Saturday, January 22, 2011

Noted: Ezra Pound

From his preface to his book, The Spirit of Romance:
Art or an art is not unlike a river, in that it is perturbed at times by the quality of the river bed, but is in a way independent of that bed. The color of the water depends upon the substance of the bed and banks immediate and preceding. Stationary objects are reflected, but the quality of motion is of the river. The scientist is concerned with all of these things, the artist with that which flows.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Not surprisingly, Stan Goff had an interesting take on the recent shootings in Tucson, as well as the kinds of responses they elicited:

Let’s start with the premise that Jared Loughner is crazy, not coherently political. [...]

I’ll leave the DSM-IV acolytes to put labels on what kind of crazy Loughner is. The fact is he wasn’t crazy on Mars or in a time warp.

He was crazy in Tucson, Arizona, United States of America, in January 2011. Jared Loughner could read and write in English. He watched television, listened to the radio, saw movies, and read newspapers. He knew how to buy a gun and call a cab. When he couldn’t get his ammo at one Wal-Mart, he had the wherewithal to head to the next one and try again.

Jared Loughner may have some problems with dissociation, however that is being defined, but he didn’t learn to load and fire a Glock 19 via some synaptic disruption in his cerebral cortex; he learned it from a culture. Last I checked, there is no evidence of a Glock 19 gene, though I expect the DSM-IV people to come up with a Glock 19 Disorder soon enough, and Searle will invent a drug to control it.

This may sound like I’m trying to make the US case against him, given the narrow legal definition of insanity; but I’m not. The legal definition of anything is always inadequate, because law can never anticipate the complexity of context.

The case I’m making is that Loughner – in his own mentally fractured way – was behaving exactly the way his culture demonstrated he was supposed to behave.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Little else is worth thinking about"

The cheerful posts come fast and furious. Robert Jensen's words, excerpted in the last post, reminded me of Philip Goodchild's preface to his difficult and fascinating (and as yet unfinished by me) book, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety. He describes the book's origins:
This book emerged from the tension between four powerful insights—insights bringing problems, not solutions. The last insight to arrive was the contemporary truth of suffering: a growing awareness that current trends in globalization, trade and the spread of technology are not only leading towards a condition where the human habitat is unsustainable, but the urgency and responsibility announced by this preventable catastrophe mean that little else is worth thinking about. Prior to that, research for this present work was initiated by the realization that the encompassing framework delimiting the production of thought and values in modern life, and exerting increasing influence, was simply the impersonal and self-positing structure of money as the measure of values. As a whole, however, my work is grounded in an 'idea'—or perhaps I should say an 'experience'—of what I will call 'God'. This 'idea' was so overwhelming and so distinct from our customary ways of thinking that, while intelligible in itself, it remains incommunicable until it has called into question and reformulated all existing categories of philosophy and theology. Finally, the work of the revaluation of values which may lead to the cessation of suffering was developed in the form of the 'murder of God'—the actual work of calling into question the fundamental concepts and values of the European tradition.

Each of these insights fractured my self-consciousness, exposing an abyss beneath all my thoughts and relations to myself, to others and to the world. I became a stranger to those closest to me as well as to myself. Each issue imposed itself as a dynamic force on thought, a problem of unlimited importance that I feel barely equipped to begin to address. Moreover, these are not personal but universal and global problems, imposing the responsibility on each person to find an appropriate way of addressing them. In the case of each problem, however, there is only a minority who feel the impact of its force, and those who are concerned with two or more of these problems are much fewer. The public consensus is engaged in a vast enterprise of evasion, sheltering in a wicked and lethal complacency. Yet each of these problems calls to and awakens the others. Anyone who carefully attends to the significance of these issues—and this book is an attempt to communicate their significance—may risk having their world shattered. Thinking is nearly as dangerous as complacency.

Hysterical and apocalyptic

At New Left Project, Robert Jensen (not to be confused with Derrick) writes about the pitfalls of online activism (e.g., the tendency to think that political information = political action) and the challenges facing activism in the face of immanent ecological collapse ("The problem is not just that existing economic, social, and political systems are incapable of producing a more just and sustainable world, but that there isn’t time available for working out new ways of understanding our self, others, and the world"). Towards the end of the piece, he writes:
Though I made no claims to special predictive powers, two things seem likely to me: (1) All human activity will become dramatically more local in the coming decades, and (2) Without coordinated global action to change course, there is little hope for the survival of human society as we know it. When I offer such as assessment, I am routinely accused of being hysterical and apocalyptic. But I don’t feel caught up in an emotional frenzy, and I am not preaching a dramatic ending of the human presence on Earth. Instead, I’m taking seriously the available evidence and doing my best to make sense of that evidence to guide my political choices. I believe we all have a moral obligation to do that.
Addressing the role of online activism in all of this, he notes that "we’re used to talking about the people who don’t embrace computers as being the ones stuck in the past. After all, isn’t the internet the key to the future? Not if the future is going to be defined by less energy and less advanced technology." Localism. Sustainability. Less energy and less advanced technology. An altered sense of what constitutes the good life. When do we think seriously about it? And in any case how is my thinking seriously about it going to do the trick?

Brief thoughts on A Language Older Than Words

If the two volumes of Derrick Jensen's Endgame were about, on the one hand, the problem that is civilization itself, the argument against it as such, and, on the other hand, meditations on the kinds of actions that might do serious damage to its ability to continue functioning, A Language Older Than Words is more about the world that we have lost access to because of it. That, in fact, it would speak to us if we would only listen, has stopped because we have lost the ability or inclination to listen. The book opens with an anecdote about the time he asked the coyotes to please stop killing his chickens, after which they killed no more chickens. There is another story about a duck that extended its neck out to be killed by him. There is a fascinating section towards the end of the book about a scientist who has done decades of research into communication with plants; well aware of the reception his work would receive in scientific circles, he doesn't even try to present it. (A question raised by and through the book: Why would the world speak to us in the conditions under which it is usually studied?)

Jensen is well aware that he is inviting your ridicule by telling such stories. He thought he was losing his mind. He tells other stories. He tells of conversations with indigenous writers and activists, recounting their words for how their cultures have experienced the world. He talks about his abusive father and how he learned to disappear when horrible things were happening, to not feel them. He quotes from accounts of the first European contact with North America, about the overwhelming abundance of both flora and fauna. He writes about the inevitability of story after story of our culture's contact with indigenous people. Extermination. Story after story recounting the despoiling of land after land. Desertification. He, again, concludes that we're all fucking crazy.

I'd offer quotations from the book, but I've already leant it out. However, by coincidence, I noticed last week that Skholiast had recently quoted a key passage from the book, in which Jensen reports the following words from Jeannette Armstrong, "poet, teacher and activist from the Okanagan tribes":
Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor. It's not a metaphor. It's how the world is.
Skholiast, incidentally, while admitting that he has "many difficulties" with the book, says that "it is still written the way I believe philosophy ought to be written (with urgency and beauty)". I'm curious about his difficulties. I can imagine what mine might once have been (I agree about the urgency and beauty). Oddly (oddly?), I find I have no difficulties with it now, even if I am unsure how to process many of the stories found in it. I have no trouble whatever with Jensen's overall message about the insanity of our civilization, except insofar as I am already troubled by that insanity. Read his book, but read it with an open mind.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Technologically Advanced

How fucked are we? Pretty fucked. Ten all but ignored stories of further scientific evidence that "human civilization is on the precipice". All depressing, each on their own catastrophic. And still we remain utterly delusional. The introduction to the list closes with a quotation from Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing." It may seem impossible? To whom?

Dunbar's number, etc

Last month Ethan linked to this Wikileaks-related post at Americana called "Pathologies of Scale". The Wikileaks stuff is pretty good, but I'm more interested here in the first part of the post, in which the author, Justin, writes about his personal experience working at a smallish company as a software developer, because it dovetails nicely with some of what I've been thinking and wanting to write about here with respect to the future and how to act, etc. Justin tells of some advice he received from an older colleague who was leaving the company on "difficult terms", to the effect that he "should get out of there as soon as possible" that he "would do best in small, loose organizations" and that he "should begin looking for a new job as soon as [he] heard talk of a security badge policy". His friend
was really describing sicknesses that are endemic to organizational growth, the point at which an organization reaches critical mass and begins experiencing new kinds of communication breakdowns from scale. Businesses often call these issues 'growing pains', where in the early days of an organization, it is possible for everyone to talk with everyone and as the company grows, open communication and unrestricted access becomes impossible and counter-productive. To function, the organization needs protocols, proper channels and badges because it is no longer possible for everyone to know everything and everyone. He could have chosen any one of numerous symptoms; help desk tickets, organizational charts, whatever, but he chose security badges, which was interesting because security badges are vaguely authoritarian, betray a puffed up sense of self-importance and neurotic insecurity approaching paranoia.


The unintended side effects of growth manifest as pathologies. The role of ‘proper channels’ in an organization is to synthesize raw data into actionable information for leadership to act upon. The problem is that any synthesis also, by definition, results in information loss. The information that is [lost] is partly determined by what underlings choose to report, which is influenced by their cognizance of the reality that no matter how rational they may believe themselves to be, leaders still sometimes resort to killing the messenger.
Other than simple recognition, two things in particular occurred to me as I read these paragraphs. The first was Dunbar's number; the second was the arguments put forth by James C. Scott in his book Seeing Like a State. I've written about Scott's book in the past (here, and also here; heh, that second post reads like a dry run for, or perhaps a better version of, this post of mine from last month: I do repeat myself); here I want to talk a little about Dunbar's number.

Dunbar's number is a concept first proposed by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, as "a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships"; "relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person" (Wikipedia). The number, it turns out, is roughly 150 people. I first learned about Dunbar's number by way of Stan Goff, and it so happens that Stan revisited the topic in a recent post at his essential Feral Scholar blog (seriously, Stan and his co-blogger DeAnander have been a crucial resource in recent years, in particular in such areas as gender and militarism and food praxis, among others; you should read them regularly):
. . .we ought to begin right now subjecting every institution to scrutiny, and work against the institutional tendency to transform from an in-itself into a for-itself.

Every time friends become a committee, we ought to exercise the precautionary principle; because our desire to get bigger and stronger to pursue tempo tasks can blind us to the more formidable strength we risk losing by neglecting – and underestimating – primary relations.

If we spend 80 percent of our time managing secondary relationships, then we need to figure out how we can flip that to 80 percent of our time nurturing primary relationships.

One of the reasons we have so little power to act creatively in the face of so many crises is that we are fragmented, yes, but cut off in a much deeper way by the lack of social cohesion that can only happen in the small, intimate group.

It is not hyperbole to say, I don’t think, that Management is the enemy of social cohesion, because it substitutes secondary weak bonds for primary strong ones.

It only seems symmetrical to suggest that by restrengthening primary bonds, we develop a greater capacity to resist, but also to creatively adapt to, the forces that seem so threatening now.

When I first learned about Dunbar's number the idea made immediate, intuitive sense to me. Stan opens his post by linking to a short video in which Dunbar explains the idea and some of the underpinnings of it. I recommend taking a look.

(Incidentally, in the course of his brief lecture, Dunbar mentions almost in passing the importance of touch in maintaining relationships, something that science has pretty much completely overlooked. I naturally thought immediately of Gabriel Josipovici's book-length essay Touch, and again my sense that this all matters a great deal is mutually reinforced everywhere I turn.)

I don't have a lot of time to explore this topic right now, but I did want to throw it out there, in part in connection to the question of how we are to act, given the forces aligned against us and our own complicity in it all, the hugeness of it all. The battles before us seem massive, intractable, impossible even. The sheer scale of the problems we face tends to lead us to believe that large-scale solutions are needed. I admit that I am just as susceptible, if not more so, to this way of thinking as anyone else; I am an impatient git. And, lacking any personal connection to a tradition of political or social action, the tendency for me to just say it's impossible and do nothing is still all too strong. Nonetheless, action is possible. Lately I've come around to the idea that action must be local to have any hope of succeeding. But succeeding at what? Is a locally sustaining food economy going to arrest global warming? Well, no. Of course not, not when you put it like that. I don't honestly think anything will help when it comes to problems of that scale. We can only do what we can do. My position is one of both pessimism (we will eventually be forced to make do locally, so we may as well learn now) and optimism (we really do work better in small groups, live better when we know those around us, work better when we work together, etc).

As so many previous posts have been, this one is little more than a pointer towards future writing and activity. Localism is unpopular in certain quarters of the left, which tends to view it suspiciously as often so much mystical blood and soil fascist shit, and which itself is still very much wedded to the large-scale solution of state socialism. So this is another theme to which I hope to return. (Also: what does it mean to be left? or socialist? or liberal? or conservative? how meaningless are those terms?)

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Bernhard Moment

If in the early part of last year my reading was dominated by Peter Handke, I anticipate the beginning of this year to be dominated by his fellow Austrian, the late Thomas Bernhard. Not only did I receive for Christmas the two newly published collections of his writings, Prose (early stories just now appearing in English for the first time) and My Prizes (his various pieces commenting on his several literary prizes), but I already had three other volumes still awaiting my attention. These are Wittgenstein's Nephew, Woodcutters, and the final novel, Extinction. The relentlessness of Bernhard's mature style means that I am especially loath to read him when exhausted and so has meant that I have not been reading him much of late, except where shorter works have been available. The Voice Imitator, for example, or Three Novellas. The latter collection, of similar vintage as the stories found in Prose, I did read last year, and each of the three stories successively came closer to that mature style, with "Walking" in particular being very much like the later Bernhard, and so reminding me of the considerable pleasure to be found in his music. It feels like time to read him again. (A re-read of Concrete, my first Bernhard, may also be in order.)

There have been several new paperback editions of Bernhard's work in recent years, which is just one reason why reviews have been appearing at some of the more popular litblogs. I admit to some ambivalence about this. It's great that people are reading Bernhard and that his books are coming back into print (though, alas, the new American Vintage reissues are fucking ugly; fortunately, I already have the vastly more attractive University of Chicago editions for most of them; The Lime Works appears to be the only one I am missing). I suppose I'm being a bit churlish. Few noticed when others of us were talking about Bernhard in the past. I'm not completely beyond the tendency to care whether (more) people notice. But, to be fair, I don't have many actual complaints about the recent blog-commentary I've seen, which is more than can be said for either mainstream coverage of Bernhard or the traditional critical responses to him.

For the former, Dale Peck's recent item in the New York Times has received some attention. Since Peck is the author, you can bet there is something wrong with it, but in fact I wasn't quite as bothered by it as some, if only because I don't much mind the practice of "a reviewer [using] a book merely as a soapbox on which to stand and expound". You'll notice I have referred to Peck's "item"; this is because, though it is ostensibly a review of the two new books, he doesn't really review either of them, instead using the occasion to cluelessly talk up Bernhard in general. Which, again, in itself isn't a bad thing. It depends on the nature of the argument being expounded. Obviously, "soapbox" and "expound" are words carrying negative connotations, and Peck does little to warrant a defense (though he does once or twice veer dangerously close to getting it). He goes on and on about alienation. (The article sounds at times like a less interesting version of Zadie Smith's much-discussed "Two Paths" essay from two years ago, though Peck doesn't really explore the question he raises.) The soapbox-line comes from Terry at Vertigo, in his excellent evisceration of the Peck review (which he follows up with a fine review of his own of Prose).

With respect to the traditional critical take on Bernhard, a recent review in the London Review of Books of a new UK edition of Old Masters, by the well-regarded translator Michael Hofmann (translator of Bernhard's first novel, Frost, among many other important German-language works), is a case in point (my own review of Old Masters, from four years ago, is here; see also John Self's fine review last year at Asylum). Waggish handles Hofmann's review superbly. Waggish was disappointed in the review,
not only because it neglects the most important aspects of Bernhard’s work, but also because it seems to confirm so many preconceptions of him: the angry Austrian endlessly railing at everything, hating the country and its people and life and books and culture and everything. [...] [the ranting] is always contextualized. It is never ranting for its own sake, and the rants are never to be taken completely at face-value, no matter how appealing or justified the target.
The voice in Bernhard is so vital that one is often tempted to nod along in agreement. I can't tell you the number of times I have encountered a passage that seems to perfectly capture a given position, or perfectly expresses a thought, and I have stopped to underline or jot it down, or have even blogged an excerpt, only to see it negated or comically undermined further down the page, or on the next page, or perhaps 30 or 60 pages on, this negation or reversal also perfectly expressed, by the same character, in the same marvelous music. I am reminded, again, in these moments, chastened even, that the opinion is not the point (which is not the same thing as saying that it's completely irrelevant, either to Bernhard or to his art). (Of course, I underline or excerpt anyway.) (Coetzee is another writer who is constantly reminding us of this; we seem to need the reminders.) In any event, Waggish's post is an excellent discussion of the purposes Bernhard's characters' rants serve in the narratives which contain them (which appear to some readers to simply be the totality of those narratives, the characters merely stand-ins for Bernhard himself).

One aspect of Waggish's review that is of particular interest to me is the distinction he makes between the middle narratives, culminating in Correction, and the later, more rant-fueled books, which include Concrete, The Loser (again, source of this blog's name), Old Masters, and Extinction. I am partial to these later works, and at times found Correction rough sledding. Correction is often named as Bernhard's best and most important (Waggish agrees), most prominently by George Steiner, who tended to dismiss the later work as the product of a writer "succumb[ing] to a monotone of hate". Steiner, like Hofmann, missed the point. Here is Waggish again (his post is much more than the excerpts I'm quoting in this post and is very much worth reading in its entirety):
All the exaggerations, the name-callings, the generalizations, the hate? These are not things that one quite means. They are flourishes. The flourishes (here is where the “musicality” of Bernhard’s prose is apt) are all there are, as Bernhard is hellbent on avoiding such meaningful content as argument, logic, evidence, and proof.

And I think all this is fairly evident from Bernhard’s middle period, which isn’t all that rant-filled at all. Correction, which I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, is nothing but the turning-inward that falls on Bernhard’s ranters when they run out of venom. It’s about a man, or several men, who have nowhere to go, and yet are running at full throttle. I don’t think that the hermetic approach that culminated to Correction could possibly have gone any further, so Bernhard was forced to find a new direction, one dealing with the attempted evasions from the hermetic nightmare that consumes the men of Correction.

But the nightmare remains paramount.
Interestingly, from, say, the latter half of Gargoyles, through Correction, on through to the later novels, the musicality of Bernhard's voice, the refracted narrative, the repetitions, the negations, is so similar, so recognizably Bernhard, that I have to admit that I hadn't remembered that those of the middle-period are not "all that rant-filled at all" till Waggish pointed it out. Perhaps oddly, it's Correction that, for this reader, was the toughest to finish, and I think it's what Waggish calls the "hermetic approach" that helps to explain it. The later works, though superficially rant-filled, and certainly despairing, are at the same time lighter, and also funnier. I don't feel oppressed by the writing, even as it bears obvious similarities with the hermetic, oppressive writing of Correction. It is this lightness which, for me, elevates the later writing.

Now, on to the reading.