12/8/14

Old Trunks and Papers

The French National Archives have mounted a show about collaboration, 1940-1945, and it couldn’t be more timely. The far-right parties, apparently on the way to general normalization and acceptance, are back at their old themes of “Vichy wasn’t so bad” and “cosmopolitanism is the death of France.” This exhibit, stuffed with artifacts and papers as you’d expect from an archive, displays all the pettiness, resentment, willed ignorance, infighting, cowardice and opportunism of those years. Lessons for the present are there for the taking.

A few reflections.

The authorities of occupied France and the “free zone” of Vichy put the Nazis in an unduly favorable negotiating position out of fear, because they had persuaded themselves that it lay in the Germans’ power to annihilate France, and it was a special mercy, for which the French should be duly grateful, that they had not done so. From this starting position, anything becomes acceptable. You want our foodstuffs? Well, at least it’s not our lives. You want our young men to work in your factories while yours are fighting the Russians? Well, at least you’re not drafting them directly. You want our Jews? How many? Would you take a few more? With their attitude of fear they made themselves absolute straw men.

The legal framework of Vichy stank (it has this in common with many contemporary governments). On the wall in one of the rooms of the exhibition is a two-page proclamation outlining the prerogatives of the head of the French State (chef de l’Etat Français). He commands the army and navy, names and retires ministers, receives the ambassadors’ letters of accreditation, decides the budget, and so forth. Signed: Philippe Pétain, head of state. (And he uses the royal “we”!) This is wonderfully nonsensical, because authority doesn’t generate itself: it can only be transferred from one source to another. Now a majority of the Assembly had voted to give Pétain full powers, which I suppose they had the right to do, but to see the consequence of having done so in this brief document is to watch tautology in action. One thinks of Emperor Norton. (If only all autocrats were as harmless as he.)

The Germans very cleverly kept not one, but multiple nationalistic parties going in occupied France, each with its charismatic leader, its panoply of badges, buttons, sashes, armbands, flags, etc.. All of these parties huffed and puffed about recovering the greatness of France, and doing it on their own (sc. without the help of “the Anglo-Saxons”); none of them had any chance of accomplishing this, and they all cancelled each other out. When one or another of these chauvinistic parties got too popular, the Germans would think of a way to decapitate it. They dealt with Jacques Doriot by getting him to go fight on the Eastern Front with a French volunteer battalion, making quite clear to any patriot that he was not his own man. (Doriot’s trunk and German army overcoat occupy an interesting place in the exhibit, staged in a plexiglass case from which they are visible from both the “micro-parties” subsection and the “fight against Bolshevism” section. Doriot, like so many fascist sympathizers, started out on the far left; he was elected as a communist in the 20s.) The “spoiler” technique is still relevant, as parties that decent people would not admit voting for nonetheless garner a big enough fraction of the vote to compel the two major parties to make concessions to them, not to mention the general strategy of frustrating all initiatives of the European Union.

Bad economic times drive people into fascistic patterns of thought. People are impoverished, unemployed, afraid, and they appreciate a good scapegoat. One room is full of appalling propaganda against Jews, appalling because it plays on the actual discomforts of the population and transforms them into anger. For example, a cartoon showing a fine, tall, slender young man who has just been demobilized after the armistice. He presents himself in an office populated by thick-lipped, hirsute, overweight Jews sitting on sacks of money; they tell him, “You’re looking for a job! You must be joking!” Now there were certainly a lot of idle demobilized young men in 1940-45, as there had been for much of the previous decade, but I doubt that obesity was much of a problem among the Jewish population of Paris at the time. Imagine walking down streets lined with such imagery, and having the kind of mind that would be persuaded by it: horrible. But of course today the anger of populations is still easily decanted into simple solutions. Those who think austerity programs are a necessary evil ought to have a good long look at this room.

Propaganda always treats the viewer as an idiot. But sometimes the visual style is especially brutal. After a while spent with these posters and leaflets, one can pretty well gauge the ideological direction of the cause by mere exposure to its visual rhetoric. (I have not yet been able to digest this sensation into a formula.)

Opportunism and compromise are fraught, mixed, messy currents. One reaches for the firm boundaries of evil and virtue. Look at Pierre Laval on the one hand, Jean Moulin on the other. But what is really instructive, not in the sense of providing dogmatic guidance but in the sense of reviving the perplexities of such times, is a case like that of Colonel de la Rocque, the leader of the Croix de Feu, another of the many nationalistic parties. It is true that the Croix de Feu marched around in an intimidating way, talked about banishing Jews (though they were willing to make an exception for those who had been in France for generations), and their leader stayed on good terms with Pétain until quite late in the war. So far, so fascistic-looking. But La Rocque tore into Pétain for his collaboration and in June 1940, at about the same time as De Gaulle’s London broadcast, came out with a speech urging French people to resist at any cost. It is also reported that La Rocque never lost his commitment to legality and parliamentary government, and when he had an opportunity to overrun the National Assembly, he told his troops to stand pat. Arrested and deported by the Germans, he came back home the day after V-E day, only to be put in “administrative detention” for another six months while the Resistance organized the new government. It does give the impression that La Rocque’s major crime, seen from the postwar perspective, was to have been an anti-Gaullist nationalist resister. If you want to understand what people were thinking, and how they were being swayed this way and that in that dark period, a case like La Rocque’s opens many cans of worms.

12/6/14

Victim Mentality

I don’t have anything useful to add to the outrage generally felt (in the nearer nodes of my social network anyway) about the string of recent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. I think Jon Stewart absolutely nailed it when he threw Fox News’s accusation back at them: the “victim mentality” is a fixture of conservative politics. Not only conservative politics, of course: playing the victim is a perpetual strategy used to turn the tables or motivate violence, and it’s particularly dangerous when the self-styled victim is in fact the more powerful party in an interaction. But do we have a good language for describing the parts of this role-play? It seems to me that the advantages of self-victimization depend on there being an audience, a third party deemed to hold the power of legitimation. (In the most frequent dramas of victimization and retaliation which it is my privilege to witness, the “third party” is the parents to whom small children appeal for recognition or swift justice: “He pulled my hair first!”) And that third party, ladies and gentlemen, is us: Public Opinion. We can’t do much directly, as drops in the sea of Public Opinion, but we can try to push the drops around us and form a current, so to speak, that would flow away from the themes and obsessions that make it seem OK for a white man with a gun to kill a black man on the slenderest pretext of feeling “threatened.” We are the grander grand jury, but thus far a disorganized and slow-moving one.

11/29/14

Unpacking My Imaginary Library

The French paperbacks that I used to buy always contained a little card from “La Maison des Bibliothèques,” rue Froidevaux, Paris. The card showed a wall covered with shelves all crammed with books, the commercial assumption being, if you were the sort of person who would acquire modern fiction in the collection “J’ai Lu,” you would sooner or later fall for the products of La Maison. I was a nomadic boy then, but used to imagine that one day I would have an apartment somewhere with walls covered with shelves, each shelf crammed with books, and me feasting my eyes on print as long as the light lasted.

Eventually, it happened. I had plenty of walls and got them covered with shelves, then packed the shelves with books, and sat reading day in and day out. That should have been the happy ending of the story– the closed circuit of desire– but no one can ever leave well enough alone. Now here I am thousands of miles away from those hard-won shelves, thinking about a book that contains a piece of information I need, complemented by a sheet of scribbled paper wedged in at exactly the page where that information resides. But thinking doesn’t make it come back; it’s a material thing, that scribbled note, and I can’t quite make myself think again the thought it contains. And from the book I surreptitiously glanced at in a bookstore today, hoping to substitute for the missing information in my all-too-physical book at home, there fell out a colorful advertisement for “La Maison des Bibliothèques.”

 

11/25/14

“A Lot of Wildness and a Lot of Construction”

As anyone who has had more than three drinks with me has already heard, I used to cut grass for Mr. Allen Tate in Nashville, Tennessee. He must have been in his middle 70s, I in my early teens. When I was done cutting the grass, we would sit on the porch with a glass of lemonade and Mr. Tate would tell me about Paris in the 20s. Not only that, but he urged me to read Baudelaire, the best literary advice I ever got.

For a number of reasons largely to do with his identification with the antebellum planter society of the South, Mr. Tate is not talked about much these days. So it was a surprise just now to run across this series of fleeting glimpses, the walk-on version of a literary life: “Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History.”

mareymotion

10/7/14

Ebb and wane

The penguin trudged up the beach at the end of the day like a tired commuter returning home.

The tired commuter returned home like a penguin trudging up the beach at the end of the day.

09/30/14

Meeting the Boss

And now for a word from our sponsor. Here is the Coffea arabica tree, just starting to bud. I owe these green leafy fellows more than I can say. O Kaffeebaum, O Kaffeebaum, the forest shade thy berries!

coffea-arabica

09/18/14

Announcing “Travel Pentimento”

For a fee, we will take away the unnecessary things you’ve packed (as you realize, having arrived at your destination and sized up the weather or the social expectations), fly to your closet back home, pull out the things you should have brought, and bring them back to you, wherever you are. How much of a fee? If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be asking.

09/15/14

Hard Cheese

Tim Parks is a man who is pissed off because he had to do the footnotes for his own book. Big whoop. “It’s all available on the Internet, so why give page numbers?” Answer: Do you know how many dead sites there are on the Internet? Do you know how many “big” sites we all relied on are either gone or will be gone? Do you know how terrible the Internet Archive’s coverage really is once you start trying to use it for something useful? Do you know how often the “redundant,” “distributed” cloud services like Amazon AWS fail? Do you remember when Google just dropped its news reader service, used by countless millions? You probably don’t, Mr. Parks. Books are the original distributed database, seeded throughout the world in “austere libraries.” Wipe out one library, burn one book, the rest are still there. So put in those page numbers, and STFU.

09/14/14

Childcare in the Mode of the Gift

“We recognize that all tamariki come to us with their own mana. As such, the mana of our tamariki will be respected and kept intact at all times and in all situations. We preserve their mauri and their wairua alike.”

Sign me and my tamariki up! And if it’s not an impiety to do so, list Marcel Mauss as godfather.

09/14/14

Thrown For a Loop

The disorientation of the first days in a new country is familiar. The vowels are different; the natives have their own ways of packaging yogurt; you don’t know how to pay for the bus; people around you are helpful, amused, impatient, or all of these. But to look up into the night sky and see different stars– that’s almost the stuff of science fiction.

09/6/14

The Hoax of the Hoax

I was bracing myself for a round of Sokal-ish denunciations of “theory” and its supposed empire after it was revealed that Slavoj Zizek had lifted some paragraphs from a white-supremacist publication in an article he published a few years ago in Critical Inquiry. But maybe it was summer (the equivalent of the weekend in national news) and nobody was noticing. Or maybe nobody cares enough to shout. Continue reading

09/5/14

Everybody’s Crying Mercy

A. If he had tweeted, “Condoleeza Rice. Justifying racism since 2000,” I hope you would have been offended, even if you don’t like Condoleeza Rice.

If he had forwarded a tweet that called for Nicholas Kristof to be stabbed in a dark alley, I hope you would recognize this as a threat to journalistic freedom, even if you think Nicholas Kristof is a bit of a bore.

B. If a Provost is groping around for a Value on which to build a free-speech doctrine that will exclude the harmful stuff and enable the good, “respect” is a terrible candidate for such Value-mongering. Every small-time bully goes around looking for “respect.” The Geocentrists are offended that Heliocentrism is taught to freshmen. The religious misogynists are convinced that the provision of gynecological services to adult women on campus is an affront to their need for “respect.” Everyone’s appetite for “respect” is infinite. There is no way such a Value can contain a check on tyranny.

What you should have done, O Provost in charge of speech policy, is enunciate clearly the kinds of speech that are not protected. Threats of violence or retaliation, expressions of group hatred, that sort of thing. You don’t want to have a chilling effect. Thinking and exchange can and maybe should disturb, if they are to be effective. But the “freedom” to bully diminishes the freedom of the bullied and corrupts the space of conversation. And you don’t want to give yourself an unchecked authority to decide what demands for “respect” are going to be honored, and which not. Unless that was the point.

C. Brothers and sisters in the profession, “academic freedom” is not “the freedom you have because you’re an academic.” It is the freedom to do and say certain things without fear of retaliation, in the service of teaching and research. One grants the distinction readily in cases of cheating or plagiarism– such people have forgone the academic purpose. I think it would be neither wise nor moral to grant ourselves special caste prerogatives. People resent us enough already.

 

08/31/14

Michael Toussaint Stowers

We at Printculture mourn the death on August 29 of our sometime contributor, questioner, joker, friend and all-round gadfly. If ever proof was needed that electronically mediated friendships can be as solid as those In Real Life, Michael’s many friends can provide it. Michael, we are hobbled without you.

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I met Michael at a conference at Cambridge where the remit was to show how the humanities and sciences could learn from each other. My piece was an attempt to reread Dilthey’s famous distinction between the natural sciences, which explain, and the human sciences, which interpret– and I forget what new spin I was trying to bring to the familiar chestnut. Michael came up afterwards and, in that quiet, diffident tone that in England usually signals that the speaker really knows what he’s talking about, confessed to being an engineer and raised a few questions about my talk, easily the best questions I got on that outing. We got into the habit of email exchanges about methodology, music, medicine, melancholia, and other marvels, and I’m proud that here on PC we occasionally said something that made him rush to his keyboard. He was someone I was counting on hearing from for many years to come.

08/29/14

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

While flying late this summer, I noticed while boarding that most of the passengers were frequent flyers, of the Gold, Silver, Platinum, Titanium, Molybdenum, Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby, and Peridot varieties. They all boarded first, followed by customers of various airline alliances, followed by people who had paid $21 to follow them, followed by the ragtag rabble such as myself. My brother, who just missed out on Platinum this year, has explained that because all the airlines have merged, all their frequent flyer programs have merged as well. This has the effect of creating a permanent underclass of infrequent leisure travelers. I suppose, if there is anything to be thankful for, it is that the airline I flew did not arrange for passengers to deplane in order of rank, as I would have surely died of apoplexy.

08/20/14

War Theology

Karl Barth was studying theology in Berlin in August 1914. He later recalled that

The actual end of the 19th century as the ‘good old days’ came for theology as for everything else with the fateful year of 1914.  … One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war-policy of Wilhelm II and his counsellors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. (Barth, “Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” The Humanity of God, p. 14)

The “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” was probably copied from press releases of the propaganda department. It strikes the usual notes of hypocritical humanism: no German soldier ever committed an atrocity, it was “with aching hearts [that they] were obliged to fire a part of the town [of Louvain], as punishment,” the “wild Russian hordes” are the real danger to civilization, and so forth. Anything bad you might have heard about the German armies is just a fantasy of the perfidious British and French propaganda units. Bits of it are still being recycled today, wherever the bullets fly and after-action press conferences are held. 

Here is the university library of Louvain, before and after the passage of the troops:

la-bibliothc3a8que-de-louvain-avant-lincendie1

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The main author of the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” (published apparently in October, not August 1914) was Adolf von Harnack, the historian of early Christian dogma, first president of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft (precursor of modern research institutions), etc., etc. Now a German professor of the nineteenth century had to be one of the proudest individuals on the face of the earth. His wife made him coffee; his adoring students poured him tea and copied down his every remark; he was the lord and master of his seminar room; he wrote books of never less than 1000 pages in order to confute his enemies; he went about in a silk hat and was addressed as “Herr Doktor Professor” or, if he had an administrative appointment, as “Eminenz.” If one was Harnack, one made a special point of insisting that no institution, no Church or State, could prevail against the demands of the individual conscience (see Das Wesen des Christentums [1902], pp. 171-172). Here is Harnack at the dedication of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft in 1911, walking on the left side of the Kaiser, in his silk hat:

Einweihung des Kaiser-Wilhelm-Instituts in Dahlem

A proud man, a fine man, a much respected man, but not, in this instance, a very courageous or independent man. Rather, he assumed that the wind was at his back and that everybody thought the way the General Staff thought.

So before signing a petition that all your friends are signing, pause to think about Adolf von Harnack. And about Karl Barth, who went back home and tried to live out his personal reading of the Gospels by joining a workers’ cooperative. (Lucky man, he had a Switzerland to go home to.)

schweiz

08/16/14

The Grey Lady Chooses Sides

It is a little disturbing when the Grey Lady chooses sides. In the old days, “without fear or favor” was the journalistic watchword, as was the adoption of whatever could approximate “reportorial objectivity.” But such things must have disappeared with the rise of “advertorials,” the general enmeshing of the news and financial departments, and the desperation caused by the implosion of print newspapers in general. For we see that in its coverage of the labor dispute at the Metropolitan Opera, the Times has become the unashamed mouthpiece of the Met’s director, Peter Gelb. It is just too bad.

To me, the conflict is very simple. The musicians, choristers, and stagehands are being paid wages which were adjudged as fair at the last contract negotiations. When I hire someone to fix my refrigerator, he charges me $100 for labor and we agree, that is the price of the repair plus parts. If he comes back two years hence to do the same repair, I might foreseeably pay him $125 for labor. But under no circumstances would I try to force him down to $75. That is ungentlemanly and likely to get me a knock in the head for my troubles. If I feel the impulse to plead poverty, I need to either do the repairs myself or consider putting the repairman’s fee toward the cost of a new refrigerator. Impugning the character of the repairman — claiming that he lives a life of ease and sufficiency and therefore neither needs or deserves his wages — is beside the point and should garner me another knock in the head.

The job of the choristers, musicians, and stagehands at the Met is to put on operas. This they have done with surpassing skill, no matter what dogs of productions Gelb throws at them. (I am thinking in particular of the most recent Ring Cycle, with an undulating, erratic, mechanical stage floor that seemed to have been designed by a defense contractor in terms of both its functionality and its cost overruns.) It is Gelb’s job to fill the seats and get the donors to write checks. If he cannot do this in a way that meets payroll, he has failed, and should get out of the way in favor of someone who can do the job. Sadly, the Met’s board has given Gelb’s approach a vote of confidence with a ten-year contract extension and millions in bonuses.

I imagine that looming in the minds of all parties are the events at the Minnesota Orchestra, which just barely survived a year-long lockout but only did so because the musicians had allies on the board. Even so, it has emerged in a weakened state, and might not have emerged at all. But instead of taking this to heart, both sides believe that they can play “chicken” with it. If a lockout comes, it will put a stake in the heart of the institution. Unless Gelb believes that he can transport the Met to Shenzhen and outsource the duties of the Met’s performers and stagehands to Foxconn, where they can be automated and/or performed by starving wretches who will rehearse for fourteen hours a day without food, that will be it. We will have to put our ticket money into CDs or a subscription to the Sirius Metropolitan Opera Channel, and relive the past instead of cultivating the future. What a prospect! And yet, through all this, the Times issues a sussurrus of rewarmed Gelb press releases and lets flow the voices of pundits who will tell you, as Necker once did, that the peasants are insufficiently taxed. The Times is the very voice of reason to the faithful readers who see it as their main source of information. When the Met falls, this will be laid to the workers. The alternative — that an equitable settlement will be reached — seems less likely daily.

08/14/14

The Black Box of Speech

– What’s in the box?

— Speech!

— Oh, that’s great. I love speech!

— Want to help me carry it across that border?

— Sure! And I know you were going to ask me if I wanted to see what’s in the box, but I love speech so much that I’m not even going to ask, to show you how much I love speech. Just tie that box right here, on the top of my backpack, and I’m off! See you later!

That is the role I feel I am being asked to play by many of my insistent friends who are outraged about the University of Illinois’ decision to rescind a job offer made to Stephen Salaita, previously an associate professor (thus, tenured) at Virginia Tech. The University of Illinois hasn’t made clear the specifics of the decision, and it’s unlikely that they will, since it was made at the level of the president’s office, and college presidents are permanently lawyered up and speak only through a mask of precautionary obfuscation. My pals are outraged at what they see as an anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli decision, an affront to free speech everywhere, an unconscionable attack on the principle of academic freedom, and have been making scabrous personal comments on the people who have spoken in favor of the decision. Obviously, as a tenured academic interested in free speech I am supposed to jump to the aid of Professor Salaita.

Except that I don’t know what’s in that box.

Continue reading

08/7/14

Cannibal Doctrine

From Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker I learn about the “Hannibal Doctrine,” a long-confidential directive in the Israeli army to let no soldier be taken captive. But not in the sense you might think (protect the troops at any cost, save Private Ryan, leave no man behind). Rather, an all-out attack is permitted, nay mandated, on any hostage-takers and their hostage, at the discretion of commanders in the field. This means, from the point of view of the average grunt, that you are quite likely to be killed by your own platoon if it looks as if you might be taken prisoner.

The doctrine was kept a secret because of its obvious bad effects on morale. Why go to war if the guys at your back are as ready to kill you, under certain circumstances, as the guys opposing you? But I want to think for a moment about its further effects on the army and its place in society. (In case you don’t know me, I’ve never been a soldier and have no credentials as a military historian. I just read history and think about how different societies are organized.)

Effect number one: the Masada complex. For a small number of soldiers, I guess, this doctrine– “better dead than a POW”– motivates them to all-out fighting and unconditional destruction of the enemy. Think about a high level of armament backed up by a suicide pact. To be affected by the Masada complex, though, you have to be powerfully indoctrinated: I am nothing, you have to think, except insofar as my life serves the State of Israel.

Effect number two: buyer’s remorse. For what is the problem about Israeli soldiers being taken captive? No one supposes they are treated like visiting dignitaries while being held, but the thing mentioned in the article is the public-relations problem that is caused for the army by the names and faces of captive soldiers being broadcast every night on the evening news. A source interviewed for the article acknowledges that the Hannibal Doctrine

sounds terrible, but you have to consider it within the framework of the [Gilad] Shalit deal. That was five years of torment for this country, where every newscast would end with how many days Shalit had been in captivity. It’s like a wound that just never heals.

So a moral calculus begins to come into focus. The death of an individual soldier, say Gilad Shalit, is weighed in the balance against the discomfort provoked in Israeli living rooms by five years of newscasts and found wanting. Perversely, sadistically, Hamas kept him alive. It would have been better, says this logic, for him to be killed right away. Better his family receive a terse telegram beginning “Greetings:” than that the army and the cabinet be pestered by citizens wanting to see Gilad Shalit released. Better that an Israeli life be snuffed out than that the government be seen engaging in negotiations with the enemy. If I were a young man in uniform, this would give me a very sour feeling at the pit of my stomach. A feeling that says, You stupid grunt, you’re worth nothing outside the purposes of the State of Israel.

Third effect: the corrosion of civil society. The Geneva Conventions and the history of custom leading up to them were meant to make war less hard on the fighting man. The founder of the Red Cross was led to his mission by seeing the wanton destruction of life and limb on a small European battlefield. For a long time there had been respect of the life and exchange value of officers; Geneva extended such protection to the enlisted man, a step consistent with the spread of democratic norms. Where there is a recognized status of prisoner-of-war, and a hope of decent treatment and return home (conditioned on acceptance of prisoner status), civilization wins a point even in the midst of war. Refusing to let the machinery of civilization operate even in this way, refusing to let one’s men be taken prisoner and to treat the prisoners one takes with the legal proprieties, enlarges the empire of barbarism. We all then move (as the US did in the 2000s) a step closer to the apocalyptic utterance of Conrad’s villain: “Exterminate the brutes!”

It’s been a long time since I was in Sunday School, but I seem to remember a certain monstrous idol named Moloch to whom the Hebrews were forced to sacrifice their children. Was Moloch’s only crime, in the end, to be identified with the wrong side?