Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Pilots

—You have the urge to steer one?
—Yeah, I do. With a giant wheel. I'd just be there. I'd be a little small, compared to the wheel, and I'd be steering it. It'd be great.

Kate Greenstreet

I think what pilots do is wonderful.

Tony Tost

Since the title of one of my favourite pieces in Kate Greenstreet's The Last 4 Things is today's date (it's on page 75 in the section called "56 Days"), I'd like to draw attention to its likeness to Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot", which is the poem that got me interested in contemporary American poetry almost seven years ago.

Both poems are about the (impossible) desire (or lack thereof) to be "at the helm", to steer the ship. More specifically: they bring to presence the emotion of not being in control of the ship. Both, I would therefore argue, indicate an anti-Palinurian mood.

Palinurus was Aeneas' disenchanted pilot. Cyril Connolly used his name as a pseudonym when he wrote The Unquiet Grave; indeed, Palinurus is the theme of that book. Connolly explains in the introduction:

The plot of the book is contained in the title. The Unquiet Grave first suggests the tomb of Palinurus, pilot of Æneas; it is the cenotaph from which he haunts us. 'The ghost of Palinurus must be appeased'. He is the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within. (xiii)

The quoted sentence about the ghost of Palinurus is from Servius's commentary on the Aeneid, which Connolly quotes also as an epigraph (in Latin) to the book and then again (and again in Latin) nearing the end of part one.

It is just after Christmas, 1942. Palinurus writes as follows in his "journal of 'back thoughts'":

No opinions, no ideas, no true knowledge of anything, no ideals, no inspiration; a fat, slothful, querulous, greedy, impotent carcass; a stump, a decaying belly washed up on the shore. 'Manes Palinuri esse placandos!' Always tired, always bored, always hurt, always hating. (24)

That is a direct statement of the Palinurian mood, here owed, perhaps, to what Connolly describes as his "obsession with pleasure at a time when nearly all pleasures were forbidden" (xii). What would he have felt today, we may wonder, in a time when all pleasures are arguably mandatory?

Greenstreet and Tost are not trying to appease Palinurus. They have, perhaps, given up trying. Their would-be pilots are wholly incompetent. Indeed, in these poems, a selfless incompetence replaces Connolly's greedy impotence. Incompetence, of course, is by no means straightforwardly preferable to impotence, but a different sort of poetry seems to emerge from it. Here are the closing lines of Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot":

Repeat after me, 'I am not the pilot,
I will not attempt to fly the ship.'

Folks I am not a pilot and therefore
I am not at the glamorous end of the sword.

I have no feelings for the machine.

I know what pilots look like.

I am not a pilot but I am beginning to understand the pilot's cause:

it's the same one we all have.

Recall that Virgil's Palinurus, bored and disappointed with his leader, jumped ship (so goes Connolly's theory) in the middle of the night and was killed, three days later, on the shore near Velia, for his clothes. Greenstreet seems to invert this theme:

—The ship is white. Mainly white, it has some blue.
—It's at sea?
—Of course. Just water everywhere. At night. With the stars.
—You'd be steering your ship.
—At night would be the main time.
—How about being on the shore when someone else is on the ship?
—I wouldn't. I wouldn't do that again.
—Did it ever happen?
—Oh, it always happens. To everyone. That's life.

Like I say, we cannot say we prefer the anti-Palinurian mood to the Palinurian one. (Invisible Bride, for example, is not a better book than The Unquiet Grave, but it is a distinctly comparable one. I am trying to make that comparison.) Palinurian impotence and anti-Palinurian incompetence are merely the formal conditions of particular species of suffering that must be overcome aesthetically in a given poem.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

More Notes on the History of the Individual

A while back I posted these snippets.

1938: "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." (Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, p. 52)

1944: "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?" (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, p. 100)

1947: "Though tragedy was in the process of becoming unreal and meaningless it seemed one was still permitted to remember the days when an individual life held some value and was not a mere misprint in a communiqué. He lit a cigarette." (Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, p. 5)

I just found another one in, predictably, Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn (p. 122):

1939: As an individual, as flesh and blood, I am leveled down each day to make the fleshless, bloodless city whose perfection is the sum of all logic and death to the dream. I am struggling against an oceanic death in which my own death is but a drop of water evaporating.

The theme I'm building here is pretty straightforward. In the first half of the twentieth century, modern literature was exploring the possibility that the individual was being destroyed.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Critique of Pure Roundness

[Note: play both videos simultaneously.]

The empirical concept of a plate is homogeneous with the pure geometrical concept of a circle. The roundness which is thought in the former can be intuited in the latter. (The Critique of Pure Reason, A137/B176)

The normative motion of the potter's wheel is homogeneous with the pure sculptural emotion of the cylinder. The spinning that can be felt in the former can be instituted in the latter. (The Crisis of Brute Passion)

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Who is humanity? asks Heidegger. Not, What is humanity? Moreover, he ties the issue both to history and to poetry: "The thinking of Parmenides and Heraclitus is still poetic, and here this means philosophical, not scientific" (IM, 154 [110]). The shift from "what" to "who" is wholly correct: "what" is to the world as "who" is to history. Also, it is no doubt correct (I'm certainly not going to question it) that thinking at the time of Parmenides was more like poetry than science.

Today, by contrast, philosophy is more like science than poetry. And poetry is more like politics than philosophy. In fact, I would question Heidegger only in his approach: what, after all, is he doing in his Introduction to Metaphysics? He seems to be trying to replace metaphysics with some sort of anthropology. It is no wonder he gets himself into trouble on the subject of National Socialism at the end of the course (213 [152]). After all, if the question is "Who is humanity?" then the struggle over the answer is political.

Whatever his aim, he seems to be bound to producing a "logos" of human existence (Dasein). That is, he wants to give us an account of the subject. But perhaps the project of trying to account for, to understand, human existence is doomed from the start. In "the humanities", there is no understanding, only obedience (as Deleuze and Guattari have suggested somewhere, I think).

We don't think we are human; if we do, we feel it. The consequence is a rigorously a-logical approach to human existence. No logos. Pathos. Not anthropology but anthropopathy (an ugly enough word). A story, or better a passion, of humanity, not an account or logic of it. A poem that contains history. An epic.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


"What I have to say is nothing new and does not pretend to be anything more than the expression of the opinion of an independent and honest man who, unburdened by class or national prejudices, desires nothing but the good of humanity and the most harmonious possible scheme of human existence." (Albert Einstein, "Thoughts on the World Economic Crisis", 1934, reprinted in Ideas and Opinions, 1954, p. 87-8)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Heidegger and Wittgenstein

A thought-provoking remark of Heidegger's at Enowning:

...this thinking is, compared to metaphysical thinking, much simpler than philosophy, but precisely because of its simplicity it is much more difficult to carry out. And it calls for new care with language, not the invention of new terms, as I once thought...

Reading it, I thought of the difference between the early Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein. Could we not argue that the Philosophical Investigations are "simpler than philosophy" and display a particular "care with language"?

Friday, October 23, 2009


"The guy lives in a bizarro universe where Edward Said is not sufficiently sympathetic to the Palestinian cause."

On Motive and Deference

(With apologies to Gottlob Frege.)

Difference gives rise to challenging questions which are not altogether easy to answer. Is it a position? A position among subjects, or among names or signs of subjects? In my Ergriffsschrift I will assume the latter. The passions which seem to favour this are the following...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Guilt and Death (Death and Taxes)

I think existentialism is due for a revival, especially in a "financial" variant. Roughly speaking, existentialism taught us to face the fact that we're all going to die. We "must not be afraid" of it (as it says somewhere in Nausea.) We must, rather, be "resolute and anxious" about it, as Heidegger puts it. Existentialism also taught us to distinguish between our ontological "guilt" and our merely ontic "debts". (There are really interesting etymologies at work here.)

In my opinion, the whole Western-democratic model of statecraft, which distinguishes sharply between monetary and fiscal policy, is to blame for our alienation from existence, our inauthenticity, ultimately our enslavement. Everything that is wrong with our culture traces back to the sense that we owe something and that we must not, whatever happens, die. If everyone resolved only to feel indebted in the ordinary sense, and accepted the fact that they will one day die, a great deal of needless insurance, mortgaging, and pension planning would be avoided. This would, of course, undermine the basic fabric of the society that is today being run by a financial oligarchy.

This is obviously a basically Poundian position.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Last 4 Things

I keep forgetting to plug Kate Greenstreet's new book, The Last 4 Things. Her writing is exactly what gives me hope for ideas like the one contained in my last post. As I've said before, she is doing the very thing that Wittgenstein, with some measure of false humility to be sure, said he wasn't any good at. Dichtung.

Here and Now

Intuition and institution are the media of immediacy. They denote the transcendental form of knowledge and immanent content of power. Intuitions are to assertion what institutions are to injunction; intuition is to institution what space is to time.

So, intuitions are descriptive. "You are here," they ultimately say. Institutions, by contrast, are prescriptive: "Be on time!"

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A New Source of Homologies

Bernard Bolzano: "According to my conception, logic should be a theory of science, i.e., it should guide us in how we can divide up the entire domain of truth in particular parts in an appropriate way and cultivate what belongs to each of them and present it in written form." (Bernard Bolzano, Theory of Science, §15, p. 41)

I would add that this gives us the sense and form of all philosophical work.

Here's a first stab at a pangrammatical homologue: I feel that pathos is a political practice, i.e., it drives us to bring together the various areas of justice as a universal whole in a proper place and restore what has been taken from it and present it in written form.

And here, I would add, we are given the motive and content of all poetry.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Pound Era Continues

"...they're not covering what the people should know. They're covering what the elite want us to know—the elite, private, Federal Reserve banking system, that [has run] this country since 1913 ..." (Luke Rudkowski, 03:58ff)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A House in the Country

"Even if a thinker remains in oblivion of the Ereignis, even if he does not think the giving itself, still it may be that the gift of presence has been bestowed upon him in a primal and original (anfänglich) way. And so the question is whether there might not be in Thomas' doctrine of esse something of this same pristine essence of Being as presencing." (John D. Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas, p. 186)

I suppose a German translation of the "pristine essence of Being as presencing" might be "das ursprüngliche Wesen des Sein als Anwesen".

I'm coming around to the idea that "presence" must be reserved to render "Anwesen". All that's left for "Dasein", then, seems to be "existence". But it still seems plausible to me that "Anwesen" is almost another word for "Dasein". It does, after all, denote "the pristine essence of Being". Anwesen is not exactly Dasein, but it summarizes the existential conditions of human being. Not incidentally, it also means "a country estate".

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Anwesen n. (genitive Anwesens, plural Anwesen): property (piece of land with an owner).

Saturday, September 19, 2009


What Dasein is to philosophy, what duende is to poetry: _____ is to wine.

Topos Eidon

"Rewriting Aristotle's topos eidon, Heidegger calls human being 'the place of meaning', the Da of Sein: Dasein." (The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 354)

Compare what Jonathan Mayhew says about Lorca: "What is the duende, in fact, but a peculiarly Spanish version of the genius loci or "spirit of the place"?" (Apocryphal Lorca, p. 180)

Bring them together. Dasein is "the place of meaning"; duende is "the spirit of the place". Presence and spirit. Duende is to poetry what Dasein is to philosophy. What it is all about. In fact, Dasein is the "object" of philosophy just as duende is the "subject" of poetry. The scare quotes are altogether necessary since Dasein fundamentally resists objectification, just as the duende is not, properly speaking, subjective. There is talk of a theme.

Both terms are also, because they are left untranslated, the source of a particular kind of affectation about philosophy and poetry. A romanticism. A way of cultivating the "spirit" of the art without actually "getting into it", a way of playing at it without actually being there. Kitsch, as Jonathan puts it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Wrong Word?

I ran the idea that "Dasein" should be translated as "presence" in Being and Time past one of the PhD students at our department. He's a very close reader of Heidegger and insisted that "presence" is simply the wrong word for our particularly human way of being (which was the sort of being Heidegger was denoting with the word). I said that a meaningless word (in English) was surely even worse. So we went at it for a while. A very good discussion.

Now, one thing to keep in mind is that, if Heidegger is right, then the word "presence" has become increasingly less apt as the primordial name for (today's) human being. When was the last time you met someone (a "human being") who was, you know, "all there". Someone whose way of "being around" was best described as "present"? But, surely, I think to myself, that's true of "Dasein" as well. Heidegger's whole point is that we're not as authentically "there" as we could be. So it's perfectly fine to use "the wrong word". The idea is to recover the meaning of "presence" for human being.

One suggestion (promoted, I'm told, by Thomas Sheehan) is that Dasein means not so much "being there" as "being open". Well, that's a perfectly good sense of "presence". To be truly present is to be open to what is going on around one. It is to be "in the open", "in the clearing", etc. So I still say "presence" is a great word for Dasein, the subject (to pun a little) of Heidegger's book.

It is important to me to keep reading Being and Time as a book about what it means to be, in that peculiar human way that we are. I like the idea that that makes it a book about presence. I think it is mainly people who read Being and Time as a book about what Heidegger was thinking around 1927 that insist on calling its subject "Dasein". They may as well call it Marty (which would be a fun translation actually).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Being and Terror

"There can be variations in the constitutive items of the full phenomenon of fear."

What a fantastic sentence! It appears in Being and Time (H. 142) and is followed up, later in the same paragraph, with the following very topical qualification: "And where that which threatens is laden with dread, and is at the same time encountered with the suddenness of the alarming, then fear becomes terror."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Presence and Ecstacy

As I've been saying, Jonathan Mayhew's take on Lorca's duende has given me a new way into Heidegger's analytic of Dasein. I'm reading Being and Time with fresh eyes, the scales having fallen from them if you will.

One problem, as I've already noted, with the idea of rendering Dasein simply as "presence" is that it makes the important distinction between existence (Existenz) and presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) seem less sharp. Dasein, after all, was supposed to be the entity that has existence, not mere presence-at-hand. The solution, it seems to me, is to render Vorhanden as "extant". This gives us a nice distinction between presence and extance, with the important notion of "the ecstases" (H. 329f.) to cover the distance between them.

Reading Being and Time in this light also makes it clear that the English "Dasein" offers the reader a sort of misplaced concreteness. "How are we," asks Heidegger, "supposed set our sights toward this entity, Dasein, both as something accessible to us and as something to be understood and interpreted" (H. 15). Compare: "How are we supposed set our sights toward this entity, presence, both as something accessible to us and as something to be understood and interpreted". In the standard translation it is all too easy to let "Dasein" name a mere "thing" (an"entity", after all); this is much harder when we use a word like "presence" ("existence" would have a similar effect). How, indeed, does presence become an "entity", a "thing", an "object" of inquiry? It is (or at least may be) precisely that tension that constitutes our ecstatic-horizonal being.


All belief is, fundamentally, a belief in limits, just as all desire is, ultimately, a desire for freedom.

Limits are to space as freedom is to time. Beliefs are to desire as limits are to freedom.

Wisdom knows the limits of knowledge. Love masters the freedom of power.

Love & Wisdom

Wisdom is to our concepts as love is to our emotions.
All desire is, ultimately, a desire for freedom. All belief is, fundamentally, a belief in ______.

(Hint: Freedom is to time as ______ is to space.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Charlie Sheen is Cool

"But here's something I really don't understand: when did it become uncool to ask questions? When did questioners become imbeciles? Who gets to hand out the tinfoil hats? When did it become cool to believe what we're told? In the words of Mr Hicks, did I miss a meeting? When did so many of the cynics and sceptics, so many of the sharpest brains I know (hello Charlie Brooker!) think that the cool thing to do is mock the questioners, and defend the party line. How stratospherically uncool is that? You want to know who's cool? Gareth is cool, Mohsin in the pink shirt is cool, the girl in the pink pants is cool. Charlie Sheen is cool, Julianne Moore is cool, Dario Fo is cool. And today, perhaps for the first time in my life, I'm cool too." (Charlie Skelton)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kitsch

In Apocryphal Lorca, Jonathan Mayhew argues that "the American duende [is] a reduction of Lorca's complexity into an easily digested concept. The duende, shocking to say, is the form taken by Lorquian kitsch." I feel exactly that way about Heidegger's Dasein.

An interesting thought occured to me while reading one of Jonathan's seminar papers. Wittgenstein's key concepts "language game" and "form of life" are standardly translated, i.e., they are known by those English labels, not "Sprachspiel" or "Lebensform". This may have saved Wittgenstein's concepts from being reduced to kitsch.

"Dasein" and "Ereignis" are, of course, standardly left untranslated in Heidegger.

Heidegger's rich understanding of what we might otherwise have called "presence" and "event" remain largely unavailable to English readers, and whatever does reach us is mired in (inexorably romantic) German idealism, simply because his followers refuse to translate him. It would have been very hard, I grant, to translate "Dasein" as "presence" in every instance in Being and Time, but I think understanding what he meant requires that we try. In fact, I suspect that the whole "postmodern" critique of "the metaphysics of presence" lacks a great deal of background in the "analytic of Dasein", which could be read, precisely, as the analytic of presence.

One difficulty lies in the fact that Heidegger does actually use the notion of "presence" separately. He uses the German word "Anwesenheit". Another lies in the standard translation of "Vorhandenheit" as "presence-at-hand". I think these problems are surmountable. The question here is whether it would have been possible to apply Heidegger's insights to experiences that are already named in the English language, rather than using German terms or inventing quasi-English ones.

Kitsch here arises in the insinuation that only Germans can really understand the truth of "man's ownmost being". Similarly, Lorca's duende, when used in translation (and itself left untranslated), grants a strange priority to Andalusian experience. Heidegger, and, it seems, Lorca, had considerably less local, less "provincial", ambitions when they raised the issue.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Desire Unleashed

Power seeks justice as knowledge seeks truth. (Yes, their "arcs" may be "long", as the President might say.) Likewise, the highest emotion is love; it is the emotion towards which all other emotions tend or from which they flee. It is, if you will, the "master emotion". Love is the (ideal) tyrant of our emotional lives. Our intensity is beholden to our love. I don't think that's controversial.

It occurs to me that, in a similar way, desire seeks freedom. The basic desire, we might say ... pause to note the fearsome axis of symmetry that this esablishes with the highest emotion ... the basic desire is the desire to be free. The anarchist's watchword "Desire Unleashed!" is therefore, as it arguably should be, a pleonasm. To be unleashed is exactly what desire wants.

I think this goes a long way toward clarifying the interrelations of emotion and desire and, therefore, the working machinery of a good many poems. We can, for example, note that desire and emotion (freedom and love) can very easily enter into oppositional relations.

Now, if pangrammaticism is right, there must be a corresponding "philosophical" apparatus.

Love is to our emotions as ________ is to our concepts.
Freedom is to desire as ________ is to belief.
Our clarity is beholden to our ________.

Any suggestions?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

In Support of Van Jones

Camus said somewhere that one must, in the end, side with the humiliated. Here goes... You don't have to be a Washington insider to think it is possible that the hijackers had a bit of help on the inside to pull off 9/11. But perhaps you have to be a Washington insider to declare that idea "absurd".

Is it possible that Wall Street has a "man" or two inside the Treasury Department?
Is it possible that the drug cartels "own" some corner (or at least one or another agent) of the DEA?
Is it possible, indeed, that the CIA has a mole rumaging around in al Qaeda's back yard?

Of course it is.

When something really bad happens, and when the authorities that are charged with protecting the population fail to do so, is it really so far-fetched to go looking for someone "inside" the system to share part of the blame? Blaming al Qaeda alone for the effects of 9/11 is a bit like blaming only Mother Nature for the effects of Katrina.

Van Jones was just asking reasonable questions. He was standing shoulder to shoulder with at least forty people who lost their loved ones that day. And if David Corn had helped Americans to understand the reasonableness of those questions back when they were being raised, rather than ridiculing a whole class of questions by emphasizing their most speculative (or, if you will, "tantalizing") variants, Van Jones would not have been so vulnerable today.

We have the names of nineteen individuals that David Corn thinks were "evil" enough, "ballsy" enough, and "competent" enough to pull it off. Expanding the list of suspects to include a few that happen to have American citizenship, security clearance and ... perhaps, perhaps, perhaps ... official titles is not at all unreasonable. I, of course, am in no position to suggest any names or speculate about what they might have been able to do for the bad guys. But it is puzzling that the received view of what happened on 9/11 so confidently rules out the possibility. An investigation has not even been deemed necessary.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Kooks and Poets

"Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?" (Allen Ginsberg, "America")

Reading Allen Verbatim the other day (I'm getting increasingly obsessed by the War on Drugs), a likeness between Ginsberg and Pound struck me. It's probably pretty straighforward imitation of the master but, like Pound, Ginsberg had the "low down" on the U.S. government. Pound believed that America had effectively passed into the hands of the "usury racket" in 1913, when the Federal Reserve was established. Ginsberg believed that the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 (AV, p. 40ff.) was the beginning of a federal drug racket.

There are lots of parallels and the argument has been made to connect the two rackets, tying both to the military-industrial complex or, more broadly, the media-intelligence-military-industrial complex. One person who has made this connection is Peter Dale Scott (AV, p. 71), a poet. He has argued that the CIA and other agencies have an enormous stake in the global drug economy. One figure I've heard, independently, is that something like 260 billion dollars of drug money are laundered through Wall Street every year. If drugs were legal this infusion of cash would dry up, which would cause a financial catastrophe.

Scott studies something he calls "deep politics". It is what goes on under the surface of official history and causes things like the JFK assassination and, yes, 9/11. It is interesting to me that some poets feel compelled to dismiss "the official narrative" so radically. Ginsberg's rhetorical question about Time Magazine and the emotional life of America is very telling.

Consider: how close is the fit between, say, the covers of Time Magazine, week after week, and the consensus of mainstream historians. Could a "history of the twentieth century" not be pretty straightforwardly illustrated by the covers of Time? And isn't that actually a bit too neat and tidy? Wouldn't we expect historians to uncover some "deeper" truths about history that would expose those "illustrations" as just so much propaganda? What would a history of the twentieth century that took its cue, not from Time, but from (just for the sake of argument) the poetry of Pound and Ginsberg, look like? What facts would it attempt to uncover? One thing seems sure: it'd be pretty kooky.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Foreign and Domestic: The Blog Post

Watch "Foreign and Domestic: The Movie"

"I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned. That these two vast operations—the five to six hundred leagues of stone opposing the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is, of the past—should originate in one person and be in some way his attributes inexplicably satisfied and, at the same time, disturbed me." (Borges, "The Wall and the Books")

This post is not meant to be anti-American. The relevant Danish policies, in their necessarily minor way, are subject to the same criticism (Denmark is a member of the Coalition of the Willing, after all). Most Western countries, in fact, practice some version of the injustices that are lately outraging me.

The empire is defined, on its frontier, by the War on Terror, principally (or perhaps just most openly) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The existence of "evil doers" is cited to justify the invasion of entire countries, the total subversion of their civil societies. Men and children are gunned down in the street from the sky in broad daylight. "This is Bushmaster Seven, roger. Engage."

The empire is defined, in its cities, by the War on Drugs. Marijuana is illegal, its possession a crime. In the name of this war, the state can search the homes of citizens, break down doors, disrupt families, and coerce citizens into the dangerous position of "informants". Parents and children are roused out of bed in the dead of night and their dogs are shot. "Columbia Police. Search warrant!"

Neither the arrest of an individual for the possession of a joint nor the bombing of a whole population for "harbouring" a criminal is just. The empire, however, claims the right to prosecute these "just" wars. No decent state would do such things.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Brief History of the Individual

1938: "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." (Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, p. 52)

1944: "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?" (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, p. 100)

1947: "Though tragedy was in the process of becoming unreal and meaningless it seemed one was still permitted to remember the days when an individual life held some value and was not a mere misprint in a communiqué. He lit a cigarette." (Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, p. 5)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flarf and Fascism

"There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writers, and that system is fascism." (Ernest Hemingway)

"How to write: go to your nation and strive." (Barrett Watten, used by Kasey Mohammad as an epigraph for Deer Head Nation)

If the "badness" of Flarf is of any literary importance, this is why.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Poems and Novels

A novel orients you in your culture; a poem extricates you from it. A novel helps you cope. A poem gets you out.

(Nabokov would balk: literature just makes you tingle. It's easy to find your way around a cell. You don't try to leave.)

Billy Joel

Sean Cole's "Poem for Billy Joel" (Court Green 6, page 91) is quite effective.

I did happen to start the fire actually ...
...all the nimrods in your music keep breaking up with each other.
"New Radiant Storm King" on whose albums all connubiality
remains in tact. You could learn a thing or two from them ...

I say this to disarm the dedomiciling bomb of your baleful lyric, Mr. Joel.
I beg you: tear down this Italian restaurant.

The effect admittedly depends on a generalization about Billy Joel's work (a sort of typecasting) and some specific knowledge of particular songs. So it's probably limited in that sense, and arguably inexorably "American". Still, it accomplishes a neat little extrication of real emotion from the grip popular culture.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


I just finished reading Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version. I think he's a wonderful novelist and there is something about his books that is, to me, essentially novelistic. One reason for this has something to do with what Norman Mailer writes in A Fire on the Moon: "everybody, literate and illiterate alike, had in the privacy of their unconscious worked out a vast social novel by which they could make sense of society" (p. 147). Richler's novels are very clearly expressions of a "conception of society".

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Is it just me, or does this interview make a better case for the rationality of the libertarian fringe than the mainstream consensus? And does not the independent journalist seem much more reasonable, forthright, and well-informed than his mainstream colleague?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Freeland Burkha

The Conservative Party of Denmark has proposed an all-out ban of the Burkha and the Niqab in Denmark. I'm getting this from the morning papers, so I'm probably getting all wound up for nothing, but as I understand it the proposal is to make it illegal for women to cover their faces as part of their observance of hijab.

There are so many issues. I just wanted to note, again, the difference between seeing hijab as a symbol and seeing it as a style. Symbolism denotes; style displays. Symbols are references, they mean something—some thing. Your style, by contrast, is your way of revealing and covering yourself—your self. The burkha does, of course, have a symbolic effect (it does refer) but it is very obviously also a style.

States that impose a high standard of modesty on its citizenry—i.e., states that require its citizens to cover themselves in public—are one thing. Here in Denmark, such states are exotic, ancient, faraway places. It is quite another to imagine a state that forces the women of a tiny minority to un-cover themselves. To violate their own modesty. William Burroughs, I'm told, said that Freeland was based on his experiences in Denmark. I can believe it.

Monday, August 17, 2009


"The truth is a way, not a place," or, "The truth is not a place. It is a way."

That just tripped off my tongue today. It can't be original (certainly not in its basic idea) but Google comes up empty. Does anyone have a source?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Harold Bloom's Gospel of Gloom

Chapter 2 of A Map of Misreading ends with a very interesting discussion about "contemporary" (1975) American literature. I'm not sure I can do it justice but it goes something like this. American literature is in a bad way and the novel is in worse shape than poetry. Because of its belatedness, even its most "conspicuous literary energies" are reduced to producing parodies. And here's the interesting twist: some produce these parodies voluntarily, others involuntarily. I guess we could say that some do it with irony, others in earnest.

This allows him to lay out the field as follows. In poetry, Lowell does voluntary parody and Ginsberg does involuntary parody. In prose, Pynchon is a voluntary parodist (through something he calls "Kabbalistic inversion") and Mailer is an involuntary one (deploying "a mock-vitalistic lie-against-time"). His judgement about the relative "health" of poetry over prose stems from his assessment of the alternatives to these parodists. In prose, we have Saul Bellow. But in poetry, says Bloom, we have Ashbery and Ammons.

But even these poets, he says, may not survive because the past is much, much stronger than the present. Before closing the chapter, he admits that this must also seem like a "Gospel of Gloom" but it is nonetheless a necessary truth we must face when teaching literature. I think I have another approach. But that's for another post.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Certainty

"I know only one thing for sure, the whole liberal-progressive constituency is going nowhere." (Ralph Nader)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sometimes Clouds Just Disappear

"One is not condemned to a perpetual present, nor to the immediacy of seemingly random, unconnected signifiers. In summary, one is here because one has remembered to be here." (Tony Tost, IB, p. 46)

"If it is any consolation, we admire the early work of John Ashbery./If it is any consolation, you won't feel a thing." (Ben Lerner, LF, p. 59)

The question on the table is whether the desire for solidity is more moral than the desire for (or acceptance of) brokenness, fluidity, fragmentation. The extra credit question is what bearing this has on the work of John Ashbery. I think it is safe to say that contemporary American poetry is situated willy-nilly in the anxiety of this question. Indeed, it may mark the "crisis" that the lyric faces today. I don't really know, but by putting it in these terms, it becomes possible to deal with question as part of my attempt to understand Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading.

Sandra and I have been talking not so much about anxiety as phobia, but they are surely related. The question can be put as follows: does the strategy that allows Amber, and not Sandra, to get on a plane without fear resemble the strategy that, not only gives Ashbery's work its distinctive voice, but also continues to favour him with a long life? Like Laura, I'm not at all sure that "the idea that Ashbery somehow has allowed the fluidity of his language to keep him afloat" is the key to understanding his work or his longevity. But Bloom does say that "Ashbery's mingled strength and weakness, indeed his deliberate pathos, is that he knowingly begins where Childe Roland ended, 'free to wander away' yet always seeing himself as living 'the history of someone who came too late' while sensing that 'the time is ripe now'" (MM, p. 205-6). He says that "Ashbery's turnings-against-the-self are wistful and inconclusive, and he rarely allows a psychic reversal any completeness" (205). Finally, he speaks of Ashbery's "heroic and perpetual self-defeat" as his "finest achievement" (206). Ashbery is certainly no paragon of solidity, but Bloom is right to suspect him of immortality. 

Let me now make the presumptuous and premature assumption that Tony Tost is struggling with Ashbery's influence in a productively anxious way. (I don't actually think Ashbery is the best candidate for a precursor, but it's probably not totally off the mark. And it seems likely that the greatest poet of Tony's generation, which Tony may yet turn out to be, will be great in some measure as he measures up to Ashbery.) In the context of our discussion about the fear of flying, the following passage from Invisible Bride is quite striking:

Some folks are unable to talk on the phone in a noisy office or airport while others can make a call from anywhere. Some folks break the phone because they are afraid it will ring. My father feared the ferry-boat that took us to our summer vacation home; when the horn blew he would throw himself on an imaginary sword. During my lifetime, I've made at least 200,000 observations. For example, often clouds just disappear. (IB, p. 35; also in Story South)

Here the anxiety of 200,000 observations, which may be weighed against the "120,000 playground injuries" on page 3, setting the nervous energy of phobic experience against the objectifying gaze of governmentality, is resolved in the fact that, sometimes, clouds simply vanish, and we may recall here, too, that on page 3, the poet, "like a cloud", is said to "serve a large population".

"I have seen the greatest minds of my generation ..." vanish into anxiety, histrionic in a naked insistence on no-self. I'm not altogether without compassion (empathy even) but I am not sure that it's the direction poetry and the polity are going. We must simply remember to be here, if that's any consolation.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Make me whole

Laura quotes Sandra Simonds:

There is something to be said for someone like, say, John Ashbery with his linguistic ease.I think of my friend Amber who says that she is not afraid to do things such as flying in a plane. She says she is not afraid to go crazy because she does not see herself as a "solid" person but rather as someone fragmented and so when something strange happens she just "goes with it." People who see themselves as solid or whole, according to Amber, breakdown when they find that they are not. I am not surprised that Ashbery has lived a long time.

My comment:

There is something morally disturbing about this though, isn't there? I mean, what counts as "something strange"? How do we distinguish this from when "something bad happens"? (Something that might make us less solid or whole.) Are there not times when we admire the "solid" person for their, say, courage, and when someone who "just goes with it" looks basically cowardly?

More formally, "not solid or whole" = "broken". So it's sort of tautological that someone who thinks himself whole "breaks down" in the discovery that he is, in fact, broken. But we'll never know what came first: finding that we are broken or the breaking itself.

My basic view is that good things make us more whole, bad things less so, and strange things are strange precisely in their ambiguity qua good/bad. "Just going with it" when things get strange has probably a 50/50 chance of breaking you down.

I don't think brokenness is a yes/no condition. We are not broken or whole, but more or less broken, more or less whole. So Amber's "people who see themselves as solid or whole" is a bit of a caricature, a straw man, and actually somewhat uncharitable. Are there really people who would be shaken by the mere possibility of their own imperfection? Well, perhaps. There are certainly people who overestimate their strength.

But there are just as certainly people who underestimate their strength and, to make matters worse, valorize their weakness as an "openness" to "strangeness" that "solid people" are unwilling or unable to face. Moral experience is a complicated matter. The important thing is that we do the best we can.

I'm reading Harold Bloom these days and am looking forward to getting to the part about Ashbery's "strong" poetry.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Lyrical Governmentality

Here's another stanza from Susan Briante's "Dear Mr. Director of the Census Bureau":

Hawks alight on a high-voltage tower by the highway. Each scrub oak below them opens like a flower. Each city block unfolds like a square on playing board.* This morning I can see the staggering boundaries of power grids and aquifers. But, Sir, what place is there of mine in any of it.

Compare this passage from Tony's Invisible Bride:

A child's body itself is a playground in which gender identities can be monitored and produced, compelling reformers (yours truly) to locate them in public, visible settings. Like a cloud, I am meant to serve a large population. A playground should be a sort of truce between the tunnels and twilights of childhood. A playground should be rippling at its outermost branches.

This theme of the "location" or "place" of identities ("me") by some authority ("sir") over a "population" that it "serves" (cf. the "census bureau" of Briante's title) is very interesting to me. As emotional notations, all poems are poems of subjective location, situated agency. Or perhaps at least all lyrical poems.

With a nod to Michel Foucault, perhaps we can call these two poems "governmental" lyrics, songs of governmentality. They articulate the difficulty of caring for the self as the member of a population, a counted & measured body politic. Tony has us imagine a world in which "child-guidance experts, educators, architects and artists [have] formulated the exact number of dangerous illusions in the world". Briante approaches such precision in allegorical and skeptical terms, with mock astrology defiled by technology: "I could chart all of the satelites dangling like a mobile above my hospital nursery. Sir, they tell me nothing."

Notice the interest in boundaries (Tony's "outermost branches"). Notice the image of the opening flower (Tony will go on to invoke the "first blossom"). I think they're on to something here.

*Perhaps a typo. Should it read "...like a square on a playing board"?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Asphalt of Influence

Kate Greenstreet sent me a copy of Court Green 6 (among other journals) to look at. (Thanks, Kate.) Tonight I sat up (and ruffled my hair, I want to say) when I read Susan Briante's "Dear Mr. Director of the Census Bureau" (page 97). Here's the opening stanza:

Last night, hundreds of broadwing hawks moved in kettles over eastern Travis County, dropping shadows on scaly pines and glassphalt drives, powerlines and watering holes, sailing in currents of rise and fall, heavenly, purgatorial.

It's quite nice, and the rest of the poem satisfies Pound's injunction that the poet must "build us [her] world". What struck me is that the world Briante builds, the mood she stretches out between things, is manifestly also the world that Tony Tost built for us in his untitled piece on "playground reform" on page 3 of Invisible Bride (also published in No and available online here). It opens thus:

For years, irate mothers’ groups have demanded playground reform as child-guidance experts, educators, architects and artists formulated the exact number of dangerous illusions in the world. For openers, the lakes appear to be sheathed in glass while it is in fact the dreary expanses of asphalt that are stuffed with it.

Both works are prose poems and both affect the style of public speech. Briante's can be read as an open letter, Tony's as an op-ed piece in the newspaper, though each with its own strangeness, of course—a sort of clinamen. Both poems get us thinking (or, rather, feeling something) about the place that adults grant children in their world, but because we empathize with the children, not the adults, they ultimately draw our attention to our own tenuous relationship with public spaces. (Briante does this quite explicitly.)

The awareness they occasion can be compared to that described by Leo Frobenius in Part One, Section 6, of Kulturgeschichte Afrikas, in which he imagines the keen observer of a group of twelve-year-old boys reacting to the passage of two girls through the square in which they are playing (page 22-23). Different means are employed, but the essentially "poetic" aim of "emotional notation" (Ergriffsschrift) is the same.

In any case, the affinities between Briante's poem and Tony's are so striking that they seem intentional. I'm assuming that Tony's is the precursor (and nothing about either's familiarity with Frobenius). The "glassphalt drives" in Briante's poem, if I'm right, should be read as a reference to "the dreary expanses of asphalt that are stuffed with [glass]" in Tony's. Both, like I say, appear in the first stanzas. Likewise, in the final stanzas, Tony's "wintry ground" can safely be imagined beneath Briante's "winter treetrops".

[Update 18/12/2014: I just found another reference to glassphalt in Ben Lerner's new novel 10:04. On page 26 he writes: "We chatted for the length of her cigarette about the show—the opening started in an hour or two—most of my consciousness still overwhelmed by her physical proximity, every atom belonging to her as well belonged to me, all senses fused into a general supersensitivity, crushed glass sparkling in the asphalt below" (my emphasis). Ben Lerner edits No.]

Birth of Empire

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The "Anonymous" K__l R__e

I sometimes argue that politics is not about facts but (their pangrammatical homologue) acts. Politicians don't discover what is true, they decide what is just. (As for the legal system, Billy Bragg said it best: "This isn't a court of justice, son. This is a court of law.")

A great example of this can be seen in the current "birther" controversy, which I follow as a long-time aficionado and sometime fellow traveller of conspiracy theories. The recent passage of a bill that, in effect, declares Hawaii to be President Obama's birthplace, clearly illustrates the "active" rather than "factive" quality of politics.

Birthers, like all conspiracy theorists, believe in "the facts". Though their brethren won't acknowledge them, conspiracy theorists are the indestructible core of the "reality-based community". If you think facts subtend the policy realm you will, at some point, sooner or later, come to the conclusion that there is a vast conspiracy (usually "in Washington") to "cover them up", i.e., "the facts". It begins with the idea (recently dealt with in the Economist) that "all politicians lie". It ends with the idea that once the lie is exposed, the facts will come to light, and the world will "grow honest". As Hamlet astutely pointed out, then the end is near.

Anyway, Congress just passed a bill that, at least in opinion of Eric Kleefeld at TPM, puts the congressional supporters of the birthers in a tough spot. They were asked to affirm or deny that Obama was born in Hawaii, i.e., to vote for or against a bill that declares (albeit in passing) that Obama is a "natural born citizen" of the U.S. Kleefeld deftly brings Bill Posey's vote in this matter into contact with his previous statement that 'he wouldn't "swear on a stack of Bibles" that Obama is a natural-born American citizen'. That is, Posey has (arguably) been forced into the position of taking a position on a matter of fact that he wanted to leave open. Though he doesn't "know" (to his own satisfaction) where Obama was born, he has had to vote in favour of a bill that "enacts" this as a truth. It's a sort of "Ha, made you say it!" joke.

While this playfulness is going in Washington, of course, reality-based America (what Palin might call "the real America", I guess) only grows more disenchanted, and arguably, disenfranchised. The facts don't matter. Congress simply declares what they are. As politicians and journalists increasingly define what issues are "relevant" and what stories are "dead", the general population loses faith (or, worse, interest) in what is really going on. Ultimately any interest in what the facts are, in what "really happened", will mark you as a "conspiracy theorist", a wingnut, a nutbag, a loon. More respectfully, it will make you a kook, one of Old Ez's impractical cats. I.e., those who judiciously study what imperial justice is, i.e., what the empire does.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

More Grammur

"Men do not seem to have acquired speech in order to conceal their thoughts," said Kierkegaard, thinking of Talleyrand's remark to a Spanish envoy, "but in order to conceal the fact that they have no thoughts." Pound was quite certain that scholars often use words, not to tell us what they know, but to conceal their ignorance. Heidegger emphasized the existential importance of "idle talk" (Gerede) and, in scholarly contexts, "scribbling" (Schreiberei).

"The essential business of language," said Russell, "is to assert and deny facts." I never tire of articulating the pangrammatical homologue: the existential business of language is to enjoin or denounce acts. Language is there to be understood or obeyed; the grammar embodies the underlying regularity and regulation of our statements and our commands. If logic is the grammar of the statement; pathos is the grammar of command.

And then there is our grammur, the diffident wobble of language when it is used neither to state a fact nor command an act, when it has no specifiable meaning—when it offers neither sense nor motive. But the grammur, too, has a kind of logic, a kind of passion. It begins, naturally, with irony, which is governed by grammar, conditioned by paradigms of assertion and injunction. Grammur, like kulchur, begins where we no longer care what the ironist means, when we recognize the irony only as such.

Grammur is all over the place. It governs (if that is the right word) most of what we say (i.e., mostly we are not saying anything when we speak). Poetry and philosophy lead us, with a little light, like a rushlight, with little string, like lyre's string, back from grammur to grammar.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Canada Day in Disneyland

"Oh, don't it smell like some perverted money-making plan?"
Bob Wiseman

I think this is my first post to celebrate Canada Day, but it is not my first to celebrate the music of Bob Wiseman. If you go to "Bob Radio" on his site, let me repeat that "White Dress" (aka "Luisa") may be the most beautiful song ever written.

There's a free download of "Disneyland" here, which is where the epigraph comes from. Play it loud.

And there's free access to the 1989 album In Her Dream (including the previously redacted "Rock and Tree") here. Enjoy.

Friday, June 26, 2009


I'm very ambivalent about cultural politics, which is why I like Pound's concept of kulchur. It captures what John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) meant, I think, when he said simply that "culture is a hokey fraud" (NINBND, p. 20). This temperament can, perhaps, also be applied to the study of language, call it grammur. "In no case," Pound suggests, "swallow fat greasy words which conceal three or four indefinite middles" (GK, p. 344). The study of grammur is the study of "the fogged language of swindling classes" (ABCoR, p. 33). It is an attempt to expose those indefinite middles, to regain a real sense of style.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In Defense of the Burka (2)

In my last post on this subject I gave the impression that I think women should be allowed to wear a Burka if they want. While it does look to me as though many Western politicians oppose even this moderate position, it's not much of a defense of hijab as a style, I will grant.

Hijab, like any other code of moral conduct (or Sittlichkeit), isn't very much good if left only to the personal whims of individuals. To truly "defend" the Burka, or any more moderate variety of hijab (i.e., modesty), is to defend the idea that a specific group of people (defined by age and gender) must conform to the style of covering the relevantly "suggestive" body parts in the relevantly public spaces. If it is a good idea to cover the bodies of women, then it is good for everyone, not just the men or the women or the powers that be.

Even Western cultures, of course, have standards of dress, however lax they may be. On most beaches in America, women must cover four specific organs (or three depending on how you count), and men must cover only two, and once we move into public squares and public buildings, private homes and private business, we also have ways of making you dress. "No shoes, no shirt, no service." It may not be hijab, but it is very definitely a public standard of decency in dress.

My point is that hijab is merely an argument for drawing the line in a different place. I am not at all certain that I prefer my mildly (perhaps even softly) pornographic public spaces (keep in mind that I live in Denmark) to the more modest styles I might find on the street in Saudi Arabia. I don't know that I would be disappointed to find all the cleavage in a glossy magazine covered with a thick black marker. Like most men, I know how women look under their clothes. You don't have to draw me a picture. And I certainly don't need a fashion designer or advertising executive to spell it out for me on a daily basis.

Now, I've been raised in a Western, sexually liberated democracy, so I tolerate it without giving it much thought, and I can't imagine the passing of a law that would impose hijab in Copenhagen against the general will of the population. But I can imagine a long and interesting public conversation that ultimately moves our standards of dress in a more conservative direction. Supporters and observers of hijab, i.e., people who both promote and conform to the style, have an important place in that conversation. They are very much welcome on my territory.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Signs of Greatness

"I know everybody here is on a 24 hour news cycle. I'm not."
Barack Obama

(exchange at 1:23-1:36)

I've been noting small signs that the President is and is not as great as I audaciously hope he is. Here's a mark in his favour. "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." Obama seems not to share this superstition. If the press lets him live, and hold this line, greatness is, at least, possible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In Defense of the Burka

Sarkozy has denounced the burka in a speech to the French parliament. The Times rightly described it as an "attack on ... women". (Okay, that may be a bit unfair. The original quote reads: "attack on a small but growing number of fundamentalist women". But still.) The Times also rightly contrasts the gesture with Obama's acknowledgement of the right to observe/wear the hijab in his speech in Cairo. I'm with Obama on this one.

After the rhetoric of women's liberation, imagine a head of state uttering the following words:

In our country we cannot accept that women be bound in a harness ... The bra is not a fashion statement. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the Republic.

Interestestingly, I agree with Sarkozy when he says that "the burka is not a religious sign." But that is not because "it is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement"; it is because it is not, first and foremost, a sign at all. As I've tried to argue before, hijab is a style of dress, sometimes a whole comportment, just as beach babe and heroin chique are styles and comportments. Why won't Mr. Sarkozy let the women of France conceal their "identities" before him?

Let women dress how they like. Let women be welcome on any territory, whatever they choose to wear.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Oblivion & Nostalgia

There are people who will tell you that the 1960s were all about "flower power" and that they are now "into meditation". They also have a concept of "jazz" that emphasizes "improvisation". Tonight I suddenly had an occasion to vividly elucidate this insipid construct.

A friend of mine came over for dinner and we spent the night listening to music and discussing various subjects. We heard Lee Morgan, Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill, John Coltrane. Then, as he was about to leave, I had an inspiration.

We had been listening to some of the finest music of the 1960s. What would happen if we put on Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert from 1975? I got it out and we had a listen. Its insipidness (insipidity?) was painfully obvious. To test it, we put on Kind of Blue, also an "improvised" performance, but recorded before the sixties began, and we heard, again, the qualities of Morgan, Hutcherson, Hill, etc., in a, let us say, "pure" form.

I have nothing against Keith Jarrett as such. I am interested in the reception of that one particular album. It is so obviously inferior to the period that, if tradition means anything, produced it. And yet there is a kind of person, one that most eagerly identifies with "the sixties", who swears by the greatness of that mediocrity. Set against any number of albums—Sonic Boom, Stick Up!, Black Fire—it is simply devoid of content. Empty. And it is in that emptiness that certain survivors of the 1960s find their repose.

The Köln Concert is not a master work. It is the touchstone of a generation that is trying to forget something. Trying very, very hard to forget it. And hoping against hope that a generation to come won't hit on the truth.

Source Criticism

"The standards of this criticism alter to the degree that historiography approaches journalism." (Martin Heidegger)

If it is not yet clear to you that journalism, i.e., the pursuit of "the daily news", is a ridiculous activity, consider the following headline in a major left-liberal Danish newspaper.


The US has equiped Hawaii with a missile shield to counter North Korea's threats to attack on the American day of independence

Now, that's perhaps just vague enough to pass. But the article goes on to say that the word on the street is that

Secretatry of Defense Robert Gates has announced that the US is ready if North Korea makes good on its threat to send missiles against Hawaii.

This happened after rumours that North Korea is considering an attack on the US's western Pacific state on [Independence Day], July 4. (Politiken, 20.6.09, Sec. 1, page 10)

This sort of journalistic (and editorial) tone-deafness should confirm anyone's distate for the press. Journalists are content to describe world events as though they were watching a movie. In this case (involving, it appears, the diplomatic sophistication of two journalists and the editor of the International section) were somehow able to convert their reading of (I'm guessing) a few internet sources or newswires about the wholly abstract "threat" implied by a missile test and the wholly hypothetical act of "defending" oneself against it with a test of one's own, into an impending "attack" on America. This plan to launch an attack, then, (so think the journalists) can be casually proposed in public and reported in the news. How exciting!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"You are not going to fight modernism on its
own terrain because you will lose."

Jonathan Mayhew

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Mortgage

Though it has taken me some time, I have come to the conclusion that the theme of craftsmanship against usury is fundamental, not just to Pound's poetics, but to all poetry. Originally, we owned "the house of being" outright.

But something happened, some arch "bank" got into it and established a separation of credit and creation (finance and production). This involved also an alienation from death, which is why Lorca insists that true creativity occurs only in the proximity of death. It is a romantic notion to be sure, as Jonathan warns, but I think that it is exactly in the proximity such kitsch that art is produced. Good art must be produced at the risk of kitsch. (Something Flarf, if I may bring it up again, seems keenly sensitive to.)

This post is really just an attempt to tell a bad joke. If the duende is the true "master of the house", the "real owner", if Dasein seeks the event of its own appropriation, its authentic moment of coming into its own, the moment when I own what is, in each case, always already mine, and if this moment comes only in the face of the "ownmost possibility" of my being, i.e., of my death (in each case to be appropriated without being actualized) then my inauthenticity, my alienation, the real kitsch of my ideal craft, is the measure of my death, the gauge with which I plumb the depth of my dying, my dead pledge, my mortgage.

Death, Dasein and Duende

"In every country, death comes as a finality. It comes, and the curtain comes down. But not in Spain!"
Federico García Lorca

The connections just keep turning up. Perhaps the most direct connection between Dasein and duende is their connection to death. I think this connection is also one of "ownership": the possibility of death defines our "property-relation" to our body. We own our bodies in a distinctive way.

In Being and Time, Heidegger writes: "The closest closeness which one may have in Being towards death as a possibility, is as far as possible from anything actual" (H. 262). "Death is Dasein's ownmost possibility," he declares (H. 263). In his lecture on the duende, Lorca says: "The Duende ... will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death, if he is not convinced he will circle death's house."

I know where I'm going with this now: there is an analysis of Norman Mailer's "American existentialism" (hip) lurking in this. (Jonathan Mayhew makes this connection also, though only in passing.) In his Existential Errands we find both a translation of Lorca and an account of a bullfight.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Owner

"In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society,
but what it really means is - you're on your own."
Barack Obama

"We are ourselves the entities to be analysed.
The Being of any such entity is in each case mine."
Martin Heidegger

My thinking about Dasein and duende has led to suprising results. First, consider the following sentence as it appears in Heidegger's Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie:

Jede so eigens gebildete Weltanschauung erwächst einer natürlichen Weltanschauung, einem Umkreis von Auffassungen der Welt und Bestimmungen des menschlichen Daseins, di jeweils mit jedem Dasein mehr oder minder ausdrüklich gegeben sind. (7)

Albert Hofstadter, in his authoritative translation, renders this using the common practice of leaving the word "Dasein" untranslated:

Every world-view thus individually formed arises out of a natural world-view, out of a range of conceptions of the world and determinations of the human Dasein which are at any particular time given more or less explicitly with each such Dasein.

Gregory Fried and Richard Polt explain the issue in the introduction to their translation of Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics:

In everyday German, the word Dasein is used just as we use the word "existence"; readers may always substitute "existence" for "Dasein" in order to get a sense of how Heidegger's statements would have sounded to his original audience. (xii)

We can do that with the sentence from the Grundprobleme:

Every world-view thus individually formed arises out of a natural world-view, out of a range of conceptions of the world and determinations of human existence which are at any particular time given more or less explicitly with each such existence.

I think that is very much to be preferred, and I wanted to know what Lorca's original audience would have heard in the word Spanish word "duende". To set up what I discovered, here's a bit more from Fried and Polt:

[The root meaning of Dasein] is usually rendered in English as "Being there," but when Heidegger hyphenates Da-sein, we have employed the equally valid translation "Being-here." Dasein is the being who inhabits a Here, a sphere of meaning within which beings can reveal themselves as meaningful, as significant. (xii, my emphasis)

Now, I've looked only very briefly at the corresponding "root meaning" of "duende". In Spanish mythology, it is a kind of fairy or goblin; it is clearly the personification (or at least corporealization) of a certain kind of spirit, perhaps (and for my purposes importantly) an essentially local spirit, a "spirit of the place". Lorca describes it in terms of an "earthiness". Saying that an artist or a work of art "has duende" is like saying it "has soul".

Wikipedia, which is where I'm so far getting my information about this, adds an interesting etymological twist, tracing its origin to "the Spanish word dueño, 'owner' (the 'real owner' of the house)." Now, Heidegger says somewhere that language is "the house of Being", but that is not all. His later work concentrated less on Dasein and more on Ereignis. That word has been either left untranslated or translated by a neologism (Enowning). But it means simply "the event". It connotes, however, (and this is why it has caused difficulties for translators) the act of making something your own (Er-eigen), i.e., appropropriating it. Taking possession of it.

But Dasein is je meines ("in each case mine"). Dasein, like duende, is the "the real owner of the house". There is more. Later.

Update: I must have skipped ahead to the end when I first got Jonathan's book. He closes the book with a mention both of duende as "dueño" and "spirit of the place" ("genius loci").

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dasein and Duende

Everything I know about Lorca I'm learning by reading Jonathan Mayhew's new book. It's the first time in recent memory that I'm reading a book about a writer that I've never read for myself. I come to Jonathan's book knowing essentially nothing about the subject. For example, I hadn't heard of the duende before (Jonathan has blogged about it, but mostly it just went over my head), which, it seems, is a bit like thinking you know something about philosophy but drawing a blank on Dasein. In fact, as I understand it, Jonathan's take on Lorca's signature concept resembles my take on Heidegger's.

To the extent that the duende names a universal phenomenon, it loses its cultural specificity and hence its raison d'etre: we could just as easily designate it with another label: inspiration, muse, angel, demon, soul, genius. For the duende to play a role in American poetics, it must remain untranslatable, even though it serves as the tutelary spirit of the American translation of Lorca. (51)

Look how easy it is to construct the same observation about "the American Heidegger":

To the extent that the Dasein names a universal phenomenon, it loses its cultural specificity and hence its raison d'etre: we could just as easily designate it with another label: existence, subject, human being, soul, self. For the Dasein to play a role in American philosophy, it must remain untranslatable, even though it serves as the tutelary spirit of the American translation of Heidegger.

Now, in fact "subject, human being, soul, self" would involve way too much interpretation to pass as translation, at least for my tastes. But the same argument could be made for Lorca's duende. Just as Heidegger uses the German word for "existence" to denote the specific "being there" of we humans, so Lorca uses the Spanish word for "hobgoblin" (that's what the dictionary tells me) to denote "the muse", inspiration.

In both cases, however, we can ask whether it would not be stronger to translate the writer as addressing a universal theme (like existence or inspiration), putting his particular spin on it, than to let the untranslated word hold a place for an overinterpreted notion. With this as a hook, I'm sure it would be possible to write a book on "the apocryphal Heidegger".

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reality, Ideality, Language

In his 1972 preface to The Gold of the Tigers, Borges reminds us that "a language is a tradition, a way of grasping reality, not an arbitrary assemblage of symbols" (The Book of Sand, Penguin, 1979, p. 98).

Language is, indeed, "a way of grasping reality". As Betrand Russell put it in his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "The essential business of language is to assert and deny facts." Of course, you have to agree with Wittgenstein in advance in order to interpret Borges's "grasping reality" as something as prosaic as "asserting facts". Borges and his readers would be forgiven for thinking that something "more" is going on, and a pangrammatical homology suggests itself to identify what this may be.

As knowledge is to power, the real is to the ideal. It is important to notice the role of "tradition" in Borges's sentence. It is, in the first place, not language, but a tradition that is defined as "a way of grasping reality". Traditions are also oriented by the ideal. Indeed, we might say that the ideal moves us by means of our traditions, just as we use them to grasp reality.

Concepts (Begriffe) constitute our hold on the real and emotions (Ergriffe) constitute the ideal's hold on us. Language allows us to assert facts because it embodies the long tradition of our attempt to grasp reality. It allows to us enjoin acts, however, because it is embedded, just as surely and for just as long, in our tradition of being enthralled by ideality. Language is both the logic of assertion and the passion of injunction.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

97 Years on the Case: Towards an ABC of Financial Crisis

I'm sure I'm not the first to imagine a research project that rereads Pound's body of work through the lens of the present financial crisis. Indeed, there is a whole subculture in the U.S. for whom December 23, 1913 is a day of infamy. It was on that day that the Federal Reserve Act was passed by the Senate. Twenty years later, in his ABC of Economics, Pound chastised those who say that "A bank manager need know nothing save the difference between a bill and a mortgage". But he follows it up with an observation that should give us pause in this age of derivative-induced financial catastrophe: "Several 'great financiers' and prize-receiving 'economists' in our time fail to make this distinction." (SP, p. 227) There is, indeed, a sense in which credit-default swaps are failures to differentiate between paying one's bills and making payments on one's mortgage.

The Financial Products of America Go Crazy

The enormous tragedy of the dream that other nations will export
their capital to buy the financial products of America!

You sometimes feel that you would go crazy reading about them all.

Europeans go crazy and spread loans like butter,
washing machines, or cars, but electric word life
means forever and that's a mighty long time.

Aussies go crazy for cat poo coffee.

(Maybe it's cuz
We're all gonna die)

Property prices and shares go crazy.

(In this life
You are


So let's not go crazy over AIG bonuses.
More and more money comes in.
It's very hard for common man to still see the merit of fear.
It's company like yours that causes the Market to go Crazy.

Which is to say, creating financial products not to boost the output of the world
but to deprive your self completely of all non-essential items

(not even a checking account) hemorrhaging red ink and reason.
Here's a way to make the GOP go crazy.

Hang tough, children, by the heels at Milano. He's coming
He's coming. Coming

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Paperback Cover Writers

"It's the dirty story of a dirty man and his clinging wife doesn't understand."

I've complained about this sort of thing before (and here). I read two short novels on the weekend: Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. At one point I noticed the back covers. Here's a couple of sentences from the first:

He knows the West better than you do. And as he tells you his story, of how he embraced the Western dream — and a Western woman — and how both betrayed him, so the night darkens.

Well, that's not how it happens, actually. Neither the woman nor the dream (his employer) in any way "betray" the protagonist, nor does he want us to think so. The night does darken, for what it's worth.

Here's what we find on the back of the Penguin Popular Classics paperback edition of Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

On a boat tethered in the Thames, Marlow, the Captain, recounts to his crew his experiences in Africa when he led an expedition into the impenetrable and mysterious core of the jungle.

Not even the story of the "expedition" gets it quite right, does it? But more striking is the fact that Marlow was not captain of the Nellie as she lies at anchor in the Thames. Nor was he talking to the crew. He was talking to a lawyer, an accountant, and the narrator, who are among the guests of "the director of companies" (and captain of the Nellie) on his yacht.

What hope is there for reading when a publisher can't get basic details of neither its new releases nor its its hundred-year-old classics right?

PS: Just as I was sitting down to write this post I noticed that the title of track six on the 60th Anniversary Blue Note reissue of Lee Morgan's The Sixth Sense is given correctly on the back cover but as "The Cry of My People" on face of the CD itself. It's not the same kind of mistake, I guess.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Grammar of Torture

Jesse Ventura and Christopher Hitchens assure us that waterboarding is torture. They've tried it. But I've been hearing an argument against their testimony that really must be dismantled. I just saw Brian Kilmeade use it on Fox. Ventura says he's tried and it is torture. Kilmeade then asks, "Are you okay now?"

What? Ventura, like Hitchens, has tried it under circumstances that they could trust. Prisoners of war do not have such conditions. Hitchens and Ventura have experienced the basic mechanism (they know what the feeling is). But they have had the power to stop it.

If it was absolutely necessary to experience something to talk about it, we could pull out one of my fingernails to show that this really hurts. But the objection to torture is not the pain itself. It is the victim's ignorance of when it will stop. One's powerlessness to stop it.

Nor is that kind of ignorance or powerlessness itself torture. All prisoners in a sense feel it. And it can be very effectively used in interrogations. If you always knew when the session would be over, you could plan your responses accordingly. It's the combination of pain and powerlessness. It's the humiliation.

Obviously. That's why one doesn't want one's country to be engaged in torturing anyone. One does not want one's government to be humiliating.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Banana Republic

Christopher Hitchens has offered two arguments, one major (3:38), one minor, for the proposition that the United States of America is becoming a banana republic. I noted the arguments of Stiglitz and Johnson the other day, which are more major still.

I like Hitchens's recent (minor) one because it turns on the question of the president's sense of humour. And the humour of those who cover him. I've said something about that here, too.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Pound Eros

"What thou lovest well remains. The rest is dross."

Our Disadvantage Continues ("after a fashion")

Hugh Kenner's reading of Pound/Douglas corroborates Davis's: "bank credit alone is what creates the illusion of a functioning money supply" (The Pound Era, p. 310). Kenner, too, following Pound, following Adams, notes that our ignorance keeps it going.

And no one understands any of this, and yet the system keeps running, after a fashion. It keeps running, Douglas thought, thanks to constant diversification. Encountering a clog in houses, the economy diversifies into back scratchers, golf carts, scented dog-bones, and so long as it can generate new demands it can postpone the Damoclean stasis. But creating newer and newer sets of insurmountable costs, drawing on more and ever more bank credit (some day to be called), "misdirected effort which appears in cost forms a continuous and increasing diluent to the purchasing value of effort in general." (312)

This diversification through the innovation of "useless or superfluous articles" (313) has, of course, (and perhaps beyond Douglas's expectations) today been carried into useless and superfluous financial instruments (derivatives), whose purpose is to support distribution through "the illusion of a functioning money supply". In fact, the "money supply" is derived from credit innovations (just as clogs in the housing market could be dealt with by surges in the dog-bone market).

The economy is not a means to satisfy needs, nor even to fill demand. It is simply a set of opportunities for people to get rich.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Our Disadvantage Derives from Ignorance

Here are a couple of snippets from Earle Davis's Vision Fugitive, which was published over forty years ago. As relevant as ever, it would seem. (My underlining.)

Our disadvantage derives from ignorance of what is going on and lack of power to change the procedure. Pound insists that banking privilege in creating credit is completely different from freedom of business in all other matters of production and distribution. The idea that politicians would ruin the economy by using the government's right to print and issue money seems to him to be puerile. No politicians, he says, could hurt the general economy more than private unregulated money creators have done throughout modern history. (83)

When banks call loans or restrict credit, the mount of real money in circulation goes down in proportion. Call enough loans and depression is a cinch. Pound's argument is that no business class has the right to expand or constrict a nation's credit deliberately. This right is the privilege of the nation as a whole, and nations should take back from the banking class the special privilege which is now theirs, the ability to control the flow of credit and the distribution of goods that depend upond the amount of money in circulation. (84)

As I see it, the present system was defended by the idea that politicians would botch up the credit system. We now know that private bankers are just as capable of that.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Correcting Williams

"No ideas but in things" is perhaps the most famous statement of any poetics. (Only Pound's "make it new" is more succinct, but it is also less specific.) Pangrammatically speaking, however, it is imprecise. Poetry is to people what philosophy is to things. Williams gets the connection between poetry and ideas right (philosophers are mistaken to think ideas constitute their domain, though concepts, of course, do). But the slogan must either read "No realities but around things" or "No ideas but in people".

The original slogan is of course taken from the first book of Paterson, which was supposed to be about "the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city" (xiii). His method, then, would be to describe the ideas in this mind by describing the things in that city. But a method is not, in and of itself, a poetics. Williams was not actually writing down the things he saw; he was writing down the ideas in his mind. Paterson is not so much a place in the world as a way through history. As he would also put it, much more simply, "Paterson is a man".

In a related matter, making is to poetry what taking is to philosophy. Philosophy studies the given while poetry polices our striving. (Striving is to power what giving is to knowledge. A study is to knowledge what a policy is to power.) If poetry, then, is to make it new, i.e., direct us to the end of history, let philosophy take us back, i.e., direct us to the origin of the world. Poetry is a crisis of desire, philosophy a crisis of belief.

Friday, May 08, 2009

A Definition of Oligarchy

A society whose banks are too big to fail.

NOTE: This JEC session is where it came up. In fact, if you listen even half-way carefully from 02:21:15 to 02:24:30, what you will have heard is the case being made, before a joint committee of the United States Congress, by some very reputable persons, that America is a banana republic. That's the light-hearted way of putting it. Stiglitz says he would consider the private-public partnership program a "scam" if some third-world country had proposed it. Taken in conjunction with Brad Miller's summary of Johnson's Atlantic article—an oligarchy controlls the government and "until you end the power of the oligarchy..."—this is very disturbing, or at least should be. I know a lot of people are using the word "fascism" very carelessly these days. But I don't see how much more of an argument you need to at least raise the issue.

Too Big to Fail = Too Big to Exist

Simon Johnson is my new hero. Read his very good piece in the Atlantic also.

Update: Johnson seems to be alluding to Bernie Sanders (the argument starts at about 2:00):

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Hard-boiled Sentiments

I have a soft but not very developed spot for Raymond Chandler. My knowledge of his work covers an essay, a short story, and two novels, one of which I just finished. So far, I know exactly what I like about his writing.

In Farewell, My Lovely (1940), Marlowe meets a "psychic consultant" and con-man named Jules Amthor, who holds the following short speech:

I am no fool. I am in a very sensitive profession. I am a quack. That is to say I do things which the doctors in their small frightened selfish guild cannot accomplish. I am in danger at all times—from people like you. (126)

I like that on its own. But what I really appreciate is the way it resonates with Marlowe's own words not long afterwards. A police detective has just warned him about what might happen if he interferes with the murder investigation: "little by little you will build up a body of hostility in this department that will make it damn hard for you to do any work." Marlowe responds:

Every private dick faces that every day of his life ... I don't expect to go out and accomplish things a big police department can't accomplish. If I have any small private notions, they are just that—small and private. (180)

"Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled," says Saul Bellow's "dangling man" (1944). I'm not so sure.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

Science and Institutions

Pangrammatically speaking, science is to intuition what politics is to institution. This suggests a rather radical conclusion: science cannot be institutionalized. It is the purpose of politics to transform institutions, and the purpose of science to transform intuitions. The idea of "free inquiry" derives its sense from this grammar.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Amateur Economists

From this week's Economist:

Subsidies to home ownership have also weakened financial services. They encouraged more people to buy houses (which was the point), but, logically enough, also encouraged lenders to take greater risks with housing. This was fine while house prices were rising, but the fall exposed how vulnerable banks’ balance sheets had become.

I don't know very much about this sort of thing, but lately I feel I've been learning a lot about how markets actually (and inexorably) work. Can the credit market and the housing market really be separated in this way, so that it was okay to take risks "while house prices were rising" on their own and in some separate market? I mean, didn't the banks' exposure to ever more innovative forms of risk keep creating new kinds of credit and therefore new buyers for houses they could not previously afford (wrong way to put it: they still couldn't afford it, but they could now finance it anyway).

The bubble burst because the only thing left to lenders was to come up with a clever scheme in which they, say, paid borrowers to take their money. Once new forms of articifical demand could no longer be created (through novel credit instruments, subsidies, and gov't guarantees), the fall had to come. Lenders did not suffer the effects of rising and falling house prices. They were an important part of the cause.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

James and Rawls, Pangrammaticists

"The true, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving." (William James)

"Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is the first virtue of systems of thought." (John Rawls)

I would like to say that truth is a rightness in the way of belief, and justice is a rightness in the way of desire. Justice is the virtue of institutions, I agree; but truth is the correlative virtue of intuitions. If truth is the expedient in the way of thought, and I will grant that it may well be, then justice (arguably "the right") is the expedient in the way of feeling. The former is supported by the precision of our concepts, the latter by the precision of our emotions.

As to the way we behave, yes, we may in that regard be right or wrong, and, when this rightness or wrongness is conditioned by institutional factors, I will grant that that right is just and wrong is not. Truth, likewise, is the rightness of our beholding when such beholding is conditioned by intuition.

[Update: all behaviour is conditioned by institutions. And there can be no beholding without intuition. But they can be, as it were, "barely" conditioned. We might perhaps talk of "unbound" behaviour and beholding: actions that lack any immediate motive, beholdings that don't immediately make sense.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Categorical Imperative?

Do only what is necessary.


Indecency is not injustice but the proximate occasion of injustice. My line on proximate occasions (also of sin) is that they should not necessarily be avoided. In that sense, my position is less than Catholic.

Indecent acts, in fact, are also occasions of greater good, i.e., of higher-level justice, and the road to the improvement of imperfect institutions.

Justice only makes sense in the context of institutions. The reproduction of the conditions of our institutional experience depends on our decency. It can therefore, sometimes, be necessary to behave indecently as an act of resistance. Indecency challenges the immediate power of institutions...

...just as dishonesty challenges the immediate knowledge of intuition. The argument for dishonesty in particular situations is that it creates a space that is freed from habitual judgments on matters of fact. Indecency, likewise, fosters moments that are freed from habitual judgments about how we act. They are "shocking".

[Update (07/07/2014): Art must provide the proximate occasion of scandal. See Andrew's comments and my response to this post.]