Friday, September 26, 2008

Disintegration of the Illusion

I've been meaning to write something about this long-coming economic crisis we find ourselves in, but things have moved too quickly for your slow-writing, time-crunched blogger. But I like what k-punk says here:

"What we're seeing is not the collapse of capitalism, but the disintegration of the illusion that capitalism is about the untrammeled free market."


And, regarding the $700 billion figure, this quote was priceless:
"It’s not based on any particular data point," a Treasury spokeswoman told Tuesday. "We just wanted to choose a really large number."
See also, among many other worthy items, the following: Michael Hudson at CounterPunch (on the insanity of the giveaway plan), Richard Estes at American Leftist, Naomi Klein at The Nation (article is from July, about "Obama's Chicago Boys"; link via Matt Christie), Cassiodorus' Daily Kos diary suggesting "Maybe we can call it 'late late capitalism' now?". . . . so many others, too numerous to collate or summarize, etc. . .

Meanwhile, Lenin reminds us not to forget about recent American strikes in Pakistan, expanding the illegal, immoral, ineffective, total bullshit war of terror.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Noted: Thomas Bernhard

From "The Cellar: An Escape", in Gathering Evidence, Bernhard's remarkable memoir collection (translation by David McLintock; italics all in the original):
Truth, it seems to me, is known only to the person who is affected by it; and if he chooses to communicate it to others, he automatically becomes a liar. Whatever is communicated can only be falsehood and falsification; hence it is only falsehoods and falsifications that are communicated. The aspiration for truth, like every other aspiration, is the quickest way to arrive at falsehoods and falsifications with regard to any state of affairs. And to write about a period of one's life, no matter how remote or how recent, no matter how long or how short, means accumulating hundreds and thousands and millions of falsehoods and falsifications, all of which are familiar to the writer describing the period as truths and nothing but truths. His memory adheres precisely to the events and their precise chronology, but what emerges is something quite different from what things were really like. The description makes something clear which accords with the describer's aspiration for truth but not with the truth itself, for truth is quite impossible to communicate. We describe an object and believe that we have described it truthfully and faithfully, only to discover that it is not the truth. We make a state of affairs clear, yet it is never the state of affairs we wished to make clear but always a different one. We are bound to say that we have never communicated anything that was the truth, yet throughout our lives we have never stopped trying to communicate the truth. We wish to tell the truth but fail to do so. We describe something truthfully, but our description is something other than the truth. We ought to be able to see existence as the state of affairs we wish to describe, but however hard we try we can never see this state of affairs through our description. Knowing this to be so, we ought to have given up wishing to write the truth long ago and so given up writing altogether. Since it is not possible to communicate and hence to communicate the truth, we have contented ourselves with wishing to write and describe the truth, as well as to tell the truth, even though we know that the truth can never be told. The truth which we know is, from the point of view of logic, a lie, and this lie, since we cannot circumvent it, is the truth. What is described here is the truth, and yet at the same time it is not the truth, because it cannot be. In all the years we have spent reading, we have never encountered a single truth, even if again and again what we have read has been factual. Again and again it was lies in the form of truth and truth in the form of lies, etc. What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth. Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth. Of course we may demand truth, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there is no such thing as truth. What is described here is the truth, and at the same time it is not, for the simple reason that truth is only a pious wish on our part.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace: RIP

I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of David Foster Wallace. I don't have a whole lot to add to the body of tributes and remembrances building up across the Internet (most of which seem to be collected at The Literary Saloon; also see Brandon Soderberg's post here--just as Brandon wonders absurdly about Wallace's dogs, I keep thinking about the deliberation of those final terrible moments), except to say that, for me, Wallace the writer was not about tricks or gimmicks. Nor did I see him as a "post-modernist" writer, in the sense usually meant, but rather as a writer with concerns very much like those of the Modernists, grappling with the post-modern world, with the problems of communication and isolation. I enjoyed the novel Infinite Jest. I generally enjoyed his non-fiction, though I consider it to be relatively minor in comparison with his fiction (and where some of his stylistic tics most often threatened to overwhelm his great voice). But I believe that it is in his shorter fiction, particularly in the collections Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (e.g., "The Depressed Person") and Oblivion (e.g., "Good Old Neon" and much of "Mr. Squishy"), that Wallace most showed that he was for real. He was painfully aware that the choices made by writers in the past were not, and could not be, available to him. A great vein of sadness runs through his work, not the sort that could predict or explain what happened, but the sort that revealed a writer able to see and to understand. He was writer with a lot of heart. He will be missed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Technological Fundamentalism

Robert Jensen, in CounterPunch:
[I]t may well turn out that the gravest threat to a just and sustainable human presence on the planet is technological fundamentalism -- the notion that the increasing use of increasingly more sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. . . .

[. . .]

Those who raise questions about this fundamentalism are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge.

One expression of this view is the "precautionary principle," which argues that instead of asking sceptics to prove that a new product or process might be harmful, advocates of the proposed new action should have to prove it is safe. . . .

[. . .]

This idea is not new. An early challenge to greed-fueled technological fundamentalism came from the Luddites, artisans who resisted the factory system in early 19th century Britain not because they were afraid of machines but because they anticipated the negative effects of a dangerous and dehumanizing system on their communities. The contemporary use of "Luddite" as a synonym for "someone with an irrational fear of anything new" indicates how a fearful culture regards this kind of thoughtful critique. The lesson we should learn from the early Industrial Revolution is that the Luddites were correct -- by overvaluing machines we can easily undervalue people and the non-human living world.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Divergent Pictures

From To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson, writing on the Paris Commune:
It is a proof of the divergence of the tendencies of the socialist and the bourgeois pictures of history--and from now on there will be two distinct historical cultures running side by side without ever really fusing--that people who have been brought up on the conventional version of history and know all about the Robespierrist Terror during the Great French Revolution, should find it an unfamiliar fact that the Terror of the government of Thiers executed, imprisoned or exiled more people--the number has been estimated at a hundred thousand--in that one week of the suppression of the Commune than the revolutionary Terror of Robespierre had done in three years.
This divergent picture of history gets more pronounced all the time, and it seems to me that here in the United States we have at least three. The difference between a certain leftwing view of American history and that held by liberals or progressives--who, for example, all too often cling to the notion of the United States as well-intentioned actor on the world stage and fail to grasp the implications of the Progressive Era--is huge.

And yet the liberal view is accuracy itself when compared to the lunatic version of history carried around by the American Right.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

When it comes turns out not to be what they meant

The Voyou Désœuvré post I linked to last time featured this passage, quoted from William Morris' "A Dream of John Ball":
But while I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.
I like this quote a lot. The context for Voyou, again, was seeing the 1950s as embodying the radical dreams of the 1930s, only as banality. To revisit these words from Voyou:
What's so interesting about the 1950s is that many of the things that appear so radical in the 1930s—technological progress, social democracy, modernist design—reappear in the 1950s as banal.
"Technological progress" sticks out for me as the most problematic, as a radical idea, of the three listed items. (Indeed, "progress" itself strikes me as increasingly problematic, but I need to take some time to work out my thoughts on the matter.) In retrospect, it hardly seems surprising that technological progress would be used against workers. It has always been thus, though in both the liberal and radical traditions, it appears too often to be seen as a definite good (technology will free us, no doubt, instead of the opposite). But from where we sit now, the idea of technological progress, particularly as married to the idea of never-ending growth, seems especially foolish and destructive. Once we might have been able to imagine the lessening of the burden of work through the use of technology, but this has not come to pass, and with capitalism cannot come to pass. (Topic for future consideration: the Luddites were right.) Instead we get distractions, bought off with shiny iPods and cellphones and home entertainment systems.

(Incidentally, the Morris quote reminds me that we happen to have E.P. Thompson's study of Morris on our bookshelves; this quote moves it a little more in focus for me as something I'd like to read.)

Monday, September 08, 2008

Useful reference points

Catching up on my blog reading, I came across this fascinating post from July, over at Voyou Désœuvré, in part explaining the recent fixation over there on the 1950s, which Voyou posits as having been the decade in which, in a certain way, "the dreams of the 1930s came to pass":
. . . the 1930s were also [like the 1950s] a time of inspiring aesthetic and political movements: but perhaps too inspiring. The inter-war years had a level of radicalism I find difficult to imagine, and so it seems to me that any left-wing enthusiasm for the 30s runs a real risk of being nostalgic in a paralyzing way. What's so interesting about the 1950s is that many of the things that appear so radical in the 1930s—technological progress, social democracy, modernist design—reappear in the 1950s as banal.
It seems to me that any past period of radical activity leaves us open to unhelpful and unproductive nostalgia. I know that when I read about vital movements of the past, I can feel the tug myself. When reading radical history, I am aware that I am rooting for a side, as if I were reading a story that might have a different ending than it actually has. The radicalism of the past seems full of possibilities, possibilities foreclosed, cut off, leaving us in the apparent hopelessness of the present. This is a problem I need to overcome, I know, though I doubt it is unique. In any event, I like what Voyou says about why the 1950s in particular appeals:
Because perhaps we are still living in the 50s, in two senses. We live with an image of the future and a concept of futurity that was developed in the 50s; but we are also experiencing a sort of repetition-as-farce of the 50s. If the 50s were the period in which the dreams of the 1930s were, in their way, achieved, are the early years of the 21st century not the period in which the long neoliberal dream has finally achieved its full triumph? A rather parodic triumph, to be sure, as the market economy begins to fail even by its own curious standards. In which case, the 50s can be a useful reference point, a period of both stasis and creation dialectically dependent on one another, and a reminder that the time of the end of history is not the end times.
I try to look to earlier moments as such reference points, as evidence that alternatives are indeed possible, but also in order to hold off my own tendency towards catastrophic thinking. Anyway, as with much else, I hope to return to some of these themes when time permits. . .