Friday, May 29, 2009

Sitting in another box

Tom McCarthy recently reviewed for The New York Times a novel by Clancy Martin called How to Sell. He says some good things about the book and tells us that, ultimately, he enjoyed it. But there is, he suggests, a problem. Not so much with the book itself as with what we're being asked to accept it as (via, for example, glowing blurbs from the likes of Benjamin Kunkel and Jonathan Franzen attesting to the novel's greatness and originality):
we’re being asked to buy into the notion that lively storytelling and more-than-adequate craftsmanship constitute great, “classic” literature. I’m not so sure. To bastardize the Latin, emptors need to sober up and exercise a little caveating over that one. I suspect that real, high-karat literature, with its complexity and ambiguity, its general slipperiness, is sitting in another box, one opening to a dimension that “How to Sell” doesn’t breach (and, to both its and its author’s credit, doesn’t itself actually claim to) — or, to use a fittingly ur-geological metaphor, that it’s lying buried in a rock-seam that this book walks comfortably over the top of but leaves unmined.
McCarthy's being a little coy here with his "I'm not so sure"; in fact, he's pretty sure that "lively storytelling and more-than-adequate craftsmanship" are not what constitute great literature, as readers familiar with McCarthy will understand. He is of course right, but we're not supposed to think so, are we? A book like this is perfectly entertaining, but that's not enough, is it? It doesn't seem to be enough either for the book's proponents--they want to claim it as something more--or for those of us actually wanting something more. As Mark Thwaite says in his recent post on the topic, by all means, like what you like, no one's stopping you. (By the way, it's nice to see Mark back to blogging at strength, and with longer entries to boot!) The blurbs for this book and others, so often straining for comparison with established literary classics, along with the proliferation of literary prizes and much elses besides, reveal a pervasive anxiety about literature. We want to be entertained, at all times it seems, but we also want to be able to feel as though we're engaging with greatness. No, the things we like must also be recognized as canonical, or possibly counter-canonical, but as art.

But then there is also the pressure to feel that art, literature in this case, should be entertaining. So we have pressure from, say, genre partisans that literature be entertaining, broadly speaking, and an opposite pressure, that entertainment be defined as literature.

With several recent entries decrying entertainment, readers might be forgiven for thinking I don't like to have fun. After all, we need entertainment, do we not? Of course we do. But do we need so much of it? Does it need to constantly be available, constantly at our fingertips? Does it need to constantly be produced at such an alarming rate? And is it too much to maintain that art and entertainment, both necessary, are not the same? Do I go too far if I suggest that our culture of entertainment makes it harder and harder for us to recognize, let alone fruitfully engage with, the real thing? I don't think so. And the hectic, tiring lives we lead--do they not also make it increasingly likely that we'll opt for entertainment? And that we'll be less and less receptive to art?

Pastoral Thinking

At Sponge!, Lee Rourke writes about the great meditation on walking in Roubaud's The Great Fire of London, a marvelous bit of writing I neglected to mention in my long post on the novel (which Lee graciously links to):
When walking, he argues (and to paraphrase) we are in ‘possession of time’: each footfall counts its passing. We can choose to stop, to turn, to slow down at our own pace, to meander and wend, to backtrack and shortcut; within this act of possession things are infinitely freer. Whereas on a train, plane, or in a car, time has captured us, we are at its mercy, carried by it with no control, it dictates our decision to be free; we are not free in this sense.
Apologies to Lee for quoting the entirety of his post (but it's very short and my own paraphrastic powers are at an extremely low ebb these days), but I wanted to highlight the freedom associated with this "possession of time". We are so rarely truly in possession of our time, with jobs and commutes and so on. Even when we do have time to ourselves, it is bounded by those demands on our time over which we have little real control. This domination by speed, by time, this unfreedom, affects our very thinking. Some will argue, and do, that this is fine and dandy, a newer, quicker thinking has come into being. I might have made this argument at one point, but these days I find it wanting.

By coincidence, last night I was reading in Kafka's Diaries and came across an entry on Goethe's diaries (would that in Goethe's diaries he were writing about yet another's diaries, but it was not to be). Kafka remarks that Goethe's observations while traveling are different than they would have been in Kafka's day
because made from a mail-coach, and with the slow changes of the region, develop more simply and can be followed much more easily even by one who does not know those parts of the country. A calm, so-to-speak pastoral form of thinking sets in. (translation by Joseph Kresh)
I want this, this calm, this quiet, this slowness, space to think, time to work things out. Down with speed!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lost in Translation

Towards the end of his short essay titled "Translating" (found in Friendship), Maurice Blanchot writes the following:
The example of Hölderlin illustrates the risk that is run, in the end, by the man fascinated by the power of translating: the translations of Antigone and Oedipus were nearly his last works at the outbreak of madness. These works are exceptionally studied, restrained, and intentional, conducted with inflexible firmness with the intent not of transposing the Greek text into German, nor of reconveying the German language to its Greek sources, but of unifying the two powers--the one representing the vicissitudes of the West, the other those of the Orient--in the simplicity of a pure and total language. The result is almost frightful. It is as if one were discovering between the two languages an understanding so profound, a harmony so fundamental, that it substitutes itself for meaning, or succeeds in turning the hiatus that lies open between the two languages into the origin of a new meaning.
At the beginning of the essay, Blanchot mentions the notion of the pure, originary language towards which, it was believed, translation must work. But, "In fact translation is not at all intended to make the difference [between languages] disappear--it is, on the contrary, the play of this difference..."

Translation is always controversial--should it be literal? should it be a work of its own? how much leeway does the translator have? what is a literal translation anyway? English is the only language I have. I am completely dependent on translations for much of what I want to read. As such, I have considerable anxiety on the subject, though it ebbs and flos. My purpose in quoting the passage from Blanchot at the beginning of this post is to highlight the sort of experience that is completely lost to me, to perhaps shine a light on this loss. Obviously I know neither German nor ancient Greek, so both sides of this transaction, this translation are necessarily beyond me.

Let me back up a bit and try to explain what I'm getting at, for I can see I've already written myself away from the original spark. Even if I had the ancient Greek, say, Hölderlin's translation into German would be irrelevant to me. That is, approaching Antigone, I am either going to read it in the original, if possible (which, for me, it is not), or in one (or more) of the many English translations. Hölderlin's work here is not available to me, it cannot, itself, be translated into English. There are third-hand translations, of course, so don't misunderstand. It's not that Hölderlin's translation could not, in theory, be the basis for a subsequent translation into a third language, possibly English. I mean that Hölderlin's achievement, which for Blanchot is "almost frightful", is necessarily lost to me unless I am a native speaker of German, or, possibly, a particular scholar or enthusiast of Hölderlin. The frightfulness is lost, is it not?

I was merely struck, while reading Blanchot's essay, by this unavailability. It wasn't an anxious moment, as when I worry about which translation to read, or when I'm all too aware that I have not yet read this or that work relevant to a discussion. I can alleviate the latter anxiety by reading the work in question. But I cannot gain access to the sort of experience necessary for me to appreciate Hölderlin's translations. This is not a problem. It is an acknowledgment. Not everything is translatable, including other translations, a reminder that not every work of art, not every piece of literature, can be experienced by everybody.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Men proving themselves to other men is as dangerous as it gets

At Insurgent American, Stan Goff has posted the text of a talk he gave in April at Wake Forest University on militarism, patriarchy, capitalism, and pornography. This is vitally important stuff, required reading in my opinion. Here is but a small portion of it:
Here is the Don’t List for men. Do not dominate. Do not humiliate. Do not retaliate.

That’s a hard don’t list for men, when the culture tells us incessantly and forcefully that to be a man means to dominate, to humiliate, and to retaliate. These are equated with strength; and they are counterposed to all things quote-feminine-unquote. This male norm of masculinity-as-conquest is ruthlessly policed in male culture, which is also a hotbox of probative escalation.

I could ask everyone in this room if you fear unknown men to raise your hand. You see I’m raising mine. Men proving themselves to other men can be the most terrifying thing you’ll ever see. I say that as a military veteran who worked in eight conflict areas, in Vietnam, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Men proving themselves to other men is as dangerous as it gets. There are people right here in this room who would be alarmed by the sudden sound of multiple male voices laughing nearby, because that sound can be so pregnant with mischief. Males are bonding. Escalations are possible.

This is male culture that idealizes the conquest of women, the conquest of colonies, and the conquest of nature. It is probative conquest, too; and it requires trophies for the other men to whom you are proving yourself, and as proof of masculinity to display for women.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A bit more on Sonic Youth

Of course, even as I was writing, numerous arguments contra k-punk's attacks on Sonic Youth came to mind (several of which are better articulated here and here). I could have gone on and on, but I soon realized it wasn't Sonic Youth that was the issue. I am suspicious of the narrative of progress, in art as much as in society generally, so there's no particular need to worry about innovation, as such. Though the question of the need for a work to exist is something else entirely.

But now for a little defense of Sonic Youth of my own. In the context of commercial music under capitalism, with its institutional disdain for the things people care about, for families and communities, with co-optation ongoing and inevitable--given this context, isn't much of what Sonic Youth does exactly the kind of thing we need? For one thing, of course, they actually play music. They are not just spectators, as so many of us are (myself especially). And they are a cohesive unit and a family. They pay due respect to a certain tradition, one that matters to them, and are generous with younger musicians and artists. Isn't the Left supposed to value such common efforts and communal activity? Isn't expecting "culture" to somehow transcend itself and deliver the future a bit much to ask of it, on its own? Though I maintain, contrary to the dismissals of the recent discussion, that the band has been on a remarkable late career run, it's nevertheless true that it can easily be charged that the world does not need another Sonic Youth record. But, frankly, we don't need any more records of any kind. But the world does need music. If recording music became a technological impossibility (as it seems to me it eventually will, optimist that I am), I feel confident that Sonic Youth would find some way to make a worthy racket and continue to enable others to do the same. I say good for them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nonsense & Irritation

I have conceded that stupid readers exist. Indeed, yes. So, alas, obtuse misreadings abound. (Frustrating as it may be, I can take some solace that, in this case, in being so idiotically misread, I am at least in good company.)

For what it's worth, I am not a pacifist. And there is massive difference, as I mentioned explicitly in the linked post and elsewhere, between violent revolution or insurrection on the one hand, and state terror on the other. Thus, to categorize the mass volunteer effort to fight for the losing cause in the Spanish Civil War along with those cynical State operations known in the liberal press as "humanitarian interventions" is to make an error of grotesque proportions. A person capable of making such a comparison is clearly not worth taking seriously or responding to any further.

"fuck indie especially for saying fuck you to its own history of saying fuck you"

What gets left unsaid in my last post is that what I'm really weary of, indeed increasingly suspicious of, is the culture of entertainment (what Fox Mulder, who I cite without irony, once called "the military-industrial-entertainment complex"), the culture of consumption of entertainment, the culture of the well-made, and the accumulated mass of history, the always available entertainment options, past and present, and so on. All of it. Of course, I am deeply implicated in this, even as I feebly resist.

Which brings me back to music and my conflicted attitude towards it. A recent multi-blog discussion about Sonic Youth has helped to illuminate some of my own concerns but also hit rather close to home. For, I might as well state right upfront, Sonic Youth is one of my favorite bands. And in light of the discussion, I think this fact may well be symptomatic of something previously difficult for me to articulate.

The discussion was set off by Mark "k-punk" Fisher's review in The Wire of an apparently (necessarily?) awful Neu! tribute album. In decrying rock vampirism, k-punk wrote this:
Sonic Youth, Primal Scream and Oasis all played their part in making this kind of retro-necro acceptable. As the most ostensibly credible of the bunch, Sonic Youth should arguably bear the most blame (indeed, if one were to locate the point at which rock modernism lapsed into curatorial postmodern pastiche, you could do worse than cite something like Bad Moon Rising.)
This unleashed a batch of responses and responses to responses, as more or less follows:
1. ZoneStyxTravelcard takes up k-punk's apparent throwaway line, and defends Sonic Youth from the charge.
2. k-punk replies and expands.
3. Simon Reynolds chimes in.
4. Zone replies, re-defends Sonic Youth.
5. Marcello Carlin chimes in.
6. and k-punk responds again.
If you're interested, it's worth reading through each of the parts of the exchange; for my purposes, I'm going to summarise k-punk's general argument, with some choice quotations, before moving on to my own remarks.

For k-punk, Sonic Youth "represent the embourgeoisiement of the rock avant-garde, its disconnection from overreaching, intemperance, intolerance and antagonism." That is, contrary to the stringency of the post-punk and No Wave bands and their "scorched earth intolerance for the past" (whereby the Sixties were identified as "the problem"), Sonic Youth are a rapprochement with the past, curators of that past and the pasts of other, more marginal figures, while their own formal innovations have long ago ceased, as they continually combine and re-combine different elements of their aesthetic, ossifying along the way into the grand-old statesmen of so-called experimental rock, consolidating an alternative to the mainstream, which is to say, another mainstream (as he puts it, "the idea there is a mainstream which repudiates Sonic Youth is the fundamental (rockist) fantasy which feeds their allure" and "SY's precise function for Restoration culture is to be a hypervisible simulation of an alternative within the mainstream"). They are primarily "men (and women) of good taste":
but there's a massive difference between being a person of good taste and being a great artist. As Nietzsche rightly argued, a certain kind of stupidity is necessary for all greatness, a preconditon for which is a deliberate narrowing of perspective, a refusal of 'well-roundedness'.
And finally:
Curating can have an important function to play, but with SY there has been a conflation of art and curatorialism - the alibi for their music's increasingly poverty at a textural and textual level is the way it supposedly makes a wider audience aware of marginal material. Sonic Youth are 'art' in all the worst senses (they possess a certain insitutional prestige, a certain standing and position, a cetain set of meta-rationales for what they do); but they are not art in the sense that there is a compelling reason for them to exist - there is no more at stake here than just another cool leisure product with all the right credentials.

When I read the first k-punk post on Sonic Youth and saw the phrase "person of good taste", along with the Nietzsche reference, I had just begun reading Agamben's The Man Without Content, specifically the chapter on the historical emergence of the "man of taste". I was thinking of the essay in terms of the literary, my own former attempts to become a reader of good taste, who was open-minded above all, and yet capable of making the needed discernments of quality. But then as the Sonic Youth conversation continued I realized that my experience with music is perhaps a better prism through which to view the problem.

It seems to me that one's taste for or against a given thing can obscure its import. If you think Sonic Youth is and always was boring, then what k-punk says may appeal to you immediately. If you think otherwise, then his remarks may seem ridiculous. After all, we're constantly told, everything comes down to taste, and we're all entitled to our opinion. But here, perhaps, I occupy a different position. Since I like Sonic Youth's music and, in fact, have even enjoyed their recent records very much, I'm sympathetic to Zone's attempts to defend them (even if Zone is only really defending the great 80s records). And yet k-punk's arguments strike me as unassailably correct. How to account for it?

I've blogged in the past about my history with music, how I was into classic rock in the 1980s, against the popular music of the day (and altogether ignorant of the underground). As such, my very taste in music is inherently curatorial, based as it was on the limited playlists of classic rock radio and the continued reverence of Rolling Stone magazine. My time was spent with music already substantially removed from the source, already canonical, already curated. (It's perhaps worth confessing that my own insecurities may have pushed me to opt for something about which judgment already seemed secure: I wasn't going out on a limb liking Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan, even if not everyone did.) By the time I first got to what had been underground rock, it had already been effectively co-opted. In fact, I could and, without realizing it, did approach it as another classic rock. The first Sonic Youth record I bought was the major-label debut, Goo. While Nirvana opened up a lot for me, what they really represented culturally was a last gasp of that underground and the fuller entrenchification of its sound for the canon. (The other popular "grunge" bands--Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains--were easy to adapt to since they were fairly explicitly classic rock in sound.)

This experience is very different from that described by k-punk or Simon Reynolds of their formative years. They were blessed, or possibly cursed, to have come of age right in the middle of the post-punk period, when it seemed to them as if pop music could continually change itself as well as the world.

But returning to Sonic Youth for a moment. Though they emerged out of the No Wave period, possibly the Finnegans Wake of rock (not analagous to its elaboration, obviously, but to its extremity), it's not difficult to agree with k-punk that they're really a pulling back from the extreme, a retrenchment, a classic rockification of punk & post-punk. When they've tried to branch out in recent years, within the brand (as opposed to in their solo outings), the broader fanbase rebelled; consider the much-maligned NY Ghosts & Flowers: a slight alteration of the formula, incorporation of some of the things learned from hanging out with the improvising community, with jazz players, but widely panned (famously by Pitchfork: "pretty much the worst thing ever"), their live shows in support of the album booed by fans no doubt wanting more of Daydream Nation, or worse, Dirty. Their albums subsequent to NY Ghosts & Flowers--Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, "Rather Ripped"--just as widely hailed as "returns to form". Interestingly, the first two of these struck me as decent compromises, and are among my favorite SY records, but then I revel in the sound as sound. And yet it's hard to argue that they are essentially a classic rock band, fundamentally careerists making a sound that happens to be pleasurable to me. One could be more charitable and say that they are, like folk or jazz musicians, an aging band working within an established idiom, one semi-established by themselves, bringing the noise the way they know how.

And. . . and I realize anew that a big reason why I basically quit blogging about music is because my thoughts on it are so hopelessly diffuse and meandering and equivocal. In the interest of finishing up this post, I will spare you the lengthy mini-essay on the curatorial politics of my iPod playlists (no kidding) and come to some closing thoughts, which won't touch on Sonic Youth at all. (Also for another post, some thoughts about our roles as spectators, which again would tie in with the Agamben. . . )

On the one hand, I think there is no reason why musicians should have to stop making the kind of music they like making, no reason why they should be expected to either quit or to adapt to newer styles. In this sense, I cherish the tradition, the folk tradition, communal music, and how it has played out in rock, etc. On the other hand, I want to defend and hold to the idea of music as art, which is of consequence when it needs to exist, when there is something at stake for the musician. But then we're talking about commercial music in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, right? That is, could it ever have been otherwise, given the realities of capitalist production? Let me quote something from Simon Reynolds, which according to the excellent blog (new to me) Airport Through the Trees, appeared in the year-end issue of The Wire:

As young musicians develop in a climate where the musical past is accessible and available to an inundating degree, you encounter artists whose work is a constellation of exquisite taste, a latticework of reference points and sources that span the decades and the oceans but never quite manages to invent a reason for itself to exist.
And I ask, again, was anything else ever likely or even really possible? The vital music that was being made during previous periods when it seemed as if popular music meant something more--the 60s, the post-punk period, the emergence of rap in the 1980s--were fairly easily co-opted, adapted to. Now, with the proliferation of available product, the constant availability (competition) of the past, the easy portability of music, even those artists making something new and interesting get quickly absorbed into the maw of entertainment. Even the best, most necessary art, whatever it may be, becomes something merely to plug into to pass our dwindling leisure time, more consumption of more product. . . and the seemingly unassimilable merely becomes part of stable, alternative mainstreams fostering underground careerism, threatening nothing.

And just because I have no better way to do it, to finish up here's another recent post from Airport Through the Trees:
I miss punk. Not the sound of punk, nothing of the aesthetics, but more the power of it, if that makes any sense. Do you understand how tedious it is, tracking the boring and slow aesthetic evolutions of complacent genres? I love music but I want something more visceral. I can't stand the idea of another "unique voice" in composition, or jazz, or whatever. The weight of the whole history of music, etc. I think Johnny Rotten probably liked Pink Floyd on the day he wrote "I Hate" on one of their shirts. But he knew it was time to throw accepted wisdom and chin-scratching connoisseurship out the window for the benefit of something more. That is how I feel. I love Reich, but fuck Reich. I love David S. Ware, but fuck him too (though I hope he recovers from his illness). And fuck techno and house and fuck indie especially for saying fuck you to its own history of saying fuck you.
Yes, I say, yes, but more than that, I just want to say "fuck entertainment". (And that last line speaks to the co-optation of the Left, does it not? Yet more food for thought. . . )

Friday, May 08, 2009

Awesome Fatigue

Not too long ago I read this piece by David Foster Wallace about the movie Terminator 2 (link courtesy this interview at The House Next Door with Glenn Kenny, about his editing relationship with DFW). Wallace calls the movie "an appalling betrayal" of the original Terminator, and blames it for effectively inaugurating the era of what he calls "Special Effects Porn"; that is, movies featuring "half a dozen or so isolated, spectacular scenes -- scenes comprising maybe twenty or thirty minutes of riveting, sensuous payoff -- strung together via another sixty to ninety minutes of flat, dead, and often hilariously insipid narrative". One can date this period differently, but it seems to me that he's right to lament it.

And it's hard to argue with his specific criticisms of Terminator 2 itself, even as I recall that my own considered evalution of the movie, back when it was first released, amounted to variations of "that was awesome", no doubt all the while convincing myself of its wit and intelligence. In recent years, though I don't wish to disavow my earlier enjoyment of such entertainment, I've grown increasingly weary of movies that can only be said to be awesome or to suck. I eagerly await the day when this weariness means that I actually avoid said movies altogether, rather than merely being bored or alienated by them. This personal trend began with, I think, the insipid Gladiator and its battle scenes, which I hated but overlooked in the interest of being generally entertained. Then there were the three Lord of the Rings bloatfests; by the third installment (Best Picture, naturally), I had completely lost interest, and yet there I was, watching it with everybody else. Last year's example, The Dark Knight, was a mess, and in many ways a betrayal of the character, to the extent that I am still able to fret about how characters like Batman can be betrayed (like, isn't Batman supposed to be brilliant? In The Dark Knight he is stupid to the point of distraction), and I remember feeling oppressed by the movie, its lighting and frenetic pace and general incoherence. And yet it was kind of awesome, I had to admit. Which isn't anything like the same thing as "great" or "smart" or "complex" or whatever other kind of praise it received. I'm tired of "kind of awesome". I'm even tired of "completely awesome". Call it awesome fatigue.

Meanwhile, we recently watched the cult classic Withnail & I, and though I didn't think it was quite as great as its devoted fans seem to think it is, I nevertheless did think it was quite funny and took pleasure in watching real people move in real space. More of this please.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Broad Space

A friendly blog links to a page at another blog, a blog called ladypoverty; you click and a voice speaks. You read posts surrounding the linked entry. You like what you see, you like it a lot. Hey, you say, who is this?!? You look at the archives links and discover it's been around twice as long as your own sad little blog, addressing many of the same issues, in a voice lighter than air. You check back at the friendly blog, and there it sits on his blogroll, you wonder how long it's been there; it's under "new toys", but still. Where have I been? And yet there are so many blogs, so many voices worth listening to, who can keep up? You go back to this new-to-you blog and keep reading, there is so much there. There is this:
Freedom of movement happens alongside people, not apart from them. This requires obligating ourselves toward their concerns, educating ourselves about shared interests (which presupposes that we understand our own), and conditioning ourselves not to respect the boundaries proposed by power, demarcated as "differences." This means aligning oneself with one's neighbor, not one's ruler -- even if your neighbor is your political or religious opposite, and your ruler holds your "values." There is no atheist or Church-goer, Republican or revolutionary, Arab or Jew who cannot be talked to merely on the basis of these distinctions. Do the creationists need to feed their families? Do their daughters need health care? Then there is a broad space in which to stand, and move, amongst them.
Yes, you think. This is very good. You'll be coming back.

Derrick Jensen on Gandhi and pacifism

In my post below on Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, I referred the reader interested in a fairly thorough denunciation of Gandhi's pacifism to volume two ("Resistance") of Derrick Jensen's Endgame. It turns out that much of this material is available online. You can read several excerpts from both volumes of Endgame here, with his writing on pacifism here, here, and here. One sample, towards the end of the third available excerpt:
This leads to the next line by Gandhi often tossed around by pacifists: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall—Think of it, ALWAYS.”

You know how there are some people whose work you’re supposed to respect because everyone else seems to? And you know how at least with some of these people your respect fades over time, slowly, with each new piece of information that you gain? And you know how sometimes you feel you must be crazy, or a bad person, or you must be missing something, because everyone keeps telling you how great this person is, and you just don’t get it? And you know how you keep fighting to maintain your respect for this person, but the information keeps coming in, until at long last you just can’t do it anymore? That’s how it was with me and Gandhi. I lost a lot of respect when I learned some of the comments I’ve mentioned here. I lost more when I learned that because he opposed Western medicine, he didn’t want his wife to take penicillin, even at risk to her life, because it would be administered with a hypodermic needle; yet this opposition did not extend to himself: he took quinine and was even operated on for appendicitis. I lost yet more when I learned that he was so judgmental of his sons that he disowned his son Harilal (who later became an alcoholic) because he disapproved of the woman Harilal chose to marry. When his other son, Manilal, loaned money to Harilal, Gandhi disowned him, too. When Manilal had an affair with a married woman, Gandhi went public and pushed for the woman to have her head shaved. I lost more respect when I learned of Gandhi’s body hatred (but with his fixation on purity, hatred of human (read animal) emotions, and death wish this shouldn’t have surprised me), and even more that he refused to have sex with his wife for the last thirty-eight years of their marriage (in fact he felt that people should have sex only three or four times in their lives). I lost even more when I found out how upset he was when he had a nocturnal emission. I lost even more when I found out that in order to test his commitment to celibacy, he had beautiful young women lie next to him naked through the night: evidently his wife—whom he described as looking like a “meek cow”— was no longer desirable enough be a solid test. All these destroyed more respect for Gandhi (although I do recognize it’s possible for someone to be a shitheel and still say good things, just as it’s possible for nice people to give really awful advice). But the final push was provided by this comment attributed to him: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall—Think of it, ALWAYS.” This is as dismissive as his treatment of his wife and sons. It’s as objectifying as his treatment of the young women he used as tests. It’s as false as his advice to Jews, Czechs, and Britons. The last 6,000 years have seen a juggernaut of destruction roll across the planet. Thousands of cultures have been eradicated. Species are disappearing by the hour. I do not know what planet he is describing, nor what history. Not ours. This statement—one of those rallying cries thrown out consistently by pacifists—is wrong. It is dismissive. It is literally and by definition insane, by which I mean not in touch with the real physical world.

Containing Autarky

As I was working on completing my second post on Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, I came across this highly relevant passage in David Harvey's The Limits to Capital:
The insatiable thirst of capitalism for fresh supplies of labour accounts for the vigour with which it has pursued primitive accumulation, destroying, transforming and absorbing pre-capitalist populations wherever it finds them. [...] The real troubles begin when capitalists, facing shortages of labour supply and as ever urged on by competition, induce unemployment through technological innovations which disturb the equilibrium between production and realization, between the productive forces and their accompanying social relations. The closing of the frontiers to primitive accumulation, through sheer exhaustion of possibilities, increasing resistance on the part of pre-capitalist populations, or monopolization by some dominant power, has, therefore, a tremendous significance for the long-run stability of capitalism. This was the sea-change that began to be felt increasingly as capitalism moved into the twentieth century. It was the sea-change that, far more than the rise of monopoly or finance forms of capitalism, played the crucial role in pushing capitalism deeper into the mire of global crises and led, inexorably, to the kinds of primitive accumulation and devaluation jointly wrought through inter-capitalist wars.

[...] Any regional alliance, if it is to continue the process of accumulation, must maintain access to reserves of labour as well as to those 'forces of nature' (such as key mineral resources) that are otherwise capable of monopolization. Few problems arise if reserves of both exist in the region wherein most local capital circulates. When internal frontiers close, capital has to look elsewhere or risk devaluation. The regional alliance feels the stress between capital embedded in place and capital that moves to create new and permanent centres of accumulation elsewhere. Conflict between different regional and national capitals over access to labour reserves and natural resources begin to be felt. The themes of internationalism and multinationalism run hard up against the desire for autarky as the means to preserve the position of some particular region in the face of internal contradictions and external pressures—autarky of the sort that prevailed in the 1930s, as Britain sealed in its Commonwealth trade and Japan expanded into Manchuria and mainland Asia, Germany into eastern Europe and Italy into Africa, pitting different regions against each other, each pursuing its own 'spatial fix'. Only the United States found it appropriate to pursue an 'open door' policy founded on internationalism and multilateral trading. In the end the war was fought to contain autarky and to open up the whole world to the potentialities of geographical expansion and unlimited uneven development. That solution, pursued single-mindedly under United State's hegemony after 1945, had the advantage of being super-imposed upon one of the most savage bouts of devaluation and destruction ever recorded in capitalism's violent history. And signal benefits accrued not simply from the immense destruction of capital, but also from the uneven geographical distribution of that destruction. The world was saved from the terrors of the great depression not by some glorious 'new deal' or the magic touch of Keynesian economics in the treasuries of the world, but by the destruction and death of global war.
And later, in examining the ongoing, ever-increasing military budgets, he concludes that the cycle of capital accumulation and devaluation suggests a
terrifying interpretation of military expenditures: not only must weapons be bought and paid for out of surpluses of capital and labour, but they must also be put to use. For this is the only means that capitalism has at its disposal to achieve the levels of devaluation now required.

Bad Science Fiction

As long as my much-delayed follow-up post on Human Smoke is (here again is my original review, from last August), I was still unable to find appropriate space for the following, so I give it its own post.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging response to Human Smoke was the five-part roundtable discussion hosted last March by Ed Champion. As was true of many of the mainstream reviewers of the book, some of the participants were fixated on what they perceived as an attempt by Baker at an "objective", revisionist history arguing a fairly simple (read: simplistic, naive, or arguably dangerous) pacifist case against the war, and concomitant minimization of the evil of the Nazis. One exception to this was Dan Green (another was Ed himself), who suggested that the book is "mostly about 9/11 and the Iraq War"--the book's depiction of Churchill, for example, countering the ways in which his myth was employed by the neo-cons for their own end in the run-up to the attack on Iraq. I don't know if I'd go quite as far as "mostly", but I agree that there's no mistaking the book's several present-day applications. And I agree with Dan when he says:
while it’s important that his narrative be accurate–the people quoted actually said those things and the behavior described actually happened–it isn’t necessary that it be objective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be as good as it is (and I think it’s quite good) if it were. He wants his readers to remember his book the next time Churchill and Roosevelt are nominated for sainthood and the next time WWII is described unambiguously as the “good war.” To this extent, I think he will succeed admirably.
As noted, Dan's was just one contribution to the discussion. The whole of it is worth looking into. Yet even here, I found a disturbing tendency for some readers to immediately unwind elaborate alternative histories, which they somehow perceive as plausible given what they--mistakenly, in my view--characterize as Baker's argument. Eric Rosenfield, for example, writes the following (Eric's and Dan's contributions can both be found in part five of the roundtable):
Let’s imagine, for a moment the alternate history Baker envisions: Churchill never comes to power in Britain. Hitler marches into Poland and conquers it, and England does not declare war despite it’s mutual defense treaty. Let’s even buy that this leads Hitler to never invade France or Russia, despite his constant talk of a “Third Reich” to rival the former German Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. He starts sending all the Jews in the Reich to Madagascar. Except the Jews, who have already had all their assets liquidated, can’t be allowed to create a powerful state there so they are carefully controlled, and Madagascar becomes something like a Jewish Indian reservation ala the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia. Jews start dropping like flies from malaria and other diseases they have no defenses against, while the delighted Germans refuse them proper medical treatment or insect nets and watch the Jewish population dwindle. Perhaps there are even some rebellions and a massacre or ten.Meanwhile, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco consolidate their power in Europe and create an oppressive, Fascist mainland that lasts for generations. Japan conquers China and completes their oppression and exploitation of the Chinese and Koreans. With these powers now entrenched the idea of toppling them through military or other means becomes less and less possible.
This is just bad science fiction. "Let's imagine, for a moment the alternate history Baker envisions"? There is nothing in Human Smoke that should make one think Nicholson Baker imagines anything like what Eric's fever dreams have given us here. But you see this kind of thing a lot. Another example, from around the time of the book's publication, was Nigel Beale's comment at the end of this post, in which he admits to not having read the book (and to anyway not much caring for Nicholson Baker's other books), and yet is able to approvingly cite reviews like William Grimes' in The New York Times. Nigel writes:
Baker contends that if the West hadn't used bombs, Hitler's support at home would have evapourated [sic]. While Baker's pacifist sentiments are admirable, based on what I've just heard, and the reviews I've read I think he's wrong. My sense is that if Chamberlain had stayed in power millions more Jews would have died and today we’d all be goosestepping to the beat of a racist conductor.
I highlight these remarks only because they are typical and all too common whenever the myth of the "good war" is questioned, as well as in debates about "humanitarian intervention" generally. The idea is that if something hadn't been done--if our leaders hadn't made certain no doubt unpleasant choices--we necessarily would find ourselves, now, still, sixty-plus years later, living in a world-wide fascist super-state. The evident faith in our leaders is touching, if not outright delusional, while the distrust of popular pressure, the apparent belief that people will simply roll over for occupying powers the world over--and never resist! for decades!--is simply depressing. And ahistorical. (Meanwhile, the entire political history leading up to the war is elided or at best reduced to explanations of the German roots of the Nazi regime and creeping European anti-Semitism.)

Returning to Human Smoke

In concluding my review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke last summer, I suggested that, among other things, the value of such a book is that it helps facilitate the asking of questions concerning the uses of history. We might, for example, "ask ourselves what purposes, and whose interests, are served by the maintenance of the myth of 'the good war'." People from across the political spectrum cleave to the myth of World War II as the good war, for several reasons. They want desperately to believe that the U.S. can and did and indeed does stand for good in the world. Convincing themselves that this is basically true, in a general sense (that is, though mistakes are made, or certain administrations are unfortunate, on balance the United States acts on behalf of "the good"), they want to leave "humanitarian intervention" available as an option. "We", the thinking goes, "should do something" to prevent or stop particular humanitarian disasters. Unacknowledged--obscured--is the fact that what "we" in fact end up "doing" invariably only makes things worse. Completely ignored is the history of Western activity leading to these more recent disasters in the first place. The myth of the good war keeps open the possibility, provides a model for people to point to: we did good there. That the war was not a war of liberation is evidently beside the point. In Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker presented a wide variety of details and anecdotes, which help serve to cast doubt on the received wisdom about World War II as the Good War. As such, it elicited a number of high profile denunciations by reviewers apparently concerned with Baker's insufficient reverence for the Allied war effort. In addition, there were some interesting deviations from this general trend.

My earlier post was fairly long, but still I necessarily left quite a lot out and so immediately began a follow-up post intended to address other points, which post got derailed by personal events. But more recent reviews of the book and subsequent discussions (I'm thinking of John Self's positive review, including the related comment thread to that review, and Max Dunbar's generally negative review , which Steve Mitchelmore addressed here, Mark Thwaite entering the fray here, in the midst of which Dunbar produced two follow-up blog posts [1, 2]) have encouraged me to finish up the notes that would have followed my original review and to say a bit more. I will employ the form of numbered points I have favored of late (which may result in some repetition).

1. Many reviewers of Human Smoke, particularly those who have panned it, have written as if the book drops us in the middle of possibly 1938 or 1939, or even 1941, points at which, looking back, war certainly appears to have been unavoidable, given the ambitions of Nazi Germany. But the book's first quotation is from 1892, then it jumps to 1913, making its way piecemeal to the 1930s. It is true that the preponderance of detail is from the late 1930s through December 1941, but this reviewing move ignores much of the effect Baker achieves by beginning earlier. In addition, reviewers generally ignore the role of the United States in provoking the Japanese in the Pacific, throughout the 1930s. Only if we examine the kinds of actions which over time lead to war, for this war in particular, can we hope to avoid being dragged into future wars. It is my contention that, in Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker has made an important contribution to this end.

2. There is a general distrust of popular pressure--anxiety about democracy--which manifests itself in paternalistic distrust of readers. Readers are apparently very stupid, not to be trusted. This is the unvoiced theme running through many reviews of Human Smoke. A recent entry into this type of review is Dunbar's in 3:AM. He is exercised about the supposedly poor scholarship, or apparent lack of scholarship, on display in Human Smoke (echoing Anne Applebaum's review in this case) ; about Baker's allegedly manipulative juxtaposition of details and uncritical presentation of the views of certain pacifists; about the unexamined racism of the latter. . . He borrows from my review the passage from Sam Anderson's excellent review that I in turn had borrowed from Mark Thwaite. Here, again, is how this passage begins:
To dismiss Baker's project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It's an auto-didact's record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes ('What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none'), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources…
Dunbar concedes that Anderson makes a good point here, that Baker is not a historian, but complains that this sort of claim seems designed to protect Human Smoke from criticism. But this is not the important point being made here. The point is that certain reviews "underestimate the good sense of the average reader". It's not that there are no criticisms to be leveled at Nicholson Baker or Human Smoke, it's that so many of the negative reviews assume that readers cannot be trusted with it. To be sure, stupid readers exist, but are books to be judged only on the basis of how its poorest potential readers might read them? But then the real concern for such reviewers is that readers cannot be trusted to come to the correct conclusions.

3. With respect to the pacifists, Baker is clearly sympathetic to these figures, but I still find it difficult to believe that readers can read his book and come to the conclusion that he really intends for it to be a coherent pacifist argument against the war, his much-quoted afterward notwithstanding. Dunbar (he is not alone) wants us to know that the pacifists were no saints, nor necessarily friends to the Jews, and that their words and actions are presented by Baker "uncritically"; in particular, Gandhi was a "committed racist" who, according to Orwell, suggested the Jews commit "collective suicide". The implication being that, for Nicholson Baker, Gandhi is a hero whose words should have been heeded. But let's look at how Gandhi and the pacifists are actually presented in the book. The pacifists have some important things to say, but they are also incredibly naïve at times, and there are numerous places where they do not come off well at all. And some of things Gandhi is quoted as saying are truly monstrous (some are not; for instance, he is exactly right about the proposed settlement of Jews in Palestine). One example:
"I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators." The discipline of nonviolence--ahimsa--worked most efficaciously in the face of terrible violence, Gandhi said: "Sufferers need not see the result in their lifetime."
If Hitler and Mussolini chose to overrun England, he said, let them. “Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your soul, nor your minds.”
If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.
This method, Gandhi said, had had considerable success in India. (206)
On this latter point, Dunbar cites Orwell to the effect that Gandhi’s non-violence was more useful to power than threatening, particularly in the context of what was going on with the British empire at the time. It's a point worth remembering. But consider the advice Gandhi gives to the Jews and the British here; it amounts to "just lie down and take it". Not unlike the kind of advice women have been known to receive when threatened with the possibility of rape. (This comparison is not irrelevant. For a fairly thorough denunciation of Gandhi, his pacifism and misogyny included, see the second volume of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame. Jensen also reminds us more than once that the Jews who fought back--for example, in the Ghetto uprising--were much more likely to survive than those who did not. Note that violent resistance or insurrection is different than waging total war for political purposes.) The point is that the reader of Human Smoke encounters Gandhi's horrific or at best unhelpful statements in the same sort of context that the reader encounters those of Churchill. In my opinion, both men come off very badly. If one assumes that because Nicholson Baker is sympathetic to the pacifists that he necessarily endorses every comment they ever made, even the ones he presents to us, then one is not reading the book at hand. It is not a polemic, but a tapestry.

4. Let me turn now to the close of Dunbar's review, which was examined by Steve Mitchelmore in his post. Jumping off of a quote from Orwell regarding the aforementioned usefulness of Gandhi to the British, Dunbar says this:
Oppressors don’t fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a
demonstrator’s placard: ‘WAR MEANS FASCISM’. The truth is the exact reverse.
Steve cites a couple of examples to show that oppressors have at times indeed feared pacifism but is chiefly concerned with the "troubling" aspect of the book's reception, where "the issue of the Holocaust has been raised to address and, at the same, to obscure the reviewers' responsibility for more recent atrocities." That is, many reviewers were either supporters of the current war against Iraq and similar crimes against humanity, or at least seem anxious that "humanitarian intervention" remain on the table in the future. There follows, in Steve's post and the responses from Dunbar and Mark Thwaite, discussion about how contemporary attacks are legally equivalent, according to the Nuremberg Principle and the Geneva Conventions, to Nazi Germany's attacks on Poland and Russia, and so on. Steve and Mark handle this fairly well, and Dunbar essentially concedes the point. However, he elaborates on what he meant by reversing the phrase; he meant that "fascism means war":
As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, this is true in two senses. Fascism means war because it is inherently expansionist and imperialist and warlike. And fascism means war because taking up arms is almost always necessary for fascism’s defeat.
I leave his citation to Hitchens as a reference in my excerpt only because it's funny, as all such references to Hitchens end up being. But let's look at the content, the second sense first. Fascism means war because taking up arms is almost always necessary for its defeat. Ok. Sounds plausible, though fascism does not arise in isolation. Which leads back to the first sense in which fascism means war: it is inherently expansionist and imperialist and warlike. Again, this sounds uncontroversial, but what else can be described with those words? It's capitalism, is it not? (Yes, it always comes back to capitalism.) That is to say, fascism is a particular, regional response to crisis inherent in capitalism itself. It does not exist independently. And a given crisis can allow certain elements to exploit popular vulnerability. The Nazis were of course a deeply reactionary movement seeking and able to tap into resentments, the kinds of resentments that proliferate when a country is in the midst of economic upheaval. German capitalists and conservatives liked the anti-communism of the Nazis and mistakenly believed they could control their less savory attributes. The other Western powers welcomed the rise of fascism in both Germany and Italy. No doubt the casual anti-Semitism of the elites allowed them to overlook the more virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazis, but more importantly from their perspective was, again, the strong anti-communism of the fascists. It was after all the Great Depression, with labor in much turmoil.

Meanwhile, business continues, including, crucially, the business of selling arms. In my review, I provided an array of passages from Human Smoke, intended to give the reader a sense of the variety of material included by Nicholson Baker. One passage focused on the words of one H.C. Engelbrecht, who had written a best-selling book about arms dealers called Merchants of Death. I chose this passage with care, since I sought to given an indication of how the normal workings of capitalism led to the war, as I am expanding on now. Here, again, is the bulk of that passage (the quotes date from 1934):

"Armament is an industry that knows no politics, friends, right or wrong--but
only customers," Engelbrecht said. "If you can pay, you can buy."

The French arms company Schneider had recently sold four hundred tanks to Hitler's Germany, Engelbrecht observed; the company disguised the sale by shipping the tanks via the Netherlands. The Germans had also ordered sixty airplanes from Vickers, the British maker of bombers."

In every war," said Engelbrecht, "the armament maker who sells internationally is arming a potential enemy of his own country--and that, practically, if not legally, is treason."

There are numerous anecdotes and details about the arms deals of the 1920s and 1930s in the book. And much else is known about the American and other Western corporations that continued to do business with the Nazis right up until war was declared, and in some cases after. The truth is that capital "knows no politics, friends, right or wrong". The further truth is that, effectively, the West manufactured its own enemy, arming it all the way, and then when it found that it could not be contained ("appeased"), war became a necessity, to the ruin of millions of people.

Those of us who are Anglo-American, because we have the rights we have, enjoy the privileges we enjoy, because we have nominal democratic forms at home and have sacred documents that espouse admirable ideals and goals, we like to imagine that governmental actions are undertaken in pursuit or defense of these ideals and goals. We like to imagine, and we apparently need to believe, that the United States truly is a generally benign actor on the world stage, and a defender of democracy. The fact is that in the 1930s capitalism was in deep trouble, and out of that trouble emerged the Nazis as a power. If it were just a matter of defeating the Nazis once they emerged, or even once war began, or if saving the Jews were of any concern for the elites, it would indeed be difficult to argue, but it was not, and the corresponding course of the war reflects the divergence of these goals (this is why motivations and outcomes both matter, and why outcomes need to be judged clearly). The war was not just about defeating the Nazis, and it certainly was not at all about saving or protecting the doomed Jewish population, which was anyway in a much worse position after the war began. It was ultimately about reconstituting the capitalist system, with the United States positioning itself to take over as that system's lead enforcer and guarantor, and in this the war was very successful indeed. Human Smoke does not and could not get into this, given the form the book takes, but it includes enough different kinds of material to allow one to better appreciate the climate which lead to what became total war, and it is in this way that the book makes an important contribution.

Update: the three posts immediately following this one are related; the first includes material I couldn't fit here, the second quotes a passage from David Harvey about capitalism and the war, the third provides links and an excerpt from Derrick Jensen on pacifism and Gandhi, which I made reference to above.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Noted: Maurice Blanchot

From the essay "Idle Speech", found in Friendship (translation Elizabeth Rottenberg):
In the end, once the work is finished, the one who has finished it finds himself expelled from it, thrown outside it, and thereafter incapable of finding access to it--no longer having, moreover, any desire to accede to it. It is only during the task of realization, when the power of reading is still completely internal to the work in progress, that the author--who still does not exist--can split himself off from himself into a reader yet to come, and can seek to confirm, through the indirect means of this hidden witness, what the movement of the words would be if grasped by another, who would still only be himself--that is, neither one nor the other, but only the truth of the splitting.