Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Advertisement for my Birthday

Like many another vain, empty, bullying body of our time, I have been running for president these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began. Defeat has left my nature divided, my sense of timing is eccentric, and I contain within myself the bitter exhaustions of an old man, and the cocky arguments of a bright boy. So I am everything but my proper age of thirty-six, and anger has brought me to the edge of the brutal.

Norman Mailer
Advertisements for Myself

It's my birthday today. I am now thirty-seven. Things are looking up.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Our Poor Nationalism (part 2)

I'm a poor pundit because I rarely keep up with the news. But I finally got around to looking at the facts surrounding the recent reprinting of an already controversial Muhammad cartoon by Danish Newspapers. I am, frankly, stunned by what this is all about. I am genuinely concerned about the state my country is in (no pun intended).

On Febuary 12, three men were arrested for conspiring to murder one of the cartoonists involved in the original crisis (he had depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban). One of the them was a Danish citizen; two were foreign nationals living legally in Denmark. It has been decided that the latter will be deported. This was done as a purely "adminstrative" action, with no trial and no presentation of evidence against them.

Such deportations without trial are possible because of anti-terror legislation that was implemented after 9/11. It gives the Security and Intelligence Service (PET, in Danish) the authority to deport foreigners it deems to be a threat to the state.

On February 13, most major Danish newspapers reprinted the cartoons as a gesture of support for free speech.

So the plot to murder the cartoonist has been construed both as a threat to freedom of speech and a threat to the state. It's difficult to even begin to say how wrongheaded this is but let me give it a shot.

First, freedom of speech is threatened when the state prevents people from speaking freely. When your neighbour punches you in the mouth for saying something he finds offensive your freedom of speech has not been threatened.

Second, the power of the state does not hinge on its ability to control what its citizens to do each other. When three men plan to murder a fourth man, even in the name of a foreign deity, the power of the state is not threatened.

There are many people in Denmark who are bound by their faith to consider avenging their prophet or at least defending his honour. (They are not bound to do anything as radical as commit a murder.) Their private thoughts and conversations about this topic have now been all but criminalized, without even the suggestion that they might have their day in court.

More importantly, there are many people in Denmark who find the cartoons offensive in a non-violent sort of pissed-off way. When three men (allegedly) take their offense to the extreme, the Danish national media takes the opportunity to offend (again) the lot of them. That is, the preference not to see such drawings in the public sphere has been explicitly conflated with the desire to kill their authors.

At this point, I think, Pound would point out what a hopelessly weak state-media complex would result to this sort of pettiness. Three men are accused of planning to commit a crime and the nation is in a state (pun now intended). That is, the "intelligence" of the nation (the media the police) pull out all the stops. Frightful.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Our Poor Nationalism (part 1)

In August 1942, the following elucidatory statement was heard on the Berlin radio: the power of the state, whether it be Nazi, Fascist, or Democratic, is always the same, that is—absolute; the different forms of administration are merely a matter of the different activities which one agrees not to allow.

Ezra Pound
"A Visiting Card"
(1942, SP, p. 276)

In the last election, I voted for the Socialist People's Party. I don't hold any party membership for the usual reasons. In any case, Villy Søvndal, the leader of that party, recently devoted a blog post to the idea that Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a legal political organization in (what some think is a too liberal) Denmark, "is in the wrong country": "They have no business in Denmark and they will not achieve what they are striving for."

The reason, says Søvndal, is (to take one example) that they don't share his views on the equality of men and women. Here's the argument: many Muslim men discriminate against women. Sharia, which I am led to understand is the program that Hizb-ut-Tahrir pursues, justitifies such discrimination and would, of course, institutionalize it. Thus: Hizb-ut-Tahrir does not belong in Denmark, says Søvndal, because it is somehow (I take it) un-Danish to think women are different than men (especially lower on one or another social hierarchy.)

Now, I obviously agree with all the normal Western views on women. But I think Sharia is a legitimate political alternative. And if you believe in that sort of thing, and reside in Denmark, you are entitled, by your democratic rights (in this case), to push for the reassessment of the utility of women in various social positions.

The idea that certain opinions don't belong in certain countries (but might "go somewhere else", like Saudi Arabia ... ferfucksakes!) is ludicrous. It is precisely the sense in which nationalism is the opposite of democracy. So we have the disturbing (and somewhat bombastic) conclusion. Søvndal has declared the end of the party's "folksy" (i.e., "people's") socialism and inaugurated the era of its, well, yes, no getting around it, national soci........

Please don't understand me too quickly.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Getting Wise, Finding the Lowdown

Kulchural Studies seeks the incontrovertible fact, the photographic evidence, the smoking gun of the historical process—what Pound called the "luminous detail". Of course, a simple fact can only ever shine on the background of a shared understanding of how the world "really" works. In this post, I want to look at the kind of world that kulchural studies assumes we live in and the kind of character or intellectual figure that is required to study it.

"An education consists in 'getting wise' in the rawest and hardest boiled sense of that bit of argot," writes Pound in the Guide to Kulchur. I'm grateful to Jonathan Morse for bringing Malcolm Cowley's corroborating observation to my attention in his interesting piece in Jacket 34. "I've found the lowdown on the Elizabethan drama," he quotes Pound saying and adds: "he was always finding the lowdown, the inside story and the simple reason why" (Exiles Return, p. 120). Elsewhere, Cowley also characterized Pound's view of history as a "conspiracy" theory.

According to Pound, "the method of Luminous Detail" had two main competitors in scholarship: "the method multitudinous detail" (most prevalent in his day) and "the method of sentiment and generalisation" (which he saw as outdated). (This was in "I Gather the Limbs of Osiris", from 1911, SP, p. 21.) In the Guide to Kulchur he puts it this way:

This active and instant awareness is NOT handed out in colleges and by the system of public and/or popular education. In this domain the individual will remain, individualism will remain, without any theoretical and ideological bulwarks. A man will continue to gain or lose his own soul. (GK, p. 52)

This individualism is really quite important. Kulchural Studies is not about teaching others how the world works. They'll "get it" if they do, we might say, and always in their own way. It is about saving your own soul from being duped about "the process now going on" (51).

When reading Pound, I sometimes think of Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder", an essay that was published at about the same time as the Guide to Kulchur. Here he describes the corrupt world of hard-boiled detective novels. "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean" (20). "He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness" (20-21). In a way, this describes the Poundian literary and social critic.

But there is a disturbing detail: Chandler's "realist" vision was "a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities" (I wonder if that shouldn't read "gangsters can rule cities and almost rule nations"). The informal, personal, and often violent networks of loyalty that run the world in the background of these novels are arguably fascist.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Billy Collins on the Future

Peace movements financed by war-profiteers who are still in the bank and gun business or whose subsidy is derived from munitions' sales are unlikely to conduce to the new paideuma. Pacifists who refuse to examine all causes of war, from natural fitfulness on through the direct economic causes, are simple vermin, whatever their level of consciousness, their awareness or unawareness of their actions and motivations.

Ezra Pound (GK, p. 117)

It's going to take some time before Billy Collins arrives in the future. But when he does, he hopes, people are going to be waiting for him to tell them what it was like in our day.

He's planning to tell them about a sky he once saw, and a woman he once knew (he'll never forget the way she wore a white bathrobe), and the time he visited the site of a historic sea battle in a narrow strait.

Then he's going to get out his maps. He's going to explain to his audience that there were mountains and valleys and that we called this "geography"; he's also going to tell them that goods used to be loaded onto ships that sailed on the rivers and that we called this "commerce".

Finally, he's going to tell them about what we called "history"; that is, he going to tell them "how the people from this pink area crossed over into this light-green area and set fires and killed whoever they found".

He imagines they are going to listen to all this without raising any objections. He thinks they are going to be drawn to his account of the past "like ripples moving toward, not away from, a stone tossed into a pond".

[The above is a prose paraphrase of "The Future" by Billy Collins, which appeared in the New Yorker (February 4, 2008.) As paraphrase, however, it is oddly complete. I don't think it misses a single "poetic" effect in the original.]

Collins's poem is worth comparing to Borges's "Utopia of a Tired Man", which I discussed yesterday. When addressing the future, Collins is not, apparently, going to mention that many of us insisted on calling what he describes "war", "murder" and "attrocity" and filled public squares to denounce these activities. Or perhaps he will say that this, too, we called "history". The whole thing is presented as a kind of silly mistake.

If "the people of the future in their pale garments" have forgotten history then, let us hope, they have remembered why they have not bothered to remember. They will then not be taken in (in the very picturesquely irenic way Collins imagines) by another liberal who puzzles over why nations war with each other.

The liberal democrat imagines that national borders are not worth fighting over. They present nationhood as a quaint platonic fiction. They normally live in countries whose borders are not currently disputed.

They think war is a mistake that is glossed over with a euphemism like "history". The idea that nations are part of the methodology of war does not occur to them. (Much less what racket war, in turn, is part of.) They would not abolish nations. They would have people remain politely in their assigned "light-green" and "pink areas", which are not so silly as to do away with, but silly enough not to fight over.

In the future, they hope, people will listen to them puzzle over this silliness.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The National News

"In my strange past," says Borges on a visit to a strange future, "the superstition prevailed that every day, between evening and morning, certain acts occur which it is a shame to be ignorant of. The planet was populated by collective ghosts—Canada, Brazil, the Swiss Congo, and the Common Market." This connection between journalism and nationhood interests me.

A while back, I pointed out that "ethnicity" and "nationality" are etymologically related. While ethnology and ethnography have come to stand for the study of cultures, "ethnos" originally meant "nation", and there can be no doubt that we continue think of culture as linked to nationality.

There are many reasons to abandon the fixation on nationality. The concept of kulchur, I think, was intended by Pound to be part of such a move.

"Almost no one," continues Borges,

knew anything of the history that preceded those platonic entities, but, of course, they knew evry last detail of the most recent congress of pedagogoues, or of imminent breakdowns in diplomatic relations, or of statement issued by presidents, drawn up by the secretary of a secretary and containing all the carefully worded haziness appropriate to the genre. These things were read to be forgotten, for, only hours later, other trivialities would blot them out. ("Utopia of a Tired Man", Book of Sand, Penguin, p. 67.)

That is, nations are simply part of the journalistic perspective on history. They are trivialities and, as "platonic" entities, their triviality must be considered an ontological error.

I have also noted the pangrammatical homology of metaphysics/anthropology and ontology/ethnology. The world is divided into nations, history into days. Those days are numbered, friends. The days of the nation are numbered. Journalism cannot control a round earth forever.

Kulchural Studies eschews any trivial obssession with the fate of nations from day to day. Accordingly, it cares little about diplomatic relations, whether bilateral or collective. It does not really care what the United Nations or the European Union are up to. But, taking its cue from Pound, it is very curious about the Trilateral Commission (chicks dig that), the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. The New York Stock Exchange, the City of London, and even the Bank of England occupies its interest. These organizations, it suspects, are not really anchored in the ethnicity of nations, nor can their history be counted in days. They are global and journalists can speak of them only in whispers.

Kulchural Studies does not really expect to know what goes on inside these less platonic entitities. It simply notes their existence (their reality, not their ideality) and understands history with them in mind. It suspects the massive institutional apparatus of our nations and our media (a particular constellation of modern humanity and global technology we call "liberal democracy") of being in engaged in conspiracy to disconnect the individual from the machinery of history.

Taking him radically out of context, Borges once wrote "I no longer play at being Hamlet. I have become a member of the Conservative Party" ("The Congress", p. 15). There is something of that here. Though one is afraid one has simply become a kook.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Inner Truth and Greatness of Flarf...

...is the inner truth and greatness of Fascism, namely, the encounter between global technology and modern humanity. It has not the least, of course, to do with what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of these movements. Fascism, meanwhile, is the inner truth and greatness of Facebook, of MySpace, of YouTube, of Wikipedia, of Google (extending the inner truth and greatness of ABC, BBC, CBC, CNN, MTV ... ).

Hemingway may have been overstating things, but Fascism is at best, let us say, the environment that is least hospitable to literature. But one must work within that environment, with the materials as they are given to one. This is kulchural studies.

To experience the world as though "a lie told by a bully" has "an inner truth and greatness", as though a flame war is worth fighting. To try to understand the current, the reigning, "restriction of being", to fish the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities" ... for kids (cf. again Heidegger's Introduction, p. 152).

The actual things that produce the emotion you experience. (Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, p. 10)

To experience history as though Ezra Pound was not just (or wholly) wrong about Mussolini. To try to get at the machinery of "the process now going on" (GK).

There are obvious objections to this. But then there are obvious objections to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Google. Kulchural Studies, like Flarf, proceeds in the light of the obviousness of these objections. Into the danger where the saving power grows ... where the saving power must dang blast it! grow.