Friday, February 27, 2009

No general illumination, or: Some literary Links

I check in with Bloglines and I see that there is a new Spurious post, or two, or three. Will they be long ones? Will I have time to read them? If not, will I remember to get back to them? I don't want to click, afraid to lose them. I could check the actual blog, but no. Too easy; contrary to normal practise. I leave them for a while. Another day goes by, another new one. More. I see there are now eleven new Spurious posts. Overwhelmed, now I've got blog homework; I've got to catch up, the temptation to skim will be strong (it's worse with some other blogs: I see I've let Arthur Silber's new posts get away from me again: 26, Bloglines tells me--how long has it been?!?--and I know his are going to be long).

I click. And right away I'm laughing:
Reading Scholem makes me melancholy, I tell W. on the phone. He knows everything! He's an expert on all matters! That's because [he] studied for 40 years and then wrote, says W. How many years did you study? Are you studying now? But you're writing, aren't you? You're writing constantly.
Ha! I admit I used to glide right past these W. entries. I didn't get them. What's to get? What is my problem? Anyway, in recent months, they've become my favorite Spurious offerings. Which is not to disparage the others. For example, another recent post has Lars musing on Blanchot (and later on Jandek):
Some writers know to get out of the way of the work, to let it live. Know that the work belongs to darkness, that the ochre beasts should be discovered by the uncertain light of a reader's torch, and that there should no general illumination, no way of seeing the whole, and all at once.
Blanchot for me is, in a sense, still to come, if only because I've deferred continuing with The Space of Literature (continued to defer?), for now (though who knows I could pick it again up next week). I've deferred, yet this doesn't stop me from foolishly, impatiently coveting other Blanchot books. Lars above is referring metaphorically to the caves in Lascaux, fresh in my mind from reading the opening to Blanchot's Friendship, via Amazon's online reader:
It is certainly true that Lascaux fills us with a feeling of wonder: this subterranean beauty; the chance that preserved and revealed it; the breadth and scope of the paintings, which are there not in the form of vestiges or furtive adornment but as a commanding presence; a space almost intentionally devoted to the brilliance and marvel of painted things, whose first spectators must have experienced, as we do, and with as much naive astonishment, the wondrous revelation; the place from which art shines forth and whose radiance is that of a first ray--first and yet complete. The thought that at Lascaux we are present at the real birth of art and that at its birth art is revealed to be such that it can change infinitely and can ceaselessly renew itself, but cannot improve--this is what surprises us, what seduces us, and pleases us, for this is what we seem to expect from art: that, from birth, it should assert itself, and that it should be, each time it asserts itself, its perpetual birth.

This thought is an illusion, but it is also true; it directs and propels our admiring search. It reveals to us in a perceptible manner the extraordinary intrigue that art pursues with us and with time. . .
It continues, of course, and I want to read the rest of it right away. I want to have a small pile of Blanchot's works, which I could dip in at my leisure, following strands as they arise. But I must wait.

On a related note, I was quite taken with Jonathan Littell's lovely meditation on Blanchot, presented by Steve Mitchelmore at This Space. Here's a small, representative passage (translation by Charlotte Mandell; italics in original):
It's not that the text that results from this experience – poem, story, novel – is deprived of meaning, is not shot through with elements referring to the reality of life; rather it's that these elements function (to use a comparison that Blanchot would no doubt have discreetly avoided) like what Freud called the manifest content of dreams: the rags of reality they cloak themselves with so as both to manifest and veil their truth, their very reality. Thus, if writing is related to truth – and it certainly is, it has to be, or else not be at all, or in any case fall outside of the realm we designate by that mysterious word, literature – it is not by way of knowledge. Literary writing does not explain, does not teach: it simply offers the presence of its own mystery, its own experience, in its absence of explanation, thus inviting not some illusory "understanding" ("Reading either falls short of understanding or overshoots it," writes Blanchot), but precisely a reading. "Reading is freedom," Blanchot tells us, "a freedom that can only say yes." Yes to what? To experience; to the experience, usually born in anguish, of the one who writes, which is answered by the experience – by turns casual and transfixed by "the rapture of plenitude" – of the reader. Two experiences thus facing each other or rather tangential to each other, in any case radically irreducible to one another.
It's funny, though I've struggled with some of the language Blanchot uses, at least in The Space of Literature (no doubt because of my very limited engagement with philosophy), I persist because what I have gotten resembles what Littell suggests here, which in turn does a better job of evoking the relationship of the reading experience to truth, to reality, than most anything else I've encountered.

Elsewhere, at Blographia Literaria, in a post ostensibly about Gayl Jones' novel CoRregidora, but which deals mostly with Sven Birkerts' 1992 review of Jones' Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, Andrew Seal says the following (italics are his):
The idea that modernism is not overwhelmingly relevant to every literary object is perhaps one of the most radical positions one can take at the moment. Our feelings and affective associations (even more than our ideas) about modernism structure everything about the categorization, evaluation, and historicization of literary objects.
I hope to have more to say about Andrew's very interesting post, but just want to say here that it seems to me that this kind of conclusion relies on a certain common view of literary Modernism, one for sure held by critics like Birkerts (and Louis Menand, as displayed in his recent essay about Donald Barthelme in the New Yorker; subscription required): that Modernism was merely an extended moment in time when aesthetic experimentation in its own right was in ascendence, in an all out cultural war to "make it new". As indicated through my many previous posts on his writings, I find Gabriel Josipovici's take on Modernism to be much more interesting and fruitful. There may have been a moment, but rather than a pitched battle against the establishment, it is "a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself", and that, for art, in the world in which we live, this moment is ongoing, unending, still to come. (Contra Menand who, defining two prevailing views of post-modernism, writes: "It can mean, 'We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.' Or it can mean 'No one can be a modernist now. Modernism is over.'" In either case, Modernism happened, and we can move on.) Incidentally, I think there's an interesting discussion to be had about how this conception of Modernism relates to those writers not fitting comfortably in the European tradition, such as those discussed by Jones in her study, another reason I found Andrew's post of value, even if he uses Birkerts conception of Modernism.

Finally, on that note, Steve tells us of Carcanet's forthcoming publication of two novels, in one volume, from Josipovici: very exciting!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Noted: Ivan Illich

From Deschooling Society (thanks to Stan Goff for the pointer):
The American university has become the final stage of the most all-encompassing initiation rite the world has ever known. No society in history has been able to survive without ritual or myth, but ours is the first which has needed such a dull, protracted, destructive, and expensive initiation into its myth. The contemporary world civilzation is also the first one which has found it necessary to rationalize its fundamental initiation ritual in the name of education. We cannot begin a reform of education unless we first understand that neither individual learning nor social equality can be enhanced by the ritual of schooling. We cannot go beyond the consumer society unless we first understand that obligatory public schools inevitably reproduce such a society, no matter what is taught in them.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Re-reading The Adventures of Augie March

Shortly after Dan Green announced his TRE Prime site, collecting his more substantial Reading Experience posts, I re-encountered this piece in which he articulated his dislike of Saul Bellow's fiction. The occasion for the original entry was an essay by J.M. Coetzee that appeared in The New York Review of Books, reviewing the Library of America volume collecting Bellow's first three novels. In his essay, Coetzee offers fairly tepid judgments of the novels under review (The Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March). It is in particular Coetzee's take on The Adventures of Augie March that interested Dan in his piece. Coetzee notes its "lack of dramatic structure and indeed of intellectual organization" and judges that "[t]he book becomes steadily less engaging as it proceeds. The scene-by-scene method of composition, each scene beginning with a tour de force of vivid word painting, begins to seem mechanical." Dan goes him one better and calls Augie March "basically unreadable"; it is, he says, "badly written" and "terribly paced".

It so happens that I was in the middle of re-reading The Adventures of Augie March when I re-read Dan's post, after reading The Victim the previous week. I have since finished reading it. I admit that I first read Dan's judgment (and Coetzee's) with some excitement. I'd liked some of the little Bellow I'd read at the time but did not understand the source of his reputation. And I'd had some troubles of my own with his work. So I was sympathetic to the criticism they leveled, but in truth my excitement had more to with weariness than with my own opinion of the quality of Bellow's fiction: I was tired of reading not only about how great he was supposed to be, but in particular about how he was The Great American Novelist; I was especially tried of hearing this from certain high-profile British writers and critics, namely Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and to a lesser extent, James Wood. It was their attention to his Americanness that irritated me most of all, I think. Amis' devotion, his claiming of Bellow as his literary father, especially made me gag (and this was before I'd gone sour on Amis). As for my own judgments, I'd loved Herzog (but even this judgment was reinforced here, as Coetzee rates it highly and for Dan it is the only Bellow novel deserving to be called "a superior work of fiction"), liked Humboldt's Gift and, to a lesser extent, the somewhat similar Ravelstein, and disliked Henderson the Rain King.

The Adventures of Augie March seemed to be of a different category. I remember finding it tough slogging, though overall I'd have told you that I enjoyed it. I could almost imagine co-signing Coetzee's assessment, if his critical words could somehow be admitted in the service of a more positive review. I was certainly not willing to go as far as Dan Green--even if I did indeed find certain sections literally unreadable: that is, I could not read them; I stumbled, unable to make the sentences move, tripping up on adjectives and nouns employed in weird ways, on grammatical oddities.

Re-reading Augie March, I found that I can see why I had trouble the first time, and I can see why one would find it virtually unreadable, if approached from the wrong angle. There were still passages that stopped me short, when I found it very difficult to continue without an effort of sheer will. However, I wonder if this isn't my problem rather than the book's, as if in these sections I'm still trying to force the book to be something it's not. Because when I was in the right frame of mind, I enjoyed the hell out of it. This is writing, often ramshackle, but writing, alive on the page. I have a hard time seeing how Dan could call it badly written. And it seems to me that Coetzee's problems are beside the point. Augie may live a charmed life of sorts, as Coetzee complains, but he is an amiable presence (and I'm not so sure his life is so charmed after all). There is no real plot, of course, but this is pure narrative. Adjectives pile up, images, insane lists, descriptions, quick, offhand characterizations: Augie sees. Sees a lot. It is this seeing that interests me, as well as what I'd like to call an occasional Biblical quality to the narrative. In both of these elements Augie March is like a much shorter, hard-scrabble In Search of Lost Time, if I may be so bold (following Josipovici, in his comparison of Proust's narrative mode with that of the Bible). Not that Augie's project is anything like Marcel's--he doesn't seem to be in search of his past or invested in literature in any way similar to Marcel. Augie is essentially writing his memoir, from a certain, though by no means completely, settled vantage point. His memory doesn't explode on him, recovered through his senses; he is simply remembering, and telling. Yet, though he could be said to be outside the timeframe covered in the novel, he manages to invest his writing with an element of in-the-moment discovery, creating writing out of it all. He's remembering, but not imposing meaning retroactively, even if along the way he tries to tell us--or himself--what he's about.

If this were a proper review, I'd be quoting passages demonstrating this seeing, this writing. But it's not; these are my impressions (and besides, I didn't do a good job of keeping track of passages I especially liked). It's true that there are times when the novel sags a bit--it's no coincidence, I think, that Coetzee identifies the Mexico sequence as signaling for him that something was amiss, for these chapters are considerably less compelling, on the whole, than the time spent in Chicago, where Augie himself is more at home; no doubt it could be argued that this is intentional, that of course Augie's memories of Chicago are more vivid than those of the strange time in a strange land. Nevertheless, my attention did wander. But on the whole, I developed a much greater appreciation for what Bellow is up to in general, as well as here, in this novel. It's a great book.

Noted: Saul Bellow

From The Adventures of Augie March:
It's really kind of tremendous how it all takes place. You'd never guess how much labor goes into it. Only some time ago it occurred to me how great an amount. She came back from the studio and went to take a bath, and from the bath she called out to me, "Darling, please bring me a towel." I took one of those towel robes that I had bought at the Bon Marché department store and came along with it. The little bathroom was in twilight. In the chauffe-eau machine, the brass box with teeth of gas burning, the green metal dropped crumbs inside from the thousand-candle blaze. Her body with its warm woman's smell was covered with water starting in a calm line over her breasts. The glass of the medicine chest shone like a deep blue place in the wall, as if a window to the evening sea and not the ashy fog of Paris. I sat down with the robe over my shoulder and felt very much at peace. For a change the apartment seemed clean and was warm; the abominations were gone into the background, the stoves drew well and they shone. Jacqueline was cooking dinner and it smelled of gravy. I felt settled and easy, my chest free and my fingers comfortable and open. And now here's the thing. It takes a time like this for you to find out how sore your heart has been, and, moreoever, all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It's internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Basic Capitalist Principles

This interview with Noam Chomsky about the financial crisis is, as always, full of good points, interesting observations, and important reminders about recent history (link via Steve Mitchelmore). Much of it is familiar territory for him, adapted for the current situation, but like a favorite band's greatest hits, I love to hear the oldies again and again. For example, I've always been fond of how he emphasizes the role of the public sector in the economy, as he does here:
[T]he core of the economy relies very heavily on the state sector, and transparently so. So for example to take the last economic boom which was based on information technology — where did that come from? Computers and the Internet. Computers and the Internet were almost entirely within the state system for about 30 years — research, development, procurement, other devices — before they were finally handed over to private enterprise for profit-making. It wasn't an instantaneous switch, but that's roughly the picture. And that's the picture pretty much for the core of the economy.

The state sector is innovative and dynamic. It's true across the board from electronics to pharmaceuticals to the new biology-based industries. The idea is that the public is supposed to pay the costs and take the risks, and ultimately if there is any profit, you hand it over to private tyrannies, corporations. If you had to encapsulate the economy in one sentence, that would be the main theme.
There is, however, one aspect of this interview that troubles me. Talking about the IMF and how it operates as "the credit community's enforcer", Chomsky says the following:
If a loan or an investment from a rich country to a poor country goes bad, the IMF makes sure that the lenders will not suffer. If you had a capitalist system, which of course the wealthy and their protectors don't want, it wouldn't work like that.

For example, suppose I lend you money, and I know that you may not be able to pay it back. Therefore I impose very high interest rates, so that at least I'll get that in case you crash. Then suppose at some point you can't pay the debt. Well in a capitalist system it would be my problem. I made a risky loan, I made a lot of money from it by high interest rates and now you can't pay it back? Ok, tough for me. That's a capitalist system. But that's not the way our system works. If investors make risky loans to say Argentina and get high interest rates and then Argentina can't pay it back, well that's when the IMF steps in, the credit community's enforcer, and says that the people of Argentina, they have to pay it back. Now if you can't pay back a loan to me, I don't say that your neighbors have to pay it back. But that's what the IMF says. The IMF says the people of the country have to pay back the debt which they had nothing to do with, it was usually given to dictators, or rich elites, who sent it off to Switzerland or someplace, but you guys, the poor folks living in the country, you have to pay it back. And furthermore, if I lend money to you and you can't pay it back, in a capitalist system I can't ask my neighbors to pay me, but the IMF does, namely the US taxpayer. They help make sure that the lenders and investors are protected. So yes it's the credit community's enforcer. It's a radical attack on basic capitalist principles, just as the whole functioning of the economy based on the state sector is, but that doesn't change the rhetoric. It's kind of hidden in the woodwork.
My problem is the notion that this kind of activity is "a radical attack on basic capitalist principles". He notes that the rhetoric doesn't change, which no doubt refers to the rhetoric of the free market. Of course he's right about that. But I think it's incorrect to think that capitalism has anything to do with free markets. I know this seems counterintuitive, but that's only because we've had it hammered into our heads our entire lives that capitalism equals free markets equals freedom. So here, even Chomsky appears to have bought into that rhetoric to some extent. Capitalism is above all about forcing workers into the market. Where we should be able to have free access to food and shelter, as basic human rights, we are forced instead to contend with the housing and food markets; with both food and shelter subject to market forces, with once common land unavailable for use, enclosed, we are forced to sell our time, our lives, to others' in order to make the money necessary to afford food and shelter.

The state has always been necessary to protect the private ownership of productive property and to enforce the effective propertylessness of the rest of us. The dynamism of the public sector that he refers to above is simply another manifestation of this. He says you might instead call it "state capitalism" because of the massive state investment in the economy. This is fine, I suppose; some economists have called the old Soviet Union "state capitalist", too. It's all about control of productive capacity not being in the hands of those actually doing the work. It's about the removal of agency. In any event, to modify one of Chomsky's remarks, the last thing capitalists want is to truly compete in a free market. This is why, during the Progressive Era, leading figures like J.P. Morgan argued for and designed the regulatory apparatus. It was a disaster for them when they competed on the open market. Granted, there are numerous owners who do not understand this, and blather on and on about free markets, no doubt believing it, like lunatic Libertarians or something, but we needn't concern ourselves with them. (I hope it's obvious that none of this should imply that free markets are in any way desirable, anymore than capitalism is.)

I'm reminded, incidentally, of a passage from Marshall Berman's 1978 essay "All That is Solid Melts Into Air", collected in his Adventures in Marxism (I believe the essay was expanded into the later book by the same title). He is discussing Marx and bourgeois nihilism and Marx's apparent belief that the "bourgeois really believe . . . in an incessant, unrestricted flow of commodities in circulation, a continuous metamorphosis of market values." He continues:
If, as he believes, the members of the bourgeoisie really do want a free market, they will have to enforce the freedom of new products to enter the market. This in turn means that any full-fledged bourgeois society must be a genuinely open society, not only economically but politically and culturally as well, so that people will be free to shop around and seek the best deals, in ideas, associations, law and social policies, as well as in things.
This would hold true for communists and communist ideas, too. Marx further believes that thus people will choose revolutionary and communist ideas, because they are the best ideas, they will sell, and the revolution will be inevitable. My summary is simplistic, but still, it's evident that Marx, even as the great analyst of capitalism that he was, also bought into the free market rhetoric. Berman notes that:
In fact, in bourgeois history [the] principle [of unprincipled free trade] has generally been more honored in the breach than in the observance. The members of the bourgeoisie, especially the most powerful, have generally fought to restrict, manipulate and control their markets. Indeed, much of their creative energy over the centuries has gone into arrangements for doing this -- chartered monopolies, holding companies, trusts, cartels and conglomerates, protective tariffs, patents, price-fixing, open or hidden subsidies from the state -- all accompanied by paeans in praise of the free market. Moreover, even among the few who really do believe in free exchange, there are fewer still who would extend free competition to ideas as well as things.
A paragraph later, he says that "[a] more typical bourgeois pattern is to praise freedom when in opposition and to repress it when in power" and chides Marx for surprisingly "getting carried away by what bourgeois ideologues say, and losing touch with what the men with money and power actually do." Berman suggests that this is a dangerous problem, for if the bourgeoisie effectively closes off access to new ideas, then
it will be harder than ever for communism to take root. Marx would say that their need for progress and innovation will force them to open up their societies even to ideas they dread. Yet their ingenuity might avoid this through a truly insidious innovation: a consensus of mutually enforced mediocrity, designed to protect each individual bourgeois from the risks of competition, and bourgeois society as a whole from the risks of change.

In the climactic chapter of the first volume of Capital, "The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation," Marx says that when a system of social relations acts as a fetter on "the free development of productive forces," that social system has simply got to go: "It must be annihilated; it is annihilated." But what would happen if, somehow, it didn't get annihilated? Marx lets himself imagine this for barely an instant, only to dismiss the possibility. "To perpetuate" such a social system, he says, would be "to decree universal mediocrity". This is perhaps the one thing that Marx is utterly incapable of imagining.
I found myself, while dipping my toes last year in Marx, marveling at how prescient his analysis was. It seems even more relevant to current-day conditions than it did in his own day, and yet it seems he was unable to anticipate this key feature of our decrepit, collapsing system: its thoroughgoing mediocrity.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Notes on faith and atheism

Adam Kotsko, in a post nominally about his recent television viewing, encapsulates the kind of argument I've been trying to make in recent years (his ability to whip this kind of thing off better than I can may have something to do with him being a student of theology; just a theory). Here he's talking about "House" (a show I've seen a handful of times, with some combination of amusement and irritation) (italics Adam's):
House is a great example of how useless dogmatic rationalists are when they talk about religion. His constant accusations of “hypocrisy” on Cuddy’s part reflect a common gambit on the part of these people: if you don’t want to do “all” of a religion, you are a hypocrite for doing some. Who defines what “all” of a religion is, though? Obviously that doesn’t fall within the rationalist’s own job description, so he’ll usually defer to whoever purports to be the most “true” or “literal” or whatever representative of the given religion. Thus the options are fundamentalism or rationalism — anyone who tries to do otherwise is an equivocating coward. (This is the dynamic that leads to us only hearing from religious wackos as the representatives of the “religious” position in media debates.)

But the majority of religious people then become equivocating cowards in this view, because even in fundamentalist sects, there is usually only a small core of “true believers” who try to do everything. Back here in reality, the majority of “religious” practices are essentially “cultural” practices, or to put it better: the line between “religious” and “cultural” practices isn’t very clear. It’s really only Protestantism and religions influenced by it (like latter-day Catholicism) that really thematize something like “belief.” (Note that I’m not saying non-Protestant-ish people don’t “believe” in their religion — just that it doesn’t become a major issue. They take it for granted, rather than treating it as some big existential test.)


I realize that whenever I make arguments like this, some people get really pissed off and others want to spend a lot of time in comments trying to come up with some really firm definition of religion that reflects their intuition that my blurring of the boundaries between cultural and religious practices is missing something. I’ll save you a little time: that “something” is going to turn out to be belief. But if you go down that road, you’re just going to wind up defining religion as Protestantism or things like Protestantism, and not all religions are like that. In fact, not all religious practices that find their origin in the Protestant Reformation have turned out to be like that — I’m pretty sure you’ll find a lot of Episcopalians who just enjoy the liturgy and fellowship, for instance, and don’t really beat themselves up about whether they “believe” hard enough. Nor should they! It’s a free country, after all. Or you could define religion as a quest for meaning, but then how do you exclude secular philosophy? Etc., etc. Just give up, please. Criticizing fundamentalism is awesome. I do it all the time. Criticizing religious people for not being fundamentalists is stupid.
Let me take this opportunity to thank Adam for his apparently tireless efforts in this regard. As I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, I once would have described myself as a hardcore rationalist and would have made many of the arguments so often made by dogmatic atheists, including the one noted above, defining religion as essentially and necessarily the religion of fundamentalists. In recent years, I have moved away from these positions but have struggled to effectively explain my problems with them, beyond some degree of unease. In this regard, I've found the efforts of Adam and his compatriots to articulate and defend this kind of argument enormously helpful, whether at The Weblog or An und für sich, or elsewhere (I'm recalling several highly contentious Valve threads over the years).

I recently attempted to articulate a version of this argument in a comment to this post at Wisdom of the West, in which Jim H. argues in part that Darwin's theory, by smashing the basis for the myth of divinity, destroyed the traditional appeal to authority as divine right. This is why "they hate us", he says. I had trouble with who "they" was supposed to be, among other things, taking issue in particular with the antagonistic stance so often taken by atheists. Jim replied, in part emphasizing that he is not an atheist, but agnostic. To be atheist, he argues, requires faith, but he is agnostic since one cannot truly know. He says: "Faith, as Kierkegaard, says is a gift. It takes a leap beyond the limits of knowledge and rationality I am not willing to make." I was interested to see Jim invoke Kierkegaard, for I had just read Fear and Trembling for the first time (and am therefore naturally an expert). Atheists hate being told that atheism is as much a faith as religion. I used to hate it myself; more recently, I've thought it wrong-headed, but not hateful. Now, I'm not so sure it's wrong. This is part of my follow-up comment replying to Jim (cleaned up somewhat for clarity and grammar):
I do consider myself an atheist, not because I know there's no God, but because I see it as meaning that I believe there is no God, so to speak. You're right that we can't know, of course (hence you opt for "agnostic"). But your reference to "faith" as a gift, per Kierkegaard, forces me to say more. I usually object when someone says that atheism is a faith just as much as theism. But in the sense that it's true that I lack the "gift" of faith, in the Kierkegaardian sense, I find it interesting to think that I have the gift of non-faith in God. That is, my non-belief is matter of faith, but in the sense that it simply is. It's not based on rational assessment of the religious question. I simply don't have faith, or I have the faith of non-faith.
One reason I found myself pulling back from my more strident expressions of atheism of the past had to do with being confronted with close friends and relatives who are deeply religious. I used to tell myself that if they were honest with themselves, they would eventually be forced to conclude the error of their beliefs. I soon found that arguing premises, content, got me nowhere. That, in fact, nothing got me anywhere. It was easy, and self-congratulatory, for me to say that this was a weakness on their part. Ultimately I concluded that this thing called faith was finally literally incomprehensible to those of us who lacked it. Now I'm interested in this idea that rather than think of the lack of faith as a lack, as an absence distinguishing the rational atheist from the irrational believer, that instead it is indeed fruitful to think of it as a kind of faith of its own, but if we think of it as a capacity, and in that regard as a gift similar to the gift of faith.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Truth of the Situation

Inifinite ThØught is suffering from an illness, origin unknown:
In these situations I long for a kind of Enlightenment of illness: there is a truth of the situation. Something specific genuinely caused the sickness, and yet I have no way of measuring it, no way of finding out. It's a similar feeling when you lose something and you know that it is somewhere in the world, except that you can't see the world in that total way. But why not? I know we're not supposed to like totalities and technology after the twentieth century, but you know, we can't actually measure very many things at all. Heidegger's fears about calculation seem premature, and his alternative even worse. One of my least favourite academic tropes is the anti-technology paper, where someone sits their with their laptop, their vaccines, their antibiotics, their clothes and their hospitals bemoaning the lack of authenticity of modern life. The hypocrisy is profoundly irritating. I want to say 'Go on then! Live in a stupid hut with no running water! Lie there moaning in agony when your teeth start hurting or your heart plays up! Go and skin rabbits with your flints! Never speak to anyone who isn't directly in front of you! Think that the stars are anthropomorphic reflections of your own lack of curiosity!'
I highlight this because I often come dangerously close to posting this kind of anti-technology screed myself. I usually pull back, not wanting to be misunderstood, not wanting to be too blatantly hypocritical. But there are reasons why the tendency exists. I am increasingly doubtful about the viability of modern life, of civilization even. What drives my thoughts? Dissatisfaction, yes. But also fear. I admit that I fear the downfall of civilization. I fear the ugliness of a financial collapse. Civilization, as Derrick Jensen reminds us, means, at its root, cities, and cities, by definition, survive, exist, by extracting resources, life, from the periphery. Civilization at large can be seen as one giant city, one huge megalopolis extracting living material from parts unknown (unknown to most of us), where people are unable to hold onto what life they know.

In the second and last paragraph in IT's short post she bemoans that now we have "measurement of the very worst kind (house prices, incomes, school fees) coupled with an embodied phenomenology of the most banal type" and concludes:
No one apparently gives a fuck about proper science, and our horizons barely extend past our front door. We don't deserve the cosmos. I hope nature destroys us all for not bothering to understand it properly.
This is just it, isn't it? Proper science? Science is supposed to be about understanding the world; it's become about controlling it, is subsumed to power, to money. Science has been replaced by scientism and by faith in technology; science is supposed to undermine the appeal to authority, but now we're supposed to trust the experts. Things have long since gone off the rails. Is it any wonder that some of us feel some measure of dismay? Is it possible to question the authenticity of modern existence, while at the same time knowing full well how dependent I am on my car, my refrigerator, on electricity? (In full knowledge of the wireless networked laptop in front of me?) Is it possible to feel that there is something ethically wrong about the existence of cities, while also loving cities?

Related: I read this post at You Are My Minions with interest and unease (via). The post is about the recent federal finding decidedly against petitioners claiming a causal link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism (extensive detail here; decision summary: "The evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ contentions"). As a new parent, I appreciate the report. I have been uncertain in the face of the various vaccines Mirah has had to receive. We have opted for spreading them out. Even so, I have been disturbed that there are so many of them, many more than I received when I was a child, more even than were given to infants just a few years ago. I am disturbed that there is a vaccine for chicken pox, that it is required in order for children to attend the first grade in Baltimore. I can't shake the sense that such public policies have more to do with keeping children in school, rather than home sick, because of the needs of working parents, which is to say the arbitrary needs of their employers. I have felt disturbed by much of this, yet I have also observed that those who forgo vaccines essentially are free-riders on the vaccination system. Except in those cases where entire communities have avoided certain vaccines, the relative health of these children relies on the nonexistence of the diseases in question. The community of children at large does not get these diseases, therefore yours are safe unvaccinated.

Anyway, I appreciate the report. It's good to see the autism case so apparently decided. Alas, I have no trouble believing that some unscrupulous types have taken advantage of parents' fears, manipulating data. I am also well aware that the anti-vaccine crowd is often extremely shrill and impossible. Once such a belief is instilled and is accompanied with the certainty of a righteous cause, it can be all but impossible to dislodge, as is proving to be the case. Unfortunately, and here comes my unease with the post, I also had had no trouble believing it plausible that there might be a causal link. Many people have lost trust in the very institutions they are told exist in order to facilitate their health. There are perfectly valid reasons for this. Industrial waste has been linked to cancer, to various other environmental illnesses. Big pharma is implicated in countless crimes. Our healthcare system is broken. We should take seriously the fear and confusion people often feel at the hands of industrial science and medicalized care. A repaired health system would have to work overtime to repair this trust, and it would require a lot more than just legal decisions and mountains of research data.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top Albums of 2008 - A Comprehensive Survey

. . . and my favorite albums released in 2008 are:

1. Gang Gang Dance, Saint Dymphna
2. Juana Molina, Un Dia
3. Matmos, Supreme Balloon
4. The Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride

Hm. Right. Turns out these are the only four I have! The first three would have been contenders for a real top ten or twenty list, if only I'd listened to any new music last year, whereas Heretic Pride is the least essential Mountain Goats record ever. Which is not to say it's the worst, or even bad, but it feels decidedly unnecessary.

I post this half-list to highlight the change in my attitude towards music, including its relative absence on the blog over the last year-plus, as noted. This change might be worth investigating. I have a huge amount of music at my disposal. More than 2400 cds (down from a high of over 2700), more than 12,000 songs on the iPod. A few years ago I was averaging 250 cd purchases per year. Of course this is insane. There is no way to absorb such a quantity of music. I was vaguely conscious of this at the time of my greatest indulgence, but something was driving me, an urge, an obsession, a fear that I would miss out on something, not necessarily on something cool or hip or whatever, but something that I felt I needed, something that would be just around the corner, in the next batch, the next new cd or three, some sound that would hit me just right, something.

I'd hit a fruitful vein. Starting with a purchase of Built to Spill's then-new Keep it Like A Secret in 1999, when I truly encountered indie and the underground, I went nuts. I'd missed a lot, for one thing, and I wanted to catch up and, worse, keep up. And I could afford to. I was, at the time, flush. Lucky me. So I consumed. I bought in huge quantities. I wasn't exactly indiscriminate--I didn't buy everything--though in a sense I was, within a highly discriminating range. If something seemed like my kind of thing, I didn't hesitate. If there was buzz around an interesting sounding cd, I was on it. Pretty soon, though I had a lot of fun, I felt obligated to keep it going, this amassing of a library, this consumption, this keeping up. Eventually, much of the fun was sucked out of it. I'd already slowed down massively before I met Aimée, after which I was confronted with the basic truth that I had too much music to listen to. And that I no longer had the time to simply sit around listening to music. I fretted about this a bit, after all I had all of these cds, surely I should be using them. Plus, I still felt the need to keep abreast of new music, to keep up with the conversation, reading the music blogs. As noted by Scott at Pretty Goes With Pretty recently, most of the prominent music blogs are written by professional music critics. So attempting to keep up with a conversation with people who get most if not all of their music for free is a fool's game, a prescription for massive debt. And yet I felt compelled to do so.

Then, almost suddenly, there was a release, a great release of pressure. With a baby on the way--before this really, but it's a convenient enough time marker--I had to face up to the fact that I could no longer afford to buy new cds. And I had to acknowledge that I couldn't keep my beloved wall of cds continually on display in our tiny house. So I began systematically, as well as arbitrarily, selling some off; I decided I could only acquire new music if I got it on store credit. Finally, I put 85% of the rest of the collection in storage. As the year wore on, I still checked in with some of the music blogs, had a general idea what the big records were, even downloaded some tracks here and there, but by the end of the year, when the big best-of lists were announced, I noticed both how drab the music seemed and how little I cared. More to the point, I found that I liked that I didn't care.

I have more to say on this, touching on consumption, over-availability of cultural products, and so on, and how all of this actually contributed to the diminishment of music as a topic of interest, for writing or otherwise, but I'll leave that for another post.

(Oh, yeah, I do have Animal Collective's new album, Meriweather Post Pavilion. It's taken me a few listens to adjust to it, but I think it's phenomenal--I'm particularly partial to "Summertime Clothes" and "Brother Sport". Part of me still mourns the path not taken, from the Here Comes the Indian days, but no one does what they do, and what they do is beautiful and amazing.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thoughts prompted by reading A Room of One's Own

The last post began as an opening to this one, as I considered how to--or whether to--account for my use, or abuse, of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. It went off the rails a bit, so I moved it. I'm still left without a suitable explanation for what follows. So I'll leave it as it is.

There is much in A Room of One's Own that speaks eloquently to my own ongoing concerns, some less obviously so than others. I will try to say what I can. But what are my concerns? I am concerned with existence. Ha! How ridiculous. Have I earned the right to speak of "existence"? But what could this mean? (The right?) What else am I concerned with? Or what does my concern with existence entail? I am concerned, very broadly speaking, with modernity, with capitalism, with time, with politics, with family, with feminism, with literature. It is no surprise to learn that A Room of One's Own should have something to say about literature (and the history of literature and the history of the novel) or that it should be relevant to feminism. So much is obvious. But what kind of feminism? What kind of literature? What else does it have to say? ("I wish to write about A Room of One's Own," I almost began this post, "but ironically, I lack the very things Woolf says are needed for one to write." I faltered, decided the opening is facile. I nonetheless leave it in as a parenthetical.)

Woolf says that what is needed in order to be able to write is, very simply, money and a room of one's own (and not, for example, a common, heavily trafficked sitting room). I'm always complaining about time, but of course, in her formulation, money very clearly equals time. She means money free and clear. Time free and clear.

(How much falls by the wayside if we simply have time? If we had the time we needed to be ourselves, not forced into some kind of soul-crushing work, to spend countless hours away from the practice of living, free from the abstracted effort of making a living. If this were true for all of us, what then? What might we do?)

Being a good partner and a good parent also requires time, it would seem to go without saying, though our society is structured around the refusal to allow people the time needed. Woolf notes that, if the ancestors of the women of the 1920s had made money, amassed wealth (had they even been allowed to), enough wealth to endow scholarships and universities, in short if they had done the kind of fortune-building work done by men, then the women of the 1920s she's talking about would not have existed. For women were busy doing other things, namely bearing and raising children, and if they were not doing that, those things would not have been done. Everything stops.

Woolf, more than once, uses the word "civilized", and of course she means it as a positive attribute. We are many decades since Benjamin in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" wrote "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." It's become something of a cliche, and a truism. We might observe, calmly, from the quiet of a sitting room, or in front of a computer monitor, that the countries of Western civilization have engaged in appalling brutalities. That calmness, that quiet, depends on those brutalities. Our way of life, our privileges, depends on the privations of others. Others must suffer so that I may--what? So that I may sit in comfort, sit in front of a television, in front of a computer, at all hours of the day or night, with electricity at my fingertips, with light, so that I may walk at my leisure into my kitchen and open a refrigerator, so that I may have a refrigerator, and open it at any and all hours, with the expectation that it will be there, that it will work, that it is endlessly replaceable, so I may open it and pull out a soda, some wine, some cheese, meat, processed meat, pounds and pounds of processed meat (or perhaps cage-free organic chicken, because we are not monsters, we're environmentally conscious, are we not? we're liberal-minded, we wash the guilt away and go on), anyway all of it at hand, always available, always wasteable, always replaceable. (Isn't this what Obama means when he says we will not apologize for our way of life?) (Are we prepared to give up anything so that the suffering of others may be diminished? Are we even prepared to give up anything to lessen our own suffering? Can we realize that our lives must change?)

What does this have to do with A Room of One's Own? I know I haven't sufficiently accounted for it. The previous paragraph sounds like so much liberal guilt, and this post is not approaching what I mean to say. One problem is that I have not yet taken the time to explore in writing my current conflicted thinking on civilization and technology and work and time, though several of my anti-capitalism (and financial crisis) posts hint towards some of what I might say. But it's too much to hang on a single reading of an unrelated essay. So I will leave these thoughts as they are for now. I will have to return.

Thoughts after another year of blogging

At Blographia Literaria, Andrew Seal has been pondering the nature and purpose of litblogs. Of course, there are any number of reasons why people blog, whether about literature or not, so it might seem fruitless to make such an attempt. Even so, I was interested in where Andrew's inquiry was taking him, particularly given his admission that his own blog tends to be the kind of blog he doesn't like. But I wondered how this blog might be defined. I've never really thought of myself as a litblogger. When I began blogging, I conceived of The Existence Machine as some sort of mutant combination of The Reading Experience, Lenin's Tomb, Simon Reynolds' Blissblog, and Bitch PhD (to the extent that, as a man, this is even possible). These blogs were among my categorical models for longer-form blog writing at the time, so I imagined. Others were models for shorter, link-heavy posting. In the event, I have never been able to pull off the sort of breezy writing suitable for the latter, and I've had to narrow my focus considerably. Though I was more likely to attract readers early on with my music posts (and, bizarrely, early last year The Existence Machine was somehow ranked 45th most influential American music blog; even as of this writing, it places 75th--one really has to wonder about their algorithm), writing about music has ceased to interest me much; with rare exceptions, I've given it up. What's emerged is that I've blogged about literature and politics, as expected, but my writing on both has rarely resembled what I had anticipated. In part, I've simply lacked the time to do certain topics justice and have had to find alternatives. My concerns have evolved--narrowed and deepened. And I've found that my own difficulties writing are of interest to me, and that perhaps they are not irrelevant in an exploration of larger issues.

Unexpectedly, this post has morphed into a State of the Blog sort of entry, as I approach my third anniversary of blogging. So be it. Maybe I need a little meta-commentary to get myself moving again. Anyway, I mentioned above The Reading Experience as a sort of model. This is perhaps fitting, since yesterday Dan Green posted an entry marking the fifth anniversary of that blog. I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate Dan and to thank him for his contribution (in addition, Dan was perhaps the first established blogger to take notice of The Existence Machine, for which I remain grateful--Helen DeWitt is right: "if a blog you like mentions your blog favourably you're walking on air"--and I am grateful for the friendships I've made as a result of the blog). But I'd also like to note that, in providing such an ongoing, consistent example, Dan has perhaps ironically helped enable me to realize how much I differ with him on literary matters, whereas I began blogging under the assumption that I agreed almost completely with his approach. More accurately, I took it for granted that his approach was the correct one, without being confident I could yet make appropriate aesthetic assessments myself (I hadn't read any literary criticism, though I had perhaps already drank too much of the old Nabokov kool-aid; I hope to have more to say about that sometime soon). It was the practice of blogging, then, of writing, and of encountering other bloggers and writers along the way, that has allowed me to better understand my own thoughts, to enable newer and better thinking and writing. I've always known this to be true--that I needed to write in order to even know what I knew, in order to facilitate further writing and understanding. I've known this, but resisted it. I resist it still, still have the tendency to think I can comprehensively pre-assemble my thoughts on a matter, prior to beginning to write. Things have improved somewhat on that front, but I still struggle, just as I struggle with those basic writing necessities, space and time. This blog is still becoming, still emerging . With all the retroactively embarrassing or pointless posts and all the frustrations and unwritten entries, there are some pieces I'm fairly happy with, either as written items of their own or as suggestive pointers to future writing and thinking, and I've never felt the urge to quit. Thanks for reading along.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Noted: Marguerite Duras

In The Square, a young woman and an older man, a traveling salesman, are talking:
"It's true that we're talking of different things. Travel or cities by the sea are not the things I want. First of all I want to belong to myself, to own something, not necessarily something very wonderful, but something which is mine, a place of my own, maybe only one room, but mine. Why sometimes I even find myself dreaming of a gas stove."

"You know it would be just the same as traveling. You wouldn't be able to stop. Once you had the gas stove you would want a refrigerator and after that something else. It would be just like traveling, going from city to city. It would never end."

"Excuse me, but do you see anything wrong in my wanting something further perhaps after I have the refrigerator?"

"Of course not. No, certainly not. I was only speaking for myself, and as far as I am concerned I find your idea even more exhausting than traveling and then going on traveling, moving as I do from place to place."

"I was born and grew up like everyone else and I know how to look around me: I look at things very carefully and I can see no reason why I should remain as I am. I must start somehow, anyhow, to become of consequence. And if at this stage I began losing heart at the thought of a refrigerator I might never even possess the gas stove. And anyway, how am I to know if it would weary me or not? If you say it would, it might be because you have given the matter a great deal of thought or perhaps even because at some time you very much disliked one particular refrigerator."

"No, it is not that. Not only have I never possessed a refrigerator, but I have never had the slightest chance of doing so. No, it's only an idea, and if I talked of refrigerators like that it was probably only because to someone who travels they seem especially heavy and immobile. I don't suppose I would have made the same remarks about another object. And yet I do understand, I assure you, that it would be impossible for you to travel before you had the gas stove, or even perhaps, the refrigerator. And I expect I am quite wrong to be so easily discouraged at the mere thought of a refrigerator."

"It does seem very strange."

"There was one day in my life, just one, when I no longer wanted to live. I was hungry, and as I had no money it was absolutely essential for me to work if I was to eat. It was as if I had forgotten that this was as true of everyone as of me. That day I felt quite unused to life and there seemed no point in going on living because I couldn't see why things should go on for me as they did for other people. It took me a whole day to get over this feeling. Then, of course, I took my suitcase to the market and aterwards I had a meal and things went on as they had before. But with this difference, that ever since that day I find that any thought of the future--and after all thinking of a refrigerator is thinking of the future--is much more frightening than before."

Noted: J.M. Coetzee

From Coetzee's memoir, Youth:
He pages through it. It is printed in the same fullbodied serif type as Pound's Selected Poems, a type that evokes for him intimacy, solidity. He buys the book and takes it back to Major Arkwright's. From the first page he knows he has hit on something. Propped up in bed with light pouring through the window, he reads and reads.

Watt is quite unlike Beckett's plays. There is no clash, no conflict, just the flow of a voice telling a story, a flow continually checked by doubts and scruples, its pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind. Watt is also funny, so funny that he rolls about laughing. When he comes to the end he starts again at the beginning.

Why did people not tell him Beckett wrote novels? How could he have imagined he wanted to write in the manner of [Ford Madox] Ford when Beckett was around all the time? In Ford there has always been the element of the stuffed shirt that he has disliked but has been hesitant to acknowledge, something to do with the value Ford placed on knowing where in the West End to buy the best motoring gloves or how to tell a Médoc from a Beaune; whereas Beckett is classless, or outside class, as he himself would prefer to be.