Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: the Supply of Demands


No one, I trust, is actually in doubt (as opposed to pretending to be in doubt) about what has made Occupy Wall Street protesters--from an unprecedented range of the citizenry--angry. What they want is, supposedly, a different question. The media keeps intoning that there's "no coherent message," no unifying purpose, no laundry list of policy changes. This is not wholly by chance. As Jodi Dean points out, the very question of whether to issue demands continues to be a matter of debate for OWS. (See also Ross Wolfe's post on some of the tension to which this debate gives rise.) There are some good reasons to decline to issue such a list. Many remember how well it worked when millions worldwide marched condemning the invasion of Iraq. They had a clear and unambiguous message. And that worked well, don't you think? Others see issuing demands for the 1% to take concrete steps to give up power as pretty much analogous to putting a slip of paper in a suggestion box that leads straight to the sewer. After a while, you start to get tired of that flushing sound. Still others see it as rushing to the process whereby the corporatists figure out "who we're dealing with here," and start to negotiate us down to an acceptable and meaningless settlement.

To critics overt or covert, this is either a convenient excuse to dismiss the movement, or a genuine sign of either impudence or incoherence. My suspicion is that if the movement seems that vague to you, so vague that you just "can't tell what the Occupiers are saying," you are being a bit vague with the truth as well. But even sympathizers can't help worrying that the movement discredits itself, looking like a mob throwing a tantrum whose only purpose is catharsis.

No doubt there are some loudmouths, some "troublemakers", among the Occupiers, people whose protest is just an angry fighting-for-your-right-to-paaaarty. But anyone who reduces Occupy Wall Street to this is fooling themselves. How deeply some hope that protesters will just get bored and go away.

Uncertainty over whether to make demands, and what the demands will be, is not the Achilles-heel that the scoffers want it to be. But it does signify a lacuna, a shying-away from the brink of something. That something is both complex, and very, very simple, and is of philosophical interest. You might even say it's the whole thing.

This has a complex side and a simple one. On the complex: in their heart of hearts, protesters, or the unacknowledged "leadership" among protesters, know (and, parenthetically, I would add that the allergy to this concept of leadership, the inability to construe it in any but a statist, authoritarian way, is a liability of the movement), that the way forward is not and cannot be a simple matter of some new (or old) legislation or judicial pronouncement. The system itself (were you waiting for me to sue the S-word?) is deeply flawed, and real solutions are beyond tinkering and adjusting. I am aware that disparaging associations are summoned by the phrase "it's the System, man." Condescending onlookers have been awaiting the moment when Occupy Wall Street is "appropriated by the far left" and they may take this sentence as evidence that the moment is upon us. (The real danger of any co-opting comes from a very different direction.) But to point out that a rigged game is not a "game" at all, but a swindle, is not to say that there cannot be such things as games, let alone to decry the concept of games. It is however to say that a real game will have to look and be something completely different than what we have.

To make this point with more sober and thoughtful analyses than I have patience for, I commend to you the take of Douglas Rushkoff (four related articles, here, here, here, and here) and a critique by Samuel Smith, mainly to the third of those foregoing links, (here). Rushkoff (writing in 2009, well before Occupy was a twinkle in AdBusters' eye) insists that the economy did not malfunction when it created the gargantuan disparity between the 1% and the ninety-nine; it worked exactly as it was supposed to. It is, frankly, dumbfounding to me how anyone could think otherwise.
The thing that is dying—the corporatized model of commerce—has not, nor has it ever been, supportive of the real economy. It wasn’t meant to be.... [A]fter America’s post WWII expansion, there was really no longer any real growth area in the economy from which to extract wealth. We were producing and consuming about as much as we could. Almost no commercial activity was occurring outside the corporate system. There was no room left to grow.... Making matters worse, all that capital that the wealthy had accumulated needed markets—even fake markets—in which to be invested. There was a ton of money out there—just nowhere to put it. Nothing on which to speculate. …So speculators turned instead to real assets, like corn, oil, even real estate. They started investing speculatively on the things that real people need to stay alive. What real people didn’t understand was that there is no way to compete against speculators. Speculators aren’t buying homes in which to live—they are buying houses to flip. Speculators aren’t buying corn to eat or oil to burn, but bushels to hoard and tankers to park off shore until prices rise. The fact that the speculative economy for cash and commodities accounts for over 95% of economic transactions, while people actually using money and consuming commodities constitute less than 5% tells us something important. Real supply and demand have almost nothing to do with prices. We do not live in an economy, we live in a Ponzi scheme.
Where Rushkoff may lose you is when he opines that the best thing that could happen is for the economy to really tank; not to close a couple of firms and send some folks to prison and have the Dow Jones lose a couple of percentage points, but for the market to fall 70-80%. Only then, he thinks, will we be able to rebuild an economy that serves human beings. Here is where Samuel Smith demurs, pointing out that the likely fallout from such a real collapse would be far, far scarier than anything we have witnessed; it would likely mean the unraveling of what people like to call the social fabric. It's not Smith disagrees with Rushkoff's analysis; it's just that he thinks Rushkoff's medicine might be worse than the disease:
Truth be told, “Ponzi scheme” is a mild descriptor for our current hegemony, and there are lots of people who deserve worse punishment than they’re likely to get.... My pragamatic side can’t get past the path from Point A to Point B, though.... If we “let it die,” yes, it will be hard times for “hundreds of thousands of formerly well-paid brokers and bankers.” It will also be tough on a lot of other people.... people are going to die. Lots of people. Children are going to starve to death in the streets. Maybe your children, but if not, almost certainly the children of someone you know. And since America is so central to the global economy, let’s try not to imagine what happens in areas that are already impoverished. If we’re lucky enough, at some point, to emerge from this holocaust, it’s pure fantasy to assert that a “real economy” is what results.
Now I would mention that some folks, like James Howard Kunstler, ArchdruidJohn Michael Greer, and Derek Jensen, have been saying for while a while now that this scarier something is coming whether we like it or not. (Smith cites Kirkpatrick Sale, another articulate doomsayer, but he sees far more common ground between Sale and Rushkoff than I do.) I have some reservations about these dour expectations--mainly because I think that when it comes to prognostication, the first and last word was said by Yogi Berra: "it's hard to predict, especially the future"--but I'll admit to being very pessimistic about the ecological long-term. It's also true that the dire warnings of chaos and mob rule are a trusty standby for One-Percenters who want to scare the rest of us into not fucking with things. (The specter of social anarchy and mob rule will sooner or later be invoked against OWS.)

Which, n.b., does not make the scary warnings meaningless. But the real question is not what motivates someone to raise this specter, but what motivates us to avoid it--what makes it scary? And there are reasons for this which are closer to home than the fear of turning America into the scene for a Mad Max film.

Replacing a broken system is far more challenging than calling for the punishment of a few CEOs--gratifying (and even right) though that would doubtless be. Most of us have no idea what such work would be like. It could go very, very deep. Perhaps not so deep as market-abolition (which is certainly on some OWS leaders' wishlists, but hardly on that of the 99% en masse), but then, we don't know how deep until we get there. This is why the sneer from critics, "What do you want to put in its place?" while obnoxious and know-nothing, has a significance beyond what the critics intend. I said above that the lacuna indicated by the question of "what we want " indicated something both complex and simple. Here we come to the simple part: not-knowing is real, and frightening.

Some people want nothing more than to go back to their old lives, the lives they thought they were planning before mortgages got foreclosed, before student loans caught up with them when they lost their job, before an accident or illness piled up a stack of bills and credit-card statements. And of course, no lack of strategy is going into trying to figure what it will take to get folks to do just that-- to go back to their old lives. That is just what the demand for demands means: it's a ploy to find the starting-place from which to bargain down to an acceptable arrangement which will get people to agree to go home. Those old lives were of course still lived under the old regime. There was plenty of foul play going on already, but it hadn't yet reached middle America yet. Steve Gimbel at Philosopher's Playground writes, the system has been for a very long time
a socio-economic-political game of calvinball in which those who have the most constantly change and rework the rules to make sure that no matter what happens, all wealth and opportunity is shipped up to the most well-off. As long as the middle-class was given new episodes of Friends and shiny SUVs to distract them, the whole thing could be masked. But now the shifting of wealth has undermined their expectations.
There's a lot in those little words "but now." What follows here is my take, not Gimbel's. What "But now" means is that it's no longer working--not just for the traders and racketeers atop the ladder, but for me and you. Implicit in this is that if we're just now waking up to the atrocious riggedness of the game, we weren't paying attention before. We allowed ourselves to be distracted by shiny SUVs and episodes of Friends. Even now, the would-be clever observation is raised that the activists are working away on iPhones and laptops, broadcasting their protests via the gadgets made by the corporate culture they decry. After you eliminate the smugness from this red-herring, there remains a little whiff of pertinence, and that pertinence inheres in the fact that we are indeed implicated in what we protest. We, too, are responsible. If we are honest, we can see this is the case whether you've been long-time champions of the cause going back to the '60s or before; or whether, like me, you've fought a long and losing fight against apolitical cynicism, or whether you didn't even realize until your city got Occupied that anything was wrong. (O.K., are there any of those?)

N.b., this does not mean that, since "we are all responsible", therefore no one is responsible. As Arendt noted in Eichmann in Jerusalem, this was more or less the tenor of Eichmann's defense, and it does not wash. There is more than enough responsibility to go around, but there are also different kinds of responsibility, and those who smiled and yawned and took their bailout-funded bonuses with one hand while signing foreclosures with the other are responsible in a whole different way than those who allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of consumerist security, whether by a suburban dream or a heroin syringe. But these latter, too, are a kind of responsibility, and if this makes anyone uncomfortable, well, it ought to.

Significant American social movements of the 20th century involved at least a twofold energy. There is the aspect by which one sees injustice and calls it by name. This was once fairly easy, e.g. in the days of segregation. But as prejudices and inequities have gone subterranean, there is harder work to be done on that front, both systematic and piecemeal, and it is the sort of thing where people of good will can sometimes disagree (and where those who are not always of good will can spout premature nonsense about the "end of racism," or sexism, or etc.). There is also the aspect by which one asserts than one no longer wishes to be implicated in the injustice one names. This part is harder, is ongoing--even in the times when an injustice seems plain as day. Even after one has consciously condemned and foresworn an injustice, one must catch in oneself the sneaky residue of condescension and inherited prejudice that lingers. Anyone can be surprised at an unguarded moment when they let slip an attitude they would never have expected in themselves. To accept that this occurs, you don't have to buy into notions of inherited guilt or pervasive institutional prejudice; good old-fashioned human fallibility, a failure to live up to our own standards, will do. The courage and commitment is called for on the part of activists as it is called for from those such movements aim to benefit. Internalized racism or sexism was and is real, and is still confronted. Coming out remains (and will for the foreseeable future) a defining and courageous moment in the life of anyone who is gay. Such decisions involve a resolution to no longer be part of the problem--a resolution that has to be repeated over and over.

The analogy between any of these with any other, including OWS, is obviously imperfect. I am not making the sophomoric claim that coming out of the closet, or refusing the stereotypes of one's own ethnicity, is equivalent to deciding to buy local or to opting out of the banking system. No form of resistance is just like any other. My point is that every resistance requires scrutiny of oneself and one's motives and a reiterated decision to take responsibility. Americans from every point on the political spectrum and from every social strata have been, to various degrees, lulled into an unsustainable worldview alien to human values. And we are still in it.

In his book Life, Inc., Rushkoff describes the "landscape of corporatism" as:
a world not merely dominated by corporations, but one inhabited by people who have internalized corporate values as our own. And even now that corporations appear to be waning in their power, they are dragging us down with them; we seem utterly incapable of lifting ourselves out of theirdepression.
We need to understand how this happened—how we came to live for and through a business scheme. We must recount the story of how life itself became corporatized, and figure out what—if anything—we are to do about it.
While we will find characters to blame for one thing or another, most of corporatism’s architects have long since left the building—and even they were usually acting with only their immediate, short-term profits in mind. Our object instead should be to understand the process by which we were disconnected from the real world and why we remain disconnected with it. This is our best hope of regaining some relationship with terra firma again. Like recovering cult victims, we have less to gain from blaming our seducers than from understanding our own participation in building and maintaining a corporatists society. Only then can we begin dismantling it and replacing it with something more livable and sustainable.
(Life, Inc.p xxv)
Thus the lack of a Mubarak or a Qadaffi for whose head to call is only a small part of what makes "demands" hard to enumerate here. More to the point is that we lack even a language for imagining a different set of values. What could we possibly want, in a country where, after all, we "have the right" to protest?!

When Slavoj Žižek addressed the New York protesters a few Sundays ago, he cited the old joke in which two friends plan, when one is going to visit a country with a repressive government, to circumvent the political censors by writing letters in blue ink if what they write is true and red ink if it is false. Then the first letter arrives and speaks in glowing terms of conditions in the country. Everything is apparently wonderful and readily available--"except red ink."
This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink. The language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom, war, terrorism, and so on, falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here: You are giving all of us red ink.
The invention of a language for our discontent is properly a philosophical matter. It is akin to what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of values.

This revaluation will need to break open the delivery-system whereby Americans have received and swallowed their political positions, all from trusted purveyors of opinion (media or government). In nothing have Americans been consumers more than in their consumption of ready-made political "positions" from an embarrassingly tiny subsection of possible stances. Kicking this habit means breaking apart the two-party system and very, very serious campaign and election reform. I am talking about measures which I don't expect to get a serious hearing, such as range voting and the abandonment of the electoral college. This seems a tall order, but it is probably more likely than Rushkoff's notion (which goes back to Silvio Gesell and beyond) of money bearing negative-interest.

Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to propel the US into democracy, given that the country never has been a democracy and was not intended to be one. But it is possible that it will at least elevate and expand the kind of politics, and even economics, that can happen here. Settling for a "new conversation" while the status quo continues will not be acceptable, but the status quo changes, in America, via just such conversations. Or at least, it could. I remain cautiously pessimistic.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tomas Tranströmer, "Open and Closed Spaces"


Tomas Tranströmer, a favorite poet of mine for more than twenty years, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature earlier this month. This poem by him is one I have wanted to write about for a long time.
Open and Closed Spaces

A man feels the world with his work like a glove.
He rests for a while at midday having laid aside the gloves on the shelf.
There they suddenly grow, spread
and black-out the whole house from inside.

The blacked-out house is away out among the winds of spring.
'Amnesty,' runs the whisper in the grass: 'amnesty.'
A boy sprints with an invisible line slanting up in the sky
where his wild dream of the future flies like a kite bigger than the suburb.

Further north you can see from a summit the blue endless carpet of pine forest
where the cloud shadows
are standing still.
No, are flying.


(tr. Robin Fulton)
What I love here, among other things, is the way the poem revises itself. The gorgeous and dangerous way in which the terms that are introduced as a figure of speech in one line become substantive in the next. E.g., the way "...like a glove" (a simile) in line one leads on to the gloves (real gloves this time) being "laid aside" in line two, and then in line three they shift again from passively lying on the shelf to "suddenly grow[ing]" to dramatic proportions. A single word--in a mere simile, at that, that most garden-variety of figures of speech--has in three lines taken over and "black[ed] out the whole house"! This pattern continues, with "house" this time: the house is next seen from without, "away out among the winds." These winds will now (without ever being expressly mentioned again by name) shape what comes next: the whisper in the grass, the kite in the air, the clouds and their shadows. But the wind bloweth where it listeth. The poem refuses to be bound by its previous figures; at every step, the law previously laid down is amended. Thus the grass whispers "amnesty," (the law is not binding), but then the motion of the poem veers upwards from being so close to the ground: the boy sprints, a line slants up into the sky; a dream, "like a kite" but huge, introduces the first overtly temporal term ("the future") into a poem that has hitherto been dominated by the spatial; we are transported to a mountaintop; and in the last three lines, one sees the poem overtly correcting itself: what seemed to be steady is in fact in motion. And every closed space can open up. What the poem describes, it enacts.

If you can read Swedish, the original poem (and some others) may be found here. (There are English versions too.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

poem


"The Eternal Silence of Those Infinite Spaces

Terrifies me," Pascal wrote, meaning
those holes draped between stars--
voids that could swallow a trillion times
this ground we're walking. Yet from here
your fingertip covers them, pointing out
a star that's already moved on, leaving
a gap easier crossed, less freezing
than the gulf my fingers found that night
reaching vainly for yours
as we walked
                                      dumbfounding blank
we'd once held hands across
 
                                     Your after-image still shining.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"The God neither speaks nor conceals..."


A friend writes me concerning the funeral of a friend:
The day after she died somebody close to her dreamed that she flew off with iridescent dragonfly wings (I got the email about this dream the day after her death). Yesterday at the funeral (under a big tent outdoors), one enormous, singular dragonfly flew around, and perched above the podium for the entire event.
It is hard to know "what to do" with stories like this, and this very incapacity is why they are invaluable. Not because they demonstrate irrefutably the bankruptcy of "the materialist world view;" and not because they show how desperately we narrativize and pattern-seek to gain a shadow of 'meaning' at any cost. Rather, because their experiential force is such that we cannot dismiss them, and yet they just won't slip easily into any preordained category. If we seize on them as "evidence" of something, we slip into superstition. But if we blow them off, we do violence to ourselves. (Many are indeed prepared to bite the bullet and do this, but the cost of this is the chemical gelding of their souls. What they see as tough-mindedness I see as the intellect on steroids--and courting analogous side-effects). The only rational and human (I will even say "faithful") stance is one that sees in them as what Heraclitus said: "The God whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign." This sign is not glossable (if it were, it would be "speaking"). It points us beyond this world, but not at the world's expense.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Wittgenstein, Reality and the Novel


This is directed at any philosophers or readers of literature in the neighborhood of the U of Hertfordshire. It's a plug for an upcoming (Oct 18) lecture by Bernard Harrison, who will be presenting a view of Wittgenstein he has been quietly and diligently refining and promoting for many decades now. Harrison is set apart from many for the close regard he gives to all ("early" and "late") Wittgenstein, which gives his stance, in my estimation, a thoroughness missing from those philosophies which try to valorize (or dismiss) one or the other. He is also an exceptional close reader of literary texts, and he reads with his heart as well as his mind. I, alas, am on the other side of the globe and cannot hear my old professor. If anyone learns of it being recorded, please let me know.