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