Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Again

And so we are bombing Libya. Again we are put in the position—or we put ourselves in the position—of having to "have an opinion" on some indefensible action the United States takes overseas (but, oh, yes, I forgot: this time it's a UN-sanctioned affair; Madeline Albright: "If possible we will act in the world multilaterally, but if necessary, we will act unilaterally."). Again we are asked to accept the notion of "humanitarian intervention". Again we are told that, in fact, such "intervention" can only be carried out via a bombing campaign. We are blandly assured that everything is above board. You know, just like the last time, and the time before that. Besides, they say, we were invited; how could we refuse? Indeed how?

We are admonished that it is important to listen to the claims or desires of actual Libyans. No doubt this is true, to the extent that we can know what those are. Nevertheless, it remains up to us to recognize and remember the character of our own putative leaders. We know damn well that they are neither trustworthy nor reliable, though too many of us still seem to need to believe otherwise. As ever, history is collapsed into a moment, context is obliterated, and we are presented with an urgent fait accompli.

Bombs kill people, and are meant to, and they destroy cultures and property. All are necessary, from the perspective of empire. We must not continue to forget this whenever another disaster flits across our television or computer screens. No post-World War II American military action has been either morally defensible or justifiable (and don't pretend that World War II was as simple as all that). No such action is possible, given the current configurations of capital and power. A knee-jerk anti-war response is the only acceptable answer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When one thinks of death

"There is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks of death."

These words come from Thomas Bernhard's "Speech on the Occasion of the Awarding of the Austrian State Prize", which appears in full in the recently published My Prizes: An Accounting. Bernhard readers will have already been familiar with the phrase, or at least the second half of it, in some form. It is, after all, the kind of thing he would say, and often did. In his "Speech at the Awarding of the Georg B├╝chner Prize", for another example, he begins

"What we are speaking of here is unfathomable, we are not properly alive, our existence and suppositions are all hypocritical, we are cut down in our aspirations at the final, fatal conclusion of our lethal misunderstanding with nature, into which science has led us and abandoned us..."

And, for just one of many possible fictional examples, this blog's name, of course, is taken from a passage in The Loser, in which the narrator speaks of "the existence machine", into which we are thrown, without being asked; life is ongoing when we arrive, life chews us up, life continues when we are gone. We have no say in the matter. That is to say, all is absurd, when one thinks of death.

Some readers fixate on Bernhard's litanies of hate and despair, a vein through which one could look on the remarks quoted above and see a morbid, depressing writer. But it misses the fact that Bernhard is very funny. And, in fact, if we re-consider those remarks, they are kind of ridiculous. In the context of the book My Prizes, we get the impression he tossed the lines off in a hurry, as though they were meaningless to him, as he claimed the prizes themselves to be (except for the money, which he was more than happy to take). Words that we formerly encountered, most likely, in the context of a review or a profile of Bernhard, playing the role of characterization (like, dude, he's so hardcore, he scolded silly people about death at a frivolous award ceremony, that kind of color), become something more like a darkly comic practical joke. (Notice, too, how the word death is italicized in the first quote above. One can almost hear the hilarious contempt with which he no doubt spoke the word.) They serve the purpose of gratuitously puncturing the events at which they were delivered. So we must be wary of taking the remarks too seriously as a philosophy. Except insofar as it is absurd that humans toil and sweat and struggle and then just fucking die.

But this post wasn't supposed to be about Thomas Bernhard. Then what?

The fact is, I've been thinking about death. Not constantly; I'm not at all death-obsessed. But I've been thinking about our alienation from it. Mine anyway. An old friend of mine was in town recently. His mother died a year ago, so inevitably we spent some time talking about her and about how the last year had been for him. He'd also had a close friend die about a year previously, so he'd been confronted with death in a new way for him. He felt now that he no longer feared it. Whereas I've never had someone close to me die, other than grandparents, whose deaths made me sad in the abstract but which I was able to keep my distance from, because, I've always rationalized, they were old and had lived long, full lives. Of course, this is a blessing; I've been very fortunate. (It is also, to some extent, a function of privilege.) But I've thought a lot about how I'm not prepared for death, how I was sheltered from experiencing others' sadness and grief. Death is an intellectual thing, for me, distant. It happens to other people, in other places. To expand this "my" back out to a shared "our", it seems to me, though others have not been nearly so fortunate as me in their personal lives, that our culture operates in great denial of death. This is not an original idea, but it strikes me as important.

We've lately been attending a local Quaker Meeting with some regularity, and this past Sunday, some were moved to speak about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Death in this larger sense, then, was on everyone's mind. Unspoken, but on my mind at least, was the unfolding nuclear disaster. The terrible irony of this happening in Japan of all places. I thought about the different kinds of damages inflicted on impoverished countries, such as Haiti, versus the wealthier, more infrastructurally sound Japan, and about the reasons for those differences. Yet it is Japan that has nuclear reactors. Just now, writing this, this phrase from Bernhard, quoted above, appears more serious now, looms ominously: "our lethal misunderstanding with nature, into which science has led us and abandoned us". Science, our faith. Capitalism, our religion. Civilization, endgame.

The first time I read Blanchot I didn't understand. The second and third times, too, of course, but the first was a different sort of not understanding, I think, than the others, or than continues to attend my reading of him. In this case, it was the fiction Death Sentence. There was something about that work that I could not quite get. Perhaps relate to is a better way to put it—I couldn't relate to it—though I'm usually allergic to that kind of formulation. But it was the way death hovered over the text. I couldn't relate to it as an immediate concern. As a concern. It was a new kind of not understanding for me. It somehow made it difficult for me to pin the work down (as though the work needed to be pinned down; I oppose reduction, yet I reduce). Or was one of the difficulties.

I am not making sense. Let me try something else. In the past I have written about a) the decline of a shared symbolic language and b) the kind of writing I have associated with contemporary Anglo-American writing, writing, fictional or not, that I have called utilitarian (also), which others might call journalism. In this kind of writing, much concerned with the facts, and with argument, death is a fact. It happens, we know it happens, we're not fooled (we're nobody's fools). But somehow it's not a part of life. It is controlled. It is offstage. (Or perhaps it is gruesomely violent, clinically so, but distanced, reported, fact-like, uninvolved.) Anyway, I've written of this kind of writing in part to highlight that it has been my own default setting, at least in the sense of my expectations as a reader, expectations which have made reading certain European writers difficult, slippery. I've many times mentioned Blanchot, of course, and I've talked about Barthes and jouissance and so on. What I've left unmentioned so far has been the way that death seems to figure in the work of so many of these writers. I often can't get a handle on it; it helps keep the work at a distance.

I think that I've had trouble with such writing, in part because I have not shared in the literary or cultural concerns shaping the writing. I have no neat and tidy explanation for how and why I've been alternating talking about literature and life in this manner, except to suggest that one shouldn't be necessary. Except also to wonder whether to no longer be able to share in a common language is to be somewhat less than fully alive. We appeal to literature for many reasons, though in our culture we'd more often rather be entertained. We do not learn to understand death as a part of life, even if we "know" it to be the end of life. We deny it. Our scientific enterprise, medical science in particular, seems to be, to a large extent, a mass delusion in denial of death, a shared delusion that it can be resisted, that it ought to be. We are not supposed to die in our own homes anymore. Just as we are not supposed to be born at home either. The whole process must be contained.

I arbitrarily took Illness as Metaphor off the shelf yesterday and read it. In it, Susan Sontag writes, on cue: "For those who live neither with religious consolation about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied." And later: "part of the denial of death in this culture is a vast expansion of the category of illness as such". So that disease can be explained, and death controlled.

But here's the thing. I have gravitated towards the writings of the French and German writers, who make the English and American writers seem so shallow. On the one hand, I am unable to access the language of death, for reasons suggested above. I resist the tendency of my own culture to separate death from life, to attempt to solve the problem. The United States and to a somewhat lesser extent England are merely the apotheosis of this general Western tendency (that is, I am far from excluding Europe from this, even as I oppose the continental writers to the Anglo-American). Those writers I refer to respond in part to this with some dismay; this is one of the problems of modernism. On the other hand, such writers do seem death-soaked. I am referring mainly to that set of writers that David Auerbach of Waggish recently, in his review of Lars Iyers' novel version of Spurious, called "deeply serious", "Creators who are searching, reaching, profound, bombastic". He goes on to quote a passage from Blanchot's essay "Literature and the Right to Death", which he says "could read as either pompous nonsense or the deepest truth, depending on the day." And, indeed, depending on the day, or week, or my level of sleeplessness, or whatever, I can read that passage and either glean something, or the beginning of something, deeply meaningful, or not understand it in the least. At times I have found it wearying having to work so hard against my not eradicated journalistic expectations. Bernhard is a tonic, of course, and perhaps a lesson, a reminder, that the others are not so po-faced as they may at times seem in translation, or at least on the surface. As, indeed, is Spurious itself (it is very funny). But even so, it is there.

And, as Auerbach notes in his review, they are unrelentingly male. This is not an unimportant point, and it brings me, finally, after much dithering, to my own point, or at least the point with which I will conclude these ramblings. I've suggested in the past that the history of philosophy would look a lot different if it hadn't been written almost exclusively by men, about men, for men, away from the concerns of women and children, away from the province of reproduction. I've similarly suggested that science would have come around to certain discoveries about childhood development if scientists had bothered to pay the least attention to children, and to the women who raised them. If such men hadn't been off doing Important Work, while life itself went on around and without them. In both cases we likely could have been spared a lot of nonsense about human nature (and perhaps, instead, have inherited other nonsense, but a healthier, more life-focused nonsense, I assert). But my point is that, though I gravitate towards those writers responding to the modern condition, now stretching back several hundred years (both the condition and the response to it), I resist the strong tendency in this tradition to see life itself as the misery. I wish rather, writing as the father of a beautiful little girl, to celebrate life. It is, at times, easy to do that. All I have to do is be in her company for a few minutes, and life is great. Life is great. But it doesn't take long, when away from her, when commuting, when reading about the problems of the world, to despair about the future world that awaits her. And I thus write with sadness and anger as I consider, as I often must, the death cult that is capitalism, its continued encroachment on and destruction of the natural world, and the immanent disaster "into which science has led us and abandoned us".

Saturday, March 05, 2011

"like any addict, it continues to do the same things, while expecting a different result"

Speaking of Stan Goff, today he posted this piece at Feral Scholar, by way of introducing us to this article by Sierra Bellows at the University of Virginia Magazine. Stan says:
Meanwhile, unbeknown to most Americans, there are still 75,000 troops in Iraq – where yet another rebellion threatens to break out; Commander-in-Chief Obama continues to oversee a lost and cruel war in Afghanistan; the CIA continues its covert drone war against rural Pakistan; and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke has successfully reflated a financial bubble, ensuring that the next crash – coming to a theater near you – is even more traumatic than the last. Then, we’ll see more Yorba Linda-like lunacies, because this is what middle-classes do when they are frightened.

I believe what the Irish bard said was, “the center cannot hold.”

The empire, in a word, has become unmanageable, but like any addict, it continues to do the same things, while expecting a different result. We 12-steppers call that “insanity.”

At last, I’ll get to my point, and link the article that this is leading into. Empires always become unmanageable, because they are inherently “addicted” to the exploitation of peripheries. As those peripheries are exhausted, the core must continually seek further and further afield to satisfy its habit. This core-periphery dynamic is, in fact, not only a feature of empire. Empire is one manifestation of the same process – an ecological one at bottom – that we call “civilization.” Because no core can continually feed on a periphery without materially exhausting it, no core can go on indefinitely. It will eventually overreach, and at that point, it loses the ability to manage its own system – a system that turns out at the end of the day to have created a fatal dependency on that periphery, even as it has pillaged it.

Noted: D.A. Clarke

From "Prostitution for everyone: Feminism, globalisation and the 'sex' industry", also collected in Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (the always excellent Clarke, by the way, is co-blogger/moderator with Stan Goff at Feral Scholar; it was, by the way, Stan's very good book Sex & War that led me to the Not For Sale collection; many thanks to him, as always):
The way we use metaphors of pimping and whoring reveal a profound mistrust, a perception (valid, in my view) that the intrusion of 'market values' into community life or intimate life is not a healthy thing. Yet we persist simultaneously in the fantasy that the relationships of literal prostitution, the trade itself, the original from which our metaphorical distaste is drawn, are somehow harmless. The disconnect is remarkable; it is as if we could thoughtlessly describe something wicked or corrupt as 'as bad as racism', and in the next breath accept last week's lynching or cross-burning as a commonplace—or even a healthy expression of free speech and democracy. Despite our loose usage of 'metawhores' in common speech and thought, we do not often consider far deeper correspondences between prostitution and the daily life and culture which is (for most of us) largely defined and shaped by corporate capitalism.

[...]

In our 'marketised' society, we must expect these analogies with prostitution to abound, and to expand and multiply. Since the working definition of a prostitute is 'someone who will do anything for money', and a monetist society is one in which money is the only thing worth doing anything for, a gradual convergence is inevitable: the 'rational actor' of neoliberal economic theory would never refuse good money for the sake of a mere point of principle. Second only to outright slavery, prostitution has to be the ultimate expression of loyal adherence to 'market values'. What interests me is that the analogies, as in the Albert Gore example [in which, during the 2000 election campaign, Gore was attacked from the left as a 'corporate whore'] seem to arouse more outrage and distress than real prostitution itself.

Noted: Andrea Dworkin

From "Pornography, prostitution, and a beautiful and tragic recent history", collected in Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (2005), an anthology of essays by various authors, edited by Rebecca Wisnant and Christine Stark:
One needs a political movement because something has to change and what has to change is not individual. It's not something an individual can change without holding hands with someone else and then another person after that. And in the collectivity of person-to-person, each person cannot do everything, but every person can do something. That is why one has a political movement: because a political movement makes it possible for people to do the thing they can do in a context that gives the doing meaning; because people then can give as much as they can give of what they know, of what they think; because people can give materially. No one has to—or can—do everything. It is appalling that in the United States people believe that an individual must do everything—that if one cannot do everything one need not do anything.

[...]

One of the worst parts of being an Amerikan is that if something does not happen fast, it does not happen at all; if one cannot make an issue, an atrocity, a tragedy palpable to people in five minutes, or in a sixty-second sound byte, one cannot communicate with other people. Amerikans don't have, or refuse to have, a sense of history, which is necessary in having a sense of endurance, duration—a sense of how hard it is to make change, how long it takes, how incredible it is that one moved forward an eighth of an inch, because then one gets the boot and one is kicked way back to the place where one started, but not quite, because one knows something that one did not know before. Political activism brings knowledge.