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

Saturday, March 24, 2018

How important is the presidency, anyway?

One of the hot topics in the (internet) circles I run in is: is Trump the worst president? Which has replaced the hot topic of 2004, which was: is Bush the worst president?
At the time of the Bush is the worst fad, I was all: kinda, sorta, but with reservations.

This is what I wrote back then:
“It is easy to think that our present Bush is the worst Bush who has ever ruled over us. The citizens of Rome, whenever Nero committed some new jape, no doubt cast their eyes back longingly to the good old days of Caligula. Whenever we find out about Bush’s newest low – from the vacations of August, 2001, while the hijackers were asking directions to the nearest airport, to the Spring of 2002, when political intervention cut off the main American chance to deal a stunning military blow to Al Qaeda, to the mass thefts on behalf of the greediest and worst that are bankrupting the state, to, of course, the web of war crimes and lies that compose the entirety of his current foreign policy – we are tempted to sigh, as many liberals do, that this is the worst president of our lifetime.

Yesterday, we picked up a real crime book – Blue Thunder: how the mafia owned and finally murdered Cigarette boat king Donald Aronow, by Thomas Burdick. The book was written in the late eighties. There are amusing period touches – at one point, a DEA agent explains how they spot drug dealers at Julio Iglesias concerts: who else brings a portable phone to a concert? Indeed. Aronow was a Miami business and sportsman, famous in motorboat circles both for the designs of his boats and the records he set racing them. In 1984, he impressed his good friend, Vice President George Bush, by taking him around Miami bay in a prototype speedboat that Bush enjoyed so enormously that, in his (bizarre) position as head of a South Florida drug task force, he recommended ordering grosses of them for the DEA. The boats, named Blue Thunders, were produced by Aronow, apparently, and bought, given this recommendation, by the DEA.

Aronow was gunned down in a mob hit. Burdick, investigating the murder, was puzzled by rumors he heard about the Blue Thunders. The DEA had apparently failed to interdict even one drug craft with the boats. The design of the boats was so bad that the agents using them had to be more alert for engine explosions than for the chugging of speedy boats full of drug smugglers. The enigma was explained when he uncovered the fact that Aronow’s company was secretly owned by Jack and Ben Kramer. Jack and Ben were names in the boat industry – but they were more famous when they were hauled into court and charges with running the largest marijuana smuggling operation in the U.S.

Yes, this happened. The war on drugs had many farcical moments, but this has to be one of the funniest. Bush, it goes without saying, cut his ties of compassion to Widow Aronow, and went on, as President, to intensify the War against drugs to the point that the misery inflicted on one to two million Americans, imprisoned under his draconian regime, and the laws and procedures he introduced that were, with exemplary cowardice, left undisturbed by Clinton, do dwarf the misery inflicted by the current Bush whelp. Although to give him his fair share of abuse, the current Bush, ravening for Iraqi blood, is well on his way to surpassing his pa in terms of sheer feebleness.

Incidentally, Burdick includes a little aside that hints at how, well, lucky the Bushes are in Florida. When Ben Kramer was arrested, apparently original copies of the primary speeches given by Gary Hart were found in his safe. Kramer and Aronow belonged to a ‘swinging” club, Turnberry Isle. It was from Turnberry Isle that Gary Hart extracted his temporary honey, Donna Rice, who was photographed with him on a boat in the Miami harbor. How did the press find out about this? An apparently anonymous tip from another Turnberry hostess. This isn’t to say that the Bush organization, using its dirty connections in Florida, culled the Democratic field in order to organize the elevation of Bush to the presidency. To believe that would be to believe, well, that the Bushes would do anything to retain power, including corrupting an election…”

Back in 2004, to doubt that George W. Bush was the worst president was treated as some kind of treason in some liberal circles. The same thing is happening now for our current shit-for-brains prez. All of which makes for a nice parlor game, but… does it make for real politics?
The real political question should be: how much do presidents count? In other words, the whole point of electing a president is to implement certain policies that the electors want. But once the president is elected, the collected mass of the policies that have been implemented – that overwhelming concrete mass – means that mostly, presidents will try to operate on the trend, rather than revolutionizing the content. This means the experience of governing is always, for those who most favor massive change, an experience of mourning. One mourns the president one thought one was electing.

Certainly that was my experience of the Obama years from 2009-2012. In his second term, I didn’t have high hopes, and Obama was, I think, better in those four years – save for the love of the TPP.
One of the ways in which mourning is averted is to concentrate on those who are attacking the president one has voted for. This makes it easier to think that the president is revolutionizing content, since he is so completely seen as doing so by his opponents.

Yet trends do have an effect. Certain presidents, like Ronald Reagan, worked the trend in such a way that it became the dominant trend for his successors, even today. We are spending about 600 billion dollars to much for the military annually due to Ronald Reagan, and we are spending about a trillion less annually on social insurance – and the collective infrastructure – due to Ronald Reagan. But note that here: Reagan refers less to the man who was president than the collectivity of compromises and agreements by which D.C. was governed in his time. The trends I pick out of Reagan’s presidency were already present in Jimmy Carter’s.

What presidents can do more successfully is negate trends that grew stronger under their successors. For all his military spending and attempts to “shrink government”, Carter was strong about energy saving, ecology, and the environment. Reagan certainly destroyed these things, and they have never come back – hence the disaster we all know we are heading towards, and the hope we have that maybe random volcanic activity will be enough to preserve a livable earth for our children, or that at least these children won’t live in the large swathes of the world in which the water is going to dry up or the seasons are going to become Martian-like.

I suppose the reason that Trump – or any of the Republicans on offer in 2016 – was going to inevitably become the worst president is more because of larger trends that the U.S., and in general the capitalist system, simply is not designed to meet. From an inequality that has pretty much terminated a lot of what we used to have in terms of a democratic culture – one in which, for instance, we had an ideal of equality in the courtroom, now a distant dream – to a global environmental mess, we have deeper and deeper problems. Which is why the choice between Make America Great Again versus America is Already Great is such a farce.  

Friday, March 23, 2018

the strike yesterday in Paris

There were ten police vans going up Rue de la Bretagne, which was a good predictor of a political rally by the left. It was gray, a penetrating over the seasonal deadline gray, a where is spring gray. Weather in cities: I could make a concept album. Everybody was walking around still wrapped up in scarves and long coats. Not gloves, though – the average Parisian seems to have lost the glove habit. Me, I’m a glove man. My hands get cold. I walked along and observed the traffic, which was snarled. The Marais seems to have been converted into a vast chantier since we moved back. It is a sign that the French economy is coming back, but it is also an irritation. The traffic was even worse because streets were arbitrarily blocked and the busses were running on an irregular schedule.  The grève had knocked out a lot of public functions, and one noticed.  Paris without these functions is rather like a sentence that had lost its punctuation, its commas and periods. It becomes a vast run-on.
I headed up to the Bastille. Walking along Beaumarchais, a sweet old lady gave me an anti-globalization handout. There were posters up against the EU. This gave me a sinking feeling. I understand that the EU was designed to spread neo-liberalism in Europe, and that the last ten years have been terrible – it is as if the policymakers at the EU had skipped the economic course about Keynes. Instead of shoveling money into the economy for the workers, the EU’s big solution was to shovel money into the banks for the banks. The reasons for this were multiple, but they all came down to one thing: the poohbahs at the top want to remain as wealthy, and are willing to use the power of the state to do it.

However, the framework of the EU doesn’t necessitate this kind of austerity economics. I’m for a reformed EU. But I think the EU poohbahs have underestimated how they have lost the patience of the people. I still don’t think they get it, don’t get what a massive force popular impatience can become.

Political thoughts. I go on up the street, approach the Bastille monument, which is surrounded at the base by a high wall. I look around. There are signs, posters, but no demonstration, no marchers. I thought they would be here by 3:00, but apparently getting hundreds of thousands of people to move from Bercy to the Bastille takes more time than I had reckoned on. So I hang around with a small group of communists, read their literature. Again, I have a bad feeling. Macron-Holland-Sarkozy reforms work, partly, by shaping the options. Instead of reshaping the options, calling for massive eco infrastructure investment by the state, and raising salaries, etc., the leaflets are all about analyzing the reforms sarcastically and defending the status quo. You don’t win if you don’t promise the goods. You just keep retreating. That, at least, is my feeling.

Alas, after a while, I have to make my way back. I have to get groceries and pick up Adam. So I missed the great assembly of the workers. Like is this a symbol or what? Still, I’m not going to croak like a crow. This day was well worth it. And I’d like to think that my sinking feeling that Macronism is inevitable is one of those momentary internal surrenders that happens with those of us who are prone to mainlining the news for breakfast. Which, don’t do.    

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

the movie and the stop button

1980 is not a bellweather year. Hostage crisis, inflation, campaign between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, these are the faint associative chimes that ring out for the American goof. But it was quietly decisive in one way for the arts, for that was the year in which the VCR entered the American consciousness as more than just a hobbyists item mentioned in Popular Photography. True, Betamax had come out in 1975, and there were expensive alternatives on the market, but it was roughly around 1980 that a critical mass had been achieved. Meaning that you didn’t have to explain what a VCR was. In 1981, Jack Valenti, stooge of the movie industry, said: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." It is the ritual of technological dissemination that the corporations it seems to threaten throw their lobbyists at it, and then they figure out how to capture it and use it for themselves. Money money money.

What was decisive, it seems to me, was the ability not so much to record film, but to stop it.
This is reflected in the way film was written about. Before the VCR, film exhibition was generally a public thing that the writer on film had to experience like everybody else – that is, as a continuous, forward moving reel. A reel that you could not stop and rewind. In this sense, it fulfilled that cliché about the book whose pages “you can’t stop reading” – except that this magic book would, indeed, have become something unheimlich if you really couldn’t stop reading it, if the pages refused to turn back or to stop.

The VCR put an end to that for the masses.

Jean Epstein, writing in the 1920s, had a prevision that film had yet to be understood in its true metaphysical and lexical glory – the words had to be invented for it, and so did the concepts:
“The Bell-Howell is a brain in a standardized, factory made, commercially distributed metal box, which transforms world exterior to it into art. The Bell-Howell is an artist and only behind it are there other artists: the director and the operator. Finally, you can buy a sensibility and you can find it in the marketplace and pay a tax on it as you do for coffee or an Oriental rug. The gramophone is, from this point of view, a failure – or simply remains undiscovered. We must find what it deforms or where it choses. Have we registered on a disc the sound of the street, of motors, of railroad stations? Some day perhaps we will see that the gramophone is made for music like the cinema is made for theater – that is, not at all, and that it has its proper way. For we must use this unhoped for discovery of a subject which is an object, without a conscience, that is without hesitation nor scruples, without venality, no smugness, nor possible error, an entirely honest artist, exclusively art, the artist type.”
Epstein was an imaginative film writer and maker, like many in the 20s. What he gives us is a machine that is an artist in as much as it transforms the world exterior to it. But what he doesn’t give us is the crucial moment when that machine stops. It stops, and the subject and object fall apart again. Or… perhaps not. Certainly they don’t fall apart again in the traditional way, where reason is the differand – not stopping. We don't have a metaphysics of stopping even now.
I have not had the infinite amount of time necessary to research my thesis, but it seems to me that reading, say, the excellent Gaby Wood article on “In a Lonely Place” in the current LRB, one is not struck with the way she goes into the scene in which Gloria Gayner, playing Laurel Gray, is brought down to the police station to give testimony about Humphrey Bogart, playing Dix Steele, her neighbor. Wood goes “around” that scene, so to speak. She quotes it, she goes into the placement of the characters, the raised eyebrow of Gloria, Bogart with his back to her – it is as if the entire scene were freeze framed, and the method used was the kind of iconographic analysis one expects from, say, Meyer Schapiro. But nobody looks at a Renaissance painting of the crucifixion and thinks of Jesus as an actor, whose personal life infiltrates the picture. The difference between the film and shot cannot be surmounted – they exist in different aesthetic worlds, go on ‘different paths”, to use Epstein’s phrase. But there is a difference in seeing the film in a way that makes its stoppable for the average viewer. It is a possibility in the movies that Epstein, for all his imagination, did not see. Film has becomereadable in another way. And I wonder – if we were in the pre-VCR age, wouldthis be written differently?

“In one of the best seduction scenes in cinema, an interrogation becomes a flirtation: third-person, no eye contact, refracted through the cops’ questions. The setting is the office of Captain Lochner in Beverly Hills police station. The language is the language of evidence. Dix Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter, has been called in over the murder of Mildred Atkinson, a girl he was with the previous evening. We’ve already seen Bogart-as-Dix take little interest in Mildred, whose job was to tell him the plot of a terrible novel he’d bleakly agreed to adapt, and here he takes no interest in her murder either. Lochner sees Dix’s indifference as incriminating – his response to the news, the policeman says, is ‘just petulance. A couple of feeble jokes.’ Dix doesn’t let up. ‘I grant you, the jokes could have been better, but I don’t see why the rest should worry you.’

Enter his alibi: Laurel Gray, a neighbour who saw him come home with Atkinson. At the threshold of the captain’s office she raises an eyebrow, just slightly, and over the next few moments it becomes clear that, for the purposes of irascible romance, Dix and she are the same person: unintimidated, less than ingratiating, sarcastic. She sits down, peers into a near-empty cup of coffee, looks up. Words are unnecessary: she’s nobody’s suspect; men have no manners.
‘Miss Gray, do you know this gentleman?’
‘Did you ever see him before?’
‘Yes, a few times.’
‘At the patio apartments. We both live there.’
‘Do you know who he is?’
Her back is to Bogart. He has one foot up on the leather sofa, arm resting nonchalantly on his knee. Though he’s sitting behind her, the depth of field is at a maximum, so that they are in almost equal focus. The implication of the framing is clear: throughout this scene, though they say nothing to each other directly, the dialogue is between them.”

Saturday, March 17, 2018

the end of poetry? 2

“In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of good ones; but little poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create. They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief. The Greek Rhapsodists, according to Plato, could scarce recite Homer without falling into convulsions. The Mohawk hardly feels the scalping  knife while he shouts his death-song. The power which the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exercised over their auditors seems to modern readers almost miraculous. Such feelings are very rare in a civilised community, and most rare among those who participate most in its improvements. They linger longest among the peasantry.”

Macaulay was born in 1800, and he could easily be presented, in a history-as-coloring-book way, as a transition between the Romantics and the Victorians. But such historical accounts assume the same condescension, the same class-based view, the same cultural absolutism, as Macaulay himself is dabbling in, here.

Of course, these are the early writings of a man who had a tremendous influence, later, on the British policy in India. Rejecting the Indian-ist Enlightenment ideology of such pioneer colonizers as William Jones, the great advocate of Sanskrit literature, Macaulay wrote a famous note on Indian education that urged the worthlessness of Indian literature, in comparison with the power and science of Western literature.

Yet this public view seems to clash violently with his private tastes. Here’s the pin that hooks our moral entrepreneur.

Now, I want to locate Macaulay, but I don’t want to reduce his argument to this location. For the argument winds its way through modernism itself – with that mood of gathering “fragments against our ruin”. Hegel, with whose writings Macaulay was probably not acquainted, was coincidentally writing the vast obituary of art in his lectures between 1823 and 1826. Hegel also (like Macaulay) thinks that the end of art is the end of the power of art – of some power that lay in the past, and that is uncomfortable with, and ultimately incongruous with, an “enlightened” society. Hegel, too, takes it that the enlightened society is a critical one – and that art survives its death by becoming the criticism of art.

Which is a pretty rapid summing up of Hegel, for which I don’t want to be held liable in a court of law. What I want to do is remark on this moment – the shared characteristics between Macaulay and Hegel - and both its truth as a sociological observation and its effect on poetry.

This is an issue that, among critics who are concerned with poetry alone, has been poked rather gingerly of late, with the emphasis being on the “appreciation of poetry” as a marketing problem. Just put a buncha breathless recitations on NPR and voila, we are saved.

But I think that the problem is not even approached in this way. Macaulay and Hegel are both talking of the “space” of the poem. In connecting the Mohawk with the peasant, Macaulay is trying to make a point about levels of “civilization.” One doesn’t have to accept this bourgeois point in order to wonder about the spaces of the poem, where it is read, or spoken, or listened to, how it migrates through media (since I have a very broad view that popular song is poetry too – good or bad), how it lingers in chapbooks and little magazines, I find the question of how a society run on the basis of our society can afford poetry to be an essential one.

Which I’ll approach next.

Friday, March 16, 2018

the end of poetry?

Better theories and worse poems

When Thomas Macaulay went to Cambridge in 1818, everybody expected he would do brilliantly, since he had been born doing brilliantly – talking brilliantly, reading Latin when he was five, making up brilliant arguments when he was 15, and so on. He did shine at Cambridge, but he didn’t take away the highest honors. This was due to his detestation of Mathematics. Classic Barbie said, “math is hard”. Too bad classic Barbie was never stuffed with Macaulay’s words to his Mom about the subject:

“I can scarcely bear to write on Mathematics or Mathematicians. Oh for words to express my abomination of that science, if a name sacred to the useful and embellishing arts may be applied to the perception and recollection of certain properties in numbers and figures! Oh that I had to learn astrology, or demonology, or school divinity! Oh that I were to pore over Thomas Aquinas, and to adjust the relation of Entity with the two Predicaments, so that I were exempted from this miserable study! "Discipline" of the mind! Say rather starvation, confinement, torture, annihilation! But it must be. I feel myself becoming a personification of Algebra, a living trigonometrical canon, a walking table of Logarithms. All my perceptions of elegance and beauty gone, or at least going. By the end of the term my brain will be "as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage." Oh to change Cam for Isis! But such is my destiny; and, since it is so, be the pursuit contemptible, below contempt, or disgusting beyond abhorrence, I shall aim at no second place. … Milton's descriptions have been driven out of my head by such elegant expressions as the following

Cos1 + 1 -   ∕1+2 etc.”

It is fascinating to watch this repulsion towards mathematic grow into the conviction that mathematics and science were the cognitive and cultural rivals of poetry, engaged in a life or death duel. The first and finest expression of this is in an essay Macaulay wrote on Milton – the poet who, in his 1819 letter, was driven out of his head by parody math – that applies these ideas to a primitive but powerful whiggish idea that history put a certain version of Europe at its center. In as much as Europe, here, includes the white dominated Anglosphere, that idea still dominates our politics and intellectual history.
Macaulay’s essay on Milton was a review of Milton’s recently discovered Latin manuscript, Doctrinâ Christianâ libri duo posthumi. Macaulay, quite evidently, was not doing the essay because he was an expert on Christian apologetics. Rather, his interest was on Milton the person and Milton the poet. As a person, Milton was treated by the conservative English intelligentsia rather as Neruda is treated by American conservatives: as an accomplice to terrorism. After all, he was Oliver Cromwell’s secretary, and Cromwell was the great blot on a version of English history that could grudgingly accept the Glorious Revolution, but baulked at the Puritan one. Samuel Johnson’s life of Milton was full of denigrating comments, the best of which is the following:

“Cromwell had now dismissed the parliament by the authority of which he had destroyed monarchy, and commenced monarch himself under the title of protector, but with kingly and more than kingly power. That his authority was lawful, never was pretended; he himself founded his right only in necessity: but Milton, having now tasted the honey of publick employment, would not return to hunger and philosophy, but, continuing to exercise his office under a manifest usurpation, betrayed to his power that liberty which he had defended. Nothing can be more just than that rebellion should end in slavery: that he, who had justified the murder of his king, for some acts which to him seemed unlawful, should now sell his services and his flatteries to a tyrant, of whom it was evident that he could do nothing lawful.

This is spoken from the very heart of conservatism. It is a heart that must contend with the irreality of its sentiments, in as much as they have to do with the real changes of any established system, and the permeating nostalgia that both incites and distances any re-establishment of a better order, since that is to make the past the rebel of the present.

Macaulay was at the time he wrote his essay an initiate, through his father, of that odd branch of Torydom that plumped for the abolition of slavery. He was on his way to a more robustly whiggish view of things. And though he learned from Johnson’s thunder, he modified it to his own way of tossing lightningbolts.

In any case, before he gets to the merits of Milton’s poetry he inserts a little disquisition on the inevitable decline of poetry in an enlightened age.
Here let me insert a large gorgeous slice of Macaulay-ism:

“We think that, as civilisation advances, poetry almost necessarily declines. Therefore, though we fervently admire those great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark ages. On the contrary, we hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilised age. We cannot understand why those who believe in that most orthodox article of literary faith, that the earliest poets are generally the best, should wonder at the rule as if it were the exception. Surely the uniformity of the phænomenon indicates a corresponding uniformity in the cause.

The fact is, that common observers reason from the progress of the experimental sciences to that of the imitative arts. The improvement of the former is gradual and slow. Ages are spent in collecting materials, ages more in separating and combining them. Even when a system has been formed, there is still something to add, to alter, or to reject. Every generation enjoys the use of a vast hoard bequeathed to it by antiquity, and transmits that hoard, augmented [6] by fresh acquisitions, to future ages. In these pursuits, therefore, the first speculators lie under great disadvantages, and, even when they fail, are entitled to praise. Their pupils, with far inferior intellectual powers, speedily surpass them in actual attainments…

But it is not thus with music, with painting, or with sculpture. Still less is it thus with poetry. The progress of refinement rarely supplies these arts with better objects of imitation. It may indeed improve the instruments which are necessary to the mechanical operations of the musician, the sculptor, and the painter. But language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals, first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical, that of a half-civilised people is poetical.”

Those half-civilized people! We are not surprised, when we read that phrase, that we will soon run into the idea that savages are perpetually at the “children’s” phase of intellectual development.

"Truth, indeed, is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness. The reasonings are just; but the premises are false. After the first suppositions have been made, every thing ought to be consistent; but those first suppositions require a degree of credulity which almost amounts to a partial and temporary derangement of the intellect. Hence of all people children are the most imaginative. They abandon themselves without reserve to every illusion. Every image which is strongly presented to their mental eye produces on them the effect of reality. No man, whatever his sensibility may be, is ever affected by Hamlet or Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story of poor Red Riding-hood. She knows that it is all false, that wolves cannot speak, that there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite of her knowledge she believes; she weeps; she trembles; she dares not go into a dark room lest she should feel the teeth of the monster at her throat. Such is the despotism of the imagination over uncultivated minds.”

The triangle that is drawn here, between the madman, the savage and the child has been analyzed by Johannes Fabian, the anthropologist, in terms of “allochrony” – a way of allotting different time zone types to contemporaneous cultures. The savage in the Americas of 1825 is both a child and living in the “stone age”, while the trousered author of the review of Milton is living in the age of the Enlightenment.  Technological time recapitulates biological time in this paradigm – the child and the savage are both of a type, both poetic, both irrational, both violent, while the reviewer and the colonizer are philosophical, rational, and have a just view of the limits of imaginative power. They have no unconsciousness, while the colonized has, to stretch an antipodes, no consciousness – or little.

Now, as Macaulay was not only an admirer of poetry but a maker of it, and as he was no mathematician or admirer of it, this is a curious view to express. But lifting it away from its biographical anchoring points, it poses a question: is Macaulay right about the effect of a certain society on poetry – both on its prestige and its continuing creation?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Classic hollywood kisses

Daniel Harris’s “The Romantic”, from an essay from 1999, made the surprising argument – or rather, exhibited the  surprising implication – that the Production Code, the Catholic-generated censorship manual for movies in the era between the beginning of the talkies in the thirties to the late fifties – actually encoded a device that pornographers now generally use.  

“During the heyday of romantic Hollywood films, the cinematic kiss was not a kiss so much as a clutch, a desperate groping, a joyless and highly stylized bear hug whose duration was limited by official censors who also stipulated that the actors' mouths remain shut at all times, thus preventing even the appearance of French kissing, which was supplanted by a feverish yet passionless mashing of unmoistened lips. This oddly desiccated contact contrasted dramatically with the clawing fingers of the actresses' hands which, glittering with jewels, raked down their lovers' fully clothed backs, their nails extended like claws, full of aggression and hostility long after the star had thrown caution to the winds, abandoned her shallow pretense of enraged resistance, and succumbed wholeheartedly to her illicit longings. And then, after the ten fleeting seconds allotted by the Legion of Decency had passed, the inopportune entrance of another character often sent them dashing to opposite corners of the room where, their clothing rumpled, their hair a mess, their faces infused with fear and suspicion, they fiddled with tchotchkes on the mantel or stared pensively at spots in the carpet, retreating into the solipsistic isolation of their guilty consciences. The stiff choreography of this asphyxiating stranglehold sug gests apprehension rather than pleasure, the misgivings of two sexual outlaws who live in a world in which privacy is constantly imperilled, in which doors are forever being flung open, curtains yanked back, and unwanted tea trolleys rolled into occupied bedrooms by indiscreet maids.”
In actuality, the Legion of Decency permitted only three seconds. I must admit, I don’t recognize that desperate groping in, say, the kiss Grace Kelly gives Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window.” But there is something to Harris’s vision in the kiss that Rita Hayworth gives Orson Welles in the San Francisco aquarium in Lady From Shanghai. “Take me quick”, she says, and quick it is – although the three seconds are cleverly extended by a cut away to the unwanted presence of a group of school children, who in that instant come around the corner and see them. This kiss was long in coming – at the center of the movie is a fight between rich plutocrats aboard the yacht of Hayworth’s rich, crippled husband, which was followed by a song from la belle Rita with the sign off line: “don’t take your lips or your arms or your love … away”. This is a case of illicit longings indeed.
Even if I don’t take Harris to be accurately describing the entirety of the heyday of romantic Hollywood films, he is onto something in the censored administration of a kiss.
“Hollywood kisses are carefully arranged compositions that invite the public, not only to approach the necking couple, but to slip between them and examine at close range every blush and gasp of an act that, on the one hand, optimizes the conditions for viewing and, on the other, makes a bold pretense of solitude, of barring the door to the jealous intruder and excluding the curious stares of gaping children who stumble upon adulterous fathers while seeking lost toys in presumably empty rooms. Lovers are frequently filmed in stark silhouette against a white background so that, for purposes of visual clarity, their bodies don't obscure each other, a bulging forearm blocking from view a famous face, the broad rim of a stylish chapeau a magnificent set of wistful eyes brimming with desire - a cinematic feat of separation similar to that performed by pornographers who create a schematic type of televisual sex by prying their actors so far apart that they are joined, like Siamese twins, at the point of penetration alone.”
Ah, the cathected interdiction, the fetishized prohibition! Bataille’s insight, which was taken up by Foucault, was that here, sexual desire is secondary to its interruption. Power is not repressive so much as productive, a maker of the perversions it spends its times blotting out.
Disappointingly, after this promising start, Harris anchors his insight in a realistic ideology that has no historical basis whatsoever:
“The exaggeration of privacy in a culture that has become, relatively speaking, morally lenient is symptomatic of the distortions that occur in novels and films when artists can no longer satisfy the demands of narrative by drawing directly from their daily experiences, since actual behavior and its fictional representations are drifting further apart.” In fact, of course, this account of some realistic paradise in which artists satisfied the demands of narrative – a curious phrase, as though narrative were some hungry domesticated animal – with their “daily experiences” is entirely bogus. It was the aesthetic trend of the post-code era – of the sixties – that encouraged the idea that “daily experience” was equivalent to the authenticity that would allow us to enjoy imagined stories and poems without being accused of being childish and non-productive. The confessional is a really a bow to the puritanical edict that art must teach us something, that dedication to the aesthetic in itself was frivolous, not to say vicious.  Nor is the dip into daily experience something that was encouraged by realism in the classical sense, which was, contra Harris, a matter of showing that daily experiences are always drifting away from narrative – from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Julian Sorel, the “realist” hero par excellence, gets his narrative about himself not from his daily experiences, but from his reading of Napoleon’s memoirs. The “demand” of narrative is actually the demand of the narrator, who, grammatically and existentially, is the one who can demand. Encoded in this idea of some fatal drift between the daily experience of the artist and the art is the sovereign consumer, the hero of neo-classical economics, whose choices have an unimpeachable logic, follow Arrow Debreu’s theory of preferences, and has no personal tie to limit his only reason for existence – accumulation.
That ideology blights Harris’s essay, but I like to think about the way the cut and edit of the kiss scenes in classic Hollywood cinema accidentally gave birth to the loops of porno films, which, although seemingly all about unending coupling are, in reality, as time constrained as Rita Hayworth’s kiss.  Once one begins mapping sexual desire to the time of its representation, sexual desire becomes another factory made assemblage – a matter of intentional efficiencies. Kisses roll right off the assembly line. Is there, in the behavioral sciences, a basis for the three second kiss metric? I wonder. But its arbitrariness creates a basis for further metrics and transgressions of metrics. For instance, Hitchcock, in Notorious, got around the three second by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss for two seconds, stop, then kiss again, and so on.
How this influenced the natural history of kissing in America is a curious question I leave to the reader.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Revised version, Borges and Mctaggart

Here's a little number I tossed off a while ago. This morning I revised it.

If you are a man or woman of a certain age, according to all the wisdom literature I know, and it is a peaceful Sunday morning, and the adventures that have been the wind in your back - or the life you have sloughed - have come to a standstill for one moment, then you turn your reflections to time and its possibility, or even its possible non-existence, a non-existence that would annul the fact that you are a man or woman of a certain age, that it is Sunday, that adventure could have ever happened to you, and that you have a moment to reflect.

Reflect on time one must, because we are not watches. Watches toil not, neither do they sow – even though our language has given them hands and a face. Instead, they infinitely visit the same neighborhood of numbers. One can imagine watches different –one can imagine a little computer that you could strap to your wrist and that would just record the seconds, like a timepiece on a bomb, and thus give you a finegrained sense of your slice and dice advance towards death – or why stop there? Buried with such a thing, it could go on slicing and dicing your decay, your dust, the process of your vacuuming up from this world. But at no point in its slicing and dicing would there be a moment, an aberrant moment, in which it wondered if it was really going anywhere, or measuring anything.

My two favorite essays on time are McTaggart’s The Unreality of Time and Borges’ A New Refutation of Time. Borges, in the introduction to his essay, acknowledges the awkwardness of refuting time one more time again – and concedes that it may be that the evident solecism of the title may represent the hidden solecism that skews every sentence, so drenched is language in time, or at least, so much do our assumptions about time live in our language. It is through looking up the literature on Borges that I first heard about McTaggart. Borges’ essay is all low violin sounds, all elegy and fugue – McTaggart’s, on the other hand, is that curious thing, English idealism, all Gilbert and Sullivan, in which the brisk dispatch of a philosophical problem seems in stylistic contradiction with its import.

Indeed, it is a question that is little asked why idealism took so long to take any root in Europe, and why, when it did, it chose the most material of cultures to do so, Britain. One expects the true idealist to be scrawny, nearly naked, and with a beggar’s bowl before him – not peruked, buttoned up, and with snuff and ale within easy reach. But I would guess that the introduction of idealism in Europe through Britain has something to do with the British tradition of the ludicrous. English literature loves the ludicrous – it loves the Liliputians for their own sake. It loves a certain kind of children’s literature, it loves limericks, it loves to add that one extra and unnecessary feature that is not at all the effect of the real, but the effect of the unreal in the real – hence, Dicken’s penchant for describing the tics of his characters. If we think of idealism as the quintessence of the ludicrous, then I think we get close to why idealism first found a serious place in Britain – and why it is so different there than in, say, the philosophical systems of India, even if there exists some similarity of arguments.

John Ellis McTaggart came, of course, at the end of the great British idealist tradition. And he was overshadowed by Russell and Whitehead. In Arthur Quinn’s The Confidence of British Philosophers, there is a story that I would like to juxtapose to my ludicrous theory. When McTaggart died, he had only one disciple left, it seems: C.D. Broad. Broad edited the second edition fo McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence (1928), which fell still born from the press – and unlike Hume’s Treatise, which had a similar fate, never experienced any resuscitation by the next generation of philosophers. Broad was disgusted by the reception of his master’s masterpiece, and wrote a three volume exposition of the work, which ran to 1200 pages. And in this exhaustive work, according to Quinn, Broad praised McTaggart’s arguments for their clarity, and showed that “McTaggart’s most important proofs were virtually all fallacious...” From the deeper idealistic level, Broad could not have done McTaggart a greater favor. Truth is one of the superstitions one must remove from one’s mind in order to truly de-provincialize it – for after all, holding onto the truth is only a means of separating oneself from God, or Nothingness.

With this caution, I’ll move on to McTaggart’s paper.

McTaggart begins with a premise that subsequently became famous.

"Positions in time, as time appears to us prima facie, are distinguished in two ways. Each position is Earlier than some, and Later than some, of the other positions. And each position is either Past, Present, or Future. The distinctions of the former class are permanent, while those of the latter are not. If M is ever earlier than N, it is always earlier. But an event, which is now present, was future and will be past."

McTaggart calls the series of earlier and later the B series, and the Past Present Future series the A series. In the B series, given an event (for McTaggart, the fundamental elements of the two series), its description, with relation to another event, will always be described as earlier or later. C.D. Broad always follows McTaggart down the library-ridden years to the final conflagration. But in the A series, oddly enough, all three descriptions will apply: Broad, let us say, planned to write his book about McTaggart, the book appeared, and the book is now history – which usually means out of print. At one point an event will be in the future, at another point it will be in the present, and at still another point it will be past.

McTaggart throws in another characteristic of time -- he connects it to change. This isn’t a novelty – indeed, Aristotle did the same thing. And it is here that the abstracting of his two series designated under one concept – time – does its work for McTaggart:

“It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change. A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing. A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.” 

McTaggart uses a royal example here – which is appropriate for a royal theme, a Shakespearian theme:

“Take any event -- the death of Queen Anne, for example -- and consider what change can take place in its characteristics. That it is a death, that it is the death of Anne Stuart, that it has such causes, that it has such effects -- every characteristic of this sort never changes. "Before the stars saw one another plain" the event in question was a death of an English Queen. At the last moment of time -- if time has a last moment -- the event in question will still be a death of an English Queen. And in every respect but one it is equally devoid of change. But in one respect it does change. It began by being a future event. It became every moment an event in the nearer future. At last it was present. Then it became past, and will always remain so, though every moment it becomes further and further past.”

It is of interest to note that McTaggart’s series B, of earlier and later, is missing one crucial English term: “then”. The “then”, of course, introduces into the immobility of earlier and later the movement from the former to the later. It introduces something like cause – or, rather, exists as a proxy for cause. Queen Anne was sick, then she was sicker, then she died. The “then” forecloses on the abstraction that allows us to separate past present and future from early and later. The then gives us a sense of time as embedded in possibility: there is no possible “then” in the sequence from Queen Anne’s sickeness to her death in which Queen Anne becomes a frog, for instance.

Of course, the “then” also gives a philosophical hostage to fortune: that is, it requires us to endow cause with an ontological weight that was dismissed as counterfeit by Berkeley and Hume. “Then” is a trickster, in as much as cause, if we are right, not only happens within time but – time happens within cause. Perhaps we have only shifted the paradox in McTaggart’s essay, really, with our correction. And yet, without the then, we and our adventures are lost.

It is at this point, as the series – which we also recognize as Aeon and Chronos, the great Gods of time  who are given a thorough working out in Gilles Deleuze’s  Logic of Sense  - threaten to get out of hand, that we can turn to Borges, who of course adored this kind of play with ideas, and especially the implications of idealism, as it popped the whole world into a short story that reflects on the order of its own events  - like a watch that stops to ponder whether it will go from one o’clock to one-o-one, or if, instead, it will go from one clock to the corner liquor store to buy a bottle of cheap Irish whiskey and sit in the shade under a tree near a slow street and ponder its doings. 

Borges’s essay, A New Refutation of Time, was published in 1947. But, in a sign of the contagion inherent in writing skeptically on time, it was written, according to Borges’ preface, twice, once in 1944, and then again in 1946 – the latter being a revision that Borges then chose to stand alone, splitting the essay into two – and incidentally troping the “New” in his title, making it “new and newer”. Of course, a new refutation of time, if successful, would make it not at all a new refutation of time, as there would be nothing new and nothing old about the enterprise. Such is the nature of the beast, which bucks off every rider – and confutes itself.

Borges doesn’t mention McTaggart. One wonders if this means he has not read McTaggart – Borges, who read everything. Or everything odd. Instead, Borges presents his refutation as the logical sum of the arguments made by Berkeley and Hume against materialism – that is, the argument that perception proves either something perceived or something perceiving. And he then – (this then figures in a logical simulacrum of time, a sort of fixed set of relations, like series A) -- writes:

“Once the idealist argument is admitted, I see that it is possible -- perhaps inevitable -- to go further. For Berkeley, time is "the succession of ideas in my mind, which flows uniformly, and is participated by all beings" (Principles of Human Knowledge, 98); for Hume, "a succession of indivisible moments" (Treatise of Human Nature, I, 2, 2). However, once matter and spirit -- which are continuities -- are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside each present moment.”

To explain this, and to shadow forth its consequences (the latter is the inveterate essayist’s gesture – the philosopher would, strictly, value only the first task) Borges uses an unroyal example, even an exotic one:

“Outside each perception (real or conjectural ) , matter does not exist; outside each mental state,
spirit does not exist; neither then must time exist outside each present moment. Let us choose a moment of the utmost simplicity, for example, Chuang Tzu's dream ( Herbert Allen Giles, Chuang Tzu, 1899 ). Some twenty four centuries ago, Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly, and when he awoke he was not sure whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man. … according to Berkeley, at that moment the body of Chuang Tzu did not exist, nor did the dark bedroom in
which he was dreaming, save as a perception in the mind of God. Humesimplifies what happened even more: at that moment the spirit of ChuangTzu did not exist; all that existed were the colors of the dream and the certainty  of his being a butterfly. He existed as a momentary term in the "bundle or coilection of different perceptions" which constituted, some four centuries before Christ, the mind of Chuang Tzu; he existed as the term n in an infinite temporal series, between n - 1 and n + 1. There is no other reality for idealism than mental processes; to add an objective butterfly to the butterfly one perceives therefore seems a vain duplication; to add a self to the mental processes seems, therefore, no less exorbitant.”

Vacuuming up time, Borges is saying, means that we will (accidentally) vacuum up the self. Once time goes, identity follows.

And yet, oddly enough, while identity is cast out to howl and gnash its teach, particularities rule the world. For, note, in both McTaggart’s vision and Borges’, everything favors order – the frame in which events are related  - and disfavors one cause – the great enemy of idealism. It is the hidden love of order that lies behind the most radical gesture of the British idealist school. It is that order, really, that Borges loves, even as he cannot, really, believe his own refutation of time, or its consequences. Borges finds a beautiful literary allusion to end his meditation.

 A Buddhist treatise of the fifth
century, the Visuddhimagga (Road to Purity), illustrates the same doctrine… "Strictly speaking, the duration of the life of a living being is exceedingly brief,
lasting only while a thought lasts. Just as a chariot wheel in rolling rolls only at one point of the tire, and in resting rests only at one point; in exactly the same way the life of a living being lasts only for the period of one thought."

A thought that nobody thinks, about a thing that exists only in the thought, that endures in a medium that negates all endurance: can there be a greater escape from adventure? This is the key to the Borgesian short story, an absolute in its genre just as Mallarme’s “Un coup de des n’abolira jamais l’hasard” is an absolute of its genre, poetry. It is an absolute in a genre that arose out of the word limits of the periodical press: that dispensed with the oral weight of the tale, but with a guilty conscience. It makes an existential value out of the “shortness” of the story, but one that is embedded in a disappointed idealism, where the emblematic is trapped, like a royal death in a timeless world, in an order that refers to itself alone, an order that cannot, logically, be dynastic, but that is pervaded by the pathos of dethroned dynasty.