Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Please Please Me

In "Too much Alinsky, not enough Lenin", a post commenting on the influence of Saul Alinsky on the American left, as observed in the context of last week's student walkout at UC-Berkeley, Voyou writes about the left's dysfunctional attitude towards power:
This confused me when I first moved to the US; looking for the left in the Bay Area it seems at first like there’s no there there. The general left-wing sentiment in the area doesn’t seem to be matched by the existence of left-wing organizations. It turns out that that’s not quite right; it’s just that these organizations aren’t political organizations but are, rather, community organizations and non-profits. Some of these have radical rhetoric and a revolutionary pedigree, but they all share the weakness of the Alinskian (non-)understanding of power, where power is not conceived of as something that could be appropriated collectively and used creatively to common ends, but where power is something someone else (the state) has, and the limit of collective action is to force concessions from those who do hold power.
I particularly like that last sentence: the limit of collective action is to force concession from those who do hold power. It's true, isn't it? Power exists out there, and our responsibility, at best, is to force concessions. But even that's a bit strong--we don't force concessions, we ask, we beg, we beseech. Witness the spectacle of liberals, prominent or otherwise, writing open letters, or blog posts, addressed to Obama--please close Guantanamo, please end the occupation of Iraq, please take time to consider single payer healthcare, please keep your promises, please fulfill our hopes and dreams, please please listen to us!

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Noted: Maurice Blanchot

From "Dreaming, Writing", in Friendship:
Let us in turn dream about the supposed kinship between dreaming and writing--I will not say speech. Certainly, the one who awakens experiences a curious desire to talk about himself; he is immediately in search of a morning auditor whom he would like to have participate in the wonders he has lived through and is sometimes a little surprised that this auditor is not filled with wonder as he is. There are dark exceptions--there are fatal dreams--but for the most part we are happy with our dreams, we are proud of them; we have a naive pride befitting authors, certain as we are that we have created original works in our dreams, even if we refuse to claim any part in them. One must nonetheless ask oneself if such a work truly seeks to become public, if every dream seeks to be told, even while veiling itself. In Sumerian antiquity, one was advised to recount, to recite one's dreams. This was in order to release their magical power as quickly as possible. Recounting one's dreams was the best way to escape their bad consequences; or one might decide to inscribe their characteristic signs on a slab of clay, which one then threw into the water: the slab of clay prefigured the book; the water, the public. The wisdom of Islam nonetheless seems more reliable, which advises the dreamer to choose carefully the one in whom he will confide, and even to keep his secret rather than give it away at the wrong moment: "The dream," it is said, "belongs to the first interpreter; you should tell it only in secret, just as it was given to you....And tell no one your bad dream."

We recount our dreams out of an obscure need: to make them more real by living with someone else the singularity that belongs to them and that would seem to address them to one person alone; and further still, to appropriate them, establishing ourselves, through a common speech, not only as master of the dream but also as its principal actor and thus decisively taking hold of this similar, though eccentric, being that was us during the night.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

The Masters of Suspicion

Earlier this week I read Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, a book I was supposed to have read in college, but reading it now, it seems unlikely that I ever did. (I recall having used a lame version of one of his arguments in a paper I wrote. One wonders how I managed even that. I can only have been regurgitating the instructor's gloss.) Anyway, as with Nietzsche, I find reading Freud enjoyable, if frustrating. It's generally a real pleasure following his line of reasoning, but, also as with Nietzsche, I have a hard time taking seriously many of his specific conclusions. For one thing, of course, Freud's point of view was hopelessly male-centric, no minor detail; this stance probably led to many, if not most, of the arguments that I find problematic in what I've read. With both Nietzsche and Freud, it is especially their speculations on the "origins" of things that I find most difficult to take seriously, though they are often brilliantly argued.

In this focus on origins, I am reminded again of Gabriel Josipovici's great On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion. In the early pages of the book, Josipovici employs the language of Paul Ricoeur, who called Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx the "masters of suspicion", their work a "hermeneutics of suspicion". As Josipovici puts it, these writers
revealed that what we had taken to be natural, a 'given', was in fact man-made, the result of choices and decisions made by individuals and communities. Thus Marx laid bare the workings of capital, Nietzsche the workings of morality, Freud the workings of sexuality. Where the Enlightenment had seen all men as essentially one, and human nature as unchanging, the nineteenth-century masters of suspicion set about exploring the genealogies, the secret histories, of morals and social institutions, with the aim of freeing men from bonds to which they did not even know they were subject.
Nietzsche noted that, though men had (so it apparently seemed to him) largely abandoned Christianity, they "are a long way from being free spirits, because they still believe in truth" and "Any meaning is better than none". But for him, "inquiry [the search for truth] itself stands in need of justification". Josipovici uses these Nietzsche remarks as his springboard into his larger discussion, moving onto, first, Kierkegaard and, more generally, the problems for the writer posed by the crisis of modernity. Interestingly, of the three "masters of suspicion", it is Marx who emerges as the most accurate in his "laying bare" project. All three are still valuable thinkers, since the value of a thinker resides not completely in the accuracy of the conclusions reached, and, indeed, simply arguing persuasively that what had seemed natural was not has liberated other thinkers investigating the same areas. But Marx is the only one of the three whose particular conclusions remain relevant (I'm talking analysis here, not prognostication).

Returning to the matter of origins, an important factor in my having difficulty with the arguments on the origins of things made by Freud or Nietzsche has to do with my familiarity with the work of Chris Knight, which I have referred to several times on the blog, at some length here. One thing that Knight shows, in his application of feminist insights and "selfish gene" theory to the extensive anthropological record, is how right it appears that Marx and Engels were in their writings about the origins of things. Nietzsche and Freud seem to assume a Hobbesian state of nature when they consider such matters; thus, for example, Freud's focus on the so-called "aggressiveness" instinct, which must be repressed into aggression against one's own ego, against the instinct for primal freedom, itself necessarily suppressed by "civilization". Such accounts seem to bypass the emergence of language and culture, assuming that in our original human moment we would have necessarily been much like the other primates, when it's the very differences between humans and other primates that must be explained when one is attempting to explain human nature. Thus one must take into account language. Knight's theory of the sex strike, which puts female humans at the forefront of this process, would no doubt have been anathema to Freud, who, quite aside from his theories on women and sexuality, like Nietzsche, sees men at the origin, with women relegated to child-bearing and child-rearing. That these natural processes might be crucial to any understanding of human nature and origins is, for them, necessarily a priori out of the question.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Noted: Alfred North Whitehead

From "The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline", in The Aims of Education:
We must take it as an unavoidable fact, that God has so made the world that there are more topics desirable for knowledge than any one person can possibly acquire. It is hopeless to approach the problem by the way of the enumeration of subjects which every one ought to have mastered. There are too many of them, all with excellent title-deeds. Perhaps, after all, this plethora of material is fortunate; for the world is made interesting by a delightful ignorance of important truths.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Nader and Progressivism

Over at Read Red, Shelley Ettinger points, with deserved scorn, to the release of a novel by Ralph Nader, of all people, called Only the Super-rich Can Save Us! Apparently, the idea is to explore in fiction "what could happen if 17 billionaires and super-rich people" take on "the existing business power bloc and the politicians in Washington who serve it". Shelley says:
The spectacle of such a bizarre, twisted delusion being promulgated by someone who used to present himself as a fighter for progressive change might strike some as sad. It ought in any case to expose him once and for all as no legitimate leader in the cause of the class struggle.
Sadly, given the urgency of the problems facing us and the general disarray of the left, it's possible that it's true that we could only be saved by the actions of an imaginary small group of benevolent rich people. But it's still delusional.

This gives me an excuse to expand on my remarks from earlier in the week. I think Nader had revealed that he was no real leader, without the aid of any delusional novel, in the way he conducted his last two presidential campaigns. I voted for him without apology in 2000 because he seemed to be part of something larger, and the idea, however limited, was to expand the base, to be part of building a real movement against the stagnant two-party oligarchy (funding for third parties being part of that). I remember there was real excitement in the air. I voted for him again in 2004, this time without much enthusiasm. I didn't like his campaign that year, divorced as it was from any kind of wider movement, though I also did not appreciate the attacks by liberals unfairly and inaccurately blaming him for the considerable evils of the Bush Administration (liberals seemed uninterested in the truth about the stolen 2000 election; it's always more important to defend the system). The Kerry campaign was simply a joke.

As I mentioned, I voted for Obama last year, under no illusions about who or what he would be. And I could not justify another Nader vote, in part because I increasingly feel that he misses "the bigger picture". What I mean is this. Contrary to what Shelley says in the quote above, I do believe Nader is a progressive. That's part of the problem. Progressivism is intimately tied to the fortunes and methods of the capitalist state. I've referred here on several occasions to the "so-called Progressive Era", citing Gabriel Kolko's excellent history of the period, The Triumph of Conservatism, in support of the idea that, far from being this golden period of left-wing victories (though there were some victories, to be sure), in fact the era consolidated and strengthened the hand of the capitalists, the smartest among whom themselves argued for and largely created the extensive regulatory apparatus that was necessary to protect capitalists from the free market. But, in fact, my smarty-pants use of "so-called" is unwarranted, because this is exactly what Progressivism was.

Of course, the word "progressive" has become a sort of catch-all umbrella term covering any liberal or vaguely left-wing views, and this is how Shelley innocently uses it in her post. She is an avowed communist, so I know she harbors no illusions about liberals or the state. But I find the word unhelpful and have ceased using it to describe myself or my beliefs--there are big differences between those of us who are resolutely anti-capitalist and those who believe in liberal democracy and the tameability of the capitalist system. It's true that in the context of the existing system, a functioning regulatory framework is much preferred to the current situation. That said, it must always be remembered that not only was the regulatory system designed by capitalists, but the welfare state--the New Deal, for example--was part of a necessary accommodation with labor, in order to, again, save capitalism from itself. This deal was enabled by the incredible, unrepeatable growth of the post-WWII period (growth which itself was enabled by the burgeoning military-industrial complex and the insanity of the Cold War), and itself entered into crisis in the late 1960s/early 1970s. There is no going back. And yet going back appears to be all that progressives, Nader included, have to offer, in the face of ongoing, expensive wars and the lack of a powerful labor movement which could force such an accommodation. Nader sounds great when he talks about regulation and generally says the right things about particular wars and about Palestine, but he gives no indication that he appreciates that crisis is necessary to capitalism, that war is, that the capitalist state does not exist to serve the people.

Incidentally, the narrative of progress itself is another reason I object to the word "progressive". This is a narrative that exists within the Marxist teleological tradition, too. Usually this implies change that can be seen as a kind of necessary, inexorable "progress", in the way that history itself is seen as progressive--where, to rework a phrase from Marilynne Robinson (quoted by me, here), previous generations are seen as benighted in comparison with our own (as I used to assume, in my youthful naivete, that each generation would necessarily be less racist, less sexist, less religious than their parents). It's perhaps the blithe acceptance of technological progress that most disturbs me. We act as if technology simply progresses, as if technological change isn't a function of the capitalist process, as if it would continue to "progress" in the same manner in the absence of the capitalist pressures, or ought to.

Drastic changes are urgently needed, but many of the changes that I think are necessary would involve reviving lost forms from the past, a give and take with the best of what tradition has had to offer. I would call the world a better place if they took place, but I would not call it progress. More on this in future posts.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Any hack could instruct him in the elements of his craft"

Just read Hugh Kenner's short but rich Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians. There is much to chew on here, in many ways very complementary with Josipovici, I find. There is also much I'd like to excerpt, in the entirely possible event I am unable to blog about the book in any detail, but for now, this:
Art is the perfect not-doing of what cannot be done, and peer as we will, we shall not discern Beckett doing. We are encumbered by no proof sheets, no keys, no outlines. There is no legend of the fabulous artificer. Not even the Paris telephone directory records his presence, though it did Joyce's. Photographs display the somewhat bemused expression of a man to whom numerous books have mysteriously happened. We do not track theme-words through the text of Comment C'est or Happy Days [as one does through Ulysses, for example - RC], marveling at the master's virtuosity. On the contrary, we note the stubborn (though fastidious) repetitiousness of a man who can barely keep going ("end at last of the second part how it was with Pim now only the third and last how it was after Pim before Bom how it is there is how it was with Pim"). His role is not the engineer's but the scribe's, or the medium's ("I say it as I hear it"). Any hack could instruct him in the elements of his craft, though it is not clear whether he would profit by instruction, for his virtuosity, such as it is, appears to diminish rather than grow accomplished. The early Murphy is at least something like a novel. It has even a timetable, and one would have expected practice to increase its author's facility. Five novels later, alas, he seems unable to punctuate a sentence, let alone construct one. More and more deeply he penetrates the heart of utter incompetence, where the simplest pieces, the merest three-word sentences, fly apart in his hands. He is the non-maestro, the anti-virtuoso, habitue of non-form and anti-matter, Euclid of the dark zone where all signs are negative, the comedian of utter disaster.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Notes on Beckett and Film Adaptations

Over the last several months, I've been very slowly making my way through the Beckett on Film series. Slowly because, frankly, the films are, on the whole, disappointing. They are too cinematic. They too often miss the point. They treat Beckett's plays as content to be filmed. The accompanying documentary is terrible, borderline unwatchable, primarily because the producers boast about being given the chance to make Beckett accessible. Given the Beckett estate's famous stinginess on allowing productions to move forward, I'm rather surprised this project was given the green light.

There are some highlights. Thankfully, one of the best is Waiting for Godot. Based on my reading of the play and my take on Beckett, it seems to me that, some fancy camera work aside, this production does ok by the play. We enjoyed it, anyway. Another is Ohio Impromptu, starring Jeremy Irons. I also felt that Not I, with Julianne Moore, was not bad. I still have yet to watch Endgame, Happy Days, or Play, among others.

Most recently, I watched Krapp's Last Tape, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring John Hurt, and it is, I think, symptomatic of the series' problems. This happens to be the only Beckett play that I've actually seen produced on stage, in a wonderful performance at Johns Hopkins by John Astin. To save some time, I'm going to quote what I said about this play and the performance in a post from last year. I wrote:
Krapp is an old man, alone. He spends part of the time listening to tapes he recorded at an earlier age. He was alone then too. We learn of paths not taken. There are, perhaps, regrets, though at the same time, he wouldn't undo what he's done, so he says. In the discussion after the play, one audience member in particular seemed fixated on the idea that Beckett didn't seem capable of "happiness". But there's happiness and then there's happiness. Krapp is alone, but he is alive. He has his pleasures. He delights in the word "viduity", as [Marina] Warner points out [in the Times Literary Supplement], but earlier he lingers on the word "spool"--theatrically savoring, to himself, the sound of "ooool"--and he enjoys his bananas, taking pleasure in their shape, color, smell. As Warner puts it:
For not everything is fizzling out, and wind is not mere wind, at least not quite, or otherwise we would not feel the tragicomic involvement that Beckett inspires. There is something to the fizzle itself.
Krapp the old man marvels at the ideas held by his younger self, grand plans that didn't come to fruition, blithe talk on tape about a lost love being for the best, when it's certain details of that lost love the older man seems to linger on, at least during the play.

Ok, so that's a rough outline of the "content". In the play, the stage features only a desk, with two drawers facing the audience, behind which Krapp sits at a chair, when he's not fumbling through his keys, or opening the drawers to extract bananas or a spool of tape, or leaving the stage to get the reel-to-reel player, or a drink, etc. Very minimal. Krapp himself is wearing nothing remarkable, except for a pair of insane white boots. Astin's performance was restrained, subtle.

In Egoyan's film, the same things happen, yet it's completely wrong. Why? Well, for one thing, no white boots! You can't even see Krapp's whole body! But more importantly, there's a too muchness to it that overwhelms, defeating the material. This is one of the basic problems with film adaptations in the first place: the need to fill in the blanks. Set designers appear to have been allowed to roam free and do whatever the fuck they wanted. The set is simply overflowing with crap. Papers everywhere, shelving, piles of boxes, tapes, remnants of a disheveled life. And when Krapp walks around front of the desk to open the drawers, the camera moves in, over his shoulder, so that we can see what else might be in them. To top it all off, Hurt's performance is way too emotive. When, for example, Krapp expresses some dismay about his life choices, Hurt plays it like he's doing a tortured Hamlet. He is not doing Hamlet.

I come back to this basic question: Why does someone decide to make a film adaptation? In a post about adaptations of Michael Chabon's novels, IOZ suggests that "adaptation is better accomplished by someone who appreciates a work than someone who loves it so much that he wants to improve it". I would argue further (in line with arguments I've made in the past on this topic), that appreciation should include a sense that there's some reason why the book or play being adapted existed in the form it did, particularly in the case of a writer such as Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote poems, stories, novels, uncategorizable prose pieces, and plays, and he was rather famously interested in the problems with the forms in which he wrote. To simply film a Beckett play as if it were any old story lying around, as if it were in need of elaboration, is to fundamentally betray the play. Why did he write plays? Why is Krapp's Last Tape a play? Why does he have a play called Play? A film called Film? Why do his plays clearly not take the form for granted? I'm not going to venture answers to these questions here, but they are the kinds of questions that it seems to me are in play when problems of adaptation arise. It seems to me that the decision to adapt one of Beckett's plays for film should center on how the formal problems addressed in the play itself can be similarly addressed in a filmic context. If questions are being asked of the play format, can analagous questions be asked of film? If not, then why make a film?

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Anti-American Zealots

I've been fascinated lately by certain aspects (or certain kinds) of modern conservative thought. This is in part because of the ways in which it misses the point so colossally while yet making some good, even important observations. I'm interested not just in the disconnect (the ability to somehow miss so many giant elephants, no pun intended) but also some of the observations themselves, which I think are all too often missed by liberals or by the left.

I'm not going to get into that in this post, but it does help explain what I was doing recently looking at the Summer 2009 issue of City Journal, the conservative glossy published by the Manhattan Institute. I hope to say more about some of this magazine's content (which I consider wrong-headed, but, as noted, in occasionally interesting ways), but for now I want to talk about some thoughts prompted by an ad that does not reflect the kind of interesting conservative thought I'm referring to. The ad appeared on the back cover of the magazine and is for a book called I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous, by Harry Stein. Sounds like a laugh riot, no? The ad features a blurb by Brian Anderson, who is editor of City Journal, that includes the following:
...Stein takes the reader on a provocative, hilarious, and insightful guided tour of Liberaland, where anti-American zealots like Noam Chomsky are considered mainstream and reasonable people like, well, Harry Stein are denounced by their neighbors as fascist...
In truth, my normal reaction to this kind of thing is to roll my eyes, and roll my eyes I did when I first read it. But I do find the construction both telling and curious. After all, if anyone truly hates Chomsky's work it's liberals--this much should be clear to anyone with the most basic sense of the differences between the Left and liberals. Indeed, it's only on the far left, generally, where Chomsky could be said to be anything like what "mainstream" means in this sentence. And what does it mean, "anti-American zealot"? Neither term applies even remotely to Chomsky.

"Anti-American": this is a term that Chomsky himself finds curious. For example, here is what he said in an interview from December 2002:
The concept "anti-American" is an interesting one. The counterpart is used only in totalitarian states or military dictatorships [...]. Thus, in the old Soviet Union, dissidents were condemned as "anti-Soviet." That's a natural usage among people with deeply rooted totalitarian instincts, which identify state policy with the society, the people, the culture. In contrast, people with even the slightest concept of democracy treat such notions with ridicule and contempt. Suppose someone in Italy who criticizes Italian state policy were condemned as "anti-Italian." It would be regarded as too ridiculous even to merit laughter. Maybe under Mussolini, but surely not otherwise.
Presumably "anti-American" means something like opposed to America and/or all that America stands for. But why would someone think this is a suitable description of Chomsky? What does he really do? What is the focus, the purpose of his political writing? He's not really an activist, certainly not at this stage of his life. What he does, most frequently, is write about the claims made by the ruling class as against the needs actually served by various state actions; the coverage and acceptance of those claims by the press, and the nature of the coverage or non-coverage of those actions; and the intellectual justifications and defenses of those same actions and claims. What he does, then, quite simply, is use politicians' and journalists' and intellectuals' words against themselves, for the purposes of explaining what is really going on. For this he is called anti-American? He is called a "zealot"? A zealot for what? What Chomsky does is meticulously construct a compelling counter-narrative to the horseshit we are expected to swallow on a daily basis, year after year. He is far from the only person doing this, but he's been doing it the longest and he continues, at the age of 80, to do it very well. It is this very counter-narrative that people can't abide. But, then, it's usually liberals who can't abide it; as far as I've ever been able to tell, conservatives or right-wingers rarely bother with the guy. When they do bother, it usually seems clear that they're only tangentially familiar with his writings. I often get the sense that what they've read is a bullet-pointed "fact sheet", with all the alleged negatives highlighted for easy consumption and reproduction (you know, "Faurisson, check. Pol Pot, check. Etc."). So, for example, it doesn't seem likely that Brian Anderson or Harry Stein can have read Chomsky at all, at least not very well. He merely serves, here, as a convenient stand-in for all left-wing, which for them is to say "Liberal" commentary, which is all, by definition, "anti-American" (and "smug", if the title of the book is any indication).

But what does it mean to say one "opposes America" or "all it stands for"? What does America stand for? Freedom? Democracy? Liberty? Every July 4th there is much blather about how this great nation was formed in pursuit of an idea, the idea, presumably, being liberty. Now, it does no one any good to pretend that people did not think something new was happening with the United States, even if it can be demonstrated that the Constitution was, from the beginning, part of an anti-democratic counter-revolution against the very liberty that many people thought they were fighting for (an idea I wrote about a little bit here). We're supposed to take it on faith that, because there was a revolution fought and won in the name of liberty and freedom, America always and forever stands for liberty and freedom. We're supposed to take it on faith that the people who are elected to national office mean the same things that ordinary people mean by such concepts. Effectively, not believing these propositions makes one "anti-American"--when one would think, logically, that if the ideas for which America supposedly stands for actually mean something, then pointing out the deficiencies might make one the very opposite of "anti-American". But no. How curious.

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On atheism and indifference

In the New Yorker recently (subscription required), James Wood wrote about the so-called "New Atheists"--Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett--and considered books either responding directly to them (Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate) or taking religious belief more seriously (Saving God by Mark Johnston, the posthumous A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith by John Rawls). It's not a great essay by any means, but it's worth a read. Wood's conclusion is ultimately unsurprising; he finds neither approach satisfying:
What is needed is neither the overweening rationalism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.
Disappointed because, finally, "the God of the philosophers and the theologians is no more probable than the idoloatrous God of the fundamentalists", makes no more sense, is no more "worthy of our worshipful respect--alas." And so the essay dissipates at the end.

Yet I agree with much of Wood's conclusion, though I wouldn't put it in the same weary, disappointed tones. One reason for the lack of disappointment in a formulation I might come up with is encapsulated in an excellent line from the second paragraph of Wood's piece:
Atheism is structurally related to the belief it negates, and is necessarily a kind of rival belief; indifferent agnosticism would be a truer liberation.
Atheists often bristle at the idea that atheism is anything like religious belief. Fine. What I'm interested in here is the second half of the sentence: indifferent agnosticism would be a truer liberation. One could challenge the charge that atheism is like religious belief--"structurally related"--and posit a different kind of atheism, retaining the rest of the formula: indifferent atheism would be a truer liberation. And in this phrase I see myself. On the one hand, I do not believe there is a God. Some argue that the inability to truly know means one should opt for agnosticism, but even if I ascent to the problem of knowing, I nevertheless must cop to a belief, a belief in an absence, yes, but a belief nonetheless. On the other hand, I am indifferent. Though I have at times in my life pretended to be an engaged atheist--that is, one who feels the need to argue the matter with believers, who has felt that religion needed to go away--in truth, those periods have been the exceptions. For most of my life I have been indifferent to religion, to religious belief. So I agree with Wood that indifference is the truer liberation.

At the same time, I share the desire for a theologically engaged atheism. But can such a thing exist alongside an indifferent atheism? I am indifferent to religion, yet I remain interested in and respectful of certain aspects of tradition, I want to know what it's about, I yearn, weirdly perhaps, to know what it feels like to have genuine access to the symbolic culture the tradition rests on. Is it possible to be deeply conversant with, for example, the religious literature, while being indifferent to its sacredness? That is, while always having been indifferent? Can one go through a whole life indifferent to matters of faith and belief and still get the literature? And still really get literature?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sublimated rage, or Notes on fighting, and the possible

I'm seething. I'm feeling rage. We've forgotten too much. We're doomed. Fucked. We don't know who our friends are. We don't know who are enemies are. We flail against an unjust system and a brutal state. We choose to allow attacks on ACORN, one of the few groups actually remotely effective at mitigating the damage, at working for solutions. (An angry submission: FOX News should have its broadcast license revoked. Should long since have. But liberals are overly obsessed with the sanctity of the First Amendment; such a thing is therefore unthinkable.)

In my post last Fall about the then-upcoming Presidential election, I wrote that I had been persuaded by Steven Shaviro's argument to vote for Barack Obama, though I knew very well that he did not and would not come close to representing anything positive that I believe in. I sort of went on at length in that earlier post, but in a nutshell, I voted for Obama in solidarity with African Americans. (Even in the booth, though, I hesitated--would I vote for Nader again? But even Nader, I felt, as much as I would have preferred him, and knew his criticisms of Obama were largely on point, even he barks up the wrong tree--seems to miss the bigger picture.) What to do? I don't know. I don't know. (An angry aside: just as Clinton and Kerry refused to stand up and defend the only good things they were ever associated with--Clinton's protesting against the Vietnam War; Kerry's role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War--and allowed those efforts to be diminished, distancing themselves from their youthful selves, watch how Obama allows ACORN to be smeared, and says nothing, does nothing. Shameful. You might say Obama has bigger things to worry about. No doubt. Still it speaks volumes.)

There was another part of Shaviro's post that I'd thought to include in the passage I excerpted, but decided against for a variety of reasons. Here it is:
There is an essential moral difference between Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin; just as (in a comparison that Zizek, to his credit, does not shy from), there was an essential moral difference between Stalin and Hitler. Zizek condemns the currently fashionable habit of lumping Stalin and Hitler together as totalitarian dictators. The difference, as in the Presidential race today, has to do with hypocrisy. Stalin professed support for human rights like free speech, for self-determination, for peace, and for harmony and equality among individuals and peoples regardless of race, ethnicity, etc.; all these principles are enshrined in the Soviet Constitution of the 1930s. Of course, in fact Stalin was a megalomaniacal tyrant who ruled arbitrarily, violated all of these ideals, and put millions of people to death; but Zizek is entirely right to suggest that such hypocrisy is morally superior, and far to be preferred, to Hitler’s overtly racist and anti-democratic ideology — which he unhypocritically put into practice. It’s for this reason that American Communists of the 1930s-1950s (observers of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath from afar, just as Kant was an observer of the French Revolution from afar) are far more honorable and decent (for all their ludicrous idolization of Stalin and sleazy maneuvers against other factions on the left) than the anti-Communists of the same period.
Shaviro in this paragraph is referring, of course, to Žižek's 2005 essay, "The Two Totalitarianisms", one of the few Žižek pieces I've actually read. And, in fact, the overall post itself is an elaboration of an argument made by Žižek elsewhere, and clarified by Jodi Dean. This was one reason I didn't include this passage: I was persuaded by Shaviro's version of the argument, and didn't want to bring Žižek in, muddying things up. The paragraph as a whole has many distractions from the main point I wanted to make, but I include the whole thing here to give the context for the bit I want to address.

The final sentence of the paragraph can be re-configured, removing parentheticals and introductory context, as "American Communists of the 1930s-1950s are far more honorable and decent than the anti-Communists of the same period", and it is this obviously correct notion that I want to talk about.

The sentence reminds me of a monologue we attended a couple of years back (in those dark, pre-Existence Machine days) by Josh Kornbluth. I remember I attended this performance somewhat reluctantly and later was delighted I'd gone. The monologue was titled Citizen Josh and purported to be notes towards fulfilling the final requirement, 25 years late, for Kornbluth's undergraduate degree. It was more like a rough draft, and I believe it's since been converted into a show with actual set design and so forth (see a description of the show here, with links to some audio excerpts). In short, I found Kornbluth inspiring. I use that word occasionally around here: inspiring. Why? I've tended to be inspired by those things that suggest the possible, in a world in which the possible has been apparently foreclosed, whether it's moments from the past, cultural artifacts, whatever. When community has happened. Where and when democracy, communism, anarchism (which all amount to the same thing, finally) has been in action. Where people do what needs to be done. Kornbluth grew up in an actively leftwing family, a communist family. His people did things.

In his talk, Kornbluth was often moving and very funny. He spoke about action--how does one act? How does it happen? Where does it come from? He quoted Hannah Arendt, who called action a miracle. And he said some things that are echoed in Shaviro's lines above. He noted that it is true that the American Communists, like other Communist Parties around the world, received funding from the Soviet Union. It is true that, on some matters, they received orders. It is true that their faith in the Soviet Union was tragically misplaced. But, most importantly, it is abundantly true that these people changed things for the better. Perhaps you've seen the bumper sticker that reads something like this: "The Labor Movement--The People Who Brought You the Weekend". The point is that such things like the weekend, which we now take for granted, people fought for. In fact, they fought for far more--the 8-hour day, the weekend, these were merely compromises, agreements. Further battles were lost--indeed, further victories were foreclosed, in part due to the efforts of a co-opted labor leadership, in part due to the onset of neoliberalism, which has been a reinvigoration of the class war, 35 years of roll backs.

But the point is that people fought for these things, and those people were working people, and they were often, if not usually, communists or anarchists. They fought the good fight--and they were hounded by the forces of reaction, blacklisted, slandered, slighted, marginalized, impoverished, often killed. Their memory deserves better than to let everything they fought for vanish into thin air.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Privileged Standpoints

Over at the excellent Letters from a Librarian, Lauren has been writing beautifully about Evelyn Scott's Escapade (putting me quite to shame in my inability so far to follow up on my intentions!). In the last few days she's put up three posts (one, two, three), in which she provides some excellent passages from the book, along with thoughts of her own (which she incorrectly thinks of as not "substantive"), touching on Montaigne, Aristotle and Blake, Woolf and Duras, and even A.S. Byatt.

I still have some additional thoughts of my own about this book, beyond what I've already written, but for now I want to pursue a line of thought prompted by Lauren's remarks in the second of these posts. She addresses a passage from Escapade about childbirth and the many "truly worrisome notions that work their way into treatises on the art of living", by philosophers and essayists, by, for example, Montaigne and Aristotle. Here is the passage from Scott:
I wondered why the birth of a child appealed so little to the imagination of the
artist. Why were all the great realistic novels of the world concerned with only
one aspect of sex? This surely was the last -- the very last thing -- one needed
to know before one came to conclusions about life.
Lauren observes that there is an "easy answer to her question" which "can be passed over in silence". Of course this easy answer is intimately related to those worrisome notions on the art of living. Such treatises have tended to be written by men, and artists for so long were generally men, men who did not have to worry themselves with the messy business of bearing or raising children, or even being near them, who were able to separate themselves from the world, to thus be able to enjoy solitude and to engage in deep self-study. The events of pregnancy and childbirth are ignored because they, historically, have nothing to do with such concepts (though in the highly individualized West, the United States especially, even these experiences are apparently to be understood as part of the same process of selfhood).

I maintain further that we are only recently coming to grips with how the brain works because science and philosophy were for so long completely male endeavors--again, away from community, away from the practice of raising children, from the experience of being regularly around children. A few months back, I quoted what I called a "crucial observation" from Levi at Larval Subjects to the effect that philosophers tend to "privilege the standpoint of the adult" and ignore childhood development. I have no doubt that this observation is true. In fact, I'm arguing here that it's substantially true of scientists, too. That is, though there have clearly been remarkable advances in recent years in what is known about how the brain develops, the truth is that much of this new knowledge ought to have been at least philosophically available well before it was possible to observe the technical details.

Why would philosophers and scientists privilege the adult standpoint? Indeed, why would they privilege the male standpoint? I think I've already answered these questions. Men left children to women, period. But, as I suggested earlier, anyone who'd ever spent time around a child could tell that they are learning constantly, and that they are formed by both biology and history--the idea of the "bidirectionality of causal relations" should not be only a relatively recent development in modern neuroscience. At his blog Plastic Bodies, which I discovered via Graham Harman, Tom Sparrow writes about the important concept in neuroscience of "plasticity":
No longer is the brain being conceived as a preprogrammed CPU; it has been opened to history. The term "plasticity" names the capacity of the brain to be molded by history, to be informed and shaped by corporeal experience, and to likewise give form to history through corporeal activity. The plasticity of the central nervous system is particularly liable to change while still developing, but its capacity for change remains throughout the span of a life–which means that each individual’s capacity to learn, adapt, and act is singularized insofar as his or her history is unique.
Obviously many of the details associated with this could only have been recently discerned or observed. But I find it embarrassing that the brain could ever have been "conceived as a preprogrammed CPU". This speaks of a science and a philosophy, for all their wonderful contributions, that have operated too far removed from life itself, as lived by ordinary people, in particular as lived by women and children.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

"War is necessary for our way of life"

Go read Stan Goff at Feral Scholar, on "Obama's War & the Game". Here's a short excerpt:
This was the stage for Barack Obama to mount his campaign, and he committed himself early to weaseling on war. He couldn’t risk being male-baited as antiwar, but he had to be anti-Bush. Solution: Call Iraq the wrong war, Afghanistan the right war, and blame Bush for inappropriate emphasis.

A sensible tactical decision, given that most people in the US had never opposed the occupation of Afghanistan and most were turning against the debacle in Iraq. That the tables got turned on him with the so-called “success of the Surge” by Republicans was still insufficient to overcome the bitter public feeling against George W. Bush for not being a winner; and Barack Obama rode his campaign juggernaut into the White House with the Afghan monkey already on his back.

Barack Obama may have had a choice in this matter, I’ll contend… in some parallel universe. But whoever was going to be President of the United States did not have a choice, given the actual conditions. So President Obama never had a choice. These folks know political operations, and they know their constraints.

Antiwar emasculates, and Obama had had to overcome the race question enough to jump through the electoral hoops. Overcoming black stereotypes was edgy enough at this juncture, there could be no question of his martial masculinity. He had to show his balls as his bona fides. But there is another reason that President Obama has to stay at war.

War is necessary for our way of life.

No viable candidate for POTUS can be antiwar right now, because so many American voters secretly know that preserving our current way of life requires war. And we don’t know any other way of life.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Totally disconnected thoughts on music, or Belated Mid-year Music Roundup, part two

I haven't listened to much new music this year, but I'm always listening. In my mid-year round-up, for which this amounts to the much belated and superfluous part 2, I neglected to mention what is far and away my new song of the year: Bill Callahan's cover of Kath Bloom's "The Breeze/My Baby Cries" (which was recorded for Loving Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom). I admit that I'd never heard of Kath Bloom before this year, and still haven't heard her music, but if it's anything like the quality of Bill Callahan's version of her song, then it must be worth seeking out. (Though fans of the originals may be understandably bitter at Bloom's apparent obscurity, still that's no call for completely missing the boat on Callahan's cover--"adult alternative"? No. Just, no.)

Here, anyway, is Bill playing the song live (this clip first seen via Steve, who is also responsible for privately sending me the link to the studio version--thanks Steve!):

Ok, got the song of the year out of the way. Other thoughts:

Of the first four Talking Heads albums, which are the only four that matter, I remain convinced that Remain In Light is the fourth best. I prefer the more austere sound of the unaugmented group. For years I would have said Fear of Music was my favorite, but it may now be More Songs about Buildings and Food.

Outside of the sublime If I Could Only Fly, can anyone rep for late-period Merle Haggard? I have to think he has had a few more gems in the last couple of decades.

I don't listen to the radio much, but I want to say a few words about 96.5 FM out of Chincoteague, Virginia. Basically a rock station, but clearly its own thing. Dylan's "My Back Pages", some Zep, George Jones, some obscure Fleetwood Mac (or solo Lindsey?) alternate take of "Big Love"... the songs I didn't like were at least atypical: a Bryan Adams song that probably hasn't seen the light of day in years, that weird 4 Non Blondes hit, stuff like that. The point is that there didn't appear to be any discernible playlist, most of the commercials were local, actual public services were performed on air by people who sounded like they actually cared... All radio stations should be like this one, in spirit.

I went through another Beatles period recently, in part thanks to Marcello Carlin's superb blog, Then Play Long, in which he writes at length about every album to reach #1 in the UK since 1956. He's made The Sound of Music soundtrack sound fascinating, and the Monkees emerge as vastly more interesting than this listener ever gave them credit for being. But more impressively, he's managed to say something new and interesting about over-analyzed albums from the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan (the posts on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and John Wesley Harding are incredible--I think it's how he illuminates the music, where other writers are so often fixated on Dylan's lyrics). The Beatles in particular. I've loved all of his posts on Beatles albums, especially those on Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, and Beatles for Sale. The one on Sgt. Pepper had me listening to that album for the first time in years, with much greater appreciation (if only because I was paying more attention). Great music writing.

We've inherited some children's music from a friend. Some of it I find I actually like (though I have to say that Raffi, bland and inoffensive as he is, is much more tolerable to simply listen to than to view--there's something weirdly creepy about that dude's eyes! But, hey, the kids all love him. It's a mystery. [Actually, it's not: he's respectful of them and he sings pleasant songs that they like to sing along to. I'm just being a critic.]) In particular, I'm fond of Donovan's Pied Piper album. We've already listened to this cd numerous times. Something tells me that Devendra Banhart spent a lot of time with it. (I can hear him singing "I Love My Shirt".)

Belated entry in the sad songs sweepstakes: "I Keep Holding Back the Tears" by the immortal Souled American.

Not enough is said about Jim O'Rourke's wonderful "Prelude to 110 or 220/Women of the World". (I hear he has a new record coming out, after a long hiatus.)

My favorite working male vocalist: Bill Callahan; female vocalist: Neko Case; group: Animal Collective. None of which will surprise regular readers.

I count myself fortunate to have caught Joe McPhee live more than once. Same with William Parker.

I was obsessed with Jane's Addiction back in the early 1990s. But then it turned out Perry Farrell was hard to take (and the less said about Dave Navarro the better) and Porno for Pyros was not my idea of a good time (given that they sucked). So the Jane's cds got sort of forgotten, lost in the big wall of cds. I loaded Nothing's Shocking and Ritual de lo Habitual onto the iPod not too long ago. Verdict: the former is a little less than I remember it being, a little too, well, "shocking", though I'm still a sucker for "Summertime Rolls"; the latter, however, really holds up well. A great, expansive, meandering rock album, which sounds fantastic (where Nothing's Shocking sounds like it was recorded through a cardboard tube). Even "Been Caught Stealing".

On a related note, of the so-called grunge bands that I was so into back in the early 90s, Soundgarden isn't holding up as well as, say, Pearl Jam, or Alice in Chains' Dirt (Nirvana, ironically, doesn't count as grunge). I still like much of Superunknown and "Rusty Cage" and "Jesus Christ Pose" from Badmotorfinger, but man, the rest is rather nondescript.

For those of you who may have wondered, yes we are familiar with the singer-songwriter named Mirah. In fact, she is the original source for our daughter's name--not that she's named after her, or that we're huge fans or anything, but we were struggling with names, and hers popped into my head one night and we liked it. We are fans though, at least of C'mon Miracle (not sure yet about (A)Spera).

By the way, I only recently zeroed in on the lyrics to Mirah's song "Jerusalem", from C'mon Miracle. I think I may previously have been afraid to pay too much attention, but these are pretty good:
So now jerusalem, you know that it's not right
After all you've been through, you should know better than
To become the wicked ones almighty god once saved you from

I recently made a mix cd for a friend, on which I included "The Breeze/My Baby Cries" and "I Keep Holding Back the Tears", both mentioned above, but also "Beer & Kisses" by Amy Rigby. I'm working on another, on which I hope to include Rigby's "Down Side of Love". Does anyone listen to Amy Rigby? These songs are both off of her excellent Diary of a Mod Housewife from 1996. I remember it was very highly regarded that year, and I dutifully bought a copy. The narrative was that she'd been a rocker but then got married and had children and disappeared (she was apparently no Kristin Hersh), before coming back with this record (after a breakup, I think, and the record's lyrics seem to confirm the memory). But, as happens so often, even for one with a music habit as ridiculous as mine became, I never followed up with her, though I liked the cd very much. I know she's released music since then--does anyone have anything to say about her? Any other cds one should try?

I am too old for Death Cab for Cutie. I am too old for Arcade Fire. I am too old for the Rapture. I am too old for Interpol. I am too old for Arctic Monkeys. I am too old for Art Brut. I am probably too old for Broken Social Scene, though I admit I liked that You Forgot It In People record quite a bit (but I'm already not sure it's aged well, and I didn't like the self-titled one at all). (Some of you may notice that these have all been Pitchfork-approved indie bands du jour at one time or another. But: I am not too old for Deerhoof. I am not too old for Animal Collective. I am not too old for the Microphones/Mount Eerie [though I remain mystified by the over-the-top love for The Glow Pt. 2]). I am too old for emo. I am too old for metal (as much as I can appreciate, say, High on Fire and Mastodon, to name just two rather high profile and completely awesome metal bands, I cannot listen to them at the correct, necessary volume. My ears are too sensitive, too fragile, too damaged, too old. People listen to High on Fire through earbuds? A generation of deaf people!).

I mean to say, by the above, that it's one thing to listen to new music, it's one thing to follow musicians down new paths, keeping up with old favorites, but I wonder if there isn't something unseemly about the attempt at remaining up-to-date well into serious adulthood. I wonder if it's not part of what keeps us not young but infantile, or rather, distracted. It becomes consumerist frenzy, this need that must be filled (something like a manufactured consent, of sorts). I also wonder if it isn't convenient for me to come around to such an idea only since I've abandoned my own serious efforts at keeping up. Do I need to know what every hip band of 20 year-olds, however inventive, is up to this and every year? Should I? Am I wrong to call the whole process into question? How many records need to exist? How many can you listen to?

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