Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn RIP

Some time in the mid-1990s, I read both A People's History of the United States and The Howard Zinn Reader. I had graduated a few years before with a degree in history, and I had been reading Chomsky since the beginning of the decade. My degree was not very intensive, and I came out of it with a shallow sense of American history. Via Chomsky and venues such as Z Magazine, I had a somewhat better grasp on the problems of recent decades, but something was missing, a foundation. I don't remember what brought Zinn to my attention, but I ripped through those two books, each in excess of 600 pages, in less than a week. I was hungry for stories, and Zinn had them in abundance. I would later find more detail, and even better historical analysis, in other places. But his narrative in A People's History is a great introduction to radical history—I envy those who have the book assigned in high school, as Aimée did—and it remains undiminished in my memory. He was a great example of the committed scholar. He will be missed.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Notes on One Dimensional Woman

Last week I read Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman, one of the very short philosophical works recently published by the Zer0 imprint. This won't be a proper review but rather various thoughts prompted by my reading.

I like Power's focus on work and the changes to work. And I agree with much of what she says about today's "feel-good" feminism, and in particular with her point that we need to address how "'feminism' as a term has come to be used by those who would traditionally have been regarded as the enemies of feminism". For example, those who defended the invasion of Afghanistan in the interest of "women's rights", among other allegedly Western values; also, the spectacle of Sarah Palin is relevant here, embodying as she does many superficial characteristics of mainstream feminism, namely the obsession with placing women in positions of power (Power spends a section discussing Palin in detail. I admit I don't find her terribly interesting as a figure. I am more interested in the implications of the widespread misogynist attacks on her from liberals—the "enemy women" phenomenon.). With respect to the problem of powerful women, Power notes the Margaret Thatchers and Condoleeza Rices of the world and observes that, "It is not enough to have women in top positions of power, it depends upon what kind of women they are and what they're going to do when they get there." I would go further and say that even that's not enough. What matters is the nature of the power and the structure of the system. Any woman who manages to rise to a position of power in such a patriarchal system as we currently enjoy is bound to perpetuate that system.

In my view, the best sections of the book are those dealing with pornography, if only because the section feels somewhat more fully developed, as writing; Power's great interest in the topic comes through. I have lately come around to an opposition to pornography on moral grounds—the moral questions being not in the area of sex itself, or nudity, or even representation or depiction, per se, but rather because of the common violence and depravity, not to mention the coercion and degradation. I am not a free-speech absolutist, and I see no particular reason to protect such garbage (but just try, on a website dominated by oh-so-sensitive liberal men, to even approach the topic that there might be something wrong with pornography; it's always a slippery slope to society inevitably being taken over by Christian fundamentalist prudes). Power helpfully re-frames pornography, just a little, criticizing the ahistoricist anti-porn arguments, for example those by Andrew Dworkin. Says Power:
[W]e might side with the anti-pornography feminists and argue that the genre is so irredeemably associated with violence and misogyny that we should steer well clear of it, and perhaps even campaign for its abolition. But what if there was another history of porn, one that was filled less with pneumatic shaven bodies pummeling each other into submission than with sweetness, silliness and bodies that didn't always function and purr like a well-oiled machine? The early origins of cinematic pornography tell a very different story about the representation of sex, one that suggests a way both out of the rubberized inhumanity of today's hardcore obsession, but also out of the claim that pornography is inherently exploitative.
Fair enough. My one quibble with this would be to suggest that arguments against pornography (mine at least, not to speak for someone like Dworkin, who I intend to but have not yet read) are themselves historically specific—they, we, are responding to what porn is, today.

The last pages of the book contain both the parts of the book I most agree with and disagree with. First, I really liked the bits on collective living and collective parenting. Power touches on the so-called teenage "pregnancy pact" from last year, pointing out the not-very-remarked on rationality of the plan itself, the plan to raise their children together. This leads right into an excerpt from an interesting interview with Toni Morrison, which includes the following:
Two parents can't raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child. The notion that the head is the one who brings in the whole money is a patriarchal notion, that a woman—and I have raised two children, alone—is somehow lesser than a male head. Or that I am incomplete without the male. This is not true. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn't work. It doesn't work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging on to it, I don't know. It isolates people into little units—people need a larger unit.
I also appreciated Power's brief discussion about alternative modes of living—her excellent observation that group or collective living arrangements are seen only as phases we pass through as young adults, to be abandoned when we truly grow up and start families of our own. I think she is right to bemoan this tendency. It seems to me that we should try to find ways to live together, sharing expenses and responsibilities, including child-rearing. (On a related note, this post on co-habitation at unreal a few weeks ago was of great interest...)

In this same section, however, Power spends a few paragraphs on Shulamith Firestone. I don't understand Power's fixation on Firestone, who she has written about a few times at her blog, and who she here calls "deplorably overlooked" (although Firestone's Wikipedia entry describes her as hugely influential in second-wave feminism, so I don't know how overlooked she actually is). "Cybernetic communism" is apparently Firestone's term for what she calls for: "the total emancipation of women (and men) from the shackles of biology via advances in contraceptive, reproductive technology and alternative models of work and social organization". This sounds appalling. There is no "total" emancipation from biology; nor should there be, in my opinion. The idea that contraceptive and reproductive technology will set people free is frankly bizarre. (It's possible I don't know what she means, but I get the sense it goes beyond simply birth control.) It gets worse. Firestone says that "Natural childbirth is only one more part of the reactionary hippie-Rousseauean Return-to-Nature." No, it is not. I suppose Firestone could have meant something different in 1970 by "natural childbirth" than I understand by it now, but I suspect not (and the Wiki-info seems to confirm my sense). What are the alternatives? Babies grown in labs? Even more widespread c-sections? The further increased used of drugs? (The latter two have certainly come to pass; I don't think that their cumulative effect has been positive.) I think the feminism that seeks to reclaim the arena of reproduction away from the male-dominated, patriarchal medical science is a much more fruitful tendency. (Firestone appears to want to transcend biology completely, but somehow via that same male-dominated, patriarchal medical science.) Later, discussing Firestone's ideas on sexual freedom, Power parenthetically says that "intriguingly technologism is the precondition for humanist practice". I don't understand this at all. Rather, I don't get why such a thing would be appealing. I know there is a tendency on parts of the left to fully embrace the technological future, as if technological change as we experience it were not a function of the hated capitalist, patriarchal order we supposedly oppose. And as if the technology we take for granted now can be maintained and fully dispersed in the face of global climatic meltdown. One doesn't have to be a back-to-the-land hippy to find this deeply problematic, at minimum. (And I've already argued, if incompletely, that the road to our current level of technology was unjustified in the first place, relying as it necessarily has on the systematic destruction of others.) I'm on record as against the telos of progress which is common in and out of the Marxist tradition. And I do not understand this need to transcend biology to such an extent as to somehow do away with pregnancy altogether. It could be argued, and I'm sure has been, that the ability to give birth is and ought to be a source of women's power. To toss that possibility aside in favor of notions of freedom defined by the patriarchy anyway strikes me as self-defeating. I would point to feminist insights in the areas of anthropology and biology, not to mention recent advances in the understanding of birth itself and childhood development, both also heavily influenced by the work of feminists, as very strong counter-weights to the kind of abhorrence of biology apparently reflected in work such as Firestone's.

I will no doubt return to such matters in later posts (for example, in the context of discussing Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism, which I also read last week), but I don't want this one area of apparent disagreement to dominate this post, particularly since it stems from only a few short paragraphs and since, on balance, I found plenty to like in the book and would recommend it as a nice, short inquiry into certain problems of present-day feminism.

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Noted: David Graeber

Also from "Turning Modes of Production Inside-Out":
What has passed for "materialism" in traditional Marxism—the division between material "infrastructure" and ideal "superstructure," is itself a perverse form of idealism. Granted, those who practice law, or music, or religion, or finance, or social theory, always do tend to claim that they are dealing with something higher and more abstract than those who plant onions, blow glass, or operate sewing machines. But it's not really true. The actions involved in the production of law, poetry, etc., are just as material as any other. Once you acknowledge the simple dialectical point that what we take to be self-identical objects are really processes of action, then it becomes pretty obvious that such actions are (a) always motivated by meanings (ideas); and (b) always proceed through a concrete medium (material). Further, that while all systems of domination seem to propose that "no, this is not true, really there is some pure domain of law, or truth, or grace, or theory, or finance capital, that floats above it all," such claims are, to use an appropriately earthy metaphor, bullshit. As John Holloway (2003) has recently reminded us, it is in the nature of systems of domination to take what are really complex interwoven process of action and chop them up and redefine them as discrete, self-identical objects—a song, a school, a meal, etc. There's a simple reason for it. It's only by chopping and freezing them in this way that one can reduce them to property and be able to say one owns them.

A genuine materialism then would not simply privilege a "material" sphere over an ideal one. It would begin by acknowledging that no such ideal sphere actually exists. This, in turn, would make it possible to stop focusing so obsessively on the production of material objects—discrete, self-identical things that one can own—and start the more difficult work of trying to understand the (equally material) processes by which people create and shape one another.

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Noted: David Graeber

From "Turning Modes of Production Inside-Out: Or, Why Capitalism is a Transformation of Slavery", collected in Graeber's Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire:
[O]ne can define "capitalism" as broadly or narrowly as one likes. It would be easy enough to play the same trick with terms like socialism, communism, or fascism, and define them so broadly one could discover them all over ancient Greece or Safavid Persia. Yet somehow no one ever does. Alternately, one could just as easily [...] define "capitalism" as necessarily a matter of free wage-labor, but define "slavery" in the broadest terms possible: say, as any form of labor in which one party is effectively coerced. One could thereby conclude that modern capitalism is really a form of slavery. One could then go on to argue that the fact that modern capitalists don't see themselves as coercing others is irrelevant, since we are talking about objective constraining structures and not what the actors think is going on. Such an argument would not be entirely unprecedented: there's a reason why so many workers in modern capitalist countries have chosen to refer to themselves as "wage slaves." But no economic historian has ever, to my knowledge, even suggested such a thing. The ideological biases become clearest when one considers not just what's being argued, but the arguments it never occurs to anyone to make.
Many of us—perhaps the majority of us who are relatively privileged enough to be salaried professionals—are even constrained from describing our own situation as a form of slavery, so completely have we internalized these ideological biases, so narrowly have we defined freedom for ourselves. Yet how free do we really feel?

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

"May his embrace carry me through this story"

I've already suggested that this might be a big Handke year for me; so far it's proving true. Right now I'm in the middle of my third attempt at Repetition, originally published in 1986, in English in 1988. (Ads without products has been reading, and it seems lately channeling, Handke's aphoristic The Weight of the World; one to add to the list.)

I've written how, at times, I've been unable to read Handke well; something resisted my attempts, though the prose style itself isn't obviously difficult. I suspect it has something to do with the way the narrative shifts from moment to moment, scene to scene. It also has to be admitted that I've had the unfortunate tendency to begin reading a Handke book at the exact moment I'm about to go through a period of extreme sleeplessness. While any reading is affected by being overly tired, I think the deceptive simplicity of Handke's prose is especially hard to follow, at least for this reader, when in such a state.

There is often a distance in the writing. And I felt strongly while reading Slow Homecoming that I was experiencing thought, as it was happening, on the page. An admittedly vague way of putting it, but it's how the experience was for me. Towards the beginning of this pass at Repetition, which is going much better, thank you, there is a sentence that made me think of another, also hard to describe, aspect to Handke's writing. Here is the full paragraph:
Fully present to my mind, however—and still fully present today, twenty-five years later—was the morning of the same day, when I took leave of my father on the wooded hill from which the village of Rinkenberg took its name. With sagging knees, dangling arms, and gout-gnarled fingers, which at that moment impersonated furious clenched fists, the frail, aging man, much smaller than I, stood by the wayside Cross and shouted at me: "All right, go to the dogs like your brother, like our whole family! None of us has ever amounted to anything, and you won't either. You won't even get to be a good gambler like me." Yet, just then, he had embraced me for the first time in my life, and I had looked over his shoulder at the dewy wetness on the bottom of his trousers, with the feeling that in me he was actually embracing himself. But then in memory my father's embrace held me, not only that evening outside the Jesenice station, but down through the years, and I heard his curse as a blessing. In reality he had been deadly serious, but in my thoughts I saw him grinning. May his embrace carry me through this story.
There is often harshness and certainly sudden violence depicted in Handke's books, but there is a warmth there, and a gentleness. May his embrace carry me through this story. This is a sentence one would find nowhere else, I think. And yet Handke is full of such expressions. In Short Letter, Long Farewell, at one point the narrator is simply pleased to have successfully communicated with an elevator operator, with anyone really—to be blessed with the grace of a successful transaction can carry one through a day. There is, in this writing, a generosity of spirit, even as the writer searches for the right words, struggles with the appropriate way to embody the role of storyteller. It is at times an uneasy warmth—witness my past problems—but it is there, quiet and insistent.

[Previously, on books by Peter Handke: a post on Slow Homecoming, two on Across (1, 2), one on The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick...]


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wrong about everything

A few choice recent-ish quotes from some favored political bloggers. . .

I would like to revisit Sarah Palin for a moment. I want to concede that she is wrong about everything. But I also want to say, look, your schematic cultural objections to her winking style of pretended regular-guy-ism is no excuse for judging her to be a greater moron than Barack Obama, who is also wrong about everything.

Since just after 9/11, which was likewise carried out by something other than illiterates, the so-called West has reacted with the same shocked dismay that engineers and doctors and elementary school teachers and suchlike have been so often implicated in various acts of terrorism or insurgency or irregular combat or what have you, despite the fact that engineers and doctors and elementary school teachers and suchlike have been so often implicated in various acts of terrorism and insurgency and irregular combat and what have you. This suggests some kind of a priori fallacy, does it not? I mean, if your own personal Weltanschauung is consistently rocked by seismic WTF moments, then maybe you need to set all those neatly ordered continents adrift.


The presumption that every educated Muslim will turn Washingtonward because the West produced the technological systems that said Muslim was trained to operate is wholly nonsensical; it has nothing at all to do with the political and cultural antagonisms driving the ongoing insurgency against American hegemony. Osama bin Laden is not, after all, complaining that Windows is a clunky operating system or childhood vaccination has somehow created autism. He and his compatriots are pissed that America keeps fucking invading other countries.

American Leftist, "The Okey-Doke Presidency":
It is entirely possible that Obama's Afghanistan speech will be remembered as a seminal episode, a slow motion lighting strike in which the inevitable failure of his administration flashed through the public mind, a squandering of all the goodwill that he had accumulated over the course of his life in politics.
The modern "state" is as much a hierarchy as anything else. Whatever values one wants to ascribe to it -- democracy, pluralism, egalitarianism -- it interprets from the top and bludgeons all below. Like every hierarchy, whatever vitality it has, it has stolen from the creative impulse of that social intercourse not yet subordinated to its needs. Among these, self-preservation ranks first.
And finally, Stan Goff, "Why I won't call myself 'progressive'", an enormous, wide-ranging piece posted Christmas day, of which this is only a tiny portion:
Healers don’t need 8-12 years of training; and medicine is the biggest racket in the world next to war supplies. The training I received was to keep a Special Forces A Detachment functional - like a machine - and to “establish rapport” with indigenous populations for the purpose of bending them to the machinations of a US foreign policy that was not good for them. The purpose of modern medicine is twofold as well: (1) to make a lot of money for lot of physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and credentialing institutions, and (2) to keep our own population functional as consumers of these “products” and as workers. More and more, the latter involves psychotropic drugs to treat newly named “disorders” that before they were disorders were just part of life. “Stress,” for example.

Working the kinds of alienating jobs we have under the Domoclean swords of debt and our incapacity for subsistence, while raising our kids to be well-adjusted to a system that no one ought to adjust to, and living in an environment that is bombarded 24-7 with the agitations of a world that is ever more commodified, creates tension in our bodies, including our psyches. Does medicine enlist in activities to escape from or overturn said system? No. It names our natural reaction to this extreme and ceaseless alienation as a disorder called “stress” - which is in fact the most natural reaction in the world, fighting or fleeing before a dangerous or uncomfortable environment - and “treats” said stress, usually with chemicals, and sometimes with “therapy,” that is, serial suggestive conversations and exercises, led by a credentialed expert of course, and designed to help us readjust(!) to this reality.

Progressives have been proselytizing for greater access to this phenomenon for quite some time, with no criticism of what it is to which we seek this access. But there is a more visceral objection that can be raised against medicalized culture, and it is how this phenomenon is reflected in our very consciousness.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Looking Forward, Back

As this opening week of 2010 perhaps suggests, things may be quiet here over the next few months. Not by design or desire but only because of other things. Like, life. I'm a little busier at work than I've been for years; I still have the lengthy commute, which, though it allows me to read a fair amount, does not allow for much time in the evenings. I'd rather take my time on writing than whip something off. But I make no predictions on how much blogging I'll actually end up doing. I do have a few things on my mind that will need some time to tease out into something coherent. I suspect I'll have even less to say about buzz or news than usual.

Looking back over the last few months, it's a bit hard to believe I blogged as much as I did. We had a lot going on. We moved, fixed up the house we had been living in, fucking sold it. (There were a variety of factors leading into this transition. One was the desire to escape the bind of home-ownership.) But anyway: we were extremely busy. I had no business blogging in the evenings, and I pretty much didn't (when do people blog? follow-up question: how many of you bloggers are academics or students in some capacity? am I the only one who wants to do it more but can't?), unless I was by myself for whatever reason, or there was downtime during naps on the weekend. This explains the silences followed by flurries of activity. (I'm sure that same general pattern will obtain now.)

But, hey: reading! I received a nice stack of books for Christmas this year, so I should be set for a while (not likely). Plus, with the sale of the house, and the ensuing debt-cancellation (yay!), I won't be as constrained from acquiring a book I really want (but still, let's not go crazy).

The gift books, then:

First, the three highest on my short list:
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940
The Journal, Henry David Thoreau (the nice new NYRB edition)
After & Making Mistakes, Gabriel Josipovici

Then the pleasant surprises from my longer list:
The Infinite Conversation, Maurice Blanchot
The Moral Economy of the Peasant, James C. Scott
Weapons of the Weak, James C. Scott
Our Horses in Egypt, Rosalind Belben

The total wild card:
The New Literary History of America, Greil Marcus & Werner Sollors, eds.

This last item was brought to my attention a couple of months back. I wouldn't have bought it for myself (not least because of Greil Marcus, who I have very mixed feelings about), but I have to admit it looks very interesting, and I look forward to reading much of it (it is like 1100 pages or something obscene like that; it's fucking massive). At first glance, I already know I have some criticisms of it, but I'll hold off on saying anything till I've had a chance to read more into it.

I was also given two gift cards to book stores. To date, I've picked up four books with one of them:
Short Letter, Long Farewell, Peter Handke
Wittgenstein's Nephew, Thomas Bernhard
Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann
Summertime, J.M. Coetzee

With a such a bounty, there is always the problem of what to read next. I feel the compulsion to read several of them all at once. One can only pick one and begin. I expect to be, and in fact have already begun, dipping into Beckett's Letters and Thoreau's Journal over the course of several weeks, if not months. The others as the occasion strikes. I've already read the Handke, and though it's nothing like as great as Slow Homecoming, it was nonetheless a fascinating read, as ever. I feel an intensive period of Handke reading coming on--perhaps Repetition soon? And a pile of others. . .

I'm currently in the middle of Our Horses In Egypt; a peculiar book. It's very English and compressed. The combination of dated English slang and horse and military jargon makes for some unexpectedly thorny paragraphs. And yet there's something charming about the tale, a bit old fashioned, if also not quite like anything else I've read.

I don't really have specific reading goals for the year. Looking back over my list from last year, I see that only one or two of the novels I read even approached 400 pages (I believe Augie March was the longest); most were well under 300, if not under 200. But I have sitting on my shelves many long books I'd like to get to before too long: 2666, The Kindly Ones, um: Don Quixote, er: Ulysses (really!), The Aesthetics of Resistance, several Henry James novels (I forgot to mention that I'd started reading The Wings of the Dove last year; wasn't up for it), even Marguerite Young's enormous Miss Macintosh, My Darling. It remains to be seen which if any of them I find time for.

My non-fiction reading will probably continue to be a rough course through philosophy, political economy, Marx, anthropology (cf. James C. Scott, etc), evolutionary bases for cooperation, arguments against the teleology of progress, and so on. And every year, and at various points within every year, I say to myself, ah, yes, now I will begin to systematically read the classics, Plato, Aristotle; you know, that crowd. I still have this strong desire to become more acquainted with that tradition. We will see how it goes.

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