Monday, March 24, 2008

Noted: Joanna Scott

Looking through my papers, I come across the following, from Joanna Scott's fine first novel, Fading, My Parmacheene Belle:
And surely, somewhere, somewhere there are women who do not have a compulsion to die before their time, there are wives more faithful than mine, wives who make a fight against the illness, who forestall the end, who do not abandon their men. For if we are to be looking to the future, we must keep attached to each other--it is a promise made at the wedding, an agreement to resist such obstructions as death.

I am faithful to my vows. See how it is not the husband who permitted himself to be eaten by disease, it is not the husband who closed his eyes and retreated into the walnut casket the size of our Frigidaire. It is the wife. She has been taken by the blight, the plague, the Ice, she has been packed into the crate. I tell you if I had a suspicion that the wife would take such sudden leave, I would have prohibited our union, I would have found for my mate a delicious doe without a weakness in her bones, a wife who would not betray the wedding trust, for there is nothing to compare with the sinking heart in a man married fifty-three years as he approaches his empty home. There is only blackness behind the windows, only a vacancy inside, no one to greet me after a walk such as I have taken from the gentle slope of the cemetery hill where they carry on with the service.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Unenlightened Exceptionalism

Lenin at Lenin's Tomb wrote an interesting post earlier this week about the American Revolution and the role of slavery in it. I don't know enough about the specifics to comment on the bulk of his post, but in the opening paragraph he makes the following necessary point:
The fable of America's origins in liberty and rebellion, and its peculiarly missionary quality, is still one that commands a great deal of irrational support from various quarters, and it is the basis for an unenlightened exceptionalism whose function is to turn the global projection of violence and tyranny into a story of the expansion of human freedom.
And at the recent interesting roundtable at Filthy Habits about Nicholson Baker's new book Human Smoke (which I would very much like to read), Robert Birnbaum posted an excerpt from his forthcoming interview with Howard Zinn (scroll down quite a bit for the excerpt). Zinn refers to the "holy wars" of American history; that is, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II:
I think it is worth questioning the justice of those wars. It's a complicated moral issue. You might say Vietnam is easy [to recognize as unjust - RC]. Iraq is easy. And the Mexican War is easy. And there are no wars which are more morally complicated [than the three holy wars]. But the fact that they re are morally complicated wars shouldn't stop us from examining them. The American Revolution, in terms of casualties, was the bloodiest of wars. A lot of people don’t realize that. .. and the question is, as questions in all of these holy wars, could the same objective have been accomplished, independence from England, ending slavery, defeating Fascism—could those have been accomplished at less than the bloody toll that was taken and without corrupting the moral values of the victors in the war? And with better outcomes. Those are question worth asking. The American Revolution won independence from England at the expense of the Indians, at the expense of the native Americans. The English had set a line, by the Proclamation of 1763, you couldn’t go beyond it into Indian territory. They didn't want trouble with the Indians. Independence from England takes place, the Proclamation of 1763 is wiped out. The settlers are free to move into Indian territory. Black People—most of them joined the British side rather than the American side. It was not a revolution for them. And the question I haven't seen asked. Canada won its independence from England without a bloody war. Conceivable? It's like asking the question about the nature for the Civil war. Slavery was abolished in all of the countries of Latin America by 1833. Without a bloody civil war. Now, of course, all those situations are different. And complicated. All that I am saying is that I think there are questions about history that so far have been untouched and untouchable and should. At least be opened up.
We don't want to open this stuff up. Americans are all too easily swayed by talk about freedom and democracy. Too many of us continue to believe in the myth of American exceptionalism; too many of us refuse to accept that our government does the things it does, and does them intentionally, with specific purposes in mind. Too few of us take the trouble to imagine what it might be like if some foreign power invaded our country, spouting nonsense about regime change and democracy. How might we react? What unsavory movements might develop here over the course of decades of continuous tampering and aerial bombardment? Even when Americans--mainly white Americans, let's face it--bother to acknowledge some of the bloody history, the reflex is still to dismiss events as aberrations, or as well-intended, or as mistakes, or as conditions we've "progressed" from, so completely do white Americans believe in the fanciful notion of the United States as the "mansion on the hill", as the last best hope for civilization (aren't these Barack Obama's ridiculous words?). This exceptionalism, unexamined, reflexive--this refusal to address the implications of history--is one of the major obstacles to any sort of real change in this country. The flap over remarks made by Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's response, are just the most recent cases in point. . . (about which, more to come, I hope. . .)

(Incidentally, I read a useful book last year on the revolution: Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, by Eric Foner. Foner traces Paine, of course, in his route from England to America, and his role as pamphleteer. More interesting to me, however, was the material on how the established leaders of Pennsylvania, for example, co-opted the more radical elements, before re-consolidating their power during the revolution itself, with the resulting system being far less free than many had hoped and fought for.)

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five Years

Today is the fifth anniversary of the United States' terrorist war against the people of Iraq. Five years of war in Iraq. Five years of crimes. Five years of lies. Five years of dead bodies--more than a million dead Iraqis, millions displaced, thousands of dead and maimed Americans. Five years. Disgusting.

What have we been doing over there? Look at some Winter Soldier testimony from Michael Prysner (thanks to Lenin's Tomb for the clips):





For what it's worth, I found Prysner stirring and inspiring, and the details of his testimony profoundly disturbing (though at the same time unsurprising). Obviously there is a lot more of this (of course, see especially Iraq Veterans Against the War), but these were the two clips that I saw first.

See also here, here, and here for transcripts of Democracy Now! from the last three days, featuring further Winter Soldier testimony (first link via pas au-delà).

I don't have much else to say just now, but I wanted to mark this day. Nothing else is possible--no favored domestic agenda, no healthcare palliative, no ecological plan, no economic recovery--while this war continues. This war--as well as the just as criminal war in Afghanistan--needs to stop. Now.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Noted: Walter Benjamin

From Walter Benjamin's "One-Way Street", collected in Reflections:
These are days when no one should rely unduly on his "competence." Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed. (p. 65)

What is "solved"? Do not all the questions of our lives, as we live, remain behind us like foliage obstructing our view? To uproot this foliage, even to thin it out, does not occur to us. We strive on, leave it behind, and from a distance it is indeed open to view, but indistinct, shadowy, and all the more enigmatically entangled. (pp. 67-68)

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Noted: Walter Benjamin

From Walter Benjamin's "A Berlin Chronicle", collected in Reflections:
It must have been in the afternoon that a difference of opinion arose between myself and my mother. Something was to be done that I did not like. Finally, my mother had recourse to coercion. She threatened that unless I did her bidding I should be left at home in the evening. I obeyed. But the feeling with which I did so, or rather, with which, the threat hardly uttered, I measured the two opposed forces and instantaneously perceived how enormous was the preponderance of the other side, and thus my silent indignation at so crude and brutal a procedure, which put at stake something totally disproportionate to the end--for the end was momentary whereas the stake, the gratitude for the evening that my mother was about to give me, as I know today and anticipated then, was deep and permanent--this feeling of violated trust has outlived in me all that succeeded it that day. (pp. 46-47)

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Reflections-preface postscript

The other day I complained about Leon Wieseltier's preface to the new edition of Walter Benjamin's Reflections. Reflections is published by Schocken, which is a Random House imprint. In that post I almost expressed disappointment in Schocken for including the preface from Wieseltier. It seemed odd that anyone would see it as appropriate. André Schiffrin, founder of The New Press, and former head of Pantheon and Schocken, provides a little background. In a letter to the editor in the April issue of Harper's, responding to Ursula K. Le Guin's essay from the February issue on the decline of reading ("Staying Awake") (I didn't read Le Guin's piece: these semi-regular laments about reading rarely say anything new and thus tend to bore me), Schiffrin's says the following:
Le Guin is also correct in spotting the hostility of the conglomerates to the books themselves. One of the first signs that warned me of Random House's agenda when I was directing Pantheon and Schocken Books, both of which were once independent presses, was a memo warning that any backlist paperback selling under 2,000 copies a year would be pulped. This would have destroyed our backlist sales, sales on which any serious publisher must depend in order to survive. When my colleagues and I left in protest of this and other diktats, most of the books we had published by Cortázar, Duras, de Beauvoir and many others were eliminated--presumably on the fallacious assumption that all energies should be focused on the very few titles that might become bestsellers. This policy led, in part, to Random's losing unprecedented sums and eventually being sold by S. I. Newhouse, who had approved these maneuvers, to Bertelsmann.
This is familiar stuff, and as Schiffrin implies, Schocken is not quite the Schocken of old, though it may indeed maintain the same general array of titles, the same general focus on Judaica. . .

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

More Interesting Questions

The other day at Ready Steady Book, Mark Thwaite posted about James Wood's new book of criticism, How Fiction Works. Admitting that his problem with the book is arguably beside the point, since Wood does fairly well what he sets out to do, Mark concludes thus:
My problem with How Fiction Works is that how fiction works is not a very interesting question (hence Wood's perfectly adequate answer becomes a not particularly interesting book).

When faced with a novel, I'm not reading as a practitioner or would-be practitioner. Close reading, for me, isn't an attempt to unlock a code, it isn't about seeing how it has all been done, so I can then go away, tooled-up, and create a version of it myself.

I'm not interested in such unpicking, but not because I don't want to "ruin the magic" or some such: I'm not interested because I think far more interesting questions about the novel need to be asked. It seems to me that asking how fiction works is a very dull question indeed next to the existential one that really matters: why fiction is.
I've become increasingly interested in Mark's question, or questions surrounding his question, as regular readers of this blog will have noticed. Both from a specific sense of the question--why is this particular book here?--and the more general, existential sense--why write fiction at all?

Mark's admission that his problem with Wood's book may not be quite fair is part of an interesting, related issue for me. I wrote the following in a comment to Mark's post, which I include here as a reminder to myself that I want to explore this topic some more:
while it's certainly appropriate to say that a critic of a history of rugby shouldn't complain about its lack of coverage of football, in a broader sense, I nevertheless think that a critic ought to be wondering why a certain book exists. Ironically, I think this was Wood's tack in his negative review of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Why is McCarthy doing this genre exercize, he seemed to be asking, and got roundly attacked in many quarters for not properly attending to or evaluating how well he does what he does in that book (which I have not read). At the time, I agreed with those attacking Wood, but lately, having read Josipovici and others, I'm inclined to ask your question, and other related questions. It seems like a limited role for critics to confine them to merely evaluating how well something is done. (It seems to me that lots of things are done "well", but don't do much to justify their existence.) Granted, it might help if a critic were first able to recognize what is attempted before criticizing the attempt (and I think Wood does this well enough at times, though seems to miss the point at other times).
(Incidentally, here is Wood's review of No Country For Old Men, which I've re-read. I found it a lot more interesting than I remembered, so I may have more to say about it in particular in connection with the question of the critic's responsibility and larger role.)

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"I sort of can't believe it exists"

Tom Breihan's review of Snoop Dogg's new cd, Ego Trippin', appeared yesterday at Pitchfork. In his opening paragraph, Tom writes that Snoop has "somehow managed to evolve into a model of gangsta consistency, a sort of rap version of Tom Petty or Alan Jackson. He cranks out lazy, effortless hits at a scary clip, slightly tweaking his formula as the musical climate changes without ever leaving his comfort zone." I find this comparison both entertaining and spot on, but it's not the reason I'm linking to the review. It's this:
And then there's the utterly inexplicable country-fried "My Medicine" [which Tom later calls "batshit awesome" and I have to admit really makes me want to hear], which Snoop dedicates to "my main man Johnny Cash, a real American gangster" before intoning "Grand Ole Opry, here we come" and sing-rapping about weed over Everlast's respectable Tennessee Three pastiche. It's the closest thing we've ever had to a straight-up country song from one of the world's most recognizable rappers, and it's also a celebration of drugs dedicated to a beloved figure whose pill habit almost killed him more than once; I sort of can't believe it exists.
"I sort of can't believe it exists." Tom has used this phrase at least once before. In January, at his blog Status Ain't Hood, Tom posted about a couple of metal bands. That post ends with this, about the Swedish band Disfear:
And so Live the Storm brings just about everything I could possibly want from a metal album: pick-slides, dense and rumbling riffs, Ted Nugent caveman-solos, youth-crew call-and-response chants, epic pseudo-tribal drumming, vein-popping screams, incomprehensible lyrics that seem to be about staying true to yourself, song-lengths that generally stay in the three-minute range. Hooks. This thing absolutely slays, and I sort of can't believe it exists.
I like the phrase. I think we get so caught up in evaluation and assessment and moving on to the next big thing (or the next small thing) that we too rarely stop to consider how amazing artistic creation is. I commented to Tom's post that "the line between something awesome being created and not is that vanishingly thin." This is probably true to the point of banality, but at times I ponder it, in something like astonishment. When listening to a song, one that seems just so, and yet comprised, perhaps, of what might have otherwise seemed like incongruous elements, I sometimes become forcefully aware of how easily it could have been otherwise.

The same is true of writing, and the audacity of creation in general. Isn't there something astonishing about the mere existence of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu? Can you believe that someone undertook such a massive project? Along with the great pleasure I'm experiencing reading that novel, this brute fact of its existence still manages to boggle my mind. . .

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Chris Hedges in Salon

There was an interesting interview in Salon yesterday with Chris Hedges, in support of his new book I Don't Believe in Atheists. A sample:
The Enlightenment was both a curse and a blessing, because it was really a reaction to the kind of superstition, intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism of the clerics, of the church. But it also ended up with the Jacobins, [who said] well, if we can't make certain segments of the society "civilized," as we define civilization, then they must be eradicated, in the same way that you eradicate a virus.

I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous. I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don't believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it's the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they're great supporters of preemptive war, and I don't think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.
And a couple of digs at our man Christopher Hitchens:
Do you think the new atheists are similarly uninterested in their impact? It seems that what the New Atheists write and say is somewhat a performance.

Well, not Harris. Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn't know anything about religion or the Middle East. For Hitchens, it's about a performance, and that was true when he was on the left. He hasn't changed. It's all about him. It's all about being a contrarian. He reminds me of Ann Coulter, he's that kind of a figure. He's witty, and he's funny and insulting. You know I debated him, and in the middle of the debate he starts shouting, "Shame on you for defending suicide bombers!" Of course, unlike him, I've actually stood at the edge of a suicide bombing attack. That kind of stuff is just ... it's the epistemology of television. They make a lot of money off it, but it's gross and disgusting and anti-intellectual and not at all about real discussion.

Do you think Hitchens really believes what he writes?

I think he's completely amoral. I think he doesn't have a moral core. I think he doesn't believe anything. What's good for Christopher Hitchens is about as moral as he gets.
I like Chris Hedges. His book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is a worthy read, though I think he's wrong on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s (about which, incidentally, see this excellent recent post at Lenin's Tomb on humanitarian intervention). The interview is worth looking at, though I found the interviewer a little painful. Of course, I agree with much of what Hedges says (his use of the "fundamentalism" trope is more persuasive than I usually see). His point about the Enlightenment is a good one, and he's certainly right to observe that the so-called "New Atheists" argue and behave as if the Enlightenment were an unequivocally positive development. . .

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Pre-empting Reflections

Yesterday I bought a copy of Reflections, the Walter Benjamin collection. I'm happy to have the book, but now I sort of wish I'd held off and perhaps tried to find an older, used edition. See, I bought a copy of the new edition, issued in 2007. The cover is uglier than the old one was, for one thing. Far worse, it's saddled with a new, worthless, three-page preface from one Leon Wieseltier. Has a preface or introduction ever made you want to unload a book you're otherwise happy with having? Is it wrong that I want to take a blade to these pages? Wieseltier isn't around for long and doesn't say much, but characteristically, he does have time to irritate. After a relatively innocuous opening page, we get this:
In his temperament and in his method, Benjamin was an esotericist. He was modernity's kabbalist. In his turgidly enchanted world there were only mysteries, locked and unlocked. His infatuation with Marxism, the most embarrassing episode of his mental wanderings, the only time that he acquiesced in the regimentation of his own mind, may be understood as merely the most desperate of his exercises in arcane reading. . .

[. . .]

. . . Benjamin's work was scarred by a high ideological nastiness, as when he mocked "the sclerotic liberal-moral-humanistic ideal of freedom" (as if Europe in his day was suffering from a surfeit of this), and speculated acidly about the belief in "the sacredness of life" (or from a surfeit of this), and responded with perfect diffidence to the censorship and persecution of writers in the Soviet Union, which he coldly described as "the transfer of the mental means of production into public ownership." The pioneering explorer of memory worshipped history too much. He also wrote too much: he advised writers to "never stop writing because you have run out of ideas," and often he acted on his own advice. I confess that there are many pages of Benjamin that I do not understand, in which the discourse seems to be dictating itself, and no direction is clear. Like many esotericists, he abuses the privilege of obscurity.
What is the purpose of such a preface? The book still has the original, 35-page introduction by Peter Demetz (who, to be sure, does criticize Benjamin in certain ways, including aspects of his relationship with Marxism, but who isn't dismissive or obnoxious about it), which should do a well enough job by itself introducing the new reader to Benjamin (especially when combined with Hannah Arendt's introduction to Illuminations). Why is Wieseltier here? What purpose can he serve, other than as an attempt to pre-empt the novice reader's own readings? This Benjamin character is an interesting read, when it comes to literature, sure, but be sure to not take him all that seriously otherwise! (But, you know, thanks for buying our book!)

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Rehabilitate the notion of truth

The thrust of my recent posts has reminded me of an essay by Christina Nehring from last November, at Truthdig. In it, she discusses the state of the essay, decrying the entrenched personal essay, with its fixation on the autobiographical, the small. She argues that we need a return to the truth-seeking essay, as exemplified by Seneca, Montaigne, Emerson:
Today's essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be.
I agree with her, though one could be forgiven for thinking that my unclear earlier post might imply that I do not. With respect to the focus on the personal, she writes:
. . . here lies the problem with essayists today: not that they speak of themselves, but that they do so with no effort to make their experience relevant or useful to anyone else, with no effort to extract from it any generalizeable insight into the human condition. It is as though they were unthinking stenographers—"recording secretaries," as indeed the most self-conscious 20th-century essayist, E.B. White, called them—pedantically taking down their own experience simply because it is their own.

The problem, of course, is not merely our essayists; it's our culture. We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable. Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke. "Where I have least knowledge," said the blithe Montaigne, "there do I use my judgment most readily." And how salutary the result; how enjoyable to read—and to spar with—Montaigne's by turns outrageous and incisive conclusions about humankind. That everything is arguable goes right to the heart of the matter.

I think she's quite right to observe that we have a problem with big claims. It is only through making big claims that we can get anywhere, but any such attempt is openly attacked as in itself suspect, as too ambitious (the same is true in literature and music). We want to know the writer's credentials for making any claim. Is he or she a trained expert in the field? If not, why should we listen? Certainly there is valuable training that can be brought to bear, and there are cranks eager to expound on any subject. But surely the writer's credentials should be found in the writing? Perhaps, collectively, we've lost the ability to discern. At the same time, we feel strongly that we are each entitled to our own opinion, no matter how ridiculous. What has gone into forming this opinion, mind you, is of no consequence; one's considered, informed opinion is equivalent to another's ignorant, spittle-flecked reaction.

As an aside to finish up: I quoted from Jodi Dean in my last post, and here I wanted to make reference to some of her earlier posts about this idea, that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that all opinions are made equal, but I couldn't find the posts I had in mind. . . there was this post from last month, which engages with Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. There she refers to "a decreasing ability to distinguish between truth and lies, a decline in a politics wherein truth matters" and later, where Debord says "the spectator is supposed to know nothing", she says that now "the opposite is the case: everyone has a right to her own opinion." (Jodi is always blogging about writers and thinkers with whom I have little to no contact--mostly no--but in ways that make the ideas seem accessible and relevant. And yet I am still all too often overwhelmed into silence, given my ignorance of the actual texts in question.) There was also this post from December about the stupidity of student papers, though it seems to me that her remarks are broadly applicable. Her students refuse to discern differences:
Their mindset is something like this: what is important is what any individual truly feels is important; that's all that matters, the intensity and authenticity of a certain affective attachment. This intensity means that individuals can define words, issues, concepts, etc, any way they want, as long as they "truly believe it." But, and here is the catch, the students tend to combine this intense subjectivism (or subjectivism of intensity) with an underlying universalism: if everyone truly believes in something that they affectively feel and know, then there is peace, harmony, and social justice. It's like they are committed to an underlying ontology of unity that renders all affective difference and discord into rapturous accord.
Neither of these posts are quite the ones I had in mind, but they're well worth checking out anyway. . .

(A final aside: I note that my second references above to Nehring and Debord are to their last names, yet I refer to Jodi Dean as "Jodi". In an earlier draft of the previous post, I noted that I wrote "Hitchens" and "Jodi" and I worried about seeming to "respect" the former more than the latter, especially in that case, with the gender difference. But I do not respect Christopher Hitchens at all, and I do respect Jodi Dean. This post tells me that the difference is that Jodi Dean writes a blog, and I know her primarily through that blog. For example, it's always weird for me to see myself referred to as "Crary" rather than "Richard" when others link to me. The blog implies some sort of personal relationship, perhaps, an informality of expression, certainly. So even if I had read one of Jodi Dean's books prior to having encountered the excellent I Cite, the blog nevertheless invites me to call her "Jodi", though I've never met her.)

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Something like the Truth

Last week, I expressed some concern about what I called the "depressingly utilitarian" nature of much of the writing I see, using Christopher Hitchens and his favored forms, the short column or polemic (and his reputation as "polemicist") as my jumping off point. By coincidence, the very next day at I Cite, Jodi Dean took issue with what Foucault says in this short extract from an interview conducted in 1984 ("Polemics, Politics and Problematisation"). The following, from Foucault, sounds like the kind of thing I was attempting to say in my post:
The polemicist . . . proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consist of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.
This sounds a lot like what I might have been saying about Hitchens. He certainly does proceed as if he is setting out to destroy an adversary, an adversary he would often not recognize as even worthy of the name. But Jodi Dean points out that Foucault's formulation is itself highly polemical. And she reminds me that polemics are merely "disputations, arguments against another position defended by apologists". She goes on to say:
Together, the positions engaged in an argumentative practice designed to get to something like truth. The polemicist pushes a side, but against another side, in an agonistic practice that is itself dialogic. As a practice of speech, it is not the same as war and annihilation.
In this way, polemics, as argumentation, can be essays into a topic, explorations in words, in writing, though in opposition to another set of ideas or positions. I think that the word "polemic" has, for me, been so tied up with someone like Hitchens--whose particular mode, I still claim, is not argumentation, but in fact attempted destruction--that I rolled that word into my question about the "utilitarian". So I'm happy to unroll them, so to speak. However, the question itself still nags at me.

With my Hitchens example, of course, the problem could simply be, not that polemics are a problem, but that he has long since abandoned any kind of rigor he once held, in favor of bullshit; that the things he says, the big points he makes, are all too often simply and demonstrably wrong, relying as they do on truth-claims about factual matters, truth-claims that can be researched and shown to be factually incorrect (as he would say of his religious enemies). My general point was not about Hitchens but about what I perceive as, again, a depressingly utilitarian approach to writing and public discourse (I'm sticking with those words until better words occur to me and until I do a better job of explaining what I mean). And I can see that I'm merely back where I began, only with the word "polemic" removed from the equation.

While I'm here, I'm going to make a related observation, one that, I hope, will allow me to refrain from mentioning Christopher Hitchens again in connection with this line of argument. One complaint that has been commonly thrown at people like Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that they are "fundamentalist atheists". I find this formulation unhelpful (and a little irritating), not least because it allows them easy space for further dismissal and ridicule, but also because it doesn't do much to gain access to what's amiss in their arguments (politics aside). Another complaint is that they have not read enough theology. This complaint is more interesting, though unfortunately it seems to be made with the expectation that immersion in theology will somehow make the non-believer realize what he or she is missing in their lives (the odds are against it.) What these writers, I think, are caught up in is the idea that there is a "right" and a "wrong" to everything, and that they can necessarily identify it and that they can tell us about it. I think this idea lies behind the tendency to see fundamentalists as representatives of "true" religion. Possibly, theology could help disabuse them of this notion (I don't actually know). In his book, Hitchens has all the answers. He feints in the direction of acknowledging that science does not have all the answers, but he has an answer for that too (science just hasn't discovered the answers yet, or they're not worth knowing). He has written god is not Great not in order to enter a discussion, because for him there is no discussion. There is nothing in the book that evinces the slightest doubt about anything. This in itself might not be a huge problem, were it not for the subject and the audience (and those pesky facts that might get in the way). He accuses religious people of having certainty, when it seems to me, in my limited engagement as an outsider, that religious people are full of doubts about their faith, about their relationship to God, about the Bible as this massive compendium of contradictory stories and lessons and all kinds of weird stuff. For those of us who are not only atheists but have never felt any twinge of religious faith, I think we are attracted to the idea that the Bible must make sense, so we are in turn attracted to (and repelled by) those religious people, generally fundamentalists, who treat, or claim to treat, the Bible as the literal truth, as the literal Word of God. These people, on some level, we understand, though we strenuously disagree. But we fail to understand the experience of religion and faith for others, for the vast majority, and this failure is almost total, and potentially dangerous.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

The disappearance and reappearance of the moment

From Carl Wilson's great meditation on the glorious Deerhoof and their use of silence in their music:
My guess is that the power of silence also has to do with the character of consciousness and experience. Consciousness is not a continuous process, but a chain of discrete moments forever vanishing before we can get hold of them - in a sense, of experiences slipping away before they are truly experienced. It's always now, and now and now and now, and as the bulk of Eastern thought and religion informs us, one of the basic dilemmas of life is that we seldom feel "in" that now: its elusiveness is its essence. It doesn't disappear by dwindling away, by cresting and falling, but always all of a sudden: This instant, this second, this hour, this day is "now" but in the time it takes to note that fact, the instant is now "then." As a survival mechanism, our minds create a continuity out of it, the way our optical processes narrate the discrete frames of cinema, stillness becoming an illusion of movement, but this is a constant, perhaps exhausting subconscious effort. Experience is as much made of total breaks, of gaps and aporias, as it is of content. Music, like (almost) all art, takes the chaos of experience and makes something more coherent of it because it has form - even the most abstract art has greater structure than the experience of consciousness. (Although it also might have more freedom than social experience, with its daily routines, etc. - a combination that helps account for its pleasure.) So perhaps this meta-genre of "stop-start" art feels especially elevating because it returns the fragmented experience of life to us, magnified and exaggerated, so that what feels day to day as a frustrating limitation of the mind can be transformed into a hosannah of glorious affirmation: "Praise be to the gap, to the disappearance and reappearance of the moment! What a miracle that time annihilates itself, because, behold, it also spontaneously regenerates in the very moment of its demise! What a happy universe in which a black hole becomes a big bang every instant! Let us observe it in slow-motion replay, and dance!"

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Biological Limits of Reason

There was a fascinating article on certainty--how we become "convinced"--and the limits of reason in Salon last week by Robert A. Burton (actually, it appears to be an excerpt from his book On Being Certain; link via the first comment to this post at The Valve). Here's a sample:
It's not easy, of course, but somehow we must incorporate what neuroscience is telling us about the limits of knowing into our everyday lives. We must accept that how we think isn't entirely within our control. Perhaps the easiest solution would be to substitute the word "believe" for "know." A physician faced with an unsubstantiated gut feeling might say, "I believe there's an effect despite the lack of evidence," not, "I'm sure there's an effect." And yes, scientists would be better served by saying, "I believe that evolution is correct because of the overwhelming evidence."

I realize that this last sentence runs against the grain of those who have fought the hardest to establish science as the method for determining the facts of the external world. It is particularly loathsome when you feel that you are playing into the hands of religious fanatics, medical quacks and word-twisting politicians. But in pointing out the biological limits of reason, including scientific thought, I'm not making the case that all ideas are equal or that scientific method is mere illusion. My purpose is not to destroy the foundations of science, but only to point out the inherent limitations of the questions that science asks and the answers it provides.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A peculiar tension between precision and disorder

Incidentally, speaking of Open Letters Monthly, as a few others have pointed out, Garth Risk Hallberg has a nice piece there about Helen DeWitt's excellent novel, The Last Samurai, one of my favorite novels. A brief sample:
Beneath the simple surface of DeWitt’s propositions . . . lurks a vast ambition: an ambition that privileges form over fact and inquiry over knowledge. Like the early Wittgenstein, DeWitt wants to clear away the confusions that arise from the sloppy use of language, and like the later Wittgenstein, she wants to run against the boundaries of language and to gesture at what lies beyond them. The result is a peculiar tension between precision and disorder. That DeWitt sustains it for more than 500 pages is as much an ethical statement as an aesthetic one.

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Writing is Easy

In the interview that I linked to in my post about god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens was asked about his "prolific output"; he replied as follows:
Well, I find writing recreational. I used to do it to relax when I was a kid. I realized early on that there were a few things that I can do with any skill: write an essay and give a speech. I can do both of those very easily. Nothing to boast about, but I also have an extremely good memory. [. . .] to be absolutely frank, I don't find writing hard at all. I could in a course of a day perfectly easily write a column that's 1,000 words for Slate and a book review for the Sunday Times of London, for example.
This response strikes me as telling. He finds writing easy; he has a good memory. The problem, I think, is that Hitchens' typical form is the short column, and these tend to be disposable, polemical. An essay, on the other hand, should be about the writer making an inquiry, about trying to discover something in the writing, and a book, about such a weighty topic, should be as well. Hitchens doesn't need to discover things in his writing. He is here to tell you things, things that he doesn't have to look up or support, because he has a good memory. For him, this is writing. For me, this is decidedly not writing; it is, in fact, hackwork.

In her review of the book, Amanda Bragg writes that "there is no private compositional magic to be invoked here - we all know what his serious, considered work reads like." I don't mean to suggest that I can't recall much better written work from Hitchens, but even at its best, "private compositional magic" doesn't seem to describe it. That is, there isn't anything private about it, by which I mean, again, he isn't "essaying" a topic or an idea. He is informing or attacking or, perhaps, defending.

But I'm not here to dump on Christopher Hitchens again (or at least that's not the only reason for this post). And I don't mean to suggest that we don't ever need polemics. I wonder, though, if the short column, the newspaper op-ed, the opinion piece, certain kinds of blogging, if there isn't something depressingly utilitarian about these, as a form. Writing in this sense must be useful. I will only write something because I have something to tell you (and possibly because there's a paycheck in it). You will only bother to read it if you can make use of it. This seems to be the standard equation. No doubt I am simplifying matters enormously, but I wonder, too, if this isn't an Anglo-American tendency. If the tendency under capitalism is to reduce everything to commodity, writing is reduced to the bottom line (even if it's actually unpaid): what does this do? My reaction to the so-called atheist writers has been in part to what I sense as an overly empirical, overly utilitarian take on things.

In a sense, this post is also a placeholder. I want to explore this idea of what writing is and what essays are . . . a couple of posts back, I quote from Benjamin and Barthes; I'm thinking of them as examples of a something else I'm trying to access . . .

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Hitchens redux

After posting my response to Christopher Hitchens' awful god is not Great, I re-read this excellent review of the book by Amanda Bragg at Open Letters Monthly, which appeared a few months back. I'd forgotten that she made some of the same observations that I ended up making; for example, as she puts it, "Hitchens claims he’s been writing his book for years, but the work belies the claim: it’s everywhere botched, sloppy, and adolescent."

Later, Bragg writes: "In every chapter, virtually on every page, Hitchens accidentally demonstrates that this is not, in fact, the considered, lifelong intellectual tract he alludes it to be". A large portion of my post was focused on politics, in large part because it strikes me that it's the political situation that informs the sense of urgency behind Hitchens' book, along with the other recent anti-religion volumes. (A point lost on some readers, it seems.) But, in fact, Bragg is exactly right. I could have ignored politics altogether and spent my time on the numerous other problems with the book, and my assessment would not improve in the least. Anyway, do check out Bragg's review if you're still interested.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Restless, unnameable discomfort

In Marina Warner's TLS article on Beckett, much excited my interest, but there was one thing in particular which I didn't feel I could usefully explore in the last post, and for which this post is meant to only be a placeholder of sorts. Warner draws a connection between Baudelaire's writings on the "childhood imagination" and Beckett's work:
His essay-memoir is called "Morale du joujou" (Moral of the Plaything) – where joujou (not the usual word for toy, jouet) is almost a pet name with a nursery ring like a "teddy" or a "dolly". Baudelaire recalls in pleasurable detail the miniature worlds conjured by Victorian nursery games and child’s play, and wonders at children’s ability to play without props or models, through fantasy alone. "All children talk to their toys; toys become actors in the great drama of life, reduced by the camera obscura of their small brains. Children bear witness through their games to their great faculty of abstraction and their high imaginative power. They play without playthings." Significantly, Baudelaire goes on to say children also want "to see the soul" of a toy, and remembers how they will turn it about, shake it and hurl it to the ground, baffled, even enraged, by its stubborn inanimateness. His meditation hints that the primal loss brings with it an understanding of mortality, and that this takes place when make-believe fails and the vitality of toys vanishes: "But where is the soul? It’s here that vacancy sets in – and bewilderment". Around sixty years after Baudelaire, in his essay on playing with dolls, Rilke meditated in similar terms on the passions aroused by this relationship, on his fury when confronted by the doll’s mute obstinate solidity, and the onrush of compensatory fantasy.

This ambiguity about the soul of the toy – the doll or other object – haunts the psychology of play, and through play, the theory of language’s relation to the world, and the impact of imagination. Beckett’s work probes the puzzling boundary of consciousness, of animation and inanimateness, with ceaseless, patient, forensic curiosity.
Inevitably, this makes me think of Walter Benjamin. There is his Berlin Childhood around 1900, of course, but also, fresher in my mind, his Moscow Diary, in which he talks about his excitement at seeing collections of certain toys, but which also includes his short essay, "Russian Toys". Here he is on the spirit of those "primitive" toys produced by peasants and artisans:
The spirit from which these products emanate--the entire process of their productions and not merely its result--is alive for the child in the toy, and he naturally understands a primitively produced object much better than one deriving from a complicated industrial process.
And in Mythologies, in the piece "Toys", Roland Barthes writes of modern toys, "made of a graceless material, a product of chemistry, not of nature." That "the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch." Worse, toys "are supplied to [the child] ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [...] French toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators."

Returning to Warner's article, Beckett's "babble" links the emergence of language with its falling away, and "[i]nfancy meets decrepitude in his meditations on existence" (Warner); and, for Beckett, "the physical presence of things requires that we listen to their voices somewhat like a child animating a roomful of toys through sighs, whispers, groans and burblings" and "nursery nonsense joins sound music through the noises of the body".

I want to tie all these threads together with my thinking on the Modernist project, but I'm struggling. In Proust, the narrator's memories recreate, condensed in a moment, a whole world, forever lost, but which in his reveries seem more real than reality. And Beckett, too:
The angle of view in so many of his works opens on to elusive glimpses of the past, a past that belongs to Beckett’s childhood, to his mother, his father, their parents and their sisters (Beckett’s beloved aunts): their customs, clothes, diction and doings haunt his works. As the title Rockaby evokes, the pain and plangency and occasional bliss of these echoes rising from the obscurity of forgetting return their declining, impaired subjects to a time of lullaby, while the rocking chair in which they sit or even the boat that moves from side to side in Krapp’s Last Tape recalls another motion that seeks to soothe restless, unnameable discomfort: the rocking of the cradle that settles the anguish of the baby.
When I've mentioned in passing about how the Modernist themes, as discussed by Josipovici, resonate with me in my project that is living my life, I'm thinking, in part, of this sense of discomfort. I think about modern life, the inexorable pressures of the capitalist system, the world that we bring babies into--where so little of, say, American life is amenable to children--and how all of this affects our perception of the options available to us as adults, stunted adults barely able to escape from a prolonged adolescence.

So much for a placeholder. More to come on this in the future, I hope.

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There is something to the fizzle itself

Marina Walker has a fascinating piece in the Times Literary Supplement about Samuel Beckett ("Babble with Beckett"; link via Light Reading). She begins by discussing Beckett's decision to write in French rather than English, which "illuminates his particular music and his turn towards silence". He "was finding his way out of fine words", wanted to write "without style". Yet he would have his simple characters utter rare and bizarre words, sending readers to dictionaries:
Beckett also sends his characters to the dictionary: in Krapp’s Last Tape, Krapp himself bundles a huge tome on to the stage to look up the word "viduity", another unfamiliar usage and one that allows Krapp to linger and savour it, turning the syllables round his tongue, assaying their precise weight and the associations that arise, and then finding, with a surprise that perhaps takes us into Beckett's own when he found this for the first time: "Also of an animal, especially a bird . . . the vidua or weaver-bird . . . . Black plumage of the male . . . . The vidua-bird!". Krapp recognizes himself, names himself by another name and so edges towards becoming that little bit more present to himself. Making a detour through French, Beckett was refreshing language itself, including his native Irish English, and effectively sharpening its sensory powers of precise naming.
As it happens, last Saturday we attended a performance of Krapp's Last Tape, at nearby Johns Hopkins University. Krapp was portrayed by John Astin, a Visiting Professor of theatre (and probably best known for his role as Gomez in the tv show "The Addams Family"). Krapp is an old man, alone. He spends part of the time listening to tapes he recorded at an earlier age. He was alone then too. We learn of paths not taken. There are, perhaps, regrets, though at the same time, he wouldn't undo what he's done, so he says. In the discussion after the play, one audience member in particular seemed fixated on the idea that Beckett didn't seem capable of "happiness". But there's happiness and then there's happiness. Krapp is alone, but he is alive. He has his pleasures. He delights in the word "viduity", as Warner points out, but earlier he lingers on the word "spool"--theatrically savoring, to himself, the sound of "ooool"--and he enjoys his bananas, taking pleasure in their shape, color, smell. As Warner puts it:
For not everything is fizzling out, and wind is not mere wind, at least not quite, or otherwise we would not feel the tragicomic involvement that Beckett inspires. There is something to the fizzle itself.

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The proportions of this work

In Search of Lost Time is, of course, famously long; our Narrator does not skimp on the space needed to elaborate on a particular point, nor does he shy away from lengthy digressions from the apparent narrative thrust. But, in fact, for Proust's needs, the narrative is only as long as it has to be, and no longer (I say confidently, having not yet finished reading it). Still, I'd like to think that Proust wrote the following line, from early in Sodom and Gomorrah, with a knowing smile:

"The proportions of this work do not permit me to explain here. . . "

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