was 80 F. We landed in Phoenix at 9:30 p.m, and the captain blandly announced that the wind was six miles per there, and the temperature was 100. The landing was strange. I had the distinct impression that the plane, like a man on third running out a bunt to home,  slid in. Upon the end of the slide, when the plane seemed normal again, the woman next to me turned and told me that she was always coming into Phoenix in the summer, and the planes always wobbled when they came in – hit by thermals, she thought. Then we speculated about the odd cracking noises the plane made. Unfortunately, I had spent the brief trip reading a thriller I picked up, which contained an elaborate airline crash scene. Talk about killing your paperback sales at Hudson News! I’m not a superstitious guy, but I did lay that book aside.
We deplaned, went outside, and the inevitable oven comparison ensued. I have a better comparison, built upon a famous passage in one of Harold Brodkey’s short stories. To describe the impression of beauty given by some woman, he wrote that to see her cross the Harvard Quad was to see Marxism die. On those lines, to step outside the Phoenix airport last Friday night and wait around for a taxi was to feel the Holocene die. Although one could argue that the Holocene was never very kindly to the Southwest to begin with, what with the drought cycle and the disappearance of Anasazi culture.
So we got our cab, or Uber, really (I apologize to all for participating in maintaining that cursed company) and we were driven to the Scottdale Plaza Resort, where we had booked a bungalow, by a sixty-ish woman who divided her time between driving for Uber and taking care of her two grandchildren, angels of 1 and 2 ½ (she dropped a hint that her son-in-law was currently looking for work), and she gifted us with her advice about how to spend the day in Phoenix. Basically, you can stay out to 10 a.m., then lock the kids up in shadows and air conditioning until 10 p.m., by which time they are asleep anyway. I would be alarmed if my environment was forcing me to spend summers like this, but she seemed very boosterish of Phoenix. She even found something civic achievement worthy in the fact that next Tuesday – which is now tomorrow – it was predicted to be a scorcher on the order of 120F. I could hardly believe my ears.
Then she dropped us off, giving us plenty to think about.
The next day, early, my love left for her gig, and Adam and I slept until 10. 10! I remembered the warning from our Uber driver. Nevertheless, we ventured out, tenderfleshed, and found the central resort center, which offered a modicum of breakfast: wooden waffles, scrambled eggs that were fresh hours ago, and the usual bad coffee. We had cereal. Then we searched around for sun blocks. I bought the children’s 50 and 70, and an adult 50 for myself. Back in our bungalow, I slathered Adam with cream, did the same to myself, put my hat on top of Adam’s head, found our sunglasses, and thus armed, we went out to the swimming pool. The climax of this story is not that we suffered 3rd degree burns, but that you can swim in 107 F sunlight if you stop to slop bunches of sun block on yourselves every ten minutes. After an hour of frolicking, we returned to the shadows of the bungalow and waited for Phaeton to drive his chariot through the azure Arizona air for a while. Then we… did stuff. Vacation, you know. Here narration ends, and dissemination begins, since the two days of vacation we took expired without any narrative anchoring points that went beyond what you’d get in a snap shot. The grocery store for floaties, junk food, and beer. The covey of young women at the grocery store, all clothed in hot pink tee shirts that read “Bride Tribe”, foraging in the liquor section. Adam’s first water squirter, which gained immediate love and affection. Breakfast. More swimming. A gratifying absence of sun burn due to the hyper gobs of sun block. The wonder of parents at the pool allowing their two and a half year old to sit under the sun as it delivered terrific luminous jolts. The restaurant we went to, The Blue Adobe, that served real Santa Fe Carne Adovada. Highly recommended. The giant jar of margarita, which came with an open bottle of Corona stuck in it at a jaunty angle. Excellent. The awarding of a jar of similar build, with the logo of the place on it, to yours truly after finishing said drink. Unnecessary. The ride back to the resort. Drunken.
Ah, and then one last touch. American airlines startled us with a message that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of afternoon flights today, so we had to change our flight to one at 10 in the morning – that magic hour. The heat today was supposed to peak at 117 F.

Yes, its like seeing the Holocene die. Quite the weekend getaway. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cross reference, ordinary language and wine tasting.


We went to the Ojai music festival this Sunday. We’d never been to Ojai. On the way, we passed through  Casitas Springs, which greets the motorist with a large sign adorned with Johnny Cash’s picture and the boast of being the great man’s home. We are  I walk the line heads, so of course we had to look this up, and it turns out those were Cash’s dark years, when he was chasing the amphetimine blues. Vivian got the house on the hill, in a nice Hank Williams turn of thing.
The music we heard at Ojai was more avant garde than country. Adam said he didn’t like it. I did. So did A. Ojai turns out to be a very pleasant resorty kind of place. Apparently it was adopted by a plutocrat – a Libby, guy who founded Libby glass – and so it shows off all kinds of restoration that is really fakedoration, like a mission tower that was built, really, in 1919, not 1719. But I can dig that, and especially the setting – it is nestled in a valley with three large peaks taking up the Eastern horizon.
This kind of country is great for grapes. So I wandered into a wine shop, where they were having a tasting. The tourists at the bar were loving it. Instead of the oenophile sniff, taste, and toss routine, they gobbled down their free samples. The gal pouring, though, gamely spouted the usual thing. Here’s a wine with hints of mint, chocolate, wood and crickets. Or whatever.
Which made me think about the construction of this sub-language.
Philosophers of language are divided about the function of the name, and especially the status of the proper name. However, most of them believe that the name or description functions in relationship to truth. If I described an automobile as a feathered creature that flies south in the winter, what I am showing is that I don’t know what automobile means. Maybe I’ve mistaken it for another word.
What strikes me about wine descriptions is how far away they are from anything I actually taste.
In a sense, this may be because these descriptions do not cross reference. Movie and book reviewers often cross-reference the works they are describing in order to give a sense that is given by experience in the genre. Describing a movie as Silence of the Lambs meets Star Trek  does mean something – but only if you know something else about movies. This knowledge doesn’t really have to be direct. I can have acquaintance with Silence of the Lambs without seeing it, as long as I have heard enough references to it. In contrast, if I described a movie as Satantango meets Sult, I am probably only talking to people who have a more cinephilic knowledge of movies, and are more likely to have seen both of these films. Cross-reference, in other words, assumes a certain knowledge.
But what kind of knowledge is presumed by smoky, or earthy, or nutty? Surely this is the tongue’s knowledge. If I have never tasted anything smoky, then I will have no idea – even from references by people who have tasted it – what that means.
Here’s the thing. To me, wine taste descriptions rarely if ever suggest the taste of wine.
Now, if – as philosophers like to say – language, even sublanguage, has a relation to truth, then – if I am right about wine taste descriptions – it would seem that this sublanguage would soon fail. It is as if the wine server started talking Jabberwocky. It has tastes of brillig, with hints of borogrove and mome raths.
But I can’t really say that the sublanguage is failing, even though it is often mocked. Rather, the method seems to have extended itself to coffee shops – I am seeing more and more wine tasting like language in them.
So what gives? I think this is a good subject for a nice philosophy paper. Something on a language of pseudo-descriptions, and its acceptance and use. In fact, the more I make these descriptions correspond to the wines they are supposed to describe, the more I can predict the taste of the wine even if I taste nothing nutty in it. They have become indexicals, I guess one would say. Just as I can tell the subject of a book from its LOC number, I can tell the “subject” of the wine from its description.
This is a rather fascinating thing. Roland Barthes, I think, found something similar happening in the Fashion world.

So I bought a nice bottle of wine, we had ice cream, and then we all went home. The end. You will find this paragraph to be full of earthy notes, with some nuttiness added. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

scripture reading today!

The weekend, around my house, is often devoted to scripture reading – the scripture being Adorno’s minima moralia. Here’s a lively bit that I’ve translated and distorted just a pinch, which casts a lot of light on our era – you know, the Age of Bush and Trump.

Fish in the water – Since the global distribution machinery of highly concentrated industry has dissolved the sphere of circulation, the later has begun a marvelous post-existence. While the profession of the go-between has lost its economic basis, uncounted private lives have taken on the guise of agents and dealers, even one might say that the whole private domain is confounded with this enigmatic busy-ness, which bears all the features of commerce without really having an object to deal in. Across the spectrum of anxious people, from the unemployed, to the most prominent, subject at every second to the anger of those whose investments he represents,  the belief is that empathy, industry, servicability, through clever turns and dodges  through businessman’s qualities, can one take on the air of the imaginary executive, and soon there is not a relationship that isn’t seen as a connection, no impulse that is not submitted to the mental censor for being perhaps too deviant. The concept of connections, a category of intermediation and circulation, was never best exhibited in the actual circulation sphere, in the market, but instead in closed, monopolistic hierarchies. Now that society is wholly penetrated by hierarchy, the dark connections stand everywhere that we still see a semblence of freedom. The irrationality of the system expresses itself never more greatly than in the economic fate of individuals where this psychology of parasitism comes out. In early periods, when there really was something we could call a bourgeois division between the career and private life, the passing of which one must almost mourn, the unmannerly ambitious man was mistrusted for following his goals in the private sphere. Today, in contrast, the person who subsides entirely into the private sphere seems to be arrogant, alien, and not with the program, since the person’s goals are not visible.  It is almost suspicious not to ‘will’ something: one doesn’t trust anyone of this type -, who lives  without legitimating himself with some counter demands of his own – to help us in snapping after the miserable  treats we are offered. Numbers of people make their jobs out of the circumstances that kick people out of their jobs. These are the nicest people, the bien pensants, that are friends with everyone, the righteous, that forgive every human meanness and with implacable hostility label  every not normalized impulse sentimenta. They are indispensable in their knowledge of all the strings and shortcuts of power, guess the secret judgments of the might and live off of their talent for nimbly communicating it. The are found in all political situations, eveen there, where rejection of the system reigns as self-evident and thus diffuse a lax and resigned conformism of their own type. Often they  captivate with a certain cheerfulness, through an empathetic participation in the life of others: a speculating selflessness. They are clever, witty, sensible and adaptive: they have polished up the old salesman’s spirit with the latest in psychology. They are capable of anything, even love,  yet never faithful. They don’t betray out of some compulsion, but out of principle: they value even themseves as profitmakers, which they cannot share with others. In their minds they combine elective affinity and hatred: they are a temptation for the thoughtful, but also their worst enemy. Then these are the ones who take the last little corners of resistence, the hours painfull reserved from the demands of the machine, and they cunningly shit on it. Their late ripened individualism poisoned whatever is left of the individual.



Wednesday, June 07, 2017

the ontological drunkard's proof

Swedenborg, I think, is the only protestant ever to create an image of hell and heaven to set against Dante's. So I like him for that. But I really like Swedenborg because he argued that drunkards, who escape from a thousand seemingly fatal accidents, are a logical proof that guardian angels exist. Weirdly enough, though the ontological proof of the existence of God is taught in every first year philosophy class, nobody teaches the proof by drunkard of the existence of guardian angels. Furthermore, I think more people believe the latter than believe the former. So what is up with these philosophers?

Monday, June 05, 2017

political stories

narrative induction
Charlotte Linde is a rather brilliant ethnographer broadly within the symbolic interaction school – although not participating in that schools downhill slide into the irrelevance of infinitely coding conversations to make the smallest of small bore points. Rather, she has taken Labov’s idea that a story is a distinguishable discursive unit and researched Life Stories – she wrote the standard book on the subject.

In 2000, she wrote a fine study of an insurance firm with the truly great title, “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes memory and identity.” https://www.scribd.com/document/209339886/Linde-How-History-Become-Memory-and-Identity
 Identity, with its columnally Latinate Id seemingly standing for noun in general, has during the course of my lifetime been dipped in the acid of the verbal form, and now little leagurers talk of identifying with their team – their grandparents would, of course, used identify to talk not of a subjective process of belonging, but an objective process of witnessing, as in, can you identify the man who you saw shoot mr x in this courtroom? Conservative hearts break as the columnar Id falls to the ground, but that’s life, kiddo.

Linde’s article circles around a marvelous phrase: narrative induction. “I define narrative induction as the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story…” My editor’s eye was pleased and did a little dance all over my face to see that this was the second sentence in the article – getting people to forthrightly state their topic is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things about editing academic papers.  

Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation. Linde, in this paper, is obviously moving from her concern with stories people tell about themselves – the point of which is to say something significant about the self, and not the world – to stories people tell about the world. Those stories often are about experiences not one’s own. They are non-participant narratives.

Linde divides the NPN process– as she calls it – into three bits: how a person comes to take on someone else’s story; how a person comes to tell their own story in a way shaped by the stories of others; and how that story is heard by others as an instance of a normative pattern.

There is an area, as Linde points out, where work on this has been done: in religious studies. Specifically, the study of metanoia, conversion stories. But there’s metanoia and then there’s metanoia. There’s St. Paul on the way to Damascas, and there’s Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, on the way to the relative wealth of a Toyota Car Dealership, owned by his father-in-law. Linde, not having access to St. Paul, opted to study the trainees of a major American insurance company in the Midwest. Like Labov, Linde is interested in class issues. In particular, stories of occupational choice. In her Life Stories book, she presented some evidence that professionals present their occupational choice stories in terms of some vocation or calling, while working class speakers present it, more often, in terms of accident or need for money. Philosophy professors rarely will say, for instance, well, I needed a steady paycheck, looked at the job security of tenure, loved the idea of travel and vacation time, so I went into philosophy. They will give a story rooted in their view of themselves as emotional/cognitive critters. Labov’s work was done in the seventies, and my guess is that there has been some shift. The NYT recently published an article about “quants” in finance, many of whom came from physics, and their stories were all without a moral/personal dimension – they were all about money, not interest in finance. Interestingly, as a sort of saving face gesture, they all talked about how there are “deep problems” in finance.
Narrative induction is obviously about politics. It is one of the great instruments by which power is made into action and organisation.  To my mind, the discourse about democracy, which has become the central discourse in political philosophy, has become sterile; using the insights of narratology might liven it up a bit. There has to be more than democracy in democracy, or democracy just becomes another gimcrack put up job. There has to be stories within a democracy that sustain it. If the stories are simply about who is being elected, I think it is a symptom of democracy’s decay – its surrender to the old monarchial narrative.  
We need, in other words, to start looking at political stories. How they work, and how they do self-work This is an area that has not  been very well explored by political philosophers who want to infinitely suss out what Locke meant, or stuff like that. We need something  more novelistic. We need more ‘what is it like to be’ questions that will allow us to understand the political stories people tell.  And not stories that give political agents the character depth of lab rats pressing buttons for pellets.

Cause those stories, though cynically satisfying, are ultimately untrue. They are even untrue about rats. 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

aryan nation


In 2014, Fortune magazine did a series about white collar convicts in prison. One of the convicts was Matthew Kluger, who was caught on an insider trading charge. Kluger is a name- his father, for instance, won a Pulitzer prize for the book, Ashes to Ashes, about cigarette company financed pseudo-science. Kluger was a highly paid lawyer.
The magazine asked him about race relations in prison. This is what he said:
When I was in transit [from Butner] to here, I was being held at this BOP central transit center in Oklahoma City: 5,000 people sitting there on any given day—it's unbelievable. It's at the airport. They pull the plane right up and they have a jet way. It's quite an amazing thing to see.
So I got there. I went to my room. And my room was occupied by a black guy. I went and started moving in, because we talked and the black guy was also going to Morgantown. About ten minutes later, some big, white, tattooed guy, an Aryan Brotherhood, Texas guy, pulled me aside. He pointed to some tables and said, "This is where we sit."
“We,” meaning you, too.
Well, I was a little confused about that. I wasn't sure whether he was saying, "This is where we sit, so stay away from us," or "This is where we sit, and you're welcome to join us." And then about ten minutes later, a guard came over and said, "I'm moving you to a different room." I said, "Why?" He said, "because your friends there said it was unacceptable to them for you to be in a room with a black guy."
So they moved me into my own room. Which was fine. I mean, I felt bad. I felt very bad. But I was happy enough to get my own room for the six days that I was there.
I've met interesting characters here, and I met interesting characters at Butner. My best friend at Butner was a 28-year-old sex offender who grew up in a trailer in rural South Carolina. I mean, I grew up in Connecticut, and later I went to prep school. This is not really my thing.
So you do meet some interesting people, and you learn to interact with people you would never outside of here have had the opportunity to interact with.

So race matters.

Race matters. Yeah. Race definitely matters. I would say in some prisons they're 50 years behind the times. Here we're only 10 or 12 years behind, or 20 years behind the times. No, there is a very “us and them” view—now, that doesn't mean that there's no interaction. And I have a couple of black friends. But by and large, there's a lot of suspicion and wariness.

I was reminded of this scene when I read the NYT’s lighthearted look at what they are calling the alt-right – it used to be known as white supremicists, but the Times is nothing if not trendy, and kissing the ass of our Republican overlords by using euphemisms for racists is where it is at in the country club world. The article centered on a former felon, Kyle Chapman, who is described here: 

As the founder of a group of right-wing vigilantes called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Mr. Chapman, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound commercial diver, is part of a growing movement that experts on political extremism say has injected a new element of violence into street demonstrations across the country.
I loooove that description. Kyle Chapman does have a slightly different profession the NYT people decided not to front. He’s been convicted of three felonies, two for armed robbery, one for selling weapons to some urban gang. Otherwise, he’s just a nice commercial diver.
I kid. You know I love our liberal gray NYT rolling over for the right paper of record, and advertising as part of the resistance. So, so… Times-ish.
But this is not so much about bashing the Times as calling attention to something that seems to operate completely under the attention zone of the establishment. It was not commercial diving that shaped Kyle Chapman's racist views. Prison has become a major station in the lives of hundreds of thousands of white males in their late teens and twenties. And that experience has majorly leaked into our national discourse.
The whole prison system in America relies on the kind of massive topown violation of human rights that puts the US on the level of North Korea, for instance, by torturing prisoners, and the encouragement of convict level gangs. The prison system that gave birth to the Aryan Nation is doing nothing about it.
I’m not suggesting that Trumpism is merely the phylogenetic extension of the Aryan nation. Rather, both are the phylogenetic extension of what America chose to become after the civil rights movements of the 60s. The massive incarceration system has leaked into the rest of the system, as it was bound to do. But we can all go da da da, and pretend this didn’t happen. Isn’t happening.

Monday, May 29, 2017

on a technological achievement: the movie actor

 

I never know what to say about movies. Not that this has ever prevented me from talking about movies.


My experience of movies has been that the language used about movies doesn’t make sense of that experience. 

When Edison, among others, invented the apparatus for making film, everybody – in the West - had a pretty good idea of what an actor did and what theater was. These ideas were passed onto film, as if film were merely the extension of theater. It did not occur to Edison, or to others in the first period of moviemaking, to do more than let the camera record a basically theatrical experience. It was as if one were just taking a big extended photograph of a play. 

Now, the play is certainly not a spontaneous experience, but it soon became evident that the theater and the movie operate in different dimensions. The actor in a play may rehearse the part, certainly has to memorize the lines, appears in a stage setting, interacts with others who have also memorized lines, etc. – but all within the defining experience of the performance. The actor’s experience of the play and the audiences is equivalent. 

This radically changed with film. It was blown to hell. The idea that the film would mimic the play – photograph it - could not long ignore the technical nature of film making, which allows one to create a performance out of an ensemble of many cuts. And that is key – at that moment, the experience of the audience is fatally and finally cut adrift from the experience of the actor. It is, of course, still possible to film a play, but movies generally are built on the ruin of the old regime, in which the actor experiences the unity of his part in something that occurs from beginning to end at one time. This rarely if ever happens in movies. 

Of course, this became, very early, a trope in film. Since the silent films, movies have loved to show – to gleefully demystify – their making. They love to focus the camera on the camera focusing on the actor, they love to show the fakery of it all, they love to show the director, sitting in a director’s chair, saying cut. The cliché quickly and thoroughly penetrated the culture. 

However, even as the difference made by the movie was exposed again and again, we retained old, theatrical ways of looking at what was happening. We still called the figures mouthing the lines and pretending to be detectives or kings ‘actors’. And though auteur theory wasn’t really codified until the fifties, the characteristics of it in movie appreciation appeared early on – as though the director was an author. 

And so, newpaper and magazine movie critics will write about the performance of the ‘actor’ in the film as something that occurs like the performance of an actor in a play – they will ignore what they know, and what every movie abundantly references – that this is very much a synthesis, rather than a spontaneous unity. The movie references this in its camera work, its transitions, its ‘special effects’, etc., and we know after we have finished it that our experience of it as a performance was an illusion. Even the dimmest movie goer sees through the illusion. The ironic entailment of the reality affect offered by movies is that they become less ‘real’ – they reveal themselves as process the realer they are. 

So what are these figures? Are they actors?

There’s a story told on the DVD of Ni Toit ni Loi (Vagabond). In one of the last scenes in the film, Sandrine Bonnaire, the actress who plays Mona – the film’s central figure – wanders into a small French village where the grapes have just been harvested. The village celebrates by allowing a sort of carnival – men dressed up like wine demons capture whoever wanders by – civilians – and dunks them in a vat of wine, or throws grapes at them. According to the interview, when Bonnaire played in this scene, she was not expecting these grape demons – and she was really terrified by them as they chased her around, and eventually into a phone booth. It is an excellent scene – but it would never work in theater. In the unity of the experience of audience and actors that makes up theatrical performance, and actor who doesn’t know what is happening destroys the code of the performance. He or she isn’t better or worse at that point, but becomes a non-actor. However, this rule simply doesn’t apply in film. This is why film actors often speak of acting a role in terms of the way they physically throw themselves into it – rather than, as theater actors do, the way they throw themselves into it psychologically. Bonnaire lets her hair go, doesn’t wash it, or herself – DeNiro pumps himself up to 250 pounds for Raging Bull – etc. Now, it isn’t the case that the film actor doesn’t try to assume psychological characteristics, or the theater actor is not concerned with the body as an instrument – it is a matter of what is subordinate to what. In a sense, the actor in movies, cut off from the entirety of the film by the process of making the film, is doing something very different than what we call acting. A movie is a riposte to methodological individualism – the fundamental level at which the movie works is not reduceable to the separate and individual contributions of the people involved in it. We understand it that way for giving prizes, and because the myth of the individual is something that, at least in America, we pay lip service to. In making movies, the West invented an art form that it did not have the conceptual structure to understand. 

Which is why I am uncomfortable with saying things about movies. Because the words I have to use were killed by the camera.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

the breaks

The breaks
According to Robert Craven’s 1980 article on Pool slang in American speech, breaks – as in good break, bad break, those are the breaks – derives from the American lingo of pool, which is distinct from British billiard terms. The difference in terminology emerged in the 19th century, but he dates the popular use of break (lucky break, bad break, the breaks) to the 20s. I love the idea that this is true, that the Jazz age, the age of American modernity and spectacle, saw the birth of the breaks. If the word indeed evolved from the first shot in pool – when you “break” the pyramid of balls, a usage that seems to have been coined in America in the 19th century, as against the British term – then its evolution nicely intersects one of the favored examples in the philosophy of causation, as presented by Hume.
Hume’s work, from the Treatise to the Enquiry, is so punctuated by billiard balls that it might as well have been the metaphysical dream of Minnesota Fats – excuse the anachronism – and it has been assumed, in a rather jolly way in the philosophy literature, that this represents a piece of Hume’s own life, a preference for billiards. However, as some have noted, Hume might have borrowed the billiard ball example from Malebranche – whose work he might have read while composing the Treatise at La Fleche. But even if Hume was struck by Malebranche’s example and borrowed it, the stickiness of the example, the way billiard balls keep appearing in Hume’s texts, feels to the reader like tacit testimony to Hume’s own enjoyment or interest in the game. Unfortunately, this detail has not been taken up by his biographers. When we trace the itinerary of Hume as he moved from Scotland to Bristol to London to France, we have to reconstruct ourselves how this journey in the 1730s might have intersected with billiard rooms in spas and public houses. In a schedule of coaches from London to Bristol published in the early 1800s, we read that there is a coach stop at the Swan in St. Clements street, London, on the line that goes to Bristol, and from other sources we know that the Swan was famed for its billiard room. Whether this information applies to a journey made 70 years before, when the game was being banned in public houses by the authorities, is uncertain. One should also remember that in Hume’s time, billiards was not played as we now play American pool or snooker. The table and the pockets and the banks were different. So was the cue stick – , it wasn’t until 1807 that the cue stick was given its felt or india rubber tip, which made it a much more accurate instrument. And of course the balls were hand crafted, and thus not honed to a mechanically precise roundness. 
If, however, Hume was a billiard’s man, one wonders what kind he was. His biographer Hunter speaks of the “even flight” of Hume’s prose – he never soars too much. But is this the feint of a hustler? According to one memoirist, Kant, too, was a billiards player – in fact the memoirist, Heilsberg, claimed it was his “only recreation” – and he obviously thought there was something of a hustle about Hume’s analysis of cause and effect, which is where the breaks come in. 
There’s a rather celebrated passage in the abstract of the Treatise in which Hume even conjoins the first man, Adam, and the billiard ball. The passage begins: “Here is a billiard ball lying on the table, and another ball moving towards it with rapidity. They strike; and the ball which was formerly at rest now acquires a motion.” Hume goes on to describe the reasons we would have for speaking of one ball’s contact causing the other ball to acquire a motion. The question is, does this description get to something naturally inherent in the event?
“Were a man, such as Adam, created in the full vigour of understanding, without experience, he would never be able to infer motion in the second ball from the motion and impulse of the first. It is not anything that reason sees in the cause which makes us infer the effect.”
This new man, striding into the billiard room, Hume thinks, would not see as we see, even if he sees what we see. Only when he has seen such things thousands of times will he see as we see: then, “His understanding would anticipate his sight and form a conclusion suitable to his past experience.”
Hume’s Adam is an overdetermined figure. On the one hand, in his reference to Adam’s “science”, there is a hint of the Adam construed by the humanists. Martin Luther claimed that Adam’s vision was perfect, meaning he could see objects hundreds of miles away. Joseph Glanvill, that curiously in-between scholar – defender of the ghost belief and founder of the Royal Society – wrote in the seventeenth century:
“Adam needed no Spectacles. The acuteness of his natural Opticks (if conjecture may have credit) shew'd him much of the Coelestial magnificence and bravery without a Galilaeo's tube: And 'tis most probable that his naked eyes could reach near as much of the upper World, as we with all the advantages of art. It may be 'twas as absurd even in the judgement of his senses, that the Sun and Stars should be so very much, less then this Globe, as the contrary seems in ours; and 'tis not unlikely that he had as clear a perception of the earths motion, as we think we have of its quiescence.” 
However, this is not the line that Hume develops. His Adam has our human all too human sensorium, and is no marvel of sensitivity. Rather, he belongs to another line of figures beloved by the Enlightenment philosophes: Condillac’s almost senseles statue, Locke’s Molyneaux, Diderot’s aveugle-né. Here, the human is stripped down to the basics. Adam’s conjunction with the billiard ball, then, gives us a situation like Diderot’s combination of the blind man and the mirror – it’s an event of illuminating estrangement.
It is important that these figures were certainly not invented in the eighteenth century. Rather, they come out of a longer lineage: that of the sage and the fool. Bruno and his ass, Socrates and Diogenes the cynic, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – it is from this family that all these deprived souls in the texts of the philosophes are appropriated and turned into epistemological clockworks. 
 Hume’s point is to lift the breaks from off our necks, to break the bonds of necessity – or rather to relocate those bonds. In doing so, he and his billiard balls are reversing the older tendency of atomistic philosophy, which was revived by Gassendi in the 17th century. Lucretian atoms fall in necessary and pre-determined courses, the only exception being that slight inexplicable swerve when the atoms contact the human – hence our free will. Hume, who had a hard enough time with Christian miracles, did not, so far as I know, discuss the Lucretian version of things even to the extent of dismissing it. 
To be a little over the top, we could say that the eighteenth century thinkers disarmed necessity, exiled Nemesis, and the heavyweight heads of the nineteenth century brought it back with a vengeance, locating it – in a bow to Hume, or the Humean moment – in history. Custom. From this point of view, Hume was part of a project that saw the transfer of power from God and Nature back to Man – although we are now all justly suspicious of such capitalizable terms.
But the breaks survived and flourished. There is a way of telling intellectual history – the way I’ve been doing it – that makes it go on above our heads, instead of in them. It neglects the general populace, the great unwashed. Book speaks to book. To my mind, intellectual history has to embrace and understand folk belief in order to understand the book to book P.A. system.
Which is why we can approach the breaks in another way.
In 1980, I was going to college in Shreveport, Louisiana. I went to classes in the morning, then worked at a general remodeling store from 3 to 10. I worked in the paint department, mostly. At seven, the manager would leave for home, and Henry, the assistant manager, would let us pipe in whatever music we wanted to - which is how I first heard Kurtis Blow’s These are the Breaks. I also first heard the Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers delight this way, and I still mix them up. I heard both, as well as La Donna and Rick James, at the Florentine, a disco/gay bar that I went to a lot with friends – it was the best place to dance in town. Being a gay bar, it was always receiving bomb threats and such, which made it a bit daring to go there. We went, however, because we could be pretty sure that the music they played would include no country or rock. It was continuously danceable until, inevitably, The Last Dance played. 
At the time, I was dabbling a bit in Marx, and thought that I was on the left side of history. At the same time, 1980 was a confusing year for Americans. The ‘malaise’ was everywhere, and nothing seemed to be going right – from the price of oil to the international order. There were supposedly communists in Central America, African countries were turning to the Soviet Union, and of course there was the hangover from the Vietnam War – the fantasy that we could have won that war had not yet achieved mass circulation, so it felt like what it was, a plain defeat. 
I imagined, then, that the breaks were falling against a certain capitalist order. In actuality, the left – in its old and new varieties – was vanishing. Or you could say transforming. The long marches were underway – in feminism, from overthrowing patriarchy to today’s “leaning in”; in civil rights, from the riots in Miami to the re-Jim Crowization of America through the clever use of the drug war; and in labor organization, from the union power to strike to the impotence and acceptance that things will really never get better, and all battles are now rearguard. 
 My horizons were not vast back then – I didn’t keep up with the news that much, but pondered a buncha books and the words of popular songs. But I knew something was in the air. As it turned out, Kurtis Blow’s breaks were not going to be kind to my type, the Nowhere people, stranded socially with their eccentric and unconvincing visions. However, after decades of it, I have finally learned to accept what Blow was telling me: these are just the breaks. That is all they are. 
You’ll live.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

De Quincey: our goth

- You like structure, right? Says the woman in the line ahead of me at the grocery store, laying down a fistful of coupons.

I, like her, like structure. But I like it not only for what it does, but for presenting itself to be undone. The first stage could be called realistic – the second stage is definitely gothic, in the broadest sense. There’s living structure, and there’s the undead. There’s Johnson, and there’s De Quincey.
De Quincey, in English literature, introduced the gothic moment into essay and autobiography. He reinvented the most gothic thing of all, the murder story: where the usual Newgate version was sensationalist and moralizing, De Quincey parodied the moralizing and introduced an element of suspense that we now consider to be natural to the genre. Suspense is inherently anti-mythic – myth, with all its dramas, follows a program its audience already knows.

However, unlike the creators of Frankenstein and Dracula, DeQuincey’s place in the Gothic tradition has not gained him the kind of recognitionhe deserves.  It is always nice to seehim get a little publicity, as he  did inthe last issue of the London Review of Bs, in a review of a new biography byNicholas Spicer. – Warning: invidious comparison ahead – The NYRB featured a review of a biography of another “gothic” writer, Wilkie Collins, by Robert Gottlieb that was sort of astonishing, in that Gottlieb apparently thinks Dorothy Sayers is the last person who wrote about detective novels. It is like Gottlieb wandered out of the club, noticed it was later than 1940, and wandered back into the club to write a gentlemanly review. Sometimes the NYRB is so old that it is actually older than its founding, in the  1960s, when it was young. I distinctly heard some snoring in the back row of some of the sentences in the Gottlieb review.

But to return to our onions: Spicer is good about what a horrific family life the De Quincey’s endured. It wasn’t just opium – it was the poverty. As in the life of Karl Marx, money, in De Quincey’s life, or the lack of it, was an ever present menace.   

“As the debts piled up behind them, the family lurched close to utter destitution. De Quincey was repeatedly ‘put to the horn’, a practice native to Edinburgh, whereby a debtor was publicly denounced and made eligible for arrest. In October 1832, he was briefly imprisoned and only avoided further arrests by taking refuge in the Sanctuary of Holyrood, out of the reach of his creditors. Margaret was often ill and De Quincey suffered continually from the effects of his addiction and his attempts to break it – typically, periods of constipation alternating with debilitating bouts of diarrhoea. He sold or pawned everything he could, including most of his books. Two days before the birth of his eighth child, he filed for Cessio Bonorum, a kind of bankruptcy proceedings. In September 1833, his three-year-old son, Julius, died: he had to flee the child’s wake to give the slip to a creditor who’d discovered his whereabouts, "

Like the sound of this? It’s the ardent dream of Trumpians everwhere to make this kind of thing more common. But I digress…

 Spicer has some great comments about De Quincey’s rhetoric, his bizarrie, which was what captured Baudelaire’s admiration (Baudelaire translated De Quincey) as well as, evidently, Poe’s – Poe uses a similarly mix of essayistic seriousness an parody.  Spicer is right here:
“Making fun of others, he idealises himself, but, whether consciously or not, his writing always presses at the limits of seriousness, where solemnity cracks up in a snort of poorly supressed hilarity. His style tips his grander effects into self-parody.
Spicer doesn’t like De Quincey’s sentimentality, or his romantic flights; and it is true that De Quincey tends to weep at his own misfortunes, and endow himself with an irritated sensibility that is easy to read as mere rationalization. But we can’t take De Quincey in pieces to really appreciate him. It is that pressing towards the non-serious, the blind spot in our hierarchized sense of occassions, in which all these things find their necessity. Spicer quotes a lovely bit from De Quincey’s essay on astronomy.

"Lindop recounts an exchange between De Quincey and Pringle Nichol, professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, in which De Quincey confessed himself baffled by the professor’s attachment to the consequences of observable fact. De Quincey’s imagination had taken flight in an essay inspired by a particular theory of the nebula, which the professor pointed out had been disproved by subsequent astronomical findings: ‘Nichol apparently misunderstood the case as though it required a real phenomenon for its basis,’ he wrote."

The  essayist’s contract is with truth – but truth as essai, truth as partial – and even more than that, truth as always partial, never, in the end, forming a whole. Truth as something ultimately more fundamental than the law of non-contradiction. Truth as non-serious.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

styles of saying nothing: the new york times editorial

I open to the NYT site today and find this thing that looks like a sentence under EDITORIAL: 
 -- Too much indulgence in impeachment notions could prove to be a distraction.

There are reasons to think of it as a sentence. For instance, it does have a subject – which is, sort of, ‘indulgence’, or more comprehensively, ‘impeachment notions’  – and it does have a verb, ‘be’, set resolutely in the conditional  - under ‘could’ – and modified like the cough of a high priced lawyer – which is the role played by ‘prove’  - and finally it slips out of the side exit in a finagling  bit of murk – ‘a distraction’.

Such are its parts. Its gestalt is what interests me. Just as margarine is a chemical imitation of butter that can pretty much function as butter functions – you can spread it on toast, you can melt it in a heated pan – but misses one of those functions – that of tasting like butter – so, too, this sentence misses out somewhere in the sensory scale. If you came upon this sentence in laboratory conditions, detached from its source, and were forced to guess its source, I’d wager that you’d say, this must be from an editorial. Because editorials are constructed of these weirdly margarine like phrases. They avoid attachment to any living  subject (a lacuna that is usually filled in with a “we” that, far from being inclusive, operates to exclude as marginal any living creatures outside the special zone of the editorial office), and they never go straight to their objects, bur rather sidle to them through the equivalent of hmms and haws. Except that even a hmm or a haw is throaty – it is a creation of phlegm and hesitation – whereas these hesitations seem detached from any bodily function.  The “could prove to be” litigiously melts down the “are” into an absolute vacancy, in which any statement is true. If we are hit be a meteor tomorrow, it would be true If impeachment never comes in the more normal course of human events, it would be true. If impeachment happens, it would still be true.
Partly this omni-veridical (and omni-empty) 'could prove to be' hangs, essentially, on the oddness of the object –a distraction. Distractions don’t just get up and crawl through the physical world – they require attention. Which in turn requires a brain, or a collectivity of brains. To put these brains in time and space – to frankly situate them in history – seems to be an exercise that exhaustis the sentence before it is even halfway to its target. This is not a string of words that will ever turn over and actually express itself in a human, oh too human way.  

We all are familiar with that ultra American thing – an attraction. As in coming attractions, the slogan of the movie trailer. A distraction is the negative of an attraction, and perhaps we can envision it as a Zen movie trailer, showing nothing.  But… this can’t be right, for then distraction would lead to concentration, at least in all the ascetic  traditions  I am aware of. Instead, these coming distractions are notions of … coming attractions.
Hmm

This style of saying nothing seriously has a history that is intertwined with the history of liberalism in modernity. That history, in turn, is entwined with the history of critique – both in the reactionary vein, and in the revolutionary one. I myself rather like, stylistically,  both ends   of the spectrum of critique, but I am also aware that critique doesn’t seem to have made a dent in this anonymous, liberal elitist style of saying conditional nothings seriously, in order that nothing serious really happen.     

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Burying history under its monuments: the new confederacy

The NYT article on the monuments to the Confederacy by Gary Shapiro tries to be thoughtful, but it struggles with a larger thoughtlessness. While Shapiro is right that confederate monuments have a historical value, he seems oddly oblivious to that history. These monuments were raised by the same people who either participated in or condoned lynching and terror. Slavery does not exhaust our inventory of American evils. To say that Jim Crow was "nasty" shows at the least an inadequate conception of how Jim Crow came about. To quote Bob Marley, a better authority here, 'half that story has never been told." These monuments were part of a process, and that process existed not in ante-bellum times - which seems to be Shapiro's main concern - but in the bloody post-bellum times that allowed the white establishment to, in essence, reverse the verdict of the Civil War. In other words, these are not just monuments to the Civil War past, they are emblems of the Jim Crow present. Since Shapiro shapes his essay around Richmond, let's contrast the monuments to Lee and Davis with, for instance, this map of Virginia lynchings. It is poetically pertinent that as marble statues of Confederate generals were being raised in the capital of the state, a more human, struggling monument was being raised in the state's countryside - with tar and feathers, with castration, with hanging. And so far as I know, noon of those advocates for "preserving" our history have ever advocated for preserving this history. Every confederate monument is an instrument to get us to forget the history being enacted around its base: lynching, mass imprisonment, mass disenfranchisement, wholesale economic fraud.

Louisiana, whose representative recently shed tears for the good old confederate days and who voted to provide more aid to their marble concrete monuments of racists than they provide to sick living human beings, could do with hundreds of monuments to the brave band of African Americans and white reconstructionists who were assassinated or killed in pograms, such as that which occurred in Colfax. How many people have heard of Colfax? Its obscurity is a measure of the success of the raisers of the Confederate monuments, who wanted less to memorialize history than to bury it.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colfax_massacre

Thursday, May 04, 2017

aspects of rumor

 

If in one direction, pheme/kleos moves towards the universal knowledge vested within the people – towards common sensem towards the "public opinion" well beloved by nineteenth century liberals – in another direction, it moves towards rumor, the “angel of ruin”, the fama of Virgil’s Aeneid, the beast perched on the gates of the city:   “Furth she quicklye gallons, with wingflight swallolyke hastning,/A foule fog pack paunch: what feathers plumye she heareth,/so manye squint eyeballs shee keeps (a relation uncoth)/So manye tongues clapper, with her ears and lip labor eevened./ In the dead of nighttime to the skyes shee flickereth, howling/Through the earth shade skipping, her sight from slumber amooving./Whilst the sun is shying the baggage close lodgeth in housroofs,/or tops of turrets, with feare towns loftye she frighteth,/As readye forged fittons, as true tales vayneley toe twattle.” [101, Translation by Richard Stanyhurst, ed. 1895 by Edward Arber, p.101] Such an image could as well be applied to the kind of “rumor panics” in Borneo in 1979, as reported by anthropologist Richard Allan Drake. In the longhouse of the village of Sungai Mulae, he was told that the government was building a bridge nearby, and that of course, they would send out kidnappers to snatch somebody and sacrifice them to the bridge. The village was, ostensibly, Christianized, yet rumors like these “flew” about often; in fact, Drake establishes that the form of this rumor was recurrent in Borneo. It was recorded on the North coast of Borneo as early as 1910; it was recorded in Sandong River region in 1949; and in 1981, it was recorded in the Meratus mountains. In fact, if we extend our search from Borneo to other regions of the world, we find that, for instance, in pre-Revolutionary France, there were rumors about the kidnapping of children and women by the government of King Louis XV; and there was the persistent rumor in Czarist Russia of Jews kidnapping Christian children to use their blood.

Although the circumstances and meanings of these rumors are different, their reappearence puts them in the category of “Tauchgerüchte”, diver rumors – they dive up and they dive down – that was so named by L.A. Bysow, a Russian sociologist who wrote a seminal analysis of rumors that appeared in the twenties, and then disappears from sociological literature. Like many one article authors, Bysow’s position in the construction of the sociology of rumor suffers, itself, from odd distortions – for instance, he is often quoted as D.A. Brysow (for instance, by Curtis Macdougall in his book, Understanding Public Opinion (1952). Bysow borrows the late nineteenth century notion of contagion to model rumors according to an epidemiology, thus continuing a very old analogy between logos and seed. The invisible microbe that replaced the miasma model fit comfortably with the word as organic – and indeed, the word is the product of an organism. In fact, the analogy between sickness and rumor is encoded even in Virgil’s image, for this monstrous bird of ill or true fame conveys the word from mouth to ear in the city bears a visible likeness to the winged demons who shoot the arrows of sickness in the city. Both sickness and rumor “fly”. And both are mass phenomena, often leading to panic. And, in a quiet division between true fame and false, rumors have, over time, been associated exclusively with distortion. The rumor is often treated by the sociologist as though, by definition, it must be false. As often happens, the sociologist is simply following the cop, here – for the justification of using police action against rumor is precisely that it falsifies, as though there were some connection between hegemonic power and the truth

Rumor is the illegitimate sibling – at least mythopoetically – of public opinion. Drake connects rumor in Borneo to the dominance of the “oral”. The logic of evidence here feeds on itself, engages in an act of supererogatory nutrition, is, at the core, exaggeration. Unlike the written, which requires a process of mediation that engages the body as scriptor, the medium as the object inscribed, and the eye as reader, rumor, like the word itself, springs directly from the tongue and flies to the ear. Bysow speaks of its chain-like characteristic – depending on face to face communication, it creates a public of a sort out of haptic space – the kind of public that Gabriel Tarde, writing in the late nineteenth century, classified as essentially the primitive form of the public: the crowd.

In the early modern period in France, as Arlette Farge shows in Dire et Mal Dire, the word on the street was as much a vehicle of news as any official chronicle. Indeed, news was subdivided between the official histories, the private journals, and the gazetins of the police – police reports composed from the reports of the mouchards, the spies, that the police planted in the population. Louis XV enjoyed having these gazetins read to him. The relation of those in power to those underneath is mediated by a concern, on the part of both parties, with what is thought by the other – a concern in which the police can act as brokers. In World War II, there devolved upon some sub-officers the duty of filling out rumor reports – for officers and the upper management of the security apparatus were obsessed with the damage rumor could do. It was during the war that Allport and Postman studied rumors through a series of experiments, in which an image, seen by some subject, was then described by that subject to someone who couldn’t see the image. Then a chain of accounts is produced as the second person tells a third person (who also can’t see the image) about it, and so on. The sadistic element in the experiment (for psychology experiments almost always contain some element that displays the gratuituous power of the experimenter) is that these accounts are made in front of an audience that can see the slide on the screen, while those describing the image have to keep their backs turned to the screen.

Notice two things about Allport and Postman’s experiments. The first is the idea, which forms the whole basis of the experiment, that the story communicated by the rumor is – in contradiction to that reported by, say, the experimenter – essentially distorted. The distortion here is given to us in the frame of the report – although we who read the report cannot ourselves examine the slides, we are told, without any shadow of a doubt, what they depict by the researchers. In fact, of course, these descriptions often carry with them descriptors that are not “contained” in the images. In an experiment made in Britain following Allport’s line after the war, for instance, we are told that one slide is of “students throwing eggs” – which depends for its truth value on, among other things, describing the thrower as a student. But can true and false fama be so easily separated? Does distortion really mean untruth? Whose protocols are in play, here?

The second thing to notice about the Allport/Postman experiments is that they impose an identity on the group of subjects by giving them certain functions, in opposition to another group. Allport and Postman were not concerned with the function of rumor in maintaining the group so much as they were concerned with the transmission of rumor, which meant studying how a distortion generates a story pattern. A distortion like mistaking L.A. Bysow’s name, on the other hand, does not generate a story, although it occurs in the literature of rumor. Indeed, it would be petty to pick at it. However, we are again led to question the provenance of these assumptions. The atmosphere in which Allport and Postman worked reflected the war. As identity was imposed on the mass of draftees and volunteers in forces around the world as a topdown matter, the powers in place in armies and government bureaucracies became obsessed with information control – and thus, with fighting rumors. 

It is worth asking, then, whether rumors can be, among other things, attempts to wrest away that identity power by those upon whom it has been imposed. It is one of the surprises of literature it is shown such respect by the powers that be that they are continually trying to police rumor, or in other words, stories, narratives. The history of the policing of rumor shows a surprising sensitivity by those in power to the view of the ordinary outcasts and non-entities over whom they rule.

The mouchards of the Ancien Regime lead us, etymologically – that science that tracks the rumor of sound and sense behind the current word – to a sort of totemic animal who presides over the contagious rumor: the fly. According to an etymological dictionary of 1856 (Noel, Carpentier), the word mouchard “is not an old one in our language, [it] … derives from the word mouche [housefly], flies going out to search their food everywhere, changing places in the wink of an eye; and what appears to confirm this opinion is that one said and one says still moucher for spy, mouche for a spy. “It is useless, says M. Ch. Nodier, to search there (in the name of the father of Mouchy) this etymology, which presents itself naturally in musca, which had the same figurative acceptation in Latin, as one can see often in Plautus and in Petronius.” [374]

However, there is another story about the word in question here – for the housefly is not, according to Greenburg and Kunich, at the root of musca. Musca derives from the Sanskrit, mukshika, which describes something more like a gnat – the eye fly, musca sorbens, which feeds on secretions of the eye. The fly is shown in lists kept in Mesopotamia, and the gods are compared to flies when they gather around a sacrifice, or fly through the streets. In Lucian’s Praise of the Fly, the connection between the fly and gossip is made part of an origin story:

“Legend tells how Myia (the fly's ancient name) was once10 a maiden, exceeding fair, but over-given to talk and chatter and song, Selene's rival for the love of Endymion. When the young man slept, she was for ever waking him with her gossip and tunes and merriment, till he lost patience, and Selene in wrath turned her to what she now is. And therefore it is that she still, in memory of Endymion, grudges all sleepers their rest, and most of all the young and tender. Her very bite and blood-thirst tell not of savagery, but of love and human kindness; she is but enjoying mankind as she may, and sipping beauty.”

In Steve Connor’s book Fly, there is a wealth of associations culled from literature and life – the life, for instance, that is recorded in the trials of witches - between the fly and devils. The fly as a familiar possesses a number of qualities – its metamorphosis from the worm, its feeding on excrement, its omnipresence as a camp follower of human habitations, its quickness, its flight, its prominent eyes, its buzz – that go into the notion of Fama as well. Oddly, Connor doesn’t touch on the subject of the spy as fly, perhaps because the spy in English is free from the fly’s taint that finds expression in  French. 

Rumor, the reporters of rumor, and the makers of rumor are three faces of the myth of what sociologist Shibutani calls “improvised news”. Shibutani proposed a quantitative model in which a certain demand for information is not met by “official channels”. Rumor, in this view, is a kind of overflow of the demand for news. Thus, Shibutani does not identify rumor with distortion, but instead, with an enduring will to truth – in as much as the demand for news is taken as a will to truth. But is it? Is the news about portraying the world? And does this realistic view of the  news work any better than realism in any of the arts?
The social time of rumor is, ideally, simultaneous.  Rumors connect those who spread them, and create among those who are “in the know“ a sense of the ‘latest’. Because rumors are primarily oral, however, their simultaneity is limited. Observers are surprised by it – surprised by how fast rumors spread. Partly this is because rumors fall on the side of the pre-industrial and the oral. In the early modern period and enlightenment, rumor coexisted with print as the literate coexisted with the illiterate, and as the ideology of progress coexisted with the dying gasps of the image of the limited good – the ideology of Nemesis, of the wheel of fortune. But this period, we can see, looking back, is premonitory of the industrial experience even if it is separate from it. One might say that symbolically, from the moment that Fontenelle noted the ingenuity of Paris’ artisans and Defoe noted the accounting methods of English traders, literature filled with intersignes and prophecies of the industrial future. The great novelists of the first half of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Gogol, etc., are all unconsciously prophetic, for in the monumental spasms of negative capability they absorbed, in the experiences they diversely lived, the intersignes lying about, cast up to the surface of society by the great capitalist transformation at work underneath. 

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

o pioneers!

Searching for Mom's old farm
The various unconscious overloads of habit, the disorder at the end of the week, the work undone, the escape hatch bolted: it is to escape this circle that we travel. We? Well, myself, my always overintellectualizing self. Escape, last week, was to St. Joseph, Missouri.
First, we stayed at the Elms Hotel, a vast, fortress like pile located in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, a good twenty minutes from Kansas City. A good forty minutes from St. Joseph, if you don’t go the highway route. The Elms at one point was a premier resort, one of the Midwest’s finest, the haunt of Al Capone, the famous Kansas city boss Tom Pendergast, and Tom’s protégé, one Harry Truman. Harry Truman received word that he’d beat Dewey here, where he spent the night in 1948. Jack Dempsey, in 1920, had swum laps in the famous “European” lap pool, which you reach by going down three flights of stairs from the lobby to the very nadir of the place. He’d even done an exhibition round there. I imagine Brenda Joyce might have swum there too. She’s the actress that played “Jane” in the Tarzan movies in the 30s. She was born in Excelsior Springs. I am related to this semi-glorious company that I, too, have wallowed in the pocket hot tub and languidly paddled myself in the pool.
Of course the Springs and all of North Missouri was the stomping ground of Jesse James, one of the more curious hero/antiheros to have his legend spawned in the Volkgeist, such as it is. A bankrobber and murderer, who I know about mainly as the poor goof in the song, shot in the back by that ‘dirty little coward’ Robert Ford. Poor Jesse had a wife, too. According to the song. Poor Jesse.
As for other crimes, well, there’s the usual racial ones. In 1925, a crowd of 500 lynched Walter Mitchell, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Unusually, according to the Chicago Tribune, the man who tried to photograph the event was knocked down and his camera broken. Usually, white Americans were right proud of their lynchings, and made picture postcards of them, which they traded. You can see any variety if you look this up on google images, or read Without Sanctuary.
The first night, we came in late and tired and gobbled down our dinner by the fire. I had a couple of beers: farm ales, our waitor told me. They were filling. Missouri food generally tries to be filling. Perhaps it is all the land that sends a sort of panic fear of starvation through the masses, as though maybe one will be forced out on the steppe with no vittles on a cold night. Plates arrive at the table with every damn square inch of ceramic covered with whatever you ordered.
The next day, we set out to find my relatives. My Mom was born in St. Louis, and raised on a farm outside of Albany, Missouri. I believe the county of Gentry was more populous then – if the Jollys are any indication. George and Ola Jolly, my grandfather and grandmother, stuck it out through the Great Depression, but when their five kids all moved to the Washington D.C. area, they followed. This was in 1945, 1946. In 1930 there was 14,300 some people. Now there is less than half that number. The depopulation shows. We drove around for miles and miles without seeing another human being.
Eventually, we drove past the Fairview Church, reversed, and parked in front of it. I had read that some Jollys were buried in the Fairview graveyard. The church, an impeccably white clapboard structure that was pure Midwest gothic, went from hosting a standard denomination of Methodists, I believe, to hosting the Freewill Baptists. My mother in law asks me what distinguished the Freewill Baptists, and I couldn’t say. Mom was never particular about the Baptist varieties. She attended Northern Baptist and Southern Baptist churches alike. But my Mom loved Jesus and didn’t think he made too much fuss about methods of Baptism or certain amusements, like dancing. We went through the graveyard. It was a beautiful sunny day, the rolling hills falling away in all directions. Northern Missouri is beautifully treed – I was told that the arboricity was due to the settlers, who’d found this country a grassy sea, no trees in sight. I have to tip my hat to those settlers. There were thousands time more green trees than people in all this countryside.
Finally we came upon the Jolly family plot. Here was the sturdy monument to James Perry Jolly, 1846 to 1942 (I think. I didn’t take a note on the spot, alas). He is, I believe, my great great grandfather. Or is that one too many greats? I found a geneology in a history of Gentry county, which claims that James Perry and his wife, May nee Schaffer) begat George, my grandfather. However, the dates in the book seem to either conflate James Perry and his father, Samuel, or, more likely, have the wrong date for his birth, which it puts at 1894, but which it places in Breckenridge County, Kentuck. Since the Jollys left Kentucky according to the same history in 1852, I incline to the latter supposition. In any case, the conspectus of James Perry’s adventures enroll him among the pioneers. Not, perhaps, the sodhut pioneers of Willa Cather’s stories, since the book claims for the Jollys a double log house. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds a little above the peasant grade. James Perry was apparently a lieutenant in the Civil War. Since he was a Republican, I think we can assume he served on the right side, which is a relief. I have no confederate blood in my veins, peeps! And he seems to have been a successful raiser of livestock.
After Fairview, we went on to Albany, which has the great good fortune to have retained an old Carnegie Library in the heart of it. The librarians were gracious. They showed me the geneology room, and I read a bit from the Albany Ledger – searching out mentions of the Jollys.
But I was searching for something other than geneology, I admit. I wanted to know what Mom saw and breathed. She left Missouri when she was 19 years old, and by the time she had me, she hadn’t been back in some time. I don’t know that she ever went back once she married Dad. It was all a fleeting memory. Did it contain such sunny/rainy spring days, such hills and dales? Well, surely. I am not strong for the idea that we are such isolated individuals that we are each blocked up one to the other. This strikes me as a bourgeois way of looking at things. But I am old, I have chased what I chased in my particular tracks, and I can’t say that I felt that I saw what Mom saw, though I stood on spots that she stood on. I carry in my voice, in my accents, some tiny bit of this Missouri soil – the voice is where our histories repose. Voice is compound. In fact, of the people I met in St. Joseph latter on, none of them quite matched the accent I remember my aunts and uncle having, save for one woman whose mode of speech brought into my mind the way Aunt Georgia talked – tart, angular, with a certain skepticism. My tongue doesn’t have those tribal resonances, but it is what I have, barely, that I share with these men and women gone to earth in the Fairview Cemetery.