Monday, November 27, 2006

The Dog and the Mangers

The following post will cover a few subjects, but it was inspired by driving to lunch and seeing that a particular town is going to have a "Christmas Pride Parade." The county seat has a sled and Santa already up, in lights, and I fully expect a nativity scene soon. It's that kind of town. Christmas Pride, presumably, is the antithesis of the "War on Christmas." Either that, or it is an artillery shell fired at the enemies of Christmas, whoever they are supposed to be. No doubt they are the "liberal secularists," as O'Reilly has them, who oppose big displays of the Ten Commandments. (Note: I am a "card carrying member" of the ACLU.)

The thing is, Christmas, like the Ten Commandments, is an invention. I'm not talking about the concepts behind these things. The Nativity is real, but we haven't the foggiest idea when it occurred. (The shepherds were up in the hills with their flocks, so winter doesn't make a lot of sense.) The Star of Bethlehem would have been visible for a while, if not over a wide area. However, the Nativity is most emphatically not Christmas, and no one has said so. In fact, Christmas is the Christ Mass -- the church service dedicated to the birth of Jesus. Given that no one by the third century knew when Jesus was born, exactly, Roman Christians set the feast of Jesus at the same time as the Saturnalia. That allowed syncretism that could keep Christians from the executioner, on the one hand, and damnation for idolatry, on the other. Christmas is a church service, not a date, not the nativity. I hope I'm not the first person to point out to you that, when the Protestant Reformation occurred, many of the more radical protestants rejected Christmas. The first two generations of protestants were Bible scholars, knew that the nativity's date was uncertain, and wanted nothing to do with the idea that Jesus would be celebrated for a birth date coinciding with pagan rituals. The Puritans made Christmas celebrations illegal in England. (A good article on the ban is here.)

Charles Dickens recreated Christmas with that book of a man forging chains in life and blessing a crippled boy. That was a bold bit of public relations. After that, America began making a visual Christmas, a Christmas of a particular sort. Just as with Thanksgiving's Puritan holiday getting foisted on the rest of the nation (founded earlier by different folks), a particularly northeastern form of Christmas...with snow and sleds and candy canes -- all products of New England -- became the universal and unequivocal Christmas. German immigrants bring their fader Christmas and Santa with Black Peter (who gets dropped as not fit for marketing). That gets sold on television and in film, so all of us wish for a "White Christmas," even in Arizona.

Christmas, in the form of a sled full of presents, is purely a merchandizing invention, a marketing construct. I am not saying that it is corporate America tricking us into celebrating Talk Like A Pirate Day. No. It's just that this Christmas is an accidental agglutination of commercially successful details -- each having been chosen by the marketplace, each being top seller. When a southern city defiantly puts up a sled, fake snow, elves, and the like, it is defying secular liberals on behalf of a commercial image, not the Christ Mass, and not the Nativity. They claim to be defending "Christmas," but that Christmas is not the christological moment of the Incarnation of God as man.

Surely, surely, surely everyone knows that the "washing machine sized" monument of the decalogue that Judge Roy Moore was fighting for was not chiselled by Moses or the finger of God. In fact, it came from Hollywood. No joke. The "Ten Commandments" came from the marketing of The Ten Commandments via the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The FOE put these things up around the country, and one of them fell into the clutches of a fundamentalist judge. From there, all wrath broke out. Those who mobilized for the display of the Ten Commandments were, in fact, rallying around a marketing freebie.

What's interesting about these two causes is that they are both fights about wrappers rather than contents. The box, rather than the gift, is what is important. It isn't the celebration of the incarnation of Christ that we're fighting over, but whether or not someone says "Merry Christmas" (and how often does "merry" come up in other phrases in contemporary American?) or "Happy holidays." In other words, they are about outward display of washing machine blocks of granite and greetings, not about Christianity and adherence to the rules of Mosaic law.

I'm tempted to agree with Umberto Eco, whose Travels in Hyper Reality suggested that Americans like the recreation more than they do the real thing, that the replica of Graceland is better than Graceland because it has been edited and had its reality heightened and tweaked. However, there is a more philosophical and religious crisis at stake here. Our preference for simulacra might pump money into the Hard Rock Cafe, but it won't get us screaming at one another on the nightly news.

Instead, I think that the Protestant Reformation, the thing that made us most at war with Christmas, has made us most desperate for "Merry Christmas" and mangers and Christmas Pride. Protestantism's emphasis on the individual's role in interpreting scripture and choosing one's denomination, and the congregational churches' emphasis on lack of authority in structure, has led Christians into greater isolation from one another and no visible mark of their faith. Jesus said that we need no external marks, that we should concentrate on the cleanliness of the soul, not the washing of the hands. However, that leaves people nervous for some reason.

The ichthus display on car trunks is a sign (the "fish symbol"). It says, "I am a Christian." Why? It is the same reason as the Christmas Pride and the decalogue-as-rock: it is a way of shouting out one's Christianity, of screaming one's identity, or one aspect of one's identity, at the top of one's lungs. I do not know why, but it's clear that the people involved feel like their identities are threatened, feel like they are sliding into oblivion and irrelevance, and they are striking back with poor aim and no introspection.

My feeling is that people telling the world so loudly that they are Christian do not mean that they are Christian. After all, the people they are shouting at are Christians as well. The people they are shouting at are not enemies or ashamed of the incarnation of Christ, either. Instead, they are following the dancing shells of ideology and guessing that the pea (the self) is under this particular walnut half. I'm afraid that they're wrong, but I'm also afraid that we cannot convince them of that. Instead, we can try to reassure them and hope to help them discover what it is that is truly making them afraid.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Why We Fight

"And if I fight with a loved one, Lord,
Won't you please make me the winner?" -- Loudon Wainwright III, "Thanksgiving."

Each holiday has its cliches, and each has remora comedians and commentators pointing them out for the younger and less observant of us. Some of the time, they crack wise, sometimes wisely, sometimes morosely. However, the winks and grins come from pain deep enough for trauma. The people out there in the audience have had some pretty bad times at the holidays. What is it about Thanksgiving and family fights, though? Every year, those people called family come together to eat and fight. One of them mentions a past grievance or a present political preference or notice an article of clothing, and suddenly the grown-ups table becomes more emotional and louder than the children's table. Boom, boom, shriek, glower/ We will not stay another hour.

So, how do we get there? We get there by becoming adults. The kinds of fights we have can not take place when we're young. We have arguments of unknown etiology and pessimistic prognosis solely because we have gotten over those old competitions and resentments of youth. Furthermore, we fight inerrantly about the bones of our maturity. This is not as much of a paradox as it seems.

Suppose you grew up bitter at the taste of the bridle. You would go on to assert independence and figure out how to tolerate authority by becoming the authority or by dropping out of the power structure. It would be one of the keys to becoming an adult, for you, to be your own person. Suppose instead that you grew up aggravated and depressed by distant parents. If that were the case, you would survive the burden by becoming self-sufficient or the center of jollity. Sibling rivalry is too various to discuss -- the sisters' vanity battle, the brothers' pounding on each other or tricking each other into trouble -- whatever it is, it will throw one of the biggest obstacles to life at you, and you will have to handle it and neutralize it as you become an adult. You can, as ever, win by fighting or by swallowing the opposition. Whatever your strategy, it will have been crafted very specifically to meet very specific needs.

At the feast, our strategies, all developed like receptors to the antigens of our family, are at the fore, on the skin, in the stare, quavering in the voice, firing the nostrils. We have allergies to our family. Additionally, Thanksgiving is a collection of adults who are not in charge. Being in charge is not merely a long-sought privilege of maturity, but is also the licensing condition for coping with the past. The most placid family get togethers are the ones where each adult is given a task. The delegation of authority leaves each member of the family Executive Vice President of this or that, and that is why the best pacifier to the family fight is having children. When you have kids to manage and control access to, you are guaranteed maturity, guaranteed to be in charge. If, however, you have not or not yet swum upstream, spawned, and survived, or if the children are with the ex-, or just absent, then you are not in charge. You are idle and dependent, and only your personality stands between you and the others.


So, there you are, faced with those burdens and your compensations. If any, and I mean ane ne, of your strategies were anti- the parent/sibling, then very soon you will prove your personal growth by demonstrating how little you care about what that person did. You will attack, in other words, without knowing about it. That's why it will be impossible not to mention how your parents paid her way as an "artist," and why his snort of derision at The Nutcracker at the local theater is surely meant to be an insult to your years as an artist.

Call upon the divine for a victory, because to win the fight to prove to yourself that you closed the holes those people called family made in you is to win an all important battle. Winning means autonomy. It means being whole. It is a fight for a self that you are having, and the fight proves that you have already lost, that some part of you, even if that is the memory of wrongs long done, is owned by someone else.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Don't Blame Me: I Voted on a Diebold Machine

That's one of my new bumpersticker ideas. I have others. My favorite other one, in terms of million dollar ideas, is "Said Yes to Drugs." I figure that it might be funny to slap that on dad's car, except that they might get confused and think that it was Rush Limbaugh at the wheel. My personal favorite, not in terms of the millions I could have made, is "I'd Rather Be Sleeping."

At any rate, the slogan is true enough, above. We have a number of I'm an X and I Vote ("I Hear Voices, and I Vote"), per a previous blog post, but we also have a cliche of "Don't Blame Me, I Voted Budweiser Frogs" and others of that ilk. It began as a demonstration of dissent, but it then got to be a joke in its own right -- first a rueful one and then a forgetful one.

"Democracy is the theory that the common man knows what he wants and deserves to get it good and hard." -- H. L. Mencken

See, the problem these days is that we didn't vote Kodos, didn't vote Kerry, surely didn't vote Gore. Nor did we vote Bush, of course. What we voted was Diebold. We all know that Diebold machines can be hacked, if we've been paying any attention to computers or the news. From Finnish hackers to Princeton professors, anyone can hack a Diebold. HBO showed a documentary about BlackBox Voting called "Hacking Democracy" the night of the election rather than the night before. Ok, so clever computer scientists like the chimpanzee can hack the voting machines, but so what? Can't corrupt county bosses do the same with paper ballots and manual machines? Well, yes, but there is a much greater insecurity now than there used to be when Sheriff Cletus had his hand on your hand on the lever: Diebold machines are centrally produced, distributed, and collected up, and all the data must go upstream to a single point.

In other words, it's hard to manipulate a vote to change a state wide election, when it's paper or mechanical. It's hard to manipulate a vote to change the county commissioner, when it's centrally controlled. Given the fact that Walden O'Dell, CEO of Diebold, raised more than $100,000.00 for George W. Bush, that he vowed to "do anything (he) could" to give Bush Ohio in 2004, and the fact that all the votes have to go upstream to a counting system (which can be hacked) from memory cards that each have executable files on them (which can be hacked) and that altering either program shows no intruders, we have a pretty dark horizon out there.

But The Geogre, you say, the Democrats won! Why are you bitching? I'm bitching because we may have won in spite of the voting machines. I'm bitching because, so far, every time there has been a recount where receipts are measured against recorded totals, Democrats have gained votes. I'm bitching because George Allen quit before a recount, when it's possible that the recount would not have made him look very good. I'm bitching because the vote is centralized in the hands of commercial vendors, and it's possible for a single corrupt person to swing a nation or a state wherever he wishes. I don't mean O'Dell, either. I mean an "unaffiliated group" somewhere, like the people who "served with John Kerry in Vietnam" (meaning that they served in Vietnam, not that they were in the Navy, that they were on the lines, or that they were on the boat with him) who just knew that he didn't deserve his medals.

When Sheriff Cletus coerces me, I know who it is. When a faceless freak with a Palm Pilot can knock me out of the booth and waft his employer into office, I get upset. The strong arm on my hand is bad, but the thumb on the scale is worse. I'm free to vote on the Diebold, but I'm not free to have the vote go through. It's rather like a videogame vote: it makes me feel happy, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything. You can play Halo all you want, but you're not Jack Bauer, and you can go vote with your Diebold all you want, but you're not participating in democracy, not unless we decentralize the process.

Anarchy in voting is bad, but it's better than a commercial vendor. For profit voting? Think about what we have invisibly and silently chosen: turning voting over to competition for profit. Should anyone be encouraged to go cheaper, faster, and with the highest margins when we're talking about voting? Why, exactly, can the government not manufacture voting machines? Why, exactly, can we not have non-profits make them? What is it about voting that makes the most profitable (and therefore those with the greatest ability to advertise, to organize junkets, to sweet talk, to man the phone banks) the BEST for us? What is it about intellectual property rights that makes you think, "Yeah, I want someone to own the methods of my voting, the display and storage of the data, and the access point to it?"

This is insane.

Republicans should be as outraged as Democrats. Everyone should be stopping well short of merely wondering if O'Dell is cheating and ask whether free market profits are proper, whether proprietary encoding is proper, and whether or not we need to have a Democracy Incorporated deciding how many votes to count, if not where they go.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What's Wrong with This Picture?

"You beat your pate, and fancy wit will come;
Knock as you please, there's nobody at home." -- Alexander Pope
No, not that picture, but the picture we get when we look into the prophetic pool of the academy. It's a prophetic pool because it certainly isn't a mirror. Instead, we look into academe to find out what will be, in two senses. First, the fads and foolery of the colleges will soon enough be on satirical television shows and then the streets of America. Second, the theoretical and research results there will get into the heads of millions of people and then shape the actual practice of the knowledge implicated industries (which is most of them now). At the same time, everyone thinks that the pool lies, that it's wrong. So, what is wrong with academia, other than me, I mean?

The first problem is the one that anyone who thinks for a moment will realize: it is a fortune-telling mirror, and so it shows what is not but what will be. Therefore, it is always false. It is always not what "we" think. Therefore, whether it says "God Is Dead" in 1965 (yes, that's the link to the original that got everyone from the Southern Baptist Convention to Bernie Taupin talking) or "The margin is the center" (no link, but it's Jacques Lacan or Shaka Khan or the Wrath of Madeline Kahn), it's altogether nonsensical, outrageous, and a waste of tax payer dollars. Needless to say, people will soon enough find these suggestions and researches shaping their public discourses, both in positive and negative incarnations.

The related problem to that is that these things seem to be a danger to the youth of Athens. Let's brew up that hemlock tea, because our nice, clean cut freshmen are coming home as promiscuous whores and liberals! The fact is, of course, that universities don't make children liberal, or whores. College simply exposes people to other ideas, ideas not found at the dinner table, and that's something that shows them that father might not have known best. What they do then is anyone's guess. The more tightly repressed they had been at home, the more kinetic energy they have built up and the more they will bound out of the box in a different direction. Lost virginity and no thunderbolt of pregnancy? Hey, this is fun! Neighbor on the hall smokes dope and doesn't rob liquor stores? Kewel! We all know this dynamic, and it includes ideas and ideology. Novelty is dangerous.

Where did this come from? Well, the biggest villain in this blog essay is going to be publish or perish and its devouring effect on knowledge. The hero is going to be curiosity and patience. Ok, the heroes are going to be curiosity and patience.
  1. When you have to publish on anything and everything, you have to be new. In science, this leads to an article on every result in your huge experiment. You want to find out if insulin-like growth factor-I and insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 administered concommitantly will reduce insulin resistance in patience with metabolic syndrome. That's going to take years. At each step (in vitro results, in vivo results, phase I-III trials), you publish a paper. Instead of a coherent result, you deliver a dozen results. Sure, someone might take a piece of your research and work from it, but they know that you're on a big mission. In humanities, though, and in social sciences, you have to be different damn it. You have to avoid the competition, because everyone has the same laboratory you do (they all have brains and grad students and libraries), so you'd better go off, man. You'd better not write on Shakespeare and the meaning of the plays, on in-groups and how they police themselves, the Battle of Midway and why it succeeded for the US. Those are so done, and the journals aren't interested in repeating old truths in new ways or putting old wine in a new skin.
  2. When you work with patience and curiosity, you may come up with some really wild stuff that will take an age to find application. Sure, Gregor Mendel was ignored, but so was Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Here's the deal, though, what does novelty do to us? What, in the humanities, is going to be the problem?

The chief problem is that flight into a private garden. When you have to be alone, when you have to own the field, when you have to eliminate competition by eliminating intercourse, you will not only avoid the basic stuff that readers and students want ("whatzit mean, prof?"), but, curiously, that we push meaning off to our garden and pretend to answer the central needs by making them our own.
"No one undergoes a stronger struggle than the man who tries to subdue himself." -- Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ *, 3, iii.
Look, it was always the case that people avoided competing with the greats of their fields. We can all sing "Shine on/ Shine on, Harold Bloom/ Up there at Yale" for his The Anxiety of Influence and its confession. Sure, you have to say that T. S. Eliot was emotionally constipated, if you want to write poetry after him. You have to say that Wayne C. Booth is gullible about the determinacy of texts, if you want to write in the next generation of critics. We all know that. I'm not going to waste your time pointing it out (except that I did... I'm sooooo po-mo). No, rather, it's that we have changed our priority.

In literature and history, and in art-history and even law, people have been infected with the fever of "theory." Theory is unavoidable, etc. We all have a theory, etc. We are all practitioners of ideology, etc. You bet. Who would argue from that old trench? Feminism to lesbian feminism to body feminism to brain science feminism to psychoanalytic feminism to third wave, to fourth wave, etc. Marxism goes to a sort of mass psychology, cultural history (sort of), Foucault's psychological Marixm, post-Hegelian Marxisms, etc. That's all ok with me. Linguistics primers falling into the wrong hands leads to post-structuralism of a sort. Cultural anthropology leads to structuralism leads to an aesthetic structuralism, which leads to anti-structuralist reading "against" the structure, which can go into more of that post-structuralism thing or reader response or cultural aesthetics and reception aesthetics, etc. Let's all give a shout out to our peeps in the theorizing room. They're all groovy to me. I love them all and extend my blessing upon the whole gibbering crowd.

What gets me, and what ties me back to the subject, tangentially, is that the way we are getting to feed the furnace of publication. Instead of the old game of writing about Richard O. Cambridge instead of Alexander Pope and Scribleriad rather than Dunciad, but that's old news and respectable as it adds to the world of knowledge. It used to be that we would select a subject and then seek out an approach that would be useful for it. What's happening now is that we are starting with a theory and looking for a text that it works with. We start off as a post-feminist post-structuralist modernist and then try to find a poet(ess) that will make the theory work. The result of that is that we get articles on the most minor, the most alien, works possible.


"...the Brain, in its natural position and State of Serenity, disposeth its Owner to pass his Life in the common Forms, without any Thought of subduing Multitudes to his own Power, his Reasons, or his Visions...." --A Tale of a Tub

when you first find your dry cleaner poet because he fits your post-Hegelian paradigm, you cut out one of the most important tests of a theory. Each theory proposes a conclusion inductively or deductively about a set, and it can be validated only by reference to an outside theory (bad article on the subject, but I'm lazy). You have to take any closed system of propositions and compare it to a different closed system to verify it. If you start with a conjecture ("people from Lyon are liars") and then go find a person to fit it, you haven't demonstrated anything about the conjecture.

You see the importance? I hope so.

If we are verifying our own theories by seeking confirming examples, then we are expressing no form of curiosity at all. We are beginning from a position of knowledge and faith, not inquiry. We were interested only so long as we were reading the theory. Once convinced of it, we are ready to go on and prove it. Furthermore, the fact that we go find the subject that proves our theory shows no patience, either. We are guaranteed results.

So, if this is true, we are no longer going to be producing a controversy that will permeate culture, because the ideas won't be able to multiply or sink in. After all, they were only energized by being bulked from within their own claims. We are left, then, with the troubling image in the still waters of the academic pool, but the ugly picture is not any longer the future. The widening of minds is no longer explosive and destabilizing curiosity that will send students home with a wide view, but rather the image of competition, of blind proof, of stating one's faith and demanding that only the confirming examples exist. Even George Bush could publish in a world like that.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Really Immature Femme?

This is a movie review of a film you've never seen. Don't worry: it's absolutely not important that I'm right about the movie. If I am or I am not will make no difference to whether or not you should see it, and the only way you can see it is by going to a dimly flourescently lit video store or belonging to Netflix. The film du femme is "A Real Young Girl" ("Une Vraie Jeune Fille") written and directed by Catherine Breillat.

So, why write about a suppressed and virtually unknown French film? Well, imagine the most unrealistically gynephobic voice from The Vagina Monologues and imagine that voice got over the class consciousness and was given a 16 mm film camera and a cast and crew. Also imagine that, instead of being a poor or bourgeoise woman of the usual sort, she went to the Sorbonne around 1971 and got a head full of ecrit feminine and, amazingly, believed it. Astonishing, stretching credulity, I know, but you have to imagine the combination of "writing is done by the vulva" with "I hate my vagina" and keep all the narcissism that leads to a one-woman show. You then have to put all of that into the amazingly cold and treacherous medium of film and ... wait until you hear this ... expect people to think the result is deeply real.

The star of the film is a very, very beautiful young lady whose other films are confined to pornography of the lighter sort. All the men show their penises, and pretty much all of the women show their mons veneris, while our heroine is inserted, opened, and given metonymic close ups. Remember: this is feminism. This is truth. Essentially, our heroine loves disgusting things because she disgusts herself, even as she desires the disgusting things that disgust her, and she is compelled to sitting wrong way on the potty, denying would-be lesbian lovers, and rejecting the boys she finds arousing because of her disgust, while she has to look longingly at her father's inappropriate genital display because it's disgusting. She's a filthy whore, her mother tells her, and so she feels ashamed and desirous of shame and being violated by men who simply don't give a f....

Haven't we heard this story before, and didn't we find it unconvincing? Didn't it seem like hyperbole already? What's worse is that this compulsion to document is doubly complicit. On the one hand, the author (of the "novel," Breillat, when there might be six pages of dialog in the whole movie...but dialog isn't something she's interested in, as that involves other people) is inflicting her vision on an actress and some actors, so, if she's out to tell her personal story of shame and nymphomania, she's making someone else go through it. On the other hand, the moment you film a woman's vagina being dressed in earthworms, you have committed pornography. If there is supposed to be some healing process back there, some way that the director is getting over her bad upbringing and shame by pictorializing it, then she's picking a medium in which she must, by the very nature of it, do exactly as she complains: expose her genitalia to express her revulsion of it, become a pornographer to complain about pornography. It's chowderheaded in the extreme, or else it's smugly recidivous. This is pornography from Andrea Dworkin, psychotherapy from Mark Foley, a reformation of manners from Heidi Fleiss.

If you, personally, do not get along with your naughty bits, that's a matter for the couch. Filming it and enacting it means that you have some hope or some doom to seek. Later on, Breillat would continue her pornography as protest with Romance (which is even duller and more disconnected from its own medium than A Real Young Girl is, as its central conceit is that a woman is only interested in a man who is gay/impotent with her, while she goes about getting raped and accosted and whipped in sadomasochism and provides us with exceptionally leaden monologs about her vagina), and there a baby and the timely death of its father would prove to cure the problems.

I know I'm doing nothing to get you interested in these films, and I'm not trying to. Instead, I'm thinking about the powerful mystery of sex. It is a powerful mystery, because we make it one. Give a person enough time, and he or she will become convinced that accidents of birth explain everything, that the root of all problems is some thing that can't quite be examined. Usually, it's parents. This is a good ticket for a while, but being a boy (when you wish you could cry at movies) or a girl (when you wish you could just charge through life without a care) will show up at some point. Being small/large, top heavy/top light, ugly/beautiful, dark/fair will explain most of your problems, if you're left alone for long enough.

The fact is that your genitals have very little to do with anything. They serve their function, or they don't, but most of the time, even if you're Wilt Chamberlain, or Agrippina the Younger, they're just minding their business and waiting for the next overfull bladder. Oh, there are all sorts of potent chemicals given off by them, and they do tend to "flash and yearn," as John Berryman said in "Dreamsong 14" (read it at the Poetry Foundation). They flash when near an object, suitable or not, and yearn for use, but they don't do a lot else. Men are lucky, in that theirs are usually in view, but then that means that they get obsessed with cyllinders and sizes and such. Women need a step ladder and a mirror and seem to be inhabited by a cranky stranger, and that can lead to all of this mystification and worry and hatred directed at a not much at all.

Sex (not gender, which is appropriately complained of by everyone...even the chick magnet and party girl) is elusive enough and mercurial enough and deeply seated enough to act as a great locus of problems. Why not, after all?

The problem is that you only have a 1:2 choice, and every single thing you suffer from, being male or female, is something that around half the population suffers from. You're not the first one. You're not the proper spokesperson. It's normal. It's normally difficult, normally unsatisfactory, normally obvious and normally obscure. If you let it get to the point where you think your personality, much less your writing, criticism, and speech, are determined by this one extrusion or recession of embryology, I can only draw one conclusion: you're bored. You obviously need a real enemy or friend.

Given how many victims of violence there are, how many starving, how many tortured, how many disappeared, how many discriminated against, how many fattened, how many derided, how many bullied, how many kicked out of home, how many preyed upon by bankers, how many shipped out of the country, how many jobless, how many addicted, how many leading anonymous lives, how many abused in elder care, what the hell are you doing worrying about how much you hate your pee-pee?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Cliff's Edge Notes for the below post

The blog entry below this one is dense. I wrote it all at one throw, in a stream of consciousness, and like a lot of bad stream of consciousness writing, it required that you have read the same books as I at the same time and understood them the same way. Well, that might work for some people, but I'm nobody and have ambition to one day be nothing. No clove cigarette from my lips, beret on my shaggy head, no chaps on my broad thighs, no New York acclaim is mine. Therefore, I'll try to be less opaque.

I. Why I failed to communicate:
Well, the big thing is that the first paragraph is comprehensible enough, but then I have two paragraphs of etudes on 18th century philosophers and poets whom I hardly identify and do not explain. I then go to a fully frenzied rant about conservatives. That's normal enough, but no one's reading by that point.

II. The schoolboy philosophy
1. John Locke
Locke's empiricism begins with the senses. He maintains that we are made of our experiences, made by them, and not by an inherent essence. We are not born to be a king or a pauper, but we are made into a king or pauper by our experiences. Furthermore, we know nothing without perception. Percept leads to concept -- the inward shape of the outward sense -- through synthesis and distinction in the human mind. Now, what's important is that you not put a Nehru jacket on him: he is not B. F. Skinner in a periwig. He's closer to Arthur Koestler than that. Locke does not see us as wholly without innate qualities, and he believes that we have a sixth-ish sense, the sense of commonality, the common sense. It is this that allows us to combine disparate sensations into types, to form generalizations, to make predictions. This is coupled with judgment or wit, which allows us to distinguish individuals and to analyze complexes into their components. Remember this common sense.
2. Shaftesbury (the not-Zimri one) and the Killer B.
Shaftesbury had suggested that there is a different innate sense, a sort of common sense of morality. There is, he thought, an inward sense of the right. This (we mustn't call it a moral sense yet, historically, but it was in all but name) sense told us what is right and good, and it responded to that which is harmonious. According to Shaftesbury, we are all inherently inclined toward goodness. Now, we go awry, of course, but, left alone, we would be good if we could. In opposition to this was Bernard de Mandeville, whose "The Grumbling Hive" and "Fable of the Bees," suggested that, in fact, we're much more beastly than that. We are, at heart, selfish, and this selfishness does not result in anarchy. Instead, greedy, carnal, miserly, spendthrift, and rapacious individuals generate a social good by their very vices, that they employ people, that they generate surplus wealth that must flush out into a generalized economy. That's a cheap version of Mandeville, who is really quite nuanced, but it's not unfair. Mandeville saw humans beneficial in aggregate, not in individuals.
3. Hutcheson
Francis Hutcheson was going to save Shaftesburian optimism (the sort of optimism even Pope wouldn't have endorsed) by reiterating and systemizing the sense of goodness Shaftesbury had posited in a Lockean system. He's the one who argues that the moral sense is a sense as natural as the sense of commonality in Locke. He suggests something akin to a pleasure sense, a sense of fitness and beauty inherent in the human mind. This allows us to have a universal sense of beauty and a universal sense of morality.

III. The screed about Conservative "Thinkers"
I was pissed off that my edition of Hutcheson came from The Liberty Fund, Inc. The problem is that there are mutliple funds and institutes like this that are interested in bolstering the "heritage" of conservativism. They do this by appealing to the 18th century in England almost without fail. However, they either don't read all of it or they pretend that they're unaware of the debates that the "heroes" of conservativism were engaged in. They seem to have read passages of Locke, but ignore the fact that he was trying to overthrow absolute monarchism. They have headlines from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, but no awareness of Mandeville or Hobbes. They especially like to cut out paper dolls from Adam Smith, but never understand his Theory of Moral Sentiments or even the introduction to Wealth of Nations.

IV. The quick summary of the blog post below
There exists a trend in America where right wing groups have decided that they need "intellectuals." Therefore, they have these groups who have read excerpts from the 18th century and publish them for everyone. The members of these groups then get rolled out on dollies whenever conservatives need "intellectuals." They're not intellectuals, or not intellectually honest, because they have a clip-art view of 18th century political philosophy. By stopping the clock at various points to grab one tired Scotsman or another by his collar and hauling him out to say something, they're missing the entire context of 18th century Insular philosophy, which was a dialog of empiricism trying to deal with its glaring epistemological shortcoming (i.e. "How can we be only our experiences and yet not be plants spinning about in phototropism?). Each of philosopher tried to spackle over the dent at the bottom of the system, and their opponents were no better at system building than they were, but the very imperfection and mortal stature of the philosophers kept them going at it.

Conservatives these days don't have intellectuals, because their practical system is antithetical to everything the empiricists would have endorsed, and their quoted fathers, Locke and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, would have had Barry Goldwater brought to the Old Bailey, while they would have had W. Bush committed to a private asylum. All the same, conservatives fool themselves and apply small dabs of ointment to their intellectual consciences by saying, 'Oh, yes, what we're doing is firmly rooted in the best part of intellectual history.' What they're doing is, in fact, global rape, but they convince themselves of the lie and then expect the gullible and the long gummed to believe it, too.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Clown of Unknowing

I was listening to my favorite show just a bit ago, "Music for Lava Lamps." Before it could be replaced by "Mambos for the Gormless," I tried to relax and float amongst the astrals, but to know a veil. I'm far too riddled with guilt and riddles to enjoy the echo of thoughts on the vastness of my tiny skull, so, instead, I read a bit of Dorothy Parker and some Francis Hutcheson. One of them was a lot more pleasing to me than the other, I can tell you, and even though it was a story she had failed to finish. My danged fool lava lamp was looking more like a poop lamp than a lava lamp, and I understood why one fool damned himself by putting his on a stove top. It's supposed to be a lamp, and lamps are supposed to be hot.

So, there is Hutcheson, next big thing of 1725, trying to save poor Shaftesbury (the good one, not the Zimri one) from a grumbling hive of killer B's. Bernard (the killer bee) had said that everything was selfishness, and Shaftesbury had talked about an inward goodness that generates a sense of morality, and Hutcheson tried to ... really... just replicate Locke. (He's a major philosopher why?) Locke's empiricism has needed five senses and an inward common sense. I.e. it had specified a sense innate in the human (even tabula rasa) that synthesized and distinguished impulses. This common sense was necessary to save us from being vegetables turning toward the sun. Hutcheson just says that there is an innate common sense of morality that takes actions of beauty and rightness and synthesizes and distinguishes them. Big deal. To my knowledge, Mandeville never returned fire, but it would have been amazingly easy to do so. Even as Hutcheson's "greatest good for the greatest number" (it's his phrase, y'all) turns into Utilitarianism (and you thought it was their phrase), Mandeville's cynical retort is always lodged just beneath the flesh. Let's say that that inward sense of morality and common good is not a sense but a need. Let's say that it is the need for either getting goods or the need for simple company. Let's suppose that humans are naturally social. I mean that they're naturally social. (We know, as clever citizens of the future, that humans are.) Mr. Hutcheson, meet situational ethics, which will knife you the moment no one is looking.

I was hoping for more. It's not that I thought I was going to get very much more from Hutcheson, and his aesthetics are great for swinging the hinge on Samuel Johnson's more out-of-depth Rambles, but it was rather sad all the same. What's worse is that the edition I got was published by some highly suspicious group. It's published by (and I say this to my great remorse) The Liberty Fund, Inc. of that mecca of metropolitain thought, Indianapolis, Indiana. Oh sadness! Finally, 18th century philosophers reprinted, with decent introductions by real philosophy types, and done by a Liberty Fund, a fund, no doubt, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and that all governments are created in Hell. Oh, my! How does the introduction begin? With a quotation of the Commonwealth of Virginia declaration of rights. What is the spirit of the introduction? Francis Hutcheson is important for American independence. All of that is true, but all of it is worrisome.

I don't worry that they stop the clock in 1765. I worry that they excerpt the clock. Bernard de Mandeville is much closer to David Stockman and Ronald Reagan's philosophy than Shaftesbury (the good one) is. John Locke would take one look at Alfred W. Newman, the current Prednisent of the US, and shriek. Heck, the entire ship load of 18th century philosophers would stand, mouths agape, staring in disbelief at Goldwatery conservativism. They never once thought of their "liberty" as the defense of the rich against obligation. They never once thought of freedom as being the tax cheat's rally cry for his survivalist time share in Montanna. Furthermore, they were men always in dialog with one another. The certainty of each brings out the skeptic in the other. Because the "John Locke Society" (click on that only if you have taken your dramamine) and Liberty Funds of this world present only the selected highlights of the thought they think instrumental, they leave out what that thought was thinking about. They leave out the earlier positive statements that their demurrals refer to, the earlier provocations that their assertions seek to stabilize. They also cut out all those nasty clarifications and challenges that would make these versions of empiricism look naive.

You want to read Locke? Do. Read Swift, too, though. You want to read Essay on Man? Do. Read also Caleb Williams.

I'm a long way from Music for Lava Lamps, I'm afraid, but this is why I couldn't space out. There are people out there who swing dead philosophers like truncheons, who know not one end from the other but who nevertheless shove them forward whenever their absurdity and illiteracy is pointed out. Those people, then, are exalted as intellectuals by the manifestly anti-intellectual "conservative movement." "Oh," they say, "you should read George F. Will! He's an intellectual!" No. He's just another craven egoist.

Conservativism as it exists in the United States is all about selfishness. It might reach as far and climb as high as being vaguely eugenicist, but it's generally the life of the market, and the market is about a profit now, not about an investment. The only miracle is that these people managed to ever plan anything, given how much instant return they demand, and they only planned in the sense that they kept repeating themselves for lack of anything new to say. Conservativism isn't about "values," except as they allow the conservatives to beat up on others and define themselves as Not Them. (Do we really need the rogue's gallery of GOP congress golems caught with their pants down this year alone? Do we really need to name all the ones divorcing multiple times, leaving dying wives, and sleeping with same sex partners of various ages?) It isn't about Christianity, except that it gets them elected (as Bush makes fun of fundamentalists while claiming to be one and the GOP national convention arranged the rostrums to look like Calvary, which would shock a devout person with its hubris). It isn't about the market, except that it is about profit. (Can we find one who hasn't enriched himself with shady deals?)

Conservativism is about denying the common sense, the moral sense, the universal sense of the beautiful. It is about appetite and cancerous expansion. It is voracious, anti-moral, and as thoughtful and intellectual as a reflex.

How can I mellow out? How can I rest and listen to Sigur Ros noodle meaninglessly in authentic New Norse Gibberish? I was better off reading Dorothy Parker, I think. She only had the horrors of Warren G. Harding's illegitimate daughter and the profundity of Calvin Coolidge to complain about. While she never seemed to go see a good play, at least there were plays to go see that hadn't yet been subverted to glorifying the greatest dunces of her age. In her day, the conservatives at least had the good sense to wear top hats and spats, so the poor people weren't so duped as they are now.

My stupid lava lamp still looks like a stool. Everything kind of does these days.

Friday, September 29, 2006

October Harvest

The fatted smoke of burnt offerings,

the sacrifices in memory,

chokes your heart, and you wonder if you

dowse it with the three raindrops on a coat sleeve,

the expressive spatter of mud on a boot's shank,

the bleating of an ewe. From such a place, speak.

The dance steps are broken, the dancers renew

but the sound of the empty hall echoes in the sighs of the wallflowers,

the rumble of the chairs, and two balloons left over,

the humid car on a rainy evening, and the gravel of the train tracks.

As dark breaks free from the horizon hills

and sweeps you into its heart, shuffles you away,

ever away,

the night fires start, the signal men rouse themselves from their cabins,

and the priest mops the spilled blood from the sacrifice of the wedding party.

(My apologies. No, I don't think this is good. I just think it's an explanation of the last week or more.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Exampli Gratia

Because the previous two posts (look down, dang it) may seem like more academic muttering, I've decided to give just examples of what happens when the world goes wrong and people, left in a mass, an undifferentiated and unmotivated mass, start to define their own clubhouses. Trust me: I'm not being fey. This is important in its consequences, even if there is nothing apparent in the way of solutions. (That said, it's always nice when you know what the real causes are, because only this will prevent the unforgivable hydroencephalitis of mounting a crusade against "PC" or "fundamentalists" or other persons who are merely being persons who have retreated to the safety of their tree forts. (If I never close my parentheses, I can never die.)

I regard any other web or computer identities I might have as irrelevant both to my life as I live it and to ideas and cultural history, and yet I have seen a perfect illustration of my point recently, and so I have to give in and mention the world of e-people. In general, I like dogs much more than people. ("History is more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than friends," as Alexander Pope said.) As little as I care about people, I care about e-people even less.

In this web encyclopedia, a number of rules have been growing for the last few years, and sometimes new behaviors show up that aren't covered. That has meant that some of the administrators react quickly, without consideration of any procedure, and do so because they know best. This has prompted other administrators to oppose them. The first group then set up an IRC channel simply to talk to each other. Since the group was founded on the basis of "the rules are onerous and get in the way of what's best," the discussion in that IRC channel is propelled by presitge earned by showing greater and greater scorn for the opposing administrators and regular users. Because it came into existence for people who think they know best, the participants have to know better than the best of each other, have to keep moving the down marker, keep saying worse and worse things about regular folks and acting in more and more outrageous ways.

Or, let's consider a college, or even a church, set up along the lines of being "real Christians." The very definition is contrary. It is built on not being like the others -- the others being the "false Christians" or the "humanists." Therefore, one moves up in these ranks by being less and less in conversation with the rest of the society. It begins with disallowing Halloween celebrations, goes briefly to avoiding R-rated movies, and then cheerfully mows down all music not in the "Christian" rack, television, most radio, most novels, etc. Soon, greater and greater public avowals of religion turn to religiosity. It is spiritual pride that didn't start out with self-love at all. Instead, it started with rejection, with exception, with umbrage. It began not with any desire to make oneself the holiest, but rather a desire to be least like the plainly degenerate secular world.

I know it wasn't clear, before, so let me try one last time: When any group is founded on umbrage, on exception, on rejection, that group is going to gain momentum in its divergence until it ends in absurdity and frenzy.

The socialists began by rejection of the decadent capitalists of the everyday society, and soon they begin sniffing out counter-revolutionaries and insincere bourgeoise apologists. The feminists begin by being more free than the male dominated and masculine-identified world, and soon they are declaring that all heterosexual women are subjugated. If the founding principle is fear, disgust, or reform, the ultimate conclusion, if there are no checks, will be solitariness, harshness, and a competition to be extreme.

Perhaps I am being too general. Perhaps I am being hasty in saying that this must happen. However, it must happen to the degree that exception and umbrage are the only ideals and motives. If there is a normative value connected to the rejection of the wickedness, then frenzy may not result. If there is a utopia to distinguish from the dystopia of the real, then there is a chance that the group will become Shakers. It's all a question of whether fear and persecution are the only impulse or not and whether such rejection can achieve satisfaction without compromise. Even when excepting groups have normative and utopian visions, they have to fight against those who compete for negation.

There is no answer for this, by the way. I said that the answer is to ask the town what words mean, but there is no force on earth that can prevent people from dividing up into neighborhoods with neighborhood patrols. Therefore, the only answer I know of is an individual one. I can't stop the persecuted from becoming persecutors, and neither can you, but you can ask yourself, every time you find a new group that wants to include you or that you want to join, if the group offers something to be, or just something to not be.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Gimme Back My Umbrage pt 2

So, is everyone good and drunk? Fat and happy yet? If this post makes no sense, it's because you folks are drunken gluttons.... Or it could be because you didn't read "Gimme Back My Umbrage" first. (The possibility that I am incomprehensible will not be admitted.)

"He that complies against his will,
Is of his own opinion still." -- Samuel Butler, Hudibras
The problem with a town that splinters in its language is not merely that the linguistic community is no longer cohesive, and therefore that language's meaning is weakened. It is not that introspection over words begins to take precedence over speaking to communicate. Those may well be problems, but they are tangential to the psychological and anti-social component of such a rupture. Why do people change their minds about terms? The terminology we have been discussing before are "identity politics" terms and general onomastics. Those change because of the projection of a group onto itself, or sometimes a projection of an individual onto him or herself. Therefore, succeeding at it gives an alternative identity, but it succeeds not because folks agree with it, but because the general speech community fears offense, and they do that because it threatens their peace.

Once there is success along these lines, then we set up a race, a race to take umbrage. Each person who needs additional esteem or wishes to reverse a political or social wrong, are encouraged to go as far as fast as they can. (Of course, where there is demonstrable and unquestionable social persecution, no one is going to disagree with any harmless effort at reversing such differentials, or erasing them. Thus, the "negro" to "Black" change -- part of "Black is Beautiful" -- was something everyone could get behind, while my dog's self-esteem is unaltered by becoming a canine American.) The race to offense is my topic in general. Once we set up power for the offended, we make offense more attractive than negotiation or forgiveness.

I'm reminded, inevitably, of what happens when religious communities gain power by being more "primitive" or "reformed" than the others. It begins with an overburdened and corrupt establishment, but it quickly gets to the Committee for Public Safety. It begins with selling indulgences and ends with shattered stain glass windows. In the Islamic world right now, the always shaky doctrinal authority has been superseded entirely by the race to be more restrictive and "holy" than the next fellow. The Koran might mention purdah (as Leviticus does, and as early Christian documents do in a lessened form), but that doesn't mean much. It says that women ought not be showing off their bodies and keeping male worshippers from paying attention and encouraging other women to get into a fashion show. Fine. So, one Islam group says, "Veil? You horrible heathens! We make our women cover their whole head!" The next says, "Head? You can still see their breasts, you dogs! We make ours wear robes!" The next says, "Robes? You have no faith at all. We make our women wear full sheets!" The next says, "Those sheets are awfully alluring. We make our women wear trashbags over their whole bodies!" Next will be burqahs without eye holes.

Lest we engage in fashionable Islamobashism, let's remember Christian and Jewish communities that have done much the same. Remember our beloved "Pilgrim Fathers" in the United States, who began wanting to get rid of the accidental confusion of intercessory saints and angels with idolatry and quickly (very, very quickly) got into a similar contest of umbrage? "You people got rid of saint statues, but you have saints in your painted windows!" This is followed by the tinkling of broken glass. "You just break the stained glass windows? We think singing is pride!" Down comes the choir loft. "You got rid of the singing, but you send your priests to seminary instead of relying entirely upon inspiration of the moment? You heathens!" No more apostolic succession, then. "You still have your women worship with the men, though," says another Puritain group. Welcome the single sex non-monastic religious houses.

What is the power of Jerry Fallwell and Donald Wildmon? Is it his attractive good looks, soothing voice, and doctrinal expertise? What was the power of Mary Whitehouse in the UK? What was the power of even Flush Limbaugh? These people all have the power of offense. They have the power of endless piety through eternal restriction. By advocating little but shouting and pounding out their philippics constantly, they attract those who seek to define in contradiction to the speech of the wider community. The "culture" is "seccalar hoomanist." By whittling, by carving a group away from the block of humanity and then a group from that and then a group from that, the power is in the attraction of being offended. If you are most offended, you are most pious and empowered.

Part of this is probably sociology. If you put people into a very crowded auditorium, they will soon created a living room sized space out of it.

However, the critical thing for me is that "PC" and shouting out objections to the decadent society of "political correctness" are the same fundamental action in terms of language. Both attempt to create an alternative discourse by refusing the terminology of the wider culture. Both empower by using umbrage. The general culture acceeds to these requests for fear, for desire of peace, but the end result is that the cohesion of the underlying communication is weakened even as the possibility of cultural progress is destroyed by that culture's being made up not of a whole, but of factions and fractions. The inherent hypocrisy (that each group needs to reject and vilify the culture as an imagined whole) is apparent, but the danger lies not in that as much as in the way that this tendency renders all our words meaningless.

Now, sober up and go on a diet.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gimme Back My Umbrage!

Gimme back my bullets.

My roommate's gun got nine bullets.

I'm sick of umbrage being taken, and I think it's time for umbrage to be given. The great Holy Spirit covers us, and dawn shows his brooding over the world. Let's all sigh, raise a glass of hackles, and show our bristles, for we make a bloody world thereby.

(The photo on the right is just a backyard of a house I lived in. Pretty, isn't it?)

We are surely cursed by our own genius. This blog entry will be part of a series, I'm afraid, although each time I hope it's the last I have to say on the subject. Unfortunately, it blends in with the two posts on deconstruction and the prednisent, below/above/before. The actual subject here is interpretation of language, again, but this time in an examination of what happens when we don't ask the town what a word means, or when the town is constrained by half of an ideology of niceness.

It used to be en vogue to kvetch about "political correctness." Students today searching the world wide web will probably stumble across one or another of the old Jeremiads and be puzzled. They won't know what "PC" is. What's more, they won't be able to figure it out from the rants, either. They'll encounter Limbaugh setting up a hue and cry against it. They'll find William Bennett yelling about it, and George F. Will. They'll even find Lewis Lapham upset about it, and they'll all be right, or seemingly right, but I doubt anyone will be able to figure out who the "politically correct" advocates are from those rants. Who on earth had been in favor of this absurdity?

No one was, of course, and yet everyone was. Oh, one minor tea light of intellect or another might have campaigned for one piece of what came to be called "PC" or another, but no one actually proposed all of the things that worriers (like me, I admit) were against. One feminist might have proposed "wymyn" for "women," and one person may yet propose "canine American" for "family dog," and, among the converted in the audience, there might be widespread approval. The pre-selected audience members who go to hear that fringe feminist or that animal rights person will agree, but they knew what they wanted before they came and are only being served with popular demand. It's only news when the fringe speaker turns out to have a more social and conversant position, like head of the Humane Societies of the United States. That's not the issue, though (and that "canine American" thing was in use before, so he didn't invent it or first propose it). The issue is that these terms get adopted by those outside of the choir loft. That's the issue, and that issue has nothing to do with rights campaigners. All along, the shotgun blasts being aimed at the "PC" were misdirected. You can shoot Gloria Steinem with your rhetoric all you want (even though she has been moderate and sane all along in language issues), but Andrea Dworkin and Wayne Pacelle aren't the proper targets. Like Dick Cheney's supporter, they're not quail. "Accidents do happen," in the words of the resilient Harry Whittington.

The underlying problem behind "PC" is much worse than a person whose "fancy gets astride his reason." Indeed, the problem seems to be that "there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning" (same author, but here). When one note is struck, it hits unison and harmony from others, so Wayne LaPierre shouts out that libruls and commies want his guns, and a host of frightened militiamen shout "amen." That seems to be it, but it isn't. The note that is sounded is not what you think it is. If it were, we would simply segment into thousands of groups of true believers who cannot communicate with others and therefore cannot achieve any social change or trend. Rather, the problem is that we already have had such groups long before they sound their chords, and we are much molested by them. I hate to stick solely to Swift's great work, but I must: we all prefer peace and superfices in most things. We do not want to dig, for nothing seems improved that way. Furthermore, when we dig into the flesh of a subject, it reacts. We wish, most of all, to not be in an argument with the true believers. As T. S. Eliot said, "The majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith."

We want peace, and so we spend much of our time negotiating the minefield of discourse, trying neither to spill the soup nor trample on the toe of someone bigger than we are (or someone with friends). So, it only takes one nasty afternoon spent in accusation and guilt to stop saying "girl" and start saying "wymyn." It takes less time to stop saying "Black" and start saying "African American." One or two PeTA paint splashes, and you'll be saying "canine American," too. We want to be nice. We want to call you whatever you want us to call you, because we don't want to have to fight it out.

When we ask the town what a word means, we can resolve as the town does. If the town is split up between a series of neighborhoods, each of them calling a bagel something different, we learn to call a bagel a flurry of names.

Believe it or not, I didn't want to talk about PC. I really didn't. I set out to talk about Christian education. Don't believe me? Go get a cup of moonshine and a Moonpie, and I'll connect the two. I'll wait.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Geogre Reads a Who

Pelham Bay, Bronx, NYC, NY

Yesterday, I had one of those experiences that refuted what Seneca once wrote...or maybe it confirmed it:

"It is when the gods hate a man with an uncommon abhorence that they drive him into the profession of a schoolmaster." -- Seneca

I took a relative to the hospital. We had been told to do so, told to get admitted, and then to get tested like crazy and let all the chemists run all the fluids and tissues through every instrument in the joint. Ever obedient to authority figures, especially those with spiffy white coats, we went two and a half hours by car to the hospital. We then waited an uncomfortable and bone jarring three and a half hours on insufficient furniture meant for those moribund and unconscious.

No parent should bury a child, and yet all children are expected to bury a parent. It's one of the rites of age. I've got to tell you, if you haven't done it yet, it's not easy, and I think no parent should bury a child because all parents have had to deal with their own parents' losses. I am, blessedly, not anywhere near this position yet (well, it's hard to say, but there was a reprieve). I have gone from a clueless and hesitant maturity to a baffled middle age, but I suppose I am not alone. The most assured of us are simply choosing to pretend to know what we're doing and then find that the pretense has value.

Anyway, I had three hours there. I noticed that others had been in that examination room before us, and they had been as uncomfortable and bored as we. It's always assumed that one is not the maiden illness of an ER suite, but this time I had evidence. Ron had been there. Ron had been bored, and Ron had been equipped with a sharp implement and a ballpoint pen, for, inside the door, Ron had written:

"Ron was hear" -- Ron.
He had then carved "RON" in a FUTHORC on the door's simulated wood. I quipped, "I'll bet Ron never wrote on the inside of the schoolhouse door."

Driving back the 2.5 hours after we were kicked out of the hospital by an overworked attending, I played the antonym game. The antonymn game is a game of my own invention, invented last night, and I recommend it to anyone driving through a city. Here's how it's played: every time you see a sign for a commercial venture, you must come up with a new name that is composed of antonymns of each of the words in the original name, and these antonymns should capture, if you're good, something witty. For example, I went by the Econo Inn. Now, you could offer up "Richie Out," but that would be inferior to my final candidate last night, "Waste Away." "Taco Bell" can be inverted with "Souffle Cup," as a souffle is a dome opposite of a taco's parabola, and a bell is a cup until it's struck.

So, there I was, thinking how much more clever I am than Ron and how lucky I was that Ron wasn't in my class. Then again, Ron is one of my best buddies from my years in college. Ron mowed lawns for a living and constantly dreamed of doing better. He and his brother lived in a small apartment, and Ron was a great spirit, a wonderful person and the real salt of the earth. He was honest, harder working than I've ever been, and fun to be with.

One night, my band was playing at an "alternative lifestyle" club back in the 1980's, and we didn't have a term like "alternative lifestyle" to talk about such clubs. The thing was, punk rockers and gay clubs were fast allies from the start. The most culturally adventurous people with refined taste (and with horrible taste...what's with all that wretched disco?) were in the gay community. Anyway, it was "Ladies Night" at The Celebrity Club. There was exactly one woman present, and she came with us. However, there were quite a few convincing drag queens and a few transgendered people who were quite well integrated. There were "girls" in miniskirts and fishnet hose dancing on the bar. Ron arrived to support the band, and I think he even liked our music as well as us personally, and he and I sat down for a beer.

I noticed Ron's eyes drifting upward, slowly climbing the legs of the dancer. I said, "Ron, don't." He said, "What?" I said, "No. Seriously, Ron: don't." "Whaaat?" he asked. I shook my head and tried to figure out how to explain to him why, beyond the usual rules of decorum, he should keep his eyes on his beer, but Ron used that thinking time to try to get some profit.

"Oh, man!" Ron shouted.

"I told you!"

"I thought you were...."

"No," I said. "I meant it."

"Oh, man! Oh, man!"

So Ron's a great guy. (Of course, the Ron I knew wouldn't have carved on a door, and I think he could spell difficult words like "here.") I thought, as I played the antonymn game on the way home, "I don't need to teach Ron anything. He can't spell, but it doesn't matter." Ron's inscription was much more literally true, much more of a synonymn game than my original sneer gave him credit for. What, after all, is the point of this blog? What is the point of any graffiti (which is what the blog is)?

Ron was heard. Ron was there eternally. He was always in that room, always waiting for the doctors to pay attention to him. He was visible in a way that other patients weren't, because he was part of the room now.

That's where my sermon-like blog essay should end, with this "aha" moment. After all, I have achieve my ironic counterpoint, and you have seen how clever I really am. I have demonstrated my superiority to Ron and my sympathy. I've proven that I'm humble at the same time that I've shown my pride. That's not where it ends, though.

First, the realization of my own complicity in this rhetoric is an occupational hazard. However, there is more and worse. I sat patiently for three hours in that 8x10 room while my loved one ached on an uncomfortable "bed" and struggled to breathe. I cheerfully openned a book and read to my loved one, trying to pass the time. I jotted notes in a notebook. I looked at papers to grade (and didn't grade them; for some reason I was distracted). I had a pocket knife, and it stayed in my pocket.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Union Square

"He, therefore, betook himself to that true support of greatness in affliction, a bottle; by means of which he was enabled to curse, and swear, and brave his fate." --Henry Fielding, Jonathan Wild.

I wish I had done so. Instead, I mutely and numbly stood, like so many thousands of others, and wondered how I was supposed to react. The contemplation of the reaction overcame the reaction itself, and thus I simply delayed and determined how I would really react.

It was a gorgeous day. Everyone who was there should tell you that first. It was a perfect day. I can seldom recall a more clear blue sky or temperatures more perfect. The morning was crisp, exhilirating, the sort of autumnal day that makes young men dream of play and old men remember walks with lovers, the day too fine for work, and many people played hookey from work and therefore lived through the day. I remember riding the #6 train south from the Bronx, where I lived, and looking out on Manhattan, memorizing every building that appeared on the huge turn on the bridge over the Bronx River. Piece by piece, the architecture appears, breaking itself free from the window frame and displaying like a debutante in a parade as the train takes the turn into the east side of Manhattan past Hunt's Point.

Let's be clear: I was not there there. I was more than two miles away. I was on east 89th Street, teaching computers to behave at an all boy's middle school hard by the Guggenheim Museum. New Yorkers know the place, I'm sure, and they know their own geography. Instead of parks and flowers, New York has buildings, and they are every bit as entertaining and engaging and interesting as flowers, though not as functional sometimes. For those who have not spent years there, though, Manhattan is hilly, sloping generally up to a peak around 96th Street. That means that the area below the grid (the streets south of 1st St. (i.e. Greenwich Village and Alphabet City)) are lower in elevation as well as "lower Manhattan." The avenues run north-south, and the streets run east-west. From 89th Street, I could look straight down Park Avenue.

At 9:30 AM, I was done with a class and had a bunch of repairs to do, so I decided to sneak out and grab a cup of coffee and a bowtie (only not by Dunkin' Donuts...those things are gross; this was the bodega on 89th and Park). I love bowties. I love that coffee. I insisted, every day that I worked at that school, on getting that combination every morning. Five years ago today, I got the combination and stepped out to enjoy the fantastic weather. I looked down Park, and I saw what looked like a candle snuff. It was only one of the world trade towers. I didn't see the other very clearly.

By the next hour, I knew. My colleagues were very worried. Some of them had children working in the WTC. More to the point, our children were from very wealthy families, mostly in the financial sector, and that meant that some of our students were likely orphans now. Therefore, we had to whisper to each other whatever news we had heard, while we kept everything else as secret as we could. As soon as students would leave our rooms, we would turn on radios or televisions, and then turn them off when students were nearby. By lunch, the clever 8th graders, who are all-knowing and possessed of a seering cynicism had figured it out. They told each other that there had been an attack on the Statue of Liberty. We confessed that they were too clever for us.

At the end of the school day, we herded all the students to the gym and held them. No child could go home without a parent picking him up. This would be our only way of knowing who didn't have a parent.

When I left work, it was strange. New York City isn't supposed to be silent, and yet it was. No planes overhead. No cars. No trains rumbling. No buses rolling. No noise at all, except lines of ashen faced people like me wondering how they were supposed to feel, and an endless line of useless cell phones held up to ears. The cell repeaters had been on the towers, of course. The land lines would stay busy and overloaded for a day to come, at best.

Everyone in America knew more about what was happening than we did, really.

The trains began running again, and I got on a different #6 train for home. Everyone was quiet and polite. New Yorkers generally are nice to each other, despite what the rest of the world thinks. We're just nasty to tourists. Well, Manhattanites are polite. The outer boroughs are more thuggish.

The trains took detours, and the loss of the WTC hub had thrown a lot of chaos into the system. A young woman in a dirty t-shirt on the train with me told me that she had been at #7 Liberty. She was small but tough, an artist, a woman too busy and intelligent to worry about being pretty but pretty all the same. She was in a shirt that was dirty before the morning and now filthy and hanging loosely on her trunk. She looked up at me and the other fellow, as we were talking in hushed tones, and said that she had seen something I had not yet heard and didn't initially believe: people were jumping out of the towers. She had seen them. She had seen them land.

The smell of the cloud was difficult. I cannot explain it. It was a salty smelling cloud, not overly morbid or decayed, but not traditionally ashen, either. Every time I smelled it, I knew that I was smelling things that were bad.

For most of the days to come, the wind blew to Brooklyn. On a couple of days, the wind blew up toward work, and one day the wind blew up to the Bronx all day and night, coming in my window air conditioner. The next morning, we were assured by the Bush administration's pin-up girl that the air was safe. I don't think anyone was fooled by that, but what choice did we have? The bridges were closed, and no one could stop breathing. Public health officials told us that everyone in Manhattan on that day was due for some serious depression and difficulty. What choice did we have in that, either? Most of us were kind of numb and wondering why we weren't more disturbed or less.

Today, I talked to three classes of 18 year olds about the moment that defines their generation, one way or another, and I held a moment of silence. I haven't done that before. I also told my story, or as much of it as I've said above. I did not go any deeper, as I don't see what good it would do them.

You see, I'm stuck on the images of those people jumping. It's not the leap, necessarily, or the horror, although both hold my mind fixed agape. After all, I cannot imagine the fear and evil experienced by the passengers on the planes. Their terror had to be unimaginable. The leapers, though, had a deliberate horror, a slow certainty of death and the agony of burning air ripping their lungs from within.

They jumped. They preferred clear air and being able to breathe their last as they plummeted to their deaths to the rending heat of the towers.

What obsesses me is whether I could have been one. Those who died by the crush of the building collapse, those who died by the explosions, they died horribly, but would I have chosen the jump to death? That, though, is just one of those moments of cowardice that I reproach myself with, as I know that I would not have been one. I would have stayed inside, believing that ingenuity or miracle would keep me from the inevitable and had that fail. That is not it, though, for I cannot say even that it was bravery or defiance or freedom or doom that was involved in those who jumped.

The problem is always that they landed, that there were people down there, that some people had to witness the most horrible sight ever. They had to watch a person fully alive and then, less than a second, much less than a second, later, dead and gore. They had to see the split second of impact, the life dashed out, each life individually, and not in an abstract mass. No "2,973 dead," but "that face of that person falling, and that person dead."

If the public health officials were right, if every year that goes by the horror of that day inches closer to the surface of my mind, it's no wonder. I did nothing. I was powerless and helpless and useless. I was another passenger, another passive observer, and whatever goes on now is just another case of really having no option.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Explanation of today's blog post

Buddha in the Sand, Carrboro, NC

It occurs to me that the post below (the earlier one, the one that one would say "see above" about, except that it's below) natters and fritters and smokes and says not much, and therefore I wish, in the spirit of outrage, to explain it.

Language, words, only mean something because we agree that they do. Trying to study the structure of a language is nothing less than trying to map out all of the agreements a people have and can have made. What's more, these agreements limit the things that a people can think about, think about themselves, and think about thinking. The interior of the mind is, therefore, built of inherited verities, in the form of words and grammar, and it is unique only in the way that a pattern of cast sticks can be unique. The more sticks you cast on the floor, the more likely the resulting pattern to be unique. A grain of sand is just a grain of sand, but if you get a whole big mound of it.... See above.

No one asks our opinion of whether the blue house is blue. We are told that blue is the carrier of that color experience. It is sad, some people think, that so much is coerced, but it is not, in fact, sad or happy, for it cannot be otherwise, and "sad" and "happy" are just as inherited as "blue." You can't sit there with your thumb in your mouth, either.

Ah, but what if we play with language and refuse to go left to right and top to bottom? Can we not see every unsaid word between the said words? Indeed. And when you defy the gods of signification, what is the result? Is it freedom? The freedom of the freezing savage or the freedom of Buddha?

You see, words mean because we are social. We are unfree because we are unalone. How do you know the house is blue? Simple: ask someone.

That's the thing: you can answer many interpretive questions by the simple method of asking the town. (The President is overruling the town, and he is therefore a mocking mirror image of the "originalists" and "fundamentalists" who try to examine words with a loup and determine "what the author meant" without considering the town they're living in now. They're both hilariously wrong, except that one of them has a gun, and the other has a prison system.)

Neocons Bash Decons

The image to my left is a tree beside a path beside a creek adorned by a sign explaining that one would be more than half in love with easeful death to drink from, play in, submerge in, or paddled upon that water. It has nothing to do with my topic, apparently.

Rhetoric is king. Structuralism is a con. Langue is a joke. Parole is fact.

It's hardly seasonable to worry about words. We have bigger marlins frying than the ancient anxiety of political correctness and hate speech. We have an executioner executive who has reduced all language to fiat. From "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is," we have gone to "I have never said there was a connection between al Qaeda and Saddam." We have gone from Clintonian gridlock to Bush league signing statements and the "I had my fingers crossed" [ed. Read that; really] of government and "I call take-backs!" of jurisprudence.

Crossing your fingers says you didn't mean it. The body with crossed fingers overrides the mind with its semantic freight. I said I would halp you fight the bully, but it's your fault you got clobbered, because you didn't look behind my back to see that my fingers were crossed. You cannot believe in the structure of meaning, the sentence or statement, we learn as children, for meaning is in the speaking moment alone -- meaning is in my fingers, my nasal whine, my narrowed eyes, the rock in my shoe, or in my hands. In fact, I might have been high, so why do you believe me?

I personally want to thank the Prednisent for making an eloquent argument against Jacques Derrida. The deconstructionists start with princess Ferdie and his General Linguistics. Distinguish twixt langue and parole. Know your diachronic and synchronic descriptions. Oh, but a word is a sign, and signs don't have any posts to stand on! They slip, the poor dears, and therefore it's dear season all year round. Long after Wittgenstein in Traction asked if a blue house is a blue house if it's read, we hear that it's whatever we want it to be, so long as the damn thing isn't blue.

A friend told me of a friend who said that deconstruction was like looking at a bridge over a polluted river under an electron microscope, seeing all the electrons bouncing about, and then announcing, "It's mostly empty space, this bridge, and therefore all who step on it will fall!" The point he was making, I assume, is that all that movement was between points in a very firm constellation, that the nodes (or modals or nucleii or bonds or monads or quiddities) were glued tightly together, even if there was some shifting of position, and one's foot is much, much larger than any space. In other words, langue was less mobile than any single component of it, and langue is a reliable human construction. Additionally, any given speaker is speaking in a moment that is singular, not diachronically active, and each speech act is entirely nailed down by its system in that moment.

So, how to Bush?

It's obvious, isn't it?

Neocons beat decons by crossing their fingers and showing conclusively that other langue determines the parole. The speech act means because there is more than one system involved. The one system that is always determinant is power. A word means whatever the man with the gun says it means. Spend some time in camp X-ray and you'll agree.

Better than that, see the freely floating signifiers of the GOP campaign strategy. What does "cuttenrun" mean? What is "Islamafashiz?" Better far, how is there "absolutely none" in re the connection between 9/11 and Iraq and yet "significant ties" between them? How can redeployment in Iraq be giving in to "terrists," if terrorists aren't trying to take Iraq? (They're not, you know. They can't. Terrorists are destroyers and destabilizers. They cannot rule anything.) (Wait. I'm not done. The IRA couldn't rule, so it became Sinn Fein and disavowed terror. Hezbollah and Hamas have the same problems. Triumph doesn't empower terrorists: it ends them.) (This is not to suggest that we should leave Iraq, but the idea that "the terrorists win" is linguistically and logically problematic, if you take some time to think.) In fact, how can we give them what they want in any case, if we don't know who they are and they don't know what they want? It doesn't matter: the statements are as meaningless as a Derridean critique, and they are as meaningful. You see, they have power through a reference that is absolute and not free floating at all. These phrases refer to the body, to emotions, to id, and to the unmistakable, unfurled, unreasoned, single finger the Prednisent is waving.

The single speech act is paradoxically the only meaningful thing because it is an act of will, desire, threat, fear, force, pity, and defiance. The isolated grunt of the Prednisent surpasseth all understanding, all constitutional restraint, because it is an act of power.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


This week, I've begun waking up at 5:00 AM, and that means waking up before most creatures of the daytime world. I go outside to walk my dog when it's completely dark, look at morning stars, then finish the first cup of coffee and go back out when dawn is just breaking. I hate being sleepless all the time and having to go to bed before anything worth watching has been on the television, but pre-dawn is almost worth it.

This particular Saturday morning, I slept until just before dawn, and I went outside to walk the dog down the street before anyone else has a dog outside. I heard a mockingbird right by the house. I had startled it awake, and it was singing. Unfortunately for the bird, it was the first avian up.

Mockingbirds are mimics. Everyone knows that. They get mentioned in Southern literature quite often, even before Harper Lee. It's a bird often complained of in blues music, for example. Even faux Southerners like to say something something mockingbird. For people who grow up in the south, mockingbirds are notable only when you're trying to be accurate, because they generally disappear. After all, they're mimics, so you never know they're there.

Bull. Mockingbirds are not mimics. They're prima donnas. They are not ignorable, either. Mockingbirds set themselves up in prominent places, low down, make sure no one else is around them, and then begin to show off. Songs are to mockingbirds what clothes are to famine fashionistas. They sing everything from chainsaws to car alarms to finch songs to titmouse songs to warbler songs. Notice, however, that they never finish a song or leave well enough alone. If they were mimics, if they were camouflaged by their songs, then they'd just sing the Pine Siskin song and flash their wings, so other mockingbirds could say, "Whoa, great imitation... had me fooled until I saw your white wing bars." That's not what they do, though. They do siskin, then do a quick change and come back with the Black capped chickadee, then segue into bulldozer (no link available for the usgs guide to bulldozers in the wild). What mockingbirds are doing is showing off and preening (if you'll forgive taking a taken metaphor back).

Going out at 6:00 was bad this morning, because I saw the runway model naked. The mockingbird had no clothes to flash. It could only sound like itself, and what it sounded like was hoarse, unattractive, and repellent. The bird was shouting at me to go away, that he was not ready, that I was in his dressing room. It was the fury of a fashionista caught with only her own body to show. In fact, it was so ugly a noise that it would make me, if I were a bird, want to sing my own song, sign the air with my voice, just to show him how it's done. That, of course, would allow him to go to his knock-off textile factory and try to steal my fashions.