Limited, Inc.

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

the prose conscience

Hemingway, in some interview, said that he liked to begin the day by reading a page of solid English prose. This, I believe, is where he picked up the phrase from Donne that graces For whom the Bell Tolls.
At least, I believe this was Hemingway. I came across this quotation in my teens, and I have such a bright memory of it that it could be false, fool’s gold, not the real ore. However, similar spiritual exercises were recommended by Flaubert, and Flannery O’Connor in midcareer said that read Henry James because she hoped he’d have an effect on her, although she hadn’t seen any result yet.
The prose conscience, that is what these people were trying to create. I suppose there is one for every specialization, from plumbing to neurosurgery. What makes the arts a bit different is that the writer, painter or musician is building this conscience on a practice of reading. The plumber and neuorsurgeon are, I suppose, acquiring the elements of professiona integrity from experience – even if they also swear by their mentors.
Myself, in the track of Hemingway, I too read some of Donne’s sermons (challenge the person who claims to have read them all – reading them gave me a vast appreciation for the patience of our pew seated ancestors). I’ve read a number of writers as much for their putative music as for, well, what they are trying to say. Sir Thomas Brown, Samuel Johnson, Edmond Burke, John Ruskin. I know that the music can creep upon you and turn up where you least expect it. It would certainly have astonished Pascal to know that his most ardent pupil in the style department was to be Edward Gibbon, who modeled his prose on the Provincial Letters. Gibbon of course was an old reprobate. On the other hand, Pascal owed Montaigne, who was a seignorial reprobate. And the beat goes on.
It is for this reason that every oncet and a while I dip into Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying. I am not going to be persuaded by any Anglican arguments to hie me to a chapel, but the rush of the first paragraph is a sort of natural wonder. Here it is:
A man is a bubble, (said the Greek proverb,) which Lucian represents with advantages and its proper circumstances, to this purpose; saying, that all the world is a storm, and men rise up in their several generations, like bubbles descending a Jove pluvio, from God and the dew of heaven, from a tear and drop of rain, from nature and Providence; and some of these instantly sink into the deluge of their first parent, and are hidden in a sheet of water, having had no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die: others float up and down two or three turns, and suddenly disappear, and give their place to others: and they that live longest upon the face of the waters are in perpetual motion, restless and uneasy; and, being crushed with a great drop of a cloud,sink into flatness and a froth; the change not being great, it being hardly possible it should be more  nothing that it was before. So is every man: he is born in vanity and sin; he comes into the world like morning mushrooms, soon thrusting up their heads into the air, and conversing with their kindred of the same production, and as soon they turn into dust and forgetfulness - some of them without any other interest in the affairs of the world, but that they made their parents a little glad and very sorrowful: others ride longer in the storm; it may be until seven years of vanity be expired, and then peradventure the sun shines hot upon their heads, and they fall into the shades below, into the cover of death and darkness of the grave to hide them. But if the bubble stands the shock of a bigger drop, and outlives the chances of a child, of a careless nurse, of drowning in a pail of water, of being overlaid by a sleepy servant, or such little accidents, then the young man dances like a bubble, empty and gay, and shines like a dove’s neck, or the image of a rainbow, which hath no substance, and whose very imagery and colours are fantastical; and so he dances out the gaiety of his youth, and is all the while in a storm, and endures only because he is not knocked on the head by a drop of bigger rain, or crushed by the pressure of a load of indigested meat, or quenched by the disorder of an ill-placed humour: and to preserve a man alive in the midst of so many chances and hostilities is as great a miracle as to create him; to preserve him from rushing into nothing, and at first to draw him up from nothing were equally the issues of an almighty power. And therefore the wise men of the world have contended who shall best fit man’s condition with words signifying his vanity and short abode. Honour calls a man “a leaf,” the smallest, the weakest piece of a short-lived, unsteady plant. Pindar calls him “the dream of a shadow:” another “the dream of the shadow of smoke.” But St. James spake by a more excellent spirit, saying, ‘Our life is but a vapour,’ viz, drawn from the earth by a celestial influence; made of smoke, or the lighter parts of water tossed with every wind, moved by the motion of a superior body, without virtue in itself, lifted up on high, or left below, according as it pleased the sun, its foster-father. But it is lighter yet. It is but appearing; a fantastic vapour, an apparition, nothing real; it is not so much as a mist, not the matter of a shower, nor substantial enough to make a cloud; but it is like Cassiopeia’s chair, or Pelop’s shoulder, or the circles of heaven, φαινορενα, for which you cannot have a word that can signify a verier nothing. And yet the expression is one degree more made diminutive; a vapour, and fantastical, or a mere appearance, and this but for a little while neither, the very dream, the phantasm, disappears in a small time, “like the shadow that departed; or like a tale that is told, or as a dream when one waketh.” A man is so vain, so unfixed, so perishing a creature, that he cannot long last in the scene of fancy: a man goes off, and is forgotten, like the dream of a distracted person. The sum of all is this: that thou art a man, than whom there is not in the world any greater instance of heights and declinations, of lights and shadows, of misery and folly, of laughter and tears, of groans and death.” 
The bubble and trouble of that meditation, which leaps from image to image and pulls the argument, what there is of it, after, infests all his instances of the fleeting status of human life. To me, though, the image that most startles me, and is most in concord with the liveliness of raindrops annd the deadliness of admonition is that drowning in a pail of water. It delivers a shock, on the heels of the careless nurse. But it is a carefully hedged about shock, not dwelt upon but let loose in the stream of fluid and watery instances and pictures – for after all, the thing about water is that no shock really disturbs it, or is preserved in it. Unless of course it be ice – the one form of water Taylor doesn’t mention.

So here I am. The morning is over. Time to work.   

Monday, April 17, 2017

OJ and me

Ours is a household that lags the zeitgeist, so it was just this weekend that A and I streamed OJ Simpson vs. People on Netflicks. Seeing it, how the whole thing did not rush back to me!
At the time OJ Simpson took off in his famous white bronco, I was living in Santa Fe. I remember my roommate, a jazz singer, told me about it – she was watching it on her tv in her bedroom, and crying. I was puzzled about this: my roommate had never mentioned football before. To me, OJ Simpson was simply an old football player who made a bunch of cheesy ads and had a minor career in movies.
By the time the trial ended, I was living in New Haven. I do remember the not guilty verdict, mainly because the people I was working for seemed so upset about it. After work, I met my friend David, who was being visited by a neurotic friend from Brooklyn. All she wanted to do was talk about the case. As so often when Dave and I were together, we sort of silently agreed to play the fool, so we both said we thought he was innocent. The reaction to that was unexpectedly fierce: she left us and went straight to the train, and headed back to Brooklyn.
Out of that mockery I evolved my vague sense of the case: which is, that OJ Simpson was a guilty man who was framed by the LAPD. I’d heard bits and pieces about the case – this was before the Internet injected news directly into my ganglia, and I didn’t have a tv, so my knowledge of the case was curiously folkloric, depending on what other people said – and the bit that stuck was that some racist cop had found OJ’s glove. I immediately thought he’d probably planted it – such fortunate, accidental discoveries don’t just happen to cops. Especially racist cops.
I sort of still think that. One of the rare mistakes in the series is to follow along with the cop story about the glove. If he’d never found that glove, I think, OJ would have been found guilty.
But who knows?
Anyway, the series is educating me. And I do like it that I recognize the places where it was filmed, since I live in the midst of them. I’ve read that Cuba Gooding has been dissed for his imitation of OJ Simpson. That may be the case – Cuba Gooding is likeable, whereas OJ Simpson never seemed more, to me, than another egotistical Hollywood bit player. Aside from that, the film does get the race card – and that this card is called the USA. The quasi-automatic racial sidetaking is something I saw. White millionaires – for instance, Cullen Davis – have killed their spouses, or tried to, before, and beaten the rap, and it was never a symbol of everything. At the time of the trial, I was kicking against the symbol – I thought I would choose my own symbols of the Zeitgeist. But older and wiser, or more tired, which is what wisdom comes down to, I realize the Zeitgeist chooses the symbols in which it is encoded without consulting any individual. It made sense to me then, and makes sense to me now, that a system in which white juries make a habit of disculpifying cops when they kill black men, women and children was bound to get a response. This ain’t no Pavlov’s laboratory, and you can’t keep the shock machine going without the human product bursting out and taking it over at least occasionally, on high and mighty moments of exasperation.
Interestingly, a few years after OJ was released to maximum white indignation, Robert Blake offed his wife. How many peeps remember where they were when he was arrested, or when the jury cleared him of the murder charge? Time did not crystalize, in that case, any of our inner rages and guilts, I guess.

Friday, April 14, 2017

climate as property

It is often said that Marx was for abolishing private property. This is a misreading of Marx, or a sort of misreading. Marx predicted that capitalism would abolish private property.

The paralysis before climate change has something to do with Marx's notion. It is the reason that it isn't surprising that the U.S., which has appropriated the atmosphere for depositing a hugely disproportionate amount of waste, is not eager to make up for it. One of the keys to understanding pollution in capitalism is that capitalism is not, despite the first grade propaganda, based on private property. It is based, rather, on larger property owners seizing the private property of smaller owners. It is all about social costs, and renting your body for zero cents and zero dollars to lodge their corporate chemicals in. This is where Marx's theory intervenes: he had a shrewd idea that the progress of capitalism was the inverse of what the proponents of capitalism claimed, as it progressively abolished private property by concentrating it in fewer and fewer hands. At the end of this process, Marx thought, the bargaining power of the working class would have to be expressed politically, in a revolution that would establish a new order founded on that capitalist accomplishment. I'm less sanguine than Marx that the last chapter will be written that way. But one way to start the discussion of climate change is to ask about your property rights to the cimate. Have they been respected?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Bellarchy, or the State we live in

Unfortunately, political philosophers rarely seem to understand war as an institution. Rather, it is looked upon as an accident, at best a derivative of other state interests. The state, after all, in classical theory, is the opposite of war – the essential curb on it. Thus it seems dialectically out of the question that war might become part of the state, colonize the state’s DNA, as it were, determine its political form (a possibility materialized in the way a state taxes and distributes money, in the way a governing elite gets its hands on the state, in the very culture of belligerence that the busy little state spreads among a population).It is as if, among possible state forms, one is missing. Democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, anarchy – all of them are there except for… bellarchy. 

Bellarchy, in premodern times, impressed itself on the core of the state in terms of conquest, plunder, and glory, and these things have featured from the Assyrians to the colonizing West – but the idea of modernization is that we have left this in the past, These things are  seem alien to the state in any of its modern guises.
But I say nay, look around you.
In modern times, it was Hitler who codified the arms race and perpetual readiness for war into the state’s answer to the numerous problems posed by the treadmill of production. After World War II, this was Hitler’s legacy to the two great superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. So, for instance, the U.S. was able, in the Cold war, to do what it had been unable to do for almost one hundred years – develop the South, using the military to distribute aid to that underdeveloped part of the country, just as it also did to the West. And that structure has had cultural effects we have seen to this day. A constituency for war has been created such that war unleashes, without any questioning, the massive resources of the state. 

If Thomas Paine, whose instinct about war was sound, never quite foresaw this system, he certainly knew of and derided the connection between war and monarchy – or, if you will, the executive branch. Here he is still very much the prophet – meaning that his words are still not taken seriously. Only when prophecy is safely defunct is the prophet honored. Thomas Paine, like MLK, remains a prophet.

Monday, April 10, 2017

War: serial hit and run nation

Thoughts on warwarwarwar
Heidegger’s critique of the subject was aimed at getting metaphysics out of the magic circle of the subject; for this purpose he used the term Dasein. In 1945, according to Eileen Welsome’s Plutonium Files, the medical staff at a Rochester hospital went Heidegger one better. The staff began injecting unwitting patients with plutonium in an experiment conducted in tandem with other doctors across the country, organized by the Department of War – and eventually absorbed by the Atomic Energy Commission. The staff referred to the patients as HP – Human Product.
We are all HP now, processed through 70 years of DEFCON [defense condition] culture. One of the truths of the post 9/11 period that LI holds to be self evident is that after 9/11, everything was the same – except more so. The three trillion dollars of extra spending on the military did, of course, done everything except capture the 4 or 5 thousand people who attacked on 9/11 – for they now serve the vital function of being the threat on tap. And the cascade caused by the vile invasion of Iraq goes on and on, don’t stop till the war makes you drop. The DOA of Libya lies behind us, like some old cadaver in the memory of a serial hit and run driver. We are licking our moral chops about Syria, although there isn’t a person in the entire talking head parade, from the ludicrous Ayroult, Hollande’s minister, to the “Obama advisors” who are coming out saying that negotiating was a mistake, who really give a shit about Syria. They do give a shit about feeling good, and editorializing. But as for the 2 million HP in refugee camps, or the six years of civil war in which the US and its allies have armed groups in the full knowledge that they were turning into little copycats of the Saudi mindset – well, we will just forget about that.
I think the US is best defined as a conjunction of plutarchy and bellarchy. A war and finance state. We have one, overriding question for our fellow American HP, which is this: how did the war state create plug and play HP? The culture of acquiescence? Why do we love our presidents to have blood in their mouths? And how is it that after all that has been happening for 16 years, we still don’t realize that War is a commitment – there are no micro World War 2s. Libya failed, and Iraq failed, precisely because the plutocrats want to keep American HP generally safe and endebted, so there’s no draft, there is no immense commitment of every resource to war – not to speak of rationing and price controls. Heavens!
In a story published in the WAPO about the Hanson Plutonium Plant in Richland, Washington in I think it was 2004, I found a passage that seems so richly symbolic that I saved it in my blog. It seemed to reach out to me:
“Richland sprouted Atomic Bowling Lanes, an Atomic Body Shop, Atomic TV Repair, even an "Atomic Man." He was Harold McCloskey, a technician who survived a 1976 accident at Hanford that sprayed his face with the largest human dose of radiation ever recorded. He became the most thoroughly studied nuclear victim in America. Baggies of his feces and urine (labeled "Caution Radioactive") were stored for years in laboratory refrigerators and freezers across the Hanford site. After the accident, McCloskey was almost blind and his face could set off Geiger counters 50 feet away. But he was pro-Hanford until the end (he died of a heart attack in 1987). "Just forget about me being anti-nuclear, because I'm not," he said a decade after the accident. "We need nuclear energy."
Football players from Richland High wore a mushroom cloud on their helmets and called themselves the Bombers. The symbol of the atom was carved atop stone columns at the entrance to the cemetery. When liberated from federal ownership and allowed self-government in 1958, Richland's residents staged a simulated atomic explosion in a vacant lot on the edge of town. And when the Cold War began to wind down, announcement of the closure of N reactor, one of Hanford's largest, brought mournful Tri-Citians into the streets by the thousands. They held candles and sang "Kumbaya."”
Kumbaya! The HP beast slouches towards the perfect anthem, the favorite song of my Vacation Bible School days back there in Clarkston, Georgia. Someone’s dying Lord – and it is us HP, mourning the amazing structures of the Cold War, the architecture, the fallout, the atom soldiers, the preparedness, the dictionary of acronyms and phrases, the way we turned, turned, turned.
Thomas Paine wrote, in the Rights of Man:
“As war is the system of Government on the old construction, the animosity which Nations reciprocally entertain, is nothing more than what the policy of their Governments excites to keep up the spirit of the system. Each Government accuses the other of perfidy, intrigue, and ambition, as a means of heating the imagination of their respective Nations, and incensing them to hostilities. Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government.”

Friday, April 07, 2017

a suggestion for art forum

I read Carol Vogel’s piece about the new Damien Hirst exhibit in the NYT today, and found it interesting in a repulsive way. Just to check, I read a number of reviews and previews of art openings in the 60s and 70s in the New Yorker, and I did not find one that even mentioned the price of the pieces. Vogel’s whole article is devoted to the price of Hirst’s work. For good reason. The work, of course, is absolute shit. One dimentional one offs which don’t deserve a second of eyetime. But the prices – ah, the prices are in a sense sublime. Unfortunately, the article was illustrated with pictures of Hirst’s pieces, instead of pictures of checks, piles of Euros, dollars. The 750 thousand Euros that one of his pieces apparently sod for is a complex object, with many dimensions of dread and bloodshed, and nicely printed. The art world of which Hirst is a sort of master example no longer produces anything as interesting as the prices that are paid for the pieces circulating within it. I think that eventually, the message, which has been hammered home with a vengeance over the past twenty years, will finally achieve an objective correlative in some art magazine that only illustrates the prices of the pieces. 

Why not eliminate the middleman? Burn the fucking Hirst shit. Just trade 750 thou for, say, 1 million. Finally, we would achieve the full circle of the collapse of art in our time.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

fondane 2: silence is out there

There’s a long dispute in the philosophy of science about the ontological status of probability.
The dispute goes back to the founder of modern probability theory, Laplace. Laplace – with some help from the man who edited a posthumous paper by Bayes outlining one way of thinking about narrowing down probabilities – came up with equations to help us through the jungle of chance. There’s a good book by Sharon McGregor on the subject. McGregor, in keeping with the current trend, is a Bayesian.
Laplace, famously, had no place in his hypotheses for God. But he did have a place for what one might call a God Point. From the God Point, held, Laplace imagined, by a genius calculator, the universe would be revealed in its certainty. For this viewpoint, there would be no probabilities. Where we see, for instance, a raindrop, which splashes on our nose, the divine calculator would see the entire course of causes from which that raindrop issued. It would see the water evaporating from the surface of the earth, condensing into a cloud, and at some point of critical mass falling, once again to the earth, perhaps crashing into a mingling with other drops, until finally your nose is wet. And it would see all this the way we, for instance, see a tree – all as one thing, all as a certainty.
Underneath this vision is the idea that probability derives from a radical lack of knowledge. Lack of knowledge can sound, here, like a very subjective thing, but it isn’t necessarily so. We can model it mechanically. It is not subjective in the way of a state like: what it is like to be a bat.
However, as Mcgregor points out, for the positivists of the 19th century, and for the first generation of physicists who theorized quantum mechanics, there was something sneaky about this way of thinking about probability. Ed Jaynes puts it like this: “are probability statements of  quantum mechanics expressions of empirically verifiable laws of physics,[which would mean that they are out there, in the universe the good Lord is looking at] or merely expressions of our incomplete ability to predict, whether due to a defect in the theory or to incomplete initial information [in which case Laplace’s god is in his place and all  is right with the world].
I mention this controversy as an analogy to the case for silent films that Fondane wants to make. For, just as the early generation of quantum physicists and Machian positivists like Richard von Mises placed indeterminacy out there as a constraint on frequency, so, too, does Fondane place silence out there as a fundamental construction principle of film. Fondane is saying that sound is not an act of creative destruction, but instead destroys something essential about film.
Fondane builds up to this point by constructing a history of film that situates its beginnings in a sort of popular anarchy, something happening on the margins.
“The silent art is of low birth the child of business men without business, of employee without employment, of ignorant adventureres, of apprentice photographers. At no time would these people have consented to work for any other purpose than to expand the means, nourish the image making capacity, fortify the singular virtues of the power of a machine whose activity was as far as possible from what one might want to call, retrospectively, “art”.

This is an argument not so much from unintended consequences but, rather, from the surrealist principle that Fondane puts at the center of his essay: the ‘malentendu’. The misunderstanding or misprision of things and signs is, in Fondane’s work, a standing for the surrealist fascination with chance juxtaposition, with the principle of association gone wild. It is the surrealist sublime: the famous umbrella encountering a sewing machine on an ironing board. Exactly this kind of thing, on a mass scale, happens when silence and the moving image meet each other.