Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, November 17, 2017

On pluck: translating the Brecht essay on Five Difficulties in writing the truth

Berthold Brecht wrote a small essay, meant for covert distribution in Nazi Germany, entitled Five Difficulties with writing the truth.
Thank God that we don’t live in Nazi Germany. Thank God that we don’t live in present day Yemen, which is being systematically starved to death by our ally, Saudi Arabia, using weapons sold to it by the U.S., France, the U.K., etc.
Our bad time is different.
Anyway, though this essay has been translated, I thought I’d try doing the intro paragraph and the section on “Mut” – having the spirit for something, the quality of being spunky. When we hear about the bravery of women who are accusing powerful sex abusers of their crimes and violence, we are in the realm of Mut. I’ll call it pluck. Pluck, according to the OED, went through an interesting etymological journey to arrive at the colloquial term, as they call it, for having boldness or courage. The word pluck comes from a mass of Germanic and Latin words implying untangling, peeling, unfeathering, etc. From this, the word worked itself in deeper, to connote the guts – what is plucked out of, say, a chicken. And from the guts it worked itself toward the temperament corresponding to the heart: pluck. I rather like this origin, which is less military than courage or bravery, more about the ordinary tasks characteristically allotted to women in peasant societies.
“Today, whoever wants to fight lies and ignorance and wants to write the truth has to surmount at least five difficulties. He must have the pluck to write the truth when it is being suppressed on all side; the cleverness to recognize it, although it is being hidden on all sides; the art to make it handy as a weapon; the judgement, to select those into whose hands one entrusts it; and the cunning, to distribute it to the latter.These difficulties are enormous for those who write under fascism, but they still insist themselves even in the case of those who have been hunted out of fascist countries, and even for those who write in the lands of bourgeois freedom.

1. The pluck, to write the truth. It seems self-evident, that the writer should write the truth in the sense, that he doesn’t suppress it or fall silent about it, and that he shouldn’t write the untruth. He should not bow to the might, he should not betray the weak. Naturally it is very hard not to bow to the mighty, and very advantageous, to betray the weak. To get on the bad side of the possessing class means renouncing possession oneself. To renounce payment for work performed means under certain circumstances to renounce work at all, and to waive fame among the mighty often means simply to wave fame. For this, one must be plucky. Times of the worst oppression are marked by the fact that all the speeches are about great and high things. It takes pluck in such times to speak of low and small things, like eating and the living spaces of the workers, in the midst of the violent cries that the spirit of sacrifice is the main thing necessary.  When the farmers are being showered with praises, it takes pluck to speak of machines and cheap feed, which will lighten their loads. When it is hollered on the radio waves that the man with no knowledge and education is better than the man with knowledge and education, than it is plucky to ask: for whom is he better?   When speeches are made of formed and halfformed races, it is plucky to ask if perhaps hunger and ignorance and war are not bringing forth our misbirths. Just as it requires pluck to talk the truth about oneself, over the defeated. Many, who are persecuted, lose the ability to recognize their mistakes.Persecution seems to them to be the greatest injustice. The persecutors, since they persecute, are evil, while they, the persecuted, are being persecuted because of their goodness. But this goodness has been struck down, defeated and impeded, and was thus a weak goodness, a bad, unstable, unreliable goodness; because it doesn’t do to say that the weak are good the way that rain is wet. To say that the good have not been defeated, because they were good, but because they were weak, requires pluck.”
I’ve been pretty free with my translation of the difficult last two sentences. It pretty much sums up, though, the difference between the victim, on the one hand, and the justice of a cause, on the other. Victimization does not make the victim good, even if it makes the victimizer bad.  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

my inexhaustible thirst for blowing up statues

The panic on the right about the taking down of the Confederate statues derives from a sense of time that is shared by the left: this is the time that Deleuze, in Logic of Sense, refers to as aion. Aion, for Deleuze (following the stoics) sees the present as a fiction, dividing infinitely between the past and the future. Chronos, the rival temporal schema, sees the present as the only time. The past is composed of presents that have been superceded by other presents and the future will be composed of presents in the same way. Chronos is imminently the time frame of liberalism. We can manage the past, as an obsolete present, and see how it leads to the now. The now is neither haunted nor iffy.

However: against the liberal interpretation, the left sees the razing of the Confederate statues as opening up the past that exists in the Now, in connection with other pasts. For instance, the past of sexual harassment, which of course also has its statues.

In the Democratic party, the statue from the past that is being gingerly tapped is that of Bill Clinton. This article from, of all places, Vox, is a definite sign. What we know about Bill Clinton and the various women that have accused him of sexual harassment and even rape – in the case of Juanita Broaddrick – is something that we keep trying to put out of sight. We wrapped it all tightly in the word consensual. But given the accusations against Trump, and given the pattern we see again and again with people like Harvey Weinstein, the consensual dodge is wearing thin.

Personally, I think that Clinton has escaped even in the post-Presidential years reckoning with his relation to women. The right hammers about his relationship to Jeffrey Epstein – and they are right to do so. The right is deathly silent about Trump’s relationship to Jeffrey Epstein. And meanwhile, the scandal of what a billionaire can get away with who is raping underaged girls and pimping them out continues to show what a joke the American judicial system has become.

I find it interesting how the powerful sexual harassers group together. Certainly Bill Clinton, Trump and Epstein seemed to group together. Like, well, like a cluster of confederate monuments.
What Faulkner said about the South really applies to the whole U.S. since the civil rights era: The past is not dead. It’s not even past.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A rhetorical question

Who among us has not felt intimations of a certain permanent nausea, a nausea of the brain cells, during this ice age of reaction in which we live, cocooned in the ephemerally invulnerable systems erected since the beginning of the Cold War, feeding our intellects on our irritation and imaginary apocalypses? Imaginary, I say, for us – not for, say, your average Yemeni.  And of course, for those who have eyes to see, the minor apocalypse – to give it its true historical scale – of an American middle class that has been persuaded, in the age of Reagan, to cut its throat and think, while it is lapping up its own blood, that it is enjoying the very champagne of capitalism. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

biography and formalism - first round

 The obvious objection to the pure formalist’s notion that biography has nothing to do with the artist’s work is that, indeed, biography provides the unifying link that gives you one distinct level of your units of analysis. We don’t jumble together War and Peace and Sense and Sensibility, on this level, but put Sense and Sensibility in that unit called “Jane Austin’s work” and “War and Peace” in what we call Tolstoy’s work,  and so on. To compare “Jane Austin” to “Leo Tolstoy” is to reference these unities.
When we don’t have those unities, in fact, we get worried. We want all of Plato’s works to be by Plato, and Shakespeare’s to be by Shakespeare, and since the mechanism of publication in Plato’s and Shakespeare’s epochs did not color within the lines and give us straightforward attributions, we have scholars mightily working on the sidelines to either purge the units comprising their works or add others to them. Not surprisingly, these scholars refer to … the agreed corpus of Shakespeare’s and Plato’s works to make their arguments.
But what the biography means after we have all agreed that these are the terms of the game is another matter. Some would say that the unity of an artist’s work is different from that of a philosopher or scientist. The unity of Einstein’s work, for instance, is secondary to the universe that it tries to account for. Shakespeare cannot be overthrown by the behavior of real Princes who happen to be in Hamlet’s position, but Einstein can be overthrown if we find evidence that the speed of light is not the fastest thing in the universe. If Einstein actually stole the proof from his wife, it would lower our opinion of Einstein (the stealer!) but not of the theory of general relativity.
Of course, we “find” our proves for science through science. We don’t have any direct oracle from nature. Unless, like Newton, we think that science makes no hypotheses, and the math is just that direct oracle from nature, more direct than any hearing or echolocation. In which case, there is a sense in which there are no authors in science, there are just figures.
But in the social sciences and in philosophy, we don’t have science in that sense. We have Marx, we have Keynes, we have Wittgenstein, we have Heidegger – we have a set of figures who seem, like Tolstoy or Austin, to have an authorial relation to their texts.
The next defense of the formalist is that at least here, we can forget the vices and virtues of the figures and speak of their arguments in the same way that we can speak of the formal characteristics and values that go into building a poem, play, or novel.
This, at least, is one way of building the argument.
The deconstructive intervention strikes, in a sense, here. Or let us say, the deconstructionist reshuffles the cards.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

the geography of subjective experience

There's the geography of maps, where the objects are a town, a river, a mountain, and then there is the subjective map, where the objects are all object-events: getting lost, coming home, being-in-a-strange-apartment. The subjective map has a very different scale - it measures not inches, miles, or kilometers, but uniqueness and repetitions. For instance, the geography of getting lost depends upon its position in the scale of encounters with a place - getting lost in the same place the second time is a harder thing to do, and eventually, if you keep coming back, you aren't lost at all and the lostness that you once experienced seems like a dream. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

the battle between the list and the dialogue

There are two stories about Protagoras. In the hostile account of his life written by Diogenes Laertius, it is said that he was a porter, a relatively humble position, and that he invented a porter’s pad for carrying things. But in Philostratas’s Lives of the Sophists he is given a much grander birth, being the son of a wealthy citizen of Abdera who “amassed wealth beyond most men in Thrace”, and who entertained King Xerxes in his house. Philostratus claims that this Persian connection effected Protagoras’s thinking, since he became versed, to an extent, in the doctrines of the Persian magi. Whereas Diogenes Laertius (writing with all the snobbery of the ancient world at his back) attributes Protagorus’s education to Democritus, who was impressed by Protagoras’s invention of the porter’s pad. Somehow, this story rings with the implication of slander – it gives Protagoras’s cunning all too menial a cast. And yet Diogenes also casually attributes the invention of philosophy by dialogue, or the Socratic method, to Protagoras – a rather big invention, the invention of a form, which Diogenes, in his usual way, mentions and goes on. The  biographies of the Philosophers tumble and jumble off the page like some inventory landslide, leaving us frustrated, howling outside of the sacked walls for more.  
One thing that is agreed between Philostratus and Diogenes is that Protagorus, like Socrates, was accused in Athens of disbelief in the Gods. In Philostratus, his person was condemned, and he fled from place to place like a philosophical Flying Dutchman, seeking refuge, until he drowned in a shipwreck. Diogenes L, however, maintains merely that his book, On the Gods, was burned in Athens. He read this book, supposedly, at Euripides house. The scandalous import of the book comes out in Diogenes quotation: “As to the Gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.”
This quotation, of course, doesn’t tell us much about the argument that Protagoras develops about the gods; for after all, the argument might show that most probably, they exist, and that their existence is bound up in our not knowing. Or otherwise. Protagoras’s life – which is a bit undecidable itself – might have provided a good context in which to ponder undecidablity and the shortness of human life. Surely some echo of Protagoras’s phrase is contained in the story, in Acts, that Paul discovered an altar in Athens inscribed, to the unknown God.
I have always found Protagoras a sympathetic figure, whether or not he came from the working class. He has been demonized for millenia as the “founder” of relativism. One of Protagoras’s book, lost like all of them, has the nice, Nietzschian title of “Truth, or The Overthrower” - (Kataballontes Logoi). What we have from Protagoras (as though proving the shortness of man’s life has an imminent effect on what he can know) is fragments, the most famous of which, pondered wonderfully in the Theaetetus, is: ‘Of all things, the measure is man, of things which are, that they are, of things which are not, that they are not.’ What this means is elusive, of course. It is not that man is the inventor of all things – nor does it say that things do not exist outside of man. These are, of course, possible interpretations. But it puts man in the position of “measurer”, and in one sense that goes well with the Pythagorian viewpoint according to which number is at the ontological base of things. Yet in another sense, it displaces number with the measurer – begging the question of whether measure itself “depends” on man.
Myself, I think the measure fragment links up to what DL claims about Protagoras’s invention of the socratic dialogue for doing philosophy. DL writes that Protagoras was the first to say “that on everything (pragmatos) there are two accounts (logous) opposed each other.” This would seem to make  “man”  the measurer a more suspect unity; for if pragmatos is the kind of thing that is subject to exponential account making, it might be more reasonably said that of all things, the measureless is man. Plato of course saw this, but he nevertheless decided that “man” meant an aggregate of individuals, each person, instead of something like Dasein, or the collectivity of the human, divided within itself. If we are seeking the geneology of what Bakhtin calls “broadness” – the way many views, acts, desires and beliefs can be attributed to persons, without there being a core coherence – then we would have to start, I think, with Protagoras.
There is a story about Protagoras that is recounted in Plutarch’s life of Pericles that exemplifies this theme. Pericles bratty son published a “Daddy Dearest” book trying to mock Pericles for, among other things, hanging with the sophists. “For instance, a certain athlete had hit Epitimus the Pharsalian with a javelin, accidentally, and killed him, and Pericles, Xanthippus said, squandered an entire day discussing with Protagoras whether it was the javelin, or rather the one who hurled it, or the judges of the contests, that "in the strictest sense" ought to be held responsible for the disaster.” This was an entire waste of time for the son, Xanthippus; but it is a moment of radical recognition that stands out in legal history, with the sense that liability can be mediate as well as immediate. But what we see, in this discussion with Pericles, is an effect of there being two sides to each question, and two sides after that – two sides, indeed, to whether the right question is being asked.
The interesting question to ask of those who oppose relativism relates to this issue of measure and measurelessness, and it is the question of the disposability of form, whether it can be discarded once we get to substance, or whether it is, indeed, so tied to substance that our abstraction of one from the other is a distortion. To put it another way, by rejecting Protagoras, which happens in the Theaetetus, is Plato actually rejecting the socratic method? Is he rejecting Socrates? For if Socrates is taking up Protagoras’s technique, it would seem, from Plato’s non-relativist view, that Socrates made a mistake, gave too much to the enemy. For Protagoras’s invention would seem designed never to get us closer to what we want - the list of imperatives in the realms of knowledge, ontology, ethics and aesthetics that can tell us what is true and what is false, what is knowledge and what isn’t, what exists and what doesn’t, what is right and what isn’t, what is beautiful and what isn’t.
With Protagoras, don’t we begin, in earnest, the battle between the dialogue and the list?

Sunday, November 05, 2017

shower tourism

Who among us is not aware of shower tourism? By this, I do not simply mean the always tentative exploration of hotel bathrooms, with their varying accommodation for the traveler, their little tubes of cheap shampoo and body gel, which one nevertheless pockets, their towels of varying thicknesses, and their surprisingly common problem with retaining water in the shower or shower/tub area – the latter being home to a curious penchant among hoteliers for what is called, in the industry, the “flexible curtain track”, which allows ample space to pull the curtain shut – but which always produces a sizeable puddle at the end of the lustration process. That puddle into which the showerer plunges his feet, with a light grimace, when removing himself from the shower – how well we know it. Unlike our bathroom, however, the puddle is a matter for someone else to clean up. Yes, the hotel bathroom deserves a whole chapter to itself, but at the moment, I am talking of another facet of this micro-world, which consists of using the showers of others – of friends or family with whom one is staying, or who are staying with one. Both aspects are noteworthy – tourism is, in this sense, a transitive property, since if you have guests staying with you, your quarters are, for the length of the stay, going to be somewhat alien to you. In other words, the tourist is a catalytic creature at whose touch the familiar becomes a tourist site. It is this logico-magical property that makes for the tragedy of tourism, as the tourist searches for an authenticity which his very presence destroys.
Myself, I have stayed with many a host. I have entered naked into many a tiled domain in apartment and house,  and, testing the water from the shower head or wand, surveyed the various unguents stored there. Sometimes, of course, I have entered carrying my own; sometimes, I confess, I have “borrowed” alien creams, soaps, shampoos and the like. This, you will say, is pretty un-guestly. It is a sort of vice. But it is also part of our everyday novel-writing – since we all engage in living through, or parasiting, other characters now and then. The grocery clerk surveys the line and sees Mrs. X and Mr. Y and that girl who always comes in and buys one item and the old woman who makes you go through endless rolls of curly edged coupons, the auto saleman guesses at the libido of the 20 year old guy, etc., etc. The self comes and goes, it doesn’t preceed self-interest so much as it follows it, becoming at worst a ghostly selfishness, and at best a moral worry.
So it is with conditioners. As we know from Kracauer and Benjamin, the houses and apartments we live in are potentially only repositories of clues for the classic detective. The doilies in the living room may be bought for decorative reasons, but ultimately they serve to soak up the blood from the murder victim,  along with the velvety pillow. The shower contains – like the computer and its files – a veritable history of the owner of the shower for those with the eyes to see. Are the hair products bought from the low end? Are they cheap and general? Or are they bought from the high end, and are they expensive and specialized? Is the language on them, by any chance, French? Or English? Do the shower gels refer to milk? To almonds? To glowing skin?

The shower process itself nourishes speculation. We stand under the fierce beating down of warm drops and we think. We ponder the day, the tasks. We make up verses. We make up grocery lists. There are, of course, people who simply shower to get clean. But as every tv ad for shampoo or soap makes clear, cleaning is secondary to the ecstasy of soaping and rinsing, to swinging, fresh hair, to sparkling eyes, to the smell that film is just on the edge of throwing at you if it could – the whole transcends its tawdry utilitarian purpose as much as advertisement’s speedy expensive car transcends that mere metal carapace stuck in traffic jams and hustled into parking lots. Advertisement has a way of changing the purposes of the acts of everyday life. In the case of the shower, it has cinematized our experience.
There is a reason that some sing in the shower.