from a review by martin pugh of the fateful year: england 1914 by mark bostridge, tls january 24: "Conversely, as Mark Bostridge shows in this enjoyable tour d'horizon of the year 1914, some things were very different."
from g.w. bowersock's review of the discovery of middle earth: mapping the lost world of the celts, by graham robb: new york review of books, feb. 20: "In Greek mythology Heracles was very special."
i was surprised to find out that there's a new spanish translation of six names of beauty. it's a super-cute little object, too. i look back with mortification on some moments of my writing history, but i'm happy and proud that i wrote that book.
i was extremely pleased to get ahold of daoism and anarchism, by john rapp. that's my religion and my politics, or my anti-religion and anti-politics, together like bacon and eggs, abbott and costello, love and pain. let me start with the amazing strengths, what makes it worth its excessive price in spite of everything. there are several texts here, appearing for the first time in english, or at any rate very little known to western scholars, that fully substantiate a history of extremely clear taoist anti-statism and anti-hierarchical thinking more or less all the way through. in particular, texts denoted 'bao jingyan' (5th century ad) and 'wu nengzi' (9th century ad), were completely new to me and, i believe, are fundamentally important in the history of both daoism and anarchism.
now for the extreme drawbacks. 'john rapp' sounds like the name of a native speaker of english, but his own text appears to have been mistranslated from mandarin or something. he's got some uselessly doctrinaire vision of what anarchism is and is always apologizing that taoist sages don't sound more like bakunin. but it'd be tough to be a taoist sage in the tenth century pursuing violent proletarian insurrection, i feel. in every case including the whole book he starts by formulating devastating objections from imagined interlocutors to his own project, but it is impossible to say why. this material needs an enthusiast and a scholar, not a series of defensive manouevers against the last 3 bakuninists.
on behalf of the wunengzi, he apologizes to anarchists cause it's too tolstoyesque, and to enthusiasts for taoism because it's too buddhist. but all the great chinese philosophy of that era and hundreds of years before and after is actually syncretic; all the mnost interesting stuff has taoist, confucian, and buddhist elements. this is true of the great neo-confucians, for example. it can be done in a profound way, and often is, and you have got to take the era on something like its own terms to get it at all.
when in his appendix of texts he reprints burton watson's translations, one can't quibble, of course. but he seems to have commissioned his own translation of the wunengzi, which could be a major contribution to the taoist canon in english. (nevertheless, rapp apologizes to anarchists for its taoism, etc; he doesn't appear very impressed with it, has all sorts of reservations.) the translation is an unbelievable wretched mess, just as though no one even read it over in english before they published it. here's a sample and i tell you it is representative: "People of ancient times until now, those determined to be their relatives were their blood-kin, thereupon their affections had a point to specialize on." there is sentence after sentence like that, and sheer gobbeldygook is, believe it or not, only one of the grotesque issues. bloomsbury academic published this in the uk, continuum in the us. no, absolutely not.
what i am going to do here in a bit is re-work part 1, chapter 1, which appears to me to be extremely profound on multiple levels, into something resembling contemporary english.
google reminds us that it's zora neale hurston's birthday (i wrote about her extensively in act like you know). this is indeed something to be celebrated, and in my opinion she is the greatest of american novelists, more or less. now, i would like to see, say, melissa harris-perry, or all those feminist/anti-racist guardian columnists really grapple with how absolutely free she was to express whatever she damn pleased abiout race, how pointedly and continuously boldly anti-pc she was. this is part of how she ended up dying in loneliness, poverty, and obscurity. see, langston hughes and richard wright and paul robeson were, more or less, stalinists, the doinks, and they and others tried to enforce this as well as, say, w.e.b. dubois racial orthodoxy, on every black artist. you better enforce it, because you sure ain't got no argument for it. zora, on the other hand, is actually fucking free: she let herself be free, and she paid the price. but that, as well as the super-excellence of the writing and the folklore etc, is why i love her.
me via phil mcreynolds, formulating the basic orientation of entanglements.
astoundingly, the library of living philosophers volume on arthur danto, under randy auxier's editorship (and with my essay on danto as a writer) appeared the same day he died. the basic format is pieces by various folks (including david carrier, the late denis dutton, george dickie, frank ankersmit, noel carroll, etc) each with a reply from arthur. probably of most enduring interest is the 'philosophical autobiography' that introduces the volume. as in auxier's extremely excellent rorty volume, this turns out to be central to any interpretation of danto's work from now on.
i do love the history of painting very much. but i cannot tell you how tired i am of sentences like this (first sentence of a tls review by jack flam of t.j. clark's new book): "No artist has remade the visible world in a more radical way than Picasso." it's the classic modernist, look-there-goes-god-with-his-floozy superjive that has taken on by endless insufferable repetition the triviality of a cliche. but if you thought about it for a moment you'd see that it was completely insane. no one remakes the visible world by pushing paint around: picasso operated entirely in every respect within the existing visible world, and the only way he changed it at all was by literally physically re-arranging it, a highly localized effect. of course, this whole idea is based on the actually psychotic notion that the visible world is a subjective artifact, and that if you see it differently you've changed it globally. by this logic, for example, you could transform the visible world by putting on a pair of sunglasses; you don't have to stare at another cubist thingummy and then try to see the world that way, which - excuse me - does not work anyway. you destroy the visible world every time you blink, you god-like fuck. this whole idea was based on literally worshiping artists as world-creators. dude. do you actually know any artists? we did not create this world; this world created us.
the idea that picasso re-made the world is either an extremely hyperbolic figure of speech to capture your enthusiasm for what he actually did do - a kind of groan of ecstasy rather than an assertion - or it really represents a completely supernatural belief system, as wacky as any superstition you could readily name.
returning to the art-historical level from the very origin of the cosmos: it's routine to say that the purpose of cubism (for example) is to 're-make the way we see the world' or 're-make the visible world' (these phrases being regarded falsely as synonymous). but this just can't be right. if you lose a sense of the distance between cubist pictures and ordinary visual experience, you have certainly lost a sense of what was ever radical or interesting about them. they do kind of challenge your visual assumptions...at least about paintings. but you can't possibly understand it as a challenge if you don't see the contrast between cubism and realism of various sorts. nor has the world shown any sign of re-configuring itself in imitation of cubist pictures, though such pictures have become so commonplace that they've lost their power to surprise. i think the best you could say about the dora maar, above, is that it's funny, an exploration of the outer reaches of caricature.
you actually completely miss the humor once you take the approach of 'creatah, destroyah, bulbous bubbah'. we need to keep these people with us, retain them as members of our very own species. i do think picasso played with his reception, unveiled the very bathos of his godhead, which is admirable: he really did produce many jokes.
publishers hate amazon. bookstores, if any, hate amazon. the government of france hates amazon. etc. now, putting it mildly i was an early adopter, and i don't want to know how much i've spent there over the years. everyone always goes all jonathan franzen or nicholson baker or whatever and yearns for the time when one was browsing and making discoveries and talking to book enthusiasts at your local bookstore, if one ever was. but the local bookstore was good for some things and not others. probably a good spot to discover alice munro, say, and find people to enthuse about her with. but how many of them had even a half-decent philosophy section? and how many owners cared about stuff like that? the answer is merely 'not'. more or less they were all fiction heads who thought life was a story or whatever woolly jive people like that do believe. i used to go bookstore to bookstore, never finding the things i needed, or even anything i wanted, or even the very basic classics. mention this or that and they'd just look at you blankly. then i'd give up and maybe special-order it. they'd call me three months later, by which time i was on to something else. the idea that i could order any book in print and it would show up on my doorstep two days later seemed miraculous, and it has been extremely useful to me as a scholar: i can't imagine life without it now, really.
p.s. what the principles are by which french legislators operate, or what they take to be the scope and limits of their power, are matters incomprehensible. they'll yell 'liberte-with-an-accent!' and then arrest you for wearing the wrong outfit. if i were them, i'd drop their entire political tradition and adopt the british one, har har.
boy people sure are nostalgic for the days of prestigious publishing houses that conducted themselves scandalously and served as august gatekeepers of taste to the whole world. the latest round has to do with a book on farrar, straus by boris kaschka. jason epstein in the new york review of books does the usual suspects: cerf and knopf simon and schuster, etc., and then lines up the nobel prize winners by the dozens. and always the same names and pics pop up: sontag, roth, edmund wilson. then he writes this:
The United States and indeed the world, without a viable book industry and leaders like Robert Straus to energize it is awful to contemplate. Within a bookless generation, or two, or three, human beings would have lost the better part of the knowledge acquired by their species over millennia, from making an omelette to parsing the universe and removing an appendix.
don't we think, on reflection, that this might be a trifle overwrought? thanks for keeping dreiser in print, though. but i like the very decentralized publishing world that can emerge now much better. these houses were like the hollywood studios: they promoted people into world-shattering geniuses, but the stables were awfully small. the tastes were elitist and often merely fashionable, if you will pardon my saying so. in many cases the genre or even pulp literature of the same era turns out to be more interesting, and at any rate more vividly written. remember when the new yorker was so good and carried so much cultural authority? well yes it has been good on and off. but it never should have had that kind of cultural authority.
more blurbs: from an ad from polity books in nyrb, for philosophy and the event, by alain badiou:
"Those who haven't yet read Badiou's work have got delicious pleasures in store." --Simon Critchley
this is striking, but perhaps somewhat misleading.
i was kind of hoping that space travel would be common by the time more books of j.d. salinger were published, so i could try to find a planet where they were prohibited under threat of execution. painfully, incomprehensibly overrated writer, but of course an admirable person. and you can never have too many cults.
some highlights of the decades-long labor of love:
The authors contend that Salinger “was born with only one testicle” and they argue that this caused him enormous embarrassment — that it was “surely one of the many reasons he stayed out of the media glare” so as “to reduce the likelihood that this information would emerge,” and that it amplified his psychological need “to create flawless art.”
Mr. Shields and Mr. Salerno even suggest that “Catcher” in some way played a role in the killings of John Lennon and the young actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. These terrible acts, the authors write, “are not a coincidence; they constitute frighteningly clairvoyant readings of ‘Catcher’ — the assassins intuiting the underlying postwar anger and violence in the book.”
“Story by story,” Mr. Salerno and Mr. Shields observe, “from ‘Teddy’ forward, Salinger’s work moves from religion as a factor or even a crutch in his characters’ lives, to religion as the only thing in their lives that matters, to the work’s entire purpose being to cryptically convey religious dogma.”
etc. i'll stop counting testicles now.
times literary supplement's review of janet malcolm's 'forty-one false starts'. the reviewer, gideon lewis-kraus, sets up the thing as an opposition between malcolm and errol morris, who evidently hammers on the objective truth.
Morris’s canards about journalism and the “relativity of truth” are reminders that Malcolm’s work is never done: he represents one more defender of the fantasy that there are such things as facts that speak for themselves – a story that itself dictates the way it ought to be told, a story that has silenced its competing versions.
assuming both malcolm's and morris's positions on these things are being accurately represented, i'd like to point out that it's a false opposition, and i think that, as set up, neither malcolm's nor morris's position can be sustained or even made comprehensible. also, i think both need a bunch of philosophy. anyway, lewis-kraus certainly does.
so, what in the world could be meant by 'a fact that speaks for itself' or 'a story that dictates the way it ought to be told'? insofar as persons are facts, i suppose, they do indeed speak for themselves, or might, but it's true that the mountain isn't telling you how to describe it or dictating to you like you're its stenographer. on the other hand, the mountain certainly places extreme and elaborate restrictions on what can be said truly about it. so, you know, everest is where it is and not in another place, for example. did it tell you that? something like that would only occur to you if you thought mountains and everything else were made of words or that everything yaps, a position which, though it was fashionable in the 90s, was the very worst position anyone ever took about anything.
now, what about 'stories that tell themselves'? well, that is a bizarre formulation, and right, anyone who took the position that there were stories that told themselves would be deeply confused. but the whole style of formulation is bizarrely question-begging: it just identifies what actually happens with stories. so, i might write a story about edward snowden, but if you think edward snowden or everything that has happened around him is himself and itself a story, you are making the sort of mistake that psychoanalytic litcrits and documentary filmmakers make when they try to grapple with ontology. also you're some kind of wacky idealist. also, even if you could make something like that comprehensible, it would turn out to be obviously false.
stories are things people make. some of them are about the world. the world isn't a story, though it contains stories, for example in libraries or hard drives, or in the form of sound waves. every story is of course an extreme and brutal simplification of the world. don't believe me? alright i'm telling the snowden story. do i include a maximally-complete description of the international-departures area of the moscow airport? i mean every crack in the floor and molecule circulating in the air? snowden's every hair and slightest movement? that's what the world is like, but that's not what any story is like, even one by proust. as to the constant freudian hints in malcolm that we are each of us entirely stuck in our own subjectivity: that's just false and no one believes it.
on the other hand, if you are going to tell a story about the world, then you are going to have to select, interpret, and so on, and it will be marked by your subjectivity and relation to the facts. take a murder, which is what morris and malcolm are arguing about. there are indefinitely many ways you might tell a true story about it: you could do it in french or swahili; you could do it in 100 words or a million; you could do a fictional reconstruction or a documentary film, a graphic novel or a hyper-link tree, each of which could take a thousand different shapes; you could shape a classic hyper-coherent narrative, working up a climax and denouement, or in the style of james joyce; you could do it with multiple narrators or in the third person. and so on and on. obviously, the event and the trial etc do not determine all these things. but i will assert this, for example: there are even more inaccurate ways than accurate ways to tell the story. you might be wrong about who did the killing, for example, or you might construct in your million words a grotesquely skewed or even self-serving interpretation.
in short we do not have to and we cannot choose between facts that dictate how they are to be represented and a world melting into narrative strategies. ok?
and just one other thing: there are many ways of representing the world that just are not narratives or stories: statistical tables, maps, paintings, dry and relatively unorganized listing of facts, and so on. there are many ways of writing that do not consist of telling stories: polemics, outlines, scientific papers, the tao te ching. is this blog entry a story? is an argument a story? what about super-string theory? i think there will be many items in today's new york times, for example, that are just not best understood as stories. here's one at random. is it a story? alright, help me out: what do you mean by 'story'? also in the 80s and 90s stories took over every other mode in which the world could be represented (or if you prefer, constructed, invented, hallucinated), but that was just disciplinary imperialism by litcrits and certain sorts of psychologists. i guess you can work on that if you want to, or try to show that my road atlas is a story after all, but as you do, i think you'll notice that 'story' no longer at all means what people actually mean by it, so you lose the essence of the doctrine you're supposedly propounding.
The American Credo consists of all and only the beliefs that all Americans share, the apothegms or truisms endorsing which constitutes american identity, more or less, all of them entirely false, of course. How about (155): "That the extinction of the Indian has been a deplorable thing." (114) "That the editor of a woman's magazine is always a lizzie." (!) (105) "That a negro's vote may always be readily bought for a dollar." Or (114) (79) "That a member of the Masons cannot be hanged." (175) "That a man will do anything for the woman he loves."Every single one of these has a subversive or progressive reading precisely in its various transgressions and the ways they are shaped. But they are the words of a man who essentially controlled his own press and had given himself permission to say whatever he wanted to say, in whatever manner he deemed most amusing. That actually takes tremendous guts.
phil mcreynolds, john lysaker, and i rock on.
i've been working on a piece on american cynicism (twain, bierce, and mencken: my peirce, james, and dewey), for what may end up being a volume of essays for suny.
one angle: so there's a basic narrative of american thought: you have the transcendentalists, incredibly optimistic representatives of an america with an open frontier. emerson and even thoreau kept expecting a transformed and redeemed humanity, more or less made possible by america. well, the second half of the 19th century would make any quasi-rational person think twice about that. so the supposedly characteristic american optimism is tempered in the pragmatists from a secular milennialism to meliorism; things might not be just about to be entirely ecstatically transformed, but things will get better and better if we work for it. this is the narrative you'll read in many histories of american thought; it's even more or less the one i've taught in classes on american philosophy. but one thing you have to realize: every narrative, especially one that neat and synoptic, is simplistic, distorting, and largely false.
what if mencken was sitting in intellectual history where his contemporary dewey is right now? then the whole thing looks entirely different i believe. maybe that sounds ridiculous. but first off, mencken was an extraordinary intellectual. check out the american language, an amazing scholarly achievement. he wrote 'treatises' on philosophy of religion (his treatise on the gods makes all the hitchens and dawkins stuff redundant, and it is so much better) and on ethics (taking a naturalistic darwinian view). he was the first american translator of nietzsche. he was certainly much more widely known and read than dewey in his own lifetime. mencken dropped out of poly high school in baltimore to work on newspapers, but he was, believe it or not, far more erudite than dewey: you can't believe at any given moment what the man knows, from the whole history of philosophy, religion, and literature to what music they're playing in the speakeasy down the street. also (obviously) he writes infinitely better than dewey, and unlike dewey he's hilarious. well there are some problems too, of course.
i want to say that american cynicism - like the ancient variety - is a profoundly affirmative philosophy. it looks squarely at all the human realities that emerson and dewey apparently didn't see at all: all the corruption, self-seeking, dishonesty, mediocrity, especially among our eminent legislators. and it laughs and laughs. no one was ever more delighted by america than mencken. he loved our clowns and con men, our "Knights of Pythias, Presbyterians, standard model Ph.D.'s, readers of the Saturday Evening Post, admirers of Richard Harding Davis and O. Henry, members of the Y.M.C.A. or the Drama League, weepers at chautauquas, wearers of badges, 100 per cent patriots, children of God" - if nothing else because they made for great insults and jokes. none of these folks, apparently, were known to john dewey. america gave him a truly hearty laugh. but he didn't write fictional redemptions; he lived in something resembling the real world, namely baltimore.
that too is central to 'america': keeping your feet on the ground, looking squarely at the dark side, rolling your eyes at the glossy propaganda that they're feeding you. seriously, stop talking to professors - who are incapable of independent or rational thought - and start talking to mechanics. well that can take you into a place of darkness. but it took mencken to a place of joy. vicious joy, but joy.
now narrating it all through the prags is useful for a 'progressive' orientation, and it does make history culminate in democratic socialism. and surely mencken's reputation has faded primarily for political reasons. but there are many ways this history could be narrated, and hence many places we might be headed. also mencken was just not that politically problematic except for his germanophilia.
i have been doing research and working on the wikipedia entry for my great-grandfather, herman bernstein (he's my mother's mother's father). what an unbelievable life! i thought i wrote fast. for one thing, the dude was super-jew. for example, henry ford, with whom he locked horns for a decade, called him 'the messenger boy of international jewry.' he was rolling across russia during the revolution, interviewing john reed and leon trotsky.
even a superficial skim of the list of his correspondence (housed at the yivo center for jewish research at the center for jewish history) reveals letters to and from Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain), Sholem Aleichem,Andrew Carnegie, Leo Tolstoy, William Howard Taft, George Bernard Shaw, Max Nordau, Louis Brandeis, John D. Rockefeller, Louis Marshall, Israel Zangwill, Henri Bergson, Arthur Brisbane, Mordecai Kaplan, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franz Oppenheimer, Felix Frankfurter, Warren G. Harding, William Randolph Hearst, Herbert Hoover, Constantin Stanislavski, Leon Trotsky, Arthur Balfour,Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Arthur Goldberg, Adolph Ochs, Romain Rolland, Julius Rosenwald, Benjamin Cardozo, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, and Franklin Roosevelt.
as herman might have put it: jesus a vehicular christ.
when my mother (joyce abell, b. 1925) was 5, she was sent by her parents, alone, on a ship to albania, where herman was the ambassador. she still remembers the spectacle, the dresses etc., at the court of the magnificently attired zog, king of albania.
here are a few of the other writers in my lineage, on both or all sides, whether they arrived with the puritans in 1637 or came to ellis island from the russo-german border in 1893. some were protestants, some were catholics, some were jews (100% on my mom's side). most were atheists, though, whatever their heritage. some were communists and some were republicans and some (well...) were anarchists. novelist and short story writer grace sartwell mason (my great great grandfather's sister; one of her books is women are queer); herman's brother hillel bernstein, novelist and new yorker contributor; novelist etc murray gitlin (my grandfather and herman's son-in-law); my grandfather franklin sartwell, columnist for and editor for the washington times-herald and the washington post; my father franklin sartwell, jr., reporter and editor at the washington star, national geographic, science news, and defenders magazine; herman's son david, writer and editor for, and owner of, the binghampton sun. there are others!
i've been reading the works of the yale political scientist/anthropologist james c. scott, for example the art of not being governed; an anarchist history of upland southeast asia and seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. it's work that flips your head over. the experience of reading it reminds me of the first time i read foucault's discipline and punish: you suddenly see what we and our histories lok like from a completely different angle: the truths that you can only see from the outside. also like foucault, scott does theory by producing detailed empirical observations; there is very much hard work i can't help comparing my own work; i am more likely to wield the big theoretical construction; i wish i had more of scott's consciousness, though maybe you need both.
i'm not sure how i missed this stuff; it's easy to not register 'james scott,' and i kind of thought he was writing about some ragtag bands of anarchist rebels in burma or something. not at all. scott's data ranges around the world, but is also insistently particular and local, which is precisely what the intellectual structure he's constructing demands. so, he's roughly to be ranged in the movement of 'anarchist anthropology' that would include michael taussig and peter clastres and then younger figures such as david graeber. this sounds obnoxious, i admit; why combine the name of a political position with the name of a discipline? what if i said i'm doing capitalist anthropology or something?
but really here is the idea: such disciplines as environmental studies, anthropology, and political science are infested with statist assumptions that need to be questioned to get at the truth. here's how scott states one of the basic ideas of this trend:
Shatter zones are found wherever the expansion of states, empires, slave-trading, and wars, as well as natural disasters, have driven large numbers of people to seek refuge in out-of-the-way places: in Amazonia. . . in that corridor of highland Africa safe from slave-raiding, in the Balkand and the Caucasus. The diagnostic characteristic of shatter zones are their relative inaccessibility and enormous diversity of tongues and cultures.
Note that this account of the periphery is sharply at odds with the official story most civilizations tell about themselves. According to that tale, the backward, naive, and perhaps barbaric people are gradually incorporated into an advanced, superior, and more prosperous society and culture. If, instead, as a political choice, to take their distance from the state, a new element of political agency enters the picture. Many, perhaps most, of the inhabitants of the ungoverned margins are not remnants of an earlier social formation, left behind, or, as some lowland folk accounts in Southeast Asia have it, 'our living ancestors.' ...Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them. art of not being governed 8
scott ends up producing incredibly rich evidence for such assertions. the narrative of history or of hunter-gatherer indigenous tribes that reveal our stone-age past and so on, the teleological conception of history, is inherently a state dogma. my favorite little example, which is mentioned by scott, are the seminoles: they are themselves some kind of extruded portion of the cherokee nation intermixed with whatever was in florida. and then they welcomed and interbred with escaped slaves; they were so quaintly primitive; they were so hybrid and schooled in the arts of resistance. that might be quite typical. it's not like different people literally inhabit different temporalities, and i doubt that any human band is evr truly isolated for very long. scott does point out the disadvantages of living in the lowland valley states: corvee labor, conscription, taxation. obviously, some people might rationally opt into the woods. scott is fascinated too by everything that takes place within state formations that delays, irritates, evades, or undermines it.