Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Where now? Who now? When now?": A correction

In the first of my three Beckett-themed posts from yesterday, I wrote something that should be corrected. Of the great prose trilogy—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—I wrote that they "read much like what they pretend to be—first-person accounts, as if a diary or journal". This description is misleading at best. Though they are indeed in the first-person, I don't know that it's acceptable to refer to them even as accounts, and they certainly are not anything like diaries or journals. In the first half of Molloy, our man is in a room, doesn't seem to know how he got there, what's happened to him, but he unfolds a narrative which may or may not have something to do with his current predicament. We are told that a strange man ("He's a queer one the one who comes to see me.") comes and takes what he has written. The second half, we are told, is the report of a man who was assigned the task of locating Molloy. In Malone Dies, again there is a voice in a room, relating various things, facts, narratives, impressions, and so on ("I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of it all."), but to whom? And finally, The Unnamable, we're never even sure who is writing or speaking. Is he the writer of the other narratives? Has he created Molloy and Malone and the others? ("All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing, speak of them when, in order to stop speaking, I should have spoken of me.") Is he a voice in the void? Speaking to whom? For what reason?


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"paralysing possibilities of antithetical senses"

In light of the death-themed words occupying Beckett in the excerpt just posted, now seems a good time to blog about Christopher Ricks' delightful Beckett's Dying Words. This short volume is probably the most sheerly enjoyable work of literary criticism I have ever read. Erudite, insightful, funny—and not just because Beckett's own words are quoted in abundance; Ricks is quite funny himself—Ricks had me wanting to drop everything and read all of Beckett at once, re-reading what I have read, moving on to the rest. (That I as yet have not done so is entirely a function of my other reading needs.)

In brief, the book is a working through of Beckett's major themes and his style, in particular his playful use of language. From the title on down, puns and wordplay abound. Dying Words refers to words about death, but also dead words or dead language, such as clichés, or Latin, say. And if Beckett has ever struck you as overly death-obsessed, Ricks has a lot of fun demonstrating the contradictions and absurdities embodied in the seemingly simple words we use to discuss, or even simply refer to, life and death, the life in our words about death, the death in our words about life. Indeed this is, of course, the source of so much of Beckett's comedy.

Here is a page or so from relatively late in the book, to give a flavor of Ricks' style and method:
Whether Beckett's French is as apt an instrument as his English, or rather his Irish English, and whether this would be because of something about Beckett or about French: these are less important than our enjoying his bilingual myriad-mindedness as evincing a true wit, wit as T. S. Eliot understood it: 'It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.' The experience of another language is the supreme instance of such a recognition.

The two senses of a workaday phrase—all over [again] or all over [finished]—may beckon the afterlife. On this earth we may hope for summary mercy, but it too will need to avail itself of this turn. Plus 'all over' as 'very characteristic of'.
Scrupulous to the last, finical to a fault, that's Malone, all over.

Ah Moran, he said, what a man! I was staggering with weakness. If I had dropped dead at his feet he would have said, Ah poor old Moran, that's him all over.
The French, appositely the same as ever, is: 'Ah ce vieux Moran, toujours le même.'

Alive to all these paralysing possibilities of antithetical senses, Beckett works unusual wonders with the usual condition that cleave can mean either stick together or cut apart (there's another mortal liveliness for you); and with the fact, no less pertinent to his lifelong preoccupation with whether or not one is going to be allowed to say 'thanks for the nice time and go', that leave and left may be likewise equivocal. (Get to go, or get to stay?)

Beckett does not scorn as nugatory the smaller pleasures of these words. He finds not only pleasure but profit in the awareness that even prepositions may palter with us in a double sense. It is agreeably confounding that to slow down is hard to distinguish from slowing up, and that saving against your old age turns out to resemble saving for it.
The reference to Beckett's French is worth commenting on. Throughout the book, Ricks compares the English and French versions of various passages. In general, the French seems to lack the vitality of the English. Alas, my own French is not up to snuff, but Ricks shows us numerous instances where the play in Beckett's choice of words is missing in the French, whether the French or the English was the original.

A final note: the final chapter is an entertaining mini-account of the Irish bull, the kind of absurd language in which the speaker appears foolish. Ricks tells us how earlier, English, accounts of the bull tended to assume that the speaker knew not what he or she was saying, the joke was on them. But Ricks argues, and it seems clear he is right, that the joke was on the English, who of course as the oppressor in the relationship, were not inclined to see themselves as the butt of jokes. He then gives us numerous very funny examples of the Irish bull appearing in Beckett's prose.

I've only barely hinted at what this book has to offer. It goes without saying that anyone interested in Beckett's writing will want to read Beckett's Dying Words, however I also think it's a good place to turn if you've had troubles finding your way in to Beckett (another good place is Hugh Kenner's Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett).

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"that refuge where there is no more danger"

Here is a passage from another letter, this one dated May 5, 1934, addressed to Morris Sinclair (the original was written in German, which the editors indicate contained "errors" though they don't say how many or which ones):
Here I strut about, I cannot and will not do otherwise, and have no idea if God helps me or not. There is after all an almost never-failing joy, namely the thought of those millions who are less fortunate than I, or ought to be. What a feast that is! But as it becomes clear as soon as one reflects a bit on the matter that no relationship between suffering and feeling is to be found, then even that joy begins to look deceptive. If, for example, I read in the paper that poor Mr. So-and-so is to be executed early in the morning, before I get out of bed, and immediately start to congratulate myself that I do not have to spend such a night, I deceive myself in as much as I compare two circumstances instead of two emotions. And it is highly probable that the man condemned to death is less afraid than I. At least he knows exactly what is at stake and exactly what he has to attend to, and that is a greater comfort than one is generally inclined to believe. So great that many sick people become criminals solely in order to limit that fear and gain that comfort. Only beyond speculation does man reach his Eden, that refuge where there is no more danger, or rather one which is determined and which one can bring into focus.


"the integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind"

For all my talk of poetry and philosophy and Capital, I am nonetheless still making my way slowly through Beckett's Letters. I'd meant to share an early passage having to do with two common, related themes: Beckett's assessment of his own writing (decidedly lacking) and his ideas on what constitutes worthy writing, or what writing should be. This is from a letter he wrote to his good friend Thomas McGreevy, in October 1932:
To know you like the poem cheers me up. Genuinely my impression was that it was of little worth because it did not represent a necessity. I mean that in some way it was 'facultatif' [optional - RC] and that I would have been no worse off for not having written it. Is that a very hairless way of thinking of poetry? Quoi qu'il en soit I find it impossible to abandon that view of the matter. Genuinely again my feeling is, more and more, that the greater part of my poetry, though it may be reasonably felicitous in its choice of terms, fails precisely because it is facultatif. Whereas the 3 or 4 I like, and that seem to have been drawn down against the really dirty weather of one of these fine days into the burrow of the 'private life', [...] do not and never did give me that impression of being construits. I cannot explain very well to myself what they have that distinguishes them from the others, but it is something arborescent or of the sky, not Wagner, not clouds on wheels; written above an abscess and not out of a cavity, a statement and a not a description of heat in the spirit to compensate for pus in the spirit. [...]

There is a kind of writing corresponding with acts of fraud & debauchery on the part of the writing-shed. The moan I hve more & more to make with mine is there - that it is nearly all trigged up, in terrain, faute d'orifice, heat of friction and not the spontaneous combustion of the spirit to compensate the pus & the pain that threaten its economy, fraudulent manoeuvres to make the cavity do what it can't do - the work of the abscess. [...] I suppose I'm a dirty low-church P. even in poetry, concerned with integrity in a surplice. I'm in mourning for the integrity of a pendu's emission of semen, what I find in Homer & Dante & Racine & sometimes Rimbaud, the integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind.

Forgive all this? Why is the spirit so pus-proof and the wind so avaricious of the grit?
One could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Beckett here holds to the Romantic view of art as one of lightning-struck inspiration, where the words simply pour out onto the page, as if unbidden. But it has more to do with the necessity of the writing. His early writing does give off the whiff of a writer trying rather too hard; the prose, while accomplished, is more laboured, the levers and pullys more visible, than in the work beginning with Watt. Molloy and Malone Dies and especially The Unnamable read like lightning, but they are not. Though they read much like what they pretend to be—first-person accounts, as if a diary or journal—considerable energy was expended to write and re-write these works, but once completed, they read as less constructed, as if the scaffolding had been removed.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

So it Begins

It figures that the last post, primarily about needing to be a more patient reader, would begin and end with notes about blogging frequency. Inevitable around here, I suppose. Anyway, there were other factors leading into the decision to finally just read those things I've wanted to, or felt the need to, read and to be patient about it. Regarding poetry, Jonathan Mayhew recently posted a brief entry about his ongoing engagement with canonical high modernist poetry:

Now the problem is that in the contemporary university, cultural studies has largely displaced that canon, especially in Latin American studies--but also to some degree in the peninsular (Iberian peninsular, that is) realm. The typical argument in Latin American studies would have a very clear political "take away." I heard a colleague of mine at a candidate's job talk the other day suggest that any emphasis on literature as an aesthetic phenomenon would automatically alienate students, have them view literature as something alien to their own lives--as though their own lives had no aesthetic component at all.

So yes, I work on the boring old canonical stuff, leaving me holding the conservative end of the stick. I believe, though, that reading this stuff--really difficult modernist poetry--makes you frightfully intelligent. It really just uses all of your brain at the highest level of literacy imaginable. To really get this kind of poetry, you have to have a highly developed cultural, musical, visual, verbal, problem-solving, connection-making intelligence. But the only way to get that is to read it. In other words, nobody has it before approaching this kind of poetry.

I quote the first paragraph because I want to note the assumption some people have that the lives of certain others apparently have little to no "aesthetic component". But it is the second paragraph that is relevant here, for various reasons, both negative and positive. I believe Mayhew's observation to be essentially true. This belief has unfortunately had the effect of leading me to the further self-defeating belief that it has always already been too late for me to read difficult poetry with any degree of competence. I have blogged numerous times about this kind of thing, and probably will again; it remains something that bothers me, not just on a personal level. On the other hand, why not simply read poetry? Why worry so much? The same goes, more or less, with philosophy—endless deferrals, endless fretting, and so on. But still, why not just get on with it?

So, ok, on with it then. Instead of trying to squeeze in a page or three of some novel before drifting off to sleep at night, I have been reading poetry at bedside—I tried some Rimbaud, with some success, more Stevens, Dickinson, Kay Ryan. (I've found I really like Kay Ryan's poetry. Another contemporary poet I have in mind to try is Geoffrey Hill, who I expect to be a thornier read. I may have more to say about how these two poets have come to my attention and why I am drawn to them as possibilities.) (By the way, this does not mean that I'm abandoning novels. Far from it. But I've read a lot of them, after all, and so don't feel the need to read as many just now, or to keep up with it for the moment. Even so, as of this writing, I am about 200 pages into Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. Parts of it I love; others are actually rather annoying—frankly, just about any scene involving the titular father with his children is a serious chore to read.) As far as philosophy is concerned, I've written about my goals to read Plato and Aristotle, and I've written about Nietzsche, but possibly the philosopher I've mentioned most often here, again usually in a spirit of deferral, has been Heidegger. Perhaps one day I'll write something about why I'm drawn to Heidegger, but in any event, the actual reading has been rough-going, even as his philosophy remains somehow attractive. So I ordered History of the Concept of Time, recommended by Graham Harman as a good place to start with Heidegger, if Being and Time itself seems too opaque, as it has for me (and, indeed, leafing through it briefly upon delivery, the former does strike me as a more readable volume; for the record, I also ordered Harman's own Heidegger Explained). But I haven't dived into that just yet, because the real day-to-day project I've begun is Capital.

Capital, because of its hugeness and its incompleteness and the sheer massiveness of the commentary and other writing that draws from it and has been influenced by it, has, of course, loomed as a central text, but yet again always deferred. I've read several books that take Marxian approaches to capitalism, by David Harvey and by Ellen Meiksins Wood and by the Midnight Notes Collective, among others, some of which I have written about here; these books have been enormously helpful to me. But I have always known that in order to come to terms with Marx's own analysis, I needed to really be deliberate with the text itself, which, of course, requires time and patience. But it was a book I read earlier this year that really brought home to me my need to read Capital sooner rather than later and which reinforced the patience theme I've been talking about. I'm referring to Maria Mies' Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, which I have excerpted from and referred to a couple of times previously on the blog (it's also true that there are many discussions that seem to me to be lacking precisely because they don't sufficiently focus on the economic, but no doubt I can make that argument more directly if I myself am more familiar with the Marx in Capital, versus his other writing, or the legacy of cultural Marxism, which seems to have displaced his economic analysis in perceived importance to way too many). I think that Mies' book is an important book, so important that I decided I wanted to devote several blog posts to it. But when I sat down one evening to begin taking chapter-by-chapter notes I was confronted with my dual-problem. First, I had read the book too quickly. I had been so excited by it that I fairly tore through the text. I marked my copy in numerous places, of course, but I didn't take notes as I was reading. This has been a basic problem for me for years. I've never been a good note-taker, but it's even worse now, as my reading is largely done on my commuter train, where writing notes is physically difficult. And, on the patience theme, I've so protected this reading time and have had so many different books on my list, that I've simply read, over-relying on my memory and copious underlining to get me by and to retain what ought to be retained. My memory may be good, but it's not that good. And as I've explored with respect to writing, if you don't write an idea down, take note of it, odds are it will disappear. I discovered when I attempted to summarize the chapters in Mies' book that I would effectively have to read the book again in order to do so. (The same thing happened with a great David Graeber essay I have had in mind to use for another post I'm working on; I'll have to read it again too.) Since Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale is a feminist text, and as such is in part a feminist critique of Marx and Marxist analyses, I realized that the time had come to stop deferring and to just read Capital.

Here, then, is my plan: as I've been meaning to since first learning about it, I'm going to follow along with David Harvey's lecture series on Capital. So, I downloaded the first several lectures, and I began to read. I plan to read the chapter(s) under discussion, freely writing notes in the text itself, following up each chapter with some additional notes, then viewing the relevant lecture (these last two steps may be reversed as needed), not at all worrying if I have to re-read sections or re-view portions of lectures. I think it's gone fairly well so far. I'm through chapter 6, which means I've made it through the difficult first three chapters, the third being the one, Harvey says, where people often given up when they're going it alone. I was gratified to find I was able to read it without too much pain. (It may help, in this regard, that I read Harvey's Limits to Capital last year.) I'm not expecting to completely get Capital in this reading, or come through feeling like I've satisfied my need to understand capitalism or anything like that. I expect it to be a text I return to in the future as certain problems present themselves. In any event, Marx's own analysis aside, I'm interested in the ways in which we as readers are encouraged to treat everything as in flux, including understanding. In that way, also remembering Marshall Berman's argument that Capital is very much a modernist text, it is not unlike poetry and philosophy.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Have a little Patience

In a comment to my last post, new reader Andy W. offers some welcome kindness, while noting that he seems to have discovered the blog at a particularly slow moment in its existence. True enough. I have not been able to devote time to blogging lately, though there is indeed much on my mind, many pieces gestating.

And as far as being awake goes, that old struggle, being awake enough to read, to think, to write, this past month has been terrible for me. But the first week of this month was the worst. I looked out at the world through a sheet of gauze, with a dull, perpetual, sleeplessness-induced ache in the back of my head. I was just able to make my way, semi-coherently, through daily meetings at work as we continue to dig our way into an awful requirements document (are they not all awful? why do I have to read such non-writing?). But real reading was out of the question. Real writing (ha!) was equally out of the question, but in truth, my available time is such that I rarely devote much of it to writing anyway. (As far as the blog is concerned, half-begun sketches of posts abound in draft status, but this is nothing new.) No, the real problem that week was reading. I have been deeply frustrated in recent years whenever I have been too tired to read on my commute. Time lost forever, and there's only so much of it left.

But it occurred to me then how futile this frustration is. And it occurred to me that I have been, still, a deeply impatient reader. In the past I have described my period of despair, when I was an unfocused reader, seemingly interested in everything, casting a very wide net, getting nowhere. My reading, now, is much more directed, but direction doesn't imply discipline. Oh, sure, I have been disciplined in that I have taken on a book, and read it. I have given myself specific goals (Proust, for example), and met them. Taking on a particular book and reading it is fine, but by itself that doesn't mean I'm going to be able to think or to attend to that need to write.

It happens that the day before this awful week, as I was doing some housecleaning, I decided to listen not to music, as I normally would, but to an episode of "Entitled Opinions" having to do with Nietzsche that I'd downloaded many months before. "Entitled Opinions" is a show out of Stanford University hosted by Robert Harrison, generally concerned with philosophy, poetry, ideas. I'd heard about it through Stephen Mitchelmore and had previously listened to the two fascinating conversations with Andrew Mitchell about Heidegger, which had been particularly recommended by Stephen. The Nietzsche show is also a conversation with Andrew Mitchell and deals primarily with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Admittedly, amid the clamor of cleaning I wasn't able to listen as closely as I'd hoped, but I caught enough to be interested and to decide to try again to read Zarathustra, which I'd tried and failed to read before. The experience of listening to this show fresh in my mind, I decided to use my sleepy commute time in the following week to listen to other "Entitled Opinions" shows I'd downloaded. In particular, I listened to two enjoyable shows with Marjorie Perloff, the first a conversation about Ezra Pound, the second about Yeats, each leaving me much more likely to read the poet in question.

What emerged from the experience of listening to these three conversations, from hearing the poetry, from considering Perloff's recommendations and Mitchell's take on Nietzsche, was a deepening of my longstanding desire to really engage with both poetry and philosophy. What emerged from this week of utter exhaustion, in which I was unable to actually read much of anything, was a kind of epiphany in place of the usual frustration and impatience. I realized that if I'm ever to read the difficult, complicated works I've long been deferring, whether it be poetry, or philosophy, or specific works such as Marx's Capital, I need to go ahead and read them. I may as well read them now. I'm not, as the saying goes, getting any younger (I was 40 yesterday). But what really hit me was the crushingly obvious fact that I need to be more patient. There are still so many books that I want to read that I think I retained the tendency to plow through books, as though ticking them off of a giant list inside my head (and then, of course, dutifully adding them to the list on my sidebar here, as if that meant something). But it does me no good to read Capital or Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Being and Time or The Space of Literature if I don't get out of these books what I want to get out of them, if I retain little from them, if my engagement with the text is superficial. What would be the point? To say I've read them? No: I want to read such books for real reasons, reasons of my own, but real enough. My desire to read Capital is to help me understand capitalism, which itself is not just to add to my store of knowledge, but which matters to me in the project of living my own life. I will need to read it slowly, taking notes, writing. The same is true of philosophy. And with poetry, I feel the need to engage with the poetic form in some fashion, come to terms with it, as writing that is more focused, more attentive, more in play than so much prose. As a species of thought, a working through of language.

All of this requires patience, patience I have generally been sorely lacking. So, ironically, in response to a week in which I was largely unable to read, I am planning on, and have been, reading less, but, I hope, better. For one thing, this means no more forcing myself through a page or a chapter when my eyes want to close. I hope, too, that this patience will be reflected in my writing. In light of that, blogging will likely remain on the weekly or bi-weekly semi-schedule it's been on of late. Which isn't to say I won't immediately post something tomorrow. [I confess that the title to this post is a reference to the Guns N'Roses song. I can't decide whether I'm embarrassed to admit that. You're just lucky I didn't start whistling.]

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Who do you trust?

In a post called "Living Questions" at Speculum Criticum Traditionis, philosopher-blogger Skholiast uses 9/11—more precisely, typical conversation around the causes of the 9/11 attacks—as an example of how philosophy comes into play in the world (I paraphrase violently). He briefly sets up a cast of characters who might discuss the causes of 9/11—one believes the official story, another believes it was an inside job, a third believes it was a "chickens coming home to roost" sort of situation, given the history of extensive American activity in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is what he says:
But, you may say, the nature of 9/11 is a historical, not a philosophical question. Likewise, one could say that the question of “whether (or why) global warming is happening,” is a climatological question; that the question of what will be the likely fallout of government intervention (or lack thereof) on behalf of teetering banks, insurance companies, and brokerage firms is an economic question; or that the question of whether to buy from a grocery store or a farmers’ market is a nutritional question, perhaps informed by your own private budgetary considerations.

But all of these questions also come down to philosophical premises, and have philosophical ramifications. And, most importantly, the act of asking them and disputing them contains in that moment the opening to philosophical comportment. In fact, the conversation won’t even start to make any progress beyond “that’s-what-you-think,” until we do get to the philosophy—either by backing up or moving forward. "Who do you trust?" is an example of the sort of philosophy I mean. (It is exactly the sort of question Socrates asked; if you go to a specialist for shipbuilding or carpentry or cooking, why not for moral advice? But what makes a specialist and how do you know one?) If I am shown two different accounts of how and a building falls “into its own footprint,” then unless I am myself an engineering expert in demolition, I have to make a choice: do I believe expert A., upon whom Ted relies and who says that a building could well collapse straight down after being hit by a plane; or expert B., whom Dan cites to the effect that the only buildings that fall that way are those that are brought down by controlled explosives? What is it that disposes me to believe one or the other? And can I evaluate that disposition from outside?
I'm grateful for this argument and for this example in particular. I say that because I've engaged in this very line of thinking myself: though readers will not be surprised to learn that I essentially believe in the "roosting chickens" explanation (put very crudely), and that I do not believe 9/11 was an inside job, I nonetheless have occasionally found myself wandering onto certain websites that purport to present expert testimony on, say, the physics of demolition and realizing that I had no basis for deciding the matter. My concern here, of course, is not 9/11 per se, nor is it his, but rather this matter of trust. In particular, trust in the context of our highly technocratic capitalist society.

Consider the following sentence: "You're entitled to your own opinion; you're not entitled to your own facts." I've noticed different versions of this statement popping up in a variety of contexts, most commonly in arguments against the anti-vaccination movement and against the climate change denial crowd. (I have more sympathy with the former than with the latter, but I'm not going to go into my reasons here.) I myself have said much the same thing in political arguments. Of course, it rarely gets me anywhere. And as I've noticed that my arguments rarely get me anywhere (assuming those cases when I've been my most coherent and least defensive, and being as charitable as possible toward my interlocutors; it's not helpful going through life thinking everyone else is an idiot, even when they're wrong), I've often wondered how it is that we come to know and understand things, how it is we become open to certain ways of looking at the world. If my understanding of political matters has more basis in fact, more basis in actuality, than, say, my father's, what has given me this access? How do I know I'm not simply deluded? And hasn't my understanding not just deepened but in many respects changed substantially over the years as I've struggled with it all? And how do I judge my sources? How do I come to trust them? How do I know?

Several years ago, I attended a talk given by Noam Chomsky in Washington, DC. One of the organizers of the event spoke beforehand and told us how, many years prior, he'd read Chomsky's early book For Reasons of State. The book had made him angry. He didn't believe it! He took it upon himself to look up every source that Chomsky cited, and to his astonishment, he discovered that they all checked out. Now, each of us could do the same, of course. I've read numerous Chomsky books, and I admit that I've long since stopped checking sources, though in truth I never checked many of them to begin with. In fact, looking back, it turned out I was perfectly primed for Chomsky's line of argument, and I found the simple message he was getting across impossible to miss (though miss it is exactly what most liberal critics do, to say nothing of the Right). And whenever I came across what looked like damning criticisms (you all know the familiar complaints), I'd look into those. The criticisms never held any water (though, to be sure, they have persisted and become reified in the liberal imagination). Over time, book after book, essay after essay, I have come to trust Noam Chomsky. This is not to say I always agree with him. Trust is not about agreement. No, with Chomsky, I trust that I am not being lied to, that I am not reading or hearing bullshit.

But Chomsky is only an example of what I'm talking about. I bring him up primarily to address anecdotally the matter of sources. We are supposed to think for ourselves. We could look everything up. We could, each one of us, check out every single citation, research every single point, explore every single subject of importance to us in detail. We could do this, but we would never get anywhere. The world is big. Our lives are complicated, intertwined, impacted heavily by myriad systems, governments, institutions, media. We have many decisions to make, large and small. We are bombarded by an immense amount of information, and yet we are expected to make sense of it all—we are expected to employ our reason and some elusive and illusory "common sense". Frankly there is not enough time. We have to deal with most of it without checking. We have to take a lot of what we know on faith. We have to trust. I submit that our trust has been deeply violated. I submit further that the violation of this trust is largely at the hands of those institutions we were supposed to trust most. Government. Education. Science.

In his book The Threat to Reason, Daniel Hind argues that, contra the shrill liberal whingeing about the threat to "civilization" allegedly posed by religious fanaticism, the true threat to reason, in the best sense of the Enlightenment tradition, is what he calls "Occult Enlightenment". To brutally simplify his argument, this is to say that modern science, in many ways the embodiment of the best the Enlightenment tradition has had to offer, with all its obvious successes, on balance is in service to the maintenance and deepening of power. As Hind puts it, this Occult Enlightenment, or "military-industrial Enlightenment", "is a machine for absorbing information and radiating deception. Within it, the history of Enlightenment, its methods, even the enlightened attitude towards knowledge, serve the purposes of domination." And this service to domination is detectable, if not always obvious. We pick up on it. We are expected to put our trust in experts, and we usually do. But that trust has been eroded. In varying degrees we may maintain it, but it is fragile. Science is in service to power, but it's also utopian. Science seeks to improve on the world, and at its best, it would improve the world for all, not just a few. But even this seeking is within a framework that is often at odds with how life goes about its business. Often modern science has, quite unscientifically, made assumptions about the world, and in league with power (beholden to power, to capital), it has re-made the world. And scientific expertize is highly rarefied, far beyond the reach of average people, whose lives are unavoidably lived in that re-made world, lives deeply impacted by technocratic applications of modern science, for relative good and for ill. It should not be surprising that technology is experienced as a kind of magic and that the knowledge and expertize behind it is experienced as mysterious and occult. (Hell, as I have observed many times in the past, even—especially?—liberals and technocrats look on technological change as mysterious and somehow natural, agentless, automatic.) As such, it contributes to the lack of autonomy people feel they have over their own lives. . .

I've written a bit more than I intended, while at the same time I could go on and on, expanding on various points, etc, but I'm not going to do that right now. And I don't really have any closing thoughts that would effectively tie everything together. Consider this, then, further exploration, until next time, into the recurring topics of trust and autonomy. . .

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Deflationary Critique

Recently at Rough Theory:
I have tried to make an extended argument that Capital needs to be read as a deflationary text – meaning that, where other forms of theory tend to presuppose certain “givens”, on the basis of which they then conduct their analysis, Capital tries not to do this. It tries, instead, to show how the major tools in its analytical toolkit – including foundational categories like “society”, “history”, or “material life” – are actively produced by specific forms of human interactions, and therefore reflect the distinctive sensibilities that are primed by particular forms of collective practice.


The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.

Normally Marx keeps this squarely in view. Sometimes... not so much.
As David Harvey stresses, though many mischaracterize Marx as arguing such givens, his method is much more fluid. He is describing a process, the various aspects of which are themselves not fixed in place, so his method must remain in motion, and generally does. I admit that I am increasingly interested in what Marx may have missed, for example in the context of the all-important feminist critique of Marx's analysis (I hesitate to say "Marxism", though the critique is of that too); I tend to believe that Marx himself would have encouraged this. It is this very open-ness, this fluidity, which keeps me coming back to Marx himself and which means that a serious engagement with Capital especially is still very much in the works.

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Structuring Metaphors

Last week Mark Thwaite had an excellent post touching on, among other things, David Shields' Reality Hunger (a book which sounds wildly unappealing to me; see also Stephen Mitchelmore's post on that book), Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism (about which I still have a few things in the works), Derrida, Marx, Hamlet, etc. Mark writes:
We read Spectres of Marx and note that 'Hamlet' allows Derrida to think, and to think of Marx. 'Hamlet' supplies him with the metaphors that allow him to unpack Marx's own metaphors and allow us to see how these metaphors structure Marx, structure 'Hamlet' and could deconstruct (unstructure) our idea both of Marxism and the destructive reality of our capitalist present.
And in a recent post at American Leftist about the recent split in the British Socialist Workers Party, Richard Estes comments on the differences between anarchists and Marxist-Leninists, and says:
One anarchist novelist recently said, I distrust any activists who don't read fiction. The remark struck a nerve with me, because I have had a similar experience with political activists generally, that the ones who were disinterested in various forms of cultural expression, like theatre, film and literature, were the most rigid and intolerant. There is a relativism in such creations that enhances one's perception of the world and one's place in it.
Marrying these two paragraphs together, the experience of art reorients us towards the world, and one could say that imaginative literature, fiction, helps us to think about "the destructive reality of our capitalist present" whether or not it thinks it's explicitly about that, whether or not the writer is apparently on the "right" side. That, indeed, the relativism in such creations can help us to unpack and to structure reality, to work through the metaphors necessary to a political understanding of reality.

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