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Saturday, March 17, 2018

the end of poetry? 2

“In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of good ones; but little poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create. They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief. The Greek Rhapsodists, according to Plato, could scarce recite Homer without falling into convulsions. The Mohawk hardly feels the scalping  knife while he shouts his death-song. The power which the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exercised over their auditors seems to modern readers almost miraculous. Such feelings are very rare in a civilised community, and most rare among those who participate most in its improvements. They linger longest among the peasantry.”

Macaulay was born in 1800, and he could easily be presented, in a history-as-coloring-book way, as a transition between the Romantics and the Victorians. But such historical accounts assume the same condescension, the same class-based view, the same cultural absolutism, as Macaulay himself is dabbling in, here.

Of course, these are the early writings of a man who had a tremendous influence, later, on the British policy in India. Rejecting the Indian-ist Enlightenment ideology of such pioneer colonizers as William Jones, the great advocate of Sanskrit literature, Macaulay wrote a famous note on Indian education that urged the worthlessness of Indian literature, in comparison with the power and science of Western literature.

Yet this public view seems to clash violently with his private tastes. Here’s the pin that hooks our moral entrepreneur.

Now, I want to locate Macaulay, but I don’t want to reduce his argument to this location. For the argument winds its way through modernism itself – with that mood of gathering “fragments against our ruin”. Hegel, with whose writings Macaulay was probably not acquainted, was coincidentally writing the vast obituary of art in his lectures between 1823 and 1826. Hegel also (like Macaulay) thinks that the end of art is the end of the power of art – of some power that lay in the past, and that is uncomfortable with, and ultimately incongruous with, an “enlightened” society. Hegel, too, takes it that the enlightened society is a critical one – and that art survives its death by becoming the criticism of art.

Which is a pretty rapid summing up of Hegel, for which I don’t want to be held liable in a court of law. What I want to do is remark on this moment – the shared characteristics between Macaulay and Hegel - and both its truth as a sociological observation and its effect on poetry.

This is an issue that, among critics who are concerned with poetry alone, has been poked rather gingerly of late, with the emphasis being on the “appreciation of poetry” as a marketing problem. Just put a buncha breathless recitations on NPR and voila, we are saved.

But I think that the problem is not even approached in this way. Macaulay and Hegel are both talking of the “space” of the poem. In connecting the Mohawk with the peasant, Macaulay is trying to make a point about levels of “civilization.” One doesn’t have to accept this bourgeois point in order to wonder about the spaces of the poem, where it is read, or spoken, or listened to, how it migrates through media (since I have a very broad view that popular song is poetry too – good or bad), how it lingers in chapbooks and little magazines, I find the question of how a society run on the basis of our society can afford poetry to be an essential one.

Which I’ll approach next.

Friday, March 16, 2018

the end of poetry?

Better theories and worse poems

When Thomas Macaulay went to Cambridge in 1818, everybody expected he would do brilliantly, since he had been born doing brilliantly – talking brilliantly, reading Latin when he was five, making up brilliant arguments when he was 15, and so on. He did shine at Cambridge, but he didn’t take away the highest honors. This was due to his detestation of Mathematics. Classic Barbie said, “math is hard”. Too bad classic Barbie was never stuffed with Macaulay’s words to his Mom about the subject:

“I can scarcely bear to write on Mathematics or Mathematicians. Oh for words to express my abomination of that science, if a name sacred to the useful and embellishing arts may be applied to the perception and recollection of certain properties in numbers and figures! Oh that I had to learn astrology, or demonology, or school divinity! Oh that I were to pore over Thomas Aquinas, and to adjust the relation of Entity with the two Predicaments, so that I were exempted from this miserable study! "Discipline" of the mind! Say rather starvation, confinement, torture, annihilation! But it must be. I feel myself becoming a personification of Algebra, a living trigonometrical canon, a walking table of Logarithms. All my perceptions of elegance and beauty gone, or at least going. By the end of the term my brain will be "as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage." Oh to change Cam for Isis! But such is my destiny; and, since it is so, be the pursuit contemptible, below contempt, or disgusting beyond abhorrence, I shall aim at no second place. … Milton's descriptions have been driven out of my head by such elegant expressions as the following

Cos1 + 1 -   ∕1+2 etc.”

It is fascinating to watch this repulsion towards mathematic grow into the conviction that mathematics and science were the cognitive and cultural rivals of poetry, engaged in a life or death duel. The first and finest expression of this is in an essay Macaulay wrote on Milton – the poet who, in his 1819 letter, was driven out of his head by parody math – that applies these ideas to a primitive but powerful whiggish idea that history put a certain version of Europe at its center. In as much as Europe, here, includes the white dominated Anglosphere, that idea still dominates our politics and intellectual history.
Macaulay’s essay on Milton was a review of Milton’s recently discovered Latin manuscript, Doctrinâ Christianâ libri duo posthumi. Macaulay, quite evidently, was not doing the essay because he was an expert on Christian apologetics. Rather, his interest was on Milton the person and Milton the poet. As a person, Milton was treated by the conservative English intelligentsia rather as Neruda is treated by American conservatives: as an accomplice to terrorism. After all, he was Oliver Cromwell’s secretary, and Cromwell was the great blot on a version of English history that could grudgingly accept the Glorious Revolution, but baulked at the Puritan one. Samuel Johnson’s life of Milton was full of denigrating comments, the best of which is the following:

“Cromwell had now dismissed the parliament by the authority of which he had destroyed monarchy, and commenced monarch himself under the title of protector, but with kingly and more than kingly power. That his authority was lawful, never was pretended; he himself founded his right only in necessity: but Milton, having now tasted the honey of publick employment, would not return to hunger and philosophy, but, continuing to exercise his office under a manifest usurpation, betrayed to his power that liberty which he had defended. Nothing can be more just than that rebellion should end in slavery: that he, who had justified the murder of his king, for some acts which to him seemed unlawful, should now sell his services and his flatteries to a tyrant, of whom it was evident that he could do nothing lawful.

This is spoken from the very heart of conservatism. It is a heart that must contend with the irreality of its sentiments, in as much as they have to do with the real changes of any established system, and the permeating nostalgia that both incites and distances any re-establishment of a better order, since that is to make the past the rebel of the present.

Macaulay was at the time he wrote his essay an initiate, through his father, of that odd branch of Torydom that plumped for the abolition of slavery. He was on his way to a more robustly whiggish view of things. And though he learned from Johnson’s thunder, he modified it to his own way of tossing lightningbolts.

In any case, before he gets to the merits of Milton’s poetry he inserts a little disquisition on the inevitable decline of poetry in an enlightened age.
Here let me insert a large gorgeous slice of Macaulay-ism:

“We think that, as civilisation advances, poetry almost necessarily declines. Therefore, though we fervently admire those great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark ages. On the contrary, we hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilised age. We cannot understand why those who believe in that most orthodox article of literary faith, that the earliest poets are generally the best, should wonder at the rule as if it were the exception. Surely the uniformity of the phænomenon indicates a corresponding uniformity in the cause.

The fact is, that common observers reason from the progress of the experimental sciences to that of the imitative arts. The improvement of the former is gradual and slow. Ages are spent in collecting materials, ages more in separating and combining them. Even when a system has been formed, there is still something to add, to alter, or to reject. Every generation enjoys the use of a vast hoard bequeathed to it by antiquity, and transmits that hoard, augmented [6] by fresh acquisitions, to future ages. In these pursuits, therefore, the first speculators lie under great disadvantages, and, even when they fail, are entitled to praise. Their pupils, with far inferior intellectual powers, speedily surpass them in actual attainments…

But it is not thus with music, with painting, or with sculpture. Still less is it thus with poetry. The progress of refinement rarely supplies these arts with better objects of imitation. It may indeed improve the instruments which are necessary to the mechanical operations of the musician, the sculptor, and the painter. But language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals, first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical, that of a half-civilised people is poetical.”

Those half-civilized people! We are not surprised, when we read that phrase, that we will soon run into the idea that savages are perpetually at the “children’s” phase of intellectual development.

"Truth, indeed, is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness. The reasonings are just; but the premises are false. After the first suppositions have been made, every thing ought to be consistent; but those first suppositions require a degree of credulity which almost amounts to a partial and temporary derangement of the intellect. Hence of all people children are the most imaginative. They abandon themselves without reserve to every illusion. Every image which is strongly presented to their mental eye produces on them the effect of reality. No man, whatever his sensibility may be, is ever affected by Hamlet or Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story of poor Red Riding-hood. She knows that it is all false, that wolves cannot speak, that there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite of her knowledge she believes; she weeps; she trembles; she dares not go into a dark room lest she should feel the teeth of the monster at her throat. Such is the despotism of the imagination over uncultivated minds.”

The triangle that is drawn here, between the madman, the savage and the child has been analyzed by Johannes Fabian, the anthropologist, in terms of “allochrony” – a way of allotting different time zone types to contemporaneous cultures. The savage in the Americas of 1825 is both a child and living in the “stone age”, while the trousered author of the review of Milton is living in the age of the Enlightenment.  Technological time recapitulates biological time in this paradigm – the child and the savage are both of a type, both poetic, both irrational, both violent, while the reviewer and the colonizer are philosophical, rational, and have a just view of the limits of imaginative power. They have no unconsciousness, while the colonized has, to stretch an antipodes, no consciousness – or little.

Now, as Macaulay was not only an admirer of poetry but a maker of it, and as he was no mathematician or admirer of it, this is a curious view to express. But lifting it away from its biographical anchoring points, it poses a question: is Macaulay right about the effect of a certain society on poetry – both on its prestige and its continuing creation?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Classic hollywood kisses

Daniel Harris’s “The Romantic”, from an essay from 1999, made the surprising argument – or rather, exhibited the  surprising implication – that the Production Code, the Catholic-generated censorship manual for movies in the era between the beginning of the talkies in the thirties to the late fifties – actually encoded a device that pornographers now generally use.  

“During the heyday of romantic Hollywood films, the cinematic kiss was not a kiss so much as a clutch, a desperate groping, a joyless and highly stylized bear hug whose duration was limited by official censors who also stipulated that the actors' mouths remain shut at all times, thus preventing even the appearance of French kissing, which was supplanted by a feverish yet passionless mashing of unmoistened lips. This oddly desiccated contact contrasted dramatically with the clawing fingers of the actresses' hands which, glittering with jewels, raked down their lovers' fully clothed backs, their nails extended like claws, full of aggression and hostility long after the star had thrown caution to the winds, abandoned her shallow pretense of enraged resistance, and succumbed wholeheartedly to her illicit longings. And then, after the ten fleeting seconds allotted by the Legion of Decency had passed, the inopportune entrance of another character often sent them dashing to opposite corners of the room where, their clothing rumpled, their hair a mess, their faces infused with fear and suspicion, they fiddled with tchotchkes on the mantel or stared pensively at spots in the carpet, retreating into the solipsistic isolation of their guilty consciences. The stiff choreography of this asphyxiating stranglehold sug gests apprehension rather than pleasure, the misgivings of two sexual outlaws who live in a world in which privacy is constantly imperilled, in which doors are forever being flung open, curtains yanked back, and unwanted tea trolleys rolled into occupied bedrooms by indiscreet maids.”
In actuality, the Legion of Decency permitted only three seconds. I must admit, I don’t recognize that desperate groping in, say, the kiss Grace Kelly gives Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window.” But there is something to Harris’s vision in the kiss that Rita Hayworth gives Orson Welles in the San Francisco aquarium in Lady From Shanghai. “Take me quick”, she says, and quick it is – although the three seconds are cleverly extended by a cut away to the unwanted presence of a group of school children, who in that instant come around the corner and see them. This kiss was long in coming – at the center of the movie is a fight between rich plutocrats aboard the yacht of Hayworth’s rich, crippled husband, which was followed by a song from la belle Rita with the sign off line: “don’t take your lips or your arms or your love … away”. This is a case of illicit longings indeed.
Even if I don’t take Harris to be accurately describing the entirety of the heyday of romantic Hollywood films, he is onto something in the censored administration of a kiss.
“Hollywood kisses are carefully arranged compositions that invite the public, not only to approach the necking couple, but to slip between them and examine at close range every blush and gasp of an act that, on the one hand, optimizes the conditions for viewing and, on the other, makes a bold pretense of solitude, of barring the door to the jealous intruder and excluding the curious stares of gaping children who stumble upon adulterous fathers while seeking lost toys in presumably empty rooms. Lovers are frequently filmed in stark silhouette against a white background so that, for purposes of visual clarity, their bodies don't obscure each other, a bulging forearm blocking from view a famous face, the broad rim of a stylish chapeau a magnificent set of wistful eyes brimming with desire - a cinematic feat of separation similar to that performed by pornographers who create a schematic type of televisual sex by prying their actors so far apart that they are joined, like Siamese twins, at the point of penetration alone.”
Ah, the cathected interdiction, the fetishized prohibition! Bataille’s insight, which was taken up by Foucault, was that here, sexual desire is secondary to its interruption. Power is not repressive so much as productive, a maker of the perversions it spends its times blotting out.
Disappointingly, after this promising start, Harris anchors his insight in a realistic ideology that has no historical basis whatsoever:
“The exaggeration of privacy in a culture that has become, relatively speaking, morally lenient is symptomatic of the distortions that occur in novels and films when artists can no longer satisfy the demands of narrative by drawing directly from their daily experiences, since actual behavior and its fictional representations are drifting further apart.” In fact, of course, this account of some realistic paradise in which artists satisfied the demands of narrative – a curious phrase, as though narrative were some hungry domesticated animal – with their “daily experiences” is entirely bogus. It was the aesthetic trend of the post-code era – of the sixties – that encouraged the idea that “daily experience” was equivalent to the authenticity that would allow us to enjoy imagined stories and poems without being accused of being childish and non-productive. The confessional is a really a bow to the puritanical edict that art must teach us something, that dedication to the aesthetic in itself was frivolous, not to say vicious.  Nor is the dip into daily experience something that was encouraged by realism in the classical sense, which was, contra Harris, a matter of showing that daily experiences are always drifting away from narrative – from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Julian Sorel, the “realist” hero par excellence, gets his narrative about himself not from his daily experiences, but from his reading of Napoleon’s memoirs. The “demand” of narrative is actually the demand of the narrator, who, grammatically and existentially, is the one who can demand. Encoded in this idea of some fatal drift between the daily experience of the artist and the art is the sovereign consumer, the hero of neo-classical economics, whose choices have an unimpeachable logic, follow Arrow Debreu’s theory of preferences, and has no personal tie to limit his only reason for existence – accumulation.
That ideology blights Harris’s essay, but I like to think about the way the cut and edit of the kiss scenes in classic Hollywood cinema accidentally gave birth to the loops of porno films, which, although seemingly all about unending coupling are, in reality, as time constrained as Rita Hayworth’s kiss.  Once one begins mapping sexual desire to the time of its representation, sexual desire becomes another factory made assemblage – a matter of intentional efficiencies. Kisses roll right off the assembly line. Is there, in the behavioral sciences, a basis for the three second kiss metric? I wonder. But its arbitrariness creates a basis for further metrics and transgressions of metrics. For instance, Hitchcock, in Notorious, got around the three second by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss for two seconds, stop, then kiss again, and so on.
How this influenced the natural history of kissing in America is a curious question I leave to the reader.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Revised version, Borges and Mctaggart

Here's a little number I tossed off a while ago. This morning I revised it.

If you are a man or woman of a certain age, according to all the wisdom literature I know, and it is a peaceful Sunday morning, and the adventures that have been the wind in your back - or the life you have sloughed - have come to a standstill for one moment, then you turn your reflections to time and its possibility, or even its possible non-existence, a non-existence that would annul the fact that you are a man or woman of a certain age, that it is Sunday, that adventure could have ever happened to you, and that you have a moment to reflect.

Reflect on time one must, because we are not watches. Watches toil not, neither do they sow – even though our language has given them hands and a face. Instead, they infinitely visit the same neighborhood of numbers. One can imagine watches different –one can imagine a little computer that you could strap to your wrist and that would just record the seconds, like a timepiece on a bomb, and thus give you a finegrained sense of your slice and dice advance towards death – or why stop there? Buried with such a thing, it could go on slicing and dicing your decay, your dust, the process of your vacuuming up from this world. But at no point in its slicing and dicing would there be a moment, an aberrant moment, in which it wondered if it was really going anywhere, or measuring anything.

My two favorite essays on time are McTaggart’s The Unreality of Time and Borges’ A New Refutation of Time. Borges, in the introduction to his essay, acknowledges the awkwardness of refuting time one more time again – and concedes that it may be that the evident solecism of the title may represent the hidden solecism that skews every sentence, so drenched is language in time, or at least, so much do our assumptions about time live in our language. It is through looking up the literature on Borges that I first heard about McTaggart. Borges’ essay is all low violin sounds, all elegy and fugue – McTaggart’s, on the other hand, is that curious thing, English idealism, all Gilbert and Sullivan, in which the brisk dispatch of a philosophical problem seems in stylistic contradiction with its import.

Indeed, it is a question that is little asked why idealism took so long to take any root in Europe, and why, when it did, it chose the most material of cultures to do so, Britain. One expects the true idealist to be scrawny, nearly naked, and with a beggar’s bowl before him – not peruked, buttoned up, and with snuff and ale within easy reach. But I would guess that the introduction of idealism in Europe through Britain has something to do with the British tradition of the ludicrous. English literature loves the ludicrous – it loves the Liliputians for their own sake. It loves a certain kind of children’s literature, it loves limericks, it loves to add that one extra and unnecessary feature that is not at all the effect of the real, but the effect of the unreal in the real – hence, Dicken’s penchant for describing the tics of his characters. If we think of idealism as the quintessence of the ludicrous, then I think we get close to why idealism first found a serious place in Britain – and why it is so different there than in, say, the philosophical systems of India, even if there exists some similarity of arguments.

John Ellis McTaggart came, of course, at the end of the great British idealist tradition. And he was overshadowed by Russell and Whitehead. In Arthur Quinn’s The Confidence of British Philosophers, there is a story that I would like to juxtapose to my ludicrous theory. When McTaggart died, he had only one disciple left, it seems: C.D. Broad. Broad edited the second edition fo McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence (1928), which fell still born from the press – and unlike Hume’s Treatise, which had a similar fate, never experienced any resuscitation by the next generation of philosophers. Broad was disgusted by the reception of his master’s masterpiece, and wrote a three volume exposition of the work, which ran to 1200 pages. And in this exhaustive work, according to Quinn, Broad praised McTaggart’s arguments for their clarity, and showed that “McTaggart’s most important proofs were virtually all fallacious...” From the deeper idealistic level, Broad could not have done McTaggart a greater favor. Truth is one of the superstitions one must remove from one’s mind in order to truly de-provincialize it – for after all, holding onto the truth is only a means of separating oneself from God, or Nothingness.

With this caution, I’ll move on to McTaggart’s paper.

McTaggart begins with a premise that subsequently became famous.

"Positions in time, as time appears to us prima facie, are distinguished in two ways. Each position is Earlier than some, and Later than some, of the other positions. And each position is either Past, Present, or Future. The distinctions of the former class are permanent, while those of the latter are not. If M is ever earlier than N, it is always earlier. But an event, which is now present, was future and will be past."

McTaggart calls the series of earlier and later the B series, and the Past Present Future series the A series. In the B series, given an event (for McTaggart, the fundamental elements of the two series), its description, with relation to another event, will always be described as earlier or later. C.D. Broad always follows McTaggart down the library-ridden years to the final conflagration. But in the A series, oddly enough, all three descriptions will apply: Broad, let us say, planned to write his book about McTaggart, the book appeared, and the book is now history – which usually means out of print. At one point an event will be in the future, at another point it will be in the present, and at still another point it will be past.

McTaggart throws in another characteristic of time -- he connects it to change. This isn’t a novelty – indeed, Aristotle did the same thing. And it is here that the abstracting of his two series designated under one concept – time – does its work for McTaggart:

“It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change. A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing. A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.” 

McTaggart uses a royal example here – which is appropriate for a royal theme, a Shakespearian theme:

“Take any event -- the death of Queen Anne, for example -- and consider what change can take place in its characteristics. That it is a death, that it is the death of Anne Stuart, that it has such causes, that it has such effects -- every characteristic of this sort never changes. "Before the stars saw one another plain" the event in question was a death of an English Queen. At the last moment of time -- if time has a last moment -- the event in question will still be a death of an English Queen. And in every respect but one it is equally devoid of change. But in one respect it does change. It began by being a future event. It became every moment an event in the nearer future. At last it was present. Then it became past, and will always remain so, though every moment it becomes further and further past.”

It is of interest to note that McTaggart’s series B, of earlier and later, is missing one crucial English term: “then”. The “then”, of course, introduces into the immobility of earlier and later the movement from the former to the later. It introduces something like cause – or, rather, exists as a proxy for cause. Queen Anne was sick, then she was sicker, then she died. The “then” forecloses on the abstraction that allows us to separate past present and future from early and later. The then gives us a sense of time as embedded in possibility: there is no possible “then” in the sequence from Queen Anne’s sickeness to her death in which Queen Anne becomes a frog, for instance.

Of course, the “then” also gives a philosophical hostage to fortune: that is, it requires us to endow cause with an ontological weight that was dismissed as counterfeit by Berkeley and Hume. “Then” is a trickster, in as much as cause, if we are right, not only happens within time but – time happens within cause. Perhaps we have only shifted the paradox in McTaggart’s essay, really, with our correction. And yet, without the then, we and our adventures are lost.

It is at this point, as the series – which we also recognize as Aeon and Chronos, the great Gods of time  who are given a thorough working out in Gilles Deleuze’s  Logic of Sense  - threaten to get out of hand, that we can turn to Borges, who of course adored this kind of play with ideas, and especially the implications of idealism, as it popped the whole world into a short story that reflects on the order of its own events  - like a watch that stops to ponder whether it will go from one o’clock to one-o-one, or if, instead, it will go from one clock to the corner liquor store to buy a bottle of cheap Irish whiskey and sit in the shade under a tree near a slow street and ponder its doings. 

Borges’s essay, A New Refutation of Time, was published in 1947. But, in a sign of the contagion inherent in writing skeptically on time, it was written, according to Borges’ preface, twice, once in 1944, and then again in 1946 – the latter being a revision that Borges then chose to stand alone, splitting the essay into two – and incidentally troping the “New” in his title, making it “new and newer”. Of course, a new refutation of time, if successful, would make it not at all a new refutation of time, as there would be nothing new and nothing old about the enterprise. Such is the nature of the beast, which bucks off every rider – and confutes itself.

Borges doesn’t mention McTaggart. One wonders if this means he has not read McTaggart – Borges, who read everything. Or everything odd. Instead, Borges presents his refutation as the logical sum of the arguments made by Berkeley and Hume against materialism – that is, the argument that perception proves either something perceived or something perceiving. And he then – (this then figures in a logical simulacrum of time, a sort of fixed set of relations, like series A) -- writes:

“Once the idealist argument is admitted, I see that it is possible -- perhaps inevitable -- to go further. For Berkeley, time is "the succession of ideas in my mind, which flows uniformly, and is participated by all beings" (Principles of Human Knowledge, 98); for Hume, "a succession of indivisible moments" (Treatise of Human Nature, I, 2, 2). However, once matter and spirit -- which are continuities -- are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside each present moment.”

To explain this, and to shadow forth its consequences (the latter is the inveterate essayist’s gesture – the philosopher would, strictly, value only the first task) Borges uses an unroyal example, even an exotic one:

“Outside each perception (real or conjectural ) , matter does not exist; outside each mental state,
spirit does not exist; neither then must time exist outside each present moment. Let us choose a moment of the utmost simplicity, for example, Chuang Tzu's dream ( Herbert Allen Giles, Chuang Tzu, 1899 ). Some twenty four centuries ago, Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly, and when he awoke he was not sure whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man. … according to Berkeley, at that moment the body of Chuang Tzu did not exist, nor did the dark bedroom in
which he was dreaming, save as a perception in the mind of God. Humesimplifies what happened even more: at that moment the spirit of ChuangTzu did not exist; all that existed were the colors of the dream and the certainty  of his being a butterfly. He existed as a momentary term in the "bundle or coilection of different perceptions" which constituted, some four centuries before Christ, the mind of Chuang Tzu; he existed as the term n in an infinite temporal series, between n - 1 and n + 1. There is no other reality for idealism than mental processes; to add an objective butterfly to the butterfly one perceives therefore seems a vain duplication; to add a self to the mental processes seems, therefore, no less exorbitant.”

Vacuuming up time, Borges is saying, means that we will (accidentally) vacuum up the self. Once time goes, identity follows.

And yet, oddly enough, while identity is cast out to howl and gnash its teach, particularities rule the world. For, note, in both McTaggart’s vision and Borges’, everything favors order – the frame in which events are related  - and disfavors one cause – the great enemy of idealism. It is the hidden love of order that lies behind the most radical gesture of the British idealist school. It is that order, really, that Borges loves, even as he cannot, really, believe his own refutation of time, or its consequences. Borges finds a beautiful literary allusion to end his meditation.

 A Buddhist treatise of the fifth
century, the Visuddhimagga (Road to Purity), illustrates the same doctrine… "Strictly speaking, the duration of the life of a living being is exceedingly brief,
lasting only while a thought lasts. Just as a chariot wheel in rolling rolls only at one point of the tire, and in resting rests only at one point; in exactly the same way the life of a living being lasts only for the period of one thought."

A thought that nobody thinks, about a thing that exists only in the thought, that endures in a medium that negates all endurance: can there be a greater escape from adventure? This is the key to the Borgesian short story, an absolute in its genre just as Mallarme’s “Un coup de des n’abolira jamais l’hasard” is an absolute of its genre, poetry. It is an absolute in a genre that arose out of the word limits of the periodical press: that dispensed with the oral weight of the tale, but with a guilty conscience. It makes an existential value out of the “shortness” of the story, but one that is embedded in a disappointed idealism, where the emblematic is trapped, like a royal death in a timeless world, in an order that refers to itself alone, an order that cannot, logically, be dynastic, but that is pervaded by the pathos of dethroned dynasty. 

Friday, March 09, 2018

New York Times/Fox News - you pays your money, you takes your chances

Its story about the signing of the TPP by eleven nations was, typically, full of contradictions and fibs.

Of course, any article whose premise is that a trade alliance is the equivalent of “free trade” is in trouble from the get-go. You can’t label your trade alliance “free trade” and then present it as a counter-weight to an exporting superpower – which is what the article does in its first graf by claiming that the TPP was conceived by the United States as a counterweight to China. Of course, this ignores the advantages to corporations that made the deal so sweet and rotten. Of course, drug companies in the United States would like monopolies – those patents which have been stretched into unrecognizability by corporate bought legislatures – to extend to other countries. This is probably a bigger motivator than the anti-China canard. In fact, at this moment when overdoses have overtaken car accidents and murder to become the no. 1 killer in the U.S., Big Pharma, with its oxycontin reserves, has been lookingto knock down laws in other countries to allow oxy to be prescribed on thecandystore model. TPP would have been an excellent vehicle for this. So othernations in the TPP trade alliance might have missed a bullet this time. 
The article’s slant is transparent enough – but the article goes further than the mislabeling a trade alliance as free trade. It reaches the fib stage when it lightly touches ground on data.
“The new agreement — known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — drops tariffs drastically and establishes sweeping new trade rules in markets that represent about a seventh of the world’s economy. It opens more markets to free trade in agricultural products and digital services around the region. While American beef faces 38.5 percent tariffs in Japan, for example, beef from Australia, New Zealand and Canada will not.”
Doing a little research on Google, I find that the tariff for beef from Australia was not dropped because of TPP – it was dropped in 2015,due to another traditional trade treaty between Australia and Japan. 
But still, one might say, that 38.5 percent tariff on American beef must be a killer! Of course, that tariff – which goes up to 50 percent for refrigerated beef – is high. And yet, in the year since it was slapped onAmerican beef, guess what? American beef sales to Japan have increased 20%.

I do wonder if the “sweeping trade rules” include the godawful inclusion of “takings law” – a favorite of rightwing economists – that was included in the original TPP. Takings law simply says that if a country or a part of a country passes regulations that cut into a company’s earnings, well, that is a taking, and the government then owes the corporation. How sweet it is. In order to be totally fair about it, though, the TPP set up another court system, staffed by corporation picks who would be totally, totally fair, and called the Investor state dispute settlement court. Notice, there is no, say, environmental multicorporation dispute settlement court on the horizon – after all, global climate change is inevitable and good for you! But if the government interferes with an asbestos company’s godgiven right to mine that stuff regardless of the tender condition of the lungs of the miners – why, they better pay up!

The TPP, as the article does not say, was opposed by both Trump and Clinton. Clinton was right to oppose it. I’ve read Clintonites say that really, she was lying, just like her husband lied about Nafta, and once she got into office she would have stabbed her voters in the back by flipflopping. I’ve criticized Clinton, but I really don’t think she is as bad as her supporters make her out to be.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

FBI as trollers: fake news in 1969!

 It is interesting to compare the fake Russian accounts on Twitter and Facebook that we have all read about with the fake material generated by the FBI in the 60s and 70s. This was the golden age of Operation CHAOS and COINTELPRO, and every Fbi office in a metropolitan area was falling over itself to think outside the box and please the chief.
My favorite, as revealed by an FOIA generated yield ofdocuments, was the Washington D.C. office’s idea, in 1969, to create an “anonymousstudent-written” that was to be released to college campuses. Of course, the office assured the chief, “distribution of the paper will be handled by a source using a “cut-out” to avoid any affiliation with the FBI.”
The FBI, like today’s Russian troll, was not exactly a stylist. The “Rational Observer”, which must have been great fun to brainstorm there in the FBI office, reads like the product of a rather dim reader of Atlas Shrugged. It contains many, many bits of rhetoric that float around even today. For instance, the ever popular “we’re victims (as we lie to you)” ploy, which even today gets buckets of tears elicits buckets of tears from concern troll types – I’m looking at you, NYT editorial page!

It is an attempt by a small group of students, who love democracy, to preserve democracy…
It is unfortunate that we cannot identify ourselves for we take classes from some who do not believe in freedom and grade accordingly.”

This was a nice touch – not that it would resonate very much with students, but with conservative groups whose spirits preside over this FBI production, this would have seemed like God’s own truth. Of course, the real reason they couldn’t identify themselves is because they were FBI agents, but what is a little untruth when trying to preserve democracy?

The pamphlet is full of zingers, the kind of things FBI agents were probably telling their kids at the dinner table, and just felt would be ever so persuasive when put down in cold type. For instance:
“What’s wrong with competition? Nothing. Only those who lack confidence in themselves fear it and flock together like sheep under a shepherd of cowardice.” Mean profs, enemies of freedom all, would probably, it must be admitted, put a red ink circle around “a shepherd of cowardice” and write, “cliché - revise image to make point.”  

This proud product of D.C.’s finest G-men did not, most likely, turn the tide in any campus environment into which it was, via “cut-out”, released. But its themes, culled from a hundred Rotary Club dinners and John Birch society pamphlets, entered the mainstream. Its descendants now call those freedom hating, mean-gradin’ profs ‘PC’, and definitely think that they are the shepherds of cowardice, against which only a brave minority of intellectuals (plus the vast silent majority) are taking a stand.

as poor as a machine

“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”.

“ “While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor, and the wealth and refinement of society, it leads to the impoverishment of the laborer until he sinks to the level of the machine. While labor incites the accumulation of capitals and thus the increasing well being of society, it makes the laborer ever more dependent on the capitalist, thrusts him into a greater competition, drives him into a rush of overproduction, from which follows an equivalent slump.”  - Marx

Leszek Kolakowski has written that Marx, unlike the socialists of the 40s, had a firmer grasp of the fact that capitalism was rooted in de-humanization. His economic analysis does not marginalize this insight, but builds upon it – which is why Marx never puts the market at the center of economic analysis, even as he is able to represent the reasons that mainstream economists do so.

In the Economic-Philosophical manuscripts, the figure for that de-humanization is the machine.

Not, I notice, an animal. Traditionally, the poor were compared to animals. Animals themselves occupy an ambiguous status in the popular mindset. Sergio della Bernardina, who did an ethnographic study of various rituals of cruelty to animals, from bear baiting to hunting, found that the concept of the person, outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, not an absolute.  How personhood intervenes in social practice can’t necessarily be predicted from our definition of personhood – in the cases Bernardina examines, the tormenting of a bear or a bull before it is killed does not happen because its tormenters lack a sense of the animals personhood, but precisely because they want to provoke aggression on the part of the animal to which they can respond, shifting the blame for the animal’s death to the animal itself as a person responsible for lashing out, for acting badly.

Since the sixties, environmental historians have liked to bait Christianity for the massively bad habit of entrusting nature to man, and thus making the environment secondary to one species of dweller within it. I think this is a misinterpretation of the Church’s larger history, which put it in the broad ancient tradition which, while it certainly did not ascribe property to animals, did understand them as dwelling things - they did have holes and nests. They had families. Christian iconography is actually replete with peaceful animals, with the redeemed sheep, with the dove, etc.

The animal might not have a property relationship with the world – they could be hunted, they could be sacrificed, they could be eaten – but they were, of course, God’s creation.

Not the machine. The machine not only has not property claim on the world – it has no home. It has no family. The son of man would not say, the chariots have sheds, the hammers have a box – although he’d know it, being a carpenter’s son. In the double logic of the dissolution of the human limit, when Descartes and the early modern natural philosophers compare the animal to the machine – and man, too – they both advance a new claim about the human relationship to the world (dissolving any limit to its use) while advancing a new and unrecognizable form of human – the man machine, the Other – as the human subject.

The poverty of the worker, who sinks to the state of a machine, is the flip side of the glory of the proletariat, the Other who is the subject of universal history. What does the poverty consist in? Marx sees it, of course, in terms of wealth – but also refinement – the “Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft.” I would call this poverty an imprisonment in routines. It is hard to resist jumping ahead to Freudian terms, having to do with obsessive behavior and neurosis, which, after all, is the mechanical coming to the surface – the arm or leg that doesn’t work, that has returned to dead matter.

A note more here on the machine – I am floating a string of notes here. It is easy to forget that the Descartes or Le Mettrie’s machine was an automaton, an entertainment. Court societies love F/X, whether it is Versailles, Hollywood or D.C. – but in real material terms, the automata did nothing more than demonstrate the uses of a winding mechanism. What Marx is talking about is not that kind of machine.

As Schivelbusch nicely puts it at the beginning of The Railway Journey, the Europe of the eighteenth century, which was still the Europe of wood and woods, of energy supplied by streams and forests, was losing its woods. He quotes Sombart – and I am going to give some elbow room here to exaggeration and the blind eye turned to the forests in America. Still, wood was becoming more expensive, and in this way an opportunity opens up for other means of energy and structure – notably, coal and iron. To which one must add that water, too, but in a new form – as steam – is part of the complex. In one of the historical ironies that the economic historian scrupulously skirts, even the Corn laws, decried for two centuries, actually contributed to the industrial revolution, for, by raising the price of grain and thus of keeping horses, they “helped replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way shortage of wood in 18th century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production.”

So, the older elements of life – that obsession of the romantics in perhaps the last final bloom of eotechnical Europe – were being reconfigured before Marx’s eyes. When Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845, he took the messagerie – the stagecoach – to the Belgian border. In 1848, when he was kicked out of Belgium, he took the train back to Paris.

For Marx, the machine like worker is not, here, the automaton, but rather one of the new machines which incorporated an unheard of precision and standardization.

Schivelbusch, interested in how the consciousness caught the phenomenological changes being wrought by the machine, quotes a wonderful passage from an advocate of steam engine powered transport in 1825, who describes the imperfect movement of the horse: ‘the animal advances not with a continual progressive motion, but with a sort of irregular hobbling, which raises and sinks its body at every alternate motion of its limbs.”[12] Similarly, Schivelbusch notes that the steam boat was admired at first because it did not tack – it could move against the current and the wind.

A culture picks up in its proprio-phenomenological net such major changes to its habits, but often doesn’t express their novelty, because the vocabulary to express it is lacking. Marx is a monument of the modern moment because, among other things, he understood that the vastness of the changes taking place around him called for the deployment of an entirely different understanding of the world.

Monday, March 05, 2018

"idealism" vs. "realism" in politics

I have a simple rule, which is that ideas come before parties, and policies come before parties. When I read that Democratic politicians in "red states" have to conform to a "compromise position" to be viable, I think - how about those who elect them?
Of course, the "compromise centrism" case keeps getting tripped up both by political reality - centrist Dems seem very good at losing, as last decade demonstrates - and by common sense. To ban assault rifles you can't say, okay, lets compromise by not banning assault rifles.
You can't have universal health care by saying, let's first elect democrats who are opposed to universal health care. It isn't a matter of being an absolutist about principles. It is a matter of voting to make your life better. Parties are merely vehicles for justice. When they become the determinants of justice, when every compromise leads you further from your goal, best throw them away – or take them over.
Of course, from the p.o.v. of the +250 thou a year crowd who rule the Democratic party, the infinite compromising might be absurd. They can "compromise" principles without ever missing a lunch. But not for their voters: they are the ones voting to miss those lunches, to delay or cancel those visits to the dentist, to work at Walmart 40 hrs a week instead of retiring, to stress out their young lives trying to juggle child care and labor. Meanwhile, inequality keeps soaring, the trade deficit keeps soaring, the life style of the working class keeps decaying, the percentage of those passing through jail keeps the old apartheid system well in place.
When I see pundits put this in terms of "idealists" vs. "realists", what I know is: for the upper class, universal healthcare is an "ideal" b/c they already have healthcare. When you have great insurance, it might seem “idealistic” to make sure people who are out there – your servants, the people who make the things you use, who support your life – also have great insurance. The “ideal” has already happened for them, so it is the “real”.  But it is sheer realism for most peeps to have a system that works for them, instead of simply exploiting, exhausting, and rejecting them. Of course, the punditocracy, the moderate Dem, are the first to tell us that they are really for the “poor”. That’s why, for instance, we can’t have free tuition – that would be “welfare for the middle class.” And all the like bullshit. We can’t have free tuition, really, because the rentseekers wouldn’t get that interest from student loans and the “haves” would suddenly find their children rubbing shoulders with the “have nots” at good schools. That’s about it.