Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Earthquakes Shatter

The story in the NYT starts: “The fact that Haiti was mired in dysfunction well before the earthquake, despite having received more than $5 billion in aid over about two decades…”

It is hard to get past a start that presents an act of astonishing callousness as an act of astonishing generosity. The poorest nation in the hemisphere, which was invaded by the U.S. three times over the past hundred years, received almost a gigantic 250 million per year – this is supposed to make us shake in our boots at the magnanimity of it all. The Timesmen obviously expect the Haitians to say of our astonishing generosity what the Psalmist says of the Lord, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness” – but those greedy Haitians were not satisfied and still remained poor! How can such things be.

For comparison sake, look at that gigantic amount going down the maw of Haiti with, say, cost overruns for the last decade at the Pentagon. These came in at a minimal – really, these guys are taking a haircut – a pequena, tiny tiny cost of – it is really amazing – cost of – how the Pentagon just has to squeeze these things in, run a tight ship – cost of 300 billion dollars in cost overruns. Which would mean that the ratio of cost overrun for obsolete weapons systems over the past ten years is at a ratio of about 100:1 over the foreign aid to Haiti. Or, to put it in simpler terms, every package of screws, bolts and ringers bought by the Pentagon is at the cost of one Haitian life. Oh, the price is so right! Or perhaps we could look at the cost of foreign aid to Israel since 1997, which comes to 103 billion dollars.

Now, that would be a showstopping article: “The fact that Israel was mired in dysfunction well before the siege of the Gaza Strip, despite having received more than $103 billion in aid over about 12 years…”

However, don’t hold your breath for that article to come out.

I’ve been thinking, lately, about demonic voices. I wrote about this in a post last September:

“We all know how to recognize demons. The demonic voice has one overriding characteristic: he will always use the logic of the system against its structure. Thus, when a voice demands that women play their traditional role in the home, while manipulating the economy so that the median household, just in order to stay still, must throw into the pot 350 more working hours per year – which is the difference between the median household of 1970 and the median household of today – you know you have caught a demon.”

Marx, that witch, had a thing to say about the demonic voice in the economic-philosophical manuscripts. He related what I cal the demonic element in our discourse to what he called alienation.

Don’t I obey the laws of economics when I gain money from the surrender, the sale of my body to a stranger’s lust (the factory workers in France name the prostitution of their wives and daughters the 10th hour of work, which is literally true), or am I not acting in the properly national economic way by selling my neighbor to the Morrocans (and the unmediated commerce in human beings as the trade in conscripts, etc. is found in all the ‘cultured’ lands), the economist will answer me: you aren’t transgressing my laws; but see what Mother Morality and Mother Religion say; my economic morality and religion has nothing to reproach you for, but, - but whom should I now believe, economics or morality? The morality of economics is gain, labor and savings, sobriety – but economics promises to satisfy my needs. The morality of the economy is wealth with a good conscience, virtue, etc., but how can I be virtuous when I cannot be, how can I have a good conscience when I know nothing? This is grounded in the the essence of alienation, that every sphere lays other and opposed yardsticks upon me, one for morality, one for the economy, because each is a particular alienation of humankind and each fixes a particular circle of alienated essential activity, each creates alienated relations to other alienations.”

We are ground, then, as human being between these circles. If you want to see how human beings can be ground finely like wheat into flour, read the newspaper, or listen to the tv news. That’s how it is done. An earthquake, a truly apocalyptic earthquake like that which has destroyed Port au Prince, destroys, as well, for the moment, the schizophrenia that allows us to get by, that has shaped us to get by with those circles in our head and in our circumstances.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

its delicious - made from offal and rat turds! all for you.

I have no liking for Bruce Bartlett, Reaganite and former WSJ editorial writer, but he wrinkled out the meaning of the Oregon vote:

Yesterday, the citizens of Oregon ratified a large tax increase on corporations and the wealthy. The top personal income tax rate will rise by two percentage points and the minimum tax on corporations will also rise, including a new tax even on those with no profits to report, according to a Wall Street Journalreport. According to Tax Foundation data, this would make the top rate in Oregon 13 percent

This vote is considered a bellwether because the state has previously beensupportive of tax limitation measures. Also, it appears that populist anger, which has previously been channeled toward the anti-tax tea party movement, may have the potential to swing in the other direction when people are faced with cuts in programs with wide support.

I can easily see many tea party goers becoming rabid tax-the-rich folks if the alternative is higher taxes on them. Let us not forget that just about a year ago many of the House of Representatives' most conservative members voted to impose a 90 percent tax rate on bank bonuses. As I noted at the time, those supporting this confiscatory tax measure included Eric Canter, Peter Hoekstra and Paul Ryan.
I have foreseen this development for some years and feared that once our budgetary problems forced action that sharply higher tax rates on the rich, corporations and capital in general would be the inevitable consequence. “

Unfortunately, there has been a dominant liberal discourse about why “Kansas is Republican” – why the people who theoretically benefit most from government outlays vote for the GOP – which posits that this is the primitive instinct of people who are stupidly afraid of losing their guns. Actually, this notion of the general barbarity of the populace has broad and deep roots in progressive history, which is why, at the turn of the century one hundred ten years ago, most progressive reform was about taking power away from the corrupt and giving it to the managers. In other words, you can’t trust the people.

There might well be reasons not to trust the people, but this is not because they are barbarous and don’t know how to make a simple calculation. The calculation is that you get more of an advantage in every way if you vote for tax cutters who will never really have the power or desire to cut government programs that benefit you. On the one side, you protect your guns, get lower taxes, and get your agricultural supports and your Big Pharma pills – and on the other side, you get ruled by people who think your culture and guns are shit and may not raise your taxes, but you never know – plus you get about the same level of government support. Score GOP!

When you consider the people in the sticks to be too stupid to define their own self interest – which the what’s a matter with Kansas crowd always defines in terms of money, as if the East Coast liberal would give up his culture in a heartbeat if you offered him a hundred more bucks – they understandably vote against you.

But the money is running out. It is still running out. We have been told that Ben Bernanke ‘saved us’ from the Great Depression. What that means is: by performing a prodigious slight of hand, the Fed has, for the moment, produced the illusion that the banks are solvent. It is a delusion that has resulted in big payouts to bank officials and announcement of a bumper year. But, as the guy at Rortybomb argues, because the banks aren’t writing down their massive losses doesn’t mean the masses losses disappear – rather, the game now seems to be simple predation, with the support of the government. The mortgage modification program, if it works, is a disaster, and if it doesn’t, is a disaster. The money, I have long thought, should be yanked, all of it, and a small business loan agency created from it to inject money into the system in real time in a sector that employs people right away. Those small businesses that currently owe at 10 percent could pay off with money they borrow at 2 percent – which would be a big gain – and thus regain a certain limberness, which they simply can’t afford to have at present. Since one of the most hard hit sectors among the unemployed are the 18-28 year olds, and since small businesses disproportionately employ them, this would be a win for the party that does this.

It would be a loss for the banks, however, and they would put the keebosh on it. I only float this balloon as a sort of test of the terrain, a demonstration of the no future that is our present policy.

Felix Salmon has a nice overview of Rortybomb’s point, and makes one of his own:

“Konczal also looks long and hard at the banks’ refusal to write down the principal on their loans, despite the fact that if you modify a loan so that it remains seriously underwater, you’re pretty much guaranteeing an extremely high redefault rate. After all, negative equity is pretty much the best single predictor of delinquency.

Why are the banks behaving like this? I think the obvious answer is the right one: they’re holding these loans on their books at much more than they’re really worth, and they can’t afford to take the write-downs which would accompany principal reductions of roughly the same magnitude as the decline in housing prices. This kind of head-in-the-sand behavior can only possibly work if housing prices suddenly rebound in the next couple of years, and that ain’t gonna happen.

Both the Bush and the Obama administrations tried to put together programs to deal with the banks’ toxic residential real-estate assets: the original TARP was one, the PPIP was another. Neither went anywhere, and as a result the problem is just as bad now as it’s always been. Remember that, when you look at the enormous 2009 bank bonuses, and ask yourself whether any of them will be clawed back if it turns out that last year’s profits were dwarfed by the write-downs that banks should have taken and didn’t.”

It is a puzzle how a potential 4 trillion dollar shortfall in December 2008 became all righty when fed about half of that amount by March, 2009. If these admittedly drive by analyses are right, then the smoke and mirrors act just gave us an intermission.

All of which means that the political establishment is working in such a disconnect from the political reality in the hinterlands that there are going to be changes of one kind or another. Both parties, I think, are going to tacitly converge on a solution: America’s medium income is going to have to slide down. This was the grand pact of the Reagan era, but at that time, the idea was that credit could take up the slack and the country would grow enough to carry that credit burden. I think the new grand pact will be that the country can’t really afford such a, well, extravagant middle class. What, after all, do those householders do? Whereas important people, people at the top, work hard – they play hard, but they get their rewards because they are the smartest and the best. But they are getting tired of trickling down to such losers.

If this is the new Dem-GOP pact, we’ll go into the second phase of the Reagan era. The problem will be getting the doggies to eat the dogfood, as always. I think that the political elite on both sides is sorta convinced of the stupid red state thesis – it would make sense to them, and, in their onesided understanding of the world, it would never occur to them that freeriding can be a calculated decision. Thus, there may be a lot of fluidity between the teabaggers and a left of the Oregon type. Bartlett, to his horror, might turn out to be right.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Elitism and one dimensional woman

I’ve been happy to see Nina Power’s book strike some blood, since this was what she was aiming at. Nothing is worse than missing the artery if you are trying to plunge in a needle. I’m a little less happy that the contretemps immediately got shunted onto a sideline about the issue of elitism, with Jessica Valenti attacking Power for elitism, and Power striking back to deny being tainted with that most monstrous vice.

I think it is symptomatic that as the distribution of wealth in the U.S. and the U.K. has become so monumentally unequal that it would make the slaves of Ancient Egypt gape, “elitism” has become a more common term of abuse. The same people who weep over the very idea that a man or woman who brings home the bacon to the tune of 300 million per year should have to fork over an extra 3 percent of that to the government (it is an oppression like unto throwing our successful entrepreneur into a concentration camp!) are also always ready to denounce elites. But who are these elites? Those who usually have enough cultural power to denounce a society that is so servile as to bow down before entrenched economic, gender and racial power.

Now, though I find the Power-Valenti argument off track, in one sense the question of elitism goes to the heart of Power’s attack on consumerism, which is that it offers false power, based on the reinforcement of a deeply passive attitude towards our present political, economic and cultural arrangements.

Feminism comes from many sources. One of those sources, in which Valenti operates, is accommodating to consumer society – with its affection for positive thinking. This affection has a long history in the U.S., going back, as Ann Douglas showed in Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the twenties, to the convergence of various reform movements – including women’s suffrage – and the advocates of New Thought back in the nineteenth century. Power, on the other hand, comes from another strand of feminism, which mounts a fierce attack on patriarchy as the very template of consumer capitalism. This strand has an affection for the power of the negative. Now, the latter group are and have always been in minority – and in as much as elites are, quantitatively speaking, minorities, it is easy to elide the difference, which is a difference in social power. When the term elite is detached from its relationship to power, and is simply used to paint any minority critique of the social (which must necessarily forge its own vocabulary or be enslaved by the dominant concepts of the time), we are looking at a familiar ideological routine. You don’t have to be Adorno to notice that the simplest credit card form is more ‘elitist’ in using deliberately chosen esoteric concepts to mask entrenched power than the collected works of Alain Badiou – yet the credit card form, as well as all the esoteric, everyday documents by which the middle and working class signs away its freedom, gets a free pass.

I’m reminded of the way Tom Friedman – that paragon of neo-lib pundits – uses the word democratization – as in sentences like, ‘401ks have led to a democratization of the stock market.’ What is meant is the opposite of democracy – that is, a process by which concentrated private power is augmented against the rights of the average person. No doubt, to this mindset, the forced contribution of labor by the serfs ‘democratized’ the wealth of the nobility.

In the same way, Power, by criticizing the abandonment of the attack on patriarchy, becomes an elitist. The deep contempt for the theoretical base of feminism precedes its abandonment as a radical political practice.

And so the story would end – except that it doesn’t. Valenti is right to point out that she hasn’t abandoned political practice. She actually does quite a lot of it. Myself, I’d say that Valenti is working broadly in a liberal – not neo-liberal – vein, under the aegis of ‘softening of manners” and using the state to create reforms. It is the core of the liberal hope, going back to the Scottish enlightenment. It is one thing to take up rape as an exemplary instance of patriarchal power, and another to help find the funding for counseling rape victims and work on making police departments conscious of their very often horrifying behavior vis a vis same. In 1994, when Hilary Clinton went to a feminist conference in Beijing and sounded off, one could say – I’d probably say – that this was hot air. But in fact this had a very powerful affect on third world feminist movements. In Mexico, for instance, it is after that conference that the state was forced to start taking domestic violence crimes seriously, and changed the laws – not enough, not so much that domestic violence is still taken out of the context of ‘reconciling’ husband and wife, but enough that there are now shelters, there are now laws, there are now organizations, etc. Thanks to people like Valenti, this happens.

Valenti’s hope is, I think, that there is a lot more play in the institutions of the liberal order, the order that emerged in the Cold War, to satisfy the need for gender justice. Power’s book poses two questions. One is, how much has the compromise with these institutions cost? The second question is, how much real play is left?

The quarrel arises out of Valenti’s use of ‘accessory’ to describe feminism. That’s a telling metaphor, since the manufacture of accessories, shoes, purses, clothing, have been moved out of unionized first world factories and into maquilladora in the less developed countries. The structures in the first world have adapted – but was this a ruse, a shuffle of the sites of oppression in which the game seems to change, but the same group always wins?

A writer's story - January 13, 2010

There’s a very good site that provides a pretty complete list of Haitian/Caribbean authors one should know about called ile en ile.

Hopscotching through certain of their links, I came up a story – an earthquake story – that will surely become part of the legend of what happened on January 13, 2010. One of the most famous contemporary Haitian writers is Dany Laferrièere, author of Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. And one of the most famous contemporary publishers and critics of Haitian literature, who lives in Montreal, is Rodney Saint-Élo. Both writers were in Port-au-Prince for the Etonnants Voyageurs writers conference. Both were staying at the Hotel Karibe. And they were actually having dinner together when the earthquake happened. They’ve left two separate accounts of the dinner on the web. Laferriere’s is here and Rodney Saint-Eloi’s is here. Laferriere has a sharp eye out for what my Mom, if she were alive, would probably be calling God looking out for him – by which she meant the insignificant incidences that guide one past a disaster. God is in the blindspot. The writer, especially the comic writer, suspects that God is not alone in the blindspot, and that one can’t presume on what he is thinking as he sits enthroned there. In any case, Laferriere attributes his salvation to a mango and a lobster. On the day of the earthquake, Laferriere was setting himself up in his hotel room. He’d ordered a lobster. And he was concerned to find some mangos:

We patiently waited for the writers in the great lobby of the Karibé Hotel. Some were working under the trees. One could very well eat : the cooking is excellent. A lobster (in fact, it was a langouste) that I didn’t get last time because, even if it is succulent, it is sometimes difficult to digest – especially late at night. But I love it, thus I waited for the moment to peacefully dine on the lobster-langouste. But I did what I always do every time I arrive in a city : I looked around to find out if there were any mangos and avocados. I put them in my room. The mangos perfume the room. A tropical odor. It is not yet the season for mangos, but I found some being sold on the street. A little saleswoman squatting on the sidewalk, her back to the wall. A dress folded between her thighs. The white scarf. Oh how I love the tender, animated gaze of the women of this town ! Maette Chantrell bought me the fruits : five mangos and two avocados. And I didn’t even offer him a mango. How silly, I lose my head when I see mangos.

Fruits and veggies. The feast of my childhood. I love to come back at night, turn on the tele, or place a book on my nighttable – and devour an entire avocado with bread.”

And so Laferrière comes into the restaurant to have his lobster-langouste.

I chose my lobster and he [Rodney Sainte-Eloi] a poisson gros sel. They bring us a salad and bread. Too hungry, I began to eat. Rodney sees Thomas Spear [a U.S. professor of literature] drinking a beer alone in the courtyard. He invites him to join us. We chat. I ask the waiters to speed it up, because we hardly have ten minutes, as, at 5 o’clock, they are going to come for us. We elbowed the waiters a little. Because they love me, they poked the cooks…

There was a noise that came from behind my back. Terrible. As though we were being machine gunned. I turned around. Nothing. Suddenly, I saw the cooks speed past. I told myself something must have exploded in the kitchen. It took 6 to 8 seconds to understand that this was an earthquake. We ran, Rodney and me. Thomas remained to finish his beer, he said. We returned to find him. We lay down on our stomachs in the courtyard, under the trees, besides Isabella and Agathe [members of the Etonnants Voyageurs]. In diving to the ground, Rodney scratched his knee.
Suddenly, a second shockwave. I began to be afraid, for I had the impression that this was not going to stop – not before our death. I waited for the earth to open. Someone said we ought to leave the courtyard where there were too many trees and seek shelter on the tennis courts. We went. A small shockwave.
Faces were waxy. We didn’t know where we were. A cloud of dust rose above the city. Not a cry. Total silence. Total silence. »

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Lyonel Trouillot again

I was a little sick yesterday, and I am burdened down with work. Sorry, then, for failing in my mission to translate some messages from Haiti. Again, today, this is Lyonel Trouillot, writing yesterday.

Port au Prince, the contrast of scenes and smells.

Tour of the city this morning on a motocycle taxi. With Jimmy, who is playing the role of private chauffeur. We found the gas in a station. Not too much of a fight. I expected more. As yesterday, when the neighborhood watched established by the young people distributed drinking water (not a lot, what they could find) to family representatives. Have I let myself be influenced by the people talking about looting and violence? Some injuries, some attempts to jump in line. No more. Certainly, there are city districts where things are a bit more complicated, but man is not devouring his neighbor to carry off anything he can.

In the districts at the base of town, scenes contrast with smells. Women wash down their stoops, sweep street corners. The large fallen chunks. A dedication to cleanliness, here. An odor of death, there. There are cadavers under the great crumbled buildings. I cross paths with people I know who have lost their near ones. We don’t speak of the dead. Interview with some French journalists. They admit that they haven’t seen the scenes of violence that everybody predicted. There is order to put in the discourses. There is also a will to begin again to live or rather to begin individual life and to begin a collective life. Some people speak of a library. Others of meeting responsible scholars. Others of starting benevolent associations of qualified professionals to inspect the buildings, to see which can be demolished, which can be used. I hear some people talking about agricultural products which should be encouraged and augmenting the production of them, nourishing and easy to produce.

Thinking of everything at the same time.

On the radio, too, I hear more and more pertinent and coherent talk. Some hours after the earthquake on 12 January and in the days that followed, we heard the silence of the state and sometimes disquieting and hallucinatory plans: abandoning the direction of the country to a scientific committee composed of great mystics (!), the sea which was going to wash over the totality of the land. … There begins to be more serious talk. One should not forget that 2010 is an election year, that the legislative voting should take place in some weeks, the presidential in some months. To find rational solutions. One of the major stakes here is not to let the earthquake put a brake on the democratic process. At the end of the Preval mandate, to put in place a provisional government if the elections can’t take place soon, that is a proposition that seems to have some echoes. The problem is that we have to think of everything all at the same time. One hears as well the spokesmen of the Haitian and American governments ‘clarify” that it is not a question of an occupation. This means that they have heard the muttering and understand that the majority of Haitians do not wish that the aid comes at the price of their political rights.

Return to the streets. Le Champ de Mars empties and fills. Yesterday, the trucks transported the refugees in the direction of the old ranch of Jean-Claude Duvalier (yes, he had a ranch, every man to his own little Texas). Their places have been taken. If the numerous streets seem empty, the shelters set up on the wastelands, in the clubs that dispose of a lot of land, are not filled. This city was as full as an egg, and even if people go south or north, there remains a lot of people.

The state, we always return to it.

Noon. New shocks. The flower pot near the computer shook without asking for my permission. We’ll never see an end to this. On the radio, they interview a psychologist about the sensation of constant disequilibrium, of vertigo, that many that people claim to feel. Its psychological, says the psychologist. Thanks for the information, Mr. specialist. But we need some information on the part of the state and the technicians to tell us and reassure us in indicating what attitude we should have concerning these aftershocks. Be it absent or present, it always comes down to the state.

Today, a new distribution of water in the neighborhood. This time, it was found by the pastor. I don’t support that man. Not because of his beliefs. But because of the noise of his preaching and his voice, which has a false sing song. But he brought water. And with the members of the watch, we discuss the future. We need to install things that don’t exist. Among other things, a small library. Need to include in the charter a clause on the sound limit for the radios. But we will have plenty of time to discuss this.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

have you heard? there was an earthquake...

Obviously, I write. To aid Haiti, I’ve sent money to the red cross – and hope to send more. But I write. So why not translate some of the material I am coming across in French, I said to myself.

There is a fantastic site, Balawou, that has been publishing reportage and comment since the beginning. Sometimes I get the feeling that for the Americans and the English, the earthquake in Haiti was the equivalent of one hundred thousand house flies being crushed – not the kind of news that should interrupt one’s day, or be allowed to cross one’s blog, especially if you have made an important Deleuzian analysis of Lady Gaga. I however am such an old fashioned humanist that I feel all pinched in my human parts at the hundred thousand crushed houseflies. I'm even questioning the “leftist” credentials of the important Deleuzian analysis of Lady Gaga. I must be going senile.

Anyway: Lyonel Trouillot, who if there had not been an end of the world would have had a pleasant time at the Etonnant Voyageurs writing festival in Port au Prince, scheduled for 1/14/2010 – has been warding off the insanity by posting reports. Here’s one.

"Haiti, living with Death by Lyonel Trouillot.

Port-au-Prince, Wednesday 19 January, 9 am In certain quarters, the capital is like a deserted city. Few cars, few pedestrians. Ruins. And some bold spirits who try to fossick out some objects, some souvenirs, from under the fallen debris.
Really, we no longer are looking for the living. On the ruins of the house of my friend, Georgia Nicola, coordinator of the l'Atelier Jeudi Soir, we assess, with an engineer and some workers, the scope of the disaster. What is a great disaster except the sum of a thousand small disasters! Each small disaster is in itself immense. Lives, careers. Seven days after the catastrophe, the ‘after’ begins.

I ask a laborer for news about Josué, the handy man of the quarter (guard, coiffeur...). He’s dead, he is somewhere under the ruins, some houses further down. A glance towards the ruins of the said houses. Exit Josué. A young Doberman has joined us. He seems to have chosen us as his adoptive parents. His master’s house is no doubt destroyed. The day before, our friend Valerie’s family buried her, a long time member of the atelier who directed a theater school. This occurred in another quarter, at the foot of the city. A building blocked the street, like an immense projectile, in order to strike like a whip a school, a church, and a library.

You can’t weep for so many dead at the same time. It becomes almost ridiculous. In the pile, you can’t choose. I met my friend Danice, an artist for the magazine Le Matin. He lost his wife and his two children. The editor of the magazine isn’t staying there. His wife and his three children, who came from the U.S. to spend the holidays with him, are among the victims. This fucking earthquake has not left a single soul without his allotment of deaths.

Vigilance, but also extortions.

No one without his quota of deaths, that is one of the truth at the beginning of the after. I go down to radio Kiskeya, which has begun to function since the day before yesterday. I go for news. The distribution of aid is still posing problems caused by lack of coordination. The last [?] tentatives and hopes of the rescuers to take out the last [?] survivors of the debris. The small robberies of crooks who infiltrate the ruins in the night to take a computer, a gadget or cash from out under the ruins. The reactions of the police who are acting in some parts of town, putting up surveillance, often without any nuance. Vigilance, but also extorions. Where did you find that? While you are waiting, they arrest you, you can explain it later.

Some rapes. Some cases of looting. Carrefour, Pétion-Ville, le boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines... One thing is certain, neither the police nor the population will spare the bandits. In a number of quarters, the youth have formed neighborhood watches. The security of the zone is one of the priorities. Not evil, those who take the ones who steal. People need shelter, drinking water, food. They have neither the time nor inclination to play at democracy with the thieves, rapists and murderers.

Many questions. Question about the intention of the ones and the other givers of aid. About the U.S. in particular, which now controls the airport and announces the dispatch of troops, of new troops. The government is slowly shaking off its dumbness, but it isn’t yet sufficient nor sufficiently clear to reassure, really. I return. Port-au-Prince seems to have been emptied. Those who remain sleep in the streets. Some, because their houses have been destroyed; others, because they don’t want to enter theirs. I understand. I have developed a foul fear of showers and bathrooms. Among the rumors, the rich (there is still some in this breakdown) have reservd private airplanes. For them as well, without doubt differently, the question comes up, how to live after death?"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haitians will rescue Haiti

Haitian history is shaped by racism and genocide. That history is sometimes difficult to tell, because it exists athwart a history we think we know, in which the forces of revolution are automatically identified with the history of the struggle against racism. But in the revolutions in the New World, this was not so – one of the British strategies against the Americans was to promise the slaves freedom. It was a cynical strategy, God knows, but it certainly complicates the epic idea of the American Revolution. And, as Benedict Anderson pointed out in Imagined Communities, the Spanish Court employed the same tactics:

“The Liberator Bolivar himself once opined that a Negro revolt was ‘a thousand times worse than a Spanish invasion.’ … It is instructive that one reason why Madrid made a successful come-back in Venezuala from 1814-1816 and held remote Quito until 1820 was that she won the support of slaves in the former and Indians in the latter, in the struggle against the insurgent creoles.”

Bolivar did change his mind – because Haiti gave him refuge. And so it was that Haiti sailed into the nineteenth century as a successful slave revolt state just as the forces of republicanism and a new form of racism – one that broke with the 18th century Enlightenment – began their long negotiation, their baleful synergy.

To get out ourselves from under these earthquakes took all of the last century.

It is, and must be, the work of intellectuals of good faith to remind us of these facts.
Yet these facts shouldn’t lead us to a dream of anger that is really an escape from present reality. And by present reality, I mean what is happening today, what happened yesterday, in Haiti – I mean the rescue effort that, as ought to be clear, reflects this past in its organizational soul. Sow when I read this story in the NYT, I wonder not about the racism of the twentieth century or the shock doctrine of tomorrow, but about the blindness of today, this hour, this minute.

“LÉOGÂNE, Haiti — The Marine helicopters began landing just before noon on Tuesday in a cow pasture here in this heavily damaged farming town about nine miles south of Port-au-Prince, kicking up strong winds and drawing crowds of the curious and hopeful.

About 125 Marines eventually landed here and planned to stay about 24 hours to unload initial shipments of water and food. They expected to spend the night camped out in the pasture.

The Marines passed the food they brought to the United Nations, which sent it by truck to a nearby stadium to be distributed. Corporal Sajous and other company translators filtered into the crowd to explain where the aid was going. But the message wasn’t getting out to everyone.
“Yes, they are going to give it to us,” said Son Son Maurice, 25, as he stood waiting. Asked if he was sure, he said “Yes, I am sure.”
The Marines did not leave the cow pasture on Tuesday, and what they witnessed of the damage in the area they saw from the sky as their helicopters flew in.”
Notice, again, again, notice until your eyes are bloody that this rescue treats the rescued merely as a bureaucratic problem in placement. Shall we distribute our stuff to them in X spot, or tell them to go to the stadium? Never is it a question of asking the people of Léogâne themselves to help in the distribution, to use their own wits and their own skills to set up diverse centers of rescue – to humanize those who have been shown, by the world’s plates, that it is laughable to speak of humans ‘dominating’ the world. Works of love have to be done by way of a leap of faith – that in fact human beings can love. These works of love, however, are done with such a lack of faith – such a suspicion that somewhere, someone will steal something – and such a curious unawareness that actually, the cognitive hierarchy in this situation between those who know and those who don’t puts the rescued over the rescuers – that the casualties, emotional and physical, will go up in this rescue.
I was heartened to see that certain rescuers do know this. The group lead by Paul Farmer, Partners in Health, has made it part of their mission in Haiti to use Haitians as rescuers. Farmer supposedly is close to Bill Clinton, and Clinton, frankly, is the man upon whom, at the moment, Haiti’s future really rests – depending on how vociferous he is, how much noise he makes, Haiti will swim or drown - although it has drowned and come back to life before. Drowning is how Haiti has survived.
Use your influence, Mr. Farmer.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The New Jerusalem and the old Adam: a haitian collage

"And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

10:26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?"

"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

"And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?"

"MIAMI — America has a message for the millions of Haitians left homeless and destitute by last week’s earthquake: Do not try to come to the United States.

Every day, a United States Air Force cargo plane specially equipped with radio transmitters flies for five hours over the devastated country, broadcasting news and a recorded message from Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador in Washington.

“Listen, don’t rush on boats to leave the country,” Mr. Joseph says in Creole, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon. “If you do that, we’ll all have even worse problems. Because, I’ll be honest with you: If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

10:31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

10:32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side."

"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people."

10:33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

10:34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

"Department of Homeland Security officials have also transferred 200 illegal immigrants from the Krome Service Processing Center here — a federal jail for people awaiting deportation — to make room for a possible influx of Haitian migrants.

The State Department has also been denying many seriously injured people in Port-au-Prince visas to be transferred to Miami for surgery and treatment, said Dr. William O’Neill, the dean of the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, which has erected a field hospital near the airport there.

“It’s beyond insane,” Dr. O’Neill said Saturday, having just returned to Miami from Haiti. “It’s bureaucracy at its worse.”

Customs officials have allowed a total of 23 Haitians into the United States on humanitarian grounds for medical treatment, said a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security."

10:35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

10:36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

10:37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Looting Lie

What to say?

Read this:

"A deux ruines d'ici, une équipe de sauveteurs français -venus de Nice, de Lyon et de Guyane- ausculte en vain une dalle de béton. Sous cette toiture, devenue pierre tombale, une voix de femme s'est tue. Un peu plus haut, quelques rescapés ont pris place sous un arbre. Il y là Fritzner, un agent des douanes qui a perdu aussi son épouse. Jusqu'à mercredi, Miranda répondait aux appels ; depuis, plus rien. A ses côtés, le frère cadet de Philippe. Lui garde sous sa chaise un fusil à pompe, l'arme de service de l'aîné. « Dans l'état où il est, confie-t-il, ça vaut mieux comme ça. »"

Two ruins from here, a team of french rescuers from Nice, Lyon and Guyana vainly pound on a block of cement. Under this roof, become a fallen stone, a woman's voice has fallen silent. A little higher, some escapees have take up a place under a tree. There is Fritzner, a customs agent who has also lost his spouse. Up to thursday, Miranda responded to calls; since then, nothing. At his side, the little brother of Phillipe. He keeps a pump action shotgun under his chair, the service arm of his brother. 'In the state we are in, he confides, it is better like this."

Read this.

Kathleen Tierney: Social scientists began studying disasters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A lot of this research was sponsored by the military and defense establishment, and the kinds of things they wanted to know about were related to nuclear war. They wanted to know how people would behave if Russia dropped the bomb on us—would they panic; would they engage in criminal behavior; would they engage in antisocial behavior; would they be able to pick themselves up and rebuild society? So, from the very beginning, researchers put a lot of emphasis on crime, deviance, looting—that sort of behavior—because that’s what their funders cared about. And there was a lot of field work done in disasters, where researchers go out in disaster areas and take a look at what’s happening. And what did the early research discover? If you go back to the 1950s and you look at some of those writings, a lot of it’s aboutdisaster myths—what people say happens in disasters versus what really happens. What these researchers discovered was that the media—even way back in the 1950s and 1960s—approached huge disasters with certain frames. When the media reports on disasters, they’re inevitably going to focus on the dramatic and antisocial, even if it’s one percent of the population committing these acts. And even back then, the looting myth always came to the fore of media reports.">Kathleen Tierney: Social scientists began studying disasters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A lot of this research was sponsored by the military and defense establishment, and the kinds of things they wanted to know about were related to nuclear war. They wanted to know how people would behave if Russia dropped the bomb on us—would they panic; would they engage in criminal behavior; would they engage in antisocial behavior; would they be able to pick themselves up and rebuild society? So, from the very beginning, researchers put a lot of emphasis on crime, deviance, looting—that sort of behavior—because that’s what their funders cared about. And there was a lot of field work done in disasters, where researchers go out in disaster areas and take a look at what’s happening.

And what did the early research discover?

If you go back to the 1950s and you look at some of those writings, a lot of it’s aboutdisaster myths—what people say happens in disasters versus what really happens. What these researchers discovered was that the media—even way back in the 1950s and 1960s—approached huge disasters with certain frames. When the media reports on disasters, they’re inevitably going to focus on the dramatic and antisocial, even if it’s one percent of the population committing these acts. And even back then, the looting myth always came to the fore of media reports.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

I am screaming

How many people have died in the last four days – 1,000? 10,000? Because of the lack of a rope. Or a crowbar. Or a wheelbarrow. Or a tent. Or water? What we are seeing played out in Haiti is the malign side of the action movie ideology. In this ideology, the people are ‘victims’, they are ‘helpless’, the must be ‘rescued’. This is the ideology that has created the astonishing spectacle of the U.S., the richest nation in the world, represented by the Southern Command, basically scratching its head for three days about how to get “into” Haiti.

The rescuers are already there. They are called Haitians. The inability to see them for what they are – helping hands, fonts of information and ingenuity, centers of rescue – is killing them.

Yes, Haiti, the poorest place in the Western hemisphere, will need an influx of doctors and nurses. But the labor to be done, the caring to be extended, the information about the places – down to addresses of houses in Delmas – is already there. Why is it not being used? Partly because emergency response structures simply have not taken into account the new world of communication – the internet. But mostly because a mindset, on both the left and right, insists on seeing the Haitians as victims, not rescuers. Normally, this is the kind of thesis that should go into an academic paper. But the letter now killeth. We observe, with sinking hearts, the cloud of witnesses whose witness is in vain. This is a typical message on facebook: “Olivier Dupoux is distributing drinking water to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti with 35 trucks he urgently needs DIESEL fuel !! Bring diesel to factory Rte #1Cazeau, corner of tabbar 34 01 11 12”. Did anybody hear it? We know in Jacmal, Claudy Lavaud Jules, who runs a hotel-restaurant that is still standing, has taken in a number of refugees. Has anybody contacted her? Jacmal, from all reports, has a working airport. Nothing is landing there. Why?

In crisis, all the old shit bubbles to the surface. We saw this in New Orleans. Well, there are geological strata of shit involving Sainte Domingue/Haiti that go back over the centuries of mass murder. Fine. I don’t expect this to change in the blink of an eye. But it is obvious, it is a fire crying in the sun obvious, that the refusal to take the people being ‘rescued’ seriously is murdering them.

In my tiny flyspeck of a life, I will not pretend this is not going on. I am screaming.

Friday, January 15, 2010

mangle of inequality actually sighted again! Excitement builds.

Well, it looks like economists are finally discovered what I - or my blog, Limited Inc - revealed two years ago: the housing bubble was derived from the real driver of our current collapse, increasing income and wealth inequality. What I have labelled the mangle of inequality, for it is a three sided mechanism.

Apparently, according to Alyssa Katz, this is the line of argument of University of Chicago economist, Raghuram Rajan's "upcoming book Fault Lines: “the initial causes of the breakdown were stagnant wages and rising inequality." Also see Rortybomb among my links. My first version of the mangle of inequality is here.

Here's a newsfromthezona post from February, for your dining and dancing pleasure:

Monday, February 16, 2009
I'm psyched to see that Paul Krugman is on the cusp, the very cusp, of LI's Mangle of Inequality thesis.

So I'll just quote the meat of the post here:

"The place to start, of course, is the seventies. Suddenly, after thirty years, we are starting to recognize the shift that began to occur then. Let me remind you – the shift consisted of 1., the crushing of the bargaining power of labor; 2., the de-manufacturing of America – which was partly connected to the fact that manufacturing workers were the most militant, and partly the inevitable effect of the ability of capital to find other, cheaper regions in which to place factories; and 3, the dissolving of traditional constraints on credit.

These events occurred in response to the most serious crisis in capitalism since 1945. Galbraith’s New Industrial state, the liberal Keynesian economy, had created structures that were supposed to resolve such crises. These included the management of aggregate demand by the state, the moderation of labors’ older, utopian demands for a slice of the power in return for a steadily rising paycheck, and management’s movement away from optimizing profits in exchange for lessened volatility. The Keynesian moment unwound for a number of reasons – labour, with increasingly less interest in the political dimension that originally animated unions, became much more vulnerable; the government management of aggregate demand, combined with the government dependence on War, had finally unleashed inflation; and the ROI of the Fortune 500 corporations was finally causing an investor revolt. However, of the three factors I am listing in the shift to the new, Reagonomic paradigm, one and three seem oddly disjoint. How is it possible to diminish the bargaining power of labor – which results in the stagnation of wages – and at the same time dissolve traditional constraints on consumer and other credit?

Of course, from the neo-classical point of view, that makes a lot of sense. Instead of the government actively managing aggregate demand, the private sector, with a freer credit market, can take over. And in fact, even if wages stagnate, household incomes rise. The house itself as an asset appreciates, for one thing; more investment vehicles are made available to the public, for another thing; and finally, there is the great entry of women into the labor market.

Credit, then, is the keystone. It is from this moment on that the financial services sector, which had been relatively unimportant in the Keynesian regime, returns in force. It is what I would call the mangle of inequality – playing on Andrew Pickering’s term, mangle of practice. Contemporary capitalism in America has to effect a straddle – the economy depends on consumption, and yet, the majority of the consumers engross less and less of the productivity gains accrued by the system. Freeing the financial markets had two effects – one was to re-vamp the consumer’s financial horizon. Instead of worrying about making a wage sufficient to live the good life, the consumer worries about making a wage sufficient to have a good credit history – which is the magical key to the world of cars, plasma screen tvs, houses, and all the rest. The other was to make the consumer a shareholder in the system. For simplicity’s sake, call this the 401k world – that stands at the symbolic center of a system by which the ordinary person was hooked into the market. And the market could, consequently, use vast flows of capital to keep easing credit. A virtuous feedback, so to speak.

It had another, symbolically resonant significance. The triumph of the state in the 20th century was in providing for retirement. The state successfully created, within a capitalist economy, a mass ability to finish one’s life without poverty or utter family dependence. It was the template for the structural goods that the state, in a mixed economy, could provide – when the demands of distributive justice could not be aligned with the price creating market in a good or service. Consequently, social security has earned a special hatred from the right. The American system of encouraging private investment was meant, on the surface, to complement social security, but the ultimate aim was always to replace it.

The mangle of inequality, then, was not – as in Marx’s time – a head to head confrontation between classes. It is a more complex machine, in which class interests are blent so that head to head confrontation is systematically differed. The political triumph of the system is that the blending disenfranchised populism, since it became unclear who would really benefit from populist practice."

Honest economists should be shocked by the Fed report, since it goes counter to the mainstream notion of the convergence between expanding the power of the private sphere and wealth for all - every man a king (of his own home equity loan).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Disaster and Us

For those of us who can’t take our eyes off the videos from Haiti, there is something uncanny in the fact that people are walking about without issuing deafening screams, even as they pass by collapsed buildings and corpse after corpse.

There is a long tradition that in disasters, the natural devastation is followed by human savagery - lootings, shootings. Read from this perspective, we know to expect the worst when we start reading Kleist’s short story, Earthquake in Chile. In that story, an earthquake in St. Jago, Chile occurs just before Josephe, a nun, is about to be beheaded for sacrilege. Her crime was that she conceived a child and gave birth to a son, the father of whom was Jeronimo, her former tutor.

In the confusion of the earthquake, the execution doesn't happen. The archibishop dies. The guards flee. Josephe, goes back to her convent, finds her boy, and then searches for her lover, Jeronimo, who has miraculously survived the collapse of his prison. As the next day dawns, the couple find themselves in the midst of refugees who are busy helping each other. They welcome Josephe, Jeronimo and the baby. Then one of them says that at the only church that had been spared, a mass was going to be said, and all agreed to go there. Josephe and Jeronimo at this point are thinking that they will beg for mercy from the viceroy and surely be spared, along with their child. In the church, the canon preaches a sermon that builds to a crescendo of blame, in which the earthquake figures as a punishment for the sinfulness of St. Jago, like the devastation wrought upon Sodom and Gommora. In the exaltation and rage of the crowd, Josephe is recognized and surrounded, and so is a man who is taken for the father – until Jeronimo cries that he is the father. Then he, Jeronimo, and Josephe are surrounded and clubbed to death.

A careless reading of this story would be that man is beast to man. Kleist, in reaction to the French Revolution, is warning us against mob violence. A more careful reading would distinguish between the crowd of refugees with whom Jeronimo and Josephe mingle and the crowd in the church. The difference is, in the church, the structure of organized power – the power that had run St. Jago – asserts itself again.

Rebecca Solint’s last book was about this very topic – the strange discrepancy between the government and media portrayal of disasters – as crises that require eminent force – and the reality of the testimony of disasters.

“We should not be surprised, then, that what transpires in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is nothing like the popular version. People rarely panic or stampede, nor do they often immediately engage in looting or other acts of opportunism. The Scottish-born mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who witnessed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, saw “no running around the streets, or shrieking, or anything of that sort” but instead people who “walked calmly from place to place, and watched the fire with almost indifference, and then with jokes, that were not forced either, but wholly spontaneous.” Another survivor, San Francisco editor Charles B. Sedgwick, noted-perhaps somewhat hyperbolically-that “even the selfish, the sordid and the greedy became transformed that day-and, indeed, throughout that trying period-and true humanity reigned.” This phenomenon of “surprising” human kindness and good sense is replicated time and again.”

Solint’s Harper essay was published just before Katrina hit. Of the reasons I have to curse and forget the 00s, Katrina is as important as Iraq – in that it revealed what I believed, intellectually, but not in my heart. Intellectually, I’ve always known that the poor – which would include myself – are shit in the U.S. But in my heart, I have never really thought that. Watching the film, shown over and over again, of the guys on Claiborne taking out a drug store (that, in the eighties, was my drug store, when I lived in that neighborhood), I could only absolutely identify with them.

I had come South, from New Haven, in 1998 with the intent to live in New Orleans again – that was my original plan, and I merely fucked up by marooning myself in Austin. In 1995, if I had gone through with my original plan, I might well be one of the corpses of Katrina. No transportation out, a minimal amount of money, no place to stay and no person to take me in – of such are the victims made. That's me. It tore something in me to see the condemnation pour in upon the 'black hoodlums" as the country let NOLA sink into the water.

A more heartbreaking image than that of the bushwacking of an empty drug store came from Michael Lewis’ Wading Towards Home, perhaps one of his best essays. Lewis came from one of the aristocratic families, the ones whose relics amaze the tourists riding the streetcar down St. Charles. Back in the 80s, I lived for a while in the Audubon neighborhood, in a mansion that you can see, if you care to look, in a shot in the movie Cat People. Lewis’ family lived in Uptown, and Lewis discovered – and probably was not too surprised by the fact – that most of Uptown was dry when he drove into New Orleans three days after the supposed blockade. Everybody knows Uptown is higher than the rest of the City. And this is the info Lewis came in with:

”Beyond Uptown, here is what I knew, or thought I knew: Orleans Parish prison had been seized by the inmates, who also controlled the armory. Prisoners in their orange uniforms had been spotted outside, roaming around the tilapia ponds - there's a fish farm next to the prison - and whatever that meant, it sounded ominous: I mean, if they were getting into the tilapias, who knew what else they might do? Gangs of young black men were raging through the Garden District, moving toward my parents' house, shooting white people. Armed young black men, on Wednesday, had taken over Uptown Children's Hospital, just six blocks away, and shot patients and doctors. Others had stolen a forklift and carted out the entire contents of a Rite Aid and then removed the whole front of an Ace Hardware store farther uptown, on Oak Street. Most shocking of all, because of its incongruity, was the news that looters had broken into Perlis, the Uptown New Orleans clothing store, and picked the place clean of alligator belts, polo shirts with little crawfish on them and tuxedos most often rented by white kids for debutante parties and the Squires' Ball.”

What he found, of course, was that this was all wrong. Not only all wrong, but pathetically wrong. I still cry reading this paragraph:

“The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.”

This is Solnit, about what is revealed by disaster:

“The days after 9/11 constituted a tremendous national opening, as if a door had been unlocked. The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real change often emerges. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, buildings, and property but also the status quo. Disaster recovery is not just a rescue of the needy but also a scramble for power and legitimacy, one that the status quo usually-but not always-wins. The Bush Administration's response after 9/11 was a desperate and extreme version of this race to extinguish too vital a civil society and reestablish the authority that claims it alone can do what civil society has just done-and, alas, an extremely successful one. For the administration, the crisis wasn't primarily one of death and destruction but one of power. The door had been opened and an anxious administration hastened to slam it shut.
You can see the grounds for that anxiety in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which was the beginning of the end for the one-party rule of the PRI over Mexico. The earthquake, measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, hit Mexico City early on the morning of September 19 and devastated the central city, the symbolic heart of the nation. An aftershock nearly as large hit the next evening. About ten thousand people died, and as many as a quarter of a million became homeless.
The initial response made it clear that the government cared a lot more about the material city of buildings and wealth than the social city of human beings. In one notorious case, local sweatshop owners paid the police to salvage equipment from their destroyed factories. No effort was made to search for survivors or retrieve the corpses of the night-shift seamstresses. It was as though the earthquake had ripped away a veil concealing the corruption and callousness of the government. International rescue teams were rebuffed, aid money was spent on other programs, supplies were stolen by the police and army, and, in the end, a huge population of the displaced poor was obliged to go on living in tents for many years.”

We will see which narrative prevails in Haiti. Look, though, for signs of the better angels of our nature.


There's only one thing to say about today's news: give to the haitian relief fund of your choice, please.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Notes on the gnostic historian

There is a certain kind of skepticism that nests like an ominous crow in the branches of cultural relativism. It is aimed at all the myths and motifs that are used in the hegemonic strata of Western intellectual life – or, taking the nuts and bolts out of my mouth, by orthodoxy, by everything that cultural relativism, since Herder, has sought to take down – Western superiority, a narrow sense of reason, a vulgar notion of progress, all of it. Thus, in the sixties and seventies, when cultural relativism was particularly strong, there were a number of claims that such diverse social phenomena as the practice of cannibalism or the Mafia or European witchcraft were myths. They didn’t exist. There are powerful reasons to take this point of view, as almost always, the existence of the phenomena in question legitimate various forms of repression by established power.

Those reasons, for those who lived in the twentieth century, fell out of the sky, and sent the trains to the barbed wire camps, all as ‘defensive measures’ against an all powerful, and as we know, mythical enemy. Given this disastrous history, given these non-existent enemy others who were glued to the bodies of millions and incinerated in the furnaces, certain historians – notably Norman Cohn, whose The Pursuit of the Millenium is one of the great books in my life – looked back and traced the pattern of fake conspiracies and fictitious entities in Western life back to the Roman era. In a sense, this was a sort of anti-gnostic history.

The insight here is that the powers that be create magic narratives of danger and threat, that they have magic mirrors on the wall, behind which they operate the switches and buttons, also goes back a long way – back to Machiavelli at least, or perhaps to Gyges. In King Lear, the disabused, perfect Machiavellian, Edmund, a bastard and thus by birth an outlaw, confects, out of little hints, Edgar’s plan to take his father Gloucester’s life. His lucidity – which dissolves all traditional bonds (such as the difference between legitimacy and bastardy) and superstitions, such as the connection of the earth to the stars, is the background against which we see him commit his treacheries with the comic glee of one of Shakespeare’s minor hitmen, those spawn of fairground puppet devils:

“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit
of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! My
father compounded with my mother under the
dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing. Edgar--
And pat he comes like the catastrophe of the old
comedy: my cue is villanous melancholy, with a
sigh like Tom o' Bedlam. “

This view of power as manipulated by an absolutely skeptical consciousness that has, as a preliminary to its move, dissolved all pacts with the stars, all differences of birth, has leveled the world to its bare bones and yet – the inexplicable last undissolved illusion – wants to rule over those bones is itself the kind of thing that should prompt our skepticism. Granting that moral panics can be generated in much the way that a movie director can generate a windy scene – using machines that the camera never films – we imagine that those who claim that these fictitious conspiracies and organizations – the Jew, the Witch, the Trotskyite – exist, and work their subterranean evil everywhere, are totally aware of the off-camera machinery. Surely the potter knows his pots. This view, however, is mystifying in its own way. We can find real equivalents for the theatrical cynicism of an Edmund in our history – we can cull statements from Goebbels, Stalin, Mussolini, etc, and take them as sudden illuminations of the arcana imperii – but in doing so, we mirror the tendency we are fighting against, we endow our creatures with a consciousness that has no unconscious, that is impervious to its own mythmaking, that is all machine and no ghost.

I find this interesting because I have come to think of the book I’m writing, the Human Limit, as a Gnostic history. But looking up the current literature on Gnostics, I find a strong current in the scholarship that want to brush the very concept out of our history like a dusty cobweb. Karen King, in What is Gnosticism, my guide to the current scholarship, comes dangerously close to this position. It is understandable in some ways. When you read the exegetes, busy dissolving the texts, it is a wonder and an astonishment. Some postulate a complexity to the making of the texts at Nag Hammadi that would make a a particle physicist proud. Often, the assumptions seem a little, well, non-empirical. I’ve read some of the scholarship about the Gospel of Thomas which takes the fact that it contains ‘doublets”, or passages that repeat each other, as proof that it must have been compiled by many writers. Obviously, these scholars should ask an editor – such as moi – since it is rare that I edit a lengthy manuscript that doesn’t contain doublets.

King does one very good thing, and attempts to disentangle gnosticism from heresy. As the Gnostics were mainly known from the denunciation of them by various hepped up church fathers, it is hard not to think of them through that lens – a lens that seems all their writings as motivated by reaction to orthodoxy. In fact, when we go back early enough, there is no reason to think that orthodoxy is a very good description for what is going on in the spread of the Jesus cult – and its taking into itself other floating notions about salvation – changing one’s life – in the Eastern Mediterranean.

So, what did the Gnostics think, anyhow? One persistent motif has to do with a certain dualism vis-à-vis creation. The world, in this framework, was created by a lesser god, the child of Sophia. Not necessarily an evil one – but certainly lesser, and certainly not all knowing. He doesn’t quite know what he is doing. Lovely Eve discovers this when the helpful serpent suggests eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, which was not a sin – but the first revelation. This gives us the Gnostic historian’s equipment – a suspicion about the framework of matter or appearance, the notion that the fundamental elements are the hidden and the plain, the secret and the truth, sides – in other words, the jagged sense that the world isn’t finished and the glorious delusion that what will finish the world is one’s history of it. The demiurge, for the cool Gnostic, is authority in all its helplessness – weaving violence out of its vulnerability. The Gnostic historian proceeds with a film noir sense of the world, in which the femme fatale is actually Sophia’s embodiment here on earth.

Stevan Davies, in an article about the Gospel of Thomas (1983), made a case for it as a fifth gospel. It is a striking text, in that it takes the important thing about Jesus to be what he said. This way of understanding Jesus has, of course, been displaced – it seems to us that there is no contradiction between the Church being a defender of the family and the son of God that this church worships, even though Jesus is much more scathingly anti-family than, say, Rimbaud – there is no giving and receiving of wives and husbands in the Kingdom, and “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple.” This contempt for the family exhibited in Jesus’ every recorded gesture is simply not considered important. It was, however, before the cult erased the person, and the Gospel of Thomas, while lacking any real sense that the important thing about Jesus was that he was resurrected, is full of the sense that the new life begins by breaking utterly with the old rules.

How to think about these things?

“Thomas preserves at least two parables which almost certainly come from Jesus but which exist in a kind of pre-church purity. They allow one, in all likelihood, to hear Jesus without the whispers of centuries encouraging particular interpretations. Here is 97:

Jesus said, the Kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman who was carrying a jar which was full of meal. While she was walking on a distant road, the handle of the jar broke, the meal spilled out behind her onto the road. She did not know; she was not aware of the accident. After she came to her house, she put the jar down; she found it empty.”

The jar – which she didn’t notice – the crumbs in the road – the empty container. The Gnostic historian is like that woman whose things have slowly trickled away from her, every step she takes, leaving a trail behind her for the birds of the air to eat – all of this without her knowing it. Lose everything.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

some thoughts about creepiness

I had lunch with my friend M. the other day, who mentioned Hermann Asperger’s original essay on Autistic children. M. was trying to get a copy of this essay, translated by Uda Frith into English, and frustrated that he couldn’t find one – and not at all willing to fork over the 70 bucks needed to buy the book it is within.

I looked it up on Google books, which reveals considerable parts of it – especially the case study of Helmutt, the Ur-Asperger’s child. Asperger described Hellmut as being oddly unaffected by exterior stimulus, and, in contrast, driven by interior stimulae. Thus, he’d suddenly bash someone for no reason, or he would suddenly throw things around in the classroom. Moreover, his gaze was turned inward.

Asperger gave the six year old boy some tests – naturlich – to discover his level of intelligence. One of the tests was to ask about the similarities and differences of different things. I simply can’t express how much I loved Helmutt’s response to the ‘item’, wood and glass: ‘because the glass is more glassy and the wood is more woody”.

Shades of Shklovsky! And the famous formalist motto, to make the stone more stony!

Asperger’s has become a fashionable syndrome, as we all know. I don’t want to suggest that Mann’s Adrian Leverkuehn is an Asperger’s case - but I do want to suggest that there is a certain autistic strain in German lit, which comes out as a mastery of the “creepy.” In Adrian’s case, this one side of his character - his creepiness, his isolation – is what the narrator so wants to protect, and so exposes in his ‘biography.’ Adrian suffers from his one, his only sexual encounter with a woman – who, with a typically autistic single mindedness, was the one woman in the one brothel he went to – sent there as a practical joke by a taxi driver – who touches him on the shoulder. He smell her perfume. That is it – he flees the brother without ever having sex with any of the girls – but eventually, after a year, returns to find the girl who had touched his shoulder. She has left, gone to another town, and Adrian tracks her down. There she tells him that she has a venereal disease, but he has sex with her anyway. His first and last. His first and last syphilitic infection, too. Before the cure for syphilis, there were multitudinous ‘cures’, all false. And by grace of the mysteries of the immune system, one could either live with a low grade infection, or the disease could attack decades later – paralysis, madness, death. Baudelaire, who caught syphilis in his twenties, finally figured out that the doctors hadn’t cured him – figured out he was maudit in actual and gross physical fact – by his late thirties. He knew where he was headed.

To get back to the creepiness – in Adrian’s nearly unsullied virginity, he – or is it the disease? – becomes obsessed with the Little Mermaid. Der kleine Seejungfrau – provides a bizarrely appropriate motif of horror which contrasts, in the writing of the book, with the time of the writing – that is, the time of the destruction of German cities through the bombing campaign, and the destruction of Europe through the Nazis.

Adrian dreams not only of the little mermaid – who exchanges her bottom part, that fish tail – that androgyny – for human bottom parts, with which she could walk in the world outside of the ocean – but only at a price. Every step brings excrutiating pain, as though red hot needles are being driven into her bare feet.

Of course, as is well know, Mann was extremely bi-sexual. The narrator, Zeitblom expresses his homoerotic feelings for Adrian by wishing to ‘unfuck’ him – that negation of the fuck that, as any of us dimestore Freudians can tell you, is the equivalent of fucking in the unconscious. Adrian knows this too, on some level – hence his choice of Zeitblom to confess, in a letter, his accidental visit to the brothel. The mermaid’s loss of a tail and her possession of a human lower part is a movement from the realm of the unfucked, the embryotic, to the realm of the fucked, perchased with pain at every step. That pain is hobbling, and slows walk to a creep – the creep of the creepy.

Can a whole culture fall into a state of autism? Can its collective dreams converge on the image of the mermaid, losing her tail and walking, with infinite pain, into a barbed wire camp?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Humanism, degree zero.

In Vladislav Zubok’s Zhivago’s children, a study of the post-Stalinist intelligentsia, there is a fascinating passage about the effect of Stalin’s purges: “Other university level institutions of higher-learning were re-created in the 1930s as workshops for educated Soviet elites. Yet those elites – the Bolshevik vanguard… - perished in the dungeons of the secret police, in the camps of the gulag, and in mass graves on execution fields. That great bloodletting deprived the revolutionary and Soviet past of its heros and replaced them all with the towering effigy of the Great Leader, Stalin…Most of the survivors of the terror at universities and other cultural institutions were, paradoxically, the professors who did not share the communist idealism. They, who had instead been brought up in the nineteenth century tradition of liberalism and humanism, could not help passing onto their students their manners, habits, ethical standards and aesthetic standards – while keeping their political views to themselves.”

I find this utterly fascinating. I am not, in my old age, afflicted with cancred roots, Spanish moss, or a gauzy picture of humanism. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about Thomas Mann lately. In 1919, he writes his Reflections of a Non-political man, and – in effect – seems to align himself with the conservative revolution. He’d broken with his brother over the war, which he celebrated, and was receiving strokes from people like Spengler. In 1922, he gives his speech on Tolstoi and Goethe, and ends on an odd note in which Tolstoi is associated with the Asiatic, and Goethe is the spirit of Deutschland – which means “refinement, ennoblement and the humanization of the natural – not rational-radical de-naturalisation. It will not be Asiatic and wild, but European, which means gifted with a sense for division, order, measure, and bourgeois in the oldest, most worthy, medieval-german sense…” And, Mann mentions, as well, the “youth” – the youth that had, for instance, murdered Rosa Luxemberg, although he doesn’t mention that: ‘Western humanistic liberalism, politically speak, democracy, has some ground with us, but not all the ground. It is not the worst part of Germany’s youth who, before the decision, Rome or Moscow, opt for Moscow. At the same time these youth err not to say that not Rome, and not Moscow has the answer, but: Germany.”

However, as Mann scholars point out, from the time in which Mann’s essay is published in the Neue Rundschau to the time in which Mann expanded and redacted it as a much longer essay, the emphasis, the tone, the nuance – and Mann is a master of nuance, he lives for his nuances, his sentences are as full of feints as a good pitcher is full of curve balls and changes of pace, what he lives for is the insight that dazzles slowly, ever so slowly – had changed. Terence Reed in Thomas Mann, the uses of tradition, tracks some of the changes in the essay, and in particular this one:

“It is not the moment for Germany to conduct itself anti-humanistically, to take Tolstoi’s pedagogical Bolshevism as a model… On the contrary it is the moment to emphasize our great humane traditions emphatically and proudly, not only for their own sake, but also to visibly show that the claims of “latin civilization’ are unjustified.”

The story is that Mann finally understood the flow of the conservative revolution – understood that he had walked too far out, so to speak, into that ocean. And he could feel that the currents were steadily sucking away at all the aesthetic principles he held dear – as well as destroying the bourgeois – or really, buergerlich - attitude that he had defended so fiercely in the Reflections.

And the current goes out, and the current goes out. To think of the artists, the poets, the filmmakers who had answered the call in the twenties in the Soviet Union – who had, as it were, stepped on the throat of their own song, not that they knew it. Mann, long afterwards, in Hollywood, at the end of the war in which, as he was well aware, the country he was living in had bombed into rubbish the entire history of the buergerliche culture – presents a scene in Doctor Faustus in which Adrian Leverkuehn is uncharacteristically philosophical. He has just seen the performance of his Gesta, and in the after performance excitement, explaining why this work was not so… austere, intellectual, unintelligible to the masses, he says: “Funny, isn’t if, how for a long time music saw itself as a means of redemption, and all the while, like all art, it needed redemption, that is, it needed to be redeemed from a solemn isolation that was the fruit of culture’s emancipation, of the elevation of culture to an ersatz religion – needed to be redeemed from being left alone with a cultured elite, known as the ‘audience’, which will soon no longer exist, which already no longer exists, so that art will soon be all alone, alone to fade away and die, unless, that is, it should find a way to the volk, or to put it un-romantically, to human beings?”

A cry from the heart – except that Adrian’s biographer is not at all pleased by this surrender, this fear of art’s solitude, this retreat to the ‘volk’, to ‘human beings’. It is here that the curious dialectic of humanism as Mann saw it takes a turn – a much more radical turn than that of, say, Heidegger, who for all his anti-humanism had decided, with disastrous – or, in Heidegger’s case, farcical effect – to find a way to the volk.

And that moment – well, I savor that moment in Mann. That humanist contempt for the ‘human being’ as presented by a popularist anti-humanism – that ability to embrace, if necessary, any solitude. That icy, icy clasp, those fingers around my heart.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

sound as an acid flashback

When I was a lad, I stockpiled a bunch of songs in my memory. I didn’t consciously do this – I didn’t plan on doing this – but here I am, some thirty five years later, with a head full of Dylan, Beatles, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen songs.

I don’t really listen that much to these singers anymore. Every year, I find myself listening to different singers, and I take a very satirical view of people who go to see the ‘return tour’ of their favorite rock n roll singers, since I think the spectacle of a sixty year old singing a song he made famous at twenty four, when he was full of jism and cockiness, in front of a crowd of homeowners with their hands in the air like they just don’t care, is funny. Although, in truth, the singers I liked best back then have written songs that register their age, just like the great blues singers did. Before they died, I saw both Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, who were certainly and bluntly old. Age is an opportunity for the great songwriter or poet, to state the obvious. But the crowd of handwavers want to re-live the hits – as the radio incessantly intones. O well - in my own decay I descry the decay of the whole frame of the world. But I do sing the songs I learned when I was a kid. When I am on my bike, or when I am putzing around my apartment, I sing these songs. When I was a young guy and rode a motorcycle to my job in a hardware store in Shreveport, I was nicknamed something like “rock star” because I always came in the door finishing up the song I’d been singing as I rode my motorcycle. As you can tell, my fellow workers at the hardware store were full of clever jibes.

All of this is the necessary background and prelude to the gift I got this Christmas from my brother Doug. It came in a box, without instructions, and I admit that I stared at it for a day, not knowing exactly what it was. It said it was an mp3 player, but when I turned it on I couldn’t seem to get it to work. Luckily, a friend came over and kindly pointed out that (ahem) the little screen was still covered with the protective plastic wrap. Once I peeled that off, low and behold, I could actually see a menu, which was the first step in my corruption.

It was the day after Christmas that I attached the earbuds, which are just pillshaped black pills – which seemed to lack the extruding part that fits into the earhole, as maybe that part is now considered bad for your health, I presume because the eardrum cannot endure too much reality sticking its snout in there – anyway, I put them in, then screwed them a little tighter as they seemed to want to fall out, and mounted my bike. And then a wondrous thing happened. My ears filled with Atlas Sound’s Quick Canal – which, by some accident, turned out to be just the kind of music earbuds were made for – and I had an intense aural experience within the capsule of myself, apart from the main of various cars booming and buzzing around me. The only thing I can compare that to was the first time I did mushrooms, when, after a little nausea, suddenly the same encapsulated feeling came over me. I was both entirely in the world of my senses and entirely immune from the world’s cause and effect junk, its tedious way of making you take all your steps to get to your destiny. That junk wears you down.

But this music that was simply filling me and my space – it whisked me away from the junkheap. I seemed to be at a very pleasant distance from what I was doing – pumping up and down on the pedals. It seemed unlikely to me that, say, if I swerved out into the street in front of an oncoming vehicle, anything major would happen. The vehicle would surely go right through me, the way a car can run right over a mirage of a puddle that shimmers before it on a hot road on a hot summer day – without a splash, and without disturbing the mirage’s cohesion. I was non-water.

Of course, I knew right away that this wasn’t going to last. That the more I listened to music on the buds, the more it would become routine, and the junk of the world would creep in. And I also knew that other people, most people, had been listening to music like this for years – all the walkman’s, the ipods, the mp3 players. I was like a man returning to civilization from a long walkabout. It was, however, new, and enormously exciting, to me – this juxtaposition of familiar scenery and my own soundtrack.

This was all the more spectacular for me in that, last year, after having had a severe case of swimmer’s ear, I became aware that the natural soundtrack - cars going by, people’s voices, wind, etc. – was in fact easy to disturb. For two weeks, I had heard it backwards and sideways – I heard the sound of cars going by me as this cross between a large gushing sound and a large sucking sound. I had seen people’s mouths move while their voices occurred behind my head. I’d become aware of myself in the picture – hyperaware that nature was an effect of instant editing.

As it should be, I think – I, who make my money by editing. In the beginning – in my cosmos – God said, let us edit.