Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Practice of the Absurd

Something struck me the other day when reflecting on Camus' Myth of Sisyphus. He makes a number of practical proposals for how to live with the insight that life is ultimately meaningless. Some are lifestyles, others are careers. Thus, he can imagine the absurd man as a seducer (Don Juan), but also as an actor and a warrior. He discusses acting quite literally (both in terms of the work and the fame that goes with it). The "conqueror", meanwhile, stands for any historical actor (a general, a politician, or a business executive, could presumably fill this role). Finally, he clearly believes that artists, and especially writers, can live the "truth" of the absurd, i.e., can work without hope.

But what about more conventional, more "bourgeoise" lifestyles and vocations? Is it possible to be an absurd accountant, for example? Or an absurd bus driver? (There is a remark in The Rebel, as I recall, about the difference between the bus driver who can repair the bus and the one who can't.*) Or an absurd doctor or teacher? Can these lives be lived without any assumption that life "means something"? What about being a parent? What, indeed, about being a child? Does becoming a parent or a teacher constitute what Camus calls "philosophical suicide", i.e., does it require a baseless faith in the meaningfulness of existence?

At the time of the publication of The Myth of Sisyphus Camus was married (against his principles, it should be noted). But he did not become a father until three years later.

In any case, it seems to me that participation in institutions like schools and families assume that life means something. I am not willing to grant, in any but a very formal and abstract sense, that this is a philosophically untenable position. (It is perhaps the "form" of a philosophical position to declare ordinary lives untenable.)

Update: "The truck, driven day and night, does not humiliate its driver, who knows it inside out and treats it with affection and efficiency." (The Rebel, p. 293)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Yoffe's Existential Politics

While I generally think Emily Yoffe (aka, "Prudie", i.e., an advice columnist) is part of the larger problem she here happens to be part of the solution to, I have to give credit where credit is due. She's absolutely right. Obama would have a chance to become a great president if he hired Petraeus back. In fact, it would inaugurate what Norman Mailer would call "existential politics". Superman might really return to the supermarket. Then perhaps he could also help get Anthony Weiner his job back (cf. The Contender, cf. Thebes ca. 1250 BC.)

It's a shot at greatness, not a slam dunk, I should emphasize. He has a similar existential moment to face in Colorado and Washington.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On the University

It seems like an unassailably good idea to have an institution in society the aim of which is to discover and propagate truths, produce and distribute knowledge.

Such an institution should be able to attract and retain a staff that desires to satisfy its curiosity. I.e., it should employ a group of people that feels pleasure at the discovery of an unknown fact and the communication of that discovery to others when it is made.

It would be a good idea not to confuse the staff with an incentive structure that presumes other forms of ambition, such as the desire for material comfort or social status.

It is of course true that if a group of people had "no care in the world" other than to discover and propagate truths, a number of industries, whose current business model is based largely on the concealment and hoarding of particular classes of truths, and their translation into "products" which can then be sold at a profit, would become less lucrative.

It does not seem to me, however, that the species benefits as a whole from a system in which the incentive to discover a truth is positively correlated with the incentive to conceal it from others.

On the Objects of Historiography and Sociology

History is the process by which the few dominates the many.

Society is merely the current state of that oppression.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Moon of Moral Peril

Here's a thought that might help us to answer Fred Kaplan's question "Why?":

How can he, Bill Clinton, endanger his presidency so? Of course, men take weird chances when the navigator at the center of oneself whispers in the dream: Kid, your cancer is near.

For some, the cure for cancer is to visit the moon of moral peril. If the cause of cancer is undissolved shame, and cancer is a revolt of the cells against the hegemony of the CEO (that mysterious Chief Ego Officer who runs the body), then it may be that Clinton is full of undissolved shame. Let us warrant that it is not because of oral sex.

His shame, if he has any, is that he has never been able to stand up to the big money. He is powerless before men of huge financial size. Face to face with such buckos, the wind dies and the proud flag on the flagship commences to droop. As Monica Lewinsky is to Bill Clinton, so is Clinton to the big money--just a kid trying to earn his presidential knee-pads.

If it all comes to the worst for him and he is obliged to resign, a denouement which seems unlikely at this writing, well, an old moral law will have been observed: The criminal is rarely condemned for his true crime.

Nixon's sins in Watergate were venial compared to the monstrosity of allowing the war in Vietnam to wind down over four years while two million more Asian men and women were killed. Clinton's major crime is not that he has charged relations of one sort or another in the White House (that palace of presidential purity!) with a young girl, but that he betrayed the poor and enriched the wealthy. (Norman Mailer, August 2, 1998, excerpt at

I think it is important to keep in mind that Petraeus' "sin" here is decidedly venial when compared to what his agency is involved in in, say, Pakistan.


A good piece in the Atlantic and another one in Slate. I have to admit that I've been distracted by it too, but just as the legalization story is bigger than the election, it's bigger than the Petraeus affair as well.

It's often said that the War on Drugs is irrational. But a policy should not really be assessed in terms of its rationality per se. Such assessments merely grant the policy its purported goal, rather than exposing its real motive. The Drug War is, first and foremost, malevolent. It's aim is to oppress, and it achieves this aim very well. There's nothing irrational about it.

As a policy for dealing with "the drug problem", of course, it's complete madness. But that problem is itself an ideological construct, a lie.

What is needed now is a long conversation among executives and lawmakers, taken at the highest level. We now have two states whose representatives must represent the idea that pot should be legal. This means that research that shows it is relatively harmless must be considered in a different way, i.e., taken seriously. This is where America shows us whether or not it really is a democracy, whether or not policy is made as an expression of the will of the people or the entrenched interests of enforcement agencies.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Too Close to Call?

On election night 2004, Jimmy Breslin went to bed early, certain that Kerry would win—in fact, "it shouldn't even be close". I've felt that way since the Republican primaries. I simply couldn't see how Obama could lose. The only thing that made me even consider the possibility was the media's insistence on treating it like a horse race. So I'm grateful to Paul Krugman for saying what I've been feeling must be true these past few weeks: "reporting that suggests that this is a too-close-to-call race [is] just lazy, and a disservice to readers."

What does this have to do with Breslin and Kerry? Well, Kerry lost, and Breslin's "service to readers" was to underscore the fraudulence of Bush's win before it happened. Krugman is doing us the same service now. He's reminding us that this election is not close. If Romney wins, that's not just one of the possibilities coming true. It's a minor miracle. Like Bush's win in 2004 was a major miracle. It should force pollsters and pundits and political scientists to explain something. It should not simply be accepted.

Tomorrow night, then, let's remember that "too close to call" means simply "close enough to fix". I, for one, am going to bed before the results come in.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

WCW on Prose, Poetry, and Emotion

I just finished Spring and All, embarrassed, now, to admit that it's my first time reading it as a whole, as a book. I'll have a lot to say about it in the weeks to come. Tonight, I just want to note that on page 85 Williams says that "poetry liberates the words from their emotional implications, prose confirms them in it". This is very much line with my thinking about how a poem "extricates" the feeling from the emotion our institutions imposes on our experience of history.

Friday, November 02, 2012

John Keats on Men's Health

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with. From the Latin mens, a fact unknown to that honest shoe-seller, who, observing that his learned competitor over the way had displayed the motto "Mens conscia recti," emblazoned his own front with the words "Men's, women's and children's conscia recti." (Ambrose Bierce)

Don't ask how I stumbled on this list, but Men's Health offers ten interpretations of the female body, at least two of which (linked below) made me think of this passage in Keat's "Ode to Melancholy":

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

I really do worry that these magazine "tips" and advice columns are replacing poetry as the "data for ethics". Notice how the interpretations of female physiology are supported again and again by science. Compare Pound's "conception of the body as perfect instrument of the increasing intelligence" with the practical attitude of "men's sana", if you will: "Treat her to a breakfast in bed consisting of warmed banana-nut bread, which has an aroma that, according to one study, increases bloodflow to the vagina." I suppose this is also a solution to the troubadour's problem: "finding a new way of saying in six closely rhymed strophes that a certain girl, matron or widow was a like a certain set of things, and the troubadour's virtues were like another set, and that all this was very sorrowful or otherwise, and that there was but one obvious remedy." (Pound, LE, p. 102)

Here's to a men's sana in a corporate sano!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Pronouns of War

The first victim of a drug war is grammar. Here's a good example:

"That's not to say legalizing pot is without risks; it has been shown to impair concentration." (LZ Granderson)

While the entire article is against the war on drugs and in favor of legalization, the whole argument for the war is reproduced in the space between that semicolon and the next word. What, after all, does "it" refer to?

It can only refer to pot, not legalizing pot. The fact that something impairs concentration does not identify a "risk" associated with its legality. Love is legal. Television is legal. Email is legal. And so, of course, is alcohol. Making alcohol, or television, or love illegal today would involve much greater risks than keeping them legal. (The risk lies in driving something the multitudes enjoy daily underground, into the hands of crime lords and the police that, consciously or unconsciously, colludes with them in their business.) Likewise, it remains to be demonstrated that the criminalization of pot reduces the risks associated with pot.

Anyone who thinks about it for a moment understands that this is a complete red herring. But I imagine Granderson would not have been allowed to publish this piece without that sentence. I imagine there was some editor who thought an article that didn't say that the risks associated with pot are also risks of legalization, i.e., that if pot is a risky thing to do then it is also a risky thing to legalize, would lack "balance".

That is, you are not allowed to say that the drug war was irrational at its inception. You must grant, first, that because pot is what it is there was, initially, good cause to make a law against it. But as Granderson almost says, Nixon was not afraid of what pot would do to our ability to concentrate. On the contrary, he was perfectly willing to destroy the left by madness, leaving it starving, hysterical, naked. He was afraid of the left itself, and especially the minorities they represented. He wanted an argument for invading their homes, tapping their phones, and breaking up their families. To this day, the drug war is a way of equipping the police for suppression. It's also a great way to sell weapons.

Leave aside the plain stupidity of the statement "it has been shown [that pot impairs] concentration". As the president once said, with greater honesty than he's presently capable of, albeit on a slightly different matter, "that was the point". Needs no ghost come from the dead to show us this!