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.

New Scientist, Alice's adventures in algebra. 
The 19th century was a turbulent time for mathematics, with many new and controversial concepts, like imaginary numbers, becoming widely accepted in the mathematical community. Putting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in this context, it becomes clear that Dodgson, a stubbornly conservative mathematician, used some of the missing scenes to satirise these radical new ideas.

Even Dodgson’s keenest admirers would admit he was a cautious mathematician who produced little original work. He was, however, a conscientious tutor, and, above everything, he valued the ancient Greek textbook Euclid’s Elements as the epitome of mathematical thinking. Broadly speaking, it covered the geometry of circles, quadrilaterals, parallel lines and some basic trigonometry. But what’s really striking about Elements is its rigorous reasoning: it starts with a few incontrovertible truths, or axioms, and builds up complex arguments through simple, logical steps. Each proposition is stated, proved and finally signed off with QED.

For centuries, this approach had been seen as the pinnacle of mathematical and logical reasoning. Yet to Dodgson’s dismay, contemporary mathematicians weren’t always as rigorous as Euclid. He dismissed their writing as “semi-colloquial” and even “semi-logical”. Worse still for Dodgson, this new mathematics departed from the physical reality that had grounded Euclid’s works.

By now, scholars had started routinely using seemingly nonsensical concepts such as imaginary numbers – the square root of a negative number – which don’t represent physical quantities in the same way that whole numbers or fractions do. No Victorian embraced these new concepts wholeheartedly, and all struggled to find a philosophical framework that would accommodate them. But they gave mathematicians a freedom to explore new ideas, and some were prepared to go along with these strange concepts as long as they were manipulated using a consistent framework of operations. To Dodgson, though, the new mathematics was absurd, and while he accepted it might be interesting to an advanced mathematician, he believed it would be impossible to teach to an undergraduate.

Outgunned in the specialist press, Dodgson took his mathematics to his fiction. Using a technique familiar from Euclid’s proofs, reductio ad absurdum, he picked apart the “semi-logic” of the new abstract mathematics, mocking its weakness by taking these premises to their logical conclusions, with mad results. The outcome is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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 hand 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 Hezbollah, 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 new 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 from Leiter

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

Céline 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 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.

I should have added this before. From 2010
Compare and contrast
One key to Germany's miracle is the mittelstand, as the family-owned small and mid-size manufacturing firms that dominate the economy are known. Last week, I visited AWS Achslagerwerk, a factory of one such firm, in the farmlands of Saxony-Anhalt, about two hours west of Berlin. As in many such companies, this factory turns out specialized products: axle-box housings for Chinese and German high-speed trains, machine tools requiring climate-controlled precision measurement. With annual revenue of 24 million euros, the factory has won a significant share of the world market, though it employs only 175 production workers.
Until Greece can find a way to disentangle the private sector from the family and find another way to allocate resources — free from the intergenerational, class and gender inequities of the family unit — no amount of reform will make a difference.

The European Union and the I.M.F. should forget about dismantling Greece’s (already puny) welfare state and increasing labor flexibility in the (already flexible) private sector. The public sector does need restructuring, but the resulting unemployment will only strengthen the dominance of the family. A better solution would be to create a real public safety net that would help free young Greeks from the supportive yet suffocating grip of their families.
Economics is an aspect of culture.

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. 
jumping forward, Baldwin and Mailer

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 20 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 Justice of the 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 a book 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.

Monday, May 03, 2021

"The Ministry for the Future seminar"  reminds me of "The Art of the Future Warfare"
Henry will never learn, and neither will Cooper. He belongs with them. Using the connection to Obama, in 2021 is just hilarious. I'll add the tag for the discovery of experience, because they still haven't. And freedom of speech because they oppose it.

Futurists, moralists, puritans, and fascists. 

"The claims about Art criticised in Art, an Enemy of The People, are very similar to those made by most religions, namely that there is a special category of people (prophets or artists) and a special category of activities (Religion or Art) which yield transcendent insights into the human condition, and which should be accorded special privileges over other people and other ways of finding meaning and enjoyment in life."

“… Search [in Shakespeare] for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde. As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse."

Fantasies and Fantasists. Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy. 

"Science Fiction was created by men trying to get away from the alien environment populated by their wives."

"Art, an Enemy..." is Quiggin. And it's perfect that Francis Spufford has appeared in comments at the new one. And I need to add Shalizi.

And since D2 made an appearance at the Spufford "seminar"...

"However, one mark of crass consequentialism is to ignore the possibility of tragic dilemmas, yes?"
A “tragic dilemma”, as I understand it, is a situation in which consequentialism gives a clear answer about which alternative is better, but the answer in question is unpalatable. I don’t see why, in such a situation, consequentialism should be described as “crass” rather than, say, “jolly sensible”.

utilitarian psychopathy, autism and morality. 

Sunday, May 02, 2021

From 2015

a comment at the Boston Review.  (BR stripped all comments years ago.): 

This entire debate is absurd. Singer says we should aim for more than doing well; we should do good. But regardless of his claims even the word "Altruism" is a form of patting himself on the back.

But what do the naysayers have a response. Angus Deaton refers to studies by the Cochrane Collaboration, and who are they?
We are a global independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, carers, and people interested in health. 
Cochrane contributors - 37,000 from more than 130 countries - work together to produce credible, accessible health information that is free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest.
Effective Altruists? 
The only point worth making about this stupid debate, the one point avoided, is that you can't do good without getting dirty, if not physically dirty then morally dirty. Deaton's arguments as intended are as anti-political as Singer's: everything seen from the distance of "reason" of one sort of another. 
I met a woman in a bar. She was an ER surgeon. She's been doing it for 20 years and wanted to do nothing else. I said "You feel like a god until you kill your first patient". She looked at me, shocked. "You understand!" Nurses if you're curious have their own kinks. 
Altruism is virtue ethics for pedants, and Deaton responds with the condescension of political realism delivered as a kind of intellectual idealism. How's that for perversity! 
A friend's neighbor is a trial lawyer: big money, drugs and guns and everything else. He says "I'm at the forefront of the defense of your civil liberties". He's right.

The world is the playground. The library is a place to visit not to live in. But still I'd be a bit ashamed to be as rich as Singer or Deaton.
I was thinking tonight about the surgeon at the bar. I searched the blog to see if I'd told the story before. 

I'd changed the tone of her response. She wasn't shocked; the exclamation mark belonged with what she'd said before: "I love my job!" Her response to my reply was subdued and she looked down at her drink. I wanted her to laugh.

In 2017 I spent a day in the emergency ward at Mount Sinai, with a friend who would die at the hospital  a week later. The noise was constant, the rhythmic beeps of the machines, like a nightclub with nothing in sync, 50 little boxes and no bass, and the air an overpowering mix of adrenaline and estrogen. After 12 hours I was high. I walked up to a nurse, an older woman, a dark-skinned Latina:"You love this place don't you!?" It was obvious I felt the hormones in the air, and understood that the tension was connected to competence. She looked right back at me and her eyes went wide. "30 years! You see everything!" We both laughed.

I've always felt at home in clubs. I think that's why I haven't spent more time in them. The anonymous hum is a kind of warmth. I've been out in NY, Las Vegas, and Beijing. The ER is the best of both possible worlds. 

That's the pretentious way to put it, with the in-joke reference to philosophy. The other way is just to say it's the best of both worlds, like drugs and risky sex, but your body made the drugs, or some of them, and maybe you saved someone's life. Or maybe not.


I've told the story about the lawyer a few times, but the last time I added something I hadn't mentioned. I'll repeat what I wrote

I thought I'd told the whole story but I hadn't.  For whatever reason he took one pro bono case and discovered police had lied and falsified evidence. It's was new experience for him to have a client he knew was innocent. "You don't understand... I'm a lawyer... I don't care. It's not my job!"  It's not his job to care.  "But they fucked this kid. He was miles away. I have witnesses!! I'm gonna fuck those cops!" 

It's called International Capitalism

adding the update at the top this time.

"The fact that Raoul Peck’s new HBO film on white supremacy exists shows that something profound about the world is changing."


In the final episode of Raoul Peck’s HBO documentary, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” Peck says in a voice-over, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” That is 100 percent true. Before this moment in history, it would have been impossible to imagine that one of the world’s largest corporations — AT&T, owner of HBO, with a current market cap of $220 billion — would have funded and broadcast a film like this. The fact that it somehow squeezed through the cracks and onto our TVs and laptop screens demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing. Decades, centuries of people fighting and dying were required both to widen the cracks and mold someone like Peck, the right human at the right time, to step through.
I doubt it covers Liberia or Israel.
The second one is from 2010

Saturday, May 01, 2021

"Behind the chiliasm of modern man, is the megalomania of self-infinitization."

This last post on Milanovic, and the references/links made me think it's time to make a new list.

"Being alone is both our preference and a response to a world of competitiveness, commodification and higher incomes. The new world that we can glean will not be dystopian. It will be a Utopia, with a twist."

"Her story perfectly illustrates the fact that parents and children suffer the more we privatize caregiving...."

"Our belief in negotiated commitment – that people are not obligated to relationships they did not choose" 

"These relationships [between parents and children] are inegalitarian in deep ways. The parties to partial relationships can exclude others..."  "Legitimate Parental Partiality"

"Xenofeminism. If nature is unjust, change nature."

"We Can't Have a Feminist Future Without Abolishing the Family" Full Surrogacy Now

"I teach a standard Contemporary Moral Issues/Applied Ethics course once a year.... We discuss topics such as abortion, inequality in education, parental licensing,..."

I grew up as a middle class Jew in a black working class neighborhood. When we moved there I didn't have a choice. I had to adapt, to accommodate myself to others. 

I could go on and on just adding related links. Fascism is utopian. Utopianism is fascist. Liberalism becomes fascist because individualism becomes its opposite.