Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Taipei by Tao Lin

Around midnight, after everyone in the cafĂ© had gone to a concert, Paul was alone in the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore’s manager’s apartment. He looked at Twitter for what felt like twenty minutes, alternating hands to hold his iPhone ten to fifteen inches above his face. He emailed Charles –

I’m lying in bed on a sofa

Fell strongly like I simply want to relate my feelings of
Bleakness in this email

My legs feel cold

- with “Feeling bleak” as the subject. He was looking at Twitter again, a few minutes later, when for the the fifth or sixth time since getting it in August he dropped his iPhone on his face, which did not register in its expression that anything had happened until after impact. He considered emailing Charles that his iPhone fell on his face. Then he tried to do what he couldn’t specifically remember having done since college – he chose one of his favorite songs and, with a meekly earnest sympathy towards himself, listen to it on repeat at high volume and tried to focus only on the drums, or bass guitar, until he was drowsy and decontextualized and memoryless, when he would half-unconsciously remove his earphones and turn off the music, careful not to be noticed and assimilated by the world, and disappear into the reachable mirage of sleep.

But he couldn’t focus on the music.  He couldn’t ignore a feeling that he wasn’t alone – that, in the brain of the universe, where everything that happened was concurrently recorded as public and indestructible data, he was already partially with everyone else that had died.  The information of his existence, the etching of which into space-time was the experience of his life, was being studied by millions of entities, billions of years from now, who knew him better than he would ever know himself. They knew everything about him, even his current thoughts, in their exact vagueness, as he moved distractedly towards sleep, studying him in their equivalent of middle school “maybe,” thought some fleeting aspect of Paul’s consciousness, unaware what it was referencing.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

To Paul, who’d stayed mostly in his uncle’s sixteenth-floor apartment on previous visits, the vaguely tropical, consummating murmur of Taipei, from his parent’s fourteenth-floor apartment, had sounded immediately and distinctively familiar.  The muffled roar of traffic, hazily embellished with beeps and honks and motorcycles engines and the occasional, looping, Doppler-effected jingle from a commercial or political vehicle – had been mnemonic enough (reminding Paul of the 10 to 15 percent of his life on the opposite side of the Earth, with a recurring cast of characters and no school and a different language, almost fantastically unlike the other 85 to 90 percent, in suburban Florida) for him to believe, on some level, that if a place existed where he could go to scramble some initial momentum, to disable a setting implemented before birth, or disrupt the out of control formation of some incomprehensible worldview, and allow a kind of settling, over time, to occur – like a spaceship that has exhausted its fuel and begun falling towards the nearest star, approaching what it wants at a rate it’s wanted, then easing into the prolonged, perfectly requited appreciation of an orbit – it would be here.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Slow Learner by Avital Ronell

The temptation is to wage war on stupidity as if it were a vanquishable object – as if we still knew how to wage war or circumscribe an object in a manner that would be productive of meaning or give rise to futurity.

One could not easily imagine circumstances in which an agency of state or government, even a U.S. government, would declare war on stupidity in the manner it has engaged a large-scale war on drugs. Though part of a politically suspect roundup, the presumed object of the drug wars offered a hint, at least of materiality. Stupidity exceeds and undercuts materiality, runs loose, wins a few rounds, recedes, gets carried home in the clutch of denial – and returns.  Essentially linked to the inexhaustible, stupidity is also that which fatigues knowledge and wears down history.

From Schiller’s exasperated concession that even the gods cannot combat stupidity, to Hannah Arendt’s frustrated effort, in a letter to Karl Jaspers, to determine the exact status and level of Adolf Eichmann’s Dummheit, to current psychoanalytical descriptions of the dumb interiors of the despotic mind (heir to the idiot-king of which Lacan has written), stupidity has evinced a mute resistance to political urgency, an instance of an unaccountable ethical hiatus.

In fact, stupidity, purveyor of self-assured assertiveness, mutes just about everything that would seek to disturb its impervious hierarchies.

Because it generates so many startling contradictions, stupidity, for philosophy or for the end of philosophy, acquires a status that needs to be claimed, if not entirely understood. What does stupidity have to do with thought or the affiliated branches of knowledge or scholarship? Where does it belong on the map of dogmatic philosophy, which continues to divide the territories of thought into empirical and transcendental sectors? 

Nietzsche does not say where to locate it, how to read it, or whether or not stupidity properly belongs where philosophy reigns.  Raising it, he more or less forgets stupidity, like an umbrella.  But then he remembers, it comes back to him when he affirms the protective values of deception and self-doubting: “One of the subtlest ways of  deceiving, for as long as possible, at any rate of successfully posing as more stupid than one is – which in everyday life is often as desirable as an umbrella – is called enthusiasm.”  Part of the grammar of shrewd behavior, connected to the everyday and self-protecting, stupidity opens up against the sky, receiving or bouncing off itself the intrusive rains of transcendence.  Implied by enthusiasm, it allows one to have a nice everyday day – on the surface of things.

In any case, stupidity now belongs to the famous repertoire of Nietzschean poses, to the domains of fiction and will to power.

I am going to defer the matter of situating stupidity since, anyway, everyone else at dome level of understanding has situated and filed a report on it, which is to say, for the most part, let it go. Whether abandoned or put to work, its fate was the same: the case was closed on stupidity, as if either way it had been adequately dealt with.  At this point in its career, hesitation and deferral seem to be the most dispassionate ways to approach stupidity.  The more we defer it, the more the knowledge we think we have about knowledge weakens ( as long as I don’t know what stupidity is, what I know about knowledge remains uncertain, even forbidding).

All we know at this juncture is that stupidity does not allow itself to be opposed to knowledge in any simple way, nor is it the other of thought.  It does not stand in the way of wisdom, for the disguise of the wise is to avow unknowing.  At this time I can say only that the question of stupidity is not satisfied with the discovery of the negative limits of knowledge; it consists, rather, in the absence of a relation to knowing .  .  .

Thursday, August 1, 2013

London's Overthrow by China Mieville


The pay gap between the highest and lowest paid in the UK has grown faster than in any other developed country, spiking since 2005. In 2008, average income of the top 10 per cent was twelve times that of the lowest. Their riches wax. We others are told to tighten our belts. Tax rates for the wealthiest have dropped, even as the gap between the merely rich and the utterly wealthy has grown.

We’re approaching Victorian levels of inequality, and London’s more unequal than anywhere else in the country. Here, the richest 10 per cent hold two-thirds of all the wealth, the poorest half; one-twentieth. A fifth of working residents in the London boroughs of Brent, Newham, Waltham Forest, Barking and Dagenham earn less than the living wage. Unemployment (2012) in the city is above 400,000, and rising. Almost a quarter of young Londoners are out of work. A wrenching 40 per cent of London children live in poverty.

The numbers mean death. Travel the grey Jubilee line. Eight stops, east from Westminster to Canning Town. Each stop, local life expectancy goes down a year.

From where you’ve got out, over the river you can see the dome, the blister-memento of London’s pathetic millennium.

Stagnation and money cataclysm. Boardroom pay goes up 50 percent. Still, in London, defenders of privilege aren’t quite so prone to swagger as their U.S. counterparts. Yes, magazines like Hello and Heat, programs like Made in Chelsea, celebrate conspicuous consumption by celebrities and local gilded youth. Yes, the Financial Times How To Spend It supplement, a guide to luxury and chic commodities, is enough to make a placid liberal nostalgic for the guillotine.

But the propaganda never fully took. 1998: Lord Mandelson, New Labour grandee, declares that Labour –that traditionally working-class party – is ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.’ People, though, refuse to forget that the filthy riches of the filthy rich are not unrelated to the filthy poverty of others. The declaration remains infamous.

Arguments for swollen pay packets among London’s 1 per cent and their apparatchiks tend to have a semi-apologetic, semi-sulky ring: it’s necessity, the global; market, the like-it-or-not real world. Not, as might be more common on Wall Street, moral right.  Ineluctibility as self-justification: its fans cite the City of London’s strength, its riches, as a reason not to target its riches, its strengths.

We slump under sado-monetarism. There are other ways. For years Alan Freeman was an economists with the Greater London Authority, working with both mayors. He leans forward in his chair, explaining what’s wrong with London’s still-massive economy, and how to fix it. ’Build two million homes . . .edufare in the place of workfare . . .invest in innovation. Quintuple government funding of R&D, extent R&D to the arts . . .put growth back and (I’s easy to show) the tax coffers will overflow.’

Statues of dragons punctuate the streets of the City, symbols of the area. Less Beasts of Revelation than priggish, arch draconine bureaucrats, more tetchy than rampant. But they guard the gold like Smaug.

In 2010, THE Labour Party was pushed out of government, and the Conservatives joined forces with the Liberal Democrats to take power. The conventional, if misleading, transatlantic analogy is that of Labour to the Democrats and the Conservatives to the Republicans. What, then, is the Liberal Democratic Party?

A mooncalf formulation. Fag-end descendent of Whigs, anti-trade union social democrats, free traders, social liberals, beachcombing disparate inspirations. The rightward lurch of the Labour Party under Blair allowed the LibDems to accrete a certain sheen. Which tarnished at astonishing rate when thy became part of the ConDem government –such a pitch-perfect portmanteau – signing up to and off on the Thatcherite agenda, privatization in the health service, cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance that helped lower-income school students, undermining comprehensive education in state schools by pushing selection, the siphoning off of preferred [pupils, creating a zero-sum game among proliferating local schools, attacking any nominal agenda of universalism. Belinda Benn, educationalist, calls the model ‘rigid centralization with widespread privatization. They tore up the promise not to increase university tuition fees. That last in particular helped radicalize a wave of students whose protests in 2010 started the backlash that, with fits and starts, continues.

Today the default demeanor of the LibDem politician is chippy defensiveness, plus/minus shame. Their left wing performs its lachrymosity and discomfort, their rugged pro-marketeers – like the Deputy Prime Minister and party leader Nick Clegg- mutter about hard choices. Once a soi-disant progressive alternative, now they are Tory-enablers.

 The economy toilets. Prices rise during a hecatomb of services. Libraries are closing. Social services are slashed. ‘What else’, laments the front page of the Kilburn Times, ‘is left for them to cut?’ People are fighting to stand still, whatever line of work they’re in.  .  .

Lionel Morrison considers the past. Few people are so well poised to parse this present, of press scandals, claim and counterclaim of racism and police misbehavior, deprivation, urban uprising. A South African radical, facing the death penalty in 1956 for his struggles against apartheid – in his house there is a photograph of him with one of his co-defendants, Nelson Mandela- Morrison got out, came to London in 1960.  In 1987, he became the first Black president of the National Union of Journalists. In 2000 he was honoured by the British Government with what is, bleakly amusingly, still called an OBE, Order of the British Empire.

We sit in his home, between English oil portraits that must be two centuries old, and carvings and sculptures fro the country of his birth. Is Morrison hopeful? An Optimist?
‘I’ve been thinking about it myself,’ he says gravely, his voice still strongly accented after all these years. ‘In a sense, I’m an optimist. But it hits and completely, constantly kicks at this optimism, you understand?

The ‘it’ is everything.

“It’s like a big angry wolf having it over here. And its not prepared to move, and sometimes its legs will go, but slow.’ He mimes the animal moving, leaving a little space, a little hole, an exit. ‘And people will say “Ah, we’ve got it!” And then chop, it goes again. His hands come down, the wolf’s grasp closes.

Outside, north London gets on with its dark. There’s an apocalypse more wintery than in Jonathan Martin’s conflagration. At the end of all things, Fenris-wolf will eat the sun. Its expression will e of nothing but greed, and it will look out at nothing.

Lionel Morrison doesn’t sound despairing. But he does sound tired.

‘Every time you do something and nothing goes any further, it eats at you,’ he says. ‘It starts this bitterness.’ He says the word slowly. ‘And I think this is one of the most terrible things that can take place . . . many become hopeless . .. it just breaks them down, and they think, “no, I want nothing more to do with this.” And then you find others who think, “Well, doing this and nothing happens? Well, let us just wait for things to –for chaos, really, to take place.”’


The Roll Call of Death by Elaine Scarry

The roll call of death should always be taken as it was first taken by Homer in the record of war that stands at the beginning of western civilization.  Here each death, whether Trojan or Greek, comes before one’s eyes in four aspects: the name of the person; the weapon (“freighted with dark pains”) as it approaches the body; the site of the entry and the slow progress of the widening wound (for we are to understand that it is the deconstruction of sentient tissue that is taking place, and that this deconstruction always occurs along a specific path); and fourth and finally, one attribute of civilization as it is embodied in that person, or in that person’s parent or comrade, for the capacity of parenting and camaraderie are themselves essential attributes of civilization.

Each attribute is invoked into the center of the wound, for each is implicated there and itself unmade: so the spear that cuts through the sinew of Padaeus’s head, passing through his teeth and severing his tongue, passes also through through the work of the goodly Theano who “reared him carefully even as her own children”; the bronze point that enters Phereclus through the right buttock, pierces bladder and bone, and pierces as well the shipbuilding and craftsmanship bodied forth in this son of Tecton, Harmon’s son; in the lethal fall of Axylus from his car is the fall of the well-built Arisbe, a home by the high road where entertainment was given to all; the huge jagged rock that cuts and crushes through the great-souled head of Epicles cuts its way too through his gradually shattered camaraderie with Sarpedon.

So, too, the twentieth-century litany of war deaths occurs in the same way: for the United States, the Vietnam War is not 57,000 names but names, bodies, and embodied culture – not Robert Gilray but Robert Gilray, from the left the artillery shell approached, entered his body and began its dark explosion, exploding there, too, the image of the standing crowd that each week watched his swift run across the playing fields of Chatham; not Manuel Font but Manuel Font, around his fragile frame the fire closed in, burning into his skin, and skull and brain, burning even into the deep, shy corners where he studied at school.

So the list would continue through tens of thousands of others.  That the war deaths occurred on behalf of a terrain in which pianos could be played and bicycles could be pedaled, where schools would each day be entered by restrained and extravagantly gesturing children alike, must be indicated by appending the direction of motive, “for my country,” since deaths themselves are the unmaking of the embodied terrain of pianos and bicycles, classmates, comrades and schools.

The “unmaking” of the human being, the emptying of the nation from his body (“for the nation”) is equally characteristic of dying or being wounded, for the in part naturally “given” and in part “made” body is deconstructed. When the Irishman’s chest is shattered, when the Armenian boy is shot through the legs and groin, when a Russian woman dies in a burning villager, when an American medic is blown apart on the field, their wounds are not Irish, Armenian, Russian or American precisely because it is the unmaking of an Irishman, the unmaking of an Armenian boy, the unmaking of a Russian woman, the unmaking of an American soldier that has just occurred, as well as in each case the unmaking of the civilization as it resides in each of those bodies. The arms that had learned to gesture in a particular way are unmade; the hands that held within them not just blood and bone but the movements that made possible the playing of the piano are unmade; the fingers and palms that knew in intricate detail the weight and feel of a particular tool are unmade; the feet that had within them “by heart” (that is, as a matter of deep bodily habit) the knowledge of how to pedal a bicycles are unmade; the heads and arms and back and legs that contained within them an elaborate sequence of steps in a certain dance are unmade; all are deconstructed along with the tissue itself, the sentient source and site of all learning.

Deconstruction by Jacques Derrida

Since we are talking at this moment (in Paul De Man’s War) about discourse that is totalitarian, fascist, Nazi, racist, anti-Semitic, and so forth, about all the gestures, either discursive or not, that could be suspected of complicity with it, I would like to do, and naturally I invite others to do, whatever possible to avoid reproducing, if only virtually, the logic of the discourse thus incriminated.

Is there a systematic set of themes, concepts, philosophemes, forms of utterance, axioms, evaluations, hierarchies which, forming a closed and identifiable coherence of what we call totalitarianism, fascist, Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism, never appear outside these formations and especially never on the opposite side? And is there a systematic coherence proper to each of them, since one must not confuse them too quickly with each other? Is there some property so closed and so pure that one may not find any element of these systems in discourses that are commonly opposed to them? To say that I do not believe there is, not absolutely, means at least two things; (1) Such a formalizing, saturating totalization seems to me to be precisely the essential character of this logic whose project, at least, and whose ethico-political consequence can be terrifying. One of my rules is never to accept this project and consequence, whatever that may cost. (2) For this very reason, one must analyze as far as possible this process of formalization and its program to uncover the statements, the philosophical, ideological, or political behaviors that derive from it and wherever it may be found. This tasks seems to me to be both urgent and interminable. It has occurred to me on occasion to call this deconstruction.

In the many discourses I have read or heard in the last few months -1987- (and I was expecting them in a very precise way), whether they attack or defend de Man, it was easy to recognize axioms and forms of behavior that confirm the logic that one claims to have rid oneself of; purification, purge , totalization, reappropriation, homogenization, rapid objectification, good conscience, stereotyping and nonreading, immediate politicization or depoliticization (the two always go together), immediate historicization or dehistoricization (it is always the same thing), immediate ideologizing moralization (immorality itself) of all the texts and all the problems, expedited trial, condemnations, or acquittals, summary executions or sublimations.  This is what must be deconstructed, these are a few points of reference (that is all I can do here) in the field open to this research and these responsibilities that have been called, for two decades, deconstructions.

What I have practiced under the name deconstruction has always seemed to me favorable, indeed destined (it is no doubt my principle motivation) to the analysis of totalitarianism in all its forms, which cannot always be reduced to the names of regimes. And this in order to free oneself of totalitarianism as far as possible, because it is not enough to untie the knot through analysis (there is more than one knot and the twisted nature of the knot remains very resistant) or to uproot what is finally, perhaps, only the terrifying desire for roots and common roots.

One does not free oneself of totalitarianism effectively at a single blow by easy adherences to the dominant consensus, or by proclamations of the sort I could, after all, give in to without any great risk, since it is what is called objective truth: “As for me, you know, no one can suspect me of anything: I am Jewish, I was persecuted as a child during the war, I have always been known for my leftist opinions, I fight as best I can, for example against racism (for instance, in France or in the United States where they are still rampant, would anyone like to forget that?), against apartheid or for recognition of the rights of Palestinians. I have got myself arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned by totalitarian police, not long ago, so I know how they ask and resolve questions, and so forth.”

No, such declarations are insufficient.  There can still be, and in spite of them, residual adherences to the discourse one is claiming to combat. And deconstruction is, in particular, the tireless analysis (both theoretical and practical) of these adherences.

In spite of its discouraging effect, I have begun to get used to journalistic presentations of deconstruction and to the even more discouraging fact that responsibility for them belongs most often not with professional journalists, but with professors whose training ought to require at least some attempt at reading but, this time- upon discovery of Paul d Man’s early journalism in Nazi occupied Belgium- finding as always its foothold in aggressivity, simplism has produced the most unbelievably stupid statements!

By saying several times and repeating it again that de Man had radically broken with his past of 1940-42, I intend clearly an activity, convictions, direct or indirect relations with everything that then determined the context of his articles. In sum, a deep and deliberated uprooting. But after this decisive rupture, even as he never ceased reflecting on and interpreting this past, notably through his work and a historico-political experience that was ongoing, he must have proceeded with other ruptures, divergences, displacements. My hypothesis is that there were many of them. And that, with every step, it was indirectly at least a question of wondering:: how was this possible and how can one guard oneself against it? What is it, in the ideologies of the right or the left, in this or that concept of literature, of history or of politics, in a particular protocol of reading, or a particular rhetorical trap which still contains, beneath on figure or another, the possibility of the return of the totalitarian project?