C’est parce que, dans ce pays lointain et peut-être imaginaire, il se trouve quelques centaines de passionnés des lettres pour s’en entretenir comme cette bande d’énergumènes. J’ai bien dit “lettres,” pour souligner le fait que ces lecteurs emballés ne se confinent pas à la “littérature,” mais discutent (et bien) de la philosophie, de la théologie, des lois, de plusieurs époques de la littérature latine et grecque, pour critiquer comme des supporters de foot les choix et le calendrier de la série “La Pléiade” de chez Gallimard. Leur amour sans provincialisme des choses de l’esprit me fait revivre.
“If the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Back in the Watergate days, we used to hoot at that assertion, because we recognized it as a formula for dictatorship. And we’re a country of laws, not of men, or so said the civics textbooks. In our back pocket was the ultimate argument, the courts. And the Constitution, which with its separation of powers and brokering of functions, protected us from would-be dictators. We slept securely with that knowledge.
So Kennedy, the occasional swing vote on the Court, has retired. Within a few months– probably before the midterms– we will have to come up with answers to the slogan, “If the President does it and the Supreme Court condones it, it’s not illegal.”
The newspapers are all about the likely outcomes for Roe v. Wade. An important liberty was established by that decision, but not the only liberty. Let’s not forget what else might happen.
First, corruption, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the quashing of civil liberties, draconian anti-immigration measures and other devices to ensure an aging minority of very rich people retains the whip hand in this country. The Bill of Rights will be declared unconstitutional by a majority on the Court that won’t care about stare decisis, case law, controlling instances and other technical matters where law regulates itself (boiling down to such imperatives as “face the facts” and “be consistent”). The First Amendment will be reconstrued in ways that limit permissible speech and cripple the investigative powers of the press. The Second Amendment’s “well-ordered militia” clause will be reinterpreted restrictively, enabling the unlimited possession of arms by bands of irregulars, call them Tontons Macoutes or Siloviki, who terrorize the unarmed population in support of whatever the dictator’s hate campaign of the month is. And so on. If you want to know the future, look to Russia these days, or perhaps the Israel-Gaza relationship: an utterly asymmetrical power ratio between the rulers and a significant party of the ruled, and a lot of pillage going on with the approval of rubber-stamp courts.
But so long as there is enough to eat, five hundred channels of television, and some ongoing celebrity scandal, people will be cool with it, I guess. Those who aren’t cool with it are likely to put up resistance, and it will hurt. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, which is the deep reason for my belief in democracy and the separation of powers: they make it possible to mediate conflicts without the spilling of blood.
Further evidence that progress is a thing of the past: George W Bush’s Cabinet was full of Nixon-era revanchists. Trump’s is full of WWII-era revanchists.
— is not a good argument. It’s a Republican talking point, which in itself warrants suspicion. But more than that, it distracts our attention from policies to personalities. Obama was good in many ways, but he wasn’t perfect, and like any American president he let some terrible policies be enacted in his time. It was (and is) our job as the American public to let Obama and any successors know when things are going wrong and justice is not being served. Our job is not to cheer on the sidelines of some fantasized Obama-Trump or Hillary-Trump smackdown.
Disgust, ethologists since Darwin and Richet tell us, is an emotion rooted in self-preservation. You have an instinctive aversion to tastes, sensations, and things that are likely to be harmful. (The history of the concept by Wilfried Menninghaus is worth a read, though it’s definitely the work of a Germanist.) Moral disgust, I suppose, is the same emotion projected onto an ideal body, the body of laws, habits and conventions that make us an “us.”
I find the repeated experience of moral disgust to be corrosive, and thus undermining of the supposed original purpose of the feeling. But there’s no way to let go of it. Perhaps it will outlive me.
For hundreds of years, people who were unable to write attested their consent by scratching an “X” on documents they were unable to read. Why X? Why not A, or I, or O?
Of course, there’s the thought of the cross, which in Christian countries might stand as the sign of any individual.
I’ve long thought— perhaps whimsically— that the validity of “X” as a marker of intention comes from its intersection of two opposite lines. Anything, even a branch falling from a tree, can scratch a diagonal line on a surface, but to do the same thing in the opposite direction and have the two lines meet at a point bespeaks awareness and intent, which a judicially recognized signature aims to confirm. The second line of the “X” is supposed to be a minimal extra added on to nature, and once you’ve done that, you’ve started to act in the world, to “persist and sign” as they say in French.
I often think denouncing others from a position of self-asserted moral purity is a narcissistic way of engaging with an imperfect world. Here’s something from today’s Inbox that reminds me of how things can go askew. The allusion to current US policy is particularly well-aimed.
Lavengro: Scholar, Gypsy, Priest by George Borrow, first published in 1851, is a sort of autobiography, with sections that cross over into the domain of the novel and others that reek of polemic or lyric. As autobiographies go, it is as non-standard as Tristram Shandy, in its own way, is. We could not affix to it the subtitle Wordsworth gave his Prelude,“The Growth of a Poet’s Mind.” Nor could we see in it, as in Augustine’s Confessions,the steady underhanded working of Providence. Nor even the working-out of the destiny that matches a character, as with Rousseau. The narrative proceeds by chance events, coincidences, and one long-term addiction. Borrow’s first-person narrator is born into a military family in Norfolk and relocates again and again through the British Isles with the reassignments of his father’s regiment. The father is a conventional Englishman who honors King and Country and hopes that his son will find secure employment, perhaps in the army, perhaps in the Church, or as a clerk to a lawyer (Lavengro133). But the son is useless in any useful employ. His passion is for language. Posted to Ireland, his father’s regiment passes a couple of drovers who say something that makes a young officer ask, “Strange language that! What can it be?”
The legal argument in my title, articulated by late Roman jurists — “that the ruler is above the laws”– is one of the things we don’t believe in a democracy, and names a test American democracy is having to face. Not in order to fail it, I devoutly hope.
But at the moment I am perplexed by another kind of law that we seem to have abrogated in the favor of our clownish rulers: the rule that you should at least try to tell the truth, so as not to be despised by your community, and that you should try to make sense, lest you be classed as a fool.
To release your ruler, or your neighbor, from these obligations is to be in a very dangerous place indeed.
Take identity-rhetoric, virtue-signaling, competitive outrage, Twitter-forwarding, and stir. You get something like this mob action about a high school student’s prom dress as cultural appropriation. The funny thing? Qipao are not even Chinese. The qi 旗 in qipao 旗袍 means “banner,” indicating the Manchu origin of this item of clothing: a “banner robe.”
The Manchus, for those who are operating with a comic-book understanding of world history, are a semi-nomadic people from the grasslands of southern Siberia who invaded and conquered China by stages in the seventeenth century, founding the Qing dynasty which ruled from 1644 to 1911. They were organized into “banners” (qi) or military tribes. The nomad origin of the qipao is visible in its tight sleeves and split skirt (it probably would have been worn over trousers originally): both features you want in your robe if you’re going to be riding a horse and shooting arrows.
The qipao became “Chinese” only as a result of the imposition of the norms of a colonial regime. Yes, the Manchus had the same eye, skin and hair color as the Chinese. But they were deeply resented by Chinese under their rule and committed the usual colonial acts of brutality. How soon we forget.
Sometimes I wonder if the past few decades of work in science and technology studies have made any deep impress on the minds of people whose work is mainly in literature and the theory of interpretation. I don’t claim any special knowledge of STEM disciplines, just a steady curiosity and a readiness to appropriate any models that I find lying around, if they provoke a train of thought. For some years I’ve been annoyed by the repetition in my circles of lit-and-theory people of a couple of phrases that imply knowledge of how engineering and technology work, and yet say the opposite of what anybody who has ever changed the brakes on a bicycle or attempted to fix a faucet knows.
- “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde). To believe this, you would have to believe that the tools are essentially and permanently the master’s– that tools always and exclusively do the bidding of the person who owns them. And that is simply not true. If they are tools, they are available to do any job that lies within their technical affordances. Even if you wrote on a crowbar, “FOR EXCLUSIVE USE IN SUPPORT OF WHITE PATRIARCHY,” that wouldn’t scare off a feminist or an anti-racist who took a mind to dismantle some housing with it. Tools are tools; they can’t be brainwashed or threatened, only locked up, and locks (which are tools) can be picked (using other tools). In fact, I would suspect that the tools best suited to dismantling the master’s house are the tools that were used to build it. (One precondition: that the tools must be out of the master’s hands. But that’s not difficult: if you’re a master, traditionally you have subcontractors to do the sweaty work for you.) Or to step out of allegory: the high-end education that benefited those in power from, say 1492 to the present, is the most desirable education for whoever wants to restructure the apparatus of social power. Luddites please abstain.
- “Strategic essentialism” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). To utter this slogan is to invoke the touching belief that strategies always work– that the person who commands the strategy is in control of its means and consequences. And (see the paragraph about tools above) that’s not the case. Strategies blow up in the strategist’s face; they always have. They lead to developments that nobody anticipated. And if you think that essentialism is a bad habit of mind, an oppressive psychological trick, an error that generates endless other errors, then you shouldn’t adopt it selectively at moments when you think it congratulates you. I am sure there are a lot of people who keep a loaded pistol in the drawer “for self-protection.” Thousands of people every year discover that it was a bad idea precisely because the pistol meant for self-protection wasn’t aware that it was dedicated to that use, and behaved as if it were designed to kill three-year-olds. Do not make this mistake.
I have a long list of fantasies about technology that cripple literary scholars in their dealing, not with technology per se, but with the apparatus and infrastructure of their own disciplines. But let these start the parade.
From the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of Paris (Comptes rendus hebdomadaires de l’Académie des Sciences), vol. 45 (1891), 1496:
M. Antoine Cros presents for the Academy’s evaluation a paper entitled “The Teleplast. An example of the transformation of form into rhythm and vice versa. Transmission of shapes over distances, without transmission of matter.”
The transmission of images over the telegraph had already been performed by Bain, Bakewell and Caselli, and Antoine Cros’ brother Charles Cros had imagined using a similar system to send pictures to open communications with the denizens of Mars. I haven’t been able to find out much more about the Téléplaste, except that, characteristically, this advanced technological object was easily confused with mystical bla-bla involving the remote sensing of ectoplasmic entities.
In any case, the wheels may have turned more slowly in 1891 but they were moving.
I saw Isle of Dogs the other day and have been absent-mindedly following the press. Some viewers try hard to find something scandalous in the film’s use of Japanese culture. Does Wes Anderson exoticize, Orientalize, dehumanize Japan? Can we possibly get upset about something here? I find that after watching puppets move on a screen for two hours in a row, my own movements seem scarcely human to me, like the products of a painstakingly assembled but still slightly awkward stop-motion sequence. Perhaps being able to wield the term “dehumanizing” as an accusation isn’t a guarantee of moral magic after all. I’ll have to ask Viktor Shklovsky, or he’s not at home, Bertholt Mei Brecht Lan-fang.
You’ve heard the remark credited to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. You might not know that Tristan Corbière (1845-1875) was there first:
“Va: tréteaux, lupanars, églises,
Cour des miracles, cour d’assises:
— Quarts d’heure d’immortalité!”
In flat paraphrase, this would give something like: “Go ahead: the stage, whorehouses, churches, / beggars’ den, criminal court: — / Quarter-hours of immortality!”
It occurred to me the other night that the Brahms Ballade no. 2, as rendered by Glenn Gould in 1982, is a missing John Fahey composition, played on the wrong instrument.
Glenn Gould’s 1956 album of the Goldberg Variations– I’ve lived with that record for as long as I can remember. I also have Gould’s 1981 version, the thoughtful rather than impetuous one, but the 1956 record comes first. First chronologically, but (somehow) axiologically. When I hear other people play the score– accomplished artists with something to say– it’s as if every note comes marked with a little aside: “Glenn hit this one a little harder,” “Glenn sustained this one for a tenth of a second longer,” “Different from Glenn’s ornamentation,” “Glenn chose to bring out the tenor voice in this bar.” Not that I am a GG unconditionalist, but that’s the reference recording in my ear and brain, so help me Gould.
Now Sony has issued a 7-CD compilation of the session tapes that went into the making of the album, and it’s like looking into Flaubert’s manuscripts. Gould (23 at the time) put in long days at the studio, doing one take after another, trying out this way, that way, giving up after ten bars of something that he could see wasn’t going to be good enough, reminding himself of the bass figures, humming to himself (of course), going fast, then slow, with more or less attack, laying down competing tracks for later selection. You hear the variants that lay behind what was to become the canon. It’s like peering into the Language Module of someone’s brain, or a Borgesian library of permutations. And it’s like being in the house while someone practices Bach all day, which brings up some of the pleasantest memories I have.
One of the many reasons for unplugging from Facebook is the spectacle of many of my relatives avidly reposting falsehoods generated by Russian, Serbian and Montenegrin troll farms. They don’t seem to have the wit or energy to write up their own lies, but just push “Share” on items posted by nonexistent users like “jamesjo76415286,” “Survive Our Collapse,” “Sunday Gunday,” “@GenJohnKelly” (an acknowledged parody account) and “Kim Daskam.” Here’s how you relativize treason, by treating as facts a lie in multiple layers by the current occupant of the White House:
And here is how you make gun control sound like a bad idea: it “didn’t work,” supposedly, in the towns where a lot of black folks happen to live:
But an Ivanka Trump lookalike in a cowboy hat? Hell, give that girl a an AK-47 with a bump (heh heh) stock.
From an alternate universe in which numbers count for something, here’s a handy tally comparing gun laws and per-capita gun deaths. (Safehome.org.)
And here’s the international ranking:
For once, I’m not proud to see the USA as #1. (A roundup from Vox here.)
I’ve discovered that sending a friendly message suggesting that these relatives might like to check Snopes before posting doesn’t help– for them, Snopes is another liberal conspiracy, and there is no shame in being found wrong. As one cousin wrote to me, “You still believe Snopes? We don’t know anything.” If you don’t know anything, you aren’t responsible for anything, ain’t that convenient. So: The kid who shot 17 students at his former high school the other day did so, if you listen to some of my relatives, because Hillary bought him a gun and sent him out to use it, or because the FBI somehow set him up. There’s no abyss of stupidity too profound to be shared by these over-sharers, who somehow think they are saving the Republic by doing so. Team Trump over Team Truth!
Should I move to a cave in the mountains? Or am I already in a cave in the mountains and just don’t know it?
For example, a few days after the Parkland massacre, one of my relatives had this to say (or rather, repost):
So: the real issue, apparently, is not taking action to protect human lives. The important thing to do is nitpick about something Obama said, push the NRA’s long-discredited interpretation of the Second Amendment (“a well-regulated militia” was never about citizens’ right to resist their government), and cheer for upcoming civil war on our own territory. If a kid murdered people with an assault weapon, it was (a) somehow Obama’s fault, and (b) justified in the larger scheme of things, because if you disapprove of mass murder, you must have been brainwashed that way by Soros and the globalists. That’s what you might call some deep thinking from the world of suburban Southern white folks.
Another analysis shows you how my kinfolk work the moral calculus.
Fortunately, it’s just talk; but talk kills, with a little help from accompanying material factors.
At an editorial conference today, trying to get my colleagues to see the point of a piece I’d written with a small edge of polemic, I realized that the argument in the piece is a version of one that I’ve been making for twenty-five years, and it’s still not getting anywhere. Not for any lack of empirical accuracy or logical consistency (I’ve checked). People just don’t want to hear it. Though stubborn, I don’t expect things to improve.
Only twelve days into the new year, we have a Word of the Year. Hooray!
I confess to a fondness for the old psychology of the faculties, where neatly differentiated components like Sentience, Judgment and Will are labeled, articulated and shown to work like the parts of a pinball machine. Assume that these faculties are housed in distinct organs, like the ones down in the belly, and phrenology is the result. Within the disciplines of the mind sciences, this way of thinking is way out of date, just one step up from the homunculus or “little man inside the head” model. But if we adjust the scope to focus not on the individual brain, but on the organized group, it begins to make some sense; and since, as Vygotsky, Dewey and so many others tried to teach us, thinking is a social act, the transfer from mind to social practice is easy.
I think of the newspaper– the classic newspaper developed under liberal-democratic governance, in stages from around 1750 to just recently– as an example of faculty psychology write large. It is a way of organizing intellectual labor for certain ends and against certain defects. To idealize somewhat (so don’t object that this is indeed an idealization), you have the Fact department, the Editorial department, and the Business office. The Fact reporters are out there working the pavement and the telephone lines. What happened, who did it, to whom, how, why, and what happened next. The Editorial writers sit in their cubicles wreathing elaborate smoke rings of fantasized verdicts and futures around the odds and ends brought in by Fact. What does this mean, what must we think, if we accept this, what possible objection will be have against that, where are we going. The Editorial writers have no business intervening with the Fact seekers. If anything, the Fact people have the right to go upstairs and spike a story concocted by the Editorialists if it turns out to be based on no facts or an incorrect assessment of facts given. Meanwhile, the Business office is drumming up advertising and subscription revenue– autonomously, it is expected. It would raise a stink if a story reported by Fact or a view suggested by Editorial were to be swayed by considerations of Business (say, by a threat on the part of a major tobacco advertiser to pull their full-page cigarette ads if the paper goes ahead and prints a story about smoking and lung cancer). It would also raise a stink if the editor-in-chief decided that an important piece of reportage needed to be shelved because the readers wouldn’t like it. Of course, when I say I idealize, I don’t mean that such interventions across the boundary of “church and state” (newspaper slang for the division between news and sales) never happened. Of course they happened, probably all the time, and it’s a wonder that the Fact people ever got their jobs done. But when we find out about it, we’re scandalized, and we are right to be so because the large-circulation newspaper, purporting to represent facts as they are together with opinions reasonably arrived at, is a form of thought-processing, and its corruption is a menace to the general interest. “Corruption” in the circles I inhabit means the subornation of the fact and judgment processes by the business process– not the other way around. (I suppose there are hard-core monopolists who usually take corruption to be the production of untoward facts by people heedless of the bottom line. Such people tend to denounce everything newsworthy as “fake.”)
Compare this differentiated and constitutionally hierarchicized processing of news with the non-transparence of e.g. Facebook. You don’t know where the facts come from, who represents them, and the role of money-making interest in publishing them is completely obscure. Enough reason to refuse to pay the slightest attention to that channel.
And as a further thought on the differences between Mother Jones and the New York Times on reporting the Steele/Russia/collusion story: it seems to me out of place to blame the NYT as a whole for shoddy work. I know this brings satisfaction to some; I have often hated the Times’s stupidity in reporting on and instigating American murderous intent and action in Haiti, Iraq, and a few other places. It would be good to know– for the health of the Times and of democracy in this country– exactly how the decision was taken to report in early November 2016 that there was no news about collusion, when every indication since then has been that there was.