Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Spaces in Between

I read several philosophy blogs, but I often have a hard time understanding the significance of some of issues that get discussed. The differences between realisms. The status of objects in the world. Things like that. I have no trouble accepting that the problem is mine—or, my inexperience with reading philosophy anyway. The conversations are often in that private language of philosophy, where some familiarity with certain philosophers is required. On the other hand, there are a few blogs that are written in a way so that the issues become intelligible even to a novice like me, whereby I can begin to understand the relevance of the problem at hand. Skholiast's is one; Graham Harman's is another. The latter posted something helpful recently in the context of one of these cross-blog debates:
...the fact that farms exist only for humans does not entail that farms have no ontological independence from humans. Sure, if all humans were exterminated by some calamity, farms would no longer exist, because they are a composite entity. But this does not mean that farms are upwardly reducible to the sum total of their effects in any given instant.

A marriage would be another good example. Obviously, the marriage immediately ends (both legally and otherwise) as soon as one partner dies. The marriage is a composite entity, just like gold or anything else. But this does not mean that a marriage is nothing other than its current effects on both partners and on the rest of the world. See what I mean?

These sorts of theories ignore what in Dundee I called the "mezzanine" level of the world, which is wedged between the ground floor and the first floor (or first floor and second floor in the U.S. system of naming). The gold, the marriage, the knife and the farm all have components of which they are built. They all have effects on their environment, too. But that's not the whole story. The real action is wedged in between the two floors. An object is a mezzanine or at least a crawl space between its pieces and its effects.
It is precisely the debate some of these philosophers have been having lately about objects that has seemed beyond my grasp, yet this point about the irreducibility of an object to its apparent effects (or properties) makes sense to me (and fits in nicely with what I usually write when discussing literary matters; I'm convinced it's not coincidental), and I can begin to see why it matters.

In part, it resonates politically. When I read Harman's post, I was immediately reminded of a marvelous essay by David Graeber called "There Never Was a West". The essay is subtitled "or, democracy emerges from the spaces in between"; perhaps you have a sense of where I'm going with this. At any rate, Graeber opens his essay with a thoroughgoing and entertaining demolition of Samuel Huntington's much-derided "Clash of Civilizations" essay. Now, it's very easy to destroy an essay as sloppy as this one, and Graeber admits that he's essentially shooting fish in a barrel. So why bother? Well, he also observes that other critiques of Huntington's essay, while accurate enough in their way, nevertheless uncritically accept the notion of "the West" that Huntington starts with, though they may modify it to suit their own needs. Graeber says that "it's almost impossible to find a political, or philosophical, or social thinker on the left or the right who doubts one can say meaningful things about 'the Western tradition' at all". There is much in Graeber's essay to think about, and I don't want to spend too much time on it here. Briefly, he touches on the "slipperiness of the Western eye" of the "Western individual", a "pure abstraction" who
is more than anything else, precisely that featureless, rational observer, a disembodied eye, carefully scrubbed of any individual or social content, that we are supposed to pretend to be when writing in certain genres of prose.
A prose which is used to "describe alien societies as puzzles to be deciphered by [just such] a rational observer". Graeber's main subject here is the way in which "democracy" as an ideal supposedly handed down as part of an illusory "Western tradition", conflicts with "democracy" as an ideal held by actual people, as practiced by actual people throughout history, throughout the world. The notion of the abstract Western individual fits in perfectly with the fiction of individuals as perfectly rational actors making always rational choices in the market (to sell my labor or not to sell my labor?), which dovetails nicely with our debased conception of democracy as "a kind of market that actors enter with little more than a set of economic interests to pursue." But, of course, we have other interests. And the idea of democracy means much more than this to most people. It means having real say in those non-trivial decisions affecting our daily lives, some of which decisions are economic. Let me turn it over to Graeber to summarize the broader points:
democratic practice, whether defined as procedures of egalitarian decision-making, or government by political discussion, tends to emerge from situations in which communities of one sort or another manage their own affairs outside the purview of the state. The absence of state power means the absence of any systematic mechanism of coercion to enforce decisions; this tends to result either in some form of consensus process, or, in the case of essentially military formations like Greek hoplites or pirate ships, sometimes a system of majority voting (since, in such cases, the results, if it did come down to a contest of force, are readily apparent). Democratic innovation, and the emergence of what might be called democratic values, has a tendency to spring from what I've called zones of cultural improvisation, usually also outside of the control of states, in which diverse sorts of people with different traditions and experiences are obliged to figure out some way to deal with one another. [...]

All of this has very little to do with the great literary-philosophical traditions that tend to be seen as the pillars of great civilizations: indeed, with few exceptions, those traditions are overall explicitly hostile to democratic procedures and the sort of people that employ them. Governing elites, in turn, have tended either to ignore these forms, or to try to stomp them out.
The point is that democracy is something that happens between and among us. It is a relation. It cannot be reduced to what we find in a textual tradition. Too many of us have forgotten this, if we ever knew it, because we are told that democracy is an ideal that we inherited from the Greeks, by way of the Enlightenment, when in reality the texts in question evince very little patience for democratic practice. A variety of factors, including social movements agitating in the direction of democratic practice, lead to our bloated representative "democracies", or Republics, which, along with the holy texts, have determined the ways we think about democracy itself. We think about it in terms of the state, an entity that is necessarily hostile to it.

I started to come around to the idea of anarchism when I read a short description to the effect that "anarchism is how we go about our daily lives", in a constantly renewing relationship of decision-making and trust. Democracy is similar. I am also reminded of Blanchot's idea of communism (or my limited understanding of it), as an immanent relation, an always renewing set of relationships that cannot be nailed down, as a political possibility, as against the liberal notion of the atomized rational observer, against the reduction of the political into rational management of economic or other affairs. Our lives and our social relationships, which I imagine might each qualify as objects, in this philosophical sense, cannot be reduced to what we or anyone else says or writes about them.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Clip Show

In March this blog completed its fourth year, and just a few weeks ago was my 600th post. While things have been very slow lately, for various reasons I won't bore you with again, I do have several things in the works. But meanwhile, like a sitcom with half the cast away filming bad movies, or no money in the budget for the desperate episode with the gang in London or Hawaii, it seems like time for the Clip Show, if you'll forgive me the indulgence. (Also, I seem to have the knack for going into extreme slowdown at the very moment some bigger blogger kindly sends people my way. And not everyone digs deep into blog archives like I do, or used to—who has the time? So this is for you. Though I do notice when you do, and I thank you.)

Some favorite bloggers have been writing about Christopher Hitchens' latest blather, so I'll start off with my review of his utterly shitty God is not Great. Hot damn that's a bad book. Which leads easily into other posts on faith and atheism and reason: one about a "debate" between overrated atheist writer Sam Harris and overrated blogger/commentator Andrew Sullivan, and an early Dawkins-related post, pursuing the point that these atheist writers efface politics in their rush to blame everything on religion. Of course in Hitchens' case, he sees politics to some extent, he just gets the politics wrong.

In a post from 2007 that I'm especially proud of, "Becoming Human", I wrote about Chris Knight's brilliant Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture; I still maintain it's an important book and that more people should read it. A bit earlier in the same year, there was my review of Rebecca Goldstein's excellent Betraying Spinoza. Much more recently, in a post I hope to expand on, I asked "Who do you trust?"

Two years ago, I wrote a lengthy entry on Nicholson Baker's much-misread book Human Smoke. Nearly a year later, I posted a follow-up, as the book continued to be misread upon its appearance in the UK (well, at least by one idiot in particular; I can't say I kept close tabs on the wider UK reviewing). In "Myth Rushes in to Fill the Gap", I used some remarks made by Marilynne Robinson and a very fine book about the American Revolution, Taming Democracy by Aimée's former professor Terry Bouton, to consider the declining conception of democracy. Here's a more recent one on Nader and progressivism.

I've written quite a bit about capitalism, as I've been working to understand its history and processes. In the context of the crisis of the last few years, I wrote several borderline-apocalyptic posts, culminating in "Terminal Crisis?", which served in part as a mini-review of sorts of David Harvey's The Limits to Capital. A little earlier, responding in part to some remarks from Noam Chomsky, I posted the popular Google-hit, "Basic Capitalist Principles". I always wonder if people are getting what they think they're looking for when they end up there. And there was my review of Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.

"Love is an object kept in an empty box" is a line from a Smog song, but also the name of a meditative post on art and aesthetics and literary tradition. "The haiku is not for me" was a surprisingly popular post (relatively speaking, of course). Another meditation of sorts, this time on the term "novel"; it didn't quite get at what I meant it to, but it was a decent start.

Which brings us to literature. IOZ has graciously linked to two of my better recent-ish literary posts. First, to this one on J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year; then this one on Roberto Bolaño and his much-hyped novel 2666. (An example of what I mentioned above, IOZ's link to the first resulted in a massive spike in traffic here, which increase I, naturally, immediately squandered. Readers seemed to have wised up with the second and failed to take the bait.)

More literature:

My notes on Jacques Roubaud's marvelous novel The Great Fire of London. "First Furrows of Care" was a meditation on Kafka's short story, "First Sorrow". Going back further, two posts (one, two) on the work of Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, with some attention paid to political matters. Still further, two posts on Proust and his great work, In Search of Lost Time. The first is on "Proust and the Problems of Writing"; the second considers the fifth volume, The Captive, as it relates to love and trust and suspicion. (Inspired by Proust was this more personal post on an awakened memory, arguably marred by the unnecessary appending of an excerpt from Proust himself.)

More novels: A long somewhat rambling take on Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy (that is, the novels The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land). A reconsideration of Philip Roth's once-notorious Portnoy's Complaint. An early post looking at Richard Powers' novel Prisoner's Dilemma: "What if the world were already lost". Powers used to my favorite writer. No offense to him, but I can't imagine thinking anything like that anymore. A very early, very meandering post on my re-reading of Nabokov's Despair.

Wait, how is that I haven't yet mentioned Thomas Bernhard? Doesn't this blog's pretentious name come from one of his books? (Yes, yes it does; The Loser.) A Bernhard post that seems to attract a lot of Google visits is "Cerebral Pulse", on the novel Frost. There's also my review, of the much greater novel, Old Masters. And there have been several posts about Peter Handke: This one on his novel Across was perhaps the first entry where I felt I had an idea what I was doing here.

A defense of the then-still-living David Foster Wallace, who another blogger had called "washed up". And one about my disenchantment with the increasingly odious Martin Amis, another one of my formerly favorite writers.

Another popular one, this time a personal reading history of sorts. "We lack jouissance" was one of many posts touching on reading anxiety, this time from the perspective of translation and the kinds of writing we, as Anglo-Americans, might have trouble with. And, yes, alas, it's true: Literature is not innocent.

Finally, I would be remiss if I put up a post like this without strong representation from Gabriel Josipovici. He's been such an important part of my reading life in the last few years that it's impossible to explain. Here, then, are five posts about his work:

My review of In a Hotel Garden, the first Josipovici book I read; I had no idea the role he would later play. "Smoothness of Surface" and "A world about to be lost" deal at length with Josipovici's beautiful book, On Trust. I'm pretty happy with those posts, I have to admit. Then last year, I wrote about his marvelous essay "The Bible Open and Closed". At last, most recently, I, along with several others, reviewed his great short novel, Everything Passes.

Well, I think that's plenty. Thanks to everyone for reading. If you're new, stick around; I'll be back soon. I promise.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Birth. School. Work. Death

Does anyone remember a UK band called the Godfathers? When I was in college, in the late 1980s, they had something of a hit here in the States with "Birth, School, Work, Death". A glance at the lyrics reminds me that, though they mention Margaret Thatcher by name, the song isn't really political. Nevertheless, the title came rushing back to me as it neatly names topics I've been thinking and writing about for some time, and in its brief litany, captures something of the inevitability of our passage through these stages of life. Four big unavoidables, four areas over which most of us have very little agency, very little freedom. But four areas ripe for political activity.

Birth. We come into the world. But how does it happen? Where does it happen? At ladypoverty, our friend J.R. Boyd commenting on an article in the Wall Street Journal about the growing rate of caesarean sections in the United States, notes the unfortunate tendency for unpredictable vaginal births to infringe upon a doctor's personal life. How are pregnancy and birth treated? Who has agency here? Who do we trust? Who's in control of the process? What does that control say about what we value as a society? I've said more than once that I think it's crucial for women to have collective control over reproduction; I'll be expanding on that soon. But there is a lot bubbling up about birth in this country, people fighting back—women fighting back—in small but growing numbers, against the all-too-often unscientific methods of the establishment medical community. Why should we expect birth to be any different than the rest of our so-called healthcare "industry"?

School. Compulsory, boring, stultifying, stunting, counter-productive. Education seems like a good thing, right? But what is school really for? How is it made to conform to the needs of capital? Doesn't public education in fact exist because of the needs of capital? Its need for workers and consumers? Does it have anything to do with what children need? What if it were designed with children's needs and capabilities and development in mind? What would that look like?

Work. And we work. Few of us are able to avoid selling our labor to another just to get by. We are free to do so, just as we are free to starve. Our choice! Of course, some of us get by rather well on this deal, but are overextended, still essentially living paycheck to paycheck. I'd like to revisit the work of the Midnight Notes Collective. I remember, while reading the essays in their essential collection Work, Energy, War, being struck by remarks that striking workers were trying to avoid work. So completely had I internalized certain notions of work—that workers shouldn't go too far in their demands, for one; not because they might be punished (which they were, oh yes: the essays in question were written just as capital was deciding the post-war deal it had struck with labor was not cutting it any longer, and the class war was kicked into heavy overdrive; we call this process, an utter disaster for workers, neoliberalism), but because I unthinkingly bought into the logic of the system whereby labor is made to feel it should be grateful to capital for the marvelous living it provides. I was appalled. But the more I think about it, the more I see that, in fact, that battle was the correct battle. That it failed at that time does not make it wrong. But to have agency over one's own labor, one's own time, to work for one's own community, with active participation in real decisions: this is the kind of work we might defend as necessary and noble. Not what we have now.

Death. Can we, finally, die with dignity?