Monday, May 30, 2005

I'd be depressed if this became either a standard despairing (and standards despairing?) soapbox or feel-good lit-blog link-fest kind of site but...

While I'd like to think I've grown out of Kerouac, in a banal sense anyway, learning from Arts Journal that an unpublished play is coming out in July...well, it brought back memories. Ones I assumed had been forever ensmogged. From The Guardian:
Although the play was never published or performed, the third act became the basis for a film, Pull My Daisy, starring Allen Ginsberg...

Kerouac even sent the play to Marlon Brando, Mr Lord said. Kerouac was desperate to collaborate with the actor, and wrote a letter to him in 1957 urging Brando to appear in a play adaptation of On the Road.

Brando never responded, and the two only met once, in 1960, when Kerouac enrolled in the Actor's Studio. But his foray into acting was shortlived. After 15 minutes he asked, "Don't they give you any drinks in this place?" Spotting Brando he invited him for a drink. Brando refused.

Just so this isn't a complete waste of a post (how many blogs, sadly enough, seem motivated primarily by such a tired, impotent regret as this—Resisting Left Melancholy anyone?): there's a new Foster Wallace coming as well (his earlier stuff was better); a new issue of Foucault Studies deals largely with Agamben; Infinite Thought hasn't posted anything on Long Sunday yet but she reports on Zizek's Birkbeck lecture (where he continued, predictably enough, his habitual cutting, sloganizing and pasting of Derrida's corpus; lots of people are pretending to eat and cry at the same time on the Internet, Terry Eagleton reviews something or other, and Tariq Ali has been busy saying the obvious and necessary, such as that Chritopher Hitchens may have a future as Wolfowitz's bodyguard, and etc..

Update: Terry Eagleton's piece is really quite good, and I may try to do it better justice in another post shortly if others don't hop to it. Something of an about-face on Derrida (if not a discreet apology?) runs through the review, even, and he strengthens a certain crucial point—one apparently rather unpalatable to liberals—that Zizek dared to make not so long ago. An excerpt quoted from the tail:
Jacoby, like almost everyone else on the planet, assumes that the imagination is an entirely positive power, rather than something that can cut both ways. The planning of genocide, for example, involves a fair degree of imagination. He is also rather too inflexible about the distinction between utopia and dystopia (or utopia gone bad). He argues cogently against the prejudice that all "total" or ambitious social change leads directly to totalitarianism and mass murder. On the contrary, as he points out, most of the great dystopian literary works of the modern age are by no means anti-utopian. Orwell's 1984 is not in the least an antisocialist text, as its author was at pains to point out. It is true that some utopian authors were rather less than utopian in their actual lives: Thomas More, who invented the word "utopia," was, we are reminded, a zealous burner of heretics. In general, however, the idea that utopian thought is inevitably totalitarian is a myth...

...It is precisely the fact that Stalinism is utopia gone sour that distinguishes it from fascism, whatever those who airily lump the two together as "totalitarian" might suppose...

Picture Imperfect does a useful hatchet job on three robustly anti-utopian Jewish philosophers (Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt) before turning to a remarkably rich, suggestive excavation of a Jewish, poetic, "iconoclastic" utopian tradition, one that embraces Ernst Bloch and Gustav Landauer, Jacob Talmon and Martin Buber, Fritz Mauthner and Hermann Cohen.

In retrieving for our troubled times a precious heritage threatened with oblivion, it takes its cue from Walter Benjamin's comment that the image of the past that matters is the one that swims up to us at times of crisis. The future may or may not turn out to be a place of justice and freedom; but it will certainly disprove the conservatives by turning out to be profoundly different from the present. In this sense, it is the hard-nosed pragmatists who behave as though the World Bank and caffe latte will be with us for the next two millennia who are the real dreamers, and those who are open to the as yet unfigurable future who are the true realists.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

"a certain patience"

(courtesy of)
Ladies and Gentlemen, I urge you therefore to exercise a certain patience with respect to the relations between theory and practice. Such a request may be justified because in a situation like the present — one about which I do not entertain the slightest illusion, and nor would I wish to encourage any illusions in you — whether it will be possible ever again to achieve a valid form of practice may well depend on not demanding that every idea should immediately produce its own legitimating document explaining its own practical use. The situation may well demand instead that we resist the call of practicality with all our might in order ruthlessly to follow through an idea and its logical implications so as to see where it may lead. I would even say that this ruthlessness, the power of resistance that is inherent in the idea itself and that prevents it from letting itself be directly manipulated for any instrumental purposes whatsoever, this theoretical ruthlessness contains — if you will allow me this paradox — a practical element within itself (from here).

Dated, but also plenty to chew on here (via).

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Long Sunday

I'm honored to have helped along the creation process of a new group blog. We've certainly been having fun so far, taking our time getting to know each other a bit better over the past two months. It's an extraordinary group of folks and needless to say, I'm looking forward to spending more time over there in the near future. (Happily enough, a spatter of raindrops from the sky doth fall.)

mixing lit'rature and (gasp) politics

As for Paul Ricoeur, what he sees as the opposite of katachresis is the live metaphor - for which his book, The Rule of Metaphor, is a most convincing plea.

From an interesting reading of Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning:
COMPLACENCIES of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.


Or, if you prefer, regarding the work of mourning:
Every Sunday at lunch my grandmother would disinter her dead brother killed 50 years ago when he dragged his shotgun through a fence and blew his lungs out.
'I always remember my brother such a lovely boy. I hate to see boys with guns.'
So every Sunday at lunch there was the boy lying by the wood fence and blood on the frozen red Georgia clay seeping into the winter stubble.
And poor old Mrs. Collins waiting for the cataracts to ripen so they can operate on her eye. Oh God! Sunday lunch in Cincinnati!

—William Burroughs, letter to Allen Ginsberg, January 15, 1953, Hotel Colon, Panama (The Yage Letters)

Colon, a canker sore on the Atlantic mouth of the Panama Canal, was a suffering city in Burroughs' day—a suffering that had metastasized further by the time I passed through on the way to Colombia, oh back around the winter of 1998. Such places are the growing slums of the "globalized" world, ghettos run (indirectly) by superpowers (mainly the US), and their spoiled, increasingly rebellious sons (international corporations) (but don't worry too much about them, nor concern yourself with the surging populist rebellion in our midst, because the free market Friedman's have granted unchecked corporate welfare the infinite santion, stamp and seal of approval of that most insidious, unspoken and apocalyptic watchword...inevitable.) Witness the bizarre, circuitous path travelled to try to play down the exponential, unprecedented rise of multinational corporations:
"Thus, very successful corporations end up investing in political power, in order to maintain and solidify their hold on a particular market.

"Has the capacity of corporations to engage in such practices increased? Given the nature of the problem it will be difficult to give definitive answer.

"There is an indirect way to measure the evolution of the political and economic power of corporations. This is to analyze how quickly corporations come and go.

"In a world where the large corporations remain the same for long periods of time, it is likely that these corporations will be able to develop stronger political networks helping them to maintain better positions in the market. Conversely, when the companies at the top come and go quickly, their capacity to build up political power will be limited."

So they analyzed how quickly the composition of the top 10, top 20 and top 50 industrial corporations listed in Fortune magazine has changed. They found about half of these companies were able to maintain their position in the last 20 years. The other half has been replaced by newcomers.

It shows "that a large proportion of those who were powerful in the past have lost some (or all) of their power, while others, who had little power, increased it quickly. All this suggests that corporate power is elusive and can quickly change."

They also found that since 1994 service companies tend to disappear from top position at a faster rate than industrial companies.

In conclusion, Grauwe and Camerman found "no evidence that the size of multinationals relative to the size of nations has tended to increase during the last 20 years."

They continued:

"Finally, we argued that there is little evidence that the economic and political power of multinationals has increased in the last few decades."
"Multinationals have not grown in size relative to the nation-states nor have they become more powerful in the last 20 years. And yet, the perception is very different.

"This leads to the conclusion that what has changed is not the economic reality. The big transformation has been in the perception of that reality. The big transformation has been in the perception of that reality. Many people now perceive multinationals as having grown in size and power, whereas they did not hold this view (or not to the same extent) 20 years ago.

"Why is it that perceptions can change so drastically while the underlying economic reality has changed so little?"

"...The popularity of ideas seems to evolve in a cyclical manner -- very much like fashion. During the 1960s and 1970s, anti-capitalist ideas were fashionable. They went out of fashion in the 1980s, but came back in full force during the second of the 1990s.

"Maybe all this is inevitable in a world where the human mind tires to grasp how 'the system' performs. Faced with great uncertainty about the functioning of the economy, people try one theory, then discard it to search for one that fit the data better, until the new theory is found wanting.

"The result of this groping for understanding is that ideas and perceptions are subject to large cyclical movements, even if the underlying reality changes little."

One can only hope the good people of Colon (and Venezuela and Mexico) are waiting with infinite piety and patience for that glorious day, when all 20 of the top multinationals stay in the top 20 for more than a mere decade or two and begin to become politically engaged, or capable of exerting some modest influence on the (otherwise free and pure) market.

You separate the Sunday sections and there are endless identical lines of print with people living somewhere in the words and the strange contained reality of paper and ink seeps through the house for a week and when you look at a page and distinguish one line from another it begins to gather you into it and there are people being tortured halfway around the world, who speak another language, and you have conversations with them more or less uncontrollably until you become aware you are doing it and then you stop, seeing whatever it is in front of you at the time, like half a glass of juice in your husband's hand.

She took a bite of cereal and forgot to taste it. She lost the taste somewhere in between the time she put the food in her mouth and the regretful second she swallowed it.

—DeLillo, The Body Artist, 21

Thursday, May 19, 2005

"we attacked us"?

What really took place prior to and on 9/11/2001 is no small source of controversy...Who knew what when? Were the towers demolished by explosives? Was a plane shot down? What kind of plane hit the Pentagon, who was the pilot, and why did it circle around to the least important side? Why wasn't Bush whisked away to safety? Where was Cheney? What about the money made from "put options", what about the Saudis, etc., etc.

David Ray Griffin (he's been mentioned here before), certainly deserves far more attention. Recently he's been talking about his newest book, The 9/11 Commission Report: Ommisions and Distortions. Frankly, I think he presents a pretty damn convincing case that "9/11", as we say, may not be the story but rather the scandal of our time. That is, if Americans are not too scandal weary still...?

The Official 9/11 Commission Report (still highly ranked and brimming with 5-star reviews on is essentially a politically-soaked pack of lies. Anyone unconvinced of this simply hasn't done their homework. Or rather, fortunately enough, David Ray Griffin's second book has now done it for you. Clearly, what the cunt administration needs most right now is another war...something, big and bad. But they're setting some pretty tough standards.

Update: See also here please.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Galloway goes to Washington

I'd be remiss if I didn't post a note about..what, that brief blip of a moment not so long ago, when the political theatre in America was not entirely inane. The video and best commentary as always, is here (Information Clearing House and Crooks and Liars also have the footage.) The day having long ago come that the Brits are sexier, their egos more honed and attractive than US, and we should probably roll belly-up and admit defeat. I mean even Woody Allen has abandoned Manhattan for Notting Hill.

as I go off to my least exciting job

I leave you with a painting...entitled (for some reason), Down the Primrose Path:

yes, that's meat. Don't you just want to gnash your teeth and eat the painting?
Extremely Important Update: Preferring not to sweat it out there anymore, I quit. I didn't go $40,000 in debt to wash fucking dishes and make salads, after all. (I went $40,000 in debt to work at a bookstore and blog, of course.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Asia's City of God, or The Monkey God's Army (Friedman's burgeoning "creative class")


In other news, apparently some terrorists are worth protecting from their hunters, so long as their hunters are populist Latin American leaders.
Also, Scott McLemee has an excellent brief article on Sartre. It goes down like a fine wine as always.

from The Castle

"Mizzi is entirely of my opinion and now I am at liberty to express it. This lettter is in no sense an official communication, but only a private letter. That can be clearly seen in the very mode of address: 'My Dear Sir.' Morever, there isn't a single word in it showing that you've been taken on as Land-Surveyor; on the contrary, it's all about state service in general, and even that is not absolutely guaranteed, as you know; that is, the task of proving that you are taken on is laid on you. Finally, you are officially and expressly referred to me, the Mayor, as your immediate superior, for more detailed information, which, indeed, has in great part been given already. To anyone who knows how to read official communications, and consequently knows still better how to read unofficial letters, all this is only too clear. That you, a stranger, don't know it doesn't surprise me. In general the letter means nothing more than that Klamm intends to take a personal interest in you if you should be taken into state service."

"Mr. Mayor," said K., "you interpret the letter so well that nothing remains of it but a signature on a blank sheet of paper.* Don't you see that in doing this you depreciate Klamm's name, which you pretend to respect?"

*Here Kafka deleted a sentence which ran:
My interpretation is different; I shall stick to it even though I also have quite different weapons, and shall do all I can to get it acknowledged.

Why was this sentence dropped? Does it not risk betraying a certain fidelity on the part of the author toward K, or K's position? Did it make a fidelity too transparent? Was it the word "acknowledgement" that perhaps could not be uttered directly, although it watches over the entire text, and indeed over so many texts by Kafka...? Or was it simply not economical enough, and better shown, in a sense, by the sentence that follows, than said? But maybe I am inventing this fidelity, you will say; Kafka himself does not take sides in this debate.

The Mayor (in capitals) responds quite handily:
"You've misunderstood me," said the Mayor. "I don't misconstrue the meaning of the letter; my reading of it doesn't disparage it, on the contrary. A private letter from Klamm has naturally far more significance than an official letter, but it hasn't precisely the kind of significance that you attach to it."

Poor K., whose personal contacts have always been "illusory," who fails, even once, to "come into any real contact with our authorities."
...but because of your ignorance of the circumstances you take them to be real. And as for the telephone: in my place, as you see, though I've certainly enough to do with the authorities, there's no telephone. In inns and such places it may be of real use—as much use, say, as a penny in a musicbox slot—but it's nothing more than that. Have you ever telephoned here? Yes? Well, then, perhaps you'll understand what I say. In the Castle the telephone works beautifully of course; I've been told it's being used there all the time; that naturally speeds up the work a great deal. We can hear this continual telephoning in our telephones down here as a kind of humming and singing, you must have heard it too.

Indeed, it's warming my hand right now. And in the peeling laughter of children at play, coming from the valley.

Honestly I don't know how to read this passage. It would seem, on a metaphorical level perhaps, extremely suggestive with regard to themes such as 'the politics of translation', the im-possibility of 'sincere speech', and more...the 'standing reserve' secure-world whirring of technology? Humbert Humbert's recollection of children's voices, as if a sort of primal scene? The infinite murmuring spoken of by Blanchot? Are these thoughts, if somehow connected, not also dated?
As the subtitle, “A story of Wall-Street,” suggests, the story of Bartleby can be read as a parable of the contemporary post-industrial society, which, according to Heidegger, is dominated by the “standing reserve” mentality. According to Heidegger, “The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing-reserve” (1977, p. 33). More specifically, he writes, “That revealing concerns Nature, above all, as the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve” (ibid., p. 21).

But all Romantic fascism aside (if only it were that easy, you say), doesn't this passage raise foremost the question of interpretation? And more precisely, the question of what may constitute (if that is indeed the right word) a 'faithful' interpretation, one attuned to the 'spirit' of the text, which is to say, remaining committed, in some radically non-dogmatic sense, to the openness not so much of its questions as of its questioning. This distinction may strike some as either obvious, banal, or academic, or a childish sort of non-question, even. But for those who know what I am getting at, I would like to see it argued with anything approaching conviction that this question is as such merely unimportant. If I was an "analytic philosopher," then my subtext would run something like, "and then I will tear you a new asshole, my stylus Baculine. Come on, step right up." But I am neither anal nor presumptuous enough to call myself a philosopher (the word should not be employed lightly), so fear not. Also, this is a blog. So step right up.

emptying the contents

It's not enough to say that one has simply nothing to say, of course; there is a duty to respond. Even if no response will be enough.

"Comes in for criticism as arrogant." Actually, the attacks on it came in for criticism as arrogant. The ease with which this word, "arrogant" is uttered in this context. Almost as if it were an habitual protective, preemptive gesture, simply waiting to be deployed. But absurd when it applies to no one so much as oneself. Poor Derrida, one senses that he spent too much time around those who were constantly out to disqualify him on a technicality. Who spent their precious energies saying, and saying at length, to avoid or ward off the duty to show. And yet Derrida, unlike some, does his homework, comes equipped with faithful yet dissenting references to philosophers whose work, or rather the tone and motivation of whose work, by and large does not interest him as much as it does she who is posing the questions, after and around whose questions he has agreed to speak.

On blogging: "I am not such a jerk in person, I swear."

"Ah, but you cannot hide behind your words. They reveal things in the end—mainly your willingness to listen to yourself rather than speak simply to have done with things."

Blogging is a medium that is growing up; its perpetual adolescence will not last. And yet it seems ideally suited for precisely such an occasion.


Tonight, when we fought. And I ruined our lovely evening. (Let's be honest, something had been brewing in the shadows, around the margins, just below the surface. Somethings for you, and some for me.) Perhaps I place too great a faith, too high a trust in our relationship. Or do I simply mean in myself? (Who would ever dare say such ominous-sounding words, "too great a faith," unless they were wishing, on some level, for it to end! I do not wish for it to end, but to deepen. I swear.)

I was being insensitive. I was resentful. I was sloppy, indulgent and impatient. (These words sound easier, too easy, when I read them again.) Still, it was wrong of me to later characterize—in this documentary dance we seem to do—my actions as cruel. I was not so much intending to hurt you, or procuring some kind of perverse enjoyment from (an anticipation of) your pain, as merely annoyed, fatigued. Weak. It is this that I regret most. The moment of not caring. But I do not think it is the same as outright rudeness or meanness. Or even not caring. Indifference, might be a (watch)word (again, thinking of Sartre, if that helps). We had been discussing pleasure and pain, Bataille and de Sade too. And when I went outside to smoke, to try to clear the air!, the nihilistic pleasure of the act, the decadent masochism, caused me to feel not so much guilty as ashamed, on more levels than is ever comfortable to admit. (Shame being by definition almost debilitatingly self-reflexive, but also impossible to avoid, and perhaps even hard to do without.) I wanted to apologize, generally, without pretending to resolve anything. An unconditional apology. Needless to say, this turned out badly, at least at first, as saying so wasn't enough. It came out as insecure mumbling, I'm afraid. As self loathing and thinly disguised excuses. You were right to call my bluff (it is not just a game, no, and yet...)

My head hurts too.

So much explaining, so much talking, to get us nowhere. Or maybe it did help, a bit. I would like very much to believe so. This is sounding a bit cute again, I apologize. I do not intend to be merely cute. That would be immature (most immature!) There is of course no logical proof of pure 'trust' or pure 'faith', but some gestures must be understood as unconditional, or rather as neither conditional nor unconditional, but necessary in their inadequacy, their provisionality. Anything promising more would be unfaithful to us (to myself in you, yourself in me).

Still I can't shake the regret (is it merely pride?) that I should have remained more faithful to my indifference, to its detachment from you, from anything having to do with you. (Who were you talking to then, you ask. Probably myself, no doubt.) This is also, before my eyes, turning into something for myself. I have no idea how it will strike you, if you read it. Most likely it will scratch me rudely tomorrow morning, and I will delete it. Making far too much of some things begins to sound like just another excuse or deferral.


Zizek is a bad influence, I think. He reproduces some of the lazy tendencies of the Anglo/analytics (yes, they are lazy, which is something other than indifference—and don't tell them about the age of the post; they will go rabid. But there are no PhD's in that thread, so I'm not going to link to it.)

Blogs are a funny thing. Often they are responding to many things at once. The casual family reader or privileged white kid googling-by is rightly miffed. You have missed the conversation (but don't worry; it never ends). (What matters more, the questioning or the answers? The gesturing or the jousting? The jesters or the questers? Go ahead, scoff yourself away. There are no arguments here; I don't have anything to say.)

Monday, May 16, 2005


A short story, Fishing With My Father, from Dirt Press. I liked it.

the skinny on this year's books

Just in case you're of the video game junky generation, addicted to delayed gratification.

Courtesy of Verso Press:
Archeologies of the Future, Frederic Jameson (September 2005)
The Two Lolitas, Michael Maar (September 2005)
Books For Burning, Antonio Negri (September 2005)
Metapolitics, Alain Badiou (October 2005)
What Should the Left Propose, Roberto Unger (October 2005)
Born Jewish, Marcel Liebman (November 2005)
Iraq, Slavoj Zizek (November 2005)
Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination, Benedict Anderson (November 2005)
Democratizing Democracy, Ed. Boaventura De Sousa Santos (January 2006)
Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre (January 2006)
Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's "On the Concept of History", Michael Lowy (February 2006)
Planet of Slums, Mike Davis (March 2006)
The Dictatorship of Capital, Tariq Ali (March 2006)

And from Other Press:
What Lacan Said About Women, Colette Soler (allegedly "the definitive work on Lacan's theory of the feminine") (February 2006)

The sort of post I despise, sorry. And what's a post without a link. Here's a Free Online Dictionary of Philosophy. Update: It's terrible.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


The public mind simply does not exist, however much ideologists confound it with their own mind and that of those who make public opinion. Secondly: True social consciousness, under the conditions of developed capitalism, is obtainable only by individuals and constitutes therefore a minority-problem in the strictest sense of the word.source

In his essay on Simone Weil, Blanchot says that "the further thought goes toward expressing itself, the more it must maintain a reserve somewhere within itself, something like a place that would be a kind of uninhabited, uninhabitable non-thought, a thought that would not allow itself to be thought". As a word might not allow itself to be pronounced, a word set apart from language (in Le pas au-delà Blanchot thinks of folie and angoisse as examples of such a word—a forbidden or forgotten word that nevertheless is loose in our discourse, turning it into an event in which nothing is said, a nonevent or, more exactly, an event that separates into past and future without realizing itself; an interval or arrest that would not be merely a gasp or a sigh or a pause for breath but an interminable delay—a disaster—that language (conceived as a logical condition of possibility, a system for constituting states of affairs) would be powerless to overcome.

In the early récit "Le dernier mot" (1935), which one can already read quite happily as an anarchist's tribute to désoeuvrement, there is a splendid moment when the narrator finds himself in the midst of "a chaotic celebration." Crowds of people flow back and forth through the streets, shouting. "At some intersections the earth trembled, and it seemed that the people were walking over the void, crossing it on a footbridge of cries. The great consecration of until [jusqu'à ce que] took place around noon. Using only little scraps of words, as if all that remained of language were the forms of a long sentence crushed by the crowd's trampling feet, they sang the song of a single word that could still be made out, no matter how loud the shouting. This word was until." Until: a word for the entre-temps: a word set apart, consecrated, while the rest of langauge is disposed of like so many old newspapers.

—Gerarld Bruns, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, 177 (1997)

psy-ops watch 3.0

(See numbers one and two if you wish.)

Well he hasn't blogged in a while, but Jon Ronson was on Book TV (C-SPAN2) just now reading from The Men Who Stare at Goats. Ronson is also the author of Them: Adventures With Extremists. I imagine the show will be archived here sometime. In response to a question he was saying that he does draw a moral line between the freaky-ass shit being done now and Nazi experiments, despite the obvious similarities, because the roots of our (US) modern-day psy-ops are "big-hearted", "benign" and "trying to do good." To which I replied to myself, "Huh."

It's only the sadists who are the problem, then. (Someone brought up the prospect of The Sociopath Next Door (a book that argues that four in ten people are in fact sociopaths at heart), but Ronson slyly brushed it off with a show of humility and a touching dash of insecurity.) Well I guess that's what it means to aspire to be a best seller. Don't draw any strong conclusions, or fight the flow. To be fair, I liked the guy and his recourse to humor in the face of such subjects as "The Barney Torture" is understandable. I guess I find his project (or more precisely his tone) disappointing for the same reasons that Tom Wolf does not amuse me. At the end of the day the author is content to be a voyeur and spectator, rather than a genuine describer, perhaps, or one with an honest relation toward their own (inherent) investment in a historical moment. (A re-sponse, if you will, which is the opposite of a stiff or calcified pedantics, whether hippy or conservative (the word "democrat" doesn't really purchase as a cultural category—one reason "they" are so easily baited, batted and pegged.)) In the face of unprecedented details of disturbing military trends, tactics and experiments (basically a "casserole" of suddenly, gloriously testable ideas, Ronson claims, remembered in a fit of glee from various think tank meetings in decades past), the author can only hide his cynicism or discomfort with a joke.

Anyone who's read Acid Dreams before the crooked cunt family again took over may sense that the time for such jokes is past. The parallels (not equivalencies) between Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib and Nazi germany (and to a certain degree, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China) are too serious to be swept under the fictional, oriental rug of "human nature." The proper response is not, you know, a coy self-conscious smile and shrug. But then I guess it would be an "anti-American" genre book, doomed to sell only sporadically in pathetic, quaint and crusty hippy towns. (For the civilized among us there's more breaking stuff on Guantanamo torture from the BBC.)

Update: For something approaching the proper indignation over "pulpification" of innocents in the name of freedom (or is that not "cruelty"), see here please.

worth a read

Christopher Allbritton is blogging again from Iraq, finally. And some responses to the LitBlog Co-Op's first choice. The status-savvy politicians win again, so far. Update: And there's more...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

tolerance is not the end

What might be said to constitute Derrida's politics is no small source of debate. (I once knew a Heidegger scholar who was fond of remarking, in all sincerity, that a careful reading of The Politics of Friendship would constitute a liberal arts education in itself.) Some potentially useful starting points for those less familiar with Derrida's later writings might be:

From here:
For both Habermas and Derrida, the idea of "tolerance", which is the core of the Enlightenment philosophy, has thus come back on the front scene, since religion and violence are today intrinsically linked and intertwined. Derrida denounces the hypocrisy of the American discourse on tolerance with regard to their war on terrorism. Nevertheless, if Habermas accepts tolerance with its paternalistic connotations - it is the "strong" who permits the "weak" to be, under the former's rules - Derrida considers the latter as "conditional", "scrutinized" hospitality ; he hopes for a Kantian cosmopolitical conception of hospitality, "pure and unconditional" which is open to individuals who are neither expected nor invited, not to promote it as the solution, because [practically impossible to live], but strongly encourages the [thought] of it, since it permits to have the [idea] of the other, of its difference. This should constitute an important progress towards what Derrida calls [democracy to come], which would go beyond a cosmopolitan world citizenship ; rather the philosopher promotes a [living together] without a precise attachment to any nation-state or world state.

And from here:
In the United States, when I saw those massive marches against the imminent war in Iraq, in front of the White House, right by Bush’s offices, I said to myself that if in France protesters assembled in their thousands and marched in front of the Elysée in a similar situation, that would not be tolerated. To be fair, we must take into account this contradiction within American democracy — on the one hand, auto-immunity: democracy destroys itself in protecting itself; but on the other hand, we must take into account the fact that this hegemonic tendency is also a crisis of hegemony. The United States, to my mind, convulses upon its hegemony at a time when it is in crisis, precarious. There is no contradiction between the hegemonic drive and crisis. The United States realises all too well that within the next few years, both China and Russia will have begun to weigh in...

a literal post on irony

David Foster Wallace, writing perhaps in a tradition that extends from K's great wanderings in a land of timeless bureaucracy that may or may not be the condition of (possibility for) writing or 'literature' itself, is often referred to as a "master" of style and parody. His hilariously convoluted depictions of corporate focus groups (see for example "Mister Squishy" in Oblivion), where complexities and absurdities of both plot and language combine into a making-extreme of what would otherwise be—just below the radar of psychosis—the anxious endurance of the banal everyday (in the future-shaping world of politics and advertising anyway), nevertheless give off the faint but unmistakable odor of gloating ease, if not that of an habitual avoidance. The vulgarian might say that they are responding merely on demand, excessively clever best sellers (how could they not be, with an author photo like that!?), cute, mental masturbation, and ultimately sort of harmless. I would disagree. I think his writing is often brilliantly dark and useful in teasing out the grotesque underbelly of our cultural proclivities (but are they natural?). Even if the ways in which his text often seeks to immunize itself (against itself!) is often exhausting and...dare it be said...tiresome. As if the only way to write was on speed, emptying the contents of one's head as immediately as possible.

But private irony does have its limits. And may not be adequate as a response to a time when naked pyramids of prisoners, unmistakably reminiscent of the dehumanization that took place in the Nazi camps, are the chief export of the world's only superpower. Irony is also a superficial, if perhaps indispensible comfort, on the everyday plane of rhetoric. But is there not something crucial missing from the recourse to irony (Kierkegaard's famous pronouncement notwithstanding), something along the lines of a pathos of indignation?

Or might it be the case that the very function of irony is a certain enslavement to deferral, to a perpetual future. Maybe there are reasons Foster Wallace is unable to write simply, like Blanchot. The social disease called humanity, "freedom" or whatever has after all evolved a bit, as have its syndromes. Which is not to suggest, of course, that DFW is on par with Blanchot or Kafka, only that there is a certain continuity there, in an evolving relationship to things like alienation and bureaucracy. The challenge today would seem to be how to meaningfully and persistently critique the merely symptomatic, without, perhaps, resorting to a formulaic or un-trembling engagement with pyschoanalysis. Does Foster Wallace's writing fall victim to its own irony, or risk giving the impression that such self-sacrifice is merely inescapable, inevitable, or natural? How to account for the impact of one's words in the dissemination of today's market? Is there a duty to respond (or to assess the response already inherent) to the market forces that lend creedence and legitimacy to one's words? Do such questions grant fiction an inflated status, unjustly on par with "philosophy"? As much as one may enjoy disagreeing with Rorty, his suggestion that literature is the new philosophy invites further speculation:
Since Hegel’s time, the intellectuals have been losing faith in philosophy, in the idea that redemption can come in the form of true beliefs. In the literary culture which has been emerging during the last two hundred years, the question “Is it true?” has yielded pride of place to the question “What’s new?” Heidegger thought that that change was a decline, a shift from serious thinking to mere gossipy curiosity. (See the discussions of das Gerede and die Neugier in sections 35-36 of Sein und Zeit.) Many fans of natural science, people who otherwise have no use for Heidegger, would agree with him on this point. On the account I am offering, however, this change is an advance. It represents a desirable replacement of bad questions like “What is Being?”, “What is really real?” and “What is man?” with the sensible question “Does anybody have any new ideas about what we human beings might manage to make of themselves?”

Undoubtedly the solution is to read, again, people like Blanchot.
Update: Oldrottenhat has a nice post up on David Foster Wallace, and I agree with his assessment and recommendations very much. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men also has its moments. From "The Suffering Channel" in Oblivion, this passage for various reasons caught my eye:
'But it can't be too big,' she said.
'The piece, or the venue?' Ellen Bactrian always had to pat the ear with all the studs in it dry with disposable little antibiotic cloth.
'We don't want Style readers to already know the story. This is the tricky part. We want them to feel as if Style is their first exposure to a story whose existence precedes their seeing it.'
'In a media sense, you mean.'
The executive intern's skirt was made of several dozen men's neckties all stitched together lengthwise in a complicated way. She and a Mauritanian exchange student in THE THUMB who wore hallucinatorily colored tribal garb were the only two interns at Style who could get away with this sort of thing. It was actually the executive intern, at a working lunch two summers past, who had originally compared Skip Atwater to a jockey who'd broken training, though she said it in a light and almost affectionate way—coming from her, it had not sounded cruel.(323-4)

Ok but "hallucinatorily"? Really.

the growing storm

Well Europe may be having justified trouble uniting, but the developments in Latin America contintue apace:
In Brazil, South American and Arab leaders are holding a historic summit aimed, not so subtly, at reducing US power globally. Officially, the summit is addressing economic issues but has moved quickly into some of the most pressing international conflicts. Yesterday, the gathering criticized the world's richest countries and Israel and gave support to the Palestinians. In a statement, the two regions demand that Israel disband settlements in Palestinian areas, including "those in East Jerusalem," and retreat to its borders before the 1967 war. They also blasted U.S. economic sanctions against Syria and denounced terrorism. But they assert the right of people "to resist foreign occupation in accordance with the principles of international legality and in compliance with international humanitarian law." At the summit in Brasilia, there are some 9,000 soldiers, 16 heads of state and top officials from 34 South American, Middle Eastern and North African nations.


I doubt there are very many readers of this reckless blog who don't also read Charlotte Street, but for the stumblers and stragglers I give you:
The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld


A parody of the shrill victim-complex shared by the personality spokesemen/managers of superpowers everywhere, whether it's Rummy, Martin Sheen, or DailyKos. (An effective deferral of responsibility, if ever there was one.) Witness the grain of unintentional ideological transparency in the malapropism cum dictum, "the future will be better tomorrow." (But it is intentional, of course, aimed at a certain market-maintained plane of zero-patience, perhaps also visceral response. You're just not supposed to think about it very much.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

writing across the disciplines?

It's dated, but for those genuinely interested in Derrida, this interview on rhetoric and composition might prove useful. Indeed, one wonders if the anal/continent divide isn't maybe worth preserving.

Senile update: I don't usually talk like this but word, to your mother. "Postmodernism", as it relates to both politics and literature, is only invoked as a sweeping slander or curse at our own peril. The word itself, much like "deconstructionism", needn't even be mentioned by those who are sincere in caring to understand "our" moment, to approach a responsible relation to the complicated state of things. It's just not something that, you know, one does, unless you're merely baiting, chanting, or harboring this banal desire to be ridiculed. And the memorability, marketability or personality of characters of truly great 'literature' will always be secondary to what matters most. Read the links first or don't comment at all, as you do so well anyway, Hugh Person.


It's one of those pre-summery, sweet-smelling days. There's a lupin field behind the house. Strange caesura of seasons, warm enough to swim but without any fear of bugs. Slight asphalt breeze. So go outside. I'll be sitting on the balcony porch, reading my review copy of Murakami. Later I will cook dinner with the most beautiful woman in the world.

What then is the relationship between quodlibetality and indifference? How can we understand the indifference of the common human form with respect to singular humans? And what is the haecceity that constitutes the being of the singular?...

Nothing is more instructive in this regard than the way Spinoza conceives of the common. All bodies, he says, have it in common to express the divine attribute of extension (Ethics, Part II, Proposition 13, Lemma 2). And yet what is common cannot in any case constitute the essence of the single case (Ethics, Part II, Proposition 37). Decisive here is the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence. Taking-place, the communication of singularities in the attribute of extension, does not unite them in essence, but scatters them in existence.

Whatever is constituted not by the indifference of common nature with respect to singularities, but by the indifference of the common and the proper, of the genus and the species, of the essential and the accidental. Whatever is the thing with all its properties, none of which, however, constitutes difference. In-difference with respect to properties is what individuates and diseminates singularities, makes them lovable (quodlibetable). Just as the right human word is neither the appropriation of what is common (language) nor the communication of what is proper, so too the human face is neither the individuation of a generic facies nor the universalization of singular traits: It is whatever face, in which what belongs to common nature and what is proper are absolutely indifferent...

The world of the happy and that of the unhappy, the world of the good and that of evil contain the same states of things; with respect to their being-thus they are perfectly identical. The just person does not reside in another world. The one who is saved and the one who is lost have the same arms and legs. The glorious body cannot but be the mortal body itself. What changes are not the things but their limits. It is as if there hovered over them something like a halo, a glory.

The Irreparable is neither an essence nor an existence, neither a substance nor a quality, neither a possibility nor a necessity. It is not properly a modality of being, but it is the being that is always already given in modality, that is its modalities. It is not thus, but rather it is its thus...

...This would be the only correct way to understand negative theology: neither this nor that, neither thus nor thus—but thus, as it is, with all its predicates (all its predicates is not a predicate). Not otherwise negates each predicate as a property (on the plane of essence), but takes them up again as im-properties, or improperties (on the plane of existence).

(Such a being would be a pure, singular and yet perfectly whatever existence.)

—Agamben, The Coming Community


Unearthed from the archives of a particularly worthy blog, to conclude an especially blockquote-laden blogging spell:
"One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as an historical norm. The current astonishment that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This wonder is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history to which it gives rise is untenable."

The target of Benjamin's criticism, the view of history he invokes, subtly indicts not just Marxist and Stalinist orthodoxy, and the Social Democracy of Germany’s erstwhile Opposition, but also their deeper common ground – Enlightenment progressivism, the belief that history is a movement from barbarism to humanism, a belief which Voltaire, for all his radicality and playful cynicism, had recapitulated.

That torture is still possible in the twenty-first century, how should one as a philosopher react to this? Should one be shocked, astonished? Would this make one a better philosopher, a real philosopher? Or should one, with Benjamin, recognise that it is not philosophical to be shocked by events such as this, though we must always be shocked (if we were not shocked then we would have succumbed to the coldness, the blasé personality, which is the norm of bourgeois life). We must be shocked and we must not be shocked.

Monday, May 09, 2005

apocalypse, still disappointing

Stuart Watkins' review of Joe Sacco's Palestine is really quite good.

On another note, anyone feel like defending Hardt and Negri against this?
But, however misguided it is, some may still feel Empire and Multitude to be on their side, allied to democracy and the left. Susan Sontag wrote that ‘an idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may serve the needs of the spirit.’ But unfortunately, spiritual needs are served here by adventures onto a terrain already occupied by fundamentalists of varying hues, all ready with their own formulae for rapture and ecstasy. Each one has its own multitudes of the faithful, armed and ready for great encounters still to come. Norman Cohn, the historian of millennial thought, traces the idea back to Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who added the idea of a happy ending to previous visions of disaster: ‘a glorious consummation of order over disorder, known as “the making wonderful”, in which “all things would be made perfect, once and for all”’. Later the notion was transmitted via Hebraism to Christianity. In When Time Shall Be No More (1992), Paul Boyer gave a graphic account of how strong this belief remains among born-again Americans, and more recently still Anatol Lieven has underlined the rapport between such apocalyptic convictions and US political identity in America Right or Wrong (2004). Unfortunately, being on our side has in this wider context the sense of carrying our side over to their terrain: we too have our apocalypse, better than the rest.

No we don’t. Globalisation must be about burying such delusions, not reviving them. It’s for the boondocks and the bearers of boundary stones, not for intellectuals avoiding the graveyard of their kind of aristocracy through a rehabilitation of spiritualism.

Update (yet another fun, contextualizing blockquote, sorry): Tom Engelhardt's rhetorical suggestion that the Cold War produced no winners but rather a pair of losers meanders into a useful synopsis of a "new people power":
"'Extra-hemispheric actors are filling the void left by restricted U.S. military engagement with partner nations. We now risk losing contact and interoperatibility with a generation of military classmates in many nations of the region, including several leading countries,' [Southern Command chief Gen. Bantz Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.]. The void left by the United States after ASPA is increasingly being filled by China, Craddock warned."

More striking yet has been the rise of a new kind of "people power" -- a term we usually associate with Soviet-controlled Poland or the Marcos-controlled Philippines -- throughout Latin America. It could most recently be observed in Ecuador, where popular demonstrations drove the Bush-administration-backed President, Lucio Gutiérrez, who had only recently illegally dissolved the Supreme Court, out of the country; and again, only a week ago, in Mexico City where an estimated 1.2 million people turned out in a "silent march" to support Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, that city's left-wing mayor and the country's leading candidate for president in next year's election, after Vincente Fox's ruling party had tried to railroad him out of the race and into jail on a trumped-up charge. As Danna Harman of the Christian Science Monitor wrote of the march (People power rattling politics of Latin America), while discussing "the weakening of authoritarian regimes [in Latin America] and the growing self-assurance of the people -- including, in the case in Bolivia, the indigenous":

"Chalk up another victory for Latin American people power. In the 1990s, what politicians feared most was apathy. But lately, Latin Americans from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador -- much like the citizens of Ukraine and Lebanon -- have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers."

Harold Meyerson, writing in the Washington Post in mid-April on earlier Mexican protests over Obrador, commented (Greetings from Mexistan):

"Apparently, there are several kinds of capital city rallies. There are those in Kiev, where multitudes turned out to protest the subversion of a national election and the attempted murder of the opposition leader. There are those in Beirut, where people gathered to protest the murder of an opposition leader and to demand self-determination. These were outpourings that our government encouraged.

"And there was the one last Thursday in Mexico City, where 300,000 protesters filled the Zocalo... And what was the response of our government?... Did we tell the crowds gathered in the Zocalo that America walks at their side?

"Not quite. While Condi Rice waxes eloquent about our concern for democratic rights in Central Asia and the Middle East, the most the Bush administration has managed to say about democracy in the unimaginably faraway land of Mexico has been the comment of a State Department spokesman that this is an internal Mexican affair. Democracy may be all well and good, but Lopez Obrador is just not Bush's kind of guy. As mayor of Mexico City, he's increased public pensions to the elderly and spent heavily on public works and the accompanying job creation. He's criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement as a boon for the corporate sector and a bust for Mexican workers..."

As it turned out, the Mexican people didn't need George Bush's funding or organizational support; nor, it seems, did any other manifestation of "people power" to our south. For what we have been seeing throughout Latin America -- as along Russia's border -- has been a serial revolt in country after country against the Cold War world and the imperial orders it imposed on its near abroads. Once upon a time, an American administration would have put such revolts down serially, using the CIA, military to military relations, economic power, and aid of various sorts; but, though events in Latin America are finally making the Bush administration sit up and take note, its ability to act is more limited than usual. After all, Iraq is proving a black hole for American power and something of a graveyard for the administration's global ambitions and energies -- giving new meaning to that old Vietnam-era word "quagmire."

There can be little question that, in the superpower-funded revolt of the Russian near-abroad and the unsupported revolt of the American near-abroad, you find similar impulses. When imperial power anywhere begins to crumble, it naturally creates space for local and regional experiments in new kinds of power relations. Unfortunately, all our covert (and less than covert) help in "organizing" democracy movements from Ukraine and Georgia to Kyrgyzstan and Belarus gives our leaders the feeling, I fear, that they are actually creating democracies by manipulation in someone else's near abroad.

My own guess is that, given crumbling Russian power and the space it's left open, democracy movements would have developed apace (as in Latin America), even had our help never been offered. Of course when our leaders come across "people power" that has developed without their imprimatur (not always a pretty sight) -- whether in the form of brutal struggles for national sovereignty (as in Iraq) or in their democratic form in Latin America -- they are invariably caught off guard and generally appalled. But it's only in looking at these forms of popular power -- whether violent or peaceful -- that you can see the genuine strangeness of what may turn out to be our loser/loser superpower world.

No one should, of course, underestimate the power of an empire to, as George Lucas might say, "strike back." And yet, let's hold out hope of a sort against empire and its plans for domination. Despite our recent emphasis in "the homeland" on security and borders, what are borders really? What are they actually capable of keeping out? It's strange sometimes how permeable walls and borders prove. As Paul Woodward, the canny editor of the War in Context website wrote recently:

"People power's a fine thing for shaking up Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but as it spreads to the Americas, it could be coming uncomfortably close to home. What if people power caught on in the United States? What if accountability was being demanded not just from governments in Kiev and Beirut but also those in London and Washington? The bread and circuses approach to democracy has so far been an effective guarantor of political apathy across America, but what if Americans in large numbers were to one day wake up from their political slumber and demand that they too deserve a truly representative government?"

What if, indeed. What if we all began slipping out of the imperial orbit?

What if there was nothing apocalyptic at all about such a slipping?


Congratulations to Tony Blair (via).

Who having just learned of his unpopularity, invokes with a feeble "but"--and in that age-old rhetorical tradition of the polis (there where the spoken word is still, relentlessly prioritized and worshipped)--not a future, but "the future", about which we can, must all agree, moving ever-forward as we most certainly, indisputably are. After all, what is a politician without "the future" on hir side, safely, firmly holstered in a leather pouch, yet always visible, ready to hand for mustachioed enemies and friends alike, the resulting discharge as inevitable as death. (What is a politician without the potential of this sovereign threat?)

But what is this "future" exactly? Necessarily vague enough to evoke popular illusions, and some kind of neoliberal-glossed Enlightenment narrative, surely. But also, most essentially, it is a certainty. In short, no future at all. Cloaked in inevitability, intended to assuage fear, without performing any real work. Drained of all futurity, the politician's future is rather accused, held up at gunpoint, made to shimmer and spin in the air.

There is no 'future' in the "future" held up by these third way band-aids. The coin shimmers and disappears. No commitment to a future of any genuine futurity at all. (Marching, instead, to the beat of a 'fraternity of the cruel'...)

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

mouton noir?

To learn more about the prospects for a "unified" Europe, click the picture.

Habermas, Alexander Kluge, Günter Grass and Ulrich Beck are also getting into the fray:
"Do all you can to prevent France from betraying progress!" This is the message German intellectuals call out in an open letter to their French colleagues, printed today in the SZ and yesterday in the French paper Le Monde. "Europe needs courage. Without courage there is no survival. Not for France. Not for Germany. Not for Poland." The signatories include singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, Nobel Prize winning writer Günter Grass, philosopher Jürgen Habermas, author Klaus Harpprecht and Gesine Schwan, the recent SDP candidate for the German presidency.

Sociologist Ulrich Beck opposes what he calls neo-nationalism: the idea that democracy is only possible on a national level, and so not practicable in Europe, as Ralf Dahrendorf has suggested in his claim "the more EU, the less democracy", for example. "Europe needs critique, without doubt. But not blind, nostalgic critique, based on grand delusions. We need a critical theory of Europeanisation, one that is both radically new and yet which stands firmly in the tradition of European thought and politics. Such a theory must address the idea that common solutions are more fruitful than unilateral actions on the part of nations. The 'Europe of differences' does not represent a danger. It will renew, transform and open up the nations and states of Europe to the global era. Such a Europe may even become a beacon of freedom in a turbulent world."

More here (via).

The preaching post below has also been updated.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

sadly necessary salvos, cont.

Commonplace Book:
With Friedman and his ilk, you get something even worse than Orwell had to contend with: a kind of pre-fab cutesiness and familiarity, the advertising-inflected version of Orwell's own plain style. But that's because Friedman is advertising. Just as the marketers of candy bars can't say, We've wrapped a rectangle of toxic shit in shiny paper and you should pay us for it, so too Friedman can't say, You, reader, are well and truly fucked by the global order, unless of course you're one of our readers in a higher income bracket, in which case, you might take up guilt as a pastime this summer. You know, people might cancel their subscriptions.

But it would also be harmful if they could think their way past Friedman's manifest assertions to their latent meanings, so the cover of idiotic language is needed. Oh, okay, version 1.0 shrunk the globe to a medium and then version 2.0 shrunk it to a small; globalization must be a kind of regularly updated drier that purposely malfunctions! Does Friedman deliberately use this language to confuse his readers or is it symptomatic of his own confusion, of the effect of poor language upon him? I suspect the latter, but that's ultimately between him and God, so let's leave the question.

(Following up on a previous post or two.) Here's Juan Cole for those still not convinced.

You don't need a weafpherman to know which way the wind blows...

Then again, such very fatherly, masculine seriousness and expertise may be an attempt to compensate for something or other.

It's called "napalm", silly Brits

No really, it is.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Paris Review (Spring is really here, then)

Charles Simic interviewed in the new Paris Review:
I realize that there’s a long tradition in poetry of not speaking truth to power and, in fact, of being its groveling apologist. I just don’t have it in me.

There, a shorter blockquote. In fact the whole tease is pretty short. Some less short reading, in French, of potential interest here.

translated by Coetzee

But just as I am sitting down at home
to eat my dinner, I hear the telephone.
I pick it up and from the other end
without ado am issued a command.

The supervisor. His voice is sharp, severe,
though a veiled gentler undertone comes through.
"My son, return to the same street tomorrow.
You know what interest I take in you."

Only a fool repeats an old mistake.
Best not to stay at home, best to go and take
a look at the block of flats across the way
that from ground level climbs into the sky.
There, once I find the floor directory,
all will of itself become clear to me.

This night, however, I achieved no more
than learn the doorman was asleep. Weary,
he had let loose the numbers from his memory
and lay there crumpled, head in arms. Absorbed

I stared in through the window. Softly the wind
rustled the surface where I stood outside;
and not far away, his duties thrust aside,
a living being who might have helped me find

my way out of this mess, if it had not
become so lonely and too dark for me
to think of whispering him awake. For he
would lose his head. Which would not do at all.
The supervisor's head would also fall
then. No one heard me leave. Did he look up?

At daybreak I am on the road, my face
still blurred with sleepiness. Although somewhere
the end of it all is taking up its place
the streets this first hour seem as free as air.

I feel a safety I have never known.
One of my superiors cycles by.
I greet him but he barely turns an eye.
Probably quarreled with his wife again.

Perhaps he is a bit suspicious meet-
ing me in quarters of the city where
a fitter has no business. A young and heed-
less generation has arisen here
by other forms of light. I've been observed.
Therefore back to the city my steps are turned.

-from Ballad of the Gasfitter, by Gebrit Achterberg

Self-Repeating Poem (for Cora)

To win the war and be killed,
to eat ideas with whipped cream and die of hunger,
to wave hello with a little thalidomide hand and be happy.

To consume calorie-packed ideas and die of hunger,
to salute with a little thalidomide hand and be decorated,
to win the war and speak an invalid language.

To win the war and be killed for good,
to grow rebellious and make a little thalidomide fist,
to make a little baby thalidomide fist and bleat like a

To win the war and speak an invalid language for good--
to have a mouth full of words and not know what to say--
to win the war and be killed for good--

-Sybren Polet

Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands

historical education .0772

In belated response to earlier posts here and here (for some Haloscan-related reason comments seem to have been erased from all the archives, ah well)...I stumbled today across the following essay, which in turn prompted one of those rare moments (one hopes!), when all one feels compelled to say is, "yes". Or is that a double yes. In any case, here's the last half of it:
But the problem here is that the notion of a Bartlet presidency struck--and continues to strike--many influential observers as a perfectly sound idea. Countless devotees of the show, both in TV journalism and on its many reverent, unofficial fan Web sites, regard the weekly doings on The West Wing as anything but satire. The clear critical verdict is that this Wednesday-evening set piece of frenetic Oval Office intrigue presents a far more edifying vision of America's political soul than anything that has wafted out of the Grand Guignol of our scandal-addled, impeachment-scarred, ballot-challenged national government.

In any event, the mere persistence--indeed, the continued, mammoth popularity--of the show signals a curious sort of social contract, ratifying and institutionalizing one of the striking themes of America's post-1060s civitas: the selective (yet ever didactic) liberal retreat into political fantasy. After all, it had long occurred to the show's legions of fans that a Bush victory could revoke a good part of its earnest purchase on topicality. And one leitmotif of press accounts of The West Wing over the protracted election of 2000 was to broach the question of how the show--which over its first two seasons has played as a sort of higher-minded, conscience-haunted upgrade of the Clinton White House--might change in the event of a Bush victory. The consensus, as the show's creator and chief writer, Aaron Sorkin, announced, was that no such reality-based revision would be required: a Bush victory "hasn't played in my mind at all," he said in a lavish cover story on the show in the November 2000 George. (See Waxman review, chap. 12 in this volume.) Come December, however, Sorkin did confess to Michael Wolff, in New York magazine (2000), that the show couldn't help benefiting from the unsightly overall condition of AMerica's democratic experiment: the time, he said, "is just right for the cavalry to come riding in."

This pair of remarks captures the curious cognitive balancing act The West Wing has introduced into our popular culture. On the one hand, it claims no ambitions any grander than those of any other television show--to divert and entertain viewers and (usually in special holiday episodes) to produce agreeably broad and radiant installments in the nation's continuing sentimental education. But on the other hand, it has an overt agenda so breathtaking in its sweep that "ambitious" hardly begins to sum it up: The West Wing set out, week after week, to restore public faith in the institutions of our government, to shore up the bulwarks of American patriotism, and to supply a vision of executive liberalism--at once principled and pragmatic; an understanding of the nation's common good that is heroically heedless of focus groups, opposition research, small-bore compromise, and re-election prospects--that exists nowhere else in our recent history.

How, exactly, has this come to be? On the most obvious level, The West Wing appeals to liberal viewers as an exercise in wish-fulfillment fantasy, pointing a way out of their post-Clinton predicament. Indeed, the most common theme in the many celebrations of the show's political virtues has been that it gives us a version of Clintonism with both moral gravitas and political backbone, while editing out the more risible parts of the Clinton legacy--an act, commentors say, of "empathy" unthinkable in the normal rounds of political reporting. The former White House aide Matthew Miller wrote, in a wide-eyed appreciation of the show in Brill's Content last spring [2000], "By the seemingly innocuous act of portraying politicians with empathy, The West Wing has injected into the culture a subversive competitor to the reigning values of political journalism"--which Miller views as rife with "cynicism." This bold subversion turns a weekly melodrama, by Miller's lights, into a sort of pluperfect documentary, redeeming a hopelessly fallen political culture by sheer force of its "humanizing instinct."

It's true that the show eagerly displays its own stirringly "human" themes on its sleeve--as is the case in the nighttime-TV "workplace" serials about hospitals, law firms, and police investigative units on which The West Wing is clearly modeled. But since its subject is the nation's politics (and its tacit mission is to revive sagging liberal spirits), The West Wing steers wide of the thorny moral conflicts that turn up in those life-or-death TV venues, in which petty personal agendas kick up disasters and catastrophes galore. Instead it offers a pointedly sunny weekly fable about the unassailable motives and all-too-human foibles of the nation's governing class which verges on the Capra-esque.

Reportedly, Sorkin--who developed the show out of material left over from his screenplay for the Rob Reiner feature film The American President--had not intended the president to be a central character on The West Wing. But here, as in American political life, the president has swollen over time to soak up most of the dramatic interest, even though the formulas that Sorkin favors (previously his most celebrated writing credit was the military-courtroom drama A Few Good Men) make Bartlet a two-dimensional glyph of implausible virtue. He is charismatic and quietly omnicompetent, a la Bill Clinton, but viewers are forcefully reminded that he does not share Clinton's (or John F. Kennedy's) priapic weaknesses.

But all this tight moral choreography comes up considerably short of serving as a prescription for even a convincing imaginary liberal revival. In fact, sustained exposure to the logic of the show's plot conventions, the jittery policy patter of its characters, and (perhaps most of all) its sonorous faux nobility inspires a singular distrust. In particular, the way the show strives to dramatize the earnest inner torments of what Christopher Lasch called, "the caring class" produces a civic emptiness far hollower than that resounding through either of our major parties.

The show's obsession with feeling also clearly impels its choice of subject matter. The Bartlet administration's key internal conflicts and legislative rallying cry oscillate mainly within the narrow register of lifestyle liberalism, the stealth ideology that fuels Hollywood as it did the Clinton presidency. The heroic outbursts from The West Wing's lead characters are almost always directed at the forces of cultural reaction gathering in the heartland: the religious right, anti-gay moralists, creationists, advocates of antiabortion terror, tough-on crime yahoos, and shrill defenders of the Second Ammendment. Bartlet himself has been a collateral victim of a white supremacist's assasination attempt on his black aid, Charlie Young (Dule Hill). His White House dotes on hate-crimes legislation and also longs, bizarrely, for a high-profile showdown with the religious right over the currently moot constitutional question of school prayer. These symbolic posturings can only spring from the administration's sense of itself as a missionary outpost in a hostile and benighted culture.

Of course, many of The West Wing's concerns belong on the public agenda, and occasionally they address real threats to civil liberties and social peace. But the dramatically declining membership rolls of the Christian Coalition and the results of polls tracking public opinion on the religious right's pet issues reveal that the specter of a theocratic seizure of the state, rhetorically exaggerated even at the height of the religious right's power, is a rapidly dimming mirage.

Now, this essay is obviously dated, and Lehmann doesn't cite any sources to back up such bizarre-sounding claims (from the perspective of today). But could there be any better fuel for the banal culture wars (a simmering pile of dung) than this show? The moment such---call them what you will, fundamentalisms, evangelicals, wingnuts--are engaged with seriously, as if they mattered, they are dignified beyond their worth, and their endurance and future participation in the conversation all but guaranteed. The only proper response to such threats has to be one that avoids (or at least does not hinge upon an exploitation of) such direct confrontation (as immmediately satisfying as it may be.) This would seem elementary, (as both Derrida and Habermas would agree). There is a mimetic rivalry at stake not just between (the metonyms) Bush/Bin Laden, but also between the neolibs and neocons. And we the vanishing middle class, we the concerned citizens for a democracy with a future (any future at all!), (not to mention 'we' the world's poor)--are the real sacrificial victims. These personality and ego-oriented "debates" only preclude us from engaging with what matters most--what lies beyond the smokescreen of simmering dung, beyond the handsomely-paid Michael Berube's obsession with Horrorwits (all claims to have invented the word "blog" notwithstanding)--namely: the unprecedented concentration of economic power; the hegemonic rise of international corporations and their empirical influence on foreign policy/trade and lending organizations/future constitutions/the environment, etc.; the exponentially widening income gap and unprecedented suffering of the world's poor; nearly irreversible environmental devastation (that which John Kerry failed to mention even in passing during the debates, despite his having the best record in the Senate), and on...

The subtle ways in which the sign of fascism persists, or surfaces most banally as part of a tired "culture war", are far too serious to be dignified with anything approaching habitual satire or habitual cynicism. They must also be relentlessly torn from their alleged context in said "culture war" if we are to begin combatting them with any success. A responsible reaction to endless, merely repetitious blog posts about "How f***ed up is Kansas" and "Look ma, David Horrorwits Wrote About Me Again", however charismatic the writing, should recall that of Foucault toward polemicists. He simply put the book down. So do I. Such posts have become a self-reflexive genre unto themselves and do not interest me in the slightest.

Cyber-polemics against easy targets do grant a sort of temporary glee, but the taste they leave in one's mouth is always, inevitably bitter, and tinged with more than a hint, however cleverly, ironically (or subconsciously) concealed, of debilitating self-disgust.

So right then, on with the book in hand.
Nevertheless, Team Bartlet is constantly consumed by the minutiae of high cultural warfare. Examples are legion, and multiply weekly. In a second-season episode, "The Midterms," there's a high-handed showdown between Bartlet and one Dr. Jenna Jacobs--a moralizing radio talk-show host clearly modeled on Dr. Laura Schlessinger--at a White House reception for various radio eminences. Quizzing her on the biblical injunction against homosexuality as "an abomination," Bartlet takes her on a rapid-fire declamatory tour of the follies of biblical literalism, a punishing performance whose like has not been seen since the climax of Inherit the Wind [or just about everywhere on the Internet, including this very "humble blog"]: "I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7...what would a good price be?" Now, not only is this stacking a rhetorical deck heavily in Bartlet's favor (even Dr. Laura, bigoted though she can be, does not rest her castigation of homosexuality entirely on biblical literalism). It also provokes a rather enormous question: Why is Bartlet expending such heavy artillery and so much precious time on humiliating a radio talk-show host? And why is he unable to resist a final victory dance over her seated person and prostated intellect--especially by invoking the majesty of his own presidential eminence over the discredited authority of biblical tradition? ("One last thing," he shouts. "While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the president stands, nobody sits.") The answer, of course, is that such displays--which occur nearly every week in Bartlet's White House--cost the administration precisely nothing politically while ratcheting up its sense of cultural superiority exponentially.

The West Wing, in other words, plies a resolutely insular, therapeutic vision of presidential politics, one that often renders policymaking indistinguishable from the conduct of an encounter group. Indeed, in the thickets of controversy that crop up in the Bartlet administration, the strongest objective to a policy or decision to overstep protocol is usually that it doesn't feel right. And when the members of Team Bartlet chart a new policy course, it is because they agree that it suits the preceived national mood or because it springs (in the grand tradition of TV serials) from a profound personal experience. If one of the 1960s most enduring--if dubious--notions is that the personal is political, The West Wing operates from the converse: the political is, above all, personal. In perhaps the most decisive, melodramatic installment of the show--a late-first-season entry called "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"--the president announces his determination to secure two key reform-minded appointees to the Federal Election Commission. His rationale has little to do with the current political playing field, or even with the prospects for meaningful reform, but turns, rather, on his plaintive appeal to his chief of staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer): "I don't want to feel like this anymore."

Amid such high drama, it requires considerable effort of the will to recall that liberals belong to the strain of American political debate that has traditionally prided itself on skepticism about how matters of state power getr minted into brute personal agendas. To put things another way, it's hard to imagine any of the show's champions or scriptwriters evincing much concern over, say, Richard Nixon's many funks on the job--let alone endorsing them as a sound basis for executive policymaking. But in furnishing its imaginary, cultural platform for the rivival of liberal politics in America, The West Wing has also slipped into an uncritical cult of personality--much as the adoration of Bill Clinton has in the real-life house of liberalism. In so doing, The West Wing reminds us, down the smallest details of character and plot resolution, of the very forces that hollowed out the American liberal faith. In lieu of the majority-forging certainties of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society (and their campaigns against "economic royalists," "isolationists," segregationists, and the like), we find anxious self-examination, second-guessing of the news cycle, and protracted agonizing over the appearance of scandal and conflicts of interest. In place of stirring crusades for equality and justice (about which there is plenty of rhetoric), we see careful chartings and recalibrations of marginal, provisional influence by an executive branch that is unshakably wedded to a view of itself as "under seige, twenty-four hours a day," as Bartlet's chief of staff explains to a recently hired Republican aide.

The logic of these morally obtuse but deeply sentimental preenings of high-office holders is disturbing on many levels, but principally because it dramatizes something real: liberals, long sundered from the lineaments of any majoritarian politics, have succumbed to the worship of getting and holding power for its own sake. One saw this not merely in the Gore campaign's diehard (and ultimately self-destructive) scorched-earth efforts to recast the Florida vote in Gore's favor but also, more pivotally, in the dramatic force with which Clinton recast the presidency's reasons of state into reasons of self.

Indeed, the moral calculus of The West Wing's presidency is identical to that perfected by Bill Clinton: all the expenditures of political capital, all the day-to-day trench warfare over Capital turf, the long-term health of the party and short-term calender of the national legislature, were subordinated to the expansion of the executive self-regard, to the meaningless conceit of "not feeling like this anymore." Herein resided the stem-winding, therapeutic logic of the year-long national "conversation on race"; the periodic presidential apologies for world-historic wrongs that were usually strategic evasions of actual legislative responsibility; and the fussy feel-good conferences on teen violence and the media. And, needless to say, here sprang the fathomless victimology that choreographed perjury, suborned testimony, concealed evidence, and mounted dubiously timed bombing raids to prolong a grip on executive power that had long atrophied when it came to steering federal policy and national debate toward any meaningful goal beyond the bunker.

As one might expect, Bill Clinton is among The West Wing's biggest fans. He played host to members of the cast at a White House press-corps dinner, and cast members have turned up at DNC fundraisers, providing entertaining photo ops that illuminated the grand yet confused ambitions of both the TV show and the Clinton White House. He reportedly told Rob Lowe (who plays Bartlet's deputy communications director, Sam Seaborn) that the show is "renewing people's faith in public service." It's all a bit curious, since the high-minded Josiah Bartlet would seem to be such a pointed rebuke, in both his person and his policymaking, to Clinton. But in life,as on TV, claims of civic loyalty and reckonings of power, legitimacy, political right, and moral trespass--the stuff of history--provide feeble competition for the blinding power of personality. And it has been a long season of indulgently sentimentalizing the abuse of power. Augurs of the Boomer zeitgeist, from Toni Morrison to Joe Eszterhas to Tina Brown to Greil Marcus, agree that Clinton represents an emanation of a noble American tradition, a Huck-like backwoods avatar of charmingly transgressive appetites. He is half the sybaritic, exoticized, Elvis-style son of the South, tweaking the grim moralists and inquisitors who police the rights DMZ in the nation's cultural combat, and half the aw-shucks poster child of the new global information order, cocking back his head and biting his lip wistfully as he conjures abiding visions of a bridge over the millenium. Before the nation's scandal-weary eyes, Bill Clinton became a pop-cult fable of his own fond imagining, a fantasy figure for liberal partisans who have lost the taste for almost any politics save the full-throated prosecution of meaningless culture wars. It is but a short step from these sorts of reveries to the wholesale invention of a republic ruled by a benevolent great leader, briskly resetting our moral compass and flattering our lifestyle politics in the safety of our living rooms. In this sense, then, it is entirely fitting that Bill Clinton's most immediate legacy should be a TV show that lodges the structure of his personality firmly in our collective unconscious, even while strategically erasing its substance.

Of course, it may seem, with the show's enduring appeal in the dawn of the W. years, that these organizing tropes of the Clinton era are already moldering into harmless TV nostalgia, not unlike the imagineered 1950s of Happy Days, or the wide, loud, and burnt-out Ford and Carter caesura of That '70s Show. But this casual view of things underestimates the half-life of Clintonism in both reality and pop culture. George W. Bush demonstrated in his faux-empathic campaign of the conservative heart that Clintonism, being postmodern and post-ideological unto its innermost parts, works as deftly on the tax-cutting, privatizing right as it did within the often unruly union-and-activist ranks of the Democratic party.

In much the same manner, The West Wing continues to renew the peculiar, powerful cultural brief by which Clintonism has thrived--and will continue to thrive in the aftermath of the Clinton years. In 1992 candidate Bill Clinton proudly acknowledged that he "always wanted to be in the cultural elite"; The West Wing has extravagantly granted his wish, by apostrophizing his administration (while, of course, airbrushing out its more embarrassing policy failures, crimes and lapses of morality). But more than that, the enduring appeal of the show, in our popular and political cultures alike, is that it has performed a trick more powerful than probably even Clinton could have imagined. It has made him that most quintessentially American liege of that most desirable American dominion: as an archetype, a fable, a prototype for Jed Bartlet, Bill Clinton, through the good graces of Aaron Sorkin, has become the President of Television. We need some satire, and fast.

-Chris Lehmann, "Feel-Good Presidency", in The West Wing, Ed. Peter Rollins and John O'Connor

So I was pleasantly surprised to find a whole book on the matter, anyway. This blog's wet dream over the show is hereby declared officially over. (And yes, I realize that Berube is joking about his salary.)

Sunday, May 01, 2005

historical education 7.22

How to smell a strategy:

Like, OMG! They're all trashing the same straw man, and instead of answering the question! Like, how original is that? (Show me this person who insists some people just can't be free...phssh)

The obnoxious Thomas Friedman just did it again (on CNN's horrendous excuse for a "Book Show", I believe). A caller dares bring up his infamous, seemingly knee-jerk vitriol for "anti-globalization" protestors. Friedhack devotes 2/3 of his response to establishing how all those "old leftists" who "flat-out opposed globalization" (Friedman has a thing for flatness) are "violent" and "dangerously stupid." The ones concerned about how globalization takes place are ok (so long as they worship the same ridiculously utopian free market as Friedman, Inc., one presumes).

From a piece (a sort-of review) on Naomi Klein in N+1:
Even before September 11, many "anti-globalizers" felt that journalists and pundits had tagged them with the wrong name. Here was an international movement if ever there was one: the shared effort of French farmers, Amazonian Indians, American steelworkers, and landless Africans to win a decent and secure livelihood. They protested something that, outside of America, most people called "neoliberalism," after the liberal economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Neoliberals revived the 19th-century faith in the free market as the final arbiter of human affairs, a utopian certainty that had been dampened by the two World Wars and the Great Depression. They insisted that only the invisible hand could distribute goods efficiently or allocate wealth justly, and that therefore all barriers to its perfect operation–such as labor unions, tariffs, or welfare states–needed to be swept aside. When, in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, the neoliberal ideology began to sweep the world, its proponents were able to identify it as "globalization," making it sound like an inevitable trend, not a set of political choices. The result was that protestors could easily be painted as provincial xenophobes who yearned for an autarkic past and refused to accept economic reality. After September 11, it appeared that they might be branded as traitors as well. Everything had changed, and it seemed that anticorporate activism–and with it, Naomi Klein–would simply fade away.

Instead, the opposite happened. The anti-globalization movement emerged–for a moment, at least–in a new, broader and deeper form, as the opposition to the war with Iraq. And naomi Klein kept on writing...She has looked for the neoliberalism inside of neoconservatism...

In the months leading up to the 2004 election, it seemed as though the anti-globalization movement was on the verge of disappearing altogether. One of the movement's tenets had been that center-left political parties in the United States, Canada, and Europe, led by men such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, had ceased to advance meaningful alternatives to the hard right, and had instead become the architects of neoliberalism. In the 2004 election, even Naomi Klein offered her tepid endorsement of John Kerry. But after Bush won, she wasted no time in lambasting Kerry for his sloppy campaign, for his whole-hearted concession and simpering call for healing, and for his stubborn support of the war, which allowed the president's fantasies about events on the ground in Iraq to dominate public discussion through the summer and fall.

The sporadic, flickering nature of the opposition to the war makes it appear, in this winter moment after Bush's reelection, as though resistance has vanished altogether. And yet Klein's work, her patient documenting of the anticorporate movement of the 1990s, gives reason for hope. The war, like the spread of neoliberalism around the globe over the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been bloody and painful, yet the men and women in charge of our politics are sustained by their apocalyptic, evangelical faith that great good will come of it in the end. Living in the comfort of their homes far away from the conflict, they have an abiding confidence that over time, the violence, economic weakness, and hunger of the present will all be redeemed through the transporting force of economic growth. It as as though any pain in the present must be endured for the sake of the glorious hereafter...

Many other political writers have trembled before the onset of war, the entry of the United States into a new era of potentially endless military conflict. As in the early days of the Cold War––and even before that, during the march toward World War I––a certain class of liberal intellectuals has found himself ineluctably drawn to the state and to power. Naomi Klein, by contrast, has faced her historical moment bravely. She has worked to understand the war in its relation to the broader political questions of our day: the unrivaled power of business, the decline of social democracy. In so doing, she has done credit not only to herself but to the political movement her work initially described, and to the rebellions––past and future––to which her career is inextricably bound.

––Kim Phillips-Fein, N+1

Note: The video archives at Free Speech TV include some protest coverage. In all fairness, these clips could probably be used as support for either or both of the following propositions (unfortunately such productions tend toward the sentimental and sensational):

a) The revisionist history of N+1 is perhaps a bit optimistic
b) Thomas Friedman is still a rent-a-pundit dickhead

Having attended a dozen or so large protests during the last few years, I've personally observed nothing but what could only honestly be described as an overwhelming majority of reasonable, articulate and peaceful citizens with quite legitimate concerns. Of course some outrage may be legitimate as well, given the reality.

Or, in the words of today's NYTimes (placed, ever so discreetly, next to the obituaries): Oooooh, protestors! How Quaint.

More on Naomi Klein here.