“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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

all the young dudes carry the news

When the left cut its throat in the eighties, the mainstream media analysis was that the left had outlived its purpose. Walls were coming down, and the story went like this: after an unpleasant interregnum during which the liberal interdiction on state interference in the economy was universally despised and contravened – bringing about those natural moral scolds, inflation and the decline of productivity – the old values robustly reasserted themselves. They took on the entrancing form, too, of a revolt for freedom, which couldn’t help but entrance the kids. We were now primed to resume our world historical broadcast from the place it had been interrupted in the Gilded Age, and this time we’ d democratize the Gilded age, as whole populations would become investors. The state would move aside, confining its role to a provider of morally uplifting action movie reality shows hosted on various military theaters around the world. As in a high concept movie, the State, a bad guy domestically, would turn out to be a hero abroad, always intervening for the sake of humanitarianism, and thus making the bystanders – the populations of those military theaters – eternal grateful as the troops marched down the streets of their neighborhood or village.
This story explained the left’s demise in terms of a milk toast Hegelianism devoid of Marxist taint – the spirit of history would become a sort of CEO Holy Ghost again. History was all about ideas. It was ideas that made history.
This was a story that, after some initial hesitation, the leaders of the leftier parties throughout the old developed countries  rather started to like. Freed from the obligation of having to represent the worker – or, God knows, listen to one – the party leadership  decided to switch constituencies. The leadership became even more friendly with the New Economy tycoons, who bloomed as the financial sector took on an imperial heft. At the same time, the Left was digesting the lessons of the great Civil Rights movements of the sixties, reshaping itself in an image of the progressive bourgeoisie of the new Gilded Age.
Two oppressed groups in particular were championed: women (gay or straight) and gays. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these two groups are seeded across the class spectrum. They are as likely to be represented in the ownership class as in the wage earner class. This is not the case, however, with races. It is much less likely for an African American in the U.S., for example, to be represented in the ownership class, whether staight or gay, male or female. By a sort of unconscious natural selection, where the leftist parties broke with their old constituencies, the working class, they also broke, as was in the nature of the economic structure, with the oppressed ethnic groups or races. However, it was easy to absorb the Civil Rights leadership into the ownership or managerial class, so to the leftist establishment it looked like they were realizing the entire agenda of the Civil Rights movement, even as, behind their back, they were at least compliant in the big story of the new Gilded Age – the criminalization of the unfavored racial or ethnic groups.  This, as it happens, was also the story in the old Gilded Age, at least in the States, as the Reconstruction gave way to the Reconciliation and Jim Crow was preceded by that crude but efficient modality of surveillance, prison.  In other countries, such as Britain and France, this process worked a bit differently, outside the “homeland”, among the colonized, where the necessity to destroy the resistance of the native and to lure into compliance the native elite also used prisons in a mix of processes – the major one being the monetizing of the economy – that had a different shape than the American one.
This, by the way, is not a sneaky ploy to identify racism with class struggle. I simply want to understaned the effect of the latter in reproducing new forms of the former. Another story could be told about the processes in the “interregnum” in which white dominated organized labor and the state operated in tandem to create a regime of discrimination against select races and ethnic groups. There’s a certain nostalgia on the part of older lefty survivors for the fifties and forties – why can’t we, for instance, mount infrastructural projects and employ people like in the old days? This ignores one of the major effects of those projects, which were directed broadly against racial communities.  The old slogan – they built white man’s roads through the black man’s home – was true about that time, whether or not the  “man” sticks out here like a sore thumb. The destruction of urban neighborhoods through urban renewal and highways was not a just a “bug”.

Revolutionary changes in the political form of a society don’t have to exert themselves in sudden and overt events – however, they will lead, in time, to changes in the socio-economic from of a society. There’s no substructure superstructure, there are only sifting sands, and the houses built thereupon. So here we are.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

amnesia - don't go to the two minute hate without it!

The two minute hate used to be so easy! The soviets! Drug cartels! Saddam Hussein! Alas, now the two minute hate needs footnotes. Take our latest hate. We hate ISIS! And the NYT, with proper indignation, has watched as Turkey has refused to relieve our brave allies who are being besieged by ISIS on the Turkish border. So we can have a good two minute hate against Turkey too.
But what’s this? In the town of Kobani, who are the heroic freedom fighters who so bravely defend everything we love against the headchoppers? Why, it is the PKK. Now, it is a funny thing, but while the US wants Turkey to ally with the PKK, if a US citizen allied with the PKK, they’d go to jail or Guantanamo. Why? Well, hate compagneros, the PKK, before last week, were on the list of evil terrorists, next to al qaeda. The PKK has a nasty habit of doing things like kidnapping German citizens in retaliation for the Germans banning the PKK as a terrorist organization. Now, usually, the two minute hate frowns on the kidnapping of Westerners – and by god, blonde ones at that.
So it is a bit of a puzzle. The best way out of the puzzle is just to forget that yesterday, PKK were Marxist terrorists, who had admitted in court to killing civilians, kidnapping, dealing in narcotics and the rest of it – and concentrate on the fact that they are now freedom fighters in our struggle against ISIS, Syria, and Iran, for peace and justice for all.
Oh, one other fact to forget – the PKK used to be allied with the new Hitler, Assad, in Syria. Luckily, they are now freedom fighters for democacy, but that was the company they used to keep when they were worse than the Khmer Rouge.

Amnesia is an essential part of the DC foreign policy establishment kit. Don’t go to your two minute hate without it! Luckily, the NYT, in its wisdom, is leaving out the juicy bits about the PKK, as it would muddy the waters in our war to the death with ISIS.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Henry James and Aphrodite

Even for those who enjoy the obliquities, dark passages, and the meanings buried with a shovel of Henry James’ late style, The American Scene is a trial. The sentences here are so hedged that sometimes the meaning they are drifting towards – driving towards would be too vulgar, as it was just the kind of thing Americans were always, shockingly, doing, driving here, driving there - seems to have entirely escaped them. This, one feels, is not an entirely peaceful enterprise – there is something altogether aggressive about passages in which murkiness seems to abound for its own sake.
Here’s an example:
“Who, for that matter, shall speak, who shall begin to speak, of the alacrity with which, in the New England scene (to confine ourselves for the moment only to that), the eye and the fancy take to the water? - take to it often for relief and security, the corrective it supplies to the danger of the common. The case is rare when it is not better than the other elements of the picture, even if these be at their best ; and its strength is in the fact that the common has, for the most part, to stop short at its brink ; no water being intrinsically less distinguished, save when it is dirty, than any other. By a fortunate circumstance, moreover, are not the objects usually afloat on American lakes and rivers, to say nothing of bays and sounds, almost always white and wonderful, high-piled, characteristic, fantastic things, begotten of the native conditions and shining in the native light ? Let my question, however, not embroider too extravagantly my mere sense of driving presently, though after nightfall, and in the public conveyance, into a village that gave out, through the dusk, something of the sense of a flourishing Swiss village of the tourist season, as one recalls old Alpine associations : the swing of the coach, the cold, high air, the scattered hotels and their lighted windows, the loitering people who might be celebrated climbers or celebrated guides, the resonance of the bridge as one crossed, the gleam of the swift river under the lamps. My village had no happy name; it was, crudely speaking, but Jackson, N.H., just as the swift river that, later on, in the morning light, to the immediate vision, easily surpassed everything else, was only the river of the Wildcat – a superiority strictly comparative.”
The end of my passage is not the end of the paragraph, so it might well go unnoticed that the final phrase is a bit out of whack as regards to sense. For what could possibly be the opposite of a superiority that was strictly comparative? One that arise absolutely, jettisoning comparison and wrapping itself Hegelianly in itself? It would seem that the river shares, with all things mortal, that fall from superiorities without comparison. Why would James want it otherwise?  
This is in a paragraph in the early part of the book, and what it tells us, to be naked about it, is that James went to a New Hampshire resort. Why Jackson should be a name that required a certain crudeness to pronounce – in contrast to, say, London, England – is a matter of those distinctions that James is always making in his own breast, where they make sense, but very rarely explaining to the world outside that consciousness when he produces them as somehow enlightening to his theme – as though the reader would only betray his own native crudeness by asking.
William James, in a letter to his brother written in 1887, speaking about his New Hampshire house – which one imagineswas the object towards which Henry James, in 1907, was striving - wrote  teasingly about the James’ strained sensibility with regard to the crude: “With house provided, two or three hundred dollars a year will support a man comfortably enough at Tamworth Iron works, which is the name of our township. But, enough! My vulgarity makes you shudder…” In one way, Henry James’ American Scene is just a long shudder, evoked by the American things William James rather loved.
Here I think is a key to the aggression of the style, which is an argument, or rather, the performance of an argument, against pragmatism and the world view that, for Henry James, it represented. Pragmatic prose, which tests itself –its truth - against its use in the world, would tend to plane away and break up the sentences and congeries of reference with which James loads up the books of his last period. Of course, by this time James was writing with a secretary, and the note of the oral, of the dictated, which overflows the orderly stops of the written had seeped into the written, which consequently swelled with modifications, irrelevancies, sudden and seemingly off topic references, and the kind of obiter dicta that, examined in the cruel light of logic, was not quite sound. In a sense, if pragmatic prose installed that collegiate thing, the “test”, as the supreme ritual to which all writing must bow, James fought back by pressing on the original notion of the test, which was of bodily strength, or muscular accident, and sought to create overwhelming effects. In the society where all things are put to pragmatic text, the old is doomed to be cleared away, and even the new is constructed to be taken down and replaced at the first profitable opportunity. For Henry James, the creative side of creative destruction is a little too heartless, a little too dumb to understand or sympathize with the destroyed, and in that falls below the value of the latter, which so often understands all too well the motives and feelings of its destroyer.
Of course, there is more than a note of this in William James’ work, too – he was scathing about the Chatauqua culture, and wrote an essay deploring American nervousness in the same decade that his brother wrote The American Scene, where that nervousness was portrayed as an all-devouring monster.
But although Henry James’ book displays a gigantic distaste for what the country in which he was born had become (a distaste that sometimes plunges into crude xenophobia and latent anti-semitism in the famous passages about immigrants in New York), there is also a moment, a rather startling moment, when James displays something else, something that is coordinate with another thing going on in 1907 in the world of art – the re-evaluation of the primitive.
In the Boston chapter, after James makes a point of the fact that the couples he sees strolling around Beacon Hill on Sunday are speaking Italian (and the point is not meant to underline some beautiful cultivation of the American mind that embraces the opportunity to exercise the language of Dante in the heights of Boston, but rather to hint at the the degradation of the American stock via the immigrant from Naples), he almost makes up for the drop into suburban prejudice by contemplating, in the Museum of Fine Arts then on Copley Square, one of the statues in the collection that is also an immigrant to the New World:
“It is of the nature of objects doomed to show distinction that they virtually make a desert round them, and peace reigned unbroken, I usually noted, in the two or three Museum rooms that harbour a small but deeply-interesting and steadily-growing collection of fragments of the antique. Here the restless analyst found work to his hand only too much ; and indeed in presence of the gem of the series, of the perhaps just too conscious grace of a certain little wasted and dim-eyed head of Aphrodite, he felt that his function should simply give way, in common decency, to that of the sonneteer. For it is an impression by itself, and I think quite worth the Atlantic voyage, to catch in the American light the very fact of the genius of Greece. There are things we don't know, feelings not to be foretold, till we have had that experience which I commend to the raffiné of almost any other clime. I should say to him that he has not seen a fine Greek thing till he has seen it in America. It is of course on the face of it the most merciless case of transplanting - the mere moral of which, nevertheless, for application, becomes by no means flagrant. The little Aphrodite, with her connections, her antecedents and references exhibiting the maximum of breakage, is no doubt as lonely a jewel  as ever strayed out of its setting ; yet what does one quickly recognize but that the intrinsic lustre will have, so far as that may be possible, doubled ? She has lost her background, the divine creature has lost her company, and is keeping, in a manner, the strangest ; but so far from having lost an iota of her power, she has gained unspeakably more, since what she essentially stands for she here stands for alone, rising ineffably to the occasion. She has in short, by her single presence, as yet, annexed an empire, and there are strange glimmers of moments when, as I have spoken of her consciousness, the very knowledge of this seems to lurk in the depth of her beauty. Where was she ever more, where was she ever so much, a goddess and who knows but that, being thus divine, she forsees the time when, as she has “moved over,” the place of her actual whereabouts will have become one of her shrines? Objects doomed to distinction make round them a desert, I have said – but that is only for any cross confidence in other matters. For confidence in them they make a garden, and that is why I felt this quarter of the Boston Art Museum bloom under the indescribably dim eyes, with delicate flowers.”
To catch in the American light the genius of Greece – this is a sentence worthy of one of the modernists; but since James has been presenting himself here more in the guise of the Ancient American Mariner, come to port and finding crudeness, vulgarity and impatience dealing deathblows to the country from which so long ago he had embarked,  I don’t just want to annex it to the movement that found what was most ancient to be what was most new – the paleolithic  sculpture, the first epic, etc.
Lautreamont, who Henry James doubtless never read, had already written of the beauty - comparative, it must be said – of the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Henry James did not present himself as the kind of writer who was bent on seeing the sublime in the abject, or the marvel in the junkheap, but the juxtaposition of this Aphrodite with the American light, and the curious idea that this immigrant, in a nation whose immigrants have been given a baleful stare by Henry James, will gain in the move over, does make us pause. First, because we tend to forget, in the authority that James lends his judgements, that he himself has moved over, he himself is an immigrant in an England in which the American accent is suspect. And second, because if all there was to Henry James was a protest against American vulgarity, he could stand in line – who hasn’t protested against that? It is, in fact, the most vulgar thing in the world.
But the superiority in whose name he is protesting is not that of any established order that he could really point to. In all of James’ novels set in Europe and Great Britain, it is clear that the characters, even as they lounge in the country homes,  are surrounded by a Dickensian squalor that supports those country homes. This is not just there in the foreground of Princess Casamissama, but it is on the edges of all his great novels – it is the region into which Kate Croy, in the first chapter of Wings of the Dove, proposes to plunge, and in plunging drown herself, when she goes to visit her father, a man who is basically a class conman, a pretender – a stinker.

It is on behalf of another order that James, or at least the better spirit in James, recoils in the American Scene. In this order, there is a chance for both naiveté and refinement – there is a chance, that is, for the civilization of sensibility in which his characters, down to the telegraph clerks, move, alert for every nuance in the Other, and to that extent giving the Other the ultimate tribute of possessing nuance, rather than being wired for the better deal. Although the mood in The American Scene seems to write finis to the possibility of such a civilization flourishing in a society that so agressively sells all that it has – for there is nothing that turns naiveté so quickly into a crafty strategy like the cult of sales and its attendent, the cult of the celebrity – the Aphrodite moment proposes something else, something at the end of the creative destruction that has written Henry James so largely, or so he thought, out of the script.