I would gladly explain the feeling of happiness which, like now, I have within me from time to time. It is really something effervescent that fills me completely with a light, pleasant quiver and that persuades me of the existence of abilities of whose non-existence I can convince myself with complete certainty at any moment, even now.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
It could be argued that these are merely intended to achieve some sort of ironic distance from the events of the narrative. But, in a sense, though we use "I" all the time--an I that is not without problems--do we not view ourselves in the third person? Do we not take on roles and assess our conduct in terms of those roles? (I am "the husband", "the parent", "the blogger", "the commuter", in this case "the reader".) Do we not see ourselves moving in the world as if in a narrative, at least part of the time? Perhaps this is in part to distance ourselves from the world to a necessary extent, to protect the I that projects itself onto the world. Andreas is, throughout, "the viewer"--the narrator, of course, and as such he who views the world around him, observing and describing nature, or people, or the city, or events (though he oddly seems able to view that which seems unviewable, his gaze seems to go where it logically, physically, could not), but also he who views himself in these other roles, he who views himself taking action, or not taking action, speaking, doing, being: he who views himself writing, and he who translates what the I experiences into writing.
Now via jane dark I learn of the news that Emmanuel Saez has been awarded the Clark medal, which apparently is of some importance in the world of economics. We are told by Economic Principals that "his most striking finding has been to confirm the widespread intuition that income inequality has been increasing". This is astonishing. That this is news, that is, worthy of an award in economics. As jane says, the rising inequality over the last 30+ years has been common knowledge for quite a long time. But of course, that it's common knowledge is not so damning on its own; after all, science is always somehow or finally validating what has been or ought to be (or once was) common knowledge, so nothing new there. However, as jane also points out, there have been numerous studies on this very topic over the last decade or so; it has been explored in incredible detail by researchers and economists on the left. But of course Marx is icky. What you have then is a purported science, which because of ideological blinders refuses to take notice of important work. Again, to close, jane puts it best:
The whole news event of this prize, then, is on par with granting the latest Fields medal for long division. What to make of this? Is the fact that the guild of professional economics doesn't know the extant scholarship relevant to their own field more shocking than the fact they are just reaching these easily reachable and socially fundamental conclusions out now? Or is the oddest element the hubris whereby knowledge can't be true — despite empirical evidence — until a guild member says it? In any case, welcome to reality, economists: you are making any attempt to take seriously your institutional field rather challenging.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Now I had time. Facts and questions crystallized. This having-time wasn't a feeling; it was a resolution: the resolution of all my contradictory feelings. It was a jolt and a widening; disengagement and devotion; defenselessness and the ability to resist; quiescence and enterprise. Its occurrence was rare. Perhaps what is commonly called a "state of grace" should be called a "state of having time." It had its counterpart in a traditional paraphrase of the threshold concept as a "transition between privation and riches." In a state of having-time, a murmur spread over the countryside, colors shone, grasses trembled, moss cushions puffed up.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!And one from "Civil Disobedience":
There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness.
[T]hey who assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property.As I know was true of most Americans, and possibly still is, when I was in high school we were forced to read excerpts from Walden. I couldn't have been more bored. Is there any writer more out of step with high school students than Thoreau? A writer less likely to appeal to such readers? (Perhaps Hawthorne, whose The Scarlet Letter we were also forced to read, over the course of one interminable month. A month! The novel's not 300 pages long!) I used to make fun of Thoreau--not only was he boring, but he wasn't even what he claimed, was he? He wasn't authentic! He wasn't really out in the wilderness, right? Not that I knew what I was talking about, but I'd heard in passing something to the effect of this or that and certainly I was eager to find some reason to dismiss a writer, to feel as if I needn't bother. But, in any event, of course these concerns were not really the point. (And they were not helped by the fact that all we ever read were short excerpts, pretty much of anything, excerpts or short stories. The only full works of literature of any length I remember us reading were the aforementioned Hawthorne and the ubiquitous The Great Gatsby. Worse, these excerpts were packaged in such a way to almost invite dismissal--Thoreau of course would have been carefully placed in the section helpfully designated "The Transcendentalists"--particularly given how we were expected to relate to these writings, as works with Themes and Meanings and whatnot. I always struggled mightily with this: how was I to know what the right answer was?)
Why is Thoreau out of step, Walden in particular? Here is a guy who writes about nature, about divorcing himself for a period of time from the regular flow of society, about simplicity, about working with nature, not against it, about the flow of the seasons, the battles of ants and songs of birds and and rise and fall and freezing of ponds. Everything else we learn in school is geared towards speed, efficiency, in one way or another, and here is a guy from the ancient past--before the Civil War!--asking not only us but his already impossibly slow contemporaries (from our perspective) to slow down. More precisely, school is designed so that we learn how to fit in, how to be good cogs in the liberal capitalist world, how not to think for ourselves, or really when not to, how to shape ourselves for maximum value in the "real world".
Thoreau, in Walden as much as in "Civil Disobedience" (which if we read it at all in high school would have been framed in such a way so that its true import was necessarily muted), is pitched against all of this. What he offers, frankly, is a necessary rebuke. There are times, to be sure, when he sounds preachy, like a scold, but this is not what I mean. The book is a rebuke in its very essence. And reading Walden I had a feeling I've had often in recent years, the feeling that I am not free.
I like how Kunkel concludes his introduction (which can be seen online here; link via Twitchelmore):
Americans won't feel quite the same need as an Austrian of Handke's generation to wake from historical habits of mind and action into a patient, slow, form-discovering style of careful attention. But it does seem that such wakefulness grows at once harder and more valuable as electronic noise and communications crowd the margins of our thoughts—and here is a book, more untimely today than when it was first published, from which anyone might receive an image of what Handke calls "being able to live an acceptable life even at cross-purposes to the times."It is often said that the novel, contemporary fiction, should reflect the time in which it is written, should rather be like the time, that the fast-paced novel, the information-rich novel, the post-modern novel in which everything goes, everything is, is more relevant, more necessary. I submit that a novel like Slow Homecoming, out of time, quiet, slow, and yet not old fashioned, is necessary for giving us the experiences of what is--or at least what might be--lost in the rush forward.
My experience with Slow Homecoming (see this for a short passage) was both similar to these other books and more immediate, more successful, as a reading experience. In places I stumbled, as previously, but here and there, and more and more often, I would hit a vein, where the writing seems to take on the quality of thought, as if thought is happening on the page, as I read. In this, Slow Homecoming reminds me of the better stories in Ingeborg Bachmann's The Thirtieth Year--I'm thinking in particular of "A Wildermuth", which I previously excerpted, as well as "Everything". (The latter story is similar, too, to "Child Story", the third part in Slow Homecoming, in that, in both, a man considers a child, his child, observes the child in context, against his own expectations and those of society, thinks through the problems the child presents, for him or herself as well as for the family.) It is this quality of thought, this thinking on the page, not thinking of ideas in the sense of the Novel of Ideas, but thinking nonetheless, the illusion that the words don't exist until I encounter them on the page, it primarily is this quality, I think, along with the mythical/allegorical aspect of the work, that gives Slow Homecoming the unique effect it has. This effect is the sense that one is encountering anew the work of art. That writing is happening and that this writing is writing that somehow writes what usually eludes writing. And perhaps it is this very quality that makes the reading so often elusive. In this way Slow Homecoming strikes me as a necessary novel for these times.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
He had never thought of himself as a scientist, but at the most (occasionally) as a conscientious describer of landscapes. As such, to be sure, he sometimes felt as excited as if he had invented the landscape--and as an inventor he knew that he could not possibly be wicked or selflessly good but was, in his work, an ideal human being. But then it might occur to him that perhaps he was doing good after all, not by giving something to others but by not betraying them. And this non-betrayal was not a failure to do something; it was a strenuous activity. At times he felt that his study of landscape was a science of peace.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
1. I may have missed the best time to acquaint myself with the language of philosophy, but this is not altogether a bad thing. My perspective on things is different for not having already immersed myself in it. For example, in reading blogs such as Levi Bryant's Larval Subjects and Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Philosophy, I have learned that being a realist means that one holds that the world exists--objects exist--independent of man's relation to them (but not necessarily those traits that we perceive); I have further learned that this runs counter to the main currents of continental philosophy. I find this astonishing (assuming I understand things correctly). In the deleted iteration of his blog, Harman suggested that "this results from the combined fear & boredom with which most humanities types face the natural sciences". No doubt this is true. I find myself more interested, by far, in continental than in analytic philosophy, yet it would never occur to me to doubt the independent existence of external objects. (This Larval Subjects post helps clarify the realism thing for me. His casual use--not at all unique to him--of the word knowledge bothers me. Something else to return to here.)
2. Science, it follows, is very important. This sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but I say it to make it clear that I personally value science very highly and am aware that some of my posts in recent months might give one the impression that I do not. I come out of that utilitarian, empirical, Anglo-American mode which I have elsewhere decried. Part of that is a strong devotion to science (which is not to say that I have been specifically trained in any of the natural sciences). So science is unquestionably important, but I have some political, philosophical, and ethical questions for it, some which I've always had, if largely unarticulated, some of which have come to mind more recently. In my view, science is too often seen as this pure mode of inquiry, independent of political and economic concerns, untainted by prejudice or point of view or money, unrelated, in its historical development, to other historical arcs. Of course it is not. Worse, the history of science and of technological change is seen as inexorable, inevitable, as if it were not heavily implicated in the history of capitalism (which, recall, requires continual technological and organizational change in order to maintain the rate of accumulation).
3. Allow me, then, to use this theme as an excuse to once again refer to Graham Harman and two posts he wrote (one, two) reporting on a lecture he attended in Ireland given by James Lovelock. The topic, of course, is climate change and how we're basically fucked. Harman makes the lectures and Lovelock's books sound both fascinating and frightening (there is nothing about climate change that is not finally frightening, if one pays the least attention to the science and isn't simply trying to make excuses in order to avoid massive change), but there is one thing in particular I want to highlight here. Among the points Lovelock makes, according to Harman, is this:
Guilt is unhelpful. We got to this point because we all naturally struggled to survive and flourish, farming and industrializing for this reason. Anger at energy companies is misplaced. They only produce so much carbon dioxide because we all demand energy in our own lives.Similarly, in this article at TomDispatch, Chip Ward, while arguing correctly that perhaps we should not be trying to "recover" the economy as it was because of its inherent ecological untenability, says this:
Believing that we are unbounded by nature's limits or rules, we built an economy where faster, cheaper, bigger, and more added up to the winning hand. Then -- until the recent global meltdown at least -- we acted as if our eventual triumph over anything from resource scarcity to those melting icebergs was a foregone conclusion.
He goes on for a bit longer in this vein. Who is this "we" of whom he and Lovelock speak? We did not build the economy. While we do certainly all naturally struggle to survive and flourish, there is absolutely no reason to believe that industrialization was necessary to that struggle--meaning both that there is no reason to assume that industrialization necessarily occurs out of that struggle, nor that industrialization has aided us, for humanity as a whole, in that struggle. And in no sense can it be said that we merely "got to this point" because of decisions we made. Capitalism was imposed and resisted. Industrialization was imposed and resisted. This imposition and resistance continues.
4. This post at Voyou Désœuvré, on Andrea Dworkin and Joan of Arc and Machiavelli and constructions of masculinity, reminds me, yet again, that I've been wanting to read Dworkin and other radical feminists for some time. To my mind, the way forward must be radically feminist, which to me means that at minimum change must be woman-focused, which itself inevitably means focusing on issues surrounding pregnancy and birth and childcare and other things of immediate importance to mothers. That is, the larger conception of feminist politics should focused less on "the workplace" (the right to work being on the one hand largely redundant, since most women have no choice, and on the other hand normalizing highly dysfunctional male work values) than on childcare work and on health issues for women and children--i.e., issues affecting most women. Anyway, Voyou isn't talking about this here but ends by making use of Wendy Brown's criticisms of Catherine MacKinnon and "the doomed attempt by some feminists to achieve feminist ends solely by appealing to the very liberal legal structure they themselves recognize as irredeemably patriarchal". Good stuff.
5. More science pointers, to finish up. I have found a few more recent Larval Subjects posts about neurology utterly fascinating, full of all kinds of stuff that I know is absolutely right, but which also raise in me the germ of objection at a certain basic level. This one has me wanting to read books by neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, for example his A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, discussed in the post. Late in the entry, LS makes this crucial observation: "philosophers all too often privilege the standpoint of the adult and the 'healthy', ignoring childhood development". And this post about the "bidirectionality of causal relations between different levels" of different kinds of systems, such as DNA and the environment, has me nodding along, yes, yes, yes, yes. A longer quote to spell more of it out (since I have not described it at all):
[Biologist Gilbert] Gottleib is pointing out the manner in which the environment (not to mention RNA, cells, networks of cells, and organs) can actualize and activate DNA in a variety of ways producing very different outcomes. Pause and consider that for a moment. Rather than an inexorable unilateral development from DNA to structure and function, we instead get bidirectional feeding forward and backward producing an aleatory outcome that can only be described as a genuine creation. Factors such as environmental temperature, light and darkness, the presence or absence of particular nutrients and chemical substances, the presence or absence of dampness, the presence of various predators, altitude, caregivers, etc., all make important differences in the final actualized individual or phenotypical outcome. But to speak of a phenotypical outcome is already to speak poorly, for ontogenesis is a lifelong process for the organism that doesn’t simply end with maturity. But in addition to all of this, all things being equal, cultural formations, social relations, social encounters, etc., as environmental factors, feed back all the way to the genetic level as well. I am not simply a product of my culture at the level of my mentality, my subjectivity, but at the level of my cells and my DNA as well. Were I born in the 18th century, my DNA and my cells would be actualized differently as a result of a variety of different environmental factors ranging from diet to how I am brought up. My phenotype, my mature organism, would not be the same.
It's nice to see the adaptationists (who, as LS notes, end up "naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary") taken to task, and those steeped in cultural studies and social sciences should indeed be chided for ignoring out of hand neuroscience and evolutionary biology (as they have also been chided by, for example, Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight, who in his brilliant and important book Blood Relations, recall, called the general leftwing response to modern evolutionary theory a disgrace). To my mind this is all blindingly obvious (note, also, that in my post about patterning texts I effectively make part of the same argument). Or, more charitably, it's a more detailed version of the nature and nurture argument. Anyone who has a child, or indeed as ever watched children with any attention, can see that the child both has its own personality, distinct from those of his or her parents, and is always learning, always figuring things out. Nature versus nurture has always been a false dichotomy, one that's always bothered me, since before I understood the first thing about evolution.
This post was going to be even longer and include stuff about literary and more explicitly political stuff on my mind of late--including Blanchot's communism, Heidegger, the bourgeois novel, genre--but they'll have to wait as it's time to close this one out.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
But the truth of the matter is that the major influence in my evolving approach to things has been Aimée, my beautiful and brilliant wife and my best friend. In our life together, I have learned more about what it is that I want and believe than I ever knew or understood before, and Aimée is a big and necessary part of that. Partly this is simply through engagement with her on an intellectual and emotional level. Aimée is very intelligent and passionate and can argue with the best of them. Unlike me, she has some grounding in philosophy and political theory. She also comes out of an activist background. (So she was in this sense both more theoretical and more practical than me. Ha!) I'm still the same person, but I'm more fully who I am than I ever was before. Her encouragement has been crucial (she encouraged me to start this blog, for one). I'd had encouragement before, of course, from friends and family, and I don't wish to deny it. But it turns out that the kind of love and trust we share was something that was necessary for me to be able to recognize my own self, and to be able to embrace and think about and write about the uncertainties.
I can wallow in my frustration at all the lost or seemingly wasted time, when I could have been doing this or that. I can and do complain about not having sufficient time now to read what I want to read and to write and think about it. And it's true that much of what takes away from my current time reading and writing is my responsibilities to her and to our daughter Mirah. It might be easy, when frustrated, to imagine having that time and not having those responsibilities. But of course these are not mere responsibilities, but the joys of my life. And, in fact, not only would I not be the same person pursuing these interests were it not for Aimée, not only would those interests not be the same, since they have developed and evolved in large part within the crucible of our relationship, but those interests take on added importance and urgency because of her presence in my life and because of Mirah.
Today is our third wedding anniversary. It's hard for us to believe that three years have already gone by--or indeed nearly five years since we met--but at the same time, it seems as if we've been together forever (in the good sense). We've been struggling with balancing our time together since Mirah was born eight months ago (also: !). And lately the major part of that struggle has been with sleep, lack of which has affected us both negatively. It can be easy to lose sight of each other through this kind of thing, and we've been sort of on hiatus in recent weeks especially as Mirah's sleep has been particularly bad. (Happily, it appears that things are finally getting better on that front.) I can't imagine my life without Aimée, and I can't imagine me without Aimée.
Happy Anniversary Aimée!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Monday, April 13, 2009
Blanchot quotes Malraux, who writes that, "Any art that claims to represent implies a system of reduction" ("The Museum, Art, and Time", Friendship, p.19). Malraux is writing about painting, but the point holds. If the writer tries to write a work that represents a political reality, or any reality, necessarily a system of reduction is involved. Similarly, it seems to me, assigning an interpretation to a work implies reduction as well, a reduction that negates the actual experience of the work. If I say that Gilead was an important reading experience for me, an avowedly leftwing atheist, what does such a claim entail? How can I reduce it for another's satisfaction? The narrator of Gilead is an elderly preacher; the book takes the form of letters written to his very young son. He does not struggle with his faith, but he does struggle with God and with components of that faith, with what a life of faith means in the context of life itself and all its contingencies. He is aware that he is not as fair a man as he ought to be, and he is not always good, according to his lights. I found the book to be a deeply moving experience. And of course I have written here about faith and its absence, and different kinds of faith.
And yet saying all this says finally not much about my experience, does it? And one doesn't want to resort to mystification--my experience is unwritable, unsayable, you just don't get it--though I know some claim Blanchot does just that. This, then, is the struggle. How to write about literary works without reducing them to their messages, to their different elements, to ultimately writing about them instead of the book itself, and its specificity. How also to convey the importance of these experiences? And how they might relate to politics, without the works being political entertainments? (Political entertainments: this is what I think most political novels end up being. Worse, entertainments for an increasingly tiny audience, necessarily muting the value of the political aspect. I will try to expand on this notion later.)
(I am meanwhile apparently trying to perfect the meandering, indeterminate blog post.)
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Suppose someone wanting to learn to dance said: 'For hundreds of years now one generation after another has been learning dance steps, it's high time I took advantage of this and began straight off with a set of quadrilles.' One would surely laugh a little at him; but in the world of spirit such an attitude is considered utterly plausible. What then is education? I had thought it was the curriculum the individual ran through in order to catch up with himself; and anyone who does not want to go through this curriculum will be little helped by being born into the most enlightened age.--Kierkegaard, Fear and TremblingWe congratulate ourselves on living in an enlightened age, within the Enlightenment tradition (though we are besieged, oh yes, let us never forget), and yet collectively we take so little advantage of gained knowledge. And, believing in progress, we like to think that what we know now--or rather, what is known now, not what we know--is necessarily an advancement on what used to be known, but has been forgotten. Earlier ages are by definition more benighted than our own.
This generation reclines a little to congratulate itself on being the last of an illustrious line; and in Boston and London and Paris and Rome, thinking of its long descent, it speaks of its progress in art and science and literature with satisfaction. -- Thoreau, Walden
Recently Andrew Seal reported, with disappointment, on some lectures he attended given by Marilynne Robinson. I still haven't had the time to sample the lectures for myself, but apparently she was exercised about what she calls "parascience", presumably the extra-scientific writings from the likes of Richard Dawkins. Is she precisely anti-science? I don't know. I'm not sure it matters. Whether she is or isn't, I think she's saying, and has been saying, something important. (And unlike comrade Shelley at Read Red, I hardly think Robinson's wonderful novel Gilead is "deadly dull"; nor do I understand how one could have read the book and been able to conclude that it's little more than a "religious tract". On the contrary, I think the novel has much to say to us, with potentially deep implications for the Left.)
I employed another lecture given by Robinson in a post I wrote a year ago, in which I discussed conceptions of democracy held by the (American) revolutionary generation, conceptions all but lost now, conceptions I believe we would do well to revive. There is science, and then there is institutional Science, necessarily in thrall to Capital, and the diffusion and acceptance of bad science as general knowledge. In that lecture, she notes how Social Darwinism, which of course was accepted as Scientific Truth for some time and still has not been fully eradicated, scuttled what had been promising movements in the pursuit of equality. The problem, if anything, has only gotten worse. Naturally, this ties in with some of my recent themes here. With the global economy and, far more importantly, the environment in increasingly uncertain state, it seems clear to me that we're going to need to know the kinds of things that people once knew, that we're going to need to know how to do what people once knew how to do. A call for a true popular science, if you will.
(I remember Martin Amis saying something similar of Graham Greene, that he was a writer one grew out of. Amis would probably not be happy to think that the same might be said of him: I feel I've outgrown his novels, several of which I found enormously entertaining when I was in my 20s, but which in retrospect seem a bit slight, even if the glow of entertainment has not dimmed. Is it wrong that my consignment of Amis to the status of entertainment amuses me, particularly in light of his complaint, in his review of Hannibal, that Thomas Harris was being reviewed as literature? It seems rather important to him that his writing be literature. No doubt I'm being puerile. But surely I digress.)
Linking to the post noted above, blogger friend bdr teases me a little here, and in a comment says this:
I have a friend, a linguistics prof specializing in second language acquisition, who says learning the specialized language of, say, a philosopher, *is* SLA, and like learning, say, Russian, it gets harder for each year you're older.As I say there, I'm sure his friend is exactly right. This has been a subterranean theme for me here. Much of the anxiety I still have about reading what I want to read is not just that, being older, I fear I lack sufficient time to get to it all, but that the time has literally passed in which I could have most effectively learned to read it. In which my brain was being organized this way, as opposed to that. Bdr's comment gives me space to flesh this idea out a bit. Nearly a year ago, I wrote somewhat vaguely on the topic of "the decline of symbolic language". I was channeling a Thomas Merton essay I'd recently read which had spoken to me, but I didn't elaborate much (nor did I reference him by name). The problem I sense is not just that I lack the time to play catch-up, given my age and the other demands on that time. The problem is that even if I had the time, given my age it's too late. (And part of my frustration now is that when I had the time and was young enough, I was obsessed with baseball and Led Zeppelin, not to cast aspersions on either.)
I wrote even earlier about what Michael Dirda has called the "patterning texts": the Bible, mythology, the Greeks, the Romans, etc. These are patterning texts in the sense that they form the background of literature, the patterns of narrative, of metaphor, that can be seen across the history of literature, writers in dialogue with the past, and so on. But they are also patterning texts in the sense that they form the culture which patterns the way we see the world, which patterns our very brains.
Let's consider the Bible for a moment. In The Book of God, Gabriel Josipovici approaches the Bible from a number of different directions, including how it's presented to us, both how it's physically bound and its chapter divisions, various traditions of interpretation, and especially its narrative mode. He also talks about how we encounter the Bible as children. Usually it's read to us, and we take the stories to be "true", in the way stories are, as we do all stories when we are children. I've had to take Josipovici's word on this, because for me the Bible was never thus. Though my mother went to church semi-regularly at different times in my childhood, the Bible did not live in our house, the stories were never really told. If I heard them at all it was either in the brief period in which I went to Sunday School myself, or more likely, third-hand, as filtered through the thick layers of culture, all confused and distant. And though I've tried to argue here on behalf of Josipovici's conception of the Bible as resistant to meaning, I'm fully aware that the Bible in fact, especially in this country, is seen rather as a repository of meaning, a container of answers. The manner in which it is framed for most is geared towards particular meanings; people usually have study versions of the Bible, with "key" sections bolded or set aside as pull quotes or areas of further consideration. The point is that, though my almost total areligiosity is probably anomalous in the United States over the period of my life, my sense is that even those who are Christian have that Christianity framed for them with particular meanings in view (which, again, to my mind has less to do with faith itself than with configurations of power), and while they are no doubt much more familiar with the broad strokes of the various religious stories than I am--one would hope--I suspect that in general the patterning work that the Bible once did simply as a matter of course is not being done. And even if it is for those who are broadly religious, the point can be extended to include the mythological texts, the Greco-Roman pantheon and the related tragedies and other works, material that my education barely covered at all. What once was simply widely known to a literate or semi-literate population, is now all but lost, replaced by characters from television shows or comic books who are thin, pale descendants of these archetypal myths. (Or maybe I'm overstating the case? Perhaps I'm just describing myself, in isolation? Perhaps, but somehow I get the sense that I'm not alone in this. The generally depressing discussion that arose around Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones tell me otherwise. But it's about the Nazis and the Holocaust, right? And we all think we know enough to be able to talk intelligently about those subjects.)
I'm going to leave off there, except I will repeat some questions I asked in one of those earlier posts: To the extent that a literature is a lived tradition of a people, is such a thing doomed without a common repository of symbolic language? Or a common repository of much of anything? And is such a thing perhaps already dead, with narrative taking place only in that place of solitude, where the reader finds the text? And if we all have our various tastes, so that increasingly few of us can draw on the same body of literature, what then?
Thursday, April 09, 2009
John Farmer sat at his door one Septemeber evening, after a hard day's work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed he sat down to recreate his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard someone playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work; but the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his will, yet it concerned him very little. It was no more than the scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,--Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.--But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.
Flints' Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like;--so it is not named for me. I go not there to see him nor to hear of him; who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that he had made it. Rather let it be named from the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own; not from him who could show not title to it but the deed which a like-minded neighbor or legislature gave him,--him who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance cursed all the shore; who exhausted the land around it, and would fain have exhausted the waters within it; who regretted only that it was not English hay or cranberry meadow,--there was nothing to redeem, forsooth, in his eyes,--and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom. It did not turn his mill, and it was no privilege to him to behold it. I respect not his labors, his farm where every thing has its price; who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get any thing for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose tree no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth.
Monday, April 06, 2009
Many consider him a sort of juvenile pastime that one has to move beyond, and this attitude is understandable, but just think of how your brain is on fire after reading Nietzsche. There aren’t many philosophers who can do that.I don't mean to counter Marsden and Bransen with Harman. On the previous, now deleted, version of his blog, Harman wrote about spending his 20s reading through all of Heidegger. All of Heidegger! And now he is a published philosopher, able to engage with its history, agree, disagree, argue with it, make his own contribution, for whatever it might be worth. But again, neither is the point Graham Harman at all; I read his blog, one of many that I look at that are over my head, but I don't have a position on his positions, nor can I.
No, the point is youth and lost time. The luxuriousness of youth! It seems you're supposed to encounter philosophy when you're young. Meanwhile, I can tell you nothing of interest about my 20s--what could I possibly have been doing? not much, I assure you--and recently aged 39, I have yet to read more than a page or two of Nietzsche and have just in the last year or so been intermittently struggling with Heidegger. It strikes me that some of the difficulty I've had in reading this stuff, apart from the actual difficulty of the work itself, has to do with my habits of reading for information, for knowledge. Now that approach seems insufficient, but the reading itself seems to me more urgent than ever--for example, what I've been able to get out of Heidegger so far seems very important to me, without having to be consumed by whether what I'm getting is properly "Heideggerian" or not--it seems more urgent than ever, because of the loss of time, because of the political situation, the economic situation, the ecological situation, because of my recent fatherhood, it seems necessary to think, to think this through, to say what needs saying. So grandiose, and yet personally vital.
And I'd like to say something, perhaps in a later post, about why I feel this need right now to be reading the Greeks--didn't what Nietzsche and Heidegger had to say have a great deal to do with their readings of the Greeks? But it's not just because of them that the Greeks beckon. And yet I am not reading the Greeks, I am currently reading Thoreau. Thoreau, who some quote in support of the standard apolitical message; i.e., the writer who engages in politics is inevitably made a fool of. As if there weren't deep political implications in Thoreau, in Walden. But then this sort of stance--the extreme apolitical stance--is born, it seems to me, of a reduction of politics to pronouncements on elections, on this or that dreary politician, which is of course the reduction desired and achieved by liberal capitalism. Remove the political, reduce people to individual units, divided, but voting! And ignoring how things work, ignoring the political space. And here lately I find I am allied with Blanchot here too, and his conception of communism, and I am off running, with still more to read, more to do, more to come. . . always more to come.
Friday, April 03, 2009
Is it obvious I'm talking about the environment? Widespread ecological breakdown is immanent, a breakdown which is not being taken sufficiently seriously.
On this theme, here is John Bellamy Foster, in the March 2009 issue of the Monthly Review:
In addressing capitalism as a failed system I have focused first on the deepening economic crisis. But this is not the worst of the world’s problems. The greatest peril is the growing threat of planetary ecological collapse. Here the danger is much greater than in the case of the world economy but the sense of alarm and the call for immediate and massive action is less widespread. As the Swedish Tällberg Foundation stated in its 2008 report, Grasping the Climate Crisis: A Provocation,The whole thing is worth reading. Meanwhile, mainstream ecomomists keep on keeping on, as if an expansion of greenhouse emissions is still acceptable, or ecologically viable. As Foster puts it:The world [at present] faces a breakdown of the global financial system. The consequences are staggering, with ripple effects the world over that deliver the severest blows to the poor. Fear is rising. One would have expected somewhat of the same level of anxiety with regard to the looming breakdown of major parts of the Earth system—rapid deforestation, overfishing, freshwater scarcity and the disappearing Arctic sea ice. Reports of such events and processes are abundant, but the level of concern is still conspicuously low.The most serious ecological threat is of course global warming, which is inducing widespread, multi-faceted climate change, with disastrous implications for life on earth. But in a wider sense, the global environmental crisis involves manifold problems and cannot be reduced to global warming alone. These multiple hazards have a common source in the world economy, including: the extinction of species, loss of tropical forests (as well as forest ecosystems generally), contamination of and destruction of ocean ecology, loss of coral reefs, overfishing, disappearing supplies of fresh water resources, the despoliation of lakes and rivers, desertification, toxic wastes, pollution, acid rain, the approaching exhaustion of easily available crude oil resources, urban congestion, the detrimental effects of large dams, world hunger, overpopulation, etc. Together these threats constitute the greatest challenge to the survival of humanity since its prehistory.
despite the seriousness of this contradiction between the capitalist economy and the planet, establishment economists generally argue against any major attempt to avert climate change, i.e., to bailout nature.To say nothing of the outright obtuseness of politicians and pundits. If I appear to wish for the immediate end of capitalism, even if I know we're not ready for it and know that it's unlikely in the extreme, and I do, it's because its continuation, even for the short-term, is ecologically untenable. And yet we blithely go about our business. We are insane.
So far as I can remember, my father, who was responsible for the education of so many children, did not bother much with my sister and myself; but he was perfectly willing to stop reading the newspaper or correcting exercise books when one of us had something to tell or our mother tactfully informed him of some piece of naughtiness, a quarrel or something of that sort, and then he would inevitably ask us: 'Is that true?' He was the inventor of the word 'true' with all its possible combinations. 'Truthful', 'truthfulness', 'truth', 'the true', 'love of truth', 'truly'--these words came from him and he was the author of the wonder which these words aroused in me from an early age. Even before Icould understand these words they acquired for me an overpowering fascination. As other children at that age try laboriously to fit bricks together exactly to a pattern, so I made the greatest possible effort to reproduce the pattern of 'telling the truth', and I guessed that by this my father meant that I should relate 'exactly' what happened. Naturally I did not know the purpose of this, but so far as a little brain like mine could manage it, I soon made a practice of always telling the truth, less out of fear of my father than out of a sombre desire to do so. For this I was called 'an honest child'. But soon what satisfied my father was no longer enough for me--for example to say that I had loitered on my way home from school or was late for lunch because of a fight; I began to tell the even truer truth. For suddenly I understood--it may have been during my first or second year at school--what was being asked of me, and I realized that I was justified in what I was doing. My desire encountered another desire, a good desire distinguished from all other desires, which was directed towards me by adults. An easy, wonderful life stood in front of me. I was not only permitted, but obliged to tell the truth under all circumstances! So if my father asked why I had come home so late from school, I had to say that the teacher had kept us in for a quarter of an hour for talking and making a noise. I had to say that on top of this I had met Frau Simon on my way home and this had made me later still.Later:
Then I tried to remember the exact wording of the sentence the teacher had spoken, and I repeated word for word precisely what Frau Simon had said, how she had taken hold of my sleeve as she talked, how she had suddenly been standing in front of me on the bridge. But after I had related everything in the minutest detail, I started all over again, because with great agitation I noticed that what I had said still wasn't completely accurate, and moreover everything I spoke of was linked up with a fact, a subject, that lay outside the subjects I had mentioned. It was so difficult to report everything in every particular, but the important thing was to want to, and I certainly wanted to, I went on trying to do so and was ardently keen on this task that was so much finer than the tasks set as school homework. I wanted the truth, and at the time this meant above all to tell the truth.
Not until much later did it occur to me that there were many things about which I was not asked, was never called to account--that I had not told the truth about everything.
Yes, what then is the truth about myself, about anyone? [...]
Or the truth about the world, since I cannot work out the sum of myself and since I alone am able to see, feel and understand so variously. For instance a desk, a single object like my writing-desk. Often, without recognizing it indifferently, I have sat down at it or touched it; I have felt my way past it in the dark; I have sketched it in a letter to a friend, then it amounted to a few pencil lines; I sometimes smell it--it smells of long hours of work; I look at it in amazement when the papers have all been cleared away and it stands in front of me free, a different desk--and what about all the other things this massive desk is? A quantity of firewood, a shape that bespeaks a particular style, it has a weight as freight, it had a price and will have another today or after my death. There is no end to the truth concerning this desk. A fly will see it differently from a budgerigar, and has Gerda ever seen it as I see it? I don't know, I'm only sure that she knows the spot where I burnt a hole in the top with a cigrette. To her it is my desk, the one with the burn; apart from this, she knows about its turned legs because they are 'dust catchers'. Only through her do I know it is a dust catcher, on the other hand I know what she does not know: what a feeling of wellbeing it gives you when you rest both elbows on it, and how your eyes get caught up in its grain as you sit and think, and what it is like to sleep on this desk, for I have several times fallen asleep over my work, letting my head drop forward onto the top of the desk.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Priceless. (See also.)
So it's likely that we're going to be embroiled in some version of the capitalist system for the foreseeable future. What about it, then? The point is not to attempt to accurately forecast the demise of one system (as if such a thing were possible), an imaginary in which we end up scraping by in the rabble. The point is how to force a change in a time of possibility, or how to carve out viable, perhaps expandable, alternatives. This is just one reason why events such as the City from Below conference, which I belatedly advertized below, are so important. People coming together, developing ties, trying to figure out ways to, at least, force the hand of capital to resolve the current crisis in a way that doesn't utterly fuck those who are not super-rich.
We had hoped to learn a lot at the conference, meet new people, and so on; unfortunately, we were unable to attend much of it, for a variety of reasons (most of them having something to do with a certain little girl's sleep problems). I did, however, manage to catch the opening panel discussion on Friday night. Gratifyingly, the room (at 2640, of course; where else?) was diverse and packed (and there seemed to be plenty of people in attendance the one other time we made it down to check things out). To give you a little bit of a flavor, the participants in this opening panel were Max Rameau, from Take Back the Land in Miami; Shiri Pasternak, from Toronto; Esther Wang, from CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in New York; and David Harvey. The first three were unfamiliar to me and all had interesting and inspiring things to say about work they've been doing. You may, for example, have heard about Take Back the Land's work in Florida, placing homeless people in abandoned houses or returning families to their foreclosed homes. Pasternak talked about continuing enclosure among Canada's indigenous communities, as well as abandoned properties more generally, and a proposed "use or lose it" bylaw. Wang reminded us that communities like that of Chinatown in New York--a poor island surrounded on all sides by wealth, Soho, Tribeca, etc--have been facing crisis for some time, which has only been intensified by the particular crisis of the last year. These were just some of the things touched upon; if I can get my act together, perhaps I'll assemble and post some more detailed notes I took during the discussion.
For now, I want to mention a couple of things Harvey said. His opening remarks were in essence a review of the thesis of his valuable book A Brief History of Neoliberalism. He reminded us that the nature of each successive crisis in capitalism depends on how the previous crisis was resolved. The solution to the crisis of the 1970s was the current neoliberal regime.
It so happens that in recent weeks I've been slowly making my way through Harvey's monumental book, The Limits to Capital. I've found it rough going in parts, primarily because, not unlike getting lost in all the Russian names in a Tolstoy novel, I tend to have difficulty keeping straight ideas that go by similar-sounding names (the obvious basic ones being "value", "use value", and "exchange value"), which is only exacerbated by not having time to sit and take detailed notes while reading. In short, Harvey's book is a sort of critical explication of Marx's Capital and his related economic writings, such as the Grundisse, along with critical surveys of the subsequent Marxian and bourgeois analyses of both Marx and various economic concepts in general. Let's face it: this stuff is enormously complicated. Marx defines capital as a process, and keeping track of all of the elements of the process--socially necessary labour time, class struggle, surplus value, accumulation, technological and organizational change, money, credit, finance, circulation, rent, mobility, etc.--and their inherent contradictions isn't easy. For all that, the book has been very helpful; though many of the technical details remain, for now, confusing, the argument as a whole is helping to illuminate much. It was especially interesting reading the chapters on money, credit, and finance in light of current events (and how, with each successive crisis, the financial system necessarily gets more and more rarefied, removed from the production economy, which only makes subsequent crises potentially more dangerous).
In addition, it strikes me as somewhat comical that the self-congratulatory so-called empiricism of Anglo-American intellectuals and bourgeois economists should have essentially dismissed Marx out of hand--after all, merely reading Capital is tantamount to being a communist, isn't it? it's the same as The Communist Manifesto, right? and Stalin was pretty bad, wasn't he?--when you'd think it would be important to try to actually understand how capitalism actually works. But ideology can be a bitch (speaking of which, free market libertarians and Friedmanites really need to read this stuff and stop talking blather about freedom and nature and other such ill-understood bullshit). For my part, I consider this only a first pass at really getting my head wrapped around the contradictory workings of capitalism (adding to what I have been able to glean from works by Ellen Meiksins Wood, other books by Harvey, etc). My plan is still to read Capital, while either watching or listening to Harvey's lecture series on it. Anyway, the point is that I find myself heavily immersed in working out the theoretical problems of capitalism, not so I can smugly tell myself, "well, I've tackled that! time to move on to Finnegans Wake. . .", the acquistion of knowledge for its own sake being perhaps of entertainment value, but little else. No, I want to better understand what it is we--I--could do under the circumstances, other than just sit around waiting for things to happen, in part by better understanding what those circumstances really are.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to the other remark made by David Harvey that I'd like to mention here before finishing up. He talked about "the myth of home ownership". This has been a rant-worthy topic of mine for several years ("home ownership is a scam", I'll tell anyone who will listen, which unfortunately for them is usually my wife or my co-workers), so naturally I was pleased to hear him say it. He said that capital started pushing home ownership among the working classes during the Great Depression, which was obviously a time of massive labor unrest. The idea is that "people with mortgages don't go on strike". Truer words have rarely been spoken. It's brilliant, really. More powerful than getting workers to invest in the stock market (how stupid is a 401k? why do I have one? I don't believe in the stock market!). I've been trying to come to some point of action in my own life--selling the house and not buying another is but one potential part of that. But it's not as if renters are secure. This is one reason why an important battle is for rights to the city, rights to the commons, reclaiming the commons, re-establishing the commons, recovering abandoned territory, and so on. In this context, Harvey also mentioned the need for a right to residency (you can't vote if you don't have an address). There is much to do.