“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, August 16, 2017

taking down the statues

One of the more depressing things about living in LA - as compared to say Paris - is the lack of statues in the streetlife. In my experience, most french cities – saved those bombed into shit and rebuilt after WWII – are filled with statues and images, gargoyles and fountains. But American cities and suburbs, with some exceptions, do not give you a lot of statue encounters.

In the argument about taking down the Confederate statues, there is an understandable theme that this is a matter of mere symbolism, the kind of thing that a white college student can participate in an pat himself on the back – and who doesn’t begrudge that figure his satisfactions? Yet I think the statue-viewer situation is made much too one dimensional in this view of things.

There are two dimensions that are left out here. One is the dimension of the symbol and the real in the cityscape, the park, the campus. The other dimension is the material one of who, in the average day, really encounters these statues.

My contention is that the lack of statues in the American space has to do partly with the idea that symbols aren’t real. We will spend on the real. Here’s a real building – say, the Pet store next to our apartment on 9th and Wilshire. And here’s a symbol, say, the statue of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, in Palisades Park at the very end of Wilshire.

Now the funny thing here is that the real, in this story, being the functional, can easily be substituted. The pet store on Wilshire, for instance, went broke or moved. The building was revamped, and it is now a Charles Schwab building. The effect on the users of the Pet store might still be lodged in the memory, but my bet is that nobody really notices any more. Whereas if we took the statue of Augustine’s mother down, and substituted Madelyn Murry O’hare, people would notice very much. That is because the symbol is not functional in the same way – it is read differently in the landscape. Another way of saying this is that the symbol has power.

To understand this power, one must shift levels to a materialist reading of the urban scape: who exactly sees what.

In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, the United for a Fair Economy organizaiton commissioned a study of carlessness in eleven major urban areas. And guess what? Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to be carless.

This is simply another element in the economic apartheid that prevails in the U.S. But it has effects. One of the effects is that getting around the city, if you don’t have a car, requires an elevated amount of walking. Even if you are walking to and from the bus stop, there is more walking involved in your urban life.
One of the reasons that there is a lack of statuary in cities in France that were rebuilt after the war is that these cities were rebuilt with the automobile in mind. A predominance of statues implies a congregation of walkers. Car drivers might mark certain statues in a city – but mainly they don’t know them. They don’t read them.

One of the reasons that the statue issue is hot on campuses is that this is one of those spaces where white people are actually walking. Walking not as a sport, but as a functional activity that gets them to where they are supposed to be. This directly affects the statue viewing experience. It makes it degrees more intimate.

When the Confederate statues were erected in the South, from 1910 to 1960 for the most part, there was a great deal of carlessness among both whites and blacks. This meant that the statue experience was on a level of intimacy that was meant to send a clear message to African Americans. The message was: this is not your space. This is not your home.

The level of car ownership rose considerable for whites and blacks during this period – but much more for whites than blacks. In fact, as the phrase “driving while black” implies, and as we know from every video of police – African American encounters, the white uneasiness about blacks having access to automobiles has never gone down.

What this means is that those statues loom much more into the intimate experience of African-American everyday life than they do in White American life. But when the statues are threatened, white Americans – certain ones, Nazis, Trump, that ilk – show that they can still read them very well.
In this way, symbols can grab hold of life. Taking down the statues will not collapse the structure of economic apartheid. It will lessen the stress of the African American everyday experience.

Take the statues down!

Monday, August 14, 2017

the hour of the freak

As I’ve written before, Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics is full of wonderful things, paragraphs that make me want to lay it aside and write long, gulflike commentaries. For instance, in exploring the “canting” literature of the 17th century, he writes this: “Before it entered modern usage, “slang” meant, in canting jargon, “to exhibit anything in a fair or market, such as a tall man, or a cow with two heads.”38 Hence, “slang” originally referred to the exhibition of freakish things—a kind of social and economic profanity.” Anatoly Liberman, a historian of lexicographer, surveys the theories about the etymology of slang and comes down on the use of slang as the word for making the rounds of a territory – being “out on the slang”. This could apply to actors, prostitutes, or mountebanks. But Liberman, too, concedes that the use of slang to denote a kind of language came from some linguistic sub-group – either thieves’ jargon or hawkers’ jargon. There is a “secret language” named Shelta, combining Irish and English terms, which was common among itinerants in the 17th century – we get the word bloke from this coded speech – and perhaps slang as a word for movement went into Shelta and came out as the word for words like slang.  Another rather charming nineteenth century theory was propounded by one of those English churchmen with too much time on their hands, Isaac Taylor, who combined the “out on the slang” phrase with a story that there was once, in the wilds of Derbyshire, a village called Flash, where all the tinkers used to meet. Hence, this is where the term “flash” – which in the nineteenth century referred to that louche magnificence that any American first grader will tell you is pimping – came from, and where the equivalence between flash language and being out on the slang was forged.

As well – and this is where Tiffany’s theory of the lyric is both brilliant and highly poetic – this is where the connection between obscurity and the obscure, between the indirection that misleads the police and the people who don’t count, who slip like shadows, or, sand, or dirt, or any mysterious commonness between the cracks of history, was forged. Tiffany wants to re-assert the prole nature of the poem in the epoch of capitalism. He’s mining a vein that has been worked both by Wordsworth and by Baudelaire – the latter when, in Les paradis artificiels, he wrote that under the effect of haschich:

“…is developed that mysterious and temporary state of mind where the depth of life, spiky with its multiple problems, is revealed completely in the so natural and so trivial spectacle that one has under one’s eyes – where the first object we come upon becomes a speaking symbol. Fourier and Swedenborg, one with his analogies and the Fourier et Swedenborg , the former with his analogies and the latter with his correspondances, are incarnated in the vegetable and animal realms that fall under your gaze, and instead of teaching vocally, they indoctrinate you by their form and color. The intelligence of allegory takes on, in you, proportions you never dreamt of; we will note in passing that allegory, that spiritual genre, which clumsy painters have accustomed us to despise, but which is really one of the most primitive and natural form of poetry, re-establishes its legitimate domination in the intelligence illuminated by intoxication. In this way, haschich extends itself on life like a magic gloss. I colors it solemnly and throws a light into its depths.”

Of course, Baudelaire did not buy his buzz on the street corner – he was one of the subjects of the good Dr. Moreau, who – like so many doctors who are found in the shadowy corners of the intersection between the art world and the underworld – gave little experimental parties to which such gents as Baudelaire and Balzac were invited.

You could say that what Tiffany calls the “sociological sublime” is the hour of the freak. The freak marks the spot where the powers that be encounter something that is not so much resistance as a portal to a realm in which the ideology of strength, the backbone and boner of the patriarchy, has no dominion.

Take down the statue to Lee, put up one to Wesley Norris

I see that a lot of shitheads, er, peeps soft on the confederacy, want Robert E. Lee's statue preserved for history's sake. Hey, for history's sake, I could agree, long as we match the general with Wesley Norris, the slave who escaped from Lee's Arlington residence, was recaptured, and was given fifty lashes - washed with salt brine - as well as the same number given to his cousin and his sister by the soulful future General. As Frederick Douglas remarked after the war, General Lee was given a sickeningly flattering reception in the Northern Press, but he warnt no Ivanhoe. Here's the testimony. Often disputed by apologists, generally agreed to be true by historians.
My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired; we remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson county, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad; in January, 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom; I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetary on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars; my sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement. (¶ 2)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Hey diddle diddle runs rampant

Respect to Daniel Tiffany for his Infidel Poetics.  I measure its brilliance by its subtitle – subtitles are such an interesting genre, they peek out of the pockets of the author’s intention and make faces at the reader, they are little gremlins, or tells, or the overflow that escaped the editor’s “delete”, the Id making tracks for the Golden West: “Riddles, Nightlife, Substance.”  A train of associations that seems to have gone way off the track and landed in Oz.

One of the other measures of a book, for me, is its quotes. You gotta quote right. Many academics think quoting is just credentialing, so they quote the silliest things: As X said, New York is the first postmodern town. Etc. You want to say, is X always so boring? But Tiffany, who is also a poet, quotes brilliant and delightful things – finds. The difference between a quote that is credentialing and a quote that is a find is the difference between a stamp collection and buried treasure.
Here is something Tiffany found in Mallarme, of all peeps.

“Indeed, one of Mallarmé’s songs from the nursery discloses the contagious effect of the rhyme’s illogic on the translator. Mallarmé adopted the practice of presenting the English song followed by his prose rendering of it in French (which I translate below):

Hey! diddle, diddle,
 The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport
While the dish ran after the spoon.

 What a strange scene! Look at the cat with his violin—and that’s not all: there’s the moon, and a cow jumping right over it! I act like the little dog, laughing hard to see such foolishness. And then it seemed to me, as I contemplated this spectacle, that my ideas ran away with themselves, one after another, just as—in the words of the song—the dish runs after the spoon. Hey! diddle, diddle.’”

Mallarme, the unapproachable, becomes, unexpectedly, your favorite uncle.

Tiffany is much impressed by the effect of the hey diddle diddle, which runs, like that dish and spoon, through the poetry of modernism, lickety-split. 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

My rant blaming America first, or : Bring em on, 2

Bring em on!

I haven't gone on a blame America first rant in a while. Being a lefty, this makes me sad. 

So here's one. 

Let's go on one about NKorea's nukes. Gotta go back to 1976, when Pakistan and North Korea agreed to be good buddies. At that time, this meant general pats on the back at the U.N. But things were going to be cooking in Pakistan.

That was because a certain Abdul Qadeer Khan, a scientist, had an idea. The idea was to steal a buncha blueprints from a European nuclear power consortium. Which he did. However, the Dutch caught him, and put him on trial in 1985. They fumbled the first case, and were about to mount another, when the CIA leaned on the Dutch. The message was, don’t get Pakistan angry. (I get this material from Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark’s excellent account, Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons)
You may remember – or perhaps you weren’t born yet and don’t remember – that Pakistan was our frontline ally in trying to free Afghanistan from the horrible Soviet yoke and restore it to Islamicist freedom fighters. The Reagan administration was on all cylinders to get this to happen.
Unfortunately, U.S. intelligence kept coming up with info that the Pakistanis were building a nuclear bomb. They even got Reagan to ask General Zia, then Pakistan’s dictator, if this was true. In Reagan’s diary, he recorded that Zia denied it. Well, old mister ‘Trust but Verify” didn’t really feel that verifying was called for her. Zia was a patriot and a fine soldier!
Others in his administration, including George Schulz, the Sec. of State, did write memos saying maybe we should apply some little bitty pressure on Pakistan. But instead, Pakistan was flooded with military aid. And secret aid from the CIA.
This was fortunate. Building nuclear bombs is an expensive business. The Pakistan government was broke. Where was doctor Khan going to get funding for his little project?
Well, nobody knows. There has been some revelation that of the 500 million it cost to build the centrifuges and get the nuclear biz going, some 18 million came from the Pakistan government. But wait! Wasn’t there some secret funds from the Americans sloshing around?
Yeah, baby, yeah! The authors of Deception give a cautious estimate of a diversion of 90 million dollars in U.S. funds to the building of the Pakistani bomb. As for the rest – well, I think I’m going to lay my eye on Saudi Arabia, also a big slosher around of funds at that time. Here’s a Business Insider article about how thatworked out well for Saudi Arabia.

You remember the Saudis, don’t you? Keeping unfree so that the free world can be free! Big applause for them, and maybe a little pity party for Saudi women. God bless em, they, at least, can gaze at the U.S. and see how feminist we are here! We are practically role models.

But to get back to North Korea. North Korea can mine uranium itself, since Satan put some uranium in the ground in that country. But where were they to get the centrifuges to spin out that good stuff? This is where Pakistan, under Clinton and Bush’s watchful gaze, came in handy. After nuke tests in 1999 announced to the world that Pakistan was ready to party, time to start selling the shit and making a profit. Actually, even before, in 1996, Clinton’s peeps noticed that Pakistani equipment was ending up in N. Korea. Like all tough American presidents, Clinton’s peeps really gave the Pakistanis an earful! And then bushels of money. This was followed by Bush, who also gave the Pakistanis an earful, and then bushels of money.

In this way, we were cleverly troping Pavlov, awarding negative behavior with positive strokes. It was all an experiment in behavior, don’t you know.

Well, upshot was that North Korea has enough smarties, and enough Pakistani provided equipment, that they know what to do. And so today, Dear Leader 1 vs. Dear Leader 2 makes us all think, hmm, is it time for the U.S. to suffer a million casualties – BUT AT LEAST SHOW THE WORLD WHOSE BOSS!
That’s how they do the thinking on the level above all our grades. Cause they’s so smart!

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

incantation and writing

Generally, I am on the side of Tim Ingold – who is on the side, mostly, of Derrida – in his book, Lines. In some ways, Ingold reproduces the grammatological gesture of the early Derrida. For instance, Inglold, too, devotes time to a lesson in writing. The scene of writing in Lines is derived not from Levi-Strauss, however, but, more Englishly, from Winnie the Pooh.
“Eeyore, the old grey donkey, has arranged three sticks on the ground. Two of the sticks were almost touching at one end but splayed apart at the other, while the third was laid across them. Up comes Piglet. ‘Do you know what that is?’, Eeyore asks Piglet. Piglet has no idea. ‘It’s an A’, intones Eeyore proudly. By recognizing the figure as an A, however, would we be justified in crediting Eeyore with having produced an artefact of writing? Surely not. All he has done is to copy a figure he has seen somewhere else. He knows it is an A because that is what Christopher Robin called it. And he is convinced that to recognize an A when you see one is of the essence of Learning and Education. But Christopher Robin, who is starting school, knows better. He realizes that A is a letter, and that as such it is just one of a set of letters, called the alphabet, each of which has a name, and that he has learned to recite in a given order. He is also learning to draw these letters. But at what stage does he cease to draw letters and begin instead to write? “
This question hovers very much over any contemporary family with a child in pre-school. Adam has spent the last year in a fight with the number 5. It is a number that, he claims, he can’t draw. It is a curious problem, since he can draw 3 and even the difficult 4. But 5 in Adam’s hands tends to turn into 3. 

Ingold considers the answers produced by the question of the drawing/writing divide (which one notices in the Pooh example almost fatally puts into motion the various hierarchical divides – of human vs. animal, of the schooled (literate) vs. the unschooled, or savage, of the scission between the preschooled child and the child who is “starting school” – that play out in the last 500 years of history) and goes through the various classificatory responses that attempt to sort out what is going on. There is the difference he starts out with, deriving from Nelson Goodman, between script and score (“The script, he argues, is a work, whereas in the case of the score the work comprises the set of performances compliant with it.“) He considers Vygotsky’s idea that children, making their first letters or numbers, ‘do not draw, they indicate, and the pencil merely fixes the indicatory gesture.” And finally he considers Roy Harris’s argument that the difference between notation and spelling signifies a cardinal epistemological shift.
Ingold, however, wants to argue that whatever shift is indicated by the difference between Christopher Robin and Eeyore’s view of “A”, spelling or writing is still a special kind of drawing. 

Adam’s problem with 5 is not a problem with its place in the number system. He knows how to count to ten – and even to one hundred, when singing the song about counting to one hundred. But I would emphasize something different than indication or spelling. I would emphasize incantation. 

To my mind, Adam’s knowledge of counting to ten is incantatory knowledge. This doesn’t mean he can’t apply it. He loves, in fact, to count things. Holes in shoes that shoestrings go through. Fingers. The number of pancake pieces on his plate that he has to finish. But these numerating instances are, I think, incantatory instances as well. 

Charms with incantations written on them are pretty common objects in the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Incantations are generally taken to be nonsense words, formulas that do not correspond to words or phrases that make sense in the language in which they appear. For the Greeks, they were part of the repertoire of medicine. In one of Pindar’s poems, Aesclepius uses incantations, pharmaka (drugs) or pharmaka (charms) to heal patients. The classical scholar Roy Kotansky quotes a text by Cato which recommends healing a fractured bone not only by binding the area with bandages, but also by binding a broken reed at the same time, waving about a knife, and uttering the phrase Motas Vaeta Daries Dardares Astataries Dissunapiter. This phrase is “nonsensical” – the equivalent of abracadabra. 

But it is a mistake to claim that the nonsense has no larger sense. Incantatory phrases are handed down. They are written. They are remembered. They are formulaic. But the reference of the word or words that form the incantation is not on the normal route to denotation. It is hip hopping down another road, a backroad. 

I’m not sure that viewing the 5 as an incantatory object is going to solve Adam’s problem. That will be solved mechanically as he keeps going to school. But it does shed some light on the way children pick up on phrases, and will repeat them for the joy of the phrase. Which later on becomes part of the reception or creation of verbal art. 

One more story from Ingold. 

“In some cases, the elements of a notation are clearly also depictions. That the ox-head hieroglyph, the precursor of our letter A, is a depiction becomes obvious if we compare it with the way oxen themselves were drawn in Ancient Egypt (Figure 5.4). We would not hesitate to say that the glyph is a drawing of something other than itself, even though it is also incorporated into a script. Another well-known example may be taken from recent ethnography. I refer to Nancy Munn’s (1973b) celebrated study of the Walbiri, an Aboriginal people of the Central Australian Desert whom we have already encountered, in passing, in Chapter 3. Both men and women among the Walbiri routinely draw designs in the sand with their fingers, as they talk and tell stories. This drawing is as normal and as integral a part of conversation as are speech and gesture. The markings themselves are standardized to the extent that they add up to a kind of vocabulary of graphic elements whose precise meanings, however, are heavily dependent on the conversational or storytelling contexts in which they appear. Thus a simple straight line can be (among other things) a spear, a fighting or digging stick, or a person or animal lying stretched out; a circle can be a nest, water hole, tree, hill, billy can or egg. As the story proceeds, marks are assembled into little scenes, each of which is then wiped out to make way for the next (Munn 1973b: 64–73).”

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Keep your electric eye on me babe

I saw the movie Detroit last night. I squirmed. The beatings. The murders.  I looked up the Algiers Motel incident when I came home. I squirmed some more.

And then I decided to look around in the NYT and see what was being reported around the time Detroit was experiencing its revolution and reaction.

In the summer of 1967, there was a riot in Newark, a riot in Syracuse, a riot in Tokyo, a riot in Cambridge Maryland, student riots in Brazil, a riot in Cincinnati, a riot in Manchuria, a riot in Clearwater Florida, a riot in Nashville, a riot in Houston, a riot in the Roxbury section of Boston, etc. In Philadelphia, the Mayor, riding the white rage wave, accused a group of “revolutionary” negroes of planning a mass poisoning of whites. Arlen Spector, then Philadelphia’s D.A., held a news conference to announce the charges.

The NYT times helpfully labeled these Negro Riots. As in the headline: “Milwaukee Calm after Negro Riot.” Whites, apparently, only responded to the riot. When the police beat peeps in the street, that wasn’t rioting, but anti-rioting. In this way, a riot is unlike a dance, in which both partners are described as dancing.

1967 was an interesting year in the racial geography of the U.S. Small news stories indicate larger phenomena. Take Cheshire Connecticut. Cheshire was an upscale suburb north of New Haven. One of its selectmen, name of William E.Kennedy, Jr., thought it would be a good idea to officially pass a resolution welcoming Negro homeowners. This roused the town from its dogmatic slumbers, apparently, and the select board found itself confronted by angy – but non-rioting – affluent suburbanites who, in the words of one of them, didn’t want to be “forced to welcome anyone.” Anyone is a nice disguise. It is used today whenever black lives matter is mentioned. Don’t all lives matter? The suburbanite from Cheshire would recognize the world of Trump’s America as her own. In the event, Kennedy’s resolution was altered to a welcome to anyone.
I’m not a fan of all the sixties shit, but I am astonished at how unsettled things were in America, how rapidly things moved. The period from 1945 to around 1980 featuring an explosion of civil rights activity, as well as an anti-colonialist revolution, of which the Detroit riot was a part.  
The rupture created in this period was re-interpreted, and the liberatory impulses lost, in the neoliberal era, which extends from the 80s until now.

Neo-liberalism, too, was initiated in a call to arms against the state – a call to arms for the wealthy. In the mix,  national governments are supposedly undermined – which I take to be a surface phenomenon of a more profound shift to wealth inequality. The call for shrinking the gov is easily reversed, as it was in 2008-9, when the fortunes of the top of the wealth scale are threatened. In the Anglo countries, unsurprisingly, great inequality went hand in hand with mass incarceration, and an astonishing absolute loss in the assets held by communities that were gaining power in the 45-80 period. Here I guess the African-American experience is exemplary. Now I wouldn’t want to say that this pushback effected all marginalised groups. Groups that are represented in the wealthiest class due, simply, to the way that class is composed of human beings – white women and white gays – have benefited from the end effects of previous civil rights movements. This is to the good. My feeling, though, is that the choice to mobilize the productive sectors of the nations with more developed economies in a great global game of musical chairs identified the gains made by these two groups with “globalisation” – instead of the liberation movements of the epoch before – and this price has been onerous and increasing. This is the hocus pocus that gives us an image of the racist white working class while the racism is all led by the white wealthy, an upper class that, in the U.S. for instance, is 96 percent white.  A liberatory globalisation movement still has not arisen. When it does – when a general strike in China, say, is mirrored by one in the US – then I would say globalisation has turned, as it was turning in the sixties. We live in the pause. The old globalization was one of urban guerillas, condemned by NYT editorial and FBI director alike. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

George Osborne comes to France

Macron is combining the failed approaches of George Bush and George Osborne. But he’s so cute! And Le Monde is following behind, ever the faithful chien de garde. What is the dog’s task? It is to skip the first order of argument – does a country with a growing population really need to cut its spending, or increase it?. And in what areas?  Just assume that we don’t need this discussion, and all bien-pensants are agreed we have to cut spending. Then it is just a matter of going around in a circle, greeting all complaints with the remark, well, we have to cut spending you know.

For example – a few weeks ago, one of Le Monde’s Macron-archs was considering the petty complaints of petty people on the cultural front about cuts to their funding by the gov. He came up with a brilliant justification – it would be unfair not to cut the funding for the arts when everything else is being cut! The brilliance of this is that it skips right over whether the arts need to be cut or need, on the contrary, to be reinvested in, and makes it a matter of everybody has to take the bitter medicine. Of course, that excludes the cuts to the taxes of those in the top 10 percent income bracket, but lets not talk about that now! Let’s pretend that a budget is not about what the people need the government to do on all fronts, and is about nameless “waste” and a deficit that will go down magically as the government withdraws from services to the people.

We will ignore that the public deficit has so far grown in countries like the UK who have adopted the policy of blind cuts.

But one thing that we can surely assert with confidence, although  only cankish lefty economists will talk about this, is the opposite of the “crowding out” thesis. You know that latter thesis. It is that public investment “crowds out” private, so that too much government spending leads to weak investment in the private sphere, and hence unemployment and all the rest of it. The inverse of this thesis, then, should be that the retreat of the state from borrowing leads to the increase of private borrowing. While the first thesis is probably wrong – see Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State for a rebuttal – the second thesis is almost certainly correct. In every Anglo Saxon country where Macronist style policies have been put in place, private debt skyrockets. For good reason – the state’s withdrawal undermines the lifestyles of the middle class, which are then repaired through use of a “reformed” credit market. Basically, it is jetfuel thrown on the business cycle. Eventually everything explodes.  
However, it is not just the boom and bust cycle of reactionary economics, ably mapped by Naomi Klein, that I am on about here. It is the fact that blind cuts by the state lead to a startling but little remarked  form of inflation. These cuts invariably open up holes in the country’s various infrastructures – physical, educational, healthcare, etc. These holes have a huge cost to the users of these infrastructures.
Take, for example, roads. In the U.S., as has become notorious, the neglect of the highways, byways and bridges has now become a common fact of everyday life. What this means is not just an increase in commuting time, as more people are in cars on less cared for roads – it also stresses every vehicle that uses the road. Just as an improvement in a machine is functioned into the inflation rate as a negative – bringing down inflation – so, to, every deterioration in the infrastructure stressing machines can be figured in as a positive – an inflator. Just because the state and economists don’t like to follow through on the logic of their principles doesn’t mean this isn’t so. It is especially so on things like healthcare and education.
The principle that we decide on cuts on high, because we are principled liberals, and we apply them blindly, is a recipe for disaster. Macron is a lucky son of a bitch, and I think his disaster of an economic policy is not going to effect France immediately, given the ongoing upswing in the business cycle. But the accumulation of austerity driven policies will strike hard once the cycle goes down again. Which can happen fast.

But don’t look to the chiens de garde for information or analysis on this topic.  They are too busy howling their appreciation of our new Jupiter.

Monday, July 31, 2017

ritualized humiliation in the awards ceremony - an american tradition

In the August 3, 1963 New Yorker, there was a funny in the Talk of the Town. It concerned a beauty pageant. It makes remarkable reading.
The beauty pageant was for National College Queen. The New Yorker reporter visited the contestants as they were posing before the ABC news cameras in Central Park for the contest in the Seven Lively Domestic Arts. One of them, of course, was coffee serving. Which is what the girls were doing. A spokesman pointed with pride to the fact that there was a Fullbright scholar and a Phi Beta Kappa among the candidates up for the crown. While they displayed their ability to brew up and serve coffee, they wore crowns on their heads.

This scene seems, today, rife with rage. How could any woman stand the patronizing, debasing, ridiculous treatment they were being accorded – basically, a quick course in second class humanship? But the New Yorker, a magazine which had employed Dorothy Parker and, in 1963, employed, among others, Renata Adler, didn’t see it like that.

“Then, clustering prettily for the ABC crew around one large skillet, the girls turned to the more practical lively homemaking art of Frying Eggs. One by one, twelve eggs were cracked into the pan with enormous care. Two yolks broke. None of the eggs cooked. Miss Bowie [the spokesperson] blushing beneath her turban, hurriedly confessed to ABC that she had forgotten to pre-heat the skillet, and then apologized to the head chef of the Tavern, who had been standing by with a pepper mill.   …
The twelve beautiful brain-trusters meanwhile had moved on to tackle the art of Mixing Drinks in a Westinghouse blender. Having each been presented with another egg, pineapple juice, milk, watercress and chocolate sauce, they were told to combine the elements in whatever way they saw fit. “We’re testing your imagination, girls,” Miss Bowie said.”

Although it is a separate and other regime of oppression, this little scenario does resemble, in its coordinates (the contrast between “brains” and the natural essence of the human type at the other end of the brains, as seen by the “typical” American) the battle royal in The Invisible Man. Of course, there is a grand, enduring difference between the regime of humiliation that marks the women in this scenario and the humiliation that marks the African-Americans in Ellison’s story, but it is still a form of ceremonial humiliation, as the reporter unconsciously makes clear with the continual reference to “brains” - the ‘brain-trust,” the “brainy” girls, etc.. It makes me curious about Miss University of Oklahoma, Miss University of Washington, Miss Purdue University and the rest of them. How did they thrive? Did any of them put a bomb up the ass of the Man in the late sixties, early seventies? It also makes me want to ask more about how ritualized humiliation so often emerges as part of a reward ceremony – don’t we see that, especially now, as the mechanics driving the scenarios coming out of D.C.? 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

on: los angeles plays itself

Last week A. told me that we needed to watch Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. She also told me a funny story, told to her by the person who recommended the movie. Because the movie stitches together clips from about fifty films shot in Los Angeles, the film could only be shown for a time if Mr. Anderson was sitting in the theater. His presence ensured that the film was being played for private reasons, and not public – profit making – ones. Since I was able to download the film from Youtube without inviting Thom Anderson over to our place to see it, presumably the fair use issues have been resolved.
That is all to the profit of the films that are sampled in the film. Anderson has an eye  for a stunning sequence; especially when the sequence involves some Los Angeles site. In fact, the sequences far outweigh many of the films. I doubt that there are many fans of Messiah of Evil, a 1973 zombie film, but the sequences Anderson pulled from that film – of a gas station and a grocery store – are filled with a menace that zombies, however creative the makeup department, just can’t match. They have an astounding photogenic power.
This poses a bit of a question, especially pertinent to a medium, like film, that is a collective product: what are we watching these things for? While I could, presumably, find beautiful lines and extract them from an otherwise bad novel and read them for themselves, this goes against how we read novels (and is one of the reasons that reviewers cherrypicking good lines from novels always end up looking foolish). It is rare that the lines overshadow the novel – which is why Wilde found it so hard to write a novel. Perhaps Ronald Firbank, whose novels are full of cardboard characters and preposterous settings, is a novelist who one still reads for the lines.
Movies are different. They are immanently visual; they are immanently sampleable.
Los Angeles plays Itself pulls out of Die Hard, for instance, all you need to see of that movie – all 20 seconds of it.
This structural property has an economic correlate. A novelist rarely “spends more” on chapter one than on chapter 20. Maybe some research goes into chapter 20, but basically we are talking about time, a computer or typewriter, printing the thing out, a pen.
This isn’t true of movies. Certain sequences are expensive, and certain sequences aren’t. This has an effect: the way a blockbuster film builds to its spectacular sequences is reflected in the books kept by the accountant. Spectacle and stars’ salaries have a great, magnetic power over the film as a whole. This doesn’t mean the spectacular sequences annul the cheaper sequences, or that the sequences without the star are annulled by the star’s appearance. What it does mean is that the movie audience comes to the film to see the expensive parts. That is what they are paying for.
Of course, this principle isn’t true of every film that comes out of Hollywood or Bollywood or wherever.  But what distinguishes the blockbuster is the adjustment of the cheap parts to the expensive parts.
Contrast this with a film like, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, to choose one off the top of my head. Altman’s famous presentation of the hesitations and overflow of everyday speech is paralleled by a pictorial care to show rain, snow, forest, candlelight, even the star’s face and figure, in reference to the whole visual library of Western art. McCabe being hunted in the snow and Brueghel’s painting of Hunters in a winter landscape exist on the same plane.  It is this respect for pictorality that makes the Altman film not that much different, in spirit, from the classic westerns. Or from Jean Leterrier’s Roi San divertissement, which also made much of the snowy wilds of Giono’s story.

Myself, I am too often mislead, or rather fascinated, in movies, by the script. I was raised by network television, a medium in which the script was everything, and so loosening up and seeing a movie is an exercise for me. Los Angeles plays itself, in spite of the voiceover by the director, who has a sarcastic, stuffed up voice, loosened me up. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

these are the breaks! narrative tricks of the novelist and the rest of ius

Novelists have been fossicking in the bag of narrative tricks since Don Quixote was a pup – or even longer! Yet when some novelist offers an unreliable narrator, or names one of the characters after him or herself, we haul out the postmodern or experimental label like Wow! As though this was the newest appliance since the microwave. This is what we forget for stuffing Jean Paul Richter in an oubliette, ladies and germs.
However, what is even more interesting to me is that that this bag of tricks is not something invented by writers. All of the writer’s narrative tools are taken from everyday life, because narrative is a vital part of everyday life. The unfortunate effect of the Program Era is to make writing seem like a specialization; but newspapers, blog sites, advertisements, street people, lawyers, bartenders and the whole of unwashed humanity deal in stories and lyrics, in jokes and pick up lines, in sales pitches and complaints. What novelists can do, in participating in the general mill and moil, is bring the dialectics. One plays tricks with the authorial voice in order to undermine, sneakily, the death grip of authority on our assent. Or… at least that is one variety of motive. Often, when the authorial voice is unquestioned, so is authority – in fact, the narrative of fear and terror that is the stock of cop shows and detective novels is precisely about how mad and terrible it is to ever say no to authority. Look what happens!
Modernism – and I’m a big camp follower – did encode a dialectical position in the socius. It did dally with the negative, tossed it up in the air, frisked it, and brought it indoors. The suicide of Madame Bovary is the suicide of the romantic movement in the rise of Napoleon III – among other things. The adventurer becomes the proto-fascist. The adventuress is doomed by her conditions, among which is the ruthless plundering of those adventurers among whom she falls. Moll Flanders is dead. Etc. Even though Flaubert buddy-buddied with members of the Napoleonic circle, this is still the case. 
Too often the aesthetic sphere is given a phony autonomy, as if its history were solely inside itself. But – as Zola well knew – the birth of the department store was an event in the aesthetic sphere. However, it was a crossroads event – standing at the intersection of criminology, politics, economics and the position of women in 19th century capitalism.

So, there. These are the breaks/checkitoutcheckitoutcheckitoutcheckitout.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

don't blame Ayn Rand. Blame Alex Osborn

I had gone through this vale of tears thinking that the root of brainstorm was meteorological: that the brain is encouraged to “rain down” ideas. But this week, I have learned that storm was meant, by the coiner of the phrase, to evoke soldiers storming a position. In other words, the brain was to be considered a sort of grenade, and the brainstormers were to be considered commandoes rushing at a problem.
The coiner of the phrase was an advertising man. Naturally. Name of Alex F. Osborn. Now, a lotta folks blame everything that’s been crapped up on Ayn Rand’s malign influence. Few (or maybe nobody) blames Alex F. Osborn. But I think a case can be made that Osborn’s brainstorm baby – set sailing on a sea of Babbitry and business uplift – has had a larger effect on the American elite’s cognitive style than the firebreathing Rand, who had the good sense to see that under the suit or  casualware of the business school graduate beats a heart just yearning for someone to mistake him for a hero in a Harlequin Romance.  Good way to sell books. And if daffy Silicon Valley types weave a philosophy from Rand’s romances, well, pretty much tells you about the level of Silicon Valley types.
But Osborn was serious.
“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts “brainstorm sessions; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” meas using the brain to storm a creative problem— and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective.” [Applied Imagination]
Osborn is quite excited by the sheer quantity of brainstorming results. A group at his agency developed over 800 ideas for one of his clients. 800! Imagine, as they would say today, the disruption!
Osborn gives four rules for brainstorming:
“1. Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas is withheld until later.
2. Freewheeling is welcomed. The wilder the idea, the better.  It is easier to tame down than to think up.
3. Quantity is wanted. The greater the number of ideas, the more the likelihood of winners.
4. Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of their own, participants should suggest how ideas of others can be turned into better ideas; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea. “

If the surrealist idea of automatic writing were turned into a parlor game for servants of capital, I guess it would look like this.
However, my point here is that the breathless idea of being “freewheeling” and putting out all these ideas out there – the more there are, the more likely we are to find “winners” – has become the unfortunate cognitive style of the Executive branch in its ultra testosterone mode. In a sense, Trump’s tweets are the ultimate brainstorm. They wheel so free that the wheels come off; they flurry, they multiply. And they both judge and ask not to be judged – exposing the contradiction between 1, where criticism is given its division of labor instructions to stay away, and no. 4, where we are trying to make an idea better, which is truly hard to do if we can’t judge its worth at all. Meaning that we end up with excitable inanity, the usual form in which exec speak happens. It is all very uplifting and, as Osborn likes to say over and over again, creative. The American cult of the creative may not have started with Osborn, but he was a votary.
Osborn indicates with some satisfaction (in the book I’ve been quoting) that the military has taken up his ideas and run with them. I think some glimmer of brainstorming is behind the cockeyed sense of intellectual entitlement that pervades both Silicon Alley and Wall street: that the making of software apps for taking pictures of cats, or slicing and dicing a financial instrument so that nobody understands what it is about, is very creative.   Trump, that old joke, with his art of the deal, otherwise known as cheating at cards, is very likely convinced that he is a brainstormer par excellence. He and Kushner and Bannon – can’s you see these fatuous men putting their heads together to solve, say, the problem that miiiinoooorities are still allowed to vote in this country. Etc.

I don’t blame Rand. Poor Osborn is the guy I blame. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

theses on neoliberalism: once more with feeling!

Ellen M. Wood's "The Retreat from Class" , published in 1983, is uncannily predictive of the course of neo-liberalism. Though she is pretty highhanded with us epigoni of French Theory, what she says about the disappearance of class within political discourse – and cultural discourse in general - is totally correct, at least in the Anglosphere.

Of course, class only disappears in the minds of the bien-pensants, not from their daily lives. Class as lived experience is overwhelmingly present, from the sandwich shops of David Broder to the shores of the mini-mansion subdivision universe.

Neoliberalism is neo because, unlike classical liberalism, it proceeds logically from the dismantling of the labor theory of value. In terms of class, this means writing out the working class, and substituting as its pertinent tri-fold structure the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. The wealthy are described as wealth makers. The middle class are economically autonomous, and the poor are government dependents.

Within neo-liberalism, then, taxing the wealthy is justified by the government services provided for them, and not as a countermeasure to the level of exploitation that creates that group. The middle class, if it demands something from the government, is displaying moral culpability: how dare, for instance, middle class kids demand free secondary education? Obviously, they simply want bribes. And the poor never work – the goal is to get them to work. Then we can pull away government support for them.

Class, which used to indicate a position in the spheres of production and circulation, becomes, in neoliberalism, a proxy for income.

Politically, income is a very weak guarantor of solidarity. The search for solidarity turns elsewehere – to various identities, which, in the absence of a robust sense of production and circulation, take on the primary roles in structuring our lives, and thus the politics concerning our lives.

It is interesting to me that Marx talks about life, not about economics, when speaking of what determines our consciousness. Life is at the center of his thinking, yet it is consistently read out of his thinking. When we read that Marx doesn’t accord enough force, or accords no force, to ideas, the people saying this are usually at work. They are usually academics writing ideas in books that, among other things, will gain them tenure. The ideas that they are talking about come from the great names. They are not talking about the ideas of the sandwichmaker at Subway. Why?

What we know of the life of the sandwichmaker – or of our own lives – is that we perpetually sacrifice our idea time to our work time. Marx has a pretty keen idea of what space, in the course of a life in which twelve hours a day is devoted to repetitive work activities, is going to go into ideas that are going to be written on paper.

The neo-liberal triumph is to make this all seem delusory. Instead, we have the great ideas of the great ideamen – usually men, but under our new more liberal standards, even women are accepted! – and then we have the daily lives of people who, if we don’t watch out, will want free government services.

It is in this way that neo-liberalism moves from being some set of “ideas” about the economy to a cosmic vision of how things are and ought to be.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Gareth Stedman Jones's Marx

I was so irritated by the review of Gareth Stedman Jones’ Marx “biography” in the London Book Review that I began to research GSJ’s past pronunciamentos in re the great man. Jones has been treading high road to capitalism for a long long time. But he has the misfortune, or fortune, to have linked himself early to Marx. Instead of disavowing Marx and moving on, he’s dedicated himself to the more remunerative task of misinterpreting Karl. As was pointed out in 2004 by Jacob Stevens, fascinated by Jones’s long  yawp of an intro to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto,  Jones’s Marx is recognizably a product of one of the Cold War subthemes in the “battle of ideas”: that Marxism is a religion. Hence, the title of the book of confessions by ex-Commies: The God that Failed. Jones’s variant is that Marx knew very well that ideas rock the world, but hid this under a materialism that was in stark contradiction to his humanist faith.

In making this case, Jones embraces the idea that intellectual history is pretty much about reading books. Marx reads some books, is influenced, writes books, etc. etc.

It is a case he has been making for some time. For instance, in 2002, writing for the Guardian, Jones casts cold water on the anarchos and lefties making with the cops at globalist fests – like G20 summits – by way of another Cold War trope – capitalism did everything that Marx wanted communism to do! In 2002, it was very popular for ex-lefties to make arguments of this form. Hence Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens making mock of the betrayal of the “left” by those who opposed the crusade for all that was right and good in Iraq.

Jones did not go that far, although the Blairist butter in his Guardian article is pretty thick. But what bugs me about Jones is not so much his politics – which is a garden variety of bien-pensant reformism, which in the short term is what we got – as his historical method. For instance, this:
“Marx’s manifesto vision was driven by a conviction that the capitalist cash-nexus distorted the expression of human need. Drawing upon legal historians, he concluded the modern forms of private property and the exchange economy based upon it was only one in a historical succession of different property forms. Capitalist private property had produced the unparalleled productivity gains of the 19th century industrial revolution.”

This to my mind ignores the Marx who did not have to read German legal historians to see what was going on about him as he lived and worked in Cologne. All he had to do was read the newspaper he edited. Jones simply ignores the series of newspaper articles Marx wrote about the laws concerning the abolition of traditional gleaning rights in the woods that formed an important part of the wealth of the German landowner aristocracy. How important was this issue? Wood theft constituted the highest percentage of the crimes for which people were sentenced to prison in Germany in the nineteenth century. It was while working on his newspaper that Marx saw the belief he’d been educated in – that law makes property – was untrue. Rather property law was being remade by class. Although Jones has evidently had his head in a library for a long long time, he might have stuck it out enough to notice how intellectual property laws have again remade property. This was not in response to some principle in the law, but rather to some pressure from the owners of computer software and giant pharma. You can sell your car second hand – you can’t do the same with your code for your Microsoft Office Suite. Rationalization isn't reason - the capitalist libido operates now just as it operated in the forests around Cologne in 1845. 

All of which is a way of saying: Marx noticed things outside of books. He noticed events. Jones is correct that the critique of capitalism was never succeeded by the construction of some positive communist utopia, with instructions showing how part a fits into slot b. On the other hand, what promoter of capitalism ever envisioned global warming? Or had a grasp of the vast effects of unleashing the chemical-industrial products on this world? Did the inventor of nitrogen fertilizer have any sense that he was igniting a population boom, and destroying peasant societies globally – more effectually than communism ever did?

All of these overwhelming effects of the system can be abbreviated into the term “alienation.” It is what we live in. Marx’s critique gives us a mirror of how it came about, and how it functions. It is based not on reading the British economists and the German legal historians – these were useful, but not sufficient – but on reading newspapers, reports on factory conditions, going out into the streets. Marx was perhaps the first philosopher to ever take what the newspaper reported as material for thought.

You’d never know that from an intellectual archaeology that refuses to look at the nineteenth century except in the cliched terms of “the industrial revolution” – a sort of children’s book caption for what was happening. A more serious issue might be Jones’s substitute of private property relations for wage labor. Which is what Marx was on about at the time he wrote the Manifesto, and immediately afterwards, when he edited – wait for it – a newspaper, and made speeches to workers organizations, such as the one in Vienna in 1848, on the theory of property by Puffendorf. Just kidding! The speeches were on wage labor, and were reprinted in a pamphlet, and referred to the wages made by weavers, for instance. It referred to the worker’s time – his or her living time.
Here’s a quote, ending with a perfect little metaphor. And then I’m done with the bug up my ass that succeeded my reading of that stupid review in the LRB.  

“But the putting of labor-power into action -- i.e., the work -- is the active expression of the laborer's own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages ; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on -- is this 12 hours' weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours' work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.“

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Japan EU trade treaty sucks - not that you'd know that from the nyt

The NYT - in mourning for the TPP - casts its lonely eyes on the European-Japanese treaty and finds it a shining symbol of all that is good and right. Actually, it is a shining symbol that the EU's elite never learns anything. Negotiated in secret, full of the kind of mulitnational corp goodies that are the new road to serfdom, its benefits will flow to the top 1 percent, while undermining the bottom 99 percent. This article in Libe is of interest

Trade treaties are always sold as being so ultra beneficial to the "poor" - which is what we call the laboring class in these neo-liberal times. It is odd that no representatives of the "poor" are ever allowed to shape them, then. But what do the poor know? Best keep these things secret.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

hurray for long beach!

One of Raymond Queneau’s novels, St. Glinglin, begins with a sentence that for some reason has burned itself into my memory: «Drôle de vie, la vie de poisson”. Actually, like all memory burns, this one turns out to be a little lost in space. I repeated it to A., yesterday, as we were walking around the maze of the Long Beach aquarium, but attributed it to Zazie dans le metro. And, in a final parapraxial slip, I claimed that the sentence went Droledevieviedepoisson, one word, when actually Zazie does begin with one word, “Doukipudonktan”, who is that stinker, which Queneau takes from the Finneganwakesese of everyday French.

The sentence about fish signals, in Queneau, that we are again working with a sort of loose cannon of a personage, a perpetual grad student who has gone down a side route that has nothing to do with the money he’s been granted to pursue his studies: studies in literature, not aquarium.

The Gathmanns are ferocious aficionados of aquarium, in all its aspects. Indeed, we are, as a family, agreed that the fish does have a Drôle de vie – a life of color, grubbing in the sand, nipping each other’s fins, some peakishness (Proust’s neurasthenia has nothing on that of certain tropical fish), and complex relationships with each other founded on a seeming indifference best captured in that sequence in The Meaning of Life where the fish all greet each other like London bank employees on the tube.  To support that lifestyle, certain Gathmann’s maintain big aquariums, and have even dabbled in the esoteric arts of salt water. When the Gathmanns as a group go to any big burg, one of the first things they check out is whether the burg hosts an aquarium.

Myself, until recently, I was a dissenter. The idea of laying down the hard earned ready to see a buncha fins struck me as a waste of spondoolees.  But all my snobbish distinctions have tottered and fallen since Adam was born. To have a four and a half year old is to realize that one’s personal canon must be constantly revised, i.e. bulldozed,  to let in such things as Peep and the Big Wide world, and that there is much to be said for the archetype of the Joker and knock knock jokes. Adam has been in love with sharks for some time, but it only recently hit me that sharks are, to Adam’s age group, what dolphins were to my childhood – the fashionable sea creatures. The stock price of dolphins has gone the way of the stock price of Sears and Roebuck, which makes me sad. On the other hand, I love it that Adam’s generation is all about saving sharks. In fact, I do remember happy hours playing sharks when I was a boy. There was a foldout of shark species from National Geographic that I can remember in detail, although as pointed out, first graf, my memory is not what I remember it to have been. All of which is to say that,  according to all accounts, a good place to get up close and personal with sharks was this Long Beach aquarium. And Sea world is both more expensive and probably, for someone who cares even the slightest for animals, not the best choice. So off we went on a staycation jaunt.
I’d def recommend the place. It is not, like most joints that draw in kids, a depressing money suck. The exhibits are gorgeous, sorted according to ecological region. There are hammerhead sharks, or a species of them – there are about 30 species. There are the cutest Rays or Skates in the child petting pools. The personnel are relaxed Cali types. The message of be good to the environment is good for the future environment, that U.S. of 2030 when Trumpism is remembered in Museums of Shame, and racism is actually called racism, rather than “alt-right”, in newspapers. Of course, it will also be the U.S. trying to figure out what to do with refugees from Arizona as the temperature there climbs to 160 F. There was a special exhibit on tropical frogs, with a lot of plant life and frogs that you have to find among the leafage, since tropical frogs like to hide. There was a great octopus, and I do love octopus – I love them in nature and I love them with a little salt and pepper, oil and vinegar. There was an area of the aquarium with seats and tables and nothing else – evidently, the place had actually been designed for parents with kids, because the one thing you long for after a while is a place just to rest andyou’re your kids play with the toys you bought them at the gift shop. Overall, I’d rate the experience as brilliant. It made me love Long Beach for more than the fact that it is one of the few cities in America with a park  named for a communist: Harry Bridges, who made the longshoreman’s union a model of exploiting the exploiters.      

Sunday, July 02, 2017

the mummy's curse

Classical scholars have a name for the fictional device of the “discovered manuscript: pseudo-documentarism. It is a device that goes back quite a ways in the Greek world, with hints in, say, Plato’s dialogues, but that really comes into its own, according to Karen Ni Mheallaigh, in the first and second centuries A.D. Mheallaigh emphasizes the way the discovered manuscript both addresses the materiality of the text and blurs the line between fictional and historical truth.
“Pseudo documentarism in its various manifestations raises the stakes sharply in the game of make-believe, because it asks readers not only to concede the text's fictional truth but also to enter into the fantasy of historical truthfulness as well: in other words, it fictionalizes the issue of historical truth – an ethically worrying thing to do – and in doing so, it tests the limits of the reader's grasp of the rules that govern make-believe. The finer the line distinguishing fact from fiction, it seems, the keener the frisson of readerly pleasure becomes.” (Pseudo-Documentarism and the Limits of Ancient Fiction: Karen Ní Mheallaigh,  The American Journal of Philology 2008)

Good as far as it goes, but I think that there is another aspect – the productive dimension of the document – that gets pushed a little to the side here. After all, the exchange that happens is not only covered by the ‘contract’ with the reader, but by the contract between discoverer and author. The fiction after all creates an interesting editorial relationship where the author (who, we think, “really” composed the text) is transformed from the producer to the publisher, from the laborer to the manager, or administrator.
Like discovery in general in the West (an ideological unity that could be defined in terms of ‘discovery’ and “invention”, since discovery, as we know, signifies the erasure of the discovered peoples, or at least their subordination as subjects who can be discovered, but aren’t themselves discoverers, while invention is accorded to the discovering nation as the sign of its intellectual superiority), the discovery of the manuscript, the document, comes with a history of why it had to be discovered – why its producers either lost it, or chose to hide it, or – in more catastrophic stories – why the culture in which it was produced was buried. Discovery turns a use object into a treasure, with its very special terms of exchange.  If the relationship between the writer and reader is a “contract”, the publication of the discovered document points to a more primary broken contract. One of those Derridian paradoxes that, in our flat age, we are forgetting about.

In a colloquy on the motif of the manuscrit trouvé  held in the Louvain in 1999, one of the participants, Jan Herman, quotes a passage from Vivant-Denon’s Travels to Lower Egypt that gives us a wonderful  dialectical image of the discovered manuscript. The passage comes just after Vivant-Denon, who was one of the scholars enlisted by Napoleon for his attempt to conquer Egypt, is speculating about Egyptian writing and the possibility of Egyptian books, after having uncovered a stele on a dig:

I couldn’t help but flatter myself in thinking that I was the first who had made a discovery of such importance; but I congratulated myself even more when, some hours afterwards, I was blessed with the proof of my discovery by coming into possession of a manuscript that I even discovered in the hand of a superb mummy that had been carried to me. You have to be a true collector, amateur and voyager to appreciate the total scale of my joy. I felt myself almost faint: I wanted to argue with those who, in spite of my pleading, had violated the integrity of this mummy, when I saw clutched in his right hand and under his left arm the manuscript of a papyrus scroll, which I would never have seen without this violation: I couldn’t speak; I blessed the avarice of the Arabs, and above all the chance that had offered me this good fortune; I didn’t know what to do with my treasure, having so much fear of destroying it. I didn’t dare touch this book, the most ancient of all books known until this day, and I dared not confide it to anyone, or put it anywhere. All of my bedding cotton did not seem to me sufficient to softly wrap it up. Was this the history of some personage? The epoch of his life? Was the  reign of a sovereign under whom he had served inscribed there?  Was it some theological dogma, some prayers, or the consecration of some discovery?”

Note that even before Vivant-Denon begins to read it (which, if it were in Egyptian, he didn’t have the capacity to decypher), the discovery itself is the result of broken contracts, of violations of the most sacred sort. It is the underside, perhaps, of the history of pillage that calls itself the civilizing mission that violation is followed by contract, by care – the torn sheets of the mummy replaced by the sheets of bedding of the French savant. Only a truly contracting culture could pillage with such a clear conscience.  But the contract at some point doesn’t work to mollify worry. At this point, the dead come back. At this point, the gothic takes over. At this point, the editor/finder has a hard time convincing himself that he is not the stealer/robber, and that the avarice of the “arabs” is amplified ten times, a hundred times in his case. 

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.