Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Allow to see

Some months back, I wrote here about my own memories, awakened physically it seemed to me. At the end of the piece, I appended a passage from Proust. In a comment to that post, Lloyd Mintern argued that the truth value of my own writing was, in sense, negated, or at least undermined, by my inclusion of Proust's writing. I had to conclude that he was right: as writing of its own, as writing qua writing, it works better without the Proust passage, the addition of which feels like a strange appeal to authority, as if Proust could authorize my own memory, as if he were proof that the memory weren't bogus. I recall that even at the time, it felt tacked on, and the transition awkward, at best.

Why did I include it? I considered possible explanations: I was showing my work; or, I had had a larger piece in mind, in which Proust played a key part, which I never got around to finishing, but like the novelist who doesn't want to waste all that precious research, I felt the need to leave it all in. These reasons are part of it. But more than that, I was making a claim, I think. My experience was not a subset of Proust's, but in a very real sense, I was able to take note of it, to think about it, in part through having the experience of reading Proust. And, in a way, through this taking note, I was able to in fact have the experience at all. Instead of a fleeting, forgotten moment, it becomes a memory, something I take the trouble to record, which recording allows me to perhaps pursue the line of thought further, to facilitate further experiences, further memories. Isn't this in part what the experience of literature is for? One of literature's uses, so to speak? To allow us to see?

This experience, once written, what becomes of it? Does it escape me? Is it too literary? Does it, by existing, misrepresent the experience as I experienced it? In a sense the piece was an attempt to bring the personal to the fore, in the context of, or under the influence of, my reading. But is it mine anymore? I can tell you that I still have the memory of the experience of having the memory come to me--but in the telling, does it become something else? Does it become other than fact? Not false, but a truth separate from fact? A literary truth?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's name is socialism

Jodi Dean:
McCain's biggest mistake, then, seems to be his demonstration that he would do anything to be elected. Anything at all. It's like his enjoyment is on display and it is shameful. We are ashamed at having to confront our enjoyment of the excesses of feeling, consumption, violence, and negligence which we've indulged over the last eight years. I wonder if this is a turning point, where we might grow up a little bit, where we might put aside our cravings for gratification and stimulation, for so much more of everything that everything becomes shit, an excess that stains and covers us.

McCain has actually named this maturity. He has meant to slur it and the Democrats are too afraid, at least right now, to claim it as their own. He's named this maturity that is the other of the barbarism of his campaign and of the last eight years.

It's name is socialism.

Anthropology of Money

The following passages are a small portion from a fascinating article titled "Notes towards an anthropology of money" by Keith Hart (I don't remember where I found the link, though no doubt it had something to do with Stuart at From Despair to Where?):

Traders are unusual people (Hicks 1969). They own things they neither made nor will use, but still claim the right to the value of their sale. They are willing to give up their goods in return for payment; and their customers then have the right to do what they like with them. This is so commonplace in our world that we think of it as eternal. It is in fact quite rare within the range of known human societies. What gives buyer and seller confidence that they each have exclusive rights to dispose of the commodity? The power of state law reinforces their contract and usually supports the money involved. They may operate as isolated individuals only because of the huge social apparatus backing their exchange.

If trading with money is a special institution, how else have people circulated objects between themselves? In barter two parties exchange goods taken to be equivalent; the timing and the quantities must be right; both sides must have the right to dispose of their goods without involving others; there is a risk of conflict in haggling. How much simpler to persuade you to give up your goods in return for money that you can hold for purchases from others in different times and places. But it is not convincing that such a complicated arrangement as barter would prevail before people thought of inventing money.

Barter is often found where markets using money prices are ineffective, usually because of a shortage of liquidity. [...]

I have been struck by the tenacity with which ordinary people cling to the barter origin myth of money. Can this merely be an example of Keynes' (1936: 383) famous claim that our ideas are nothing more than the echoes of a defunct economists theory? A Sudanese friend once asserted that the original economic system of his country was barter between villages; and then, when pushed, he admitted that these villages had been involved with merchant networks and money for thousands of years. It would be more plausible to locate the origins of exchange in the gift, as Mauss (1990 [1925]) suggested. But this would give priority to a personalised conception of money, seeing markets as a form of symbolic human activity rather than as the circulation of dissociated objects between isolated individuals. The general appeal of the barter origin myth is that it leaves the notion of the private property complex undisturbed.


The contributors to Parry and Bloch (1990) share the view that indigenous societies around the world take modern money in their stride, turning it to their own social purposes rather than being subject to its impersonal logic. The underlying theory is familiar from Durkheim (1965 [1912]). There are two circuits of social life: one, the everyday, is short-term, individuated and materialistic; the other, the social, is long-term, collective and idealised, even spiritual. Market transactions fall into the first category and all societies seek to subordinate them to the conditions of their own reproduction, which is the realm of the second category. For some reason, which they do not investigate, money has acquired in Western economies a social force all of its own, whereas the rest of the world retains the ability to keep it in its place.


Where does the social pressure come from to make markets impersonal? Weber (1981 [1927]) had one answer: rational calculation of profit in enterprises depends on the capitalist’s ability to control product and factor markets, especially that for labour. But human work is not an object separable from the person performing it, so people must be taught to submit to the impersonal disciplines of the workplace. The war to impose this submission has never been completely won (see Parry infra). So, just as money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to the workplace, which means that the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres separate, if only at the conceptual level, is huge.

Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control. Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside. Commodities are goods because we consume them in person, but we find it difficult to embrace money, the means of their exchange, as good because it belongs to a sphere that is indifferent to morality and, in some sense, stays there. The good life, instead of uniting work and home, is restricted to what takes place in the latter.

This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two. Today money is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful. If Durkheim (1965 [1912]) said we worship society and call it God, then money is the God of capitalist society.

Scattered thoughts on the election

I've spent months deferring writing anything about Barack Obama and the presidential campaigns. I've been short of time, yes, but the truth is that it would be all too easy to write a long post detailing all the problems with Barack Obama and why I'm wary of the excitement others have for him and why I don't think he offers what this country needs at this time (which, frankly, is drastic change, decades late, in the form of some kind of bottom-up non-capitalist socialism or communism; see, incidentally, this mostly excellent video lecture explaining the economic crisis, from Professor Richard Wolff of Amherst, in which he proposes just that. Link via the new blog Marx and the Financial Crisis of 2008 (thanks to Infinite Thought for pointing to this blog), video first seen at Lenin's Tomb).

But, sadly, it's pretty clear that Obama is just about the best that the two-party system can plausibly come up with for a Presidential nomination. He's a vastly better candidate than either Gore or Kerry were (which is not to say that he is substantially different from them). And people are genuinely excited about him, which is something. Excitement is not something to be dismissed lightly, though, again, I'm wary that people expect things of him that he's not prepared to even attempt to deliver. (I remember being excited about Bill Clinton, it saddens me to admit.) Regardless, it remains mind-boggling that, for example, anyone could view any of the debates between Obama and McCain and conclude that McCain is worth supporting or voting for.

(By the way, the morning after the final debate, I was making just this observation to one of my bus-riding companions--that I have numerous problems with Obama, but find McCain repellent in every way, utterly and always devoid of integrity, incoherent, and so on, and inconceivable that anyone could have watched the debate and decided that McCain was their man--when another rider interrupted and wanted to know what I didn't like about Obama. I started off with his odious foreign policy, that he's a serious hawk whose version of "leaving Iraq" doesn't look much like leaving, etc . . .I didn't get very far, because he interrupted again and asked if I thought the United States should just pull its troops out of Iraq. Yes, in fact, I said. No, he countered, and said further that the United States must stay in Iraq because the major conflict in the world today is between the Christian world and the Muslim world and the U.S. is needed to stop terrorism and has been spreading democracy in the region, witness this or that election, etc. etc., blah blah blah . . . I didn't know what to say. I could have had a conversation with someone arguing that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq, as wrong as they'd be, but I wasn't expecting this kind of argument--I didn't know that normal people spouted reductive versions of Samuel Huntington's stupid, racist, discredited "clash of civilizations" thesis. What can you say to that? I can talk to people with whom I disagree, but some positions are so wrong that I often simply don't know where to begin and I either say nothing or try to say too much in too short a period of time, which only contributes to the trivialization of discourse. Is it my job, on a ten-minute bus-ride, to hold court on recent geo-political history? It is not. I held my own as best I could, but have to admit that I did indeed sputter incoherence at least once.)

(Regarding that last debate, I will say that I learned one good thing from McCain. It was news to me that Joe Biden had voted against the first Gulf War. Good for him! For McCain this was just one time among many when Biden was wrong about foreign policy, it being naturally one of the few times he was actually right.)

Anyway, though Obama is the best the two parties can come up with, he remains a center-right figure of limited vision. But he nevertheless pays lip service to worthy values, and it is these values that matter to his supporters. And it is this, along with the ongoing lunacy of the Republican Party, that makes his candidacy worth supporting. Steven Shaviro made an excellent argument along these lines in two posts from September. In the first one, he writes:
no matter how hypocritical the Democrats are [...] — nonetheless, the fact that they pay lip service to human rights, human dignity, and freedom from unnecessary suffering makes them morally superior to the Republicans, who are so crassly cynical that they overtly and positively revel in the prospects of torture, bigotry, destroying the environment for quick corporate profits, and enriching the already-rich at the expense of everyone else.

Thus, the Democrats’ hypocrisy is to be preferred to the Republicans’ cynicism, for good Kantian reasons [...]. As Kant famously said about the French Revolution, no matter how much this uprising might have “miscarried” or been “filled with misery and atrocities,” nonetheless any decent human being, observing the events of the Revolution from afar, would have to be caught up in “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm”; the sheer fact of this “sympathy,” despite everything that goes wrong in actuality, itself testifies to “a moral predisposition in the human race.” In other words, the sheer fact that something like the French Revolution could occur, no matter how badly it went wrong subsequently, gives us a legitimate ground for hoping that human beings are not forever subject to the Hobbesian alternative of either continual war of all against all, or severe and violent repression.

In the present circumstances, this means that Obama’s rhetoric of hope, no matter how vapid and empty it may actually be, still matters. Anyone who thinks that Obama will actually change things is in for severe disappointment if he wins. It’s pretty clear that Obama will do no more than restore Clintonian neoliberalism, in place of the revanchist militarism and rampant looting and pillaging that characterizes the current Bush-Cheney regime (and that McCain, for all his promises of “change”, will do nothing to alter). In other words, Obama may well rescue us somewhat from the nightmare of the last eight years, but only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante, with its foreign bombings and domestic “rationalizations” of the economy, that we rightly objected to in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama, Biden, and company pay lip service to humane values that they will not actually uphold is in itself a cause for hope, for maintaining a “hope we can believe in,” or (to quote a past Presidential candidate whom it is now taboo to mention) for “keep[ing] hope alive.”

We should vote for Obama because
we should make it clear that even the most minimal sense of human dignity requires us to throw the Republicans out of power. It is not stupid to vote for McCain/Palin; rather, it is evil. Republicans are intrinsically, and necessarily, morally depraved. Anyone who votes for McCain/Palin, or supports them, by that very fact demonstrates that he or she is a person utterly devoid of basic morality, and lacking in any respect for others. To vote for McCain is to shit on human civilization, and show utter contempt for human values and human hopes.
Shaviro's second post is a discussion of the idea of evil, in the wake of the discussions that took place in the comments at his blog, and also in response to two posts by Jodi Dean and subsequent discussions at her blog.

(For the record, I voted for Ralph Nader in each of the last two presidential elections. I have no trouble with either vote, nor do I have a problem with people voting for Nader again this time, or for that matter for Cynthia McKinney. I've considered writing a lengthy defense of both those votes and of Nader himself and his candidacies, in part because it keeps coming up: Liberals keep dragging Nader and Nader-voters through the mud; each time something awful happens, be it a terrible Supreme Court decision or a certain military action, you can still see blog comments blaming Nader for it. An argument that Nader and those who voted for him are somehow responsible for the Bush presidency is not one that can be fruitfully defended if one is interested in the facts. I intended to explain why, at interminable length, and also why I still believe the 2000 vote in particular was the right thing to do at the time, but I don't have the heart for such an endeavor anymore--or possibly I'm just tired of being accused of "not getting it", or worse, of being a racist by tiresome, over-indulged commenters at other people's blogs.)

(Before concluding, let me offer yet another parenthetical and say that there have been some things I've liked about Obama. I was very impressed by this speech about religion, for example. I was less impressed by the much-ballyhooed speech on race, though he did say many important things worth saying in it, dragged down as it was by the awful boilterplate about Israel and fact-challenged distancing from Rev. Jeremiah Wright. On the latter, I'd meant to point to a few analyses I found of value way back in March, but I got bogged down and distracted. Here are two: Tim Wise, in CounterPunch, typically excellent on Obama, Wright, and "the Unacceptability of Truth" to white America; and I Hear a New World's brilliant post linking Wright's oratory to African American popular music, including linking the now-infamous "God damn America" phrase to Nina Simone's classic "Mississippi Goddamn".)

On Saturday, we attended another Iraq Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier event, at 2640, followed by a not well-attended anti-war march. One of the panel members at the event was Michael Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University who's written articles appearing at TomDispatch, Z, Asia Times, and others, and has written a book titled War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (which I'm currently reading; it's not perfect, but it's pretty damn good). Towards the end of the Q&A session, the panel was asked whether there was any glimmer of hope with the upcoming election; that is, would there be any substantive change in policy, in terms of the continuation of the war and occupation? Schwartz replied that the only glimmer of hope he could discern was that the economic crisis would get so bad that the United States could literally not afford to keep troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, whether combat or occupation, and be forced to withdraw. I think it's fairly clear that he's correct. Now, Obama is invested in the American imperial project--he merely believes he can manage it better--and he is a proponent of neo-liberalism (with figures like Robert Rubin and Paul Volcker as close advisers, why would we think anything different?), and so on. But the truth is that, with Obama, under such circumstances one can at least imagine him being able to modify his policies and move toward more genuinely populist positions, however difficult they might be to implement. One can imagine no such thing with John McCain.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Letter

Very early in Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles, before we encounter the Prince or any of the other grotesque character portraits, the narrator mentions a letter he had recently sent to his father. He describes it:
. . .I had tried to sketch the uneasy relationship among us three, between him and me and between him and my sister and between me and my sister. . . [...]

In the letter I had tried to define certain things about our relationship by citing seemingly simple but to me extremely important details. In the writing I had taken the greatest pains not to offend my father. Nor to offend anybody. From my years of observation I found it fairly easy to sketch a picture of us that could be considered truthful from all three sides. My letter had been composed very calmly; I did not allow myself to show any excitement, although I did not evade the central matters that concerned me [. . .] I had long wanted to write such a letter and had started on it repeatedly, but had each time been overcome by doubts about the usefulness of this sort of accounting. It had always been impossible for me to write to him. Each time I would immediately become aware of the awkwardness of suddenly expressing in black and white things that for years had only been private thoughts, speculations. Then too I was checked by a reluctance to bring up possibly long-forgotten matters as essential evidence for my view of us. For I would have had to proceed with sincerity and therefore ruthlessness, and yet show consideration for all concerned. That, too, made such a letter impossible for such a long time.
This letter sounds to me like an excellent description of Kafka's famous letter to his own father. Unlike the letter sent by this narrator, Kafka's letter was apparently never received or read by his father, because, I believe, of his mother's intervention. One can see why she would have stopped it from being read. While in many respects it is a model of understanding and fairness, there is no sense that Kafka's father, if he in any way resembled the portrait that emerges from the letter, could have read the letter as anything other than an affront. And this is not necessarily to take Kafka's "side" against his father, whatever that might mean at this juncture far removed from the situation. But the letter, more than any real attempt to explain anything to his father, really reads like a performance, just as any piece of writing is a performance. Kafka performs a version of himself for the purposes of his letter. And perhaps he was being as scrupulously honest as it was possible for him to be. Even so, the letter remains a performance, a writing, something to which a real-life figure, it seems to me, could find all but impossible to respond to. Bernhard's narrator speaks of "doubts about the usefulness of this sort of accounting", and he's right, is he not? There comes a time, in some relationships, when such an accounting is quite beside the point--too late to do anyone any good--and in others, if the gulf in communication is enough to precipitate this kind of letter, then what good could it do anyway, however well intended, other than as a way of performing one's own confession, one's own account, one's own perspective?

Notes on Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles

In Thomas Bernhard's Gargoyles, the narrator is a student, home from school, accompanying his father, a doctor, on his rounds. Unlike most of the other Bernhard novels I've read, in which the narrator is in a sense a conduit through which another character's sensibility is conveyed, in all its contradictions, with occasional stretches of the narrator's own outlook, itself often enough dominated in some way by the other, the first part of this novel is devoted to encounters with multiple characters. Here, the narrator and his father visit numerous patients, suffering from some malady or other, and we get commentary of sorts from the narrator, as well as his father, along the way. Some of these encounters are very brief, others are many pages in length. The husband of a woman killed by a drunk in their inn. An elderly woman on her deathbed. A businessman talking at length about the relative qualifications of applicants for a job he has posted. And so on. Each character, visited as part of the rounds, or otherwise encountered on the way, walks onto the page, alive for a moment, before exiting. We encounter them, as the narrator does, as individuals, however damaged. In the narrator's comments and his father's, we get the sense that these people are doomed: doomed by their environment, by their parents, teachers, institutional context. These people are grotesques, the gargoyles of the title, twisted into ugliness.

For an example of this sort of commentary, the narrator and his father stop to eat at one point. As they leave:
We paid and left. In the restaurant a band of schoolchildren were being fed. They were given hot soup and admonishments not to make noise. What gruesome people these innocent creatures will inevitably become, I thought as we left the restaurant.
Earlier, speaking of a man whose death he'd witnessed, his father reports that he'd seen on his face "a man's accusation against a world that refused to understand him". Later the narrator, speaking of a Turk who'd left home to work in the gorge described in the novel, and who is made fun of and has only a kind of slavery to look forward to if he stays, thinks to himself:
How destitute the Turk's life at home must have been for him to end up in this gorge in Central Europe, I thought. The gorge is a cruel betrayal of him.
This kind of thing is fairly common in the first part of the novel, then halfway through they visit the Prince Saurau, with whom we stay for the rest of the novel. Here we are in more familiar Bernhard territory. This is early Bernhard, and I'm tempted to say that the second half of the novel is the writer perhaps settling into his form. As with later novels, such as The Loser and Old Masters, we again have blocks of text devoted to the rantings of someone other than the narrator, through the narrator's memory of the event (I note here that in this recent post, I miswrote on this score when I said that it is Bernhard's narrators who rail against the absurdity of life, though surely they do some of that, too; they are not merely the delivery system for another's opinions) . Here, the narrator’s father explicitly tells the narrator that the Prince is "mad", a definitive assessment not normally given by a character in a Bernhard novel (so my memory tells me anyway; I should keep that in mind as I re-read his books). Thomas Bernhard's novels can be relentless, exhausting reads. Here, the exhaustion factor is mitigated by the inclusion of the earlier encounters before the Prince. The attraction, again, is the voice, the cerebral pulse, of the Prince, similar but not identical to that of characters in Bernhard's other works.

Though an enjoyable read--it's always a pleasure to read Bernhard, exhaustion notwithstanding--Gargoyles feels minor in comparison to, for example, the two novels mentioned above, to say nothing of two I haven't read yet: Correction, which is so often touted as his masterpiece, or Extinction, claimed as a favorite by at least one reader.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Excess of Faith

Responding to k-punk's response to Barbara Ehrenreich's piece on "How positive thinking wrecked the economy", Mark Thwaite writes:
A considered and detailed debunking of the term "confidence" really needs to take place. That the global economy is in such tatters because of a lack of "confidence", a lack of faith in other words, is astonishing proof of the validity of Marx's theory of reification, but beyond that it shows that a profound irrationality sits at the heart of the global social system. A social system that claims it can never be bettered or changed or destroyed is, it clearly turns out, based almost entirely on our faith in it! The astonishing amount of energy -- and money -- being mobilised by governments, politicians and journalists to try to keep us keeping the faith shows clearly that it is time for us all to dream again of better worlds.
I would say, rather, that the economy is in tatters not because of a lack of faith, but because of an excess of faith, a misplaced faith in capitalism. This faith isn't limited to those traders who, in fits of panic or elation, cause the stock market to bounce up and down in such dramatic ways as we've seen so much of in the last two weeks. This faith is just as much in evidence in those of us who invest in the market in our own, perhaps small, ways. We have "confidence" that the market will recover, sure, but we have, ironically, ultimate faith in the rationality of capitalism. We're sold a bill of goods about freedom, about the naturalness of the capitalist economy (economic Darwinism, you know: competition is only natural, etc.), and we buy into it wholesale. How many of us who would call ourselves resolutely anti-capitalist nevertheless have bought into the chimera of the 401(k)? We can all retire rich, is that it? All of us? We'll all draw out at the height of the market? How do we think it's possible? How did we ever think there was ever going to be enough money to cover us all in our dotage, with the fantasy of compound interest? This is misplaced faith, potentially far more damaging than what most religions cook up.

Noted: Walter Benjamin

From "One-Way Street", collected in Reflections:
. . .because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through
it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The
mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology.
But who would trust a can wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by
adults to be the purpose of education?

Noted: Walter Benjamin

From "One-Way Street", collected in Reflections:
Is there anyone who has not once been stunned, emerging from the Métro into the open air, to step into brilliant sunlight? And yet the sun shone a few minutes earlier, when he went down, just as brightly. So quickly has he forgotten the weather of the upper world. And as quickly the world in its turn will forget him. For who can say more of his own existence than that it has passed through the lives of two or three others as gently and closely as the weather?

Again and again, in Shakespeare, in Calderón, battles fill the last act, and kings, princes, attendants and followers "enter, fleeing." The moment in which they become visible to spectators brings them to a standstill. The flight of the dramatis personae is arrested by the stage. Their entry into the visual field of nonparticipating and truly impartial persons allows the harassed to draw breath, bathes them in new air. The appearance on stage of those who enter "fleeing" takes from this its hidden meaning. Our reading of this formula is imbued with expectation of a place, a light, a footlight glare, in which our flight through life may be likewise sheltered in the presence of onlooking strangers. (pp. 90-91)

Noted: Walter Benjamin

From "One-Way Street", collected in Reflections:
A descriptive analysis of bank notes is needed. The unlimited satirical force of such a book would be equaled only by its objectivity. For nowhere more naïvely than in these documents does capitalism display itself in solemn earnest. The innocent cupids frolicking about numbersm, the goddesses holding tablets of the law, the stalwart heroes sheathing their swords before monetary units, are a world of their own: ornamenting the façade of hell. (p. 87)

Noted: Roland Barthes

Two from The Pleasure of the Text:
. . . any completed utterance runs the risk of being ideological. (p.50)
Everyone can testify that the pleasure of the text is not certain: nothing says that this same text will please us a second time; it is a friable pleasure, split by mood, habit, circumstance, a precarious pleasure (obtained by a silent prayer addressed to the Desire for ease, and which that Desire can revoke); whence the impossibility of speaking about this text from the point of view of positive science (its jurisdiction is that of critical science: pleasure is a critical principle). (p. 52)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mirah at two months

Mirah was two months old yesterday; here she is this past Sunday, trying to figure it all out, entranced by the leaves and sun and sky (that's me holding her, lying back on a picnic bench):

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Stan Goff: open letter to Christian soldiers

A few weeks late on this one. Stan Goff's "Open Letter to Christian US Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan". I have written on numerous occasions here about my softening attitude towards religion over the years--I think the Left makes a big mistake in demonizing the religious, in identifying religion only with its most frightening manifestations--in part because it's not going away, but also because I think it can be argued, convincingly, that religion is what made us human in the first place (again, see for example, Chris Knight's article here: ". . . only a creature that has become immersed in a world of shared fantasy - in a sense only a religious creature - can have language").

In any event, though I am not prepared to take the personal step he has taken (conversion to Christianity), I admire Stan Goff's courage and commitment, and he remains an astute observer of the current situation and an invaluable asset in the ongoing battle for freedom. Here is a very tiny excerpt:

America is now Rome. You are Rome’s army of occupation. To the Roman soldier, when Jesus passed down the dusty byways of his occupied land, he appeared no more or less than a random Iraqi or Afghan appears to you.

What do you look like to them?


You will hear people say that this burnt out veteran has no authority to speak as a Christian on these matters. And I am burnt out; and I did come to Christianity late in life. But I am not making any of this up. Honest and fearless Christian theologians of the ecumenical, prophetic, and evangelical churches have spoken out against war, and in exactly the terms presented here. I bring nothing original to this plea for obedience to the God of the Nazarene.

I write to you as one who has shared your experience, not that of the clergy or the Academy. I have known your position, trapped between the regrets and guilt of the past and the anxieties of the future, plodding against the current of Holy Spirit to clutch at the "esteem" of your militarized nation, "proving" yourselves again and again to your peers who define masculinity and human value by the ability to risk one’s own safety to dominate or destroy others.

That is who I was before I was baptized into who and whose I am, and that is why I can tell you that the risk you must take is the risk not to dominate. It is the risk of losing the esteem of those who "know not what they do."

The whole thing is well worth reading.

Poverty Poverty Knock

Lyrics to "Poverty Poverty Knock", as recorded by Chumbawamba on English Rebel Songs 1381-1984, currently on heavy rotation hereabouts:

'Poverty poverty knock,' my loom is a saying all day
Poverty poverty knock, gaffer's too skinny to pay
Poverty poverty knock, keeping one eye on the clock
I know I can guttle when I hear my shuttle go, 'poverty poverty

Up every morning at five,
I wonder that we keep alive
Tired and yawning in the cold morning
It's back to the dreary old drive.

(Repeat chorus)

Oh dear we're going to be late
Gaffer is stood at the gate
We're out of pockets, our wages they'll dock it
We'll have to buy grub on the slate

(Repeat chorus)

And when our wages they'll bring,
we're often short of a string
While we are fighting with gaffer for snatching
We know to his breast he will cling

(Repeat chorus)

Sometimes a shuttle flies out and gives some poor woman a clout
There she lies bleeding but nobody's heeding
Oh who's going to carry her out?

(Repeat chorus)

Oh dear, my poor head it sings
I should have woven three strings
My threads are breaking and my back is aching
Oh dear, I wish I had wings

Poverty poverty knock
Poverty poverty knock
Poverty poverty knock

In a Nutshell

From The World We Wish to See: Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century, by Samir Amin (translation by James Membrez):
Capitalism has reached a stage in its development where its victim (its opponent) is no longer formed exclusively by the proletariat, whose labor it exploits, but by humanity as whole, whose survival it threatens. [...] In two areas, liberal capitalism (and doubtless capitalism, period) is already an obsolete system: in its relations with the peasantry (half of humanity) and in the waste of the planet's natural resources that its continual deployment entails.

The continuing accumulation of capital henceforth requires the destruction of peasant societies, which make up half of humanity, through the spread of a policy of "enclosures" on a world scale, without the system being able to employ the peasants, who have been chased from the countryside for industrial activities and profitable services. The size of the challenge posed by the increasingly rapid construction of a planet of shantytowns should not be underestimated.

It also leads to the rapid exhaustion of nonrenewable resources, the accelerated destruction of biodiversity and the exacerbation of the threats that strongly affect the ecological balances that are essential for the reproduction of life on Earth. Incontestable quantified data exist which demonstrate that capitalist civilization cannot continue its destructive expansion for long. Preserving the way of life of the United States alone would lead to pillaging all of the resources of the planet for its sole benefit. The energy crisis has already produced military aggression in the Middle East. "The American way of life is non negotiable," the president of this country reminds us. In other words, the extermination of the "redskins," who hinder U.S. expansion, will be continued.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Chris Knight in the Weekly Worker

From Despair to Where? points me to this great, fascinating, inspiring, timely article titled "Science, Religion, and language" in the Weekly Worker by our old friend Chris Knight (see my post about his important book, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture). A few key passages follow.

On hunter-gathers and "primitive communism":
It is not just that hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, that they share and they do not have private property. The key thing for Marxists and communists is that there can be no communism without abundance - in fact without super-abundance. Scarcity of any kind leads to conflict, which itself leads to inequality.

I sometimes meet comrades who think that hunter-gatherers lived in poverty and scarcity. They are so, so wrong. That misconception was put right long ago - for example, by Marshall Sahlins in his brilliant book Stone Age economics. One chapter is about “the original affluent society”. The crucial point is that hunter-gatherers live in abundance. Yet too many comrades conceptualise everything through western ideology, leading them to conclude, for instance, that if people do not have televisions they must be living in poverty.

Some of the tribes we have been living with and studying have access to both worlds - they can go to the flesh pots and get a taste of western life. They tire of it and go back home. All I can say is that they have the world’s best diet, the most healthy possible nutrition and plenty of spare time to enjoy all the pleasures of life. The world’s wealthiest people spend a fortune to enjoy a week’s safari and hunting. But the Hazda of Tanzania and others like them have this all the year round and, once you live with them, you can understand why they have no desire at all to go down the road of so-called ‘development’, any more than in the distant past, our hunter-gatherer ancestors actively wanted to get involved in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and eventually class society.

So these people have an experience of real abundance.
On religion:
If you think religion is stupid, then, as a Marxist, you have a paradox, because you say that hunter-gatherers are communist and they are stupid. The paradox is resolved when you realise that, the more you practise your religion, every day of the week, the more you regard everything as sacred, the less it is religion. In a way, the more it is religion, the less it is religion.

So when Marxists talk about abolishing religion, we mean abolishing the illusory communism which religion is. But you cannot abolish the illusory communism without realising communism. The argument we put forward in the Radical Anthropology Group is that the human revolution - the process of becoming human, with the establishment of communism - involved the idea of the sanctity of things as an essential component. The ultimate idea of religion and the point about it which perhaps all of us could accept is simple: some things are sacred. For capitalism, nothing is sacred. Everything has a price.
And on language and religion:
Because language relates fundamentally to institutional facts, semantics is also concerned with institutional facts, not with brute facts. So that only a creature that has become immersed in a world of shared fantasy - in a sense only a religious creature - can have language. As we became human, as we turned the world upside down through revolution, that communist world was a world of fantasy in a sense, but shared fantasy. When fantasies are shared, when they are generalised in the power that they can give, then that is a very different thing from fiction, from lying or hallucination. Children learn language and the use of words fundamentally through fantasy. If a young child does not get into fantasy worlds, if it cannot get the idea of ‘let’s pretend’, then that is some cause for concern. Lack of pretend-play capacity is one of the diagnostic features of autism.

I will end with this - Jerome Lewis has shown in his study of the Mbendjele that religion is actually play. The point about this play is that, as with all children’s games, it is quite serious. When you are in the playground, the most important thing about a person you are fond of is that they let you play with them. Likewise, the rules of the various games that the forest people play are very important. They are sacred.

Play, ritual, collective work and religion are the same thing for the forest people that Jerome is studying. The point is that they play in a way that allows them to continue playing through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. When they play the same games as adults, that is religion. It does not matter what you call it. If you think religion is stupid, then that is fine. You can then call what the forest people do something else - maybe magic or whatever.

As if unity or completion were possible

Questioning the very notion of wholeness makes sense in the context of modern life, broadly speaking--its shallowness, its incompleteness, its wrongness. That is, the lives we lead are not whole, and so writing as if they are, as if unity or completion were possible under these conditions--What conditions? The conditions of modernity? The conditions of civilization?--writing "as if there is indeed someone else in the world who knows more" is false, unjustified, untrustworthy. . . Perhaps this questioning made sense before, too, but the illusions of wholeness, the centuries of tradition in the shadow of civilization, some within civilization, perhaps these obscured the picture, allowed the artist to justifiably seek unity. Or perhaps even then it wasn't truly justified, with this understanding only being made possible much later.


Heidegger speaks of "the basic Greek experience of the Being of beings in the sense of presence" and how "Roman thought takes over the Greek words [corresponding to that experience] without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say, without the Greek word". If the "rootlessness of Western thought begins" here, what might this mean? If the reference to the authentic experience is debased and misused down the centuries, the further we get from the source, what is the source? What does it mean? Is it because we're to understand the Greeks as the height of Western civilization, from which all else necessarily falls away? (Just as it is sometimes said that Plato "is" philosophy and the rest of philosophy merely a series of footnotes and marginalia?) No, it is perhaps because the Greeks are still within living memory of a time before civilization, before the conquest. Their concepts and experiences are still in touch with the authentic, the natural. Already, Plato is suspicious of this, suspicious of Homer, suspicious of living tradition. Consider the acknowledgement, the apologetics, in the Greeks, that civilization requires slavery, requires forceable extraction, requires this kind of violence. We resist this, but it's true. Each successive expansion forced, and forces, more and more people into a certain way of life, the maintenance of which has requried, and still requires, force and propaganda. Ultimately, we are starved of options, bereft of choices. But they knew what it was to be free, or at least knew people who knew what it was to be free.

I come out of a way of thinking in which I am conditioned to be wary of the authentic, or rather, appeals to authenticity. Perhaps we rightly mock the Authenticity Police--for example, in pop music (all those tired tropes of the authentic singer who writes his own autobiographical songs). And yet this is not quite the same thing. I notice a literature depicting a striving for the authentic, perhaps a signal characteristic of Modernism. Recall Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The narrator is obsessed with isolating those moments when he feels most alive, the truly authentic moments of existence. Of course, he's suffered a head wound and seems as if he may be insane. But what if we're the insane ones and he's finally become sane? He's finally able to see the inauthenticness of his life, our lives. In book after book, Thomas Bernhard's narrators rail against the absurdity of life. Bernhard himself is reported to have said, upon receiving a literary award, "Everything is absurd when one thinks of death." And, given that we die anyway, all of our striving, all of our expended effort, seems absurd. What's the point? But Bernhard's narrators rail most often against frauds, phonies, philistines, petty bourgeoisie, institutions--schools, hospitals, museums, the church, the state--all the accumulated, structured apparatus of civilization. What if they, these narrators, simply want to be left alone--not by themselves, literally, but free, free to live authentically in the world? What if they want to escape? Not necessarily from any society, but from the insanity of this society? What if they know they can't? What if they sense something that is unachievable because it's already been destroyed?

Coming Day

I've had very little time to devote to this blog lately, just as I predicted, though in truth the frequency in posting isn't much different than it has always been. Recent posts haven't been exactly doing it for me. I don't mean that I shouldn't have posted any of them. I mean that they haven't quite scratched the itch to speak. About what? About so much. They--these recent posts--are placeholders, in a sense. At best they merely touch on larger issues. And they fill some superficial need I feel as opposed to that deeper need, if only the superficial, vaguely pathetic, need to not go too long without a post.

Why did I feel the need to write a post about David Foster Wallace in the wake of his suicide? I'm not sorry about the post--that's not it--by what was the need? Like others, I was saddened. Like others, I read post after post, remembrances and tributes, trying to make sense of it, perhaps; really just wanting to keep it alive, keep him alive, through the words of others, leading back to his own words. I wanted to record that Wallace was, literarily speaking, affinity-wise, Friend of The Existence Machine, just as our favorite books are friends. I'd written about his work before, once in the form of a defense. I wanted to speak out, again, for the much-maligned and, I feel, misunderstood later short stories. I wanted to say a little bit--very little--about how I viewed his literary project. I wanted to say he would be missed. Was this necessary? With each passing day, blogging being what it is--that is, blogging being whatever we want it to be, and yet there still being the pressure, however resisted, of the timely, even for a blog as rarely updated as this one--with each passing day I felt the gratuitousness of such a gesture would be more apparent. As if one could not wait. So I pushed out something which only touched on what I'd wanted to say. Though perhaps by touching on it I'd said all I really could say.

Why did I feel the need to post something about the financial crisis, the bailout plan? Here we have a topic close to this blog's (this blogger's) heart: financial collapse, the inherent wrongness of capitalism, the irrationality of money, the destructiveness of the system, the arbitrariness of power, etc. Close to this blog's heart, yes, but it's not as if I consistently blog about such matters, and it's certainly not as if I have the time, have ever had the time, to keep a timely--there's that word again--political log. I can't do the kind of thing done so well at American Leftist, Lenin's Tomb, Left I on the News, etc., though sometimes I think I want to, there being so much wrong to address. As I wrote then, things move so quickly and are so complicated, that, I suspected, given my inability to blog in real time, any post of mine would immediately be rendered suspect, dated, pointless. Perhaps I simply wanted to record, recognize, add my voice, however muted, to the din. (As if for posterity's sake?--illusory posterity, where there might be an intelligence capable of making note of who said what when, not to mention interested in the collective babble of millions of bloggers.) Though it's not as if I'm going to post consistent follow-up entries, with links to further up-to-date analyses. Unless of course I do.

Whenever something happens in the news that I want to speak about, I feel a time pressure. If I don't say something within a certain (undefined) period, I will have missed the window of acceptability. Hence, I either pass over things occupying my mind, saying nothing, or I cobble something together, which just barely addresses my concerns, possibly also saying nothing. Plus still I am weighted down by the need for thoroughness, the need to cover all possible bases. Paralyzing. I continue to operate as if it were true that, if I find the right combination of information, I'll be able to persuade people, people will see. But that will never happen, not because of anything I do or say.

Meanwhile, other items get pushed aside, remain sketches, blog fragments, half-essays awaiting my attention, awaiting time, waiting. There are all these books I've been reading. . . deferred posts, deferred writing . . . there is absurdity after absurdity . . . there is life as a new father, the child's being in the world . . . there is America in decline, Americans in denial, and the crash-landing to come, to come . . . Coming day, coming day, come.

Noted: Roland Barthes

From The Pleasure of the Text (translation by Richard Miller; all italics in the original):
An entire minor mythology would have us believe that pleasure (and singularly the pleasure of the text) is a rightist notion. On the right, with the same movement, everything abstract, boring, political, is shoved over to the left and pleasure is kept for oneself: welcome to our side, you who are finally coming to the pleasure of literature! And on the left, because of morality (forgetting Marx's and Brecht's cigars), one suspects and disdains any "residue of hedonism." On the right, pleasure is championed against intellectuality, the clerisy: the old reactionary myth of heart against head, sensation against reasoning, (warm) "life" against (cold) "abstraction": must not the artist, according to Debussy's sinister precept, "humbly seek to give pleasure"? On the left, knowledge, method, commitment, combat, are drawn up against "mere delectation" (and yet: what if knowledge itself were delicious?). On both sides, this peculiar idea that pleasure is simple, however, is not an element of the text, it is not a naïve residue; it does not depend on a logic of understanding and on sensation; it is a drift, something both revolutionary and asocial, and it cannot be taken over by any collectivity, any mentality, any ideolect. Something neuter? It is obvious that the pleasure of the text is scandalous: not because it is immoral but because it is atopic.