Monday, August 31, 2009

The condition of England and the Royal Bum

Vic Gatrell, in his book about Georgian and Regency humor, poses one of the essential questions of English cultural history: why did no cartoonist ever depict Queen Victoria’s behind? Why was she never depicted mooning it, much less shitting, pissing, or even farting?

George III and George IV, as well as Queen Caroline, certainly were. Gatrell’s book (The City of Laughter) is a heavy tome because it is filled with wonderful color illustrations. One of them, by Gillray, must have been exhibited in the windows of Mrs. Humphrey’s print shop, where all his cartoons were first exhibited. It shows the counties of England and Wales as patches of a coat and a pair of pants – Kent is a shoe, and Cornwall is a sort of stocking. Between the two of them, Sussex is a round blue cheek, from which is being spewed multiple turds towards the coast of France. And up at the top of the map, below Northumberland, is a face – the bloated face of George III. The cartoon is entitled: “The French invasion; or- John Bull, Bombarding the Bum Boats. France, one sees, is a face itself – a not happy face, as it is being covered with shit.

This was not, on the evidence of Gatrell’s illustrations, a unique conceit. All of Britain’s public figures were liable to have their pants pulled down or their petticoats pulled up and their behinds exposed. Yet, at the same time as this rich London based graphic culture was flourishing, novels, poems and essays were getting less scatological, Smollet was criticized for his smutty jokes, and pulled many of them out of the second edition of Peregrine Pickle. There’s a marked increase in euphemism; there’s a marked increase in respectability.

Eventually, of course, the culture of respectability caught up with the parade of cheeks in the prints, and squelched them, just as the board of Sanitation caught up with the 18th century habit of defecating casually in the park or the street, which was remarked upon by astonished travelers. Shitting was considered the acme of humor for a time – Gatrell remarks on the popularity of painting eyes on the inside bottom of chamber pots with the motto video omnia – I see all. If Foucault is correct that the panopticon was the dream model of 19th century governance, it went along with the vanishing of the chamberpot view – or perhaps one should say its displacement from the public humor to the gravity of the clinic.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

the art history of cellulite

1920 was a good year for modernism. Proust won the Goncourt. Lawrence published Women in Love. Tristan Tzara arrived in Paris. Paul Klee was given a teacher’s appointment at Bauhaus. And Alquier and Paviot, two French scientists, published a paper on a phenomenon that they called “cellulite”.

I’ve been thinking of cellulite, lately, due to a blogging double play. First, IT wrote a post about a book she is reviewing, Woman as Design by Stephen Bayley. She quotes Bayley on the bum:

“A muscular system is required both to move and stabilize the hip joints. This system is to be covered by twin fleshy parts whose function is partly to act as a cushion and a cover for the gluteal muscles and the pelvic bone, but mostly to serve profound symbolic purposes. This part of the body is identified with locomotion, but also with reproduction and excretion. But this symbolism must not be explicit. Instead, it must be adapted to different cultural and social circumstances.”

Upon which she comments:

”Frankly, I just use mine for sitting on, mostly, but I suppose it could also serve 'profound symbolic purposes' if there were a significant dearth of meaning in the world.”

Ads without Products picked up on IT’s theme, and added to it by mentioning a sculpture by Baudelaire’s friend, Clésinger, la femme piquée par un serpent, exhibited in 1847. AWP quotes an account of the statue by Pingeot – I presume Anne Pingeot:

“Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Snake, a succes de scandale . . . ensured its creator’s notoriety at the Salon of 1847. The scandal surrounding the work was orchestrated by Theophile Gautier, who spread a rumour that the cast for the statue had been taken from life. The model was Apollonie Sabatier, called ‘camp-follower of the fauns’ by the Goncourt brothers, but by Baudelaire ‘the beautiful, the good, darling’, ‘a guardian angel, muse, Madonna’ and ‘girl who laughs too much’. This notorious work exerted a lasting influence. Sculptors began making the female body more curvaceous and languishing, but omitted the cellulite rippling above Mme Sabatier’s thighs that had lent credence to the live-casting rumour. ‘A daguerreotype in sculpture’, wrote Delacroix, in his journal for 7 May 1847. However, the tide of realism was arrested by subsequent titles for nudes. They were called Sleeping Hebe (Carrier-Belleuse) Eve after the Fall (Delaplanche) and Young Tarentine (Schoenewerk). Mathurin Moreau’s Bacchante continued this series late into the century.” — Pingeot, Musée d’Orsay, p. 45. “

Now, I suppose the intent, here, is to disrupt Bayley’s bum reverence by introducing the rough texture of life – that rough texture being cellulite. However, I objected on AwP’s site that, far from being the rough texture of life, cellulite is a thing that, in the Anglosphere, we’ve only learned to “see” since the late seventies. In ordinary life and in science, in fact, there is no set, moored thing called cellulite. And to project Alquier and Paviot’s invention back to the 1840s is historically inaccurate.

All of which made me ponder the status of cellulite. Since much of the theory web is taken up, at the moment, with speculative realism, cellulite might be an excellent place to start speculating. Since, after all, it should be clear what cellulite is. We can see it. We claim we can see it. Billions of dollars are spent each year to cure it. Thus, it has as objective an existence, in our social life, as, say, measles.

Yet, even a cursory look at the scientific literature shows that cellulite – or so called cellulite, as it was called in the early eighties – seems to have no canonical scientific status at all. There is even a geographic division about cellulite, between the “Europeans” and the Americans (the British, by now, are included in the American tail – a sort of moon of America) (there is no way to write about ass without having the wild urge to pun, so I make no apologies for using moon, tail, and other bottom listing words). Alquier and Paviot’s discovery is, like Tzara’s poetry or expressionistic film, still within the caul of unmeaning.

Here’s a description from a recent article on Cellulite by Anna Rossi and Andre Vergnanini (2000)

“In the first description of the disease, Alquier and Paviot (1920) described a non-inflammatory complex cellular dystrophyof the mesenchymal tissue caused by a disorder of water metabolism, which produced saturation of adjacent tissues by interstitial liquids.The dystrophy was thought to be a reaction to traumatic, topical, infectious or glandular stimuli.”

Two things are noticeable, here. One is that it is called, without precondition, a “disease”. And the other is that the emphasis is on liquids, not fats. In fact, this is at the center of the Euro-American squabble about cellulite – Americans insisting that cellulite is a normal condition, not a disease, and confusing the issue, in the eyes of European dermatologists, with the introduction of fat. In fact, the first English usage of cellulite recorded by the OED is in a book about France from the 50s explaining that la cellulite is “puffy”. It was liquid-y before it became clott-y. It was once like a bubble filled with water, now it is like cottage cheese. The metaphors in place today about cellulite are much different than those in the 50s. But, in the fifties, in the Anglosphere, nobody was seeing cellulite.

Before I get to what I can possibly mean by that, let’s look at another paper on cellulite,

Terranova, Berardesca_ and Maibach 2006 Cellulite: nature and aetiopathogenesis, in which the three dermo scientists list three very different meanings of the term:

“Over the last few decades, three major conflicting theories have emerged in relation to the ethiopathogenesis of cellulite. These indicate, respectively, the following causes:
1. Oedema caused by excessive hydrophilia of the intercellular matrix.
2.A homeostatic alteration on a regional microcirculatorylevel; this pathogenetic theory is summarized
in a synthetic and self-explanatory denomination: EFP.
3.A peculiar anatomical conformation of the subcutaneous tissue of women, different from male morphology.”

What a very peculiar mélange this is. The point is not that there is no such thing as cellulite. The point is that there are too many things that are cellulite.

Which gets us back to Clésinger’s statue. There are a few characteristics of cellulite that stand out from the scientific and ordinary language descriptions – one of them being that cellulite is a stable thing. It is not the effect of a motion, like a smile, but rather a condition. Pingeot’s description of “rippling cellulite” is an attempt, of course, to straddle this distinction. But in fact, the viewers at the time saw either fleshiness, or the effect of torsion. The latter is important, for the scandal of the statue was that the woman’s throes were more characteristic of fucking than of poisoning – a well circulated piece of gossip was that the bronze snake, now lost, that was twisted around the model’s ankle was an afterthought. The model was Apollonie Sabatier, later Baudelaire’s lover. Here is how Theophile Thore saw the statue in 1847:

“What snake has bitten her? How she twists (se tord)! How her beautiful flanks move and lift into superb reliefs! (comme ses beaux flancs s’agitent et soulevent des reliefs superbes!)”

Of course, we know what “snake” has bitten her –but the superb reliefs in question are obviously, for Thoré, the result of her twist. Since it was said that Clesinger more faithfully adhered to the body cast of the model when sculpting the marble, others remarked – often scornfully – that this was applying the daguerrotype method to sculpture. A well known critic, George Planche, made that comparison, and Delacroix noted in his journal, “Planche is right: it is a daguerrotype in sculpture.” [Buerger, 49]

(I note here a Lamartine – the presence of the snake around the ankle, attested by some sources, is disputed by others. Buerger writes that Clesinger refused to put the snake around the ankle, which would have made the statue refer to Cleopatra. Susan Waller claims the snake is now lost. If there was not a snake, Thoré’s remark – what snake has bitten her – would be less lubricious. Don’t ever think the past is easy.)

Our point, of course, is that deciding about the status of an ‘object’ like cellulite does remake the past. Because what we see and what is there seem to so overlap, seem identical, we begin to think that what we are taught to see was always there, too. And yet, not only do scientists point at different things when they point at cellulite – the descriptions of the flesh of the past give us divergent pictures, as well. There’s a certain positivist satisfaction in thinking that we will apply our scientific discoveries to the past and show what it was all about – Romans suffering from lead poisoning, Europeans, buggy with microorganisms from their livestock, decimating all the Calibans on all the Bermudas ever found. These stories may even be true, but it is truth that comes with very detailed cautions to the user.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

the damnation of Mr. Bennet - crossposted

I'm going to crosspost this, from my Limited Inc blog:

In his great essay in defense of Robert Owen, Alexander Herzen remarks of 1850s England:

”The Continent, politically enslaved, is morally freer than England: the mass of ideas and doubts in circulation is much more extensive.They have become habitual and society does not shake with either fear of indignation before a free man – Wenn er die Kette bricht.

On the Continent, people are powerless before authority: thgey endure their chains, but they do not respect them. The Englishman’s liberty is more in his institutions than in himself or in his conscience.”

This is, I think, a nice way to begin a series of posts that alternate between M. de Staël and Jane Austen. In this way, I can get to the question of the condition of England.

Why England?As de Stael said in On Literature(1801), England is the country in the world where the women are most truly loved. Between De Stael’s statement and Herzen’s, something is happening. Perhaps they are both right.

De Stael thought Pride and Prejudice was vulgar, and Jane Austen, apparently, though De Stael was vulgar. But De Stael was, perhaps, the first to see what literature meant in modernity – and Jane Austen was a great plumber to the very depths of whether and how women are most truly loved.

So perhaps we should start with the beheadings. D.W. Harding, in the 40s, wrote a famous essay on Jane Austen that, I think it is safe to say, changed the way critics read her. It was called Regulated Hatred, and it takes up Virginia Woolf’s suggestion that there was a fiercer beast running through these novels than was reckoned by the culture of faux gentility and nostalgia. Harding begins by asking about a discrepancy between the image of Jane Austen – the preferred reading material for retired public servants, the much lauded writer of an idyll – and his own reading of Austin’s texts. In those texts, he believed he found a clue to her method of writing in such a way that her writing was, in crucial ways, overlooked – her decapitations were executed so that they disturbed no one who chose not to be disturbed.

What, he asked himself, was going on?

‘She has none of the underlying didactic intention ordinarily attributed to the satirist. Her object is not missionary; it is the more desperate one of merely finding some mode of existence for her critical attitudes…

As a novelist, therefore, part of her aim was to find the means for unobtrusive spiritual survival, without open conflict with the friendly people around her whose standards in simple things she could accept and whose affection she greatly needed.” [13]

We shall return to the satiric spirit without the missionary point – for this is a characteristic which has a wider application than he may realize. What is interesting, here, is how Harding’s 1940 idea of a double utterance, a code unobtrusively dropped into another code, is so like James Scott’s idea of the hidden transcript – or to use the vocabulary of my last post, it is a way of disguising lateral talk with vertical talk, of respecting a hierarchy while putting into words the anguish of one’s experience of it, in all its corrupting glory. Harding reproduces several passages where he will leave out a phrase, making them seem innocuous or funny, and then put the phrase back in, which makes us see the Jane Austen who could be Michelet’s Sorciere.

A good example of this is in Pride and Prejudice occurs in a passage in book II, after the terrific scene when Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. Elizabeth is going through a conversion process in which she sees, as though for the first time, the world righted – the way things really are. And, as Darcy has told her, one of the things that really are is that her family is bizarre, eccentric, and not at all respectable. In particular, her two sisters, Kitty and Lydia, have made spectacles of themselves in the village, throwing themselves at the officers quartered there. Now Lydia, 16, has been invited to stay with friends at Bath, where the soldiers have been quartered next. Elizabeth pleads with her father to prevent this. Her father puts her off with a joke:

"Lydia will never be easy until she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances."

As we know, Mr. Bennet’s words will come back to haunt him. Austen begins the next chapter with this explanation:

“Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.”
One could draw a line between that absolutely scathing glimpse of the marriage in the center of a family and Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children and Doris Lessing’s African novels, or The Golden Notebook. The male case was made out later by Hardy, but Jude, in spite of his marriage, earns our respect. Mr.Bennet doesn’t cheat on his wife – he cordially despises her. In this one paragraph, which quickly moves on and moves us into the business of getting Elizabeth and Darcy back together again, we see, as in a flash, the skull under the skin, Mr. Bennet and his wife and daughters stripped bare, like souls damned in a Memlinc painting – except who does the damning here? Hell has been filled in, and social relations, infinite social relations, have been built on top of it.
Posted by roger at 8:13 PM

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rozanov on Gogol

Rozanov heard a story from Repin, the painter, about Gogol. Gogol had already written Dead Souls, or half of it, when he came to Rome. He was celebrated among the little colony of Russians in Rome as the greatest celebrity. But, Repin said, the trouble was that the colony felt that they had to take tea with Gogol. They would go to his apartment, he would pour the tea, he would pass around the little cakes. And his attitude was such that nobody could think of a thing to say. It was as if he expected the homage, and that was enough. The teas were full of “morgue”. And yet, no one dared to miss them.

Repin told Rozanov this as they were walking along, one cold day, in the country, Repin clutching his burnous against the wind.

And then
“… I felt an icy fear; it seemed to me that in front of my eyes, the great secret of Gogol emerged from the earth. Yes, the person was really like that: formalist, narrow, stiff, like some prelate of death celebrating a funereal liturgy in the middle of candelabras and torches, ordering genuflections and proffering here and there some ‘mots’ from his great repertory, empty and insane. I couldn’t help but pronounce the word idiot. For he was truly inflexible and obstinate, as rigid as he was limited in his reasoning. “I write like that, dot the i and its done.” Magnificent. But what does this mean? The idiot widens his eyes, without understanding. He has these magnificent “mots”. Like nobody else. And besides, he is conscious of this fact; and this delighted him to the point of madness and made him arrogant with an insane pride.

-Ugh. Get out of here, Satan.
But the mannequin winks its cold and glassy eye. It doesn’t understand that behind the words there has to be something, that behind the words there has to be, among other things, a reality, a fire or flood, terror or joy. He absolutely does not understand, and continues to put the finishing touches to his own, while distributing that last cup of cold and repugnant tea to his admirers, , who he imagines in his little head to be the heads of some office constrained to intone praises for the director… what am I saying, for the author of Dead souls.
-Ugh, get out of here Satan!! Cursed witch with a blackspotted soul, icy cadaver, glassy, transparent, … empty.
-Out of here, you polluted thing!
His decrepit face laughs in the tomb.
-But I don’t exist, I never existed. If there is nothing but an appearance.

-Cursed werewolf! Out of here! The cross of Jesus will protect us! How, if not, to be protected from you?

With faith, the heart whispers. For whosever has kept a grain of faith, of faith in the soul, in the earth, in the future of man, for this person Gogol in truth never existed.
Never on earth has a man, or rather the simulacrum of a man, been more terrible.

I am translating this from the French translation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

from a notebook

I don’t think I’ve ever posted any of my poetry – for the good reason that it is for me and my friends alone. It is private, whereas my prose is open to be looted by all, if they want to. I’m reading Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist at the moment, to review it, and it has stirred up in me a reaction against its narrator, who is a poet and who says a lot about poetry, and seems mostly wrong.

So here’s a poem.

Down among the lumps, I bet my last million
Although what this million kenned I do not know;
And what was sky high for me then I’ve lost --
Stars, moon and occasions slipped through the hole

In my pocket in the great trance of life.
But I did, down among the lumps
Who always win, whose turns are solid gold,
Bet everybody’s birthright on an inspired guess.

And this is the part no channeler can tell
If I won or lost terrifically
Among the lumps who sit by sullen fires
In the smudged evenings, by the abandoned track.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jesus or Socrates?

Yesterday, I mentioned Ludwig Hohl’s comparison of Jesus and Socrates. As Hohl is not available in an English translation, let me translate his aphorism – his post, I could call it – from the Collapsing Banks – Von den hineinbrechenden Rändern

“We speak of the similarity of the death of Jesus of Nazareth and that of Socrates, but don’t call attention to the differences, which are just as great. Jesus of Nazareth provoked his death; Socrates did not provoke his, which was merely, for him, inescapable. For Jesus, his death was nothing other than the final action of a series of actions, that we call “miracles” [Wunder]: which were the grasping of another means than that of words, in the doubt, lifted to the most extreme level of despair, of the unbearableness of words in the face of the mental slothfulness of men. He could have lived somewhere else, or moved, he didn’t need to live in Jerusalem. In contrast, Socrates lived by the word his whole life long, not with miracles; and he didn’t know where else he could live besides Athens (see Burkhardt); that he thus chose his death, between two possibilities, doesn’t mean he provoked it.”

Of course, Hohl ignores John’s hymn to the Logos – but I think he is onto something important in seeing Jesus’ life as a series of miracles, wonders rather than signs. For Socrates, the omens must be disciplined by the word; for Jesus, the words are only as good as the community of humans who create them. Instead of words, then, the act – and it is here that the miracle and the everyday converge. In eating bread. In drinking wine.

Hohl does not favor one side or the other. Myself?…

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Our "resource"

I was going to translate Ludwig Hohl’s comparison of Jesus and Socrates for a post today – but I am bogged down in work. So bogged down that I only glanced at the Times. But it was surely worth glancing at. In the Republic, Socrates tells the story of Leontius, who was going by a field in which they executed prisoners. He tried to shut his eyes, but he found himself, in spite of himself, peeping at the corpses – and so finally he rushed over to a corpse, opened his eyes wide, and addressed his own eyes: “Look for yourselves, you evil things. Get your fill of the beautiful sight!”

This is, of course, what any normal person would feel when passing by a story of that rat and ratfucker, Tom Daschle, under the headline, “Daschle has the ear of the White House and Industry”. Of course, the headlines is slightly off – it should read, Decaying corpse of ubercorrupt ex-Senator sells service to Industry to help destroy national healthcare.

Daschle gets paid by Alston and Bird. Alston and Bird represent United Health and the Tennessee Hospital Association, and are fighting to feed ever more pork to porky med industry investors. And Daschle “advises” Obama’s neo-liberal crew – a crew obviously modeling itself on Chairman Larry Summers thought. A crew so up to its eyeballs in connections to Wall Street banks and the richest and most corrupt oligarchs on earth that their very neural wiring is bribed.

But Daschle is a noble man, an old advisor, an ooooold Democratic party pro. The man who memorably led his party to defeat and ignominy in 2002. A hunk of junk tossed out by the citizens of South Dakota, one of those plains states that has the population of a NYC neighborhood and should no more be a state than I am. He is a prime product of our broken democracy in its dog years, the Bush-Obama interregnum, as we limp into our third world economy status, with a tiny middle class, a teaming poverty sector, and a helicoptering class of the wealthy.

This man, this thing, this corruption, this mummy, this vile odious puppet, this backstabbing son of a bitch, this corporate motormouth, this ghoul, is “advising” the administration away from the public option – the only reason to have any healthcare debate at all – and towards the screw it, stick with festering fucked out system we have now system. I imagine that the Dems, in their infinite wisdom, smell a winner in Daschle – he did so much for them before! I'm astonished out at the clawlike hold the richest have on the throat of this republic.

Ah, but just to put the capper on this oozing bag of pomposity and piss, the NYT noticed that he is not listing himself as a lobbyist while he lobbies for the company that pays him. These questions were thrust upon his thingship, and this is what the ever great Daschle had to say about it:

“Mr. Daschle is not registered as a lobbyist and recently told U.S. News and World Report that he preferred to describe himself as a “resource” to those in government and industry.

“I’d like to be a resource to my former colleagues, to the extent that I can, to the administration, to the stakeholders and to people interested in just kind of knowing how this is all going to play out,” he said. “I am most comfortable with the word resource.”

Every dying culture dies first in its language. Daschle, that representative of the chancre which is in the place where Dem politicians used to have a heart, has extended his feckless corruption to English itself. How appropriate that he’s D.C.’s favorite go-between. I’d urge all my readers to have their medical bills routed to his office. Maybe he can be a “resource” for all of us.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

a hero to his own

“A hero to his own” – such is the NYT headline about Bernanke.

“Fellow economists, however, are heaping praise on Mr. Bernanke for his bold actions and steady hand in pulling the economy out of its worst crisis since the 1930s. Tossing out the Fed’s standard playbook, Mr. Bernanke orchestrated a long list of colossal rescue programs: Wall Street bailouts, shotgun weddings, emergency loan programs, vast amounts of newly printed money and the lowest interest rates in American history.”

There is a marvelous, sinister beauty to the phrase, for indeed, what is more indicative of the great American sloth and slide than what the “own” is – who they are, where they come from, and what, exactly, they own. Well, the last question is answered the quickest. You. Me. The future. The fouled atmosphere. The acidified oceans. That is the ‘own’, all right. In the mere 10,000 some years that homo sapiens went from painting beautiful portraits of nobler animals on the walls of miserable caves to being ruled by the misbegotten sons of bitches in business suits that make up the 100 thousand or so human beings who really count on the planet – the ones whose every bowel movement should be plasticized and put in museums for us little ones to bow down to – there have been few heros as grotesque as Bernanke. This is the man who encouraged, with might and main, the financialization of the American economy for the benefit of the .01 percent; this is the man who, in August 2007, displayed to the world his view of the Fed, ie that it existed to bubble the equities market; this is the deviser of all the sinister off the book entities that are even now pumping money to the tentacled horrors of Wall Street; this is the great I am that other suits will celebrate at Jackson Hole, which will certainly not be a town hall meeting.

The article reeks of a triumph that might puzzle the ordinary putz. After all, in the putzosphere, the “own” has gone missing – the credit card limits are burned, the house value is heading towards an equilibrium with bird and doghouses, the car is officially a clunker, the unemployment rate is slowing not because businesses are hiring but because unemployed workers, discouraged, have ceased looking for work – doubtless the labor department thinks they have vanished into the air. The dominos of state government debt and the cuts that are going to add to that pool are just starting to fall. And of course the stock market, the holy of holies for the owners, is down considerably from what it was in 2000, marking this as the first decade since the 30s in which this financial fact has happened – happened right in the rectum of all those suited minions.

But to think what could have happened, what bonuses could be unrewarded for the expenditure of the most sterile labor ever to be rewarded with king’s ransoms – is to shudder. Yes, the ‘own’ don’t like that. Who, after all, is the economy for?

To think that this hero – a hero in this Alice in Wonderland world of pseudo-democracy and the most miserably stupid, illiterate, time wasting oligarchy ever to disgrace the pages of world history, an oligarchy whose monuments are Dubai, Las Vegas, and the creeping death of the Arctic permafrost – could possibly be doubted hurts the Business section’s feelings. So fucked up is this moment that Bernanke’s competitor for the Fed position seems to be… Larry Summers!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Peckerwood insurrection and the decline of Hydrarchy

It is the anthropology of the moment that fascinates.

One first has to survey from the facts on the ground. James Galbraith, in the Predator State, does a very nice job of summing up the structure of the American economy:

“Try adding these elements together: health care, higher education, housing and Social Security. Together they account for nearly 40 percent of the total consumption of goods and services in the United States. Moreoever we have not yet counted the direct contribution of non-military public expenditure at the federal, state and local levels, which amounts to another 14 percent of the GDP (2 percent federal, 12 percent state and local). Of that, a high fraction goes for public education at the primary and secondary levels (Over 88 percent of American schoolchildren attend public schools, and that proportion has not fallen notably in recent years). Taking everything together, we find that the United States is not a “free-market” economy with an underdeveloped or withered state sector. It is, rather, an advanced postindustrial economy like any other, with a government sector responsible for well over half of economic activity. It is just somewhat less organized and efficient in some respects, and considerably more profligant in others, than the European norm.” (112)

There’s nothing odd in this, but it is shocking to the milkbred American sensibility, liberal and conservative. In America, the talk is always going to be around the fact, on the ground, that the U.S. is a mix of socialist and capitalist just like Sweden. Take, for instance, employment. Economists who publish columns in the NYT routinely and airly speak of what the government should or shouldn’t do at the point of “full employment” – meaning that employment has reached the ‘natural rate’ of five percent. If you listen to this talk long enough, you fall into a daze of thinking that you have, on the one hand, the heroic private sector, and, on the other hand, the unemployed. But if you wake up from that daze, you will see that the economists are talking mush: since the 1940s, the state – the federal governments and the states – have never employed less than 13 percent of the population, and the numbers have tended upwards – particularly under conservative presidents like Reagan and Bush II – so that the figure stands now at 18 to 19 percent. The government is by far the institution that employs the most people in this country, Add together the real rate of unemployment, which averages more like 6 percent over that period, and you find that the private sector is doing well when it employs 77 percent of the employed. At the moment, the private sector can only employ around 69 percent of the employed – if you use the more accurate U figure, around 65 percent.

In a recent editorial by the ever crazy CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, attacking socialized health care, he wrote:

“Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?”

Obviously, this is a man whose knowledge of the history of housing policy in the U.S. could be contained in a crushed Dixie Cup. Alas, even in his own field, food, he is as blind. Perhaps he ought to ask himself, some day, how California, or for that matter, Kansas and Nebraska, became such food providing giants. He might well be surprised that the bluest of states, with self-supportin’ Republican men’s men representing them in the Senate and the House, vote every year to socialistically support the food industry. In fact, since the New Deal, the American farmer has been so hooked up to government lifesupport that the farmer no longer considers it ‘government’. Rather, it is the manna that falleth from heaven. It was the state, of course, that made possible industrial farming in Imperial Valley. It was the state that seized the rivers in the West and dammed them. It was the State, in California, that devised the most complex and expensive water distribution system in the world, which – unsurprisingly – subvents the giant Ag Industry. It is the State that changed the rules on monopoly, allowing such as Monsanto to do such things as “patent” genes – a hilarious misuse of the police power of the state, and an excellent way to introduce monopoly rents to fatten the shareholder.

And so it goes – industry after industry. The clock ran out on the worry about socialism in 1900. But in America, unlike other countries – and this is the American difference – we pretend that it didn’t. Wallowing in the fruits of state supported activities while denying that we are doing so has created, as I’ve pointed out before, a vast freerider mentality. If one superimposes the flow of federal money upon the map, you find, oddly enough, that much of that money goes to the Blue States – the states in which the Republican party, fighting against socialism, is the strongest. Statements gleefully culled by liberal bloggers from teabagger besieged meetings with congressmen – statements like, keep the government’s hands off my medicare – simply underline the freerider mentality. Mackey simply plays to it - although one should never overestimate the intelligence of a CEO. He may actually believe that he housing market and the food market are government free. It is amazing what a man can believe if he feels there will be no punishment for false belief.
Which gets us to the anthropology of this moment. The elections of 2000, 2004 and 2008 have been remarkable in as much as they have crystallized a sort of psychic soft budgetary constraint in American at large. The question is: can an inefficient imperium still live on the fumes of the dominance it had thrust upon it when the rest of the world, in WWII, committed suicide? To be fair, for a good forty to fifty years, the U.S. became an actual innovator in the world. The systematic collaboration of the state and private entities resulted in an unprecedented boom. Of course, that boom was world wide – France, Germany, Japan, the smaller European economies, they all boomed too. The recipe for opulence seemed to be found, and one could easily model it – all of the countries mentioned found themselves able to sustain a strong private sector and an interventionist public sector, the kind of thing that did not go as far as a socialist like Jean Jaures, in 1900, might have dreamed, but went far enough. In fact, it became obvious that the state did a poor job of total management – the Soviet economy is an excellent experiment that showed the flaw in the socialist model, which is that the real driver of the economy – Schumpertian innovation – can be generated in a total socialist system but never systematized. The soviets developed the best mathematicians in the world, and had a third world computing sector.

However, in the developed economies – the post-industrial world – real flaws also develop. The major one, I would say, is attitudinal and hard to quantify. It is that opulence develops fear. A real fear of systematic change. In the face of the Malthusian constraints rapidly coming up, in a world devastated by our normality, this isn't good.

Which gets us back to the peckerwood insurrection we have been seeing, directed against ‘Obamacare’. Among the delusions of the liberal elite, the one that gets to the heart of liberal amorality is the notion that cultural values count for nothing. Obama, in a speech during his campaign, talked about rural culture in the U.S. and how it had been wounded by economic changes in the last 30 years – true enough. But he then built the case that somehow the peckerwoods cling to their guns because they don’t see what is happening in front of their nose. In other words, they don’t have a good sense of their self interest.

This strikes me as a fairy tale. It is the fairy tale that capitalism has been telling for a long time. “Free” up labor, mobilize it, and eventually every self becomes a little calculating machine, oriented towards getting more. The drive for accumulation (dubbed ‘rationality’ by the economists) will dissolve any and all blocks to its satisfaction. Cultural values will just have to wait in line, where our highly professional core of economic specialists can euthanize them.
This simply isn’t so. The peckerwood culture is not opposed to liberalism because the wealthy have hired talk radio hosts to pull the wool over their eyes. Rather, they are opposed to liberalism because they don’t like the liberal cultural values. Instead of those values being at the back of the line, they are at the front. And instead of the peckerwoods being blind, it is the liberal elites who are blind to the fact that their economism is a cultural value, not an objective fact about the world.
Even so, a culture of freeriders will not stand. Which gets us to the decline of hydarchy.

The polity of the hydra, hydrarchy is a term used by two radical historians, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in their marvelous book, The Many Headed Hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. They bring together, in this history, the radical subcurrents that touched the first American settlers, the Africans stolen from their countries, the sailors often shanghaied into serving on military ships, and the radical end of the Protestant revolution that beheaded Charles I and proposed a commutarian society – the diggers and the levelers, liquidated by Oliver Cromwell before he began his genocidal conquest of Catholic Ireland. It is a history to please Thomas Pynchon’s heart – Linebaugh and Rediker even use an eighteenth century phrase to talk about rioting sailors – the motley crew – which could easily have found a home in V.
This history is about one cultural value above all others – liberty. The defense of liberty was mounted by mobs – mobs of commoners, mobs of sailors, mobs of slaves. These mobs, to establishment eyes, were dangerous mixtures of the discontented and desperados. A minister, Richard Baxter, wrote of the sailors, who represented a continual radical leaven in the mix, like this:

“He cannot speak low, the sea talks so loud. His advice is seldom taken in naval affairs; though his hand is strong, the headpiece is stupid. Stars cannot be more faithful in their society than these Hans-kins in their fraternity. They will have it valiantly when they are ranked together, and relate their adventures with wonderful terror. Necessary instruments are they, and agents of main importance in that Hydrarchy wherein they live; for the walls of the State could not subsist without them; but least useful are they to themselves, and most needful for others supportance.”

Our authors strongly reject Baxter’s characterization as they adopt Baxter’s word. A hydra was a creature seemingly all tentacles and without a center, that yet had one, secretly.

The Peckerwood hydrarchy, unfortunately, is a decayed version of this revolutionary company. Their world has been turned upside down – the symbolic wound of a black man as President has had a surprising effect in Dixie burgs, reminding ‘Southern man’ that the status landscape has changed for good. At the same time, of course, Wall Street collapsed, and the shame of autonomous capitalism came into the open as the political establishment, Bush to Obama, made its repair – made the wealth of the wealthiest – the first and tenderest concern of the government. An elite which would worry that Social Security may have a trillion dollar deficit in forty to fifty years didn’t blink as a trillion dollars was calmly shoved at the banks in little over three months, and the Fed created loans that are estimated at 8 trillion dollars. It was all too much reality. It is one thing to be inured to a war economy peculiarly favorable to southern industry, and an agricultural support sector without which much of the Midwest would revert back to desert. But it is the genius of a state institution to retreat under the skin of the social body and there to function, much as the system of blood does. Blood is bloody, however, and when it comes to the fore and moves to the surface of the body, it makes grown men faint. Trauma – the encounter with the truth – takes a while to forget. After it is forgotten, those who benefited will be the first to deny they ever needed or wanted it.

So the revolt against that mishmash of health care programs desperately not seeking socialism which are being ground through Congress is really a revolt against the world turned upside down. The problem of course is that the world cannot long endure the parasitic stature of the most militarily powerful nation on earth. As the U.S. misses its opportunity to lead the next industrial revolution, to green tech, because it frightens the old boys in Macon, Georgia, the expenses will overwhelm us.
Or, as Laurie Anderson puts it: this is your Captain speaking. I have a funny feeling I've seen this all before…

That’s the message of the Zona.

Monday, August 10, 2009

the sword shall never depart from thine house

Northanger has demanded that I say something about the court suit filed against Blackwater last Monday. The details are here and here If the Nation and TPM Site are reporting correctly, I’m shocked and appalled at the sheer sloppiness and bad faith of these charges. This, for instance, is pure catnip to the defense:

“The former Blackwater employee, identified only as "John Doe Number 2," claims that, "based on information provided to me by former colleagues, it appears that Mr. Prince and his employees murdered, or had murdered, one or more persons who have provided information, or who were planning to provide information, to the federal authorities about the ongoing criminal conduct."

You don’t have to have a tv cop show law degree to know that this charge is so ill defined, so based on hearsay, that it won’t stand up two minutes in court. I’m assuming that the Center for Constitutional Rights knows this, and this is a p.r. rush. But I can’t say I like this strategy. From the aspect of prosecuting a case, who cares if Prince is a Christian fascist? A courtroom is a terrible place to try to stage an investigation; it is a great place to press real, well formed charges in order to obtain a guilty verdict. Mixing those two things together almost always results in a ruling for the defendant.

I hope I am wrong. The whole point of the suit is, of course, to serve the clients of the lawyers. I’m not quite sure what allegations of child prostitution do to serve this end, since, as far as I can tell, none of the five civil suits concern injury for child prostitution.

Finally, I notice no activity whatsoever on the part of the Obama administration to prosecute Andrew Moonen for the murder of Raheem Khalif on Christmas day, 2006. Nor has there been any move to prosecute Margaret Scobey, the woman who, as acting ambassador, packed Moonen on a plane and sent him out of Iraq, as accessory; nor an investigation into who whitewashed Moonen’s record at the State department.

And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.
2Sa 12:2 The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:
2Sa 12:3 But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.
2Sa 12:4 And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
2Sa 12:5 And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:
2Sa 12:6 And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.
2Sa 12:7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
2Sa 12:8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.
2Sa 12:9 Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.
2Sa 12:10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

the trouble with martin

The last decade has been tough on the prose styles of two writers I used to admire quite a bit, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis. When I say tough, I mean devastating; when I say devastating, I mean like a bucket of lye is devastating to the face of a raving beauty. I mean like the Johnstown flood was not so kind to Johnstown. I mean like no survivors.

In Hitchens case, at one time the man had almost perfect pitch. I still remember an essay about Isaiah Berlin that was not just damning, but thrilling. Delicious. Of course, back then Hitchens had a different politics. The shift from the far left to the far right did not preclude, however, the sad purge of subtlety, literacy, logic, generosity and that essential tentativeness, that openness to further fact, which is the essayists stock in trade. Hitchens now deals in cliché, a third rater’s egotism, his association with the most corrupt people he can find at any one moment (the Cheneys, the Wolfowitz, the Chalabi, the Mafiosi running Northern Iraq), and one would suspect him of doing it all for some terrible habit, like cocaine – in fact, it would be almost forgiveable, then – but it seems that he has actually chosen to become not only odious, but unreadable.

Yet this is a small loss compared to the loss of Martin Amis.

At one time… ah, but I’m already starting off in the Maerchen mode, as if this were an unbelievable tale for children. But I will bravely carry on: at one time, Amis was genuinely, astonishingly funny. Although his plots were glued together with a gay, pomo carelessness, and his characters were not ‘real’ – the way Wodehouse’s characters aren’t ‘real’ – they were something better. They were perfect. Amis had (he truly did) a deadly sense of the farce of fin de siecle lifestyles. In the days of Money and London Fields, Amis did not pretend to have any moral authority. It was this lack that made him a sort of hybrid in comic lit, neither a pure satirist nor a pure farceur. This was new. And though his novels ran riot with bigotries, bad behavior and the lot, since he’d pulled the rug out from under his own authority, their cruel working out was never interrupted by the authorial superego, creeping out from under the rock to sort out the just and the unjust. The rain it raineth every day, that was the joke.

He is so incredibly bad now that I almost began to doubt my memory of when he was so very, very good. So I’m rereading London Fields and yes, there are passages, there are passages… For instance, this tossaway. Amis is delineating the character of Analiese Furnish. Analiese is a groupie. She’s also into mysticism and tarot. As Keith, her sometimes lover and the thug at the center of the book’s carnival puts it to himself, she’s mental. Here’s Amis:

“‘What you did with famous people just wasn’t your fault. Different rules applied. You were swept away. And when it was over (and it was usually over quickly), well, you were wryly left with your albums and scrapbooks, your poems, your train-tickets, your memories, your dreams, your telephone calls to his wife and children, your letters to the editors of all the tabloids.”

The only miniscule fault here is ‘wryly’ – but it is such a mote, such an infinitesimal massaging of the thing by the author, that it doesn’t spoil the passage in any way, doesn’t get in the way of the contact high. Contact high is good!

Compare this to Amis now. Recently, he effused at great length, and to little point, in the Guardian about Iran. He went there! He knows all about it now! The article is not so much a piece of writing as a piece of fist pounding – which is par for the course for today’s Amis. Here’s a bit:

"In the history of the Iranian plateau," writes Sandra Mackey, in her stylish and magisterial classic, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation, "the sun has risen and set on nearly a million days." But before we come to the Iranian soul, and the million days, let us examine the Three Lies about the Islamic Republic.”

Oh, let’s… not. If this were written by one of those slippery authors Amis loved to portray in his early work, it would be funny – the drawing out of a sentence of pure filler from a ‘stylish and magisterial’ classic – a classic! I think we can confidently translate this to mean, old book I had an assistant pull out of the library and read all the way through. On Iran. Doing the hard footwork. Doing my homework, see.

The idea that we are going to get a tour of the Iranian soul plus the million days from our tourist gringo author – it is the equivalent of the perfumes that Amis’s character, Keith, pawns off on an unsuspecting, or simply weary, public in London Fields. It is a cheat, and not even a very good one.

Amis’s business with the three lies is not even worth arguing about – it is pointless. The reason the first one exists is solely so that Amis can write a sentence using the term farr – “the inherent aura of kingship.” To give us a whiff of real Persia. Darling, I have the stuff for you. But who cares about that – it is the writing here that stinks:

“On 16 January 1979, Muhammad Reza Shah flew out of Tehran – to exile in Cairo. On 1 February, Ayatollah Khomeini flew into Tehran – from exile in Paris (where one of his more regrettable neighbours, I feel obliged to mention, was Brigitte Bardot).”

I feel obliged to mention that regrettable neighbors (of which, apparently, there is a scale of less to more) makes zip sense. Perhaps Amis regrets that Khomeini didn’t make more of her. Or perhaps Brigitte is busy regretting something on her own. And doing so more, I again feel obliged to tell you, then the regretting done by other of Khomeini’s neighbors. Perhaps this was another detail culled from the stylish classics Amis is cribbing from. But the earlier humorous wouldn’t fumble the detail so badly that one wonders more about Amis’ literacy than about the ironies, if any, to be squeezed out of juxtaposing Khomeini with “And God created Woman.”

Dickens soon got tired of his reputation as the author of the Pickwick Papers. He too wanted to be a novelist in the fullest sense. Luckily, Dickens also had a fine sense of his territory. Yes, he wrote a couple of historicals, but they were mostly set in England. When he departed for foreign shores and dreamt up wicked foreigners, as in Little Dorrit, he soon came home again. Home was large enough to keep him infinitely supplied with material. Dickens certainly did not look at the Crimean war as his chance to report on all things Russian, or dream up a novel set in Turkey. Dickens was a wise man.

Amis is not a wise man. Those who only know Amis in his current incarnation – which can be dated to his discovery that Stalinism was really, really bad – might be excused for thinking of him as a hack. What happened, what incredibly happened, what wryly, regrettably happened, is that Amis, the virtuoso of no moral authority, decided that he was one. A moral authority. He, Amis. And so he churns out essays and bad, bad novels. His last novel, for instance, seems to have been a mash up of Anthony Beevor and Anne Applebaum. It is set entirely in Russia, and it is dreadful from beginning to end. Dickens moral authority was in developing his sense of observation – Amis derives his from a passing acquaintance with secondary sources.

Art is mercurial, and if Amis had the tedious but somehow charming persona of, say, Thomas Mann, perhaps he could sell these goods. It seems to be a well kept secret about Mann that he, too, can be funny. Amis is no Mann. From the beginning, Amis was a brat. This was his charm. Of course, age is a problem for brats. Evelyn Waugh, for instance, was a brat – the biggest brat in British literature – and he, too, grew tired of being funny. But Waugh never tried to rebuild his career on his own moral authority – he was a moral renter, in the house that God built. And this works, more or less. Amis inhabits the house that Amis’s ego built. Which would be an excellent premise for an Amis-like novel. To bad that nobody’s around to write it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The environmental index

Orion magazine is, I believe, unjustly neglected. I go to a number of liberal and left blogs, and I hardly ever see any recognition that one of the finest journals in America is a sort of environmentalists New Yorker. Like the New Yorker, it has nurtured certain essayists, most notably Rebecca Solnit. I pity you, reader, if you haven’t read Rebecca Solnit. High thee to google and repair your illiteracy.

In the issue before last, there was an article by biologist Sandra Steingraber entitled 3 bets.

The article has two themes. One is personal hazards. When Steingraber was an undergraduate, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. But she survived, and the cancer went into remission, and she has had thirty years to do work, marry, raise a kid – and be confronted with another test from her urologist that something was wrong.

The personal hazard made her do some research:

“I also learned that, in spite of all this evidence, the words carcinogen and environment rarely appeared in the pamphlets on cancer in my doctors’ offices and waiting rooms. Nor were these words used much in conversations I had with my various health-care providers, who were interested instead in my family medical history. I was happy enough to provide it. There is a lot of cancer in my family. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age forty-four. I have uncles with colon cancer, prostate cancer, stromal cancer. My aunt died of the same kind of bladder cancer—transitional cell carcinoma—that I had.

But here’s the punch line to my family story: I am adopted. I’m not related to my family by chromosomes. So I began to ask hard questions about the presumption that what runs in families must necessarily run in genes. I began to ask, what else do families have in common? Such as, say, drinking water wells. And when I looked at the literature on cancer among adult adoptees, I learned that, in fact, the chance of an adopted person dying of cancer is closely related to whether or not her adoptive parents had died of cancer and far less related to whether or not her biological parents had met such a fate. But you would never know that based on the questions asked on medical intake forms.
So thirty years ago, as a college undergraduate, I made a bet. I bet that my cancer diagnosis had something to do with the environment in which I lived as a child. And I think I was right about this.
As I learned years later, while researching my book Living Downstream, the county where I grew up, along the east bluff of the Illinois River, has statistically elevated cancer rates. Three dozen different industries line the river valley there, and farmers practice chemically intensive agriculture along its floodplains. Hazardous waste is imported from as far away as New Jersey, and the drinking water wells contain traces of both farm chemicals and industrial chemicals, including those with demonstrable links to . . . bladder cancer.

Bet two had to do with the hazard to Gaia.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, in the fall of 1988, when I was a graduate student in biology at the University of Michigan, I made another bet. I was working as an opinion writer at the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper there. My editor and I laid bets as to which system would collapse first—economy or ecology. I said ecology. I think I was wrong. I think we were both wrong. They seem to be crumbling simultaneously.

Her third bet is an optimistic one – a wildly optimistic long shot. And that is that the developed world can actually pull out of the shell of comfort in which it hides, a shell that is manufactured out of the future disasters to a number of species, among them homo sapiens, and do something about what they are doing. That someone – perhaps mothers who absorb the shits bodily in the system, perhaps fathers who don’t want their kids to enjoy the fabulous reconstruction of the Eocene era we are foisting upon ourselves – will stand up and say, goddamn this is too much. Someone will cast an eye over the era we are living in, the era of Gogol’s devil, the era of the evil of banality rather than the banality of evil, and get sick from the non-culture, and pass that sickness on. Until fear and dread leads to a confrontation with the artificial paradise as a whole.

To this end, she has a great suggestion.

“As part of my work, I visit a lot of college campuses. Lately, I’ve been asking students to engage in a thought exercise: Imagine that ecological metrics were as familiar to us as economic ones. Imagine ecological equivalents to the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P that reported to us every day—in newspapers, on radio, on websites, on the crawl at the bottom of TV screens, on oversized tickers in Times Square—data about the various sectors of our ecological system and how they are faring. What are the atmospheric parts per million of carbon dioxide today? Has the extinction rate become inflationary? What is the exchange rate between sea ice and fresh water? What is the national deficit of topsoil?”

That would be lovely. The ticker in Times Square that ticks off the numbers of the National Deficit: what if it ticked off the number of days until the acidification of the oceans destroyed the ability of shellfish to make shells – a point estimated to arrive between 2040 and 2050 – and we say good bye to the lobster? We are a democracy. Don’t we deserve a countdown to our Armageddon? We paid for it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reflections on good housekeeping

In Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, there is a chapter on drawers, chests and wardrobes in which the philosopher follows his usual method of meditative daydreaming. If the house is the world, the box and the multitudinous species of containers are not mere subsystems for classifying parts of the world. They also make possible the act of hiding things. The chapter is full of the assumptions of the bourgeois French household in which the author was raised and lives – one in which there exists, always, an armoire, or wardrobe.

Americans tend to favor the closet. One of my more striking childhood memories: there were three closets, side by side, in the room I shared with my twin brothers until I was eleven. I would climb up on the closet door, perching my bare feet on the door knob, and then swing out (this was something my old man had strictly disallowed and condemned for all eternity. But I did it anyway.). The point was to get to the farthest the door would swing, and then manage to jump to the second door, and then do the same thing until you got to the third door. When I did this I was not Roger; I did this as Tarzan.

But to return to the armoire, or wardrobe. Whether closet or armoire, Bachelard’s point is still valid that “To put just anything, just any way, in just any piece of furniture, is the mark of unusual weakness in the function of inhabiting. In the wardrobe there exists a center of order that protects the entire house against uncurbed disorder.”

What a beautiful passage! It is exactly that center of order I lack in my life.

It is not simply that I am sloppy as an inhabitant. I am. I live and work in a small efficiency, and so I generate the mess that goes with an office and the mess that goes with a living space. There are the manuscripts, the books for review, the notebooks, the stray papers, the unopened letters, the three computers (with only one working), the dictionaries flung about. There are, too, the clothes, the cups, the glasses. There is the pile of books next to my bed that I can never seem to reduce. There’s the invisible seep of the dust that comes off the parking lot in the apartment, which I can never seem to get rid of.

That mess, though, is merely the shell around which the larger disorder, the intellectual disorder, has manufactured itself. This is a scandalous intellectual disorder. I could begin with the lost manuscripts, for instance, my first and second novels, which exist, if they still exist at all, in a box in a house in Connecticut – although I have reason to believe that they were dumped long ago. I have no copy of my master’s thesis. I have dusty boxes of diskettes on which, if I had a computer to read them, there are hundreds of files that contain materials that I spent years working on: always thinking that now, here, I had finally achieved enlightenment and would surely thus achieve fame. I have at least the ms for most of the novel I wrote in New Haven, with a copy stored at my friend Miruna’s place (who is always asking why I don’t try to get that thing published). It is on account of that work that I moved to Austin in the first place, in 1998.

But that emptiness in the wardrobe, that essential central emptiness, always strikes. For it is not just a passive lack. It is an active and militant one. I become overwhelmingly bored and disgusted with my projects. In my soul, there are basically two forces. There is a ravening, rabid pit bull of self hatred. And, opposed to it, there is a boredom that must be the kind of boredom Judas feels down in hell, head first in the ice. It is a cold, cold boredom. Happiness, to me, is keeping those two forces in fine balance – otherwise, I begin to want to cut my throat.

And so it is that uncurbed disorder has been my muse. I go from project to project, hoping to slip the yoke of my own emptiness – the lack of a will to have one place, any place, where things are just so. I wonder if I ever will. If some day I actually achieve one of my projects, it will certainly not reflect my real life, which has been entirely ill spent, but the conditional life, the life I could have had if I had not put anything anywhere. My life as Tarzan, not as Roger.

Monday, August 3, 2009

I've seen the future baby and its murder

The ductus of American history is, supposedly, North/South. However, perhaps the real prime fact about America, the one upon which its prosperity has been built and by which its prosperity will be buried, is the East/West divide. James Lawrence Powell devotes a chapter in the Dead Pool, his book about the water that the West is running out of, to John Wesley Powell’s fight to prevent the government from doing what it did – supporting a vast infrastructure of water-using projects in the West. As head of the Geological Survey in the 1880s, Powell produced a map of the U.S., differently colored according to the annual rainfall received by the land. Gray meant that the land received more than 20 inches of rain per year. More than 20 inches meant that there was no need for irrigation. White meant that the land received less than 20 inches of rain per year. Given a European diet heavy in meat and grain, the Gray areas of the land would be where you would predict that most of the agriculture would lie. The map shows an almost evenly divided country. Gray goes west from New England to the Mississippi, where it stops. From the West side of the Mississippi to California, white takes over, save for the Pacific Northwest.

Using that map, and our knowledge that it is precisely in the white areas where American agriculture is now predominantly located, you can make a prediction: the State must have a giant hand in shifting agriculture to country which is inherently inimical to it.

And so it happened. Superimpose the gray and white over our political blue and red, and you can see, too, that the white is very red. Why? Such has been the success of the state in becoming a natural part of the political landscape that it has disappeared in the consciousness of those who depend on it most. In a technical sense, you could call them freeriders, but that would not quite cover the complexity of the culture that has grown up in those vast, barbarous tracts.

One thing is for sure, though. Just as the state has fallen below the surface of the consciousness for this region, so too, has climate change. One of the funnier – as in ha ha, the end of the world is funny – things done during the Bush regime was the directing of the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency charged with managing water in the west, to pay no mind to science. Thus, the Bureau decided, to its own satisfaction, that Colorado’s river flow would perhaps increase in 2040, filling our good reservoirs up to the brink. Unfortunately, during the past eight years, the Colorado has flowed at 60 percent of its flow, in relation to the Bureau’s standard. In reality, most scientists believe we do have very good evidence for the average flow of the river, which is different than it was when back in the extraordinarily wet years of the 1910s and 1920s. So even if the flow was normal, it would be much less than the Bureau projects. But, given the fact that the amount of CO2 now in the atmosphere will lift temperatures over the next two to three hundred years to heights never seen before by humans, it is probable even that even average flow is way too much to expect. Given the rises in temperature so far, by 2100, Phoenix will have the average temperature of Death Valley, for instance. Arizona Republicans, if there are any still around in the ghost town Phoenix will surely be by then, will have a hard time twisting these facts into the pretzel logic they so love.

B-B-B-B-B-B-BOOM! We’re all gonna die!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

the society that didn't know how to fear

In Bruno Snell’s Discovery of the Mind: studies on the emergence of European thought by the Greeks, one of the chapters begins with a reference to one of the great Grimm’s tales:

“In a German fairy tale someone sets out to learn how to shudder. He is so dumb that he doesn’t know how to on his own; his father can’t do anything with him and sendS him out into the world, where, if he feels like it, he can learn to shudder. The fairy tale assumes that the normal person knows the experience of fright before the uncanny from the start and doesn’t have to learn it on his own. He would much rather wander widely around the world in order to unlearn shuddering. Fright before the uncanny has a large place in the mind of the child, before it is comfortable with the order of the surrounding world, and it governs a wide field in the notions of the primitive peoples, where it leaves its impress in religious notions. Actually he is not so dumb, this one who doesn’t know how to shudder. And that’s the opinion of the fairy tale too: the fool wins the kinng’s daughter and the enchanted treasure, because he doesn’t know how to shudder. This dumb clever boy, a cousin of Hans in Luck and the little Klaus, shows that he has his wits about him, since he does not learn to shudder by haunts and ghosts, but only when the maid pours a bucketful of fish on him in the princely bed: that is the only tactile and real thing that befell him among all the things to make one shudder – in what way does man, do people, learn to distinguish the tactile from the ghostly, where do they learn, to take nature as natural?”

Ah, the dark cunning of the Grimm’s tales! In a way, they play a role in German history similar to the role of the witch’s in Macbeth – they comment on the mindset they helped create. Snell’s book came out in 1946. Snell was one of the leading inner emigrants who, after the overthrow of Hitler, reached out to Germany’s intellectual diaspora and tried to get them to return.

In these circumstances, the boy who set out to learn fear, as it is called in English, seems all too zeitgemaesse. It is easy to see that trembling at spooks was not enough to frighten the clever stupid Hitler, who knew what Macbeth did not: that blood spilled elsewhere does not stick to your hands. One can’t even imagine Hitler in his bunker, surrounded by his ghosts, or even one ghost, one Banquo. He had truly learned not to shudder – shuddering is simply physiology, the tactile [handgreifliche] reaction, for instance, to being drenched by small fish – minnows in the story, taken from a stream by the serving maid. And so power learned to shudder to its hearts content, and separate that shuddering from fear.

But what of us who remain outside the charmed bunker, the undisclosed location?

For us, it is a more complicated story, this of the tactile and the spooky. During the cold war, one learned to fear the end of everything, for everything could be at an end at the press of a button. Of course, at the same time, the end of everything was expensive – but gladly paid for. Paid for by sums that would overwhelm the boy in the Grimm’s tale, whose sense of treasure was formed by a peasant world: it consisted of bags of gold.

But release came, and the fear was gone where fear goes to. Or so it seemed – it turned out, after 9/11, that the fear of the tactile could still easily be magnified by the fear of the spooky. And that meant that the cure for that fear was to exorcise the spooky – luckily, with distant bloodshed. Not a drop is on my hands! And not a drop is on your hands either, dear reader. Of course, drops of blood as numerous as drops of dew sprinkle Iraq, our exorcism, our way of unlearning shuddering.

But I have lingered longer than I planned to on this aspect of the way res publica learned to shudder. There is a deeper, lifestyle fear out there in the Zona at the moment. Although not just at the moment, it has been a-building since the fall of the wall. And that, of course, is fear of the future.

This is indeed a spooky fear. Because we know just what the spook in this case is – it is an entire lifestyle. It was built under Gravity’s Rainbow itself, the never to be sent up missiles; it was dedicated to total security, which, by the usual dialectical process, was the child of total vulnerability. And once the missile props were towed away, it seemed to the great and good middle class that their lifestyles, far from vulnerable, were actually natural. It seems that they had been earned. And yet, in the back of everyone’s mind was a sound. It was like one of those sounds the boy who didn’t know fear heard in the haunted castle – it was a supernatural sound. It was the sound of water draining. Infinitely draining away. For though we built up and up, and houses in suburbs arose, and boutiques in cities arose, and cars arose that were bigger than any carriage had ever been, so that we had become a force on the planet like unto a volcano, sending up our tremendous exhausts in defiance of heaven and sending seaward our tremendous plastic wastes, our fertilizers, to acidify those vasty pools in defiance of the last hundred million years of ocean ecology – we still trembled. This time the trembling was not for what the future would bring, but that there was a future at all. This, of course, has left its impress on our politics – on the one hand, small marginal groups dream of utopias that are either of universal communism or universal libertarianism, and that exclude, with disdain, the whole question of means. The question of means is, of course, the question of the future, and though these utopias are meant to broaden our imagination, to help us cast off the shackles of our ideologies, they actually function as a means of scaring off the future – they are scarecrow futures. They exist in the place of denial. On the other hand, large central groups in the developed economies will watch themselves be robbed on a titanic scale, and will watch their children, or some selected group of them, be marched off to slaughter and be slaughtered for no reason, and they will think only that they want to live another day. These central groups are not inmates of a concentration camp, or starving peasants on decimated lands – they are secretaries, firemen, academics, middle managers. They are proud that they have traveled far and wide and unlearned trembling – but, in fact, unwilling to sacrifice a crumb, unwilling to learn their own histories – which they hastily attribute to their dear selves, self made all of them, my the work they have put in, the work! they close their eyes to the fact that their properties inevitably transubstantiate into so much fear as the future is closed off. Since, of course, the future isn’t ever closed off. Not ever. They traffic in fear, they eat fear, they raise their children with a blind eye to what their children will have to live in – the future.

Yet this is a Zona truth: between the spooky and the tactile, they will be torn apart if they don’t make the future now.