This phase is probably complete

From the internet dispatches, if you read the archives, you can see me move from devoted to many ideas to questioning them to almost becoming “get off my lawn” about it.   The debates aren’t particularly useful and as I get more critical my readership has declined.  I actually think this is fine, but I also don’t get as much from this as I used to.

I have said it would be for my book, but that project has shifted four times as I do research and find I just don’t have a lot to say on a topic without getting into anecdotes.  I will do book reviews here, publish writing about art and poetry (which I don’t do enough of anymore), and probably republish poems here from time to time.

That said, political ranting is probably done for now.  I have been saying this for years now–that I was going to move on and devote my writings to more to what I care about, to work on books, to work on poetry, to work on articles for friend’s who do publishing instead of ranting here.

It’s time to do that.

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Strange Moralism: Crooked Timber and Systemic Problems

Liberal and even Marxist puritanism has always struck me as missing some fundamental points:  a call-out on a bigot makes some rational sense as a self-protective measure. It doesn’t change them. . It distances one from a person who is going to harm you, or who you can’t handle.  That said, this is more a psychological than politically effective move. A call-out–not a reprimand or a pointing out, but a public shaming–on being “problematic,” however, is corrosive to political and social cohension, although this in and of itself may be the point, and it is absolutely not instructive.   It can become the tar-and-feather session that largely becomes ego-affirm and performative.  This can be agitprop, prior to social media, and in a movement of specific struggle, but as a generic approach to politics, it seems to less than useless.

The problem beyond the obvious is that it accepts people where they are as if there were some inner-social core that was not itself limiting.  The alienated, the oppressed, the explioted motives, psychologies, limitations are just as distorted by their treatment as those in the existing system who benefit from it, or at minimum, can be blind to it.  Both would change in the process of changing larger social context, so ego reaffirming may be put people in an impossible place.  In short, system problems are systemic, they demand all individuals involve to change for things to be fixed.

The bizzaroland Kantianism involved tends to intense imposition of moral intentions on others with being totally utilitarian with ones own morality.  What Carl Schmitt called the state of exception of the sovereign, except since the parties involved are marginalized, so a state of exception largely doesn’t matter in a political sense but in a social sense.  While the separation of the political and social are not discrete spheres of experience, the formality of the way power works is vastly different.   Social spheres function on cultural capital–manifested materially through the ability to the time to learn the right words, the ability to afford the clothes that signify group belonging, etc.  Bordieu, who I think may be the most clear writer on the topic without getting into vaguer notions of discourse theory, makes this clear: this is our habitus, and explains sub-cultures, and sub-cultures generally have economic limitations. Focusing on the social here can lead two unuseful things, the above moralism, or believing consumer choices are the primary determinant of an identity.

This primary misunderstanding of the way structures work often lead to very, very naive things coming from the mouths of left-liberals.  Take this article, “How I Tried to Quit the Liberal Guilt Machine And Failed,” where a woman seems to realize that her moral conception of the world leads her to misunderstand conservatives in the UK:

What surprised me most was how they really didn’t believe most of the things liberals accuse them of believing. Almost none of them had a delusional belief in their own ability to ‘work hard’, nor did they think people who are struggling deserved their fate for being lazy. I think those arguments are ex post facto justifications, that some conservatives respond with after they’ve been accused of being callous. The flow of logic starts by wanting less government interference, and ends by not objecting to the consequences of that. It’s not meanness at all, but rather denial. I think they felt more responsible for social ills than liberals, but just chose not to face them. I was also surprised to realize that they weren’t racist, homophobic, sexist bigots, no more than my liberal friends. I realized that social conservatism was dead or dying, which made ‘libertarian’ just a euphemism for conservative.

Now, as a person who accidentally ended up on the right for a while, but who has always thought mainstream conservatives and libertarians were in the main pawns to larger powers, I still find this so incredibly naive.  I have often said I don’t want someone fighting on my side because of ideological or morality purity–that is an idea, it shifts in the wind, and that person could easily be at my throat a few years hence.  I would rather people but there because their back was against the wall or someone they cared about had their back against the wall.  I don’t wish that on anybody, but those people fight because they have to not because of idealized notions of reality. So the idea that one can just flip comes from the same problem.

I grew up in the deep South, so undoubtly I know conservatives.  Most don’t really trust Republicans or Tories either.  Most are religious, or the secular children of the religious (increasely the latter now).  Most conservatievs, frankly, are yesterday’s liberals or politicized and alieneated religious.  A very large amount of them coming from essentially the working class–particularly those outside of manufacturing.  Much more than my experience most of the radicals I know, and the radicals I do know from the working class tend to be much more cynical and yet less resentful than a lot of the downwardly mobile graduate student radicals I have met.   The class and region divide here works against most leftist ideas while also proving the basic premise that our social context, if not determining us, at least limits us so significantly, that it becomes very easy to guess what someone believes if you know where they are from, if their parents were religious, and if their social mobility was slightly up or slightly down.

So the idea that one just quits the “left-wing guilt machine” by joining its opposite seems like a something prompted from frustration.  Many people, if not most, give burned out by the left-wing guilt machine, this is why most activists one meets are under-30 or over-55, part of that is generational, but a large part of it is the burn-out isn’t something that a person with children can maintain, particularly with the demands of most non-academic or media labor.  The problem is that the gult-machine confuses systemic and personal, social and political spheres and tactics. It is not that the “other side” is right.

But what is the lesson learned:

The cure came when I visited my favourite city in the world, San Francisco. I didn’t feel like a villain anymore, because instead of being labelled by some bizarre insult inspired by the British class system, I was called a ‘queer, polyamorous person of color’. I felt what I’d liked about being a liberal all over again, that warm optimism for a better future. Eager to return, I asked some of my friends, whether thinking about this justice stuff made them feel guilty, and the answer was almost unanimously no. You see, I’d been doing liberalism wrong. You’re not supposed to feel personally responsible for injustice, you’re supposed to feel smug that you’re aware of the injustice and conservatives aren’t. It’s meant to make you feel better.

Replacing that moralism with smugness. Visiting an onclave of people who agree with you.  Both of my two closest friends live in liberal onclaves like this, one in the Bay Area.  They are also the most expensive places to live in the world right now.  This affirmation in individuals is just as much in denial as the conservatism whose denial is obvious to them.   Furthermore, it proves my point, moving to an onclave where people accept your biases gives you a pass, you feel good about your secret knowledge. Justice Gnosticism, which rhythms a lot with justice narcistism.

What do we learn?  The state of exception in the social sphere helps the status quo to flight: that status quo flies with a left-wing and right-wing, contently separated and squarely smug together.

Lingering Sapir-Wharfism: Confusing the results of change with its causes.

So I was listening to the Cracked podcast again because its enjoyable and good for little factoids, but they were talking about history in an interesting way and turned to language history and said the following: It is not that words form your thoughts, they are your thoughts.   No, they absolutely are not: this mixture of Lacanian and Sapir-Whorf is endemic particularly to left-liberals and educated leftists and its been debunked in both cognitive psyche and linguistics for nigh 20 years, and yet people still function as if all symbolic thought was words. 90% of daily expressions are pre-verbal.

I am a poet who is interested in anthropology and philosophy and have some formal training in both.  I deal with language all the time, and what I have learned as a poet is what language can’t do, what it doesn’t it change, what it can’t shape.  Yet I constantly deal with people who operate in the realm of “criticism” that assume almost exactly the opposite. Then it occurred to me: language policing as a means to change, instead, you know, actually changing social conditions first stems from this basic misunderstanding about people and history.   When you don’t change social conditions the term of respect used to replace the prior slur JUST becomes the next slur.  It’s a Red Queen game that goes no where.  Furthermore, just because people couldn’t leave record of a concept doesn’t mean they didn’t have it in some nascent sense–otherwise changes in language themselves would never happen.

It’s not that we should respect people’s vocabulary wishes, but it is definitely ahistorical and, frankly,  anthropologically incorrect, to think that this itself indicates social change.  Yet it is assumed in way most political pundits address media and we people talk about the past and its use of language.

Why is this so hard to understand?  Is just something that Humanities and social science majors are given to because they study ideas often removed from material history and then presume that bias in psychology?

Even if the “subconsciousness is structured like a language” that doesn’t mean it is the same thing.

Aphorisms on the Strange Obsession with Youth Culture Held by Thirty-Year-Olds

“Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always A Child” – Cicero “This also applies to those who add of fixing that is pretending to be the generation underneath them” – Me

***

The Internet commentariat turns on its his heroes so fast: Joss Whedon, Louis C.K., Steven Colbert. It’s like Saturn eating its children, except its reversed and way dumber.  The impulse to shame and punish those who fall short of political ideals that they never actually lived up to is the impulse to blame the symptoms  of human habits and habitus instead of dealing with the causes.    The fact that this increasingly is just shouting at the void about a spectacle one is passively watching indicates a lot about the inner-motivations of those who wish to “change the world” while don’t want to anything but talk to do it.

***

Grown men commenting constantly on female teen and early 20s pop starlets: I miss the days when people who complained about that at least had the decency not to follow it and thus not creepily seem to know way too much about a product of a cultural industry designed from people younger than them. To comment on the “provocative” nature of a spectacle as some kind of aesthetic judgment about what young women needs to do says more about these individuals than it does any starlet gyrating.  In short, why does such a person care unless their is an impulse to control.  To hide that impulse in conflating the normative and descriptive to be both philosophically naivete, and an asshole.

Aesthetic arguments made normative because of something other beauty are moral arguments made by people who don’t want the responsibility for having an opinion. The pretense to such a moral fact is a way around just asserting a value and fighting for it for itself. It is, in short, cowardly.

Then again when adolescence lasts until ones thirties because of economics, perhaps this is to be expected. Not condoned.

***

I really get annoyed when people think I am being condescending on accident or defensively, and not just showing contempt for a bad idea.  It is easy to psychologize than to accept the judgment of the quality of one’s ideas.  Like not being constantly confirmed is condemnation not only of thought, but of the entire usefulness of a person.

That spook of an ego is beat waver-thin, and generally makes for middling comedians or uncomfortable middle management.

Review: Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism by Russell Jacoby (Cambridge U.P., 1981, Reprint: 2001)

Russell Jacoby’s Dialectic of Defeat is one of those books that is excellent in what it critiques but confused in what it advocates.   A history of alternate traditions of “Western Marxism,” particularly focusing on Left Communism and Marxist Humanism varieties, as well as a critique of the idea that “Victory makes right” in the Marxist-Leninist models, particularly of the Soviet Union.   While his critique is strong, he particularly dissects Althusser’s claims and reversals as well as the particular forms of Hegelianism that dominated each side, such as the Soviet Union’s attempt to square a form of positivism that fit with its adoption of Taylorism from the capitalist world (as well as cybernetics later) with Hegelian historicism.  These first two chapters are particularly strong, and eerie in that they hint at severe problems in the Soviet conception that probably played a role in its collapse ten years after the book was written.

Jacoby is strongest when talking about the transition from Marxist to the Social Democratic parties and communist parties of revolutions in 1918 in German as well as discussing the Italian Hegelian tradition.   He is also quite strong at pointing out that Engel’s attempt at scientific positivism was critiqued obliquely in Marx but that the direct critique was never made. Indeed, many of the texts where this element of Marx’s thinking is most clear, Engel’s himself talked Marx out of publishing (such as the the Critique of Gotha Program).  However, Jacoby does not totally cleave Marx from Engels pointing out how vital Engel was to Marx’s program including editing and releasing many important texts, such as Capital volume three.  In discussing the Italian materialist Hegelians of late 1890s and early 20th century, Jacoby points out that many did wonder why Marx did not more publicly correct Engel’s attempt at a dialectical materialism that could function like positive science.

Jacoby tend points out that Hegelianism favored by Soviets, partially in response to Lukacs’s use of the Phenomenology of Spirit, whereas the Soviet Hegelians–who were later purged themselves under Stalin, but who were following Lenin’s lead–focused on Hegel’s Science of Logic. Interestingly, Jacoby goes a long way to prove that this focus was not just a result of Soviet beliefs in their scienticity, but also in the focus of Russian readings of Hegel going back into the 19th century.

This focus on Phenomenology of Spirit seems to be why Jacoby sees Merleau-Ponty and Sartre as part of his tradition of Western Marxism, along with a humanistic focus, but does not discuss their actual political affliations or even their ideas within the book.   Sartre’s Maoism was inconsistent with his existential philsophy, which itself was a rejection of Hegelian historical thinking.  Sartre’s politics, however humanistic, were aligned with Althusser’s.  Jacoby seems particularly weak on France even though he references it without much explanation through the book.

Jacoby’s separation of the Hegelian “historical” school that dominated in the Marxism of Frankfurt school and in many left communist groups as well as Soviet’s “scientific” school is a clarifying rubric.  Yet, as the problems with Sartre, or even Lukacs’s own wavering on his early work indicate, this did not politically make that much sense. Furthermore, while Jacoby knows the Italian, Dutch, and German left communist histories as well as their marginalization and purging within the official communist parties, he seems to completely ignore groups in France from the 1960s that where highly influenced by the left communists in ways that Sartre and Merleau-Ponty or even Lefebvre were not:  the Marxism of the Situationists.

With three exceptions, Jacoby’s discussion of Italian’s is the strongest part of the book. Recovering forgotten figures as well as discussing well-known players in Italy, Jacoby paints a picture about why Italy had been so important in this process. Again, however, Jacoby does not mention recent traditions, skipping discussions of Autonomia and Operaismo.  Still, Jacoby’s discussion of  Benedetto Croce and Antonio Labriola, as well as their students, Giovanni Gentile, Georg Sorels, and Antonio Gramsci is worth the price of the book. Gentile’s honest reading of Hegel as well as Labriola’s frustration at Marx not articulating his idea of “theory of mind” while hinting at it in his critique of Feuerbach is important.   Then Jacoby discusses the left factions within the Italian Communist Party.

The there exception here are vital. Jacoby strongly critiques Amadeo Bordiga’s Leninism as opposed to the council communist tendencies of most of the so-called ultra-left.  Bordiga did deviate because unlike the Dutch traditionalists or later Gramsci’s focus on cultural hegemony, Bordiga did not think culture was the dominant force on working class consciousness.  Bordiga was trained scientist, and thus did not have a tendency to see aesthetic forces as being so predominant.  What Jacoby does not mention is that Bordiga also had a strong critique of positivism  and its relationship to industrial society in both Soviet Union and capitalist countries.  Furthermore, the focus on Bordiga’s faith in the party and not the working class may be a legitimate critique, but it is important that Bordiga’s Leninism was fundamentally different from Gramsci, whose actual politics Jacoby does not discuss.  Gramsci completely endorsed the Bolshevikization of the Italian Communist Party, whereas Bordiga utterly opposed it.  Bordiga’s Leninism was based on what Lenin stated he wanted to do, not what he did, and was closer to Luxemberg’s pluralism.   In fact, while Jacoby makes all kinds of excuses for Lukacs semi-Stalinism, but he does not recognize that Bordiga’s Leninism is fundamentally different from the Marxist-Leninism of say Sartre or the center- left communists in the German communists in that he advocated for absolute pluralism within the party beyond that of even council communists. Bordiga has many, many flaws, but Jacoby’s reading here seem to imply a scientistic vision similar to the Soviets that was not really one of them.  The second exception I have already mentioned:  while Jacoby loves Gramsci’s cultural focus, which he probably did develop from Croce, he fails to mention Lenin’s own words advocating studying the local cultures of the working class within the various national regions.  He also ignores Gramsci’s role in the Stalinization of the PCI.

While Jacoby admits that Lenin separated philosophical and political mistakes: Lenin often criticized the philosophy of political allies and praised the philosophy of political enemies within the communist motion, he also seems to distance himself from the actual politics of his subjects, particularly in the French case, where Maoism played a much stronger role than it did in Germany or Italy.  Furthermore, while I learned a lot of Soviet attempts to play different schools of Hegelians and different kinds of Left communists off of each in other, particularly in Germany–Grigory Zinoviev, himself one of the first purged by Stalin for being a “left oppositionist,” was good at putting the moderates of the left faction in power, having them purge “ultra-leftist,” and then purging them for failure on another tactical front.  Certain philosophical figures popular in the academy (Sartre, Gramsci) are continuously name-dropped but left out of discussion of later manipulations.  The third exception is that Jacoby does not try to deal with the fact that seemingly half of culturally-focused Marxist-Hegelians in Italy became proto-fascists (Sorels) or fascists outright (Gentile).

In short, the closer one gets to recent history, and the more away one is from the critique of the Soviet Union, the more selective Jacoby is in his criteria.  One of the best and worse part of the Jacoby’s book is the treatment of the Frankfurt school.  He focuses primarily on Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse.  He plays up Marcuse’s cultural awareness and his influences from Heidegger, but ignore Marcuse’s long flirtation with Maoism that drove a wedge between him and the other two members Jacoby focuses on.   He also doesn’t discuss the various divisions in the Frankfurt school beyond that and that the idea of a “worker’s unconsciousness,” on which Jacoby seizes, is really under-explored.  Jacoby’s prior work on the history and abuse of psychoanalysis in his first book probably does indicate why there would be such an interest in this element, but it is profoundly under-explored.

I feel as if I critiqued this book in ways that make it sound irrelevant or problematic. It is not.   It is very, very incomplete and seems to have been driven in categories more by sympathies within the US academy at the time and not necessarily political coherence.  This is a fairly good response to Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism and a strong historical critique of Soviet “scientific socialism,” which Jacoby does point out seemed to adopt a ton from capitalism and didn’t seem all that actually scientific at many, many points.  Furthermore the period from 1890 to 1917 is under-explored, and this is where Jacoby particularly is strong.  The idea of “Western Marxism” that he is defending seems to be more incoherent grouping that he dealt with from prior categorizations more than a coherent category, but his attempt at contextualization is admirable.

Despite all the problems I see in this book, it is, for better or worse, one of the better historical books on this topic by academic press. It is a classic in this area for a reason, but it should be read with caveats.

Mini-Review: Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Tanner (Oxford U.P., 2001)

This is a better book than many on Nietzsche that embrace Nietzsche more fully, but it seems more like a brief critical engagement than an very short introduction. Tanner interrogates many Nietzschean ideas, but often skips over prior philosopher’s exegeses of the more unclear ideas. When he does meant the ways Nietzsche’s work has been used, he does so almost off-hand and without specifics as if someone needing a very short introduction to Nietzsche would know interpretative traditions around Nietzsche.

Tanner does lay out some biography, but recounts some “facts” we now know were untrue: such as NIetzsche’s madness being caused by the onto of syphilis despite the fact that even at the time, photographic evidence of Nietzsche shows no degeneration of soft tissue that comes with syphilis. Tanner does bring up key bits of information, but not consistently. Often it is used to psychologize elements of Nietzsche’s thought that Tanner finds inconsistent or distasteful. Tanner is also dismissive of Kaufman’s work on Nietzsche, a view that I somewhat share, but Kaufman has been the primary introduction to Nietzsche in United States and many of Kaufman’s more liberalizing existentialist readings of Nietzsche remain dominant and should be addressed more completely if they are going to be addressed at all.

Tanner also seems to be highly sympathetic to Wagner and seems to bristle a bit a Nietzsche’s reading of Wagner. This makes some sense given that Tanner has written on Wagner extensively in a philosophical vein. Tanner’s last chapter is a philosophical and psychological critique of Nietzsche. It does simplify some points and inside one not bring other interpretations into the text, but then psychologizes Nietzsche the more. Tanner in all of his run down of the major works and his critical chapter, hints at problems, hints at interpretations, alludes, but rarely explicates completely. He also gives no sense of why Nietzsche would have been so important.

While Tanner does interrogate Nietzsche, which is more useful than a sycophantic reading that also imposes outside ideas unto Nietzsche’s anti-system, I don’t think this functions well as introduction and it is too allusive to be substantive critique. It is slightly unsympathetic, and seems to be short mainly by alluding instead of completely arguing out key points.

Some thoughts on the distortions of genre from an editor, teacher, and reader:

I edit a lit journal/blog–that line is thin these days–and I am a reader for UK imprint on radical theory and literature.  I read a lot on my own and as a teacher.   I see tons of writing: many good ideas from people who can’t really write as a teacher, but equally bothersome are good writers who don’t have many ideas. One of the things that has gotten to me is that there are some trends that have existed in literary fiction since the 1960s, and, definitely since the development of MFAs but also the New Yorker’s taste for fiction has something to do with it, is the banality of the domestic short story.   Small scenes, minor conflict, hopefully rendered meaningful by character or quirk.  I get a lot of that in fiction in literary magazine, where as to contrast that, as a book reader, I primarily specialize in non-fiction, but what I tend to see there is Young Adult style dystopian novels.

One seems to be life in minimalism and the other in maximalism, but they almost seem to have genre tropes that now override the author.   Many of these authors I reject are quite good writers, but under the spell of a genre–and I fear literary fiction has ceded so much to the genres that its primary genre concern in short stories is quirk and banality–the work subsumes to that genre.  It is a subsumption of art to marketing.

It is completely understandable as a reader, I must sometimes suggest publish things that I think aren’t saying anything new because I know that confirmation bias plays into the publishing world: we have to make money.  I refuse to suggest we publishi anything bad or totally obscurantist though.  I stand behind my suggestions at a level of basic quality, but innovation or original insight is often harder.  People like familiarity.  They also like novelty, but one is safer than the other.   We talk about this all the time in movies, but I rarely see people willing to be honest that this trend has effected books: the dominance of YA dystopia is not different than the dominance of comic book movies.  As a teacher, I understand this, there is a focus on “high engagement, low ability books.”  IN short, books that are entertaining, but easy to read. Some of these books are substantive: Tony Morrison, for example, is thematically very hard but her lexile score puts her at 7th grade reading level on a sentence-by-sentence bias.   I doubt a 7th grader can understand Beloved thematically, but they can past the words.

But reading tastes are reinforced by this, and you do see a decline in the complexity of books. Several authors I respect, including Ian McEwan has said the complex, multiple re-read demanding novel, is effectively dead in literary publishing.  Time crunches and competition from the internet as well as a glut in the market and market imperatives mean that people have to get the novel quickly.  Ironically, this has let to a lot of innovation on the margins of genre fiction, which has a more devoted reading base because of sub-cultural commitments.  The idea that consumer choices can make an identity disturbs me, but that is what music genre and nerd culture identity have always been.

One is inclined to fight these trends, but it hard to do.  It is would be inappropriate to me as an editor to write to each short story author who sends me another piece of the “banality of everyday life” or “character with X quirk fucks up things and story ends unresolved and say, “I want you write a story completely unlike this with all the talent you cultivated into this.”  Now, I could do that as a reader for publishing house, but there I must consider clickbait culture and trying to balance bringing new ideas to an audience, with audiences that seem to increasingly just want their world view confirmed.

All this banality leads to another one: the writing of rejection letters. Something I neither hate nor enjoy.  It is mostly just tedium. Sometimes it does bug me to write even nice and personalize rejection letters to good writers though who have subsumed themselves into genres that are running out of things to say.