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Though it is not entirely out of circulation, it is an outdated expression.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?