Monday, May 30, 2005

Quaker high school graduation; Kaplan's Wittgenstein meme

Busy times ahead—the syllabus for my summer class (a six-week comp (not camp) thing for high school students) is due on Friday, and the anxiety of procrastination is beginning to corrupt every part of my life—but I wanted to say hello, in a sort of livejournalistic fashion, before beginning my work, which, I guess it’s getting a little late for that tonight anyway.

This weekend, Hilary and I went to her sister’s graduation from the Meeting School, a nominally Quaker private high school in the rural town of Rindge, New Hampshire. The graduation was held in a small barn, open on each end, allowing breezes and birds to circulate freely, with wildflowers decorating the lofts and beautiful natural light unevenly illuminating the rough wood. How nice to get to go to school in such a place! I thought, someplace without lockers and hallways and bells and desks in rows, without all the architectural forms of bodily control that, along with everything else that’s coercive and hierarchically mediated about public school, constitute teenagers as a political and intellectural minors.

Before I go any further: the Wittgenstein meme. Background: Mark Kaplan of Charlotte St. has recently shared with his readers comments he wrote in margins of Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value. The meme is: share marginal notes from your Wittgenstein books, and no fair making up new ones. (My favorite kind of marginal note is “No!”, but I’m not finding any. (Not because I didn’t feel it.)) My own Wittgenstein notes are pretty disappointing, but I’ll quote a passage from Culture and Value that I remembered during my visit to the Meeting School, the reigning atmosphere and moral gestalt of which I found myself resisting in several ways, one of which this passage articulates. The only note I made on this passage is a correction of the translation’s rendering of Straßen as “trees” rather than “streets,” which is presumably not due to a flaw Peter Winch’s German but just an anagrammatical slip.
It is very remarkable that we should be inclined to think of civilization—houses, streets, cars, etc.—as separating man from his origins, from what is lofty and eternal, etc. Our civilized environment, along with its trees [rendering Bäume this time] and plants, strikes us as though it were cheaply wrapped in cellophane and isolated from everything great, from God as it were. That is a remarkable picture that intrudes on us.
Return to main text: The Meeting School is a functioning organic farm, with crops and livestock, and the students do farm chores and learn about farming. Aside from this, students are allowed maximal intellectual freedom, though of a quite particular sort. Let us say that this sort of freedom is not won from a dialectical struggle with external forces that attempt to shape one’s education. It is the freedom to drift in voids of one’s choosing, where the fiction of spontaneous curiosity and creation from within is elevated to an ethical precept, and negation by one’s hierarchic betters is scrupulously withheld.

Now, wherever “self-directed” secondary education may or may not lead, it probably feels better and more human than whatever it is that US public schools provide. Maybe you won’t learn what a function is, or how DNA replicates, or whatever, but so what, if you get to feel like a person more or less full-time. Your brain will probably mature enough on its own while you’re mucking out the stalls or reading Stephen King—for if you are social and well-fed and untwisted by fear, your brain’s development is pretty much unstoppable—so you’ll be able to pick up later whatever you need to know. (P.S.: It costs a lot of money to get to feel like a person more or less full-time.)

Part of the graduation program was a truncated Quaker service. This form of worship involves sitting in silence for a specified period (in this case, 40 minutes) and going wherever it is that one’s mind goes—toward the Light, Quakers believe—when everything else is suspended for a time. If moved by some inner event, a participant may stand and speak. The speaker might offer a simile addressing some aspect of life or love, or draw a connection between a seemingly quotidian event in his or her life and a more abstract meaning illustrated by it. Such interruptions are usually infrequent, thereby allowing worshippers to fully absorb the statement into their trance before being disturbed by the next speaker.

I quite enjoyed the state of mind I cultivated in the relative silence, which silence was suitably imperfect, textured by birds flying through the barn, roosters wandering outside and calling out, and occasional cars passing on the road—elements easily synthesized in the course of my meditation. However, verbal interruptions damaging to the Quaker trance became increasingly frequent as parents—mostly dads—began to feel it was OK to use this time to say how proud they were of their child, etc. But as this was primarily a graduation and not an event staged for my own spiritual benefit—though I believe it did benefit me spiritually—I wasn’t too bothered by the interruptions.

In other news, I’ve made it through the next 50 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, so, according to my contract with John, another report is due. I cannot deliver now, though I’ll say that I’m enjoying the book way more than I expected to. I am engrossed in comprehension; interpretation of a more abstract sort must wait.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Listening to the learned astronomer

Here’s a pretty unconvincing piece of anti-philosophy from Walt Whitman:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Don’t you think the narrator’s response says more about the limitations of his own imagination than the limits of the astronomical “charts and diagrams” he ridicules? At the high school where I work, I don’t know any kids who both read well and think that reading is gay.

Besides, those charts and diagrams sound pretty appealing—especially in a poem so lacking in imagery. Scientific props like star charts offer an enticing picture of clarity, of perspicuity, as a globe offers a picture of freedom and possibility.

We like images that communicate more or less immediately to the imagination, whereas the mind naturally hates the artificial restrictions of poetic language. Not that the aesthetic appeal of science lies solely in its imagery. In scientific thinking, too, the mind gets to do things that feel good. I’m not talking about the “elegance” and “symmetry” that physics guys speak of to humanize their discipline. I mean scientific thinking on the least academic, most broken-hammer level, like trying to fix your bong when you’re already high, or wondering what variable of cooking you should change to make the cookies come out more crunchy. We like framing hypotheses, running experiments, isolating variables, quantifying results. Science is only boring when you’re not thinking along with it, for, like the mind itself, it exists only in its activity.

Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, is the philosopher’s anti-philosopher poet. When he speaks against metaphysics, he speaks—like Wittgenstein—as one who knows and must continually fend off the metaphysical impulse.

Let us consider Stevens on one metaphysical question that has repeatedly perplexed Fort Kant: what is the nature of the faculty of representation? That is, how can we represent to ourselves the thing that sees similarities, in particular, “nonsensuous similarities,” as Benjamin puts it? What is the nature of the part that makes metaphor, the mimetic part, the perpetual synthesizer that tells us that this texture belongs with this visual surface and that sound?

I’m now looking for in Biographia Literaria for Coleridge’s name for the roving plastic power of the imagination, and I’ve found my note on the flyleaf—“APRIL 22, 2005, PORTLAND. CAN FORT KANT BE RESCUED? REMEMBER ITS MISSION: TO FIND EVERYWHERE THE MIND REPRESENTING ITSELF, TO SEE IN EACH FORM OF IMAGINATION A FIGURE FOR THE IMAGINATION ITSELF, TO LIST FIGURES OF THE UNITY OF REPRESENTATION.” Here it is: the esemplastic imagination, the imagination that shapes into one.

In The Necessary Angel, Stevens lays waste to the Kantian-Coleridgean distinction between productive and reproductive imagination, between spontaneity and association.. The very phrase “creation of resemblance” destroys this distinction. Finding and forging similarity can’t be cleanly distinguished—doesn’t Kant’s secret reliance on the imagination as an unexplained explainer throughout the Transcendental Analytic show this?—and this faculty of finding-forging is the highest function of imagination.

One of the poems in The Necessary Angel, “Of Ideal Time and Choice”—which I mostly don’t understand—makes an approach toward this function, and considers whether we might discover its essence:
And what heroic nature of what text
Shall be the celebration in the words
Of that oration, the happiest sense in which

A world agrees, thought’s compromise, resolved
At last, the center of resemblance, found
Under the bones of time’s philosophers?

The orator will say that we ourselves stand at the center of ideal time,
The inhuman making choice of a human self.
What is the happiest sense in which a world agrees, hangs together, coheres, forms one thing? What is the center of resemblance? It is we ourselves, period. This is both a deflation and an amplification, a rejection of the question and a rich answer to it, like when Wittgenstein says the human body is the best picture of the human soul. Let’s set aside the “inhuman making choice of a human self” bit—an existential/liberal/nihilistic tic that though probably literally true seems a little crass—and focus on the insight: human imagination and intelligibility are irreducible. “We ourselves” is the smallest unit they resolve into. We won’t find anything more knowable or original than the body—which is a cognizing, scientizing body—the identical subject and object of experience.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Two for Tuesday

On a Two for Tuesday, a rock radio station plays pairs of songs by the same band or performer. Fort Kant doesn’t require this strict identity, but it insists on some unity, or continuity, between its Two for Tuesday selections.

So what joins Wallace Shawn’s The Fever and Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place? Well, both are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hmm. Got anything else? Jamaica Kincaid is married to Wallace Shawn’s brother, an academic composer. OK, but? Jamaica Kincaid got her big break in writing in the New Yorker (one can just send something in, and it’ll get published if it’s good enough, you know); Wallace Shawn’s father, William Shawn, was once an important editor of the New Yorker. Whatever—just consider these texts on their own terms.

The Fever, which is said to be a play, tells of the moral emergency experienced by a well-educated New York consumer of sophisticated cultural products as he travels in an unspecified “revolutionary country.” The content of this moral emergency falls under the rubric of criticism of capitalism, but its force is entirely first-personal.

What is this moral emergency?

It’s not just that the narrator sees that the pleasures he and his kind, liberal friends enjoy would be impossible without the stolen labor and lives of underclass men and women the world over—though he does see this.

It’s not just that he sees that his and his friends’ ideology that gradual progress by legal, consensual means is the most reasonable and moral way of improving the lot of the poor—that this ideology is a crass and dishonest and basically totally effective way of blinding oneself to the fact that one is basically OK with massive disparities in wealth, that all one really wants is to get and preserve what one was raised to believe one had a natural right to, that one would lock the door and call the police rather than admit a hungry person to his home, etc.—though he does see this.

It’s not just that he sees that the poor are permanently poor. Rather, the dizzying thought is that he is not permanently privileged. The really sickening thought is that your life of privilege and property is not given to you and fixed for all time—you renew it each day, you actively reproduce it, you perform continually the relations of power that keep your class status intact. If you were truly moved by the claims of justice, you could easily make your property less private.

The sighting of this radical possibility could represent the first glimmer of revolutionary consciousness, or it could just make you hunch over a third-world toilet and throw up. This latter is the experience of The Fever’s narrator, for whom the near-revolutionary thought is a largely subjectivist and psychologistic affair, a matter of personal moral-existential guilt, not an occasion for solidarity and organization and collective action, or even individual action. (Though sighting a radical possibility is by far not nothing.)

A Small Place, which is sort of like an essay, addresses a shifting second person—an American tourist on vacation in the West Indies, a generic Westerner implicated in the crimes of colonialism and imperialism, a credulous and stupid colonial subject who gleefully reproduces subjection and inferiority—and makes a series of moral accusations not unlike those the narrator of The Fever directs toward himself. And although he may undertake third-world tourism for reasons wildly different from those of the lower-middle class American office worker, who simply wants to see really blue water and drink rum drinks on a really white beach while watching the activity of natives who seem so oddly content with the simplicity of their lives—although the reasons for their tourism may be so wildly different, that might not matter much to their taxi driver or toilet scrubber, for whom American tourists of all ideologies represent basically the same thing.

Not that Kincaid’s narrator consistently claims solidarity with the subject of colonialistic tourism—she reserves a special rage for the complicity of uneducated Antiguans who are unable to see what ails them, unable to see the global and economic and historical context of what they don’t even acknowledge as a problem , a special and complicated rage made possible largely by her education in European discourses, which education and attendant wish to flee Antigua complicate the whole solidarity question.

Maybe the bond of the two-fer is this: Shawn is radically self-implicating; Kincaid is radically self-excusing and other-implicating, and that other is Shawn. Though in the world, where these texts come from, and to which these texts pertain, Kincaid, for reasons mentioned above, in a certain sense, is Shawn.

But enough! It’s Two for Tuesday. I want to use the best and coolest economics-themed passages from each, but I’ll save them for later, maybe next week. Tonight I can’t help picking two passages that make for a nice game: see if you can guess who’s who. Question two: though the passages seem to express the same ideas, do you find one of them morally more effective? Why?

And so, ordinarily, you are a nice person, an attractive person, a person capable of drawing to yourself the affection of other people (people just like you), a person at home in your own skin (sort of; I mean, in a way; I mean, your dismay and puzzlement are natural to you, because people like you seem to be like that, and so many of the things people like you find admirable about yourselves—the things you think about, the things you think really define you—seem rooted in these feelings)

[…] and though the words “I must get away” do not actually pass from your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it; to being a person lying on some faraway beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand, looking like something first forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for; to being a person marveling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is the backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature. […] and since you are being an ugly person this ugly but joyful thought will swell inside you: their ancestors were not clever in the way yours were and not ruthless in the way yours were, for then would it not be you who would be in harmony with nature and backwards in that charming way? An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you.

No. Listen. I want to tell you something. You’ve misinterpreted everything. The old woman who bent down and gave you sugar-covered buns did not love you. You were not loved the way you thought.

Of course I still feel an affection for myself—someone so happy, cute, funny?—

No, I’m trying to tell you that people hate you. I’m trying to explain to you about the people who hate you.

Why do you think that they all love you? And what do you think they would love about you? What are you? There’s no charm in you, there’s nothing graceful, nothing that yields. You’re simply a relentless, unbearable fanatic. Yes, the commando who crawls all night through the mud is much less of a fanatic than you. Look at yourself. Look. You walk so stiffly into your kitchen each morning, you approach your cupboard. You open it, and reach for your coffee, the coffee you expect to find on its shelf. And it has to be there! And if one morning it isn’t there—oh, the hysteria!—the entire world will have to pay. At the very thought of the unexpected, the unexpected deprivation, you begin to twitch, to panic, to pant. That shortness of breath! Listen to your voice on the telephone, listen to the tone that comes into your voice when you talk to one of your very close friends and you talk about your life and you use those expressions—“what I need to live on…”—“the amount I need just in order to live…”—solemn, quiet, no histrionics—the tone of hysteria, the tone of the fanatic—well, yes, of course—it makes sense. You understand your situation. Without a place to live, without clothes, without money, you would be like them, you would be them, you would be what they are—you would be the homeless, you would be the comfortless. So of course, you know it, you will do anything. There are no limits to what you will do. Without the money, your face would become the face of a rat, your hands would be paws—sharp, nimble, ready to scratch, ready to tear.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Report on the first 50 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow

1.) As if on cue, the cover story of this week’s Portland Phoenix, the city’s best-distributed alt-weekly, concerns the so-called creative economy in Maine.

John Eder, a state representative from Portland—and the only Green Party state representative in the nation, according to the Phoenix—recently found himself in the position of holding the decisive vote on the budget proposed by Governor John Baldacci (D). Democrats have a majority in the Maine House and Senate, but because many progressive Democrats rejected Baldacci’s budget, Eder’s vote was crucial. He became convinced of the justice of the governor’s proposal when some goodies were thrown in for Portland: $200,000 for the Portland Bilingual Program and $500,000 for establishing a “creative economy incubator.”

The Phoenix, though skeptical of the ease with which Eder’s vote was bought, is thrilled that Portland’s arts community will have so much money to play with. In the article, “Let’s Get Growing,” 13 Portland artists and culture-industry types are asked their opinion about how best to spend the money. The responses, which are neither creative nor economical, include:
Subsidized studio space in a converted factory or warehouse
Recording studio and rehearsal space
Shared workspace for writers
A computer/photocopier resource center for artists
Gallery space in high-rent, heavily touristed areas
Resurrection of New Year’s Portland and the Maine Fiber Arts Festival
Business lessons for artists
Subsidized tickets to get young people hooked on theater
It seems to me that the Phoenix and its representatives of the Portland arts community have misunderstood the basic thesis of the creative-economy theorists. The artists just want their share of the pork, but I imagine that the official gubernatorial rationale for the “incubator”—borrowed from economist and consultant Richard Florida—goes something like this: make artists and their products a visible and consumable part of your town, and the people who will consider moving their businesses in. Professionals like a little high-end conspicuous consumption, and they like feeling that culture is thriving and available where they live. They would like to have a few Bohemian-types to add (figurative!) color to the otherwise gentrified neighborhoods; perhaps they will buy a building and rent to a few of them.

This is basically the argument Richard Florida advances in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class: make your city gay-friendly, culturally literate, and acceptable to the canon of liberal taste (of which a factory converted into studio/rehearsal space is a prime and infinitely interpretable example), and then high-value “creative economy” workers—dot-com entrepreneurs, programmers, biotech researchers, lawyers, publishers, consultants—will set up shop, kick in tax money, gentrify exploitable neighborhoods, and maybe provide a couple jobs. Contra the Phoenix, it’s not the artists who make up the “creative class,” but the symbol-manipulating professionals who consume the artists’ products in their spare time (and the artists’ primary product is not their work—which, show me the culturally educated person who wants to spend their money on local art, I mean, have you seen this stuff?—but the liberal atmosphere the artists’ presence suggests). It’s a sort of Veblenian point: make rich a show of class markers, and high-tech entrepreneurs and workers will choose your city over a decaying metropolis or sprawling Southwestern suburbia of golf-coursing red-state nouveau riche. Perhaps they will sustain a modest service economy of the arts, but that was never the primary aim.

P.S.: What really gets the creative class going is federal research and development money. Forget putting a Starbucks on the corner—Defense Department cash will do. As Noam Chomsky reminds us, Cold War-era state spending gave us computers and advanced communications technology, and, like government-sponsored pharmaceutical research, the profits that resulted from the massive investment of public funds were rapidly privatized.)

P.P.S.: I lived in Pittsburgh when Richard Florida did, and the local alt-weekly, the City Paper took a quite different view of the “creative economy” than does the credulous Portland Phoenix. Portland doesn’t have Pittsburgh’s memory—or at least fantasy—of a time when blue-collar workers made a respectable living.

2.) John and I are attempting a sort of Oprah’s book club readers’ circle readthrough of Gravity’s Rainbow, and a report on the first 50 pages falls due this weekend.

(We recently read The Crying of Lot 49 not just to defer Gravity’s Rainbow but also as a warm-up, a sort of Prolegomenon to Any Future Metaphysics of the Present that Would Be Able to Come Forward as Dialectical Science. John’s post: Why I am a paranoid: a reading of Ashlee Simpson, John Constantine, Oedpia Maas. My posts: 1. Pynchon's psychedelical humanism; 2. A mind is a beautiful thing to WASTE.)

I’m not eager to try to say anything about GR, but I will say this: doesn’t it strike you that the characters we meet in the opening sections—Pirate Prentice, Roger Mexico, Teddy Bloat—represent a sort of “creative class” of the Allied Forces? Not the real wartime creative class of atomic scientists and Bretton Woods futurists and apolitical industrial profiteers, but a sort of venture capital-fueled collective of wooly-headed eccentrics with odd talents and habits, synthetic- and lateral-thinking psychics and statisticians with a systems-novelesque interest in limning deep and explanatory forms of relatedness, whose skills might be best suited to the demands of the advertising industry. I shall be curious to see what GR says about the larger economy that supports this elite, and about economics in general.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Illuminated objects

It is popular in high school English classes to extract from the Odyssey the form of the epic hero’s journey and apply it to the narrative of Star Wars. Even our textbook does this—yesterday a student discovered pictures of the Death Star battle in a little section after the Odyssey excerpts.

A more plausible and interesting commonality is the texts’ infatuation with cool weapons and tools. The real narrative—and one that destroys epic time—is that of the weapon commensurate with our powers of representation, the weapon proportioned to our eye and hand and enemy, the weapon that makes killing an aesthetic performance.
But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with a quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.
It would be wrong, though, to think that this Odyssean way of being interested in objects applies only to weapons. Tools, treasures, food, architectural structures, clothes—all this is solid and appealing and intelligible in the Odyssey. It all has the look and heft of something massy and real, material yet as infinitely available for imaginative reproduction as the Star Wars ships and guns and helmets whose forms boys memorize and redeploy on brown paper book covers and handmade Father’s Day cards.

This is the objective counterpart of the Odyssey’s constitution of the unified bourgeois subject: the self-identical, self-contained, fully thinkable commodity, whose lines snap tight into the forms of desire, whose very design compels its use; a sum of power that makes a claim on our awe and attention that’s more confident and persuasive than the claim of a human personality.

My favorite object in the Odyssey is the swordbelt worn by the shade of Heracles, an object too grotesque for Odysseus’ taste. He is offended by its phantasmagoric sequence of images, for the principle of objects is not mimesis, but identity. One goes to battle armed with a signified, not a signifier.
My hackles rose at the gold swordbelt he wore
sweeping across him: gorgeous intaglio
of savage bears, boars, lions with wildfire eyes,
swordfights, battle, slaughter, and sudden death—
the smith who had that belt in him, I hope
he never made, and never will make, another.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Two for Tuesday

that insofar as a self is anything its how it acts in a social situation what else is a person anyway but a signifier of responsibility for a series of actions if a self is anything it is what it does with its body does with its mind and that responsibility is for what you do not for what you go home at night and think what you’d like to do if if if if

Charles Bernstein, from “Three or Four Things I Know About Him”
It’s not every day that my job overlaps with my inner life—other than by stealing it, writing over it, making it materially possible, and constituting a great deal of it—but it so happens that the Special Education students I support in 9th-grade English are reading excerpts from the Odyssey this week. (This morning we worked on, among other things, pronouncing “Aeaea” and distinguishing between Alcinous and Antinous.)

Now, I can’t get into Horkheimer and Adorno in class—it’s big enough an idea that what makes Odysseus a special kind of hero is that he’s so clever—but I’ve been thinking a great deal about their reading of Odysseus as the bourgeois outfoxer of inner and outer nature, the amoral technologist of language who tricks stubborn arational life into conformity with the discipline of the time- and property-conscious will.

I’ve found that I’m a bit of an Odysseus myself, in that my job requires me to try to manage a crew of recalcitrant, natural beings who don’t share my sense of what home is. I try to drag my students away from the land of the Lotus Eaters (drugs; video games); I steer them away from Charybdis, knowing that Scylla will pick off a half dozen of them (indifferent teachers); I tell them not to eat the cattle of Helios when they’re starving (plagiarism—you’ve got to write your own paper, even though you can’t read or write, and even though the internet is right there). All this is in the interest of promoting the disciplined, time-managed, bourgeois subject, who masters himself only through a sort of self-destruction, who replaces action with language, disruptive laughter with concentration.

Now, let’s not forget our Two for Tuesday. I was pleased to find that Horkheimer and Adorno’s two favorite passages in the Odyssey happen to be the same as mine:

1.) Polyphemus the Cyclops’ speech to the ram, on the belly of which Odysseus is escaping Polyphemus’ cave:
Sweet cousin ram, why lag behind the rest
in the night cave? You never linger so,
but graze before them all, and go afar
to crop sweet grass, and take your stately way
leading along the streams, until at evening
you run to be the first one in the fold.
Why, now, so far behind? Can you be grieving
over your Master’s eye? That carrion rogue
and his accurst companions burnt it out
when he had conquered all my wits with wine.
Nohbdy will not get out alive, I swear.
Oh, had you brain and voice to tell
where he may be now, dodging all my fury!
Bashed by this hand and bashed on this rock wall
his brains would strew the floor, and I should have
rest from the outrage Nohbdy worked upon me.
2.) Argos the dog’s recognition of his master and subsequent expiration:
Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies,
old Argos lay.

But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
to wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
having no strength to move nearer his master.

[…] death and darkness in that instant closed
the eyes of Argos, who had seen his master,
Odysseus, after twenty years.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Information-based economy my foot

1.) The latest employment figures are in, and Paul Craig Roberts, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, will help you read them. The title of his article is a good start: “America is Losing”. Roberts’ side-thesis: analysts and politicians who argue that U.S. workers get back more from trade agreements than is taken from them—they’re losing, too. As far as reason is concerned, that is.

2.) Last Saturday, Dennis Kucinich addressed the Maine Progressive Caucus in Augusta. I am not a member of this group, but my brother and I went to hear him speak. (In the photo, you can see me just northwest of Kucinich’s forehead. I am wearing a red sweater and sitting in the back row.)


I seized an opportunity to cut off a woman who was—understandably—venting her rage about the proposed dismantling of Social Security, jumping in with a question designed to get Kucinich to say something about CAFTA. I said that our governor is fond of speaking of “transitioning” to an “information-based” or “knowledge-based” or “creative” economy, which, in view of what’s been happening in Maine, rings crassly euphemistic. Transitioning to a third-world economy might be a more literal description, and CAFTA will only further this trend.

Kucinich said that if what is meant by “transitioning to an information-based economy” is making wireless internet access cheap and universally available, or investing in technologies that would help genuinely small businesses, he’s all for it. But the present structure of trade agreements has been a disaster for American workers. Kucinich took off one of his shoes and held it up so we could see the Dexter logo inside. Dexter closed its factories in Maine in 2001, though its factory stores are still open, stocked with shoes manufactured in China. Kucinich framed this as another rude confirmation of his thesis that “cheap labor is the oldest story in human history.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The science of deduction

There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can't unravel the thousand and first.
Perhaps Doyle meant the science of induction. In any case, I may have made an important discovery...

Violence wins again

The biscuitbox has been thrown again, and this time it meets its mark.
The catastrophe was terrific and instantaneous in its effect… All the lordly residences in the vicinity of the palace of justice were demolished and that noble edifice itself, in which at the time of the catastrophe important legal debates were in progress, is literally a mass of ruins beneath which is to be feared all the occupants have been buried alive.
Surprise—the banality of violence is revealed, again. Intimidation really works—no duh. FK concedes and switches off the comments once more. (Another form of enclosure, though a trivial one. (Fort Kant as a gated community.))

Matthew Arnold, quoted in The Country and the City:
And when I go through the country, and see this and that beautiful and imposing seat of theirs crowning the landscape, “There,” I say to myself, “is a great fortified post of the Barbarians.”
Well, a great fortified post of the Philistines, anyway.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Two for Tuesday

Raymond Williams, from The Country and the City:
[A]s the economy develops, enclosure can never really be isolated from the mainstream of land improvements, of changes in methods of production, of price-movements, and of those more general changes in property relationships which were all flowing in the same direction: an extension of cultivated land but also a concentration of ownership into the hands of a minority.
Anonymous, from "Jack of the North":
This I do and wyll with all my myght
for sclawnderyng me yet do I but ryght
for comon to the comons agayne I restore
Wherever it hathe ben yet comon before
If agayne they enclose it never so faste
agayne a sondre it shall be wraste
they maye be ware by that is paste
to make it agayne is but waste

Monday, May 09, 2005

The mind can imagine nothing, nor recollect that ewhich is past

A recent exchange in the comments to a post includes my attempt to read a passage from The Logic of Sense without knowing what sort of speech act was being performed by the reader who quoted the passage. (I also didn’t know it was a quotation; I assumed the text was written by the reader.) (I still don’t know what The Logic of Sense is.)

What philosophical texts can mean out of context: Joan Retallack, Cage scholar and language poet, has written a book about this, or of this, (Errata 5uite), and its epigraph, from Ben Jonson, goes: In no labyrinth can I safelier err, Than when, etc.

Now, one might say that of course you’re safe in a labyrinth: a labyrinth, in the strict sense, is unicursal, having only one possible path—you can’t get lost (though you might not know where you are). But in a maze—which is multicursal, a network of multiple conjoined passages—there one can err for real.

Let us safely err and conflate the two and imagine with Ben Jonson a labyrinth that is non-trivially low-risk (like the biology classroom in which I assist special-needs students—a declared “Failure-Free Zone”).

Shakespeare is a labyrinth in which one can safely err—He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice versus He smote the sledded pole-axe on the ice: I’ll take both. (I’m talking about the reader’s safety, not the scholar’s.)

Ulysses is a labyrinth in which one can safely err (though Joyce, as Hans Walter Gabler has it, was “intensely conscious” of printers’ errors in the first edition and helped compile the errata published with subsequent printings; though God bless Hans Walter Gabler for the corrected text!).

Retallack suggests that philosophy is a labyrinth in which one can safely err: break up philosophical texts, isolate concepts from their accounts, propositions from the arguments that make them responsible, splice together texts from philosophers of different eras and different intentions—see what it says anyway, what it can’t help saying.

Errata 5uite juxtaposes fictional errata slips (left page) with collages of philosophical fragments (right page) (whether these collages are composed or the product of chance processes is unclear (Cage infamously tampered with his chance processes to get good results (any statistician will tell you that random distributions don’t look random (experimental subjects mistake composed scatterings of points for random ones and vice versa)))).

Let’s read:
Kapital, is it not the stage director of noises and silences themselves (L1) revisionists yield to the negative features of the very reality principle (M1) the mere idea of promoting human pleasure (M2) he justifies the terrible, the evil, and the questionable (N1) the “Assurance from Reasoning” if you desire it (P1)

Retallack: time wuz when tales told philosophers & they died laughing (for what reply does one make).

Barthes: The brio of the text (without which, after all, there is no text) is its will to bliss: just where it exceeds demand, transcends prattle, and whereby it attempts to overflow.

Charles Bernstein:
“Artifice” is a measure of a poem’s
intractability to being read as the sum of its
devices & subject matters. In this sense,
“artifice” is the contradiction of “realism”, with
its insistence on presenting an unmediated
(immediate) experience of facts, either of the
“external” world of nature or the “internal” world
of the mind
I have been unable to locate a passage I misremember from Derrida, something like: deconstruction aims to articulate a site from which philosophy can appear to itself as other than what it is or: deconstruction aims to articulate a site from which philosophy can appear to itself as what it is. If we are Joan Retallack, we need not choose between these misrememberings, for they amount to the same.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

An electric light at once the immediate object and the ultimate organ of inward vision

I keep meaning to write a post framed as a Two-for-Tuesday, like on classic rock radio, but I never remember this intention on a Tuesday. I guess it would be fitting to do five on 5/5/5, but what follows is a twofer, and, like the best rock radio, it is appropriately psychedelic. (Note: Hilary and I are listening to WBLM’s nightly Zep-Set as I write this. (P.S.: Tonight they played a sequence of four: In the Evening, In the Light, Tangerine, Immigrant Song.))

June 9, 1838. Why do we seek this lurking beauty, in skies, in poems, in drawings? Ah because there we are safe, there we neither sicken nor die. I think we fly to Beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature.
This evening I was looking over some Emerson journal entries I read a couple years ago for a class, and the notes I had written next to the passage quoted above caught my eye:
At first I didn’t know what I was reading, but now I remember that at the time of this note, I was being punished with a horrifying mental condition in which experiences of beauty were inseperable from experiences of mortality—I couldn’t enjoy anything without feeling that I was having the best and most important experience; that my experience was sickeningly improbable, contingent, fleeting; and that I was dying, along with everything I could call the world. Now, I don’t remember what it’s like to feel that way, but it did feel a quite particular way. And that this particular way couldn’t be held in language and revived later by reading was part of the content of the experience. For I was experiencing linguistic thought as a succession of absolutely concrete imaginitive events that perfectly embodied their sense. Sitting in class and listening to Jean Ferguson Carr characterize the form of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative as a series of removes, I said to myself, This is the language behind language, as each incoming word formed a perfect electric outline of pure intelligibility.

It has happened to me, on various occasions, to find myself in a certain edifice, which would appear to have some of the characteristics of a public Exchange. Its interior is a spacious hall, with a pavement of white marble. Overhead is a lofty dome, supported by long rows of pillars, of fantastic architecture, the idea of which was probably taken from the Moorish ruins of the Alhambra, or perhaps from some enchanted edifice in the Arabian Tales. The windows of this hall have a breadth and grandeur of design, and an elaborateness of workmanship, that have nowhere been equalled, except in the Gothic cathedrals of the old world. Like their prototypes, too, they admit the light of heaven only through stained and pictured glass, thus filling the hall with many-colored radiance, and painting its marble floor with beautiful or grotesque designs; so that its inmates breathe, as it were, a visionary atmosphere, and tread upon the fantasies of poetic minds. These peculiarities, combining a wilder mixture of styles than even an American architect usually recognizes as allowable—Grecian, Gothic, Oriental, and nondescript—cause the whole edifice to give the impression of a dream, which might be dissipated and shattered to fragments, by merely stamping the foot upon the pavement. Yet, with such modifications and repairs as successive ages demand, the Hall of Fantasy is likely to endure longer than the most substantial structure that ever cumbered the earth.
Hawthorne’s Hall of Fantasy is psychedelic in the classical sense—in it, the soul is made visible. Not just visible—the mind is architecturalized as a space in which one can walk about freely. Hawthorne’s narrator—Hawthorne, presumably—tours the chambers of this Hall with a friend and meets different figures at each turn, each of whom has found, according to his particular mode of imagination, a different route to this concrete phantasmagoria. The narrator encounters:

—“rulers and demi-gods in the realms of imagination”—Homer, Aesop, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Swedenborg (how Concord loved Swedenborg!) and so on

—men of business, who dream “the idea of cities to be built, as if by magic, in the heart of pathless forests; and of streets to be laid out, where now the sea was tossing; and of mighty rivers to be staid in their courses, in order to turn the machinery of a cotton-mill”

—“the inventors of fantastic machines”

—“the herd of real or self-styled reformers”

—Father Miller, a doomsday-is-nigh dogmatist, whose fantasy destroys all others

—the spirits of men deep in “magnetic sleep”

The narrator’s companion describes the Hall of Fantasy like this:
You are in a spot… which occupies, in the world of fancy, the same position which the Bourse, the Rialto, and the Exchange, do in the commercial world. All who have affairs in that mystic region, which lies above, below, or beyond the Actual, may here meet, and talk over the business of their dreams.
Students of Concord transcendentalism are doubtless weary of this line of thought, but I, at least, am still surprised whenever I find the imagination pictured not as something worrisomely private but as a space one can share with others, a cosmopolitan crossroads where creators of all sorts meet and exchange thought-contents made manifest, a Stoa Poikile poetized in the idiom of commerce and open to practical men.

If the label “American Renaissance” is not just a cliché but a substantive description—as it clearly isn’t for F.O. Matthiessen, who says much of value about Emerson and Hawthorne and Melville but little to justify entitling his book on them American Renaissance—maybe its sense is this: certain American authors of the mid-19th century were spared the anxieties of the Cartesian-Kantian problematic; for them, as for the Greeks we imagine at the end of Nietzsche’s rainbow-bridge of concepts, there was no problem of other minds. Shared space was the starting point of activity, a ground taken for granted, not a vanishing point dreamed in solipcism or an aim constitutive of purported social experience but unavailable to knowledge.

Monday, May 02, 2005

How the other half lives

In an unexpected show of ALSC magnanimity, Jonathan Goodwin, a blogger at the Literary Organ, asks us to suspend our prejudices—“our”?—and read the Winter 2004 edition of Social Text, on the theme “Global Cities of the South.”

I’m not able to read along—I can’t follow the link to Social Text at Project MUSE, since I’m not connected to a university that pays for the service—but Goodwin’s glosses on the articles are intriguing (if maybe a bit condescending). His preview of one I’d like to read:
Teleopoiesis, “reaching toward the distant other by the patient power of the imagination, a curious kind of identity politics, where one crosses identity, as a result of migration or exile,” is described in Gayatri Spivak’s “Harlem”.
Now, I’m a big fan of blog posts that summarize articles found elsewhere—Jodi at i cite, for example, has shown that the synopsis can be a fun and lively form of post—but something about Goodwin’s essay strikes me as strange. (Extra credit for anyone who can say what.)

Consider Goodwin’s conclusion:
Social Text is, because of the controversy I alluded to earlier, frequently used as an unread example of what must be wrong with today’s cultural/literary studies. The next time you feel the urge to do so, I counsel you to read an issue of what you’re about to condemn. See what you can use.
See what you can use—a noble Emersonian thesis, though maybe less so if it is deployed in an advertisement for a text that asks us to reach “toward the distant other by the patient power of the imagination.”

Emerson teaches that “the one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul,” but the activity of whose soul ought we to be interested in here? The literary-organic reader’s? Or, as Spivak suggests, the soul of the other? It would seem superficially that reading with “the patient power of the imagination” is pretty much incompatible with mining a text for something to use. (John—do your New Labour and show me that a third way is possible here!) (If I were to launch my own ideologically driven literary website, I might think it wiser to reverse the literary-organic formula and take the value of Spivak for granted while asking you to check out William Empson to “see what you can use.”)

See what you can use—what resonance does this have here? See what you can buy up cheap and repackage? See what slums you can gentrify? See whom you can cram into the galley of your ship? Quaeritur.

And what is the shape of the chamber whose acoustics ring so suspiciously? To sound out the dimensions of the space in which these literary-organic echoes take form, let us consider one blogger’s response to an article discussed in Goodwin’s post:
What then explains the tortured phenomenological phraseologies? The desire to possess a technical vocabulary, I’d contend, and it’s the impulse to piggy-back on fields literary scholars (present editors excluded) aren’t trained in that bothers me about much of what’s published by English professors in Social Text. Anthropologists writing about anthropology with a recognizably anthropological idiom I can handle. English professors variously adopting the technical idioms of whatever discipline informs this, that or the other particular claim drives me to, up and around the walls.
Again, extra credit to any reader who can say what’s wrong with this.

A provisional answer: riffing on material from fields you aren’t trained in—(“Stay on message: training confers legitimacy”)—belongs to English studies because using language figuratively belongs to language. Criticism, like literature, lives through the production of metaphor, and the specialized vocabularies of other disciplines—(“Stay on message: mental life divides into disciplines”)—provide an endlessly rich source of new figures. There I go—I guess I'm saying “see what you can use!”

But it might matter what or whom you’re using, and to what end.