“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

Saturday, September 26, 2015

waves and the room - more Woolf

In Prigogine and Stenger’s book, the New Alliance, they claim that chemistry was tremendously boosted by Buffon. There was a period in the 1770s when certain French scientists, like D’Alembert, began to consider the Newtonian system to be faulty, due to various discrepencies they thought they had found, experimentally. Buffon, however, was having none of it, and in refuting the anti-Newtonians on the theoretical level, he suggested that the universality of gravity had not yet been taken up by chemists, who had clung tenaciously to an old fashioned system of “attractions”. The mathematical faults that D’Alembert felt he had found merely pointed to the need for further research under the grand Newtonian umbrella.
“… and if, up to this day, we have regarded the laws of affinity as different from those of gravity, the fault lies in not having well conceived them, grasped them, embrassed this object in all its extension. The figure which, among celestial bodies, hardly does anything by the law of the action of bodies one upon the other, because the distance is so vast, does everything, on the contrary, when the distance is very small or non-existent.”

It is through the research that was pursued under this unifying charter that, in the beginning of the century, brought about the discovery of radioactivity. Buffon’s comparison was almost literally transferred to the atom in Bohr’s theory of 1913, although I doubt Bohr ever read Buffon. It was in this context that the wave became one of science’s reigning symbols. From 1900 until the 1930s, waves were much in the news, and not only due to physics, but due, as well, to technology. The wave was associated with the radio, and the radio promoted a view of the world as a sphere of invisible waves.  In 1919, Victor Tausk’s famous essay, On the Origin of the Influencing Machine in schizophrenia, he points to a recurrent image in schizophrenia, in which patients claim that a kind of devise exists that influences the patient’s and other’s thoughts and feelings. In a footnote on the devise, Tausk notes that “It produces, as well as removes, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain.” The patient isn’t the only one – as radios came on the market, it was the rare customer whose “knowledge of physics” could explain how they worked. But that they worked by means of waves (rather than, mostly, rays – I think one could probably trace a change from rays to waves, the effect of cultural themes, in the 19th century)  was something all knew.
I am not quoting Tausk to intentionally pathologize  Virginia Woolf, although I’m afraid that, given our knowledge of her breakdowns, I am a bit. However, Woolf’s own texts are not reticent about what she experienced during periods of mental disorientation, and I don’t think one can discount these experiences in the way she wrote, the themes she elaborated.
Heinrich Hertz, the man who discovered radio waves, spoke, in general terms, of replacing such terms as energy and force in mechanics with his threefold categories of time, space and mass, and deriving his mechanics of “hidden mass” and “hidden movement” from these – much to the dismay of philosophers like Mach. That hiddenness, that invisibility, combines with the notion of waves to create a certain popular mythology. Oliver Lodge, who took Hertz’s theory, popularized it in England, and arguably made the first radio receiver, was as famous, in the 1920s, as a parapsychology researcher. He took the model of the radio very far – in the twenties, he propounded the theory that the eye “is like a revieving instrument for detecting radio waves of an extremely short and definite length. It was the first wireless receiving set employed by man.”   
With authorities like Lodge – authority-eccentrics – using the notion of invisible waves to reinforce a rather pre-scientific world view, I hope I am not pathologizing Woolf by suggesting that both her illness and her peculiar awareness of contemporary fact made waves an irresistable image of the stability-in-instability that she was after. I have not been able to find out when she first bought her own wireless set. But there is a quotation in her diary from 1918 that shows how radio waves, voices, and information come together in a complex. She records a meeting with a high government official, who tells her about the latest developments on the front in France.
“I tried to think it extraordinary but I found it difficult – extraordinary, I mean, to be in touch with one who was in the very center of the very center, sitting in a little room at Downing St. where, as he said, the wireless messages are racing through from all over the world, a million miles a minute. Where you have constantly to settle off hand questions of enormous difficulty and important – where the fate of armies does more or less hang upon what two or three elderly gentlemen decide…”
This crisscrossing of messages, and the sorting of them, is reproduced and suitably transformed in many passages in Jacob’s room where an entire collectivity is taken into account, with the authorial voice wandering among it, and commenting on the enormous difficulty and incompleteness of knowing where to begin, how to penetrate, what it means. This is a collectivity in which Jacob floats. It is to the decisions of two or three elderly gentlemen, who take this collectivity, this Europe, to war, that Jacob is eventually sacrificed.
This, then, are some of the significations of the wave.  The wave is the form taken by what is in motion, whereas the room is a retreat from what is in motion – this, at least, is one of the values their opposition has in Jacob’s room. You can be mounted on a wave, but not for very long. Woolf has a description of Jacob’s attempt to hunt like the gentry which seems, almost,to derive from Muybridge’s famous series of photos. It gives us, or me at least, the kind of wave reference which I think goes all the way through the novel:
A few moments before a horse jumps it slows, sidles, gathers itself
together, goes up like a monster wave, and pitches down on the further
side. Hedges and sky swoop in a semicircle. Then as if your own body ran
into the horse's body and it was your own forelegs grown with his that
sprang, rushing through the air you go, the ground resilient, bodies a
mass of muscles, yet you have command too, upright stillness, eyes
accurately judging. Then the curves cease, changing to downright hammer
strokes, which jar; and you draw up with a jolt; sitting back a little,
sparkling, tingling, glazed with ice over pounding arteries, gasping:
"Ah! ho! Hah!" the steam going up from the horses as they jostle
together at the cross-roads, where the signpost is, and the woman in the
apron stands and stares at the doorway. The man raises himself from the
cabbages to stare too.

So Jacob galloped over the fields of Essex, flopped in the mud, lost the
hunt, and rode by himself eating sandwiches, looking over the hedges,

noticing the colours as if new scraped, cursing his luck.”

Thursday, September 24, 2015

the fascist heart of Narcos

I’m watching Narcos, first season. Excellent show, but like Homeland, it has a fascist heart. The latter’s heart was all in the war of civilization, aka Muslims equal terrorists. It was never, the West equals massive war dealers and makers killing Muslims and erecting totalitarian states, aka the Saudis and company.There was not even a hint that this was part of the argument. In Narcos, the first show begins with the DEA agent embracing the idea that a criminal investigation is a “war” and gives an approving nod to Pinochet’s death squad action against those terrible ‘dealers’. Then of course there’s the quick flick to America, where the fact that cocaine was increasingly being used in the eighties is taken not as an indication that the particular form of suppression chosen by the state, in particular the formation of the DEA and the extraordinary powers granted it, were a huge mistake, but instead, that the dealers are more evil than we ever thought they were. The DEA, operating as a catalyst to make the smuggling much more violent, then legitimates itself with reference to the violence. And then there’s the money – which is depicted, hilariously, as going from the US to Colombia. This, we are gravely assured, alarmed the good business community of Miami. Miami in the eighties went through an economic boom precisely for the opposite reason. Nobody was investing in Colombia. Like good Latin American capitalists, the dealers invested in the US, and the US banking system and government was complicit all the way. The deregulation of finance and the increasing acceptance of offshore banking just happened, by amazing coincidence, when cocaine’s black money became a major presence in the international system.
About the money, the show is DEA dumb, siting street prices as though they were writ in concrete. The problem for the dealers was that, in spite of the great fiasco of the DEA, they had too much product, so the street price went down.
“Cocaine’s wholesale price fell sharply during the 1980s, rose somewhat in 1990, and then declined fitfully during the rest of the decade. In 1993, the wholesale price dipped below $50 per pure gram, and has never exceeded that level since. The price has fallen every year since 2000, settling at its all-time low in the first half of 2003 ($37.96)” I take this quote from WOLA, which takes it from the American government. Even so, prices and amounts should be viewed with caution. The DEA and police department habitually inflate the price of the drugs they either interdict or claim are on the street. There is really not a reliable index in this area. Estimates are made in the most hazy way, and then, unsceptically, distributed by a press that has long identified with the DEA and the “war on drugs.”

Narcos, unfortunately, is still animated by the spirit of Harry Anslinger, the founder of the Federal antinarcotics bureau and the man who, from the 1920s to the 1960s, did more than anyone else to create the drug mythology. It is painfully stupid to broadcast a series about cocaine that includes crackpot evidence about how rats will prefer cocaine to food or anything else when the audience, and sans doute the people who produced the show, have largely experienced cocaine in their own lives, and know how various responses to it can be. It is and will be the case that cigarettes and alcohol cause more damage than cocaine and heroin put together. The state may well have reasons to suppress the latter two, but those reasons shouldn’t  be allowed to trump reality or fill our prisons. Now, of all times, is not the time  to make the DEA heroic. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

the room and the wave in Woolf - a beginning

The black spot – the pirate’s anticurrency - of the utilitarian mindset, as was seen early on by critics like Hazlitt and Macaulay, was that it led to no larger purpose. Macaulay, attacking James Mill, made some great shots at the utilitarians – “whose attainments just suffice to elevate them from the insignificance of dunces to the dignity of bores” – but attained his larger purpose by arguing with Mill’s narrow definition of the purpose of human action on the grand scale:
“But what are the objects of human desire? Physical pleasure, no doubt, in part. But the mere appetites which we have in common with the animals would be gratified almost as cheaply and easily as those of the animals are gratified, if nothing were given to taste, to ostentation, or to the affections. How small a portion of the income of a gentleman in easy circumstances is laid out merely in giving pleasurable sensations to the body of the possessor! The greater part even of what is spent on his kitchen and his cellar goes, not to titillate his palate, but to keep up his character for hospitality, to save him from the reproach of meanness in housekeeping, and to cement the ties of good neighbourhood. It is clear that a king or an aristocracy may be supplied to satiety with mere corporal pleasures, at an expense which the rudest and poorest community would scarcely feel.”
This anthropological protest against the utilitarian apriori was greatly expanded by Veblen at the end of the 19th century. It is certainly not a comprehensive critique, but it speaks to a “lowness” in the utilitarian world view that was certainly felt by almost all the Victorian sages.
But those sages also saw that, indeed, the era of the satiety of mere corporal pleasures was on the horizon. From the sugar that sweetened the tea of the poorest laborer in England in the 18th century to the new department stores that Zola and Dreiser wrote about, a sort of synthesis was being enacted in which the great social purpose was not to satiate desire but to arouse it.
The result, in its critics eyes, was that a utilitarian culture slowly dissolved the belief that there could be any larger purpose, or that desire was anything but a tool to profit.  Simmel, in the Philosophy of Money at the  end of the 19th century, saw that this was an insistent characteristic of a society in which the social nexus seemed to have been supplanted by the cash nexus: rationality becomes less about reason as a living, dialectical entity – an open spirit of inquiry - and more about the best strategy for making a money, for playing the angle, a strategy to which all creativity is subordinate. Simmel’s sociology may have enormously exaggerated the inroads of rational self-interest: Europe was still a continent that was majority peasant in 1900, and larger purposes, ominously, were everywhere. But there was something inexorable about the social logic that Simmel lays out, something that could be felt, like a chill, on ever street of every city. It was not only among intellectuals that the idea that humans were reduced to their use in a machine that was felt to be an insult to humanity, and a source of suffering. On the other side of Simmel’s money-bound society were the many critiques and utopias, all of which were meant to solve it, or transcend it, or roll it back. It was certainly felt by Mill, in the 1860s, that something had gone wrong with both the social logic of utilitarianism and with happiness itself, as it was currently interpreted. Woolf and the people that she knew all felt that something had gone badly wrong. But the difference between 1850 and 1922 – the difference that Woolf had dated, famously, to 1910, in her essay on Arnold Bennett – was that the failure of the larger purpose was not seen as a bad thing, but rather as a stone that had been lifted from off our breasts. At least in Woolf’s own writing, this becomes an aesthetic principle of loose ends. The word about Woolf is that she is always psychological.  However, one cannot get very far reading Jacob’s Room in this way. In a sense, Jacob’s Room is a rubican novel – once she wrote it, she could not go back. What she does in it is suggest that the novel need not be tied to the fate of the character. Instead, fate could be put to one side, and a certain looseness, a certain concantanation of life paths, can be thrust into the foreground.  
Myself, I am continually thrown back on a persistant binary in Woolf’s writing between the room and the wave. Jacob’s Room, evidently, stakes itself on the room – but it is a book filled with waves. In an early scene in the book, when Jacob is boating with his Cambridge friend Timmy Durrant, the wave is thrust into literature itself – or, rather, literature is thrust into the wave.
“The seat in the boat was positively hot, and the sun warmed his back as he sat naked with a towel in his hand, looking at the Scilly Isles which--confound it! the sail flapped. Shakespeare was knocked overboard. There you could see him floating merrily away, with all his pages ruffling innumerably; and then he went under.”
“… all his pages ruffling innumerably”! This is such an intelligent adverb that I myself go under it, bow to it, sink beneath it. This must be said. But to return to my point,  this is not the only place where the wave becomes the great universal solvent in which all things are dissolved and resolved.
I’ll do more, I hope, with the room and the wave later.


facts or factoid, it doesn't make any difference to Frank Bruni

I find the whole GOP presidential frosh tryouts great fun. One of the things they bring out is how bad, how completely and hopelessly bad, our political reporters and commenters are. Case in point: Frank Bruni's column intoday's NYT.   Bruni, and the NYT, have been doing their best to blow on the flames, dim as they are, of Fiorina's popularity - thinking that this will certainly countercheck that Trump! So this is the kind of thing you get: 

But here comes Carly Fiorina, and her brand is aced-it-already and know-it-all. I’ve seen this firsthand.
For a magazine story in 2010, I followed her around and interviewed her over several days. Someone would mention a flower; she’d rattle off a factoid about it. I’d ask her about a foreign language that she’d studied; she’d make clear that she’d dabbled in two others as well. Her husband would tell a story; she’d rush to correct him and fill in the details.
Now, as a reporter, it was Bruni’s job, apparently, to accept at face value any bullshit he was presented with. The flower and its factoids, that is bizarre: what, did Fiorina discuss the evolution of the Sago palm? And what is it with fact and factoids, or are they (oh, I know this answer teacher! I know it!) approximately the same thing for the NYT’s ace reporter? And what foreign language was it, exactly. And how did she “dabble” in two others. Could she actually speak, converse, in a language other than English? Did Bruni talk to her in that language?
Yes, Bruni’s bizarre anecdotes, offered to reinforce the point that here is a woman who is all policy paper, seem exactly the kind of thing that a candidate would do to impress that most gullible of species, the Timesman. But gullibility, as any conman knows, depends upon the subject’s unconscious vanity. In this case, of course, the vanity is institution wide: it is the vanity that the reporter’s are also all policy paper. It is an odd thing that after decades of press fiascos, from the swallowing of every bit of ratbait put out by the Bushies about Iraq’s “threat” to the US to the notion that the economy was rock solid in 2007 and 2008, which was the grand narrative of the NYT business pages at the time, people like Bruni still think the general public is in awe of them – that they are authorities, no less. The reason they aren’t authorities has something to do with the inability to distinguish between facts and factoids, and the inability to either name a flower or a language or to judge competence in either biology or Spanish – presumably the foreign language under discussion – or French, or Chinese, or any other language.

Bruni’s column was about what a dolt Governor Walker is. But what it proves is what a gull Bruni is.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

on the incredible luck of the Bushes

I expect as few surprises from the GOP as from a plugged in digital clock. So last week, I was as miffed at the evident sinking of Jeb Bush as the standard bearer as I would be if my alarm clock suddenly switched from telling time to throwing the I ching. This article, by Adam Nagourney and Jonathan Martin, has convinced me that I underestimated how deeply, deeply incompetent the GOP isThe mechanics of the race are such that if Trump wins both NH and SC, which I think he has every likelihood of doing, it will be hard, maybe impossible, to stop him. Not that I care outside of my position as amateur handicapper about it at all. Trump is no more racist or sexist than the lot of the others. And as a man who uses bankruptcy the way another person would shower after a hard game of touch football - washing off the dirt - I have no doubt that, in the slim case he was elected, he'd soon forget his fascist - or should I call it Jacksonian? - promise to deport 11 million immigrants. Right now, as a person well and truly burned, I am simply enjoying the pundit class desperately trying to cry up any indication that the "Trump bubble" has burst. Hence, the obsessive focus on polls that show Trump down, and the blind eye turned to larger polls - for instance, the recent NBC one - that shows him solidifying his lead in the race. Trump makes me dream a bit. If the Dems had only nominated someone, in 2004, who would have gone after Bush's masculinity the way Trump has gelded Jeb, who knows? We might have had a one term junta blip.The Bushes are awful easy to knock down. They depend on the kindness of strangers - of a fawning press and a solid Wall Street backfield. Otherwise, they go bump.