Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Total Everybody Always

How do you react to our slogan 'Total Everybody Always'? Have you at last understood that your miserable failure as an individual is proof that you pursue a lost cause? (Palinurus, TUG, 100)

Reading The Unquiet Grave over Christmas, I am now prepared to declare it the key text. It is at the root, somehow, of our present efforts. I make a pact with you, Palinurus—we have detested ourselves long enough...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Poem Beginning With a Line by Nicholas Manning

I do not like silent blogs.

(More later.)

Ecce Gubernator

Writers engrossed in any literary task which is not an assault on perfection are their own dupes and, unless these self-flatterers are content to dismiss such activity as their contribution to the war effort, they might as well be peeling potatoes. (The Unquiet Grave, part I, page 1)

Comment: we must remember that, however true these words may appear to us, they are proposed not as truth but as a symptom of a troubled mind. They are the expression of a man in whom "something is badly wrong". They channel the disillusionment of Palinurus, whom it is plausible to believe adandoned Aeneas—jumped ship. It is also, of course, a weariness over "the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes" (Hamlet 3.1.73-4), a phrase that I never quite know how to parse but feel confident means roughly, "right perfection wrongfully disgraced" (Sonnet 66, i.e., patient merit is effectively spurned by unworthy people). It manifests a contempt for a corrupt society that does not strive to perfect itself. But, for Connolly, it ultimately expresses the sufferings of a "core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within" (TUG, p. xiii). From within. I am not yet ready to accept that judgment, which concretely traces indignation over "the war effort" to some "private sorrow" (xiv).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Notes Toward Flarf's Khurbn

"No use for Stein to fly to Paris and forget it. The thing, the United States, the unmitigated stupidity, the drab tediousness of the democracy, the overwhelming number of the offensively ignorant, the dull nerve—is there in the artist's mind and cannot be escaped by taking a ship. She must resolve it if she can, if she is to be." (William Carlos Williams, 1930, "The Work of Gertrude Stein", Selected Essays, p. 119.)

"Science has done little to help the artist, beyond contributing radio, linotype and the cinema; inventions which enormously extend his scope, but which commit him more than ever to the policy of the State and the demands of the ignorant." (Cyril Connolly (Palinurus), 1944, The Unquiet Grave, part II, p. 54)

Flarf's Kopóltuš (7)

...that's where I have my life where I had it where I'll have it vast tracts of time part three and last in the mud my life murmur it bits and scraps

Samuel Beckett
How It Is, part 2, p. 51

The thesis that I'm trying to defend is that a Flarf poem arranges scraps found in the mud in accordance with a pattern or image that "takes over the seeing". That's where we have our lives.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Flarf's Kopóltuš (6)

Let's try to make a poem out of the roughed out materials from the last post.

when Serbs get mad, they talk about When Albanians get mad,

When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that a small town like Grace.

Stop laughing; I'm serious.

Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and smells there, even though I have to share a bathroom.

She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working

like they think ... I suggest that you keepp your dumb comments to yourself.

and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us.

That is, something like:

when Serbs get mad, they talk
about a small town like Grace.

Stop laughing; I'm serious.
Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages.

I pity her. They think 40,000 Americans
conceived in petri dishes walk among us.

I'm not entirely sure what this shows or proves, except perhaps that the search results do not determine the poem. After all, we are already making a rather different poem than the one made by Katie Degentesh.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Flarf's Kopóltuš (5)

Let's remove all overtly political effects. This can require drawing some interesting lines. For example, the act of "angering the Serbs" is a political one; but it is not necessarily political "when Serbs get mad". That's just a bit of cultural stereotyping. Let's, in any case, see what happens:

angering the Serbs; when Serbs get mad, they talk about "human rights" and "European integrations." When Albanians get mad,

When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that a small town like Grace. Wandering around the cemetery

the UN anymore, particularly since they elected Libyans to chair the Human Rights division. Stop laughing; I'm serious.

Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and smells there, even though I have to share a bathroom.

Sarah Palin… She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy Sarah Palin - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working

They should go there and do the fine job of building a nation like they think ... I suggest that you keepp your dumb comments to yourself.

we've gotten used to it human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us

OK. Next, let's remove all overtly poetic material:

when Serbs get mad, they talk about When Albanians get mad,

When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that a small town like Grace. Wandering around the cemetery

Stop laughing; I'm serious.

Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and smells there, even though I have to share a bathroom.

She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working

like they think ... I suggest that you keepp your dumb comments to yourself.

we've gotten used to it human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us

What are we left with?

when Serbs get mad, they talk about When Albanians get mad,

When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that a small town like Grace.

Stop laughing; I'm serious.

Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and smells there, even though I have to share a bathroom.

She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working

like they think ... I suggest that you keepp your dumb comments to yourself.

and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us

It is from these strophes that we will want to shape a poem. Now, having lost the reference to nation building, and used material originally situated in a comment on Sarah Palin, we are obviously not going to arrive at the same lines that Degentesh did. But we are learning something about how to recognize "the scraps of poems" that Jerome Rothenberg suspects are "left behind in the mud" after the khurbn.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Flarf's Kopóltuš (4): A Theoretical Interlude

Lemon Hound has an auspiciously named series called "How Poems Work". It reminds me a bit of Simon DeDeo's Rhubarb is Susan—especially with its focus on one poem at a time. Like Simon, it also has good taste; the poems that are examined in the series are definitely worth looking at.

But two recent posts on Flarf, at least, strike me as a bit too theoretical for the "how things work" genre. Ryan Fitzpatrick's post on Katie Degentesh's "No One Cares Much What Happens to You" begins with a quote from Baudrillard about "the ecstasy of the social". That's a perfectly interesting notion, of course, and the post is a worthwhile read, to be sure. But it suggests something more in spirit of a program of perception, i.e., what Bourdieu called theory. We are being told "how poems look" (one way of reading them) not "how poems work" (another way of reading of them).

In a different way, the same is true of Jordan Davis's reading of Drew Gardner's "Fixing a Real Phantom Limb". Again, this is a great selection for the series, but this time I'm much more hesitant about the reading itself. At the center (or at least near the middle) of the post, Davis emphasizes

the sense of responsibility and obligation that leaks out of the poem in places. Horney has written extensively of the trauma the ego sustains in the face of unreasonable expectations which it experiences as "shoulds."

This is something Davis sees in the poem, not something the poem does. We know this because he immediately grounds his interpretation in the work of Karen Horney, i.e., psychology. Indeed, earlier on, Davis offers the following:

Wide reading in the key psychology texts of the last midcentury -- Karen Horney, D.W. Winnicott, S.J. Perelman -- informs Gardner's therapeutic approach to the lyric.

We don't have to read this as a psychological theory of Gardner's work—being "informed" can mean many things—but this certainly looks more like a representation of a poet's intentions than the diagram of a poem's operations. We can call this Davis's Theory of Microdistortion in Flarf.

But I'm not being wholly serious. Nor is Davis, I suspect, and nor (certainly) is Gardner. To interpret "Fixing a Real Phantom Limb" as, say, a sequence of microdistortions that carries out (or even just "mimicks") an ego-therapy of the trauma of unreasonable "shoulds", is somehow, not really wrong, but just not really "getting it". Davis, I think, is putting us on, because Davis, of course, does really get Flarf. He's not telling us how flarf works, he is mocking how it looks to a particular kind of critic.

In fact, in both cases, it seems to me that the reading tells us much less about how Flarf works than it shows us how a particular critical apparatus breaks down in its attempt to read it. I'm pretty sure that Jordan Davis, at least, is producing this effect intentionally. And I'm not at all against making even an earnest attempt to theorize Flarf. (Tony Tost, whose thoughts on this I respect a great deal made such an attempt in Fascicle.) But I think there is a much more practical task for critics to undertake in relation to Flarf, and a more urgent one: to catch its kopóltuš red-handed. So far, I think we're still too preoccupied with the theoretical khurbn that is the proximal occasion of Flarf. Instead, we need to really reveal how the thing works. I don't claim have done that yet. But that, in any case, is where my earnesty is currently being deployed.

Flarf's Kopóltuš (3)

We know something about how Katie Degentesh's "No One Cares Much What Happens to You" was made. The title was taken from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test, parts of which were then "[fed into] internet search engines and piecing the poems together from the results pages" (The Anger Scale, Combo, 2006, p. 75). The materials I gathered earlier were found the same way (except in one case where I had to go to the source itself, though for ultimately incidental reasons).

It is obvious that part of the method (in this case) involves removing the directly MMPI-inspired material first (which ultimately appears in the poem only twice: as the title and in line 13):

No one cares much about angering the Serbs; when Serbs get mad, they talk about "human rights" and "European integrations." When Albanians get mad, ...

When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that no one cares much about a small town like Grace. Wandering around the cemetery ...

No one cares much about the UN anymore, particularly since they elected Libyans to chair the Human Rights division. Stop laughing; I'm serious.

Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and no one cares much about smells there, even though I have to share a bathroom. ...

No one cares about Sarah Palin… She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy Sarah Palin - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working ...*

They should go there and do the fine job of building a nation like they think ... I suggest that you keepp your dumb comments to yourself. nobody cares to ...

we've gotten used to it, no one much cares, human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us ...

This gives a first indication of what is meant by "Google sculpting". Here, in fact, the block is being, let's say, "roughed out" or set up for the finer work of finding the poem in the results. We are left with

angering the Serbs; when Serbs get mad, they talk about "human rights" and "European integrations." When Albanians get mad,

When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that a small town like Grace. Wandering around the cemetery

the UN anymore, particularly since they elected Libyans to chair the Human Rights division. Stop laughing; I'm serious.

Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and smells there, even though I have to share a bathroom.

Sarah Palin… She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy Sarah Palin - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working

They should go there and do the fine job of building a nation like they think ... I suggest that you keepp your dumb comments to yourself.

we've gotten used to it human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us

Next we are going to look through this to discern what Robert Duncan called a "jig-saw conformation of patterns of different orders ... a pattern of apparent reality in which the picture we are working to bring out appears ... a pattern of loss", an opportunity for kopóltuš.

*Like I say, this one was obviously not part of Degentesh's search for this poem, which was written long before anyone might have pitied Sarah Palin. I simply hadn't been able to find any other combination of "no one cares much" and "I pity her" when Google threw me this bone.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Flarf's Kopóltuš (2)

Here are some materials gathered using Google to set alongside the first six lines of Katie Degentesh's "No One Cares Much What Happens to You":

No one cares much about angering the Serbs; when Serbs get mad, they talk about "human rights" and "European integrations." When Albanians get mad, ...

When Codi asks if anyone has publicized the problem, Viola reminds her that no one cares much about a small town like Grace. Wandering around the cemetery ...

No one cares much about the UN anymore, particularly since they elected Libyans to chair the Human Rights division. Stop laughing; I'm serious.

Its all I can afford on my nursing home wages, and no one cares much about smells there, even though I have to share a bathroom. ...

No one cares about Sarah Palin… She is awesome…a regular person….which i ..... envy Sarah Palin - I pity her. The most humiliating experience a working ...

They should go there and do the fine job of building a nation like they think ... I suggest that you keepp your dumb comments to yourself. nobody cares to ...

we've gotten used to it, no one much cares, human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us ...

At least one of these samples, of course, can't actually be one of Degentesh's sources, but it was sufficiently flarfy for me to stop my search when I found it. More later.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Another Sentence Only Available (as of Now) on the Pangrammaticon

"If you believe in God then you believe in intelligent design."

I imagine it could serve as the starting point for an interesting engagement with Christopher Hitchens, who believes in neither, but would, I think, accept it. In fact, he might argue that since a belief in God commits you to a belief in ID, you should (on pain of being a complete ass about the origin of your species) reject the belief in God. As an argument against God, that's pretty solid rhetoric. But it is also a suitable argument for ID.

After all, atheists are not really opposed to ID "on the evidence" (as they claim) but as a point of faith. (I know that's become a trite jab in these discussions. It can't be helped here.) There can't be intelligent design because there isn't a designer, the argument runs. Whatever "evidence" you adduce for design is therefore illusory. But, leave aside evidence for a second, the really interesting audience for ID is not those who don't believe in God in the first place. It is those who believe there is a God and that evolution explains our origins.

What the hell kind of a position is that? I think it is fair to ask. If you're not going to let God explain what you are, where you came from, and why you are here, what's He doing in your doxy?

Good question?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Flarf's Kopóltuš (1)

Poetic composition, literally 'to find'.

Ezra Pound (SP, 95 fn2)

What I have always liked about Flarf is the arrangement of (obviously) non-poetic material for (undeniably) poetic effect. Katie Degentesh's "No One Cares Much What Happens to You" is a perfectly good example. So is Sharon Mesmer's "I Am Beautiful". The question I want to ask about these poems is whether they achieve their effect before the last line or whether they have become "poetic" long before that. At what point does the picture take over the seeing?

Or we might put it this way: at what point does the finding give way to a composing? At what point does what we have found become a composition?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Angry Kopóltuš

The ideas from my last post could easily be applied to Flarf—a poetry that might well be said to arrange items found in the mud. Ryan Fitzpatrick's reading of Katie Degentesh is a perfectly good place to start talking about this. I'll do that soon.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Khurbn & Kopóltuš

An idea which is, or ought to be, central to my thinking can be presented by bringing together a sentence of Jerome Rothenberg's with one of Robert Duncan's. In his preface to Khurbn, Rothenberg writes:

Our search since then has been for the origins of poetry, not only as a willful desire to wipe the slate clean but as a recognition of those other voices & the scraps of poems they left behind them in the mud.

Let us leave aside, if only for a second, the question "Since when?". Here's Duncan's contribution, taken from "Kopóltuš":

The figure of the jig-saw that is of picture, the representation of a world as ours in a complex patterning of color in light and shadows, masses with hints of densities and distances, cut across by a second, discrete pattern in which we perceive on qualities of fitting and not fitting and suggestions of rime in ways of fitting and not fitting—this jig-saw conformation of patterns of different orders, of a pattern of apparent reality in which the picture we are working to bring out appears and of a pattern of loss and of finding that so compels us that we are entirely engrosst in working it out, this picture that must be put together takes over mere seeing.

(I am relying on one of Ron Silliman's old posts. He provides a useful lineation of this "serpentine sentence". I have only removed his linebreaks.)

Khurbn means simply "destruction" in Yiddish. The back cover of Khurbn and Other Poems says "total destruction", and, as Rothenberg notes, it means specifically "Holocaust" in this context. "Khurbn beysamigdesh" means "Destruction of the Temple". I am, of course, no expert on any of this. Here's something I found "on the internet":

The spontaneously generated, circulated, and adopted name for the Holocaust among the survivors themselves was the Hebrew/Yiddish word "khurbn"—or, more specifically, the third "khurbn," the first and second having been the destruction of the first and second Temples.

"Total destruction" in the sense of the destruction of the signifying totality. There is apparently some question about whether even the Holocaust can be said to measure up against the destruction of the Temples in this regard. But it is, in any case, against precisely the catastrophic loss of meaning that the Kopóltuš may be proposed. Before the sentence quoted above, Rothenberg writes as follows:

The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry. They are an answer also to the proposition—by Adorno and others—that poetry cannot or should not be written after Auschwitz. Our search since then...

After khurbn, we might say, there is, in the first place, only the "mere seeing", vision without significance. A kopóltuš is a "picture that must be put together" to "take over" this "mere seeing", it is an arrangement of items (drawn from patterns in light and shadow, loss and finding) that occasion complex associations and, by this means ... by this means alone ... produces significance. If khurbn is total destruction, kopóltuš is elemental creation.

The poet, being human, "creates" only by arrangement. Significance is produced, not "out of nothing" (ex nihilo) but from "scraps left behind in the mud". The origins of poetry.


I just read Jane Gregory's poem in Absent 3. You should too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz III

The present crisis means the end of liberal capitalism, the economic system which emphasized the individual profit motive, and marks the beginning of a new economy which stresses collective interests.

Benito Mussolini
October 4, 1934

Good government is the proper administration of the nation's energies. This includes both a stewardship of natural resources and the organization of the labour force. But it must also include the administration of the nation's intelligence. A national leader can have an important effect on the quality of thought in his realm.

Pound admired Mussolini, in part because he was "the first head of a state in our time to perceive and to proclaim quality as a dimension in national production" (SP, p. 200). What is interesting, at least to me, is Pound's focus on work. (Emery quotes Lincoln Steffens: "And the [Italian] people did go back to work, and they worked as they had not worked before.") In Detroit at the moment the problem is not a lack of demand for cars, nor a scarcity of labour, nor a scarcity of resources. What is missing is simply money (in the unfortunately usurious form of credit). What is missing the means of bringing the available energies together in production.

"Liberal capitalism" prevents the coordination of available means of production in a quality product. At one extreme, it makes it unfeasible (because "unprofitable") to provide a sculptor with a sizable chunk of granite, a space in which to work, a time freed from worry about what to eat and where to sleep. At another, it supports "the production of pointless artifacts [like plastic back scratchers] that seem justified because people can be gotten to buy them" (Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, p. 303-4).

It is the "quality of the affection" that counts (Canto LXVII/480). The nation's energies must be coordinated to this end. The leader presides over an affection.

Good art does not result directly from sound fiscal policy. But "the arts" depend on good government. Under the contemporary "liberal capitalist" order there is an "unemployment problem". You can of course still write a good poem. But it is unlikely to enter cultural life and contribute to "the arts".

In 1937, Hemingway believed that fascism was the only system of government under which a writer could NOT work. In 1933, Pound almost believed that ONLY fascism could provide the appropriate fiscal and monetary framework to support the arts. Somewhere between granting every aspiring writer a lifetime stipend and shooting anyone who would put pen to paper we find Pound's "decent fiscal system", which would ensure that "the few hundred people who want work of first intensity could at any rate have it" (SP, p. 199). That same system would ensure that there was money to pay people for really productive labour.

"WOT IZZA COMIN'? // I'll tell you wot izza comin'/ Sochy-lism izza comin'" (Canto LXXVII/ 478). Or some other vortex of political passions.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


From the author note in my copy of Ulysses: "But he soon gave up attending lectures and devoted himself to writing poems and prose sketches, and formulating an 'aesthetic system'."


When it crashes, the aircraft
is alone. It just falls.

Night is a species of dust.
Governments cannot alter.

The technique is easy
to master. You enter into it.

E.g., when the plane hits the
ship. They are together.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Desire is Not a Lack

Laura breaks it down for us:

Intensity craves a surface, a place to believe from, a language....

Pangrammatically, of course, "a place to believe from" is always "a way into desire" (and/or a way out of desire?). So we learn that our experience of desire is always an intensity craving its surface.

Pangrammaticism immediately allows us to construct the philosophical homologue. Our experience of belief is always a clarity seizing its appearance. (Something like that.) Clarity seizes an appearance, a way into desire, a language....

Desire is not a lack; beliefs are not held.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz II

The effects of social evil show first in the arts. Most social evils are at root economic. I, personally, know of no social evil that cannot be cured, or very largely cured, economically. (E.P, "Murder by Capital", SP, 199)

Make Love, Not War was, let us say, Propertius's slogan. Pound contributed an intervening "fiscal" policy. Once we realize the importance of the financial system (the system that manages the circulation of money and credit) we can understand the pivot between love and war, viz., the slogan's pun on "making" (poiesis). There is a sense in which one "makes" war and another in which one "makes" love. But can these senses be brought together—so that a trade-off becomes meaningful?

I bought Clark Emery's Ideas into Action (University of Miama Press, 1958) because Allen Ginsberg said it had helped him to understand Pound's monetary theory. Here's one such helpful passage:

In Pound's estimation, bad poetry and social disorder are the results of misgovernment. And misgovernment may be defined as that in which the rulers misuse the wealth of the state. The Medici had made a reasonably good start (see Canto 21); learning and letters flouraged under their patronage. But the time came when their banking practices deteriorated—when, specifically, they began to lend money to the princes for their wars, instead of making it available to the mass of people who produce goods. (p. 32)

The state may choose to finance production or destruction. We could also say that it can choose between building productive capacity or producing destructive capacity.

The bailout plans and stimulus packages that are being discussed these days will ultimately lean one way or the other. It may either make credit available to the "mass of people" who, not only produce goods, but do most of the love-making, or it may be distributed to "the princes" who very definitely make war. We have just gone through eight years* of the latter, in which virtually the whole global economic order has been driven by the need to finance military operations. We have been making war, not love.

Much turns on the difference. The immediate issue of money results in a corresponding national debt. But will that debt be "secured" against future production or imminent destruction? Hopefully Obama understands the forces implicit in these kulchural basshuntz.

*It's of course been longer than that. 60 years. 160 years. Whatever. I'm talking about a specific military operation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz I

Autobiography if you like. Slovinsky looked at me in 1912: 'Boundt haff you gno bolidigal basshuntz?' Whatever economic passions I now have, began ab initio from having crimes against living art thrust under my perception. (Ezra Pound, "Murder by Capital", SP, p. 200-1)

I'm not much for biography, actually. But in this case the date (i.e., pre-1920) is important. It situates Slovinsky's remark (his real name was Henry Slonimsky, an old classmate of Pound's, see also Canto 77/483) in Pound's "aesthetic" period, before Mauberley. We assume that Slonimsky had (accurately) noticed that Pound didn't take much of interest in politics at that time.

So, in 1933, Pound, who was now not only interested in politics but was also a declared fascist living in the Duce's Italy, phrased the question as follows:

What drives, or what can drive a man interested almost exclusively in the arts, into social theory or into a study of the 'gross material aspects' videlicet economic aspects of the present? (SP, 198)

That is a good question. The short is answer is that Capital turned out to be an utterly incompetent patron of the arts.

Pound says specifically that scarcity economics is to blame for the paucity of the "bureaucracy of letters"; I am sure we could add the labour theory of value. These theories were part of the "specific and tenacious attack on good art ... which has been maintained during the last forty years of 'capitalist, or whatever you call it', ci—or whatever you call it—vilization" (SP, 201).

Concretely, Pound blamed "maladministration of credit": "The lack of printed and exchangeable slips of paper corresponding to extant goods is at the root of bad taste" (SP, 199). He wrote this, like I say, in 1933:

There is no reason to pity anyone. Millions of American dollars have been entrusted to incompetent persons, whose crime may not be incompetence, but consists, definitely, in their failure to recognize their incompetence. I suppose no pig ever felt the circumscription of pig-ness and that even the career of an Aydelotte cannot be ascribed to other than natural causes.

This what American capitalism has offered us, and by its works stands condemned. (SP, 200)

I suppose it's been all lipstick since then.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz (trailer)

"nothing counts save the quality of the affection" (Canto LXVII/480)

"It is perhaps only now that these disagreeable phenomena can be traced to maladministration of credit." (E.P., "Murder by Capital" SP, p. 199)

Dropping the H-Bomb on Obama

"We can't be lulled into complacency. You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany. I'm not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I'm saying is there is the potential of going down that road."

Paul Broun

As someone who has been using the Mussolini trope from the beginning to understand Obama's appeal (for me), I'm in a poor position to be outraged at this statement. I have actually heard rumblings even from very liberal Americans much earlier in the campaign. Some had attended his rallies and were genuinely concerned about how Obama was able to make them feel. George Clooney told Charlie Rose (someone added very cheesy music to this) that Obama is the kind of man he'd follow anywhere, a real leader. Mainstream European journalists could not entirely conceal their mental associations of the DNC with the Nuremberg rallies. Etc.

Here's Norman Mailer's prelude to his assessment of Kennedy:

It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradictions and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of a nation; a hero embodies the fantasy and so allows each private mind the liberty to consider its fantasy and find a way to grow. Each mind can become more conscious of its desire and waste less strength in hiding from itself. Roosevelt was such a hero, and Churchill, Lenin and De Gaulle; even Hitler, to take the most odious example of this thesis was a hero, the hero-as-monster... (PP, p. 42)*

I think it is safe to say that Obama has a pretty firm hold on the American imagination at this point. That gives him a particular kind of power that Bush has never had. And look at what Bush was able to accomplish. So the worry is a real one, and the only hope (I'm afraid) is that Hitler was not all bad, i.e., that his "heroism" (better: heroics) and "vitality", his power, could have been used for good—that his fantasy only incidentally became a monstrous reality.

*I think it is worth emphasizing that Norman Mailer here, in 1961, before Kennedy's election, in an article that he himself believed contributed to Kennedy's victory, but only 16 years after the end of WWII, is comparing Kennedy to Hitler. And Hitler to Roosevelt and Churchill. I don't think the remark stirred any public outrage. (If anyone knows of some, I'd love to see it.) Keeping the full argument in view: note that Pound wrote a pamphlet called simply Jefferson and/or Mussolini.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Presidential Presser

"His style in the press conferences was interesting. Not terribly popular with the reporters (too much a contemporary, yet too difficult to understand ...), he carried himself nonetheless with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause. ... There was a good lithe wit to his reponses, a dry Harvard wit, a keen sense of proportion in disposing of difficult questions ... Yet there was an elusive detachment to everything he did." (PP, 45)

Back in Kennedy's day, public officials would hold press conferences with their mistresses at their side. The journalists simply wouldn't comment. The press conference itself would not be transmitted or recorded in its entirety. The journalists would filter out the parts that were to remain between the official and the journalist.

So we're seeing an important difference in the rhetorical conditions faced by Kennedy and Obama. But we're also seeing a real difference in style. Kennedy was "too much a contemporary, yet too difficult to understand". Obama, who we must say is well-liked by reporters, is also a bit too contemporary. In fact, he may be younger in spirit than most of the Washington press corps. He may even be less square.

But this will get him in trouble it seems. Jon Stewart could never be president because he would not be able to detach himself from a comedic resonance. Once the word "living" had been (inadvertently) emphasized, popular culture sends you looking for a reference to the occult. As it turns out, the White House is associated with the occasional séance. (Hillary Clinton is said to have conducted one or two in her time.) Obama could have left it at that. He could even have said, "Unlike some of my predessors..." But he accidently (and apparently wrongly) took a good-natured, chummy-with-the-press-corps jab at Nancy Reagan by name.

In the room, that would not have been a problem. But on "national TV" it looks terribly mean. (Jon Stewart is not on national TV in that sense: he's got a "demographic".) If he had been Kennedy, it would have remained between Obama and the reporters.

I like this gaffe because it explains why Obama reads prepared statements so often. When he's in public, he's exposed. More so than presidents have been in the past. As a symbol of this, remember that he held his acceptance speech behind bulletproof glass. I found his delivery too detached. He did not connect with his audience, he did not share his feelings of victory with them. He did not, finally, seem happy. But he had also just felt, I think for the first time, the full chill of his Secret Service protection. It descended on him like a cheese bell.

Off his script, Obama spoke not like a late-night talk show host but like a Harvard professor who watches late-night talkshows and tries to be funny in the classroom. "If one had a profound criticism of Kennedy it was that his public mind was too conventional, but that seemed to matter less than the fact of such a man in office because the law of political life had become so dreary that only a conventional mind could win an election" (PP, 49). So we must hear about the puppy (has anybody thought compare this theme to Checkers?), but, it must be granted, in a manner supported by a pretty crisp sense of irony. There is something cooler about a president who likes to talk about basketball than one who likes to talk about football, but it's still sports. It's conventional.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Presidential Papers

It is increasingly clear to me that the Obama presidency offers (and threatens) something very much like the Kennedy presidency. This clarity is coming mainly from rereading Norman Mailer's The Presidential Papers in the light (or afterglow) of Obama's victory. Consider the following snippets:

It has long been the thesis of this self-appointed Presidential advisor that the FBI has done more damage to America than the American Communist Party.

J. Edgar Hoover has done more to harm the freedoms of America than Joseph Stalin.

Mailer did not imagine that Kennedy would agree with these statements, not even in private. His hope for the Kennedy presidency was simply that these statements would not be meaningless in Camelot. It is not difficult to construct contemporary corollaries:

It has long been the thesis of this self-appointed Presidential advisor that the Department of Homeland Security has done more damage to America than Al Qaeda.

Dick Cheney has done more to harm the freedoms of America than Osama bin Laden.

(The parallels aren't perfect: Michael Chertoff is not as much of a character as J. Edgar Hoover.) Thinking about the Obama/Kennedy parallels is helpful to members of my generation because we don't understand how abhorent the notion of "communism" was in the early sixties. (Witness how flat the "socialism" and "Marxism" charges fell.) But to suggest that Cheney is worse than Osama bin Laden!

Mailer's point was that if such sentences could be uttered in the polity ... that a literary rogue could write them did not mean anything ... if they could enter political discourse then it would "create a new psychological reality" that would be "closer to history and so closer to sanity". "It was Kennedy's potentiality to excite such activity that interested [Mailer] most."

Well, I feel that way about Obama. He will never say such things, or even think them ... he knows not to go there. But under his administration we will be able to think them. And this, as Kierkegaard would point out, is more important than whether or not we can say them with impunity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Ground Game

Given the make up of his potential advisors, we're in for a long uphill battle. So let's drop our illusions and start organizing, beginning with a discussion of what "organizing" even means in today's political climate.

Joshua Frank

DISTINGUISH between fascism which is organization, with the organizer at its head, to whom the power has not been GIVEN, but who has organized the power, and the state of America...

Ezra Pound

I'm almost afraid to suggest it. But there seems to be reason to believe that if Obama had lost the election he would still have been able to run the country. By the time the polls opened, Obama had all the relevant billionaires and warlords behind him, and he had the better part of the nation's energy and intelligence organized "on the ground". At that point he didn't need the Office to change America. America had already changed. He could simply have ordered a March on D.C. I'm not saying he would have; I'm simply pointing out that he probably could have.

By the same token, in his acceptance speech, I had hoped (knowing better) that he would tell his legion of volunteers to return to the neighbourhoods they had canvassed, this time not as campaigners but as those fabled "community organizers". That he would inspire them to keep up the work "on the ground" instead of thinking of their work as over. One might argue that he sort of did. But he could have been much more direct. The joke about the legions of now-aimless Obama supporters walking the streets like zombies or flaking out on the couch (there's an Onion video to this effect) captures some of this mood. Obama built up an organization around a purpose that seemed endless. Then it strangely ended.

Is it Year One in America? Anno I E.S. (l'era di speranza)?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Superman Returns to the Supermarket

The night Kennedy was elected, I felt a sense of woe, as if I had made a terrible error, as if somehow I had betrayed the Left and myself. It was a spooky emotion. In the wake of the election, one thing was clear—the strength the Left had been gaining in the last years of Eisenhower's administration would now be diluted, preempted, adulterated, converted and dissolved by the compromises and hypocrisies of a new Democratic administration. And so I began to follow Kennedy's career with obsession, as if I were responsible and guilty for all which was bad, dangerous, or potentially totalitarian within it.

Norman Mailer
Postscript to "Superman Comes to the Supermarket"
The Presidential Papers, p. 61.

I just googled the title of this post and it seems to be, well, mine. "In this moment..." I think there is a lot to learn from a look back at Mailer's obsession with Kennedy. And by the same token (as this little snippet already suggests), we might learn something from Pound's infatuation with Mussolini. I'm as excited as the next guy about what might happen tonight. But there really is a danger implicit in all this excitement. At least, the One Himself acknowledges the problem:

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Towards the Odes

(Talking Points) Memo to Norm Coleman: "having a private businessman pay for your clothing is never a good idea if you're a public official".

This made me think of Pound's translation of the Odes (75):

Live up to your clothes
we'll see that you get new ones

There something here that also applies to Palin: "we'll get you new clothes," let's say, "in the hope that you live up to them."


(To spike that tonic.)

"People in Europe had better wake up; that silly romantic illusion they have about Obama is going to be suicidal." (Webster Griffin Tarpley)

Tarpley (book here) is as admirably nuts as Chomsky is disturbingly sane.

McCain Conceding?

Maybe it's more tragedy, if we can see it that way. But McCain's appearance on SNL looked to me like he was conceding defeat. The joke about his campaign strategy that they didn't make: "If that doesn't work, I'm going to make a desparate, last-chance appearance on Saturday Night Live." It had absolutely no purpose, and no effect other than to make him look like a clown. Somehow the saddest part of this was the opening skit. I feel the need to point out that I saw the relevance of the "television salesman" joke weeks ago.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Aunti Zeituni

This story, and especially Obama's denial of any knowledge (and of course involvement), reminded me of Canto XIII.

And they said: If a man commit murder
Should his father protect him, and hide him?
And Kung said:
He should hide him.

And Kung gave his daughter to Kong-Tch'ang
Although he was in prison.

It is of course unthinkable in today's political environment that Obama might admit that he knew she was in the country, and that he did not turn her in. But would we really have expected him to do that?

There is still a need for Confucius.

The Craft of Hope

Building on my last post, which pitted a "masterful" Obama against a "tragic" McCain, I want to say something about the aesthetics of politics. (In an important sense, the Pangrammaticon is not "political", just as it is not "scientific". It traces science and politics back to their immediate presence in experience.)

Bismarck defined politics as the art of the possible. In that light, one should, perhaps, not be surprised to find one of its major artists today pursuing a tragic vision. If he loses, he can be considered a failed artist of his own possibilities. But even in failure an artist retains his dignity (even his loss of dignity can be construed as tragic!). While "possibility" conjures up a somewhat wonky technicity, "art" gives the pursuit a nobler aura. (Bismarck's pith depends on this collision.) Thus we do not call McCain a "failure" but a tragic destiny. A man of character who struggled with his contradictions and went down in that struggle ... in one sense, so we would not have to. He sacrificied himself for his art.

In Obama's case, the opposite is true. His message is not the measured real-politik of possibility, but, the, yes, "audacious" promise of "hope". But he somehow does not get carried away. Obama has redefined politics in a way that will take us some time to understand. It is no longer the art of the possible but the craft of hope. His sobriety lies not his message but in his method. His message rocks.

Just to nail this down: for contrast, consider McCain's somber message and scrappy method. And what I have just said is, of course, very much in line with McCain's critique of Obama's "eloquence". The point is that the immediate political problem is aesthetic. Its substance, right now, really is secondary. Perhaps it always has been; we just feel it more intensely right now. Our polity must regain a sense of style.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Mastery and Tragedy

Ben Stein and Arianna Huffington, working together on Larry King Live, come up with an excellent characterization of the race. It is the struggle between mastery and tragedy. Ben Stein calls Obama's campaign "masterful", Huffington calls McCain's a "tragedy". That may be why we are all so sure that McCain will lose (it's in the nature of tragedy for the hero to fall) but are at the same time worried that Obama will not win (mastery does not guarantee victory).

On another note, I think Stein was right to say that Huffington's balking at the "idiotic" Wallace comparison was "incredibly insulting". She thought she was supposed to be scrappy (I don't know if that has anything to do with being a "Greek peasantgirl") and simply, as Stein said, wasn't listening. Pointless squabbling. Stein was being a gracious and, genuinely saddened loser. Her polemics were unseemly, unnecessary and had, interestingly, no sense of the tragic.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Joe Biden: Greatest Hits

This is a truly convincing argument for Joe Biden:

I wonder if seven competetive minutes of Sarah Palin could be assembled. (That's not just a rhetorical question.)

Update: Here's a grasp at the azure:

Too Much Information?

“Campaigns tend not to worry about overkill,” [says Ken Goldstein]. “Campaigns, by definition, are overkill.”

I was worried about this "infomertial" from the first time I heard about it. Both candidates were basically trying to get through the debates, not blow it, if you will. Well, now Obama, who is doing fine, is putting up a half hour target in which he will either have to say something that will have questionable appeal, or come off as saying nothing for half an hour. Granted, I believe he is up to the challenge. But he's normally risen to occasions that were forced upon him. Now he's just going out there and risking it for ... well, yes, I wonder ... for the fun of it? What is he trying to prove? What does he really stand to gain? Hopefully, the show itself will answer these questions.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


"The European reaction to Obama is a European delusion ... This whole election campaign deals with soaring rhetoric, hope, change, all sorts of things, but not with issues."

Noam Chomsky

Here's a video interview on this theme.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Scandal: McCain Has Given No Thought to What He Will Say at His Inauguration!

Politico brings us one the most ridiculous non-issues on the campaign trail. McCain thinks it is laughable that Obama may already have a draft of his inaugural address somewhere in his files.

Of course Obama is working on his address. He hopefully works on it every week, thinks about it every day. Has been since he became interested in politics. McCain, I guess, does not. This is yet another example of, not only the lack of intelligence in the McCain camp, but the complete absence of any sense of what thought is. A man who is running for president is always drafting his inaugural address. That's how he thinks his position through. An intelligent man does this in writing (not just in daydreams).

The fact that the Obama compaign believes it has to deny the rumour ("not one word has been written") is, of course, not encouraging. It says something about how silly this race is getting. In his introduction to Advertisements for Myself, Norman Mailer said he had been spending the time since he published his first book "running for president in the privacy of [his] own mind". He was, ridiculously, accused of being arrogant.

But surely we are not suprised that Obama has been running such a private campaign, long before his public one? Surely we hope he has considered the possibility that he might have to hold an actual inaugural address. "If I win," said Mailer of the New York City mayoralty primaries in 1969, "I am in trouble." He, of course, was a maverick.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

McCain Flavour?

I like "Whirl of Change" for Obama. But wouldn't "Crunchy First" have been cleverer for McCain?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Amateur, Armature, Armchair Finance Pundit

Here's a pretty simpleminded idea that I think might be right. Since 1995 we've seen a number of asset-price hyper-inflation bubbles. Basically, various classes of assets have gotten very expensive, very quickly. Then, suddenly, they have become cheaper.

Right now the markets are crashing. While commodities may continue to get more expensive, hard assets (like real estate) will fall in price. Those with the money to buy will be able to snap up some bargains and end up owning a lot of stuff. This is familiar stuff.

Here's my thought. If you sell something when the prices are high, you've got a lot of cash. The normal thing to do is to lend that cash to someone else in order to earn interest on it. (Holding on to cash is generally unwise because it loses value. You should "put it to work" as they say.) People willing to lend out money: that's what we suddenly ran out of. The credit markets "froze", remember?

A lot of reasons have been suggested. But what about this one: suppose there was widespread anticipation among the super-rich of an asset-price collapse. If you know there's going to be a lot of cheap stuff lying around to buy soon, you hold on to your cash. In fact, holding on to your cash (as you know) contracts credit (thus the money supply, in at least one sense) and decreases demand. As demand decreases, prices fall further.

You keep holding on to your cash. Prices plunge. Your money becomes worth more and more. And then, when the economy is in ruins, you buy. Suddenly you own half the world.

Or all of it. The amount of "fictional wealth" has been growing at a staggering rate. There is much more money floating around than real stuff to buy it with. (Because so many assets have been, as they say, "derivative".) It is conceivable that a small group of very rich people (maybe 1000, maybe a 500, I really don't know) will soon have enough money on them to buy, well, yes, everything. Prices just have to fall to their natural levels (or maybe a bit further.) And that seems to be happening.

Yes, I'm just thinking out loud. Any thoughts?

Creative Class

In a letter published Tuesday in the Alamogordo Daily News, Stirman wrote that she believes "Muslims are our enemies." Stirman [56, an interior decorator],told The Associated Press in an interview: "I don't trust them at all. They've sworn across the world that they are our enemies. Why we're trying to elect one is beside me."


For some reason, I would have expected greater sophistication from an interior decorator. Probably because of something I thought I overheard someone say Richard Florida had said at some conference one time in answer to someone's question.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

For Fairness and Balance

People, like me, who are enjoying Sarah Palin's gaffes (if that term even covers it), do well to reflect on the double standard their enjoyment is based on. Campbell Brown has pointed this out head on; Kirsten Powers has worked on the problem from the other end.

There is something more vital about Biden's vanity (if that term even covers it), but I'm open to the idea that I just give him more credit up front.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Election Note

(I'm not sure election blogging is becoming of the Pangrammaticon, but I need to put these thoughts down somewhere...)

Sarah Palin: I'm like John McCain with bling on, I'm complex.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Obama's Labour Theory of Value

In St. Louis, Barack Obama raised a good question: "Do we simply value wealth, or do we value the work that creates it?" Once again, we can take this out of context and agree with his critics. Maybe he really is a socialist! (Why that's a plainly bad thing we don't really understand here in Europe.)

But I've noticed something else, which goes deeper. I get the sense that Obama is really trying to foster conditions that will allow the individual American to work his or her way out of the crisis. That's real hope. And it's fundamentally American (as I understand it). The stimulus package that is being discussed is designed, I think, to ensure that there is work (the source of value) for as many people as possible and that this work ensures the circulation of sufficient cash, even if this will have to go mainly to bare necessities. Families will have to make do with less, but not so much less that a bit of hard work for a couple of years won't get them through.

Under McCain, I fear, Americans will get the sense that they will have to wait for initiatives stimulated at the top (even on Wall Street itself) to trickle down to them. Under Obama, they'll tighten their belts, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In Defense of Milan Kundera

Here's a perfectly good statement of the charge. For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume it's true. The Economist suggests that it's a mild offense because he was acting out of more or less desperate self-interest. Others have proposed it's mitigated by the very opposite: that he was acting out of conviction.

I want to suggest a simpler defense: he snitched on a traitor. I think it's important to keep in mind that he was not informing on an internal dissident, i.e., someone who may have been stirring up trouble under an assumed name, or organizing civil disobedience, or distributing pamphlets. Dissidents are serving their country by opposing it from within. Informing one's state about the activities of one's own countrymen in trying to change it is contemptible in the usual way.

But Miroslav Dvoracek seems to have been working for a foreign spy agency. I think that's an altogether different matter. There is a big difference an American who thinks Hugo Chavez should be treated with respect and one who sells secrets to the Venezuelan spy services. Even if you are one the former, informing on one of the latter is a perfectly respectable activity. And that remains true even if you were right about Chavez.

Conversely: suppose Chavez is a garden variety dictator. I would respect dissidents working against him within his borders. But I don't think people who start working for Venezuela's enemies are necessarily worthy of the same respect.

I haven't thought the Kundera case through yet; this is just a first observation.

Friday, October 10, 2008

TPM: Sit Down With the Thugs and Talk

There are no contradictions, only degrees of humour.

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari

I think these remarks are dead on.

We use the Brits because they've done this stuff a lot. They've sat down with thugs throughout their history, including us in our early days, I suspect ... a point we never miss an opportunity to remind them of.

This sense of not just an "imperfect union" but an imperfect world, this (for lack of a better word) sense of humour, which Obama and Petraeus seem to share, gives me a strange kind of (not at all tranquil) hope for life in the Empire during the Obama Adminstration.

(PS I'm only just starting to realize the profound service to the citizenry that Talking Points Memo is performing.)

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Ownership Revolution (improved)

To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.

Ezra Pound

I'm quite proud of this version. I think it gives us a good sense of the rhetorical tradition (or at least one rhetorical tradition) from which Obama gathers his unconquerable flame.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Well, Kirby was right. "They both did fine," Mickey Kaus tells us. I fell asleep before the debate started but, like the first Obama-McCain debate, I got up very early to check the post-debate chatter. Once again, not as a dramatic as one had hoped.

CNN identified the "Say it ain't so, Joe" line as a canned sound bite she was waiting to use. I think they're right about that. Actually, she blew it by saying "Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again" turning into a reference to anothers (at the time appearantly) improvised jab. You can feel her coaches cringing. "'Say it ain't so, Joe,' would be a good line," they might have said to her, "Sort of like Reagan's 'There you go again'."

Of course, the canned line may have been simply, "It ain't so, Joe," which she was supposed to use to correct him on some important fact. That would have been a campaign-changing moment. That coaches may have said: "Say, 'It ain't so, Joe'".

To her credit, it looks like she knew she flubbed it right away. She ends up rambling, seeming somewhat distressed. And, as some people have noted, the views on education she presents here seem very liberal. Almost a gaffe: "Her reward is in heaven"??? As she was talking her way through this she reminded me of someone, and then I realized who it was: Edna Boil.

I know that isn't fair at all. But that's what she began to sound like to me.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Pre-Palin-Biden Debate Theory

Watching Joe Biden and Sarah Palin talk about the Supreme Court, a thought struck me that might make the basis of a pretty good conspiracy theory. It's now clear that McCain's pick was not very well thought out. In fact, it seems clear that he picked his running mate as a PR stunt. McCain can't really have cared how good a vice president she would make, and certainly had not given any thought to how she might do as president. It just seemed like "the ticket" somehow. A way to win the race. At the time, a way to get through the next couple of months.

By contrast, Obama might have been a bit worried about how well Biden would "play" in the campaign. Would he stay on message? Would they look good together? How many gaffes would he make? But there is no doubt that Biden will make an excellent vice president. He can also do a good job as president.

It's interesting, actually. There may be reasons he could never get himself elected, but if he should be needed to step in, I don't think anybody really doubts his judgment. And after serving in an Obama administration for eight years, his electability could change. There's a critique of democracy implicit in that fact: being the right guy for the job may only be tangentially related to your electability. Biden proves that point in one direction. Palin may prove it in the other.

Or she may not even come close. And that brings me to my conspiracy theory. Trust in politicians, pundits like to say, is at an all time low. In fact, nobody really knows how to take politics seriously. ("Jon Stewart is a America's greatest journalist.") Obama offers hope that politics can be serious stuff, full of gravitas, real leadership, etc. But there's a part of all of us, I suspect, that doubts, sometimes, whether Obama is really any different than all the other politicians we don't, finally, trust. Just as there is a part of us that Obama, sometimes, brings to tears.

Enter Palin. When the American electorate chooses Obama and Biden over McCain and Palin they will do so conscious of what they did NOT want. They have an opportunity to have a serious politician in the White House and to reject an obvious show pony.

Watching Biden and Palin talk made me realize that I think Biden is an intelligent, serious, knowledgeable, politician. I believe him when he says he talks to conservative scholars who are friends of his. Because he's a serious person. He's interested in culture. He's not just a lazy, lying, bag of scum. An Obama-Biden administration will be trusted. It will be the Camelot that Kennedy never had a chance to prove he couldn't run.

If I were pulling the strings behind the scenes, my aim for the 2009-2017 administration would be that it restores trust in Washington. In fact, by rejecting the bailout, Congress has also won a bit trust from me (not that my trust matters). They said a lot of sensible, honest things along the way. They're showing character, seriousness. It would break my heart to discover that all this was just for show, that my favourable reaction to Biden was carefully constructed in some back room and that the Palin pick was all part of the plan.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

J.A. on the Bailout

A national bank of deposit I believe to be wise, just, prudent, economical, and necessary. But every bank of discount, every bank by which interest is to be paid or profit of any kind made by the deponent, is downright corruption. It is taxing the public for the benefit and profit of individuals; it is worse than the old tenor, continental currency, or any other paper money.

Now, Sir, if I should talk in this strain, after I am dead, you know the people of America would pronounce that I had died mad.

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 1811

(Adapted by E.P. in Canto LXXI, p. 416)

[Earle Davis notes that, in Jefferson's opinion, "The National Bank mortgaged public taxes for private gain" (Vision Fugitive, p. 123).]

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The New Cartoon Crisis?

"Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:"

Irony is sometimes tragic in its proportions. Some of you may recall that when a group of ambassadors from Muslim countries asked the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to do something about the offensive cartoons that had been printed in a major newspaper, he said that he would have to stay out of it. The PM can't go around criticizing the exercise of free speech.

Well, this morning we can read the Prime Minister's review of his perhaps most famous caricaturist, Roald Als, who has collected his cartoons in a book. Apparently our PM can participate in the media hype surrounding a book launch, by offering some good-natured ribbing for the occasion. In his review, he thanks Als for sharpening his "brand".

I think this is outrageous. When foreign ambassadors object to the sense of humour expressed by a national newspaper, instead of denouncing the cartoons (like many other Western leaders), our Prime Minister condescendingly explains to them that "in a free country" the nation's leader cannot comment on the editorial decisions of the press. But when it's not the sentiments of unwanted foreigners that are at stake, there is apparently no problem. Here he even notes (i.e., criticizes) the cartoonist's bias towards Anker Jørgensen, a long-reigning social democrat from the recent past.

But there is something even stranger, even more embarrassing. Als has a copy-writer and "sparring partner" named Poul Einer Hansen. Funny thing about these two white guys: Als affectionately calls Hansen his "nigger". Fogh notes this in passing, chuckling along with them between dashes. And Politiken (the newspaper that publishes both Als's cartoons and Fogh's review, and is the publisher of Als's book) gives this word a prominent place. The editorial summary of the article mentions it. And it is used under the illustration of the cartoonist and his n...

Argh!!! I know a lot of my countrymen will object to this outburst. He didn't say "nigger", he said "neger", they will say, arguably translatable as "negro". I leave it up to you to decide whether my translation is correct.

Though it is not entirely out of circulation, it is an outdated expression. It is offensive because ... and it is surprising that this needs explaining ... it makes a joke of slavery. Our blindness to this is one of the interesting and unfunny effects of the layers and layers of irony that serves as a kind ersatz national culture in Denmark. (Kierkegaard's first major work, his masters thesis, let us remember, was called On the Concept of Irony).

Let's see how it works here: One very white guy (Danes are ethnically very, very white) says, "He's my neger," referring to another white guy. At the first and most literal level, it means "he's my black guy". Since he's white, that's, you know, "ironic". So what truth is he expressing with this falshood? Well, he's obviously saying "He's my slave". But that's "ironic" too because, you know, there's no slavery in Denmark. One level further down, then, he's saying "he's my little helper; he does what I tell him to do; he's an obseqious little friend". But, no wait, he actually has great respect for him and they are equal partners. Okay, so that is ultimately what he meant.

In this age of political incorrectness there is that last irony. Isn't "neger" a racist term? Oh yes, the stock answer goes, of course, but racism is obviously wrong, so when we use racist terms we "must be joking". In this case everyone is careful to put that little word in scare quotes every time it is used. Sorry, my fellow Danes, this just ain't good enough. Our irony has become a "heavy-headed revel east and west" and we do better to honour our custom for it in the breach.

Thine evermore, whilst this machine is to him,

PS In a hundred years we will no doubt praise the moderation of our friends by calling them "Muslim". We are, sadly, to the manner born.

[Update: I am told that one established sense of "neger", especially in journalistic circles, is "ghostwriter", i.e., someone who does work for which someone else takes credit. It can be argued that this usage is based on an implicit critique of slavery. Als is not saying (with irony) "he does what I tell him" but (with somewhat less irony) "I take the credit for his efforts". There is still something unfunny about this, though. And certainly something unbecoming of a prime minister.]

Monday, September 29, 2008

A.G. on the Bailout

"So what Pound is pointing out is that the whole money system, banking system, is a hallucination, a shell game, and he's explaining the structure of this hallucination and going back historically, because the structure changes from bank reform to bank reform era."

Allen Ginsberg
April 26, 1971
(Allen Verbatim, p. 175)

[NOTE: The Fed has traditionally been lender of last resort to commercial banks. On March 18, 2008, it "ripped up its rule book" and made itself lender of last of resort also to investment banks. At that time I vaguely felt the nature of money changing. The "hallucination" felt, you know, different. A new banking era. On September 17, the New York Times could announce that "by acquiring almost 80 percent of A.I.G. in exchange for lending it $85 billion, and holding $29 billion in securities once owned by Bear Stearns, the Fed is now becoming the investor of last resort as well." Welcome to the ownership society. Like the man said, You are on ... your ... own.]

Saturday, September 27, 2008

E.P. on the Bailout

"employing means at the bank's disposal
in deranging the country's credits, obtaining by panic
control over public mind" said Van Buren
" [...] giving nomimal loans on inexistent security"

in the eighteen hundred and thirties

"on precedent that Mr Hamilton has
never hesitated to jeopard the general
for advance of particular interests."

Canto XXXVII (p. 184)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Now We're Talking

"I’m talking about sensible analysis by prominent, mainstream economists and other experts explaining that a market economy in which profits are private while losses are socialized is, well, not a market economy at all but a socialist or corporate-fascist state." (Peter Klein)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Why Heidegger?

I have been asked to explain why I take Being and Time to be "a crucial pivot point above all other philosophical texts (Wittgenstein excluded)". It is a very good question that is related to this curriculum suggestion, which I have been thinking about for some time.

What makes Being and Time and the Philosophical Investigations pivotal like few others (if any)? I chose them because they make an important contribution to our understanding of modern language, and are themselves important moments in the development of modern thought. They are also, and more importantly, inexhaustible sources of literary pleasure.

You go back to them again and again and each time you learn something about thought and language. Other texts, you get through. But not these. In fact, I'm always skeptical of people who say they are trying to get "beyond Heidegger". How far did Heidegger get with Being and Time? How far did you get in your reading of Being and Time? In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Heidegger's own attempts to get beyond himself are ridiculous. (As a person, Heidegger may well have been ridiculous. So was Wittgenstein.) He hadn't even let anyone try to understand him before he was profoundly undertaking his "turning". A turn I believe I have thoroughly deconstructed in paraphrase.

You don't get "beyond" these works. You use them to improve your understanding of thought and language. Another work that has the same quality is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Before announcing that Kant was profoundly wrong, we should acknowledge everything he got right on the surface of things. That precision is what makes modern thinking possible, whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not.

Heidegger and Wittgenstein themselves, arguably, got "beyond" Kant. But mostly they understood what Kant understood. (Heidegger seems to have learned it by reading Kant himself. Wittgenstein may have found some other way.) We can't know how far they got until we acquaint ourselves with their work in detail. That's what the curriculum I propose is designed to do: to acquaint students with the basis of philosophical insight.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Obama as Anti-capitalist

"We have an economy that is creating hardship for families all across America."

I know he didn't mean it like that, but here's a sentence that, when taken out of context, gives me the audacity to hope that an Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez can talk like civilized people (rather than lipsticked Orwellian pigs?) after the former is elected and the latter resumes normal diplomatic relations with the Empire. Obama of course meant that the current state of the economy, not the state-capitalist economy as such, creates hardship for families. But I'll take what I can get in this age of phony outrage.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fascism is Complicated

Fascism was a more complex phenomenon.
Gianni Alemanno

The arts have a complex relation to society.
William Carlos Williams

When I inaugurated my project of "kulchural studies" I knew that at its core was a rethinking of fascism. Also, that this rethinking would have to engage with what is clearly, I think, a renaissance of fascist thinking globally. More certainly, it would have to engage with the intensification of global conditions that are conducive to a fascist renaissance.

Today, I find myself sympathizing with the fascists; specifically I find myself agreeing with Gianni Alemanno. Given choice between the proposition "Fascism is an absolute evil" and "Fascism was a more complex phenomenon" it is difficult not to choose the latter. This from a strictly intellectual point of view. The first is not an occasion for thought, and we really do need to think seriously about fascism.

Alemanno offers the following elaboration:

Many people joined up in good faith and I don't feel like labeling them with that definition. The racial laws desired under fascism, that spurred its political and cultural end, were absolute evil.

What more could we ask of a reasoned position on fascism? It was complicated; there were perfectly good reasons at the time (say, 1925) to prefer it over the alternatives; and it was brought down by its own petty hatreds, which, if you insist, were absolutely evil.

The idea that if you want to say something nice about fascism you shouldn't say anything at all is, well, a sort of fascist one, in the pejorative sense of those who might say it. It simplifies important aspects of a complicated phenomeon.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Metaphysics of Sitting

One of those titles looking for a "book-length project". Consider also, Groundling, or The Metaphysics of Sitting. Kantians will get it. Right up there with the Critique of Pure Riesling. Which was once a real wine and now seems to have become a book.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Unsolicited Application for Speech Writer to Barack Obama

I would love to be one of Barack Obama's speech writers. It would give me some practical experience with the theoretical link between poetry and politics, the "ethical stickiness" of poetry, to use Kasey Mohammad's phrase.

I've actually got some experience already. I once rewrote Bill Clinton's inaugural address here at the Pangrammaticon, and I'd like to get this job before something similar happens to Obama's eloquence. It's less likely, so I'm not really worried, I should say. But I'd like to be part of the solution. In fact, I didn't really think I had anything to contribute until I saw this:

In this video, Obama says:

This campaign is not about Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or John McCain. It's about your hopes. It's about your dreams. It's about what is possible when

a new generation of Americans stand [sic] up and say [sic]

we are not going to settle for what is, we are going to imagine what might be.

The line breaks indicate brief faltering pauses, where he seems to be looking for words. Now, it was probably ad-libbed, not read off a teleprompter and we should keep that in mind. It probably did not undermine his momemtum at the time. But here is what he should have said:

This campaign is not about Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or John McCain. It's about your hopes. It's about your dreams. It's about what is possible when a generation of Americans stands up and says, "This country has to change!"

Notice what happens when the "generation of Americans" is made timeless (dropping the "new") and when its desire is expressed as an imperative demand rather than a refusal to do one thing and a promise to do another. What do you say? Do I get the job?

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The word "thought" does nothing to define task of philosophy. The philosopher's task is not "to think". For, in that case, the philosopher would necessarily be thinking for others, and that is an absurdity.

We think for ourselves or not at all.

The philosopher brings us from the thought to the concept.

Likewise, it is not the task of the poet to feel. The poet brings us from the feeling to the emotion.

Thinking and feeling are not goals; they are experiences to be avoided. We are often forced to think and made to feel, that is true. But this is evidence only of the darkness of the world and the cruelty of history, our own confusion and the viciousness of others.

If our concepts and emotions were more precise, our thoughts would be clear and our feelings intense—at the limit, invisible, impalpable.

Feeling is a blockage in action, thought an obstruction in perception.

When you feel happy, your happiness is at an end.

When you think you are wise, you are not.

These are platitudes.

It is the task of philosophy, not to think for us, but to free us from thinking. It is the task of poetry, not to feel for us, but to free us from feeling.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Marcus and Zizek

Kasey has drawn our attention to this somewhat silly interview with Slavoj Zizek. At the Toronto airport, I picked this issue of Harper's off the shelf, initially for the cover story. I bought it, however, because of this piece by Ben Marcus, which I think is worth reading alongside the Zizek interview. As an added bonus, we have Gabriel Gudding's poem about time pieces.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Emotional Notation

Tearing your shirt open, you drew my attention to three dogs in a knot. This served to show how something general can be recorded in unpedigreed notation. I pointed to a bench by a willow, from which we could see the gas tanks across the river, because I thought a bench was a simple possibility: one could sit on it.

Rosmarie Waldrop

"Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten," said Wittgenstein. The German verb "dichten" means "to make a poem" (as Pound and Bunting noted, it also means "to condense"). One ought really to concentrate philosophy, to thicken it.

I think my distinction between "conceptual notation" (philosophy) and "emotional notation" (poetry) is very clearly exemplified by the difference between Wittgenstein and Waldrop. There is so much they do that is similar (not surprisingly, of course, since Waldrop used Wittgenstein as a model), and the difference is simply that Wittgenstein was noting concepts, while Waldrop is noting emotions. Writing them down.

"Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition," renders Peter Winch. Well, perhaps poetry ought really to be written only as a philosophical composition. But what is the verb? A verb like "dichten". See, that's the struggle. Because what was it ever to "make" a poem? Poiesis. To make as such.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

New Prose and Poetry

Returning from Canada's bookstores, I'm looking forward to my reading as the days get shorter. I now finally own a copy of The Pound Era and, on Ben Lerner's recommendation, Rosmarie Waldrop's Curves to the Apple. I've already enjoyed several pages of these books very much.

I also found an old copy of Irving Layton's prose collection Taking Sides, which allows me to tell a story from a few years back, when I was first looking for it. I had forgotten the title, but found (I think) Fortunate Exile in an online catalogue, which I thought sounded like a likely title for a book of Layton's prose. I called the bookstore to ask whether it was prose work. The girl on the phone asked me to hold on, she would check.

"Yes," she came back saying. "Great," said I, "I'll be right down to pick it up." And off I went. When I arrived I discovered to my surprise that Fortunate Exile is an ordinary book of ordinary poems. "Excuse me," I said, "but didn't you say that this was a book of prose?" "It isn't?" "No, it's a collection of poems." "Yeah? What's the difference?" she asked cheerfully.

Her colleague, standing beside her, now chuckled. When she looked at him imploringly he said, "You're on your own here, babe." I did my best to explain what prose is. Citing examples and saying, as I recall, something about the writing reaching all the way out to the right hand margin.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


"We're here," said Kurt Vonnegut, "to help each other get through this thing. Whatever it is." Well, yes, and whoever we may be. What "it" is varies with who we are supposed to help "get through" it. As the editors of Octopus long ago noted, our task may in fact be to, as Jerome Rothenberg put it, "take a squad out to the woods/& beat them." Whoever they are.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hugo Chavez

"They are paying us back with cows!"

My sympathies lie with the Bolivarian revolution, I confess. I don't have much of an argument, but do please note the way Hugo Chavez says the word "cows" at 3:05 in this clip.

The Kant of Passion

I just like the way that sounds.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Brief Note on Dictatorship

It does not seem obvious to me that the first or even most important political task that faces the citizen of a nation that happens to be a dictatorship is that of bringing about a democratic form of rule. It strikes me as perfectly plausible that such a citizen may pursue any number of fully political objectives within the framework of a dictatorial system. The freedom available within the dictarship may be greater than that available wihtin the most likely democratic configuration.

This idea can also be applied in foreign policy contexts. Why do we suppose that the citizens of dictatorships would prefer a war of liberation to their current system of rule?

Democracy and Dictatorship

Like most people, my immediate reaction to Pound's support for fascism was to let it count against the former. My "kulchural studies", however, have led me in another direction. At this point, I am willing to let Pound's support for fascism count in favour of the latter. As always, I want to emphasize that I'm exploring a line of thinking. My mind is by no means made up.

My topic this morning is dictatorship. In Pound's "ABC of Economics", there is a section headed "Dictatorship as a Sign of Intelligence". Here is a striking example of something that was possible to say in 1933 that is virtually nonsense today. All the more reason to try to understand what he was saying.

"The best system of government, economically speaking, is that which best balances [products, wants and needs, transportation, and money], be it republic, monarchy, or soviet or dictatorship" (SP, p. 231). The spirit of this neutral-sounding "be it" can be found throughout Pound's pre-WWII writings. Pound, like Lewis, sees democracy as one possible form of government and dictatorship as another. Neither are to be judged on principle, but in practice.

Today we have grown used to dismissing "dictators" as illegimate rulers of nations. And yet we might find ourselves agreeing also with Mussolini's statement, quoted by Pound: "We are tired of a government in which there is no responsible person having a hind name, a front name and an address" (SP, p. 231).

It seems to me that democracies and dictatorships differ, in principle, only in the form that resistance to the state is supposed to take. Depending on who happens to be in power, citizens may have much greater freedom in a dictatorship than in a democracy. But while citizens of a democracy are expected to express their discontent mainly at the polls, in the press, in various forms of "demonstration", the citizens of a dictatorship (lacking such means of expression) must register their disapproval by direct disobedience.

That is, dictators are expected to coerce their citizens to act in accordance with their will, while the democratic populace is expected to acknowledge the legitimacy of the government in general, do as it is told (while objecting in word only), and replace the government at the next possible convenience. The two forms of government, then, differ mainly in the context they establish for "the art of being ruled" (Lewis's term).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Kindred Spirits

In 1927, Buckminister Fuller was bankrupt and his wife had just given birth:

With no job and a new baby to support, Fuller became depressed. One day, he was walking by Lake Michigan, thinking about, in his words, "Buckminster Fuller—life or death," when he found himself suspended several feet above the ground, surrounded by sparkling light. Time seemed to stand still, and a voice spoke to him. "You do not have the right to eliminate yourself," it said. "You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe." (In Fuller’s idiosyncratic English, "universe"—capitalized—is never preceded by the definite article.) It was at this point, according to Fuller, that he decided to embark on his "lifelong experiment." The experiment's aim was nothing less than determining "what, if anything," an individual could do "on behalf of all humanity." For this study, Fuller would serve both as the researcher and as the object of inquiry.

Reading this in Elizabeth Kolbert's illuminating piece in the current issue of the New Yorker (June 9 & 16, 2008, p. 67), I was immediately reminded of Borges's "capsule biography" of Benedetto Croce:

In 1883, an earthquake that lasted ninety seconds shook the south of Italy. In that earthquake, he lost his parents and his sister; he himself was buried by rubble. Two or three hours later, he was rescued. To ward off total despair, he resoved to think about the Universe—a general procedure among the unfortunate, and sometimes a balm.


In 1899, he realized, with a fear which at times resembled panic and at other times happiness, that the problems of metaphysics were organizing themselves within him, and that the solution—a solution—was almost imminent. He stopped reading and dedicated himself to the vigil, pacing across the city without seeing anything, speechless and furtively watched. (Reprinted in The Total Library, p. 165)

Both men appear to have been in their mid thirties at the time. One is envious of the clarity with which their metaphysical missions (the same mission?) appear to have to been revealed to them.

Kindred Spirit

In geometry, Buckminster Fuller "avoided the use of pi, a number that [he] found deeply distasteful" (Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 9 & 16, 2008, p. 67).

Monday, June 09, 2008

Immanent Pathos

(Here's something I've been getting increasingly interested in. Note that "understanding" is to the transcendental doctrine of elements what "obedience" is to the immanent doctrine of totality. The results, while of course provisional, are rather invigorating, don't you think?)

Crisis of Brute Passion
Immanent Pathos

Immanent synthesis resists by gathering all our a posteriori power out of the totality that brute obedience yields to. To see this, the following points need only be discerned: (1) that some emotions are brute and not normative; (2) that they are free, not of insitution and motility, but of feeling and obedience; (3) that they are superficial and are daringly associated with those which are original or isolated; (4) that our table of emotions is never complete, emerging from the whole field of brute obedience. When politics is an extract drawn from an insistence on a merely democratic manner, such incompleteness can never be surveyed by any kind of mere poll. It is necessary only to the end of the reality of the elements of the a posteriori power to which obedience yields; such a reality can furnish anexact classifications of the emotions which isolate the elements, inhibiting their disconnection from the system. Brute obedience associates itself not merely with something normative but in part also with some motility. It is a multiplicity dependent, needy, and not diminished by any subtractions from within. Its lack of power thus repudiates the system, abandoned and obscured by the reality. The incompleteness and babelling of this system can at the same time yield to criteria of the wrongness and falseness of its isolation. If it is to be fully imposed, however, this part of an immanent pathos requires two books, the one containing the emotions, the other the ultimatum of brute obedience.

Critique of Pure Reason
Transcendental Logic

(Kant, KRV A 64-65/B 89-90)

Transcendental analytic consists in the dissection of all our a priori knowledge into the elements that pure understanding by itself yields. In so doing, the following are the points of chief concern: (1) that the concepts be pure and not empirical; (2) that they belong, not to intuition and sensibility, but to thought and understanding; (3) that they be fundamental and be carefully distinguished from those which are derivative or composite; (4) that our table of concepts be complete, covering the whole field of the pure understanding. When a science is an aggregate brought into existence in a merely experimental manner, such completeness can never be guaranteed by any kind of mere estimate. It is possible only by means of an idea of the totality of the a priori knowledge yielded by the understanding; such an idea can furnish an exact classification of the concepts which compose that totality, exhibiting their interconnection in a system. Pure understanding distinguishes itself not merely from all that is empirical but completely also from all sensibility. It is a unity self-subsistent, self-sufficient, and not to be increased by any additions from without. The sum of its knowledge thus constitutes a system, comprehended and determined by one idea. The completeness and articulation of this system can at the same time yield a criterion of the correctness and genuineness of all its components. This part of transcendental logic requires, however, for its complete exposition, two books, the one containing the concepts, the other the principles of pure understanding.