An Unenviable Situation

Thursday, June 17, 2021

 In the Berkshires with my dying stockbroker. 

“A nice gin and tonic, with four cubes of ice and a slice of lime.”

Monday, June 14, 2021

I tried, and gave up. If no one gets my jokes. It's no use going anywhere else. 
I write for myself. 

I'm not even sure it's interesting that so many members of the left wing intellectual class, including those I want to like, mostly non-American, continue to refer to old figures of the high bourgeois left without reference to their heroes' class, and indulge revolutionary romance without reference to their own. It's impossible to read an angry Oxbridge academic, proud scion of the old Egyptian elite, without noticing a disconnect. Leiter and AbuKhalil were never earnest defenders of democracy. They contradict themselves openly; that was always the fun of it. But the younger crew are as oblivious, if at a higher level of "discourse", as the most self-righteous hipster. All part of the academicization of politics: authoritarianism without admitting to it.
But Sibylle does begin at the beginning: her childhood memories, her father’s infrequent visits, come early in the book and appear almost dreamlike. Thibaut nearly fell to his death during a visit to a castle in Brittany, but was saved when Lacan grabbed hold of his clothes at the last second – ‘a miracle!’ Lacan would treat Sibylle to extravagant dinners – her first taste of oysters and lobster and meringue glacée. Her memories sharpen when her barely there father turns out to be someone else’s. On the girls’ first meeting, Judith is so beguiling that Sibylle is thrown into a jealous anguish: ‘She was so pleasant, so perfect, and I so awkward and bungling. She was all sociability and poise, I was the Peasant of the Danube. She had a womanly air, I still looked like a child ... I was overwhelmed, ashamed. Moreover, she was studying philosophy and I was only studying languages.’ She was mortified to learn that Judith also went to the Sorbonne, that she had probably known who Sibylle was, had passed her in the courtyard, pretending not to recognise her. Sibylle was boyish, with a turned-up nose, short mousey hair and a brow often fixed in a furrow. She was ‘cute’, but Judith was beautiful, inheriting Lacan’s dark hair, which she wore long and held in place with an Alice band. When the girls holidayed together with their father in Italy, Judith relayed stories of her many admirers in the philosophy department, stories that Lacan seemed to take pride in hearing. At a village fête in Saint-Tropez, Sibylle watched as he and Judith danced together ‘like two lovers’. In the eyes of their father, Judith ‘was Queen’. It didn’t help that in his consulting room at 5 rue de Lille there were no photographs of ‘the Lacan children’ – indeed, no photos at all – except for one of Judith as a young girl, ‘presiding over the fireplace’ in a neat sweater and skirt....

To those familiar with Lacan’s work, it may come as no surprise that he could be vexing and cocksure – a womaniser. But what A Father does reveal is Lacan’s avarice and his tendency to treat those of a lower social class – he referred to them as ‘subalterns’ – with contempt. He was rude to waiters and would send his housekeeper, Paquita, into a frenzy: ‘a spinning top, first twirling this way, then that, to keep up with her employer’s painful demands’. Sibylle once saw him ask some passers-by to lift his car out of an especially tight parking spot: ‘He made not the slightest gesture to help, instead standing to the side and giving orders.’

Switch out Lacan for someone else, or some other kind of hero, the issue is the same: the relation of people and ideas.

Never without a book, whether bound for a tutorial or the local A&E, for decades he disappeared off for tramping holidays or conferences anywhere from Catalonia to Cuba the moment term ended. One friend, on holiday in southern Italy in 1957, saw two men in a field and said to her husband: ‘But look, it’s Eric!’ And, she recalled, ‘it really was Eric, with a peasant. He was interviewing the peasant.’

Maybe he was just talking to him. 

I like Hobsbawm. I'm a hardass not a moralist. Moralists have more friends than I do.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Ozark, the art of the times.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Blyth in 2006. And on the pop-technocratic happy-talk 3QD. It makes sense in a way that they’d let it slip through. Popular is sloppier for worse and for better. 

Towards the end of this year, The American Political Science Review will publish its 100th anniversary issue. In researching for a submission to this centennial issue, I examined what political scientists have been saying for the past 100 years, and in doing do something very odd struck me: that the arguments that I have been having for a decade with my colleagues about the idea of a science of politics being at all possible are the same arguments that have been going on in the pages of The American Political Science Review since its inception.

Then and now, political scientists tend to fall into two camps. In the first camp are those who wear the badge of ‘scientist’ and see their field as a predictive enterprise whose job it is to uncover those general laws of politics that ‘must’ be out there. The second camp contains those who think the former project logically untenable. For years now I have tried (largely in vain) to convince my colleagues in the first camp that the idea of a political ‘science’ is inherently problematic. I have marshaled various arguments to make this case, and each of these has been met by a some variant of; ‘political science is a young science’; ‘what we face are problems of method’; and that ‘more ‘basic research is required’. Then, with ‘more and better methods’ we will make ‘sufficient’ progress and ‘become’ a science. I remain unconvinced by this line of argument, but it was enlightening to see it played out again and again over a century....

From its inception in 1906 until World War One American political scientists took ‘public administration’ as its object and the Prussian state as the model of good governance. Sampling on this particular datum proved costly to the subfield however when the model (Germany) became the enemy during World War One and the guiding models of the field collapsed. Following this debacle, political science retreated inwards during the 1920s and 1930s. One can scan the American Political Science Review throughout these tumultuous decades for any sustained examination of the great events of the day and come up empty. What I did find however were reports on constitutional change in Estonia, committee reform in Nebraska, and predictions that the German administrative structure will not allow Hitler to become a dictator.

After World War Two this lack of ‘relevance’ haunted the discipline and its post-war re-founders sought to build a predictive science built upon the process notions of functionalism, pluralism, and modernization. These new theories saw societies as homeostatic systems arrayed along a developmental telos with the United States as everyone’s historical end. Paradoxically however, just as the field was united under these common theories, they were suddenly, and completely, invalidated by the facts of the day. At the height of these theories’ popularity, the United States was, contrary to theory, tearing itself apart over civil rights, Vietnam, and sexual politics while ‘developing’ countries were ‘sliding back’ along the ‘developmental telos’ into dictatorships. Despite these events being the world’s first televised falsification of theory, once again political science turned inward and ignored the lesson waiting to be learned – that prediction in the social world is far more difficult than we imagine, and the call for more ‘rigor’ and ‘more and better methods’ will never solve that problem. Our continuing prediction failures continue to bear this out. Since its ‘third re-founding’ in the 1980s till today, political science has predicted the decline of the US (just as it achieved ‘hyper-power’ status); completely missed the decade long economic stagnation of Japan (just as it was supposed to eclipse the US); missed the end of the Cold War, the growth of international terrorism, and the rebirth of religion in politics. 

After reviewing this catalog of consistently wrong calls, a very simple question occurred to me. If political science is a science by virtue of its ability to predict, and its prediction rate is so awful, can it be a science even in its own terms? I would say that it cannot. But this answer itself begged another, and I think more interesting, question; why is my field’s ability to predict so bad? The answer to this question is not found in the pages of the American Political Science Review. Rather, it is found in how political science as a discipline, through its training, thinks about probability in the social world.

Political scientists haven’t predicted the future, but history repeats.

Friday, May 28, 2021

The poverty of positivism/ the poverty of originalism

"There is no better way of finding out what a writer meant than to attempt to state his meaning in different words, preferably in another language."

Gombrich, "Aby Warburg: His Aims and Methods"

We may accept the doctrine that associates having a language with having a conceptual scheme. The relation may be supposed to be this: if conceptual schemes differ, so do languages. But speakers of different languages may share a conceptual scheme provided there is a way of translating one language into the other. Studying the criteria of translation is therefore a way of focussing on criteria of identity for conceptual schemes. If conceptual schemes aren't associated with languages in this way, the original problem is needlessly doubled, for then we would have to imagine the mind, with its ordinary categories, operating with a language with its organizing structure. Under the circumstances we would certainly want to ask who is to be master. 

Donald Davidson, "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" 

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I Choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things." .
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—‘that’s all.”

I never paid much attention to Davidson—the argument itself was enough for me to laugh—but the Lewis Carroll connection above was clear. 

Carroll and Borges and Aaronson, Nabokov, Nino Scalia, and Scott Soames. Aesthetics is the manifestation of ethics. Hooray for induction.

I'd written "every writer knows language is the master", but that separates writers from philosophers and artists from illustrators: those who recognize that language is the master, and those who refuse to admit it. Writers are craftspeople.

"But art is not essentially content. Art is essentially form. Art is object, not subject." Ursula K. Le Guin
I know I repeat myself, but anyone finding one page would miss the full argument.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "The Negro Sings of Zionism", 2008

As a dude who came up banging Malcolm's "Ballot or The Bullet" like it was the Wu-Tang Forever, who recited Garvey's "Look For Me In The Whirlwind" at the school assembly, Israel is like a parallel universe, what Liberia could have been with the alteration of a few key historical variables.

I'd mentioned it before, and updated my response, but it still didn't sink in. He apologized later for ignoring Palestinians. I don't think he's said anything about Liberia. I encouraged people to follow the links, but that's my father on the right of the bottom pic, with my uncle and grandmother. And I guess I should add at this point that the upper left is Ed Koch.

Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It, 2014 

The UNIA envoy soon uncovered something even more insidious at work. “While in Monrovia, I went to a dry goods and bought several yards of khaki to have two pairs of trousers made,” Garcia reported to Garvey. “As I was stepping out of the store, my companion (an Americo-Liberian) told [me]: ‘Why, I don’t suppose you are going to carry this bundle yourself?’ ‘Why not?’ said I; ‘it is a very small parcel.’ He answered that it was not the custom in Liberia for any gentleman to carry parcels; therefore the usefulness of having slaves.” Visitors to Liberia, particularly white ones, had long accused the Americoes of mistreating the natives, but a similar assessment from Garcia would likely spark a controversy.
A South African filmmaker on Key and Peele, 2013 
What’s not included in the video above was their introduction to the live studio audience where Peele announces: “OK, so Africa is a fucked up place.” To which Key, seemingly surprised, responds in a disingenuous defense of Africa: “You wouldn’t want to see the Nile? The plains of the Serengeti?” Which is really just the vehicle for which Peele’s lambasting can continue: “You have flyover states. Now, to me that’s a flyover continent.” And the pièce de résistance: “Slavery was an awful thing. Silver lining? It got my ass out of Africa.” The follow up to which was the skit depicting two slaves who get increasingly jealous that no one is bidding for them at the slave auction.

Garvey in 1924

"we are asking the world for a fair chance to assist the people of Liberia in developing that country as the world is giving the Jew a fair chance to develop Palestine" 

Yogita Goyal, "Black Nationalist Hokum: George Schuyler's Transnational Critique", 2014

Du Bois in 1919: 

"The African movement means to us what the Zionist movement must mean to Jews, the centralization of race effort and the recognition of a racial front"  

In 1924 on Liberia

"[I]t was absolutely necessary for the Government to take a high handed with them [indigenous peoples] in order to assure them that it really was a government otherwise the tribal chiefs would take matters into their own hands."

Tamba E. M'bayo, "W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Pan-Africanism in Liberia, 1919–1924", 2004

Du Bois May 1948: 

"Young and forward thinking Jews, bringing a new civilization into an old land and building up that land out of the ignorance, disease and poverty into which it had fallen, and by democratic methods to build a new and peculiarly fateful modern state".

Michael W. Williams, "Pan-Africanism and Zionism: The Delusion of Comparability", 1991


Almost no trauma was powerful enough to shake Du Bois' faith in Liberia. In 1931, an investigation by the League of Nations revealed the extensive use of unpaid labor in Liberia and the continuing trade in forced labor between Liberia and the Spanish cocoa plantations on Fernando Po, conducted under the tolerant eyes of President King and Vice-President Allen Yancey. Nevertheless, Du Bois did not direct the main force of his criticism at Liberia. In March, 1931, he lashed out at those who singled out Liberia for attack while ignoring forced labor in European-occupied Africa. Du Bois' apology for the Liberians moved George Schuyler to pose a rhetorical question for the editor of the Crisis: "are we not to expect that Negro colonists who are so excessively religious and shout 'The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here' will be more humane to their black native wards than would white colonists?" "Right is right and wrong is wrong," Schuyler insisted, "regardless of the color of the individuals or groups involved, and admiring you immensely as I do for your courage and tenacity in persistently championing the cause of colored he informed Du Bois, "I am sorry that you permitted your belligerent and commendable Negrophilism to warp your vision in the case of the Liberian racketeers."

Frank Chalk, "Du Bois and Garvey Confront Liberia: Two Incidents of the Coolidge Years", 1967

Cedric Robinson "W.E.B. Du Bois and Black Sovereignty", 1990, at Verso

Monday, May 24, 2021

Still staying at the top. Last one I think.

More than 500 Biden campaign and Democratic Party staffers urge president to do more to protect Palestinians, hold Israel accountable
We write to you as proud alumni of your campaign. Each of us worked tirelessly in your headquarters and in states across the country to ensure your victory. 
...The very same values that motivated us to work countless hours to elect you demand that we speak out in the aftermath of the recent explosive violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, which is inextricable from the ongoing history of occupation, blockade, and settlement expansion.

The middle has shifted. Middling America has been redefined. It's not a "victory" for "the left", or the romance of radicalism. Radicalism had a great rhetorical power once, but that's in the past. Hearing it or reading it now, spouted by teenagers or college professors, the institutional bourgeois, is annoying.

Christian Science Monitor

When Hamas escalated a crisis in Jerusalem rooted in forced evictions and an Israeli raid of Al-Aqsa Mosque into a war of missiles, it tapped into Palestinian feelings of helplessness and frustration – and seized a political lifeline.

Hamas are not "radicals"; they're a conservative party who used politically radical actions to defend the interests of their people. They've moderated. They've become corrupt, like Fatah, and Israel has become more extreme. More from the past, related to a link below. The links in this post by Helena Cobban are dead, but the articles are still up: Cobban on Hizbollah, in the Boston review, and  Women of Hamas in Salon.


Beinart forgets how honest he once was.
"I'm actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel's security and for its status as a Jewish state." 
The article/interview in the New Yorker
Last summer, he made a clean break. “The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed,” Beinart wrote, in a long essay for Jewish Currents

I added the highlights and the link.  The passive voice and the evasion of responsibility. Israel never wanted a Palestinian state and was never going to allow it. repeats of repeats.

Peter Beinart is now to the left of Bernie Sanders on Israel. I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere.

We walked outside, Ben‐Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question: ‘What is to be done with the population?’ B.G. waved his hand in a gesture which said, ‘Drive them out!’

“Allon and I held a consultation. I agreed that it was essential to drive the inhabitants out. We took them on foot towards the Bet Horon Road, assuming that the legion would be obliged to look after them, thereby shouldering logistic difficulties which would burden its fighting capacity, making things easier for us.

“'Driving out’ is a term with a harsh ring,” the manuscript continues. “Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lod did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the 10 to 15 miles to the point where they met up with the legion.

“The inhabitants of Ramie watched and learned the lesson. Their leaders agreed to be evacuated voluntarily, on condition that the evacuation was carried out by vehicles. Buses took them to Latrun, and from there, they were evacuated by the legion.

“Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action. Soldiers of the Yiftach Brigade included youth‐movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international brotherhood and humaneness. The eviction action went beyond the concepts they were used to.

“There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action. Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth‐movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.”

Have any experts on Mill or Rawls said anything? That's a rhetorical question.
It's nothing but the fucking "social scientists", making it into an intrafamilial feud. It didn't use to be this way; literature professors and geologists just signed on as teachers. There are other Palestinian and Arab academic and professional organizations, and broader ways to organize. Real politics is made by amateurs.
The overestimation of academia by academics on all sides.
American academics are provincial because Americans are provincial.
Liberals and liberals who call themselves leftists: Even for those who speak, tribal loyalty means they say nothing about friends' silence. And then the standard for the purest "leftist" technocrats, like liberals, is "both sides" and a shrug: the reflexive inability to criticize illiberalism when it's defended by your peers. Quiggin repeats himself and so do I.

A Jewish state for a Jewish people.
 And again. Riots now across Israel.

5/11. Why not?

Peter Beinart in 2010

I'm not asking Israel to be Utopian. I'm not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I'm not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state.

And 2021: 

Even for many Jews passionately opposed to Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, supporting Palestinian refugee return remains taboo. But, morally, this distinction makes little sense.... These arguments are not only unconvincing but deeply ironic, since they ask Palestinians to repudiate the very principles of intergenerational memory and historical restitution that Jews hold sacred. If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland, neither do we.

If any of this had to do with enlightened reason you'd expect the officially enlightened and reasoning to lead. They didn't. They never do.

Update 5/10. The Jewish state is doomed. Liberals lied to themselves and this is where it ends. No surprises. 

Two views from Jerusalem

Equity-cum-demographic diversity is not a value in scholarship, redux

[R]acial or demographic equity in citations is not a value in scholarship; truth and knowledge are the only values.

 Philosopher Pamela Hieronymi (UCLA) discusses Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment"... The Polonsky Salon with philosopher Daniel Telech (Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem). It's this Thursday, May 13.

Cause and effect, the contradictions of means and ends. Diversity increases knowledge; command reinforces itself.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Celine is my Proust II

Roth again

Corey Robin is an ass.

In 2014, the mystery writer Lisa Scottoline wrote an instructive essay for The New York Times about two undergraduate seminars she took with Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. One of the courses was the literature of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt was on the syllabus.

In his five-page discussion of those years at Penn, Roth biographer Blake Bailey makes no mention of this course or Arendt. Instead, he focuses on the other course, “The Literature of Desire,” and Roth’s erotic presence inside and outside the classroom. In the wake of the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior that have been made against Bailey, the omission may seem small or slight. Yet it is telling. As Judith Shulevitz argues in a searching analysis of the allegations and the biography, Bailey is as incurious about Jewishness as he is about the reality of women.

And that's why Roth chose him.  


Mediocrity pervades the entire biography, not just the parts that have to do with women. Bailey credulously takes Roth’s side in fights with wives and lovers, but Roth had baggage in all domains of life, and Bailey, an eager bellhop, carries the whole load for him—the unhappy marriages and contentious divorces and relationships and affairs and everything else as well.

Bailey is tone-deaf about Jewishness, too. Unfamiliar with the subtleties of Jewish ambivalence about Jewish particularism, he doesn’t realize that Roth’s insistent rejection of the “Jewish writer” label is no simple claim. It requires unpacking. And Bailey doesn’t know how little he knows about Jewish history. Bailey uses Roth as his main source on the generations that came before Philip, even though Roth had only hazy knowledge of his Polish-born forebears and how they lived before they emigrated, and rarely wrote about the surely painful transition from Old World to New that would have shaped the childhood Roth idealized and rebelled against.

Roth’s lack of genealogical curiosity is curious. Here was a self-reflexive, confessional writer—or rather, meta-confessional writer, since he created alter egos to do the confessing for him—yet he didn’t start soliciting details about his grandparents from living relatives until late in life. Bailey’s incuriosity is curious too. What a reader wants from a biographer is to have blind spots like that pointed out. What didn’t Roth want to see, and why? And why didn’t Bailey realize that those were precisely the questions he was supposed to answer? 

...What I gleaned from Bailey’s book, despite its shortcomings, is that Roth’s woman problem was fundamentally a reality problem. Bailey quotes Roth talking about women as if they stood for something, which is very different from being somebody. Roth dated and married women who represented a place or class that was out of his reach and that he wanted to learn about or escape to. The most disastrous emissary from this fantastical out-there was his first wife, Maggie Martinson, a working-class single mother from small-town Michigan who told tales of childhood incest and had divorced her previous husband on the grounds of physical cruelty. Martinson brought him closer to “goyish chaos,” Roth said. After Martinson, Roth dated her opposite, a Pittsburgh socialite.* Both women appealed to him, he later wrote, because they were estranged “from the very strata of American society of which they were each such distinctively emblazoned offspring.” To turn that around, what they had in common was that, alienation notwithstanding, they served as emblems of exotic worlds. The trouble started whenever these “emblazoned offspring” piped up with actual human needs and desires.

...Bailey’s incuriosity made him an indifferent biographer. How Roth saw around his own blind spots well enough to produce a few great novels and memoirs (the rest range from good to terrible) is a mystery someone else will have to solve. I’m glad I got the chance to read the biography before Norton pulled it, because I have no doubt that if I were diving into it now, I’d mix scandal and biographer and biography into one confounding mess. But reading my suspicions about Bailey into the book now does make it easier to imagine how biographer and subject could have tapped into the worst parts of each other to construct a collective monument to un-self-awareness. And that, in turn, gives me a glimpse of how men collude to deny women reality and reduce them to inviting targets. In that sense, Bailey did this reader a service, though probably not the one he meant to perform.

"How Roth saw around his own blind spots well enough to produce a few great novels and memoirs (the rest range from good to terrible) is a mystery someone else will have to solve."

Shulevitz is better than Robin, but they both miss the point. 

No one will ever "solve" the mystery of Philip Roth or anyone else. Art is honesty, even of that means being more honest than you want to admit.

Do the Right Thing is the newest entry in the expanding catalog of films inspired by Italian-American family virtues. If it is less engaging than Moonstruck, it can be commended for the earnestness of its effort to convey the suffering and final defeat of a rational man by an irrational world.

Roth and "doubling". Arendt and Du Bois. Robin is too stupid to remember that Du Bois thought double-consciousness was a problem. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Leiter: "Callard v. Paul on reasoning about transformative decisions"

and repeats, for the history. 

Lebowitz Award Winners on How We Reason in Moments of Transformation

The host, Fred Lawrence, "Secretary and CEO" of Phi Beta Kappa, and a lawyer. 

Those of us who have children have the experience pretty early on after your children are born, that you immediately regret any advice you gave your friends before you had children... 'Cause you realize you had no idea what you you were talking about. Imagining the parent I was going to be —Agnes I guess I'm coming back to you now—it does feel beyond reach... I mean it's it's speculative... it's interesting... it might even be aspirational... but is it really reasoning.

Compare John Quiggin, (see previous)

When I read fiction, it’s mostly either the 19th century classics or speculative fiction – what was and what might be, as opposed to what is. I live in the present, and spend most of my waking hours analysing the economy and society of today, along with the recent past and near future. In doing that, I am, for the most part, in agreement with Mr Gradgrind – what I want is facts, nothing but facts.

But in relation to the future (and, in many ways, the past) we don’t have facts, only possibilities. And, unlike the present, we don’t have lived experience to help us understand those possibilities. Speculative fiction, at its best, extends our thinking to encompass possibilities we wouldn’t otherwise consider, and to imagine ways of life no one has actually experienced.

 "what I want is facts, nothing but facts." Gradgrind and Jack Webb (most recently here)

But in relation to the future (and, in many ways, the past) we don’t have facts, only possibilities.And, unlike the present, we don’t have lived experience to help us understand those possibilities.

Quiggin: There are no historical facts—the mirror image of originalism—collapsing the future and the past as "possibilities" and foregrounding the present."History is bunk";  I know what I know. Referring to "lived experience" while denying that we lie to ourselves is denying experience itself. Experience is animal: subjective. He wants truth.

The women are quibbling over the definition of reason, looking forward and back. Like Henry and his sister and Waring the women are at least less brittle.  

I remember in China watching the bicycles, men with the their feet centered on the pedals–safe but so awkward and inefficient it felt like a symptom of depression–while the women much more often kept the pedals under the balls of their feet.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Looters again, and Elizabeth Bruenig, via a confused left/reactionary who was clearly making a crude version of Christopher Lasch's argument, and was mocked for it by people who should at least get the point.
Jacobin is not a cooperative; Aaron Maté is annoying but knows enough not to lecture Palestinian shopkeepers about socialism while Israel is liquidating the kulaks. Matt Bruenig doesn't like shopkeepers either [and even days later says nothing about Palestine]. Class politics is beyond Sunkara and Bruenig them because they can't acknowledge their own.

Bruenig's wife feels pity for the junkie photographed shooting up in a subway car full of people. The junkie feels no need to hide from others. He's turning his shame into an aggressive act, or he's beyond it, fully asocial.  There's a reason streetwalkers don't ply their trade around schools.

Real communities are not communities of choice. Kids don't choose their neighborhood. The solidarity of neighbors, and unions, the brotherhood of gangs and cops against snitches and rats, is the same tribalism. Loyalty is a double-edged sword or it's pointless. 

For individualist liberalism solidarity is seen as a choice, a role: it's theater. The Bruenigs are more capable of pity for the lost than respect for those just above them with hard-won self-respect. To respect those they want to help is to open up a political relation between agents, and not the one-way authority of master to subject. That's the reason liberal technocrats can say nothing of substance about Palestine, preferring to talk among themselves about ideas. Even if they disagree with their Zionists friends, loyalties come first. It's the same with gentrification. But they can't admit to loyalty. Opposing it as an idea, they can't admit to a practice.
"I think there's something to be said for returning money to the old category of 'shit'".
"The contradictions of high art and money more than any other form of art were once tied to sin" [p.164]

"Loyalty is a double-edged sword or it's pointless." Nothing above is new, but that's concise.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Marx says somewhere that Hegel says somewhere that...

At Christmastime, Baldwin published a deluxe boxed coffee table book of photographs with his high school friend Richard Avedon, now a successful fashion photographer. The collaboration was Avedon’s idea, and Avedon spent a long time trying to get Baldwin to finish his accompanying essay. The Avedon photographs are an inchoate assortment that includes Allen Ginsberg, George Wallace, the Everly Brothers, members of SNCC, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, son, and Marilyn Monroe, along with pictures of people at the beach and inmates in a mental hospital outside Baton Rouge (who had not been told they were being photographed). Many of the subjects look as reptilian and papier-mâché as “possible, an effect Avedon had a gift for. Baldwin’s essay is a cri de coeur on the banality of American life. It begins with despairing reflections on the artificiality of actors in television commercials and descends into musings like: “When a civilization treats its poets with the disdain with which we treat ours, it cannot be far from disaster; it cannot be far from the slaughter of the innocents.” 

There is a way in which this boutique item, which does not present itself as a book about race, brings the precariousness of Baldwin’s position into focus. When he said things like “the history of this country was built on my back” or, in a widely publicized debate with William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union, “I picked cotton, I carried it to the market, I built the railroads under someone else’s whip,” he was using an established conceit of group autobiography (as Malcolm X did in his autobiography, published in 1965.) The understanding is that if these things did not happen to the author, they happened to somebody like the author. The “I” stands for the group.

White people don’t write group autobiographies, however. It was not that people did not believe that when Baldwin lived in the United States, he had encountered racism and discrimination. It was that professionally, he had suffered no more, and arguably less, from efforts to censor him than, for instance, Norman Mailer or Henry Miller had. From the very beginning, he had been supported and promoted by powerful writers and editors, Black and white. He had written bestsellers: the only book that sold more copies than Another Country in 1963 was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He wrote for Partisan Review and The New Yorker. He had been on the cover of Time. He hung around with celebrities; he was rich; he had an entourage. And on top of all that, he had been living in Paris for eight years, and when the Montgomery bus boycott turned out to be a success, he turned up on the scene and started telling everyone what it was like to be Black in America.

The New York Review of Books was ready for Nothing Personal. The headline was “Everybody Knows My Name,” and the reviewer was Robert Brustein, who was soon to become dean of the Yale School of Drama. It was a time, Brustein began, of “show-biz moralists.” 

Now comes Richard Avedon, high-fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, to join these other outrage exploiters, giving the suburban clubwoman a titillating peek into the obscene and ugly faces of the mad, the dispossessed, and the great and neargreat [sic]—with James Baldwin interrupting from time to time, like a punchy and pugnacious drunk awakening from a boozy doze during a stag movie, to introduce his garrulous, irrelevant, and by now predictable comments on how to live, how to love, and how to build Jerusalem.

“[L]ending himself to such an enterprise,” Brustein concluded, “Baldwin reveals that he is now part and parcel of the very things he is criticizing." Baldwin was one of a handful of Black writers who had a white audience in 1963, and he lost it.

Another white intellectual who found it necessary to call Baldwin out was Irving Howe. But this time, Baldwin ducked, and Howe’s shot struck a different target. [p. 600]  

Mocking buppies, in 1964, and 2021.

"White people don’t write group autobiographies", but Jews do. "Another white intellectual... Irving Howe" (I stripped the footnotes but kept two below)

The size of the Jewish population in New York made it natural for second-generation Jews to assimilate and for discriminatory barriers to fall. Although some continued to try, it made no sense for schools, employers, and even private associations to exclude a quarter or more of the local population. A notion later grew up that a sense of being socially and culturally marginalized is what drew Jewish intellectuals to the coterie life of radical politics and gave them a critical eye on mainstream culture.* None of them ever claimed this. Most of them felt, with the same reservations that any American intellectual might have had, that they were part of mainstream culture.** What they rejected was the Yiddishkeit, the Jewish-centered provincialism, of their parents. And, of course, the overwhelming majority of second-generation American Jews had nothing to do with radical politics or cultural criticism.”[p. 161]

*See Alexander Bloom, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 11–27; Terry A. Cooney, The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, 1934–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 43–44; Hugh Wilford, The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 2–8; Joseph Dorman, Arguing the World: The New York Intellectuals in Their Own Words (New York: Free Press, 2000), 9–11. Cf. Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 72–111. See also Norman Podhoretz, Making It (New York: Random House, 1967), 116–25.

See “Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews,” 3–36; Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 598–602. 

Taking people at their word. Making It. The only reference to Portnoy's Complaint is in a discussion of censorship. The central themes of postwar Jewish culture are assimilation and insecurity. And of course all comedy is "cultural criticism". 

I have no interest in Avedon, or in the book, recently republished with new introduction by Hilton Als. Criticism of radical chic is fine as long as it's better than Tom Wolfe, but Baldwin never pretended he wasn't bourgeois. He didn't indulge narcissistic fantasies... or maybe he did, as we all do, but not as a moralist or pedant. The last link's to Menand. Maybe he should debate Als. 

The Ghost of Panofsky. I thought of this today in a different context, but of course it fits. From 1969:

We are living in a time of exploding nationalisms. The blacks in America are the first to abjure the idea of assimilation, to realize the inherent lie in the concept of melting pot. Through black nationalism has developed a new black pride and hence the ticket to liberation. 
Today’s young American Jew is a good bit slower. He desperately wants assimilation: Jewishness embarrasses him. He finds the idea of Jewish nationalism, Israel notwithstanding, laughable. The leftist Jewish student is today‘s Uncle Tom. He scrapes along, demonstrating for a John Hatchett. ashamed of his identity. and obsessed with it. He cannot accept the fact that he is seen as a Jew, that his destiny is that of the Jews, and that his only effectiveness is as a Jew. But he wants to be an “American,” a leftist American, talking liberation and aspiring WASP. He is a ludicrous figure. 

Thursday, May 06, 2021


New Brooklyn Intellectuals Accuse Old Upper West Siders of CAREERISM
Louis Menand’s big new book on art, literature, music, and thought from 1945 to 1965 instills the conviction that the 20th century is well and truly over. It seems like the right gift for the graduating college senior this year. Born in 2000, the proud degree-holder may not recognize the Jackson Pollock reproduced on the accompanying congratulations! card, or know the Allen Ginsberg lines misquoted in the commencement speech, but can look them up in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War and confirm that this past is truly past. 

An old friend's comment after being stuck in Park Slope for an afternoon 15 years ago. "We're so liberal we live in Brooklyn."


I do not like the critical language of approval and disapproval. I always felt there was a lot of moral righteousness among the critics of that period. I can’t think that way. I want to empathize (not sympathize) with the people I’m writing about, to get inside them. You do learn their limitations that way, and in that sense you are rendering a judgment, but your job is to, in the words of Howard Cosell, “Tell it like it is.” You want to help readers think without telling them what to think.

Howard Cosell fits John Roberts' model for a Justice of Supreme Court, or Jack Webb's cop. A historian looks for the origins of moral imperatives. It's not a book about the work; it's about about the only thing the readers care about: careers. Everything about reinforcing the opinions of the present. It's the same with Roth. Kazin: "Art is good for you". Kazin again, and Lawrence: "The American has got to destroy..." The intellectual class of the US really is reliving the most provincial aspects of the post-war era. 

Greif's comments about Rauschenberg and Warhol are pathetic. Reading the interview with Menand I can't imagine the book's any better. 
update: I was right. I have a Warhol tag, but this is enough. Click through. 

There's plenty to criticize in Clark. He works too hard, pushes too much. He wants to defend Modernism rather than simply describe it; it becomes a complex description more than a description of a complex thing.  Still...

Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism

But I anticipate. For the time being, all that needs to be established is that Pollock's drip paintings, when they started, and maybe even as they continued, were alternately Alchemy and Sea Change - Alchemy always failing, Sea Change never. The pictures were dazzling ("almost too dazzling to be looked at indoors," wrote Clement Greenberg of one of them at the time). They were lordly and playful, like something a master had thrown off. Magic Mirrors. Shooting Stars. Enchantment was part of them. And this seems to me true of modernism in general. Of Sweeney Agonistes as much as of Harmonium, of Picasso as much as of Matisse. An art of high negativity - books about nothing, paintings done with consciousness deliberately on hold - is not necessarily anarchical, scabrous, or otherwise low. On the contrary, it has often come out of courtly surroundings. Dukes have gone in for it, on horseback, as part of their general "contempt for nature in all its particularity." Negation is stylish. For stylish, at certain moments, read fashionable.

Scent. So it proved in Pollock's case. On 1 March I951, Vogue magazine published four pages of photographs, black and white and color, by Cecil Beaton (figs. In and I78). In them Irene and Sophie showed off a range of the season's evening dresses in front of pictures by Pollock from a show just closed at Betty Parsons. Beaton had ideas about how the pictures and dresses matched. He reveled in the analogy between Lavender Mist's powdery transparency - or the transparency his lighting gave it - and that of the chiffon and fan. The fan struck a Whistlerian note. He tweaked Irene's black cocktail dress into a to and fro of diagonals which made it quite plausibly part of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm behind. And so on. The effects are not subtle, and did not need to be. Hedging his bets just a little, the Vogue subeditor informed readers that "the dazzling and curious paintings of Jackson Pollock, which are in the photographs on these four pages, almost always cause an intensity of feelings." 

Vogue in the 1940s and 1950s was not to be sniffed at. It sold copies and was on Pollock's side. The magazine had printed a full-color photo of Reflection ol the Big Dipper as early as April 1948, the first time a drip painting was reproduced in color (beating Life with Cathedral by a full six months). Financially speaking, early 1951 was not a very good moment for Pollock: he was waiting for his contract with Betty Parsons to expire, and broke with her once it did; nobody seems to have made much money out of the show the previous December - the one Beaton used - and in any case Pollock had a reputation for working the media when he had a chance (Mark Rothko to Barnett Newman in I946: "Pollock is a self contained and sustained advertising concern"). His tone when he mentioned the Vogue event to Alfonso Ossorio in February was matter of fact: "This issue of Vogue has three pages of my painting (with models of course) will send a copy." These things happen. They help a bit. "There is an enormous amount of interest and excitement for modern painting there [he means in the wider America] - it's too damn bad Betty doesn't know how to get at it."

Taken on their own, the Vogue photographs are slippery evidence. They are falsely conclusive, like the formal analogies Beaton went in for. I did not quote Rothko to Newman thinking the photographs just proved Rothko's point. Certainly they suggest some of the terms of Pollock's reception in his own time. But the fact that Vogue was a fashion magazine does not mean that paintings appearing in its pages were, or became, fashionable. Fashion is a fragile construction, which regularly feeds on its opposites. The opposites often stay much as they were. Beaton in 1951 occupied a particular (lordly) place in the culture industry. His photos were meant to produce a slight intake of breath. And in any case, there is always the option open to us of dismissing the Beaton episode altogether, at least as evidence about Pollock. I remember seeing the model in front of Autumn Rhythm for the first time in a lecture, and thinking it made a powerful point, but then afterwards having the comment reported back to me: "So the Pollocks got used as background in a fashion magazine. We all know that by now. So what?"

There is a phrase that sticks in my mind from a similar conversation about the work of Serge Guilbaut - about his book How New York Stole the Idea of Moden Art - to the effect that his account of Pollock and Abstract Expressionism amounted in the end to an exercise in "guilt by vague association." For is not any art of real complexity (this is the implication) fated to be used, recruited, and misread? What are we supposed to say, for example, about a photo of Mussolini's shocktroops running in formation through the Arch of Constantine? (This too I saw in a lecture, at much the same moment as the Beaton images, and the comparison struck home.) Are we to put the blame on the Arch, somehow? Pretend that the Fascists got Roman architecture right? (To which the reply might reasonably be, in fact: Are you saying they got it wrong? What, after all, was the Arch of Constantine for?)

"Dukes have gone in for it, on horseback" Clark's making a reference to a few pages earlier. It's here, and of course here

Warhol wasn’t the first American artist whose work got cleaned up to make it palatable, and he wasn’t the first to play both sides. As Rothko put it: “Pollock is a self contained and sustained advertising concern.” A salaryman’s alienation was everywhere in Rauschenberg’s greatest early combines; Monogram and Bed are so violently anarchic that they remain unrecoverable by any but the most sophisticated polite imagination. They come from the same world as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar named Desire, and are crueler than either. But Rauschenberg’s process quickly became aestheticized, while Rothko’s interests, like Pollock’s, were in the “Tragic and Timeless” and grandeur’s raison d’etre as Cecil Beaton understood, is reassurance. Pollock understood that too, better than Rothko. 

And as long as I'm at it,  from 2008. Klub Kids and Philosophers.

more from Menand

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

It's predictable but academics who argue for determinism to whatever degree always exempt themselves. Artists who have the same beliefs never do. It's the extension of my point about Euthyphro /Alcestis.
If all humility is false humility then Socratic humility, as Socratic irony, is the irony of contempt. Euripidean irony is the irony of shared burdens and failures.
This is all a repeat but I have new readers.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Neal Ascherson in the LRB 

Written​ constitutions? ‘Because of where I came from, these documents seemed profoundly exotic.’ In spite of where she came from, which was England, Linda Colley became many years ago the first English intellectual to explain to her nation just how exotic ‘Britishness’ was. Now, with the same pioneering enthusiasm, she has produced a book about constitutions. Not the unwritten playground rules that supposedly guide the Anglo-British state, but those semi-sacred printed sheets of paper for which men and women in the outside world have been known to die. 

The book comes at the right moment. Constitutional storms are massing over the old United Kingdom. One, of course, is territorial: the matter of Scottish secession and perhaps Irish reunion. Another approaching hard rain is less obvious but more dangerous. This is the accelerating offensive of the Westminster executive against its restraints: against rival centres of power in Brussels or Edinburgh, against plural interpretations of history, against law itself. Most British governments since Thatcher’s have sought to stamp out what they see as a spreading ‘European heresy’: the notion that supreme law should stand above parliaments, that judges in a democracy may reverse the will of an elected government if it violates a constitution.

This storm has been brewing for a long time. Take a late 20th-century example: during one of those recurring leak panics, somebody in Whitehall revealed to a journalist that a cabinet minister was lying. In the uproar that followed, a civil servant was challenged to confirm that she owed unconditional loyalty to her minister. But she demurred. ‘At the end of the day, I answer to the little lady at the end of the Mall.’ That reply confirmed that the United Kingdom is still essentially a monarchical structure. Not in terms of direct royal intervention, but as a polity in which power flows from the top down. The idiotic doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the late 17th-century transfer of absolutism from kings endowed with divine right to an elected assembly – excludes any firmly entrenched distribution of rights. Popular sovereignty in Britain is a metaphor, not an institution....

One of the virtues of this book is that it isn’t Eurocentric. The Polish constitution of 1791, which so much excited radicals and intellectuals in France and Britain, gets only a passing mention. Instead, Colley discusses the 1821 Plan de Iguala in Mexico, whose famous Twelfth Article overthrew racial (but not sexual) discrimination: ‘All the inhabitants of New Spain, without any distinction between Europeans, Africans or Indians,’ it held, ‘are citizens of this monarchy.’ And she finds a connection between the plan and the extraordinary Calcutta Journal, edited in those years by the radical English wanderer James Silk Buckingham and his friend Rammohan Roy, a high-caste Bengali intellectual who campaigned to reform Hinduism and attacked the ruling East India Company. Both men believed in the reforming power of written constitutions for India and republished the Plan de Iguala in their paper.

I'm a fan of written constitutions –living trees, not dead ones- a council of elders, forms of "elitist theater for all." "Because I understood," he said.