The Real Black Pill, or, Drinking Bitter Water to Go Beyond It.

March 20th [1978]

The Left indeed lost. But the Communists have won seats. They have openly played on the victory of the Right in order seats this time, to make progress in a space that had been vacated, and where they themselves had created a void

Basically, it’s not very different from Italy. There, too, every twist and turn of events allows the Communist Party to move up a bit farther . . . but toward what? Not power: it is happy with a technocratic or managerial tip-up seat that the Christian Democracy concedes to it, without demanding anything in exchange. The Communist Party does not reach irresistibly toward power, it irresistibly occupies the space left empty in the reflux and disenchantment of the political sphere. The slow progression signals the trivialization and desertification of the political sphere. Although it’s no longer clear where the salt of the earth is, we do know that the Communist Party is the greatest desalinization enterprise. Shame on it for having helped foster, with such energy, the functional stupidity required for its extension; shame on it for having eradicated the last remains of any political standard, simply to guarantee the cancerous homeostasis of the social. Marhais’s mug is a meta-figure of stupidity and the death drive, hilarious. A histrionic mug, exacerbated by burlesque demagoguery and the blackmail of vulgarity, which everyone accepts and submits to, apparently, as initiation of the sorts into future society.

The Communist Part works towards the beatitude of historic compromise. So that all of history can end on a compromise, the whole system has to limit to zero with no violent incidents, slowly, progressively, with calculated doggedness.

The End of history and of politics could have been something else than compromise; it could hvae constituted a violent and transformative hyper-event . .

. . . But the Communist Party is there to prevent the system from dying a violent death.” — Jean Baudrillard, The Divine Left, p. 55

While in some sense, this sentiment is alien to the US, as “the Communists” or even “the Socialists” were but whimpers adjacent to the Democratic Party’s racial and labor coalition from the 1940s to 1970s. From the SPUSA’s failure to achieve relevance after the Russian and Mexican revolutions of 1917 and the election of 1918 and Deb’s imprisonment, from the CPUSA’s failure to do anything but make communists a special radical interest group in the civil rights movement, since they were effectively purged from labor by the AFL-CIO merger and by Taft-Hartley thereafter, to the emergence of the sectarian left who functioned as a radical steam valve for progressive disconnect while having party presses sell books to the very progressive fads that they mocked within the party, the US left never got a chance to fail this big. Indeed, it had done so way before the disillusionments with the results of Mai 1968 or even, in the US, the hollowing out of both the civil rights and the black power movements as US labor began funneling more and more of its functional dues to just maintaining leadership and its donations into lobbying. We never got Baudrillard’s disillusionment, or at least, we like to pretend we didn’t.

If something in the above paragraph offends you and your sensibilities, good. You may be able to object to my historiography, but one would be hard pressed to disagree with the history or results. The economic left, as much as the political left, functions as part of the buoying of the existence of the status quo in the US. The historical reasons for this are complicated and can’t be pinned down to just betrayal or to just structural impediment. Nor can the victim-blaming of “the workers’ movement was reactionary” or “the workers’ movement failed to be radical enough”: Why did it fail to be radical? What levers were really there?

After the degeneration of the 1920s in Europe and America, people saw Fordism as what was hollowing out the left, ie managerial elites and monopoly capital. Then they were blindsided by the oil shock breaking the Keynesian consensus and by declining profitability rates making prior assumptions unviable. Then neoliberalism was blamed, seemingly, reintroducing old laissez-faire economics and cutting the welfare state that, in the prior era, even most of the far left thought both disempowered the working poor through removing their agency and empowered the administrative state, buying capital time. Except, as economic historians have known for a while, neoliberalism was not really laissez-faire–as many such as Philip Mirowski have shown–it was a bipartisan consensus to restore profitability through rentier relations, fiscalization, public-private partnerships, and compelled markets. Given the mask of the old heroic bourgeoisie and a myth about even its reliance on the state, politicians and capitalists alike got the states MORE involved in markets and less involved in the deracinated social welfare programs. Between the 2008 housing crash and the COVID-19 response, the quantitive easing has made it clear: markets without risk for investors and with moral hazard for things like healthcare. Rentier relations play increasing roles in our lives. The left seems to blindsided by this too.

So we are seemingly always invested in saving the last systemic shift in capitalism. The communists trying and failing to save post-Fordism from the French right seems to be just another example. Irony upon irony, even most progressives think that post-Dengist China may save capital from itself through its state investment programs. Socialism again, the 18th and 19th century imagery of the ruthless critique of the capitalist order that emerged in Europe and its (soon to be former) colonies, is seen as the means to save it and humanize it.

So when millennial progressives hear the word “socialism” and think of Norway, Sweden, and even Canada, and the boomer anti-communists, including the leftists ones, think of China during the Great Leap Forward or USSR during either the purges or the slow decline of the late 70s and early 80s, both are deluded. Nor can we do, as the left opposition, anarchists, and left-communists have often done, of pretending that, since none of these mean a platonic form of the original 19th century goal, that this doesn’t count. “It’s just the left of capital”? Well, there is no other left and apophatic theology which substitutes something beyond the value form for the nameless attributes of the ultimate unity of God as the minimum definition of socialism makes socialism esoteric but secular mystogoguery.

Yet most of what ink is spilled in so-called socialist press and “alternative” media space–a branding I used from habit as it no longer clear what it is alternative to–wants to talk about Jimmy Dore versus the Squad. Most of the post-left wants to talk about Mark Crispin Miller and academic freedom. Most of the (formerly neoconservative) now faux-populist right complains about freedom of speech and the socialism of Kamala Harris. The actual populist and evangelical right–having moved public sentiment into the realm of paranoia and religiosity into heresy from their own religious standards–fall into QAnon and Alex Jones denials of reality. There are differences in kinds of delusion and, no, they aren’t the same, but there is delusion across the board.

In light of this, all of the commentary I do on Pop the Left, Theorizing with a Hammer, and Mortal Science, the various podcasts I work with and on, feel well, less important. However, the less important and more trend-driven it is, the more engagement there is. This doubly extends to social media–particular Twitter where meta-irony and antisocial takes are often rewarded with tons of high schoolers who are highly online sharing them without even totally realizing how much nonsense it is. Indeed, the ability to know what is sincere or meta-ironic seems often beyond them. Hate-sharing the “bad takes” spreads them further and further, incentivizing being wrong. This, by the way, is not unique to social media and never has been. But like how conspiracy theory shows about Big Foot in the 70s and 80s turned into a new and politicized form of the Satanic panic in QAnon now, concept drift and democratic media feed each other. Further, much of the liberal center’s attempt to use expertise to stomp this out overreaches and seems to vindicate the degenerative impulse. The left counter-signals to both, but ultimately sides with one impulse or the other. Furthermore, good information being paywalled while misinformation is generally plentiful and free doesn’t help. This, again, was always the case: good documentaries were arthouse productions in the 90s where one often needed not just the social but literal capital to live in an expensive city to see them, whereas Unsolved Mysteries was on basic cable.

At first this seems removed from my initial jeremiad on the left in the West above. However, when looking at some notes on kinds of engagement I get, it will become relevant. If I get mad and yell at people over getting stuck on a trend, I’ll get tons of superficial engagement. It isn’t lost on me though that getting mad at the trend gives the trend air. Criticizing pseudoscience without offering a NEW and NOBLE counter-explanation often spreads pseudoscience, and this is doubly bad with toxic counterfactuals and incoherent frameworks.

If you want to remove something from the public discourse, you don’t cancel it or even criticize it without offering an alternative. Canceling things gives it moral weight and you actually spread its voice; when the left wanted to make Richard Spencer go away, it wasn’t just punching him that did it. After all, that is STILL just symbolic if it leaves a physical bruise. It got bored. The left had bigger fish to fry, and Spencer largely took care of himself only sometimes gaining relevance in critiquing Donald Trump. The left learned a lesson there but also refused to learn it. Canceling can hurt you if you have an academic or media job where public access matters, but it doesn’t make you irrelevant. In fact, canceling and getting criticized is often an effective media strategy to gain access. In the 1960s, it was people using evangelical backlash for that, now it is deplorables fighting blue hairs. The results are similar.

You give it the silent treatment and you convince others, quietly, it isn’t worth your time. Contempt is more powerful than hate and unstated and unacknowledged contempt more powerful than mockery.

I need often to remember this myself. But there are structural reasons we have to be dishonest about this, and mine are little different. For all the complaining about the “spectacle”–the most untheorized idea ever to come out of communist critiques of modernity–complaining about the spectacle is itself number one in this grift. It calls out the illusion of spectacular and symbolic politics by also participating in it, keeping it alive.

For some self-criticism on how this works: I keep calling myself an educational entertainer. I don’t view myself as a pundit, but I admit I’m also tired of people who constantly talk about politics insisting that doing so isn’t an intervention into politics. It was false when Jon Stewart did it, and it is false when Chapo Trap House does it. It’s also false when I do it. The old claim from the 1960s that the personal was political rendered politics undifferentiated from all other forms of life. Yes, feminists did this for good reason; progressive men promoting equal rights in theory but beating their wives at home was a long and unfortunately honored tradition which more radical forms of feminism were trying to expose. But every well-meaning intervention has a shadow side, and here that shadow side was making lifestyles seem political. In a deep sense, politics, culture and economics AREN’T actually separable–they are different lens to view and manage our collective and aggregate lives, but by rendering them inseparable in focus, many things seemed more radically different than they were. By making the personal political in a time of hollowed-out individual selves, nothing became properly political. It shows in our rhetoric now where we are constantly claiming that even engaging in policy debates or aiding political candidates are not, really, political.

Often I have screamed into the void that merely inverting a bad troupe doesn’t free you from it, but often leads to a worse one.

So here’s why I am getting to the end of my rope as a pundit who doesn’t really want to be one: I keep saying we need to offer a viable alternative to the talking points of the left and quit trying to defend a debate that is set up for multiple sides to draw bad conclusions. But we can’t easily do this because it doesn’t get engagement. People LIKE the horserace, and they like the idea that engagement with fictions they make of real people (celebrity and micro-celebrity media personalities) is both read as a way to gain access to power and a way to “be honest” about one’s (lack of) role in it. Trust me–working for Zero, I see this. Mortal Science is a better podcast of what I aim to do. It necessarily has a more limited audience. Like right now, it has a few orders of magnitude smaller audience than Pop the Left or Theorizing with a Hammer. Pop the Left is good but we still do left ambulance-chasing despite our commitment not to. Why? We need views and clicks or it doesn’t matter. Mortal Science’s agenda is not set by clicks at all, but it is necessarily a disillusioning and largely under-engaged with affair.

Furthermore, let’s be honest for a second. The “alternative” media’s populist narrative about Patreon and what not leading to a more “authentic” left is a myth. There is a reason why the Brooklyn and Berkley left defined podcasting once Patreon weakened NPR’s hold on pushing its radio shows into podcast form. It’s a money-making media sphere and that is where the money is. No, not the kind of money you need for an old capital-intensive media set, but that has since changed with technology. Power law still applies. You need capital, either cultural or, well, real to expand capital. True word of mouth takes forever. You need to invest in advertising and relaunch campaigns. A part of the Dirtbag Left had money prior to raking in thousands a month on Patreon, and many had media access way, way before they broke out in podcast land. Their obsession with political media spheres and mocking it made it abundantly clear. I didn’t know or care about Ben Shapiro until new media started mocking him on the left. This becomes a mutually constitutive identity, and one that is still dominated by Ivy Leaguers, even if they aren’t WASPs anymore (on either political side, actually).

I still have rely on rich and connected friends to land interviews outside of the normal left book-tour circuit or left professional activist circuit, and if you haven’t noticed that some of your favorite “marginal voice” podcasters and activists have Ivy League degrees, you’re a fool. It need it too; for all our criticisms of the “elites” and their myth of meritocracy, we are always excepting what we like.

I was friends with a working-class dude who was brilliant and is now a journalist, who was let into Harvard Divinity School to work on Buddhism. He does the work, so this wasn’t a silver spoon placed into his mouth, but he knows that his access was not from primary merit. It was being given access to Harvard and thus gained in an entirely unrelated field from what he worked in, and then he would freelance for things like Teen Vogue. Did he earn his way in? Or was he there to assuage some elite conscience? Well, if you believe that meritocracy is a sham, then you can but draw conclusions closer to the second. Even with an editor, I don’t have that access. I have helped people get that access and, yes, I am an aphasiac and, yes, I am aggressive, but that isn’t the primary reason why. I am not bitter about this either. If I got in that deep, like a few of my friends from similar backgrounds have and are, I would be even more limited in what I say. Instead being frustrated about having to talk about Jimmy Dore versus the Squad two minutes hate (on both sides), I would have to pick how I defended our continued relationship with a party that doesn’t deliver shit and hasn’t since the 1930s.

As it is, I get to get play a role and an important one which is good for a guy from a central GA working class background with a communication disability (which I don’t generally play up). In fact, even the regional access to capital is often not dealt with: being poor but promising in a major city affords more access to ways out of poverty than being so in central GA. In central GA, there isn’t the wealth or the guilt for such noblesse oblige from our haute bourgeois oligarchs or their well-invested middle managers.

This brings me to another point, which you would know if you listen to my podcasts, but not if you just read this: my criticism of things like the PMC thesis isn’t to dismiss it. It’ss actually SUPER important, but because of that, I want to be coherent and watertight. The above is WHY it is super-important. Incoherent frameworks are easily attacked and legitimately so, but there is sociological reality to the fact that a precarious strata of professionals and their children are interested in representing leftist interests instead of liberal ones. Furthermore, many do misrepresent their origins. “Common podcasters” and “politicians with working class backgrounds” (because they had to do the common middle-class thing and take a gig during college) with Ivy League credentials and rich, connected patrons will fool you. If you are mad at Jack Vance for hiding how he broke out of the working class (good luck in a military gig, access to a state senator who helped him get into good schools in addition to having the grades) then you have to be mad at people like AOC who had the help of Ted Kennedy for pretending to be Jenny from the Block. It is not to say that AOC didn’t earn her position; it isn’t all that relevant. Even with hard work, you need access and ways to get it. I am not mad about it; I realize this is how this works, but I am not going to lie to you about it.

I also know that most people who “earn” their way up to have to pick up these narratives to maintain themselves. They really believe them because that is a circle of exposure, but they also NEED to believe them to continue to climb up. You don’t need to believe them though if you don’t have that access. You don’t need to think you have an actual relationship with these people or that they represent you. “It’s good to have people to project possibility unto.” True, but it also a way to hide that YOU still don’t really have that possibility.

Two generations ago–in the time of better politicians and better elites—we had congresspeople without degrees or without being billionaires. Good luck with that now. Good luck even getting a job at a think-tank from a state school, even if you have perfect scores and can prove yourself smarter than well-connected Ivy Leaguers. Cultural capital works this way. Look at “pragmatism”. Even the far left screams “pragmatism” when it fails to deliver, whether it was with the Five-Year Plan or with the Democrats. Fine, but don’t pretend to be investing in ruthless criticism if that all exists. You are very much thinking you can tame the dragon without any evidence that it’s likely. Thus, ultimately, to try to save this possibility, the most radical-seeming critics of society actually are protecting elements of the status quo.

This is the necessary black pill to swallow in order not to give up on change. It is the bitter water you must drink not to die of thirst, hoping for there to be sweet water at the mirage in the distance. It means you have to give away something to which you have invested a considerable amount of your time and identity into. Just admit it to yourself, and then you may be able to make a change, or, at least, if not, not be invested in people–despite even their real intentions–not doing so.

In times of plague and riots, a personal update.

Today is peaceful here in SLC, and I have work today to finish off my courses for my students. I have been reflecting though that even here things broke out. We have had police violence, mostly against the homeless and protestors, but mostly what we have here is police apathy. People have disappeared here in SLC–people my friends know–the police did almost nothing. Every Dine nation person I have met here has lost someone in the COVID crash, and many have lost several elders. It also really hit me how bad a lot of the reservations are in terms of services. We are talking infrastructure-for-indigenous-people-of-rural-southern-Mexico kind of bad. Settler colonialism, under-autonomy, and needing the approval of US Congress means it’s hard to get appropriations and jurisdiction to do much on those lands. Most of the US apparatus has been governed by the states quietly and increasingly since the 1970s; in a way this is the way it was designed to run, but almost no business exists within one state’s line.
 
But every Dine person I know has lost someone–every single one. Probably not that different for Ute and Paiute people either, but I don’t know as many of them. Since re-opening for business two weeks ago, we have had a spike and cases and in death, but compared to other cities, SLC death rates are mild compared to our infection rates. Yet more Latinos have the disease than whites now in raw numbers in a state that is about 14% Latino. Everyone is angry and grieving about something. My mother has cancer back in GA and my step-father is living in a trailer in the backyard as to not infect her. They are both over sixty. My mom is an ex-nurse, one of my brothers is an unemployed roadie living with them, and my step-dad a mechanic. Now, I am not particularly close to my family. I left GA ten years ago, but only two of my brothers turned things around from themselves after the last economic downturn. The reasons for that are complicated and frankly I am not going to blame it all on society, but I have seen the “Hillbilly Elegy” shit a lot in my real life. I know we may disagree with the reasoning of that author’s solutions, but his description of the world is apt and I am kind of tired of people from more privileged backgrounds arguing with me about it.
 
I never much believed in Bernie salvation. I thought it MIGHT be a release valve. But Bernie would not be able to get his party in line because the donors wouldn’t be in line. I was skeptical that he had support in the black official Democrat circles in the South. Most black men in my state don’t vote and something like 40-50% percent of them can’t because of felon charges. That also affects a ton of poor and working-class whites. For all the talk about how reactionary the South is, and it is, people know their interests there. My step-dad is not a racial progressive and was opposed to Democrats most of his life, but voted for Obama and opposed Trump, even though I am pretty sure the man hates Hilary Clinton. He is not a liberal, and he is mad as hell at them too. He was a mechanic with three medically compromised kids, and retirement is more difficult for him because he kept us alive. It is as simple as that. If you dig into most people, you can get to the story.
Now, I realize I am normally Mr. History and Mr. Theory. Here are some things you are going to have to look at for a moment. I am explaining why I think this happened. People are angry and the police are the arm of the state. Yes, people are particularly angry at the way black people are disproportionately killed by the police for often minor offenses. But the support POC are getting is only ideological and from activists and liberals, but poor white people are also threatened by the cops. Fuck, increasingly middle-class white people are. That is the shift and I suspect I could find stats to back it up.
 
However, let me talk about the steam-with-no-piston-box problem, and the people without the skills or ideological vision to do anything. I am not Marx-shaming the rioters and the revolt. I am glad people finally fight the boot on their neck. It also exposes that even when trying to protect the POC protestors, Liberals spin narratives that play right into 100-year-old conservative tropes and doubt the threat that cops pose to even middle-class white people. The term “shitlib” gets thrown around a lot. That said, leftists don’t have places for this to go other than back into the streets and into uncontrollable destructive spasms. That does lead to reaction and scares people. Historically, for that not to happen, natural and spontaneous militancy has to have a place to go.
 
I am also seeing the same tired tropes about diversifying the police. While data may unreliable, almost no data or even anecdotal support tells you that a police force representing you is less likely to kill you. Even in the major events that caused riots, the outlier was Ferguson, which had a mostly white police force: the other three cops involved in killing George Floyd were of color. Most of the cops in the Maryland instance that provoked riots were of color. Liberals’ misunderstandings don’t fix structures of power and overpoliced neighborhoods. For all the talk of structural racism, many of the solutions proposed, for police reform and diversification, don’t understand the problem. The same is true of cops supporting the protests–tactically that may be good for both sides, but it misses the point.
 
However, let me go back to that lack of piston box. Unleashing the people’s power without goals, aims, and discipline leads to the power often being diffused into the air. It was good for people to remember they have power, but it’s got to go somewhere. Furthermore, for all the bad actors, black looters, and outside agitator talk, and for all the talk of boogaloos and proud boys–who are real but are so tiny as to be insignificant in this–that is nonsense. But steam with no piston box attracts the energy of lumpen and despised folks without giving them anything other than their legitimate rage. So the two days of targets were strategic, but then whatever is at hand. Places that find and start having piston boxes will in better shape than those who don’t.
 
Insurrections normally and historically end in a bloodbath. Liberals mucking this up are, in their own dumbass way, kind of trying to avoid it, but politicians are trying to save their own asses. That is what I mean when I say riots are a force of nature when they get moving. There are so many different groups and actions and no direct call. Demands, if made at all, are often moral and inchoate.
 
So I have understood why people are breaking things and I think a lot of the calls for them to be “more organized” are trying to control a force that can’t be. But we should have had something for these forces to organize towards that didn’t try to subordinate them to whatever ideology or NGO agenda was at hand.
 
So in the next few days and months, we will see if the shift is towards something new or if they will go from Watts riots into Nixonland, except that we are already in farce version of Nixonland, so where are social forces to go? When all institutions seemed bankrupt, what institutions emerge?

Pandemic Reflection

Another day, another low magnitude earthquake.  They have peppered my day for over a month since we had 5.7 erupt out of  Magna from a faultline, no one suspected exists.  So this morning, I shot up from my bed wondering, yet again, if someone hit the build with a car or if the earth was burping up frakking pressure or the afterbirth of the giant volcano nearby in Wyoming.

Forcing me up for the day to drag myself to my computer to grade reflections on A Raisin in the Sun and Macbeth.  While I feel somewhat privileged to have a job right now–in fact, two of them that I can do from home, the screentime gets exhausting and one starts to take pleasure in small things.   Rye toast with good Irish butter and lavender jelly.  Finding a good transfer of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to watch for free so I return a favor to a friend on their podcast.

While grading this morning and talking to my partner I realized that podcasting culture has replaced blogging culture the way Tik-Tok has replaced actually socializing for high school students.  My partner has set up a barbell in the living room among my shelves of poetry and history books, giving my small city apartment the feel of terrible 90s boutique business: gym plus library and cafe.  Despite the watch-word of social distancing, this would be a strange vision even in normal times.

Dropping that digression for a second, however, brings me back to blog culture. One of the things had haunts teachers write now is dropping literacy scores:  students can read but without extended executive function and not particularly well.   While literacy rates have been largely stagnant for a few decades–the gains have been largely in at-risk populations such as racial minority groups and “free and reduced” lunch populations–they actually declined in the years since 2014.  People rush to blame political decisions, but the relaxing of reforms didn’t work but neither did either Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” nor Obama’s “Race to the Top.”   “Innovations” in charter schools didn’t fix it either. Technology, which even I used to think was going to be a key to increasing access and capacity, seems to have been neutral or even damaging to gains.

What does that have to do with blog culture?  The blogging culture of the aughts was interesting, seemingly developing out of a mixture of journaling and early social media, there was a kind of brief renaissance in journaling.  Facebook entered in and so did Myspace, but the writing was largely shared through notes and through sharing links.   This lead to a boom in writing but the bust came fast.   The monetization of link-sharing algorithms, the rise of Instagram and Snapchat, and micro-blogging really seemed to suck the life out of things.  Still, ideas and news were spreading faster and faster right?

Apparently not.  While millennials in America read more than their last generational processors, who watched a lot more television, that has shifted down to the next cohort.  Youtube dominates.  While youtube seems infinitely useful to education, it also contains its opposite: charismatic misinformation served up by math-gods. One wonders if the entire media landscape was not a sprint for current social distancing.

Podcasting culture seems to be a stop-gap between blogging and Youtube.  Podcasting requires more executive function and you don’t have to be physically charismatic to do it.  It’s dialogical, but also leads to the strange obsession of this age, commentary. Commentary culture was, of course, a major part of blogging culture too.  Hell, even Whit Stillman in the 1980s, mocked upper-class tendency to be obsessed with commentary and not what was being commented on: It comes up in Metropolitan as well upper-middle-class obsessions with obscure utopian socialist figures.  This gets accelerated in podcasting as well as textual commentary.  It becomes a kind of secular version of the shared bible-study group for whatever text is being commented upon.

It’s a good substitute for alienation in ways that blogging, which entails the far more lonely act of writing is not.

Waking up in an apartment, teaching to screen, and moving on, however, shows the real limits this has for relieving alienation.  Furthermore, while I think it is far to easy to blame the technology, the declines in literacy in the developed world seem paired with an overreliance on these technologies.  As the old and oft-repeated saying goes, correlation is not causation, but as the statistician retorts, “correlation does imply there may be causation there somewhere.”

 

Attempt: Embodied Philosophy

Ideological fluttering as like knots in the stomach; sometimes they cause us to move forward and other times we purge ourselves into convulsing wrecks.  Today, amidst more arguing about Hegel–and since I have Phenomenology of Spirit and the shorter Logic under the guidance of a conservative  Calvinist Professor who saw the history of philosophy as purely pathological, intense debates over Hegel punctuate my philosophical life–I finished Michel Onfray’s A Hedonist Manifesto.  I read it quickly, devouring the 120-some-odd pages while at a salon academy waiting for my wife to dye her hair.  At risk of over-sharing, my wife’s hair has turned partially white from her treatments: not gray, white.   No melanin left. Her own cells attacked it when it attacked her cancer.

I will review Onfray’s manifesto more completely later.  His calls for embodied philosophy speak to me, obviously.  This is not mean his book is without problems: the attempts to reconcile a left Nietzscheanism with a kind of pragmaticism and utilitarianism seem to be impossible.  Yes, Onfray sees things in Bentham that both  Foucault and Marx ignored, but the selfless selfishness of J.S. Mill creates a tension with Onfray’s coalition of mutual egoism.

Yet, I cannot speak to how refreshing his approach is despite Onfray’s penchant for lyricism when he moves away from the narrative approach.  It brings me back to my love of Hellenistic philosophy, aside from the suspiciously de-theologized Stoicism, stripped of its metaphysics, that is the vogue right now,  particularly the classical Cynic, Epicurean, and Skeptic.

I admit that I distrust the way these philosophies are used now, as purely ethical palliatives cut off from their physics, metaphysics, and whatnot.  Like the way, many people reduce Buddhism to a few meditation techniques and some hip “deepities” or some guru worshiping.  Or the way people turn their politics in the make-shift religion.  In lieu of an episteme and an ethos, the will of a group’s portrayals are often substituted superficially.

When I was a teenager, I saw my own step-father, a man I love as much as any I may share DNA with, struggle with his “law-and-order” stances and his own son going to prison.  For all his tough talk, he was not an economically conservative man as he believes in things like government health insurance, but he was a shot-em all and let God sort of out type when it came to perceived criminality.  What drove this?  I suspect fear for his family.  Yet when his own family came into the contact with the law, he had a tendency to be most lenient and forgiving.  In a way, he was the most Christian, although he was never particularly religious.  For a while, as a child, he took us all to Episocal church.  In graduate school, conflicted about communal identity and discovering the depths of a hidden relationship to Judaism that had been buried, I even tried to go back to that parish. The rituals were comforting but no belief came with them. I currently am undergoing Jewish religious education to try to understand parts of my own family history, but not beliefs come there either.

So the temptation for politics as religion makes sense to me.  I mean, most definitions of religion are pathetically inconsistent and often assume Christian and Islamic focus on belief as the standard for what the term means.  I have said that if Confucianism is a religion then Epicureanism counts too.  Indeed, I have been convinced that the idea of religion as a separate sphere of life–an ersatz anthropology, ontology, and ritual community rolled into one–is an accident of the secular sphere being delineated. This makes me at an odd fit with “secularism” or “historical materialism.”  While I absolutely accept that there are material limits to an idea being able to be manifested, and the opposition between systemic logics actually tend to push “ways of life” into being.  Indeed, this historicism of conflicting ideas and ways of organizing society is the one element of Hegel I am willing to defend. Yet I am not willing to say we can easily predict the way these conflicts work out.  Therefore, it makes sense to me that even the nominally religious and Christian often have a superficial alliance to biblical values but a profound alliance to the politics that pay them lip service.  God, for most people, looks like themselves.  Yet, this hollowing out of the religious impulse shows how much religious institutions have been secularized themselves. I mean, evangelicals support Trump disproportionately to even other figures whose religiosity are more sincere?  Why?  A secularization of their own ethos and politics as the real tribal identifier explains this.

In my field of the “extreme left,” despite my hesitation to linked to most of the ideas circulating under that directional orientation, this is doubly true.  The amount of “materialists” who talk about Orthodox and Heterodox as if this focus on belief makes sense to a material philosophy astounds me.  The confusion of dualism of our perception with an ontological dualism has led people to talk about “materialist dualism” as if this could make any sense metaphysically.  What can be dual about the unitary metaphysics implied in materialism?

I find myself digressing constantly. This is why I am a poet trained in philosophy, English literature, and anthropology to varying degrees.  The concision of poetry allows me to focus, and its elliptical nature forgives subtle digressions. Everyone loves Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Leopardi these days, but few tolerate people who write like them.  I understand though at a time when I speak to even college educated people who think an assertion is an argument.  That just stating a belief is self-evident for it.  This is a laziness in thinking that would cause one to favor the rigorously systemic. I tend to favor nearly absolute analytic precision on social media because it plays against the nature of medium, whose brevity encourages arguments by authority and wit.

 

 

Cairo Saturday Night Reflections

I am listening to Dresden Dolls and remembering when I thought Amanda Palmer held a lot of promise for the world music, sitting in my old apartment in Macon, GA, tired from first or second year teaching public school, pouring myself a gin with lemon juice, and waiting for my future ex-wife to arrive from home hawking payday loans on car titles.  One of my four cats would be curling around my legs.  I would only really be home on weekends as I taught night school at a community college and high school during the day, living in neither city, so I spent a lot of time in my car.  When I was home, I would drink to cut the stress and play with my cats.  I rarely saw Sarah, my wife at time, during the early evening as our working hours were sometimes in conflict.

Tired of the call to prayer and grading sixth grade papers, I go back to Bush’s America in light of Trump’s America.  Except in many ways, the dystopian elements of English speaking north America seemed consistent as I only lived in the states for one and a half years of Obama’s formal presidency, leaving in summer of 2010. I have watched it from abroad, largely unimpressed, working on different things, and becoming more and more radicalized.

Coming back to the states is strange. I enjoyed the time I spent in Utah.  The marches right now are both hopeful and limited. Hopeful in that many people care, but only in opposition. I am left with nostalgia of the personal, podcasting on MMT and Marxism or ancient philosophy, or the limits and promise of dual power.  I started this thinking that one I would be a literary scholar or a writing pedagogue, and now I have a different dream.

Mark Fisher died this week by his own hand. Mark was not a friend, but I respected him, wrote polemics both for and against him, and work with an imprint he helped put on the map.  I miss him.  I am only 36, and he was only 48.  He is gone.   Another in a litany of lost people I interacted with in the past year.  I faced my own morality two years ago, and could have lost Khristian, my partner of five years.

This isn’t going anywhere because I am not sure where I want it to go. The times are changing, and I am remembering other hard times. I have seen much, much worse since my years struggling in my twenties.

Here’s to the brave new world.  It was time for a change. It is always time for a change. It is coming for me personally, for the US politically, and for the world in myriad of ways. It always is, but right now, it is obvious.

 

Utah Reflection: Scouting for a New Home

2016 has been a year of profound change. Although all years are years of profound change, this one made itself obnoxiously obvious in its sharp cut with the past.  IN a way, this is the razor we need, and in other ways, it is product and producer of much anxiety. Yet it is a bad year in a three decades of softer ones for the world:  economic growth slowing all over in the first, second, and third worlds.  So I find myself in Utah, spending Christmas vacation out of Cairo, and back in my home country scouting out Salt Lake City for a new life.

My wife has improved massively, and will be returning to working here in the states.  She has been living at home for health reasons and for her family health as I had written about before, but now her prognosis is improved and her energy is returning.  We spend the week going to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, discussing the Utah AIDS foundation with friends, visiting the various Mormon holy sights out for cultural understanding, and beginning to think about moving back.

I have been gone for seven years–gasoline is two dollars cheaper than when I left and food is more expensive.  USB outlets are everywhere. Things say “Made in America” again beyond hipster clothing brands.  Things are different and the West is the not the South where I am from or California or DC where most of my friends moved when they could.

I am exited, although I still have six more months as a teacher, away from my wife, in Cairo. At the end of this, I don’t know that I will be a teacher anymore after doing teaching in either secondary or post-secondary settings for over 12 years. I am not sure I won’t stay in the classroom either, but I am open to working in NGOs, consulting, and data-analysis or anywhere that can use my administrative, writing, and data-analysis skills acquired in teaching, educational research, publishing, and working the arts.

I have also been reading on Hellenistic and Greek philosophy and will be doing more writing on that. My thoughts on politics are still forming. I have not commented on the President Elect because I feel like we don’t know enough yet about what is actually going on and while my predictions and observations held up better than the average pundits, being part of the chattering classes on politics before things unfold is, in a way, reading tea leaves or throwing entrails.

So I will watching the Utah snow freeze, we got almost two feet, and four years in the desert and most of my early life being in the South has left me not used to snow. The black ice, the driving patterns, and the shoveling being somewhat alien to me now.

So times they are a-changing. They always are. In six months, I am coming home to a new phase in my life.

Cairo Reflection: In Light of Leopardi

Man is born in labour:
and there’s a risk of death in being born.
The very first things he learns
are pain and anguish: from the first
his mother and father
console him for being born.
Then as he grows
they both support him, go on
trying, with words and actions,
to give him heart,
console him merely for being human:
there’s nothing kinder
a parent can do for a child.
Yet why bring one who needs
such comforting to life,
and then keep him alive?
If life is a misfortune,
why grant us such strength?
Such is the human condition,
inviolate Moon.
But you who are not mortal
care little, maybe, for my words. — Giacome Leopardi, Night-Song Of A Wandering Shepherd of Asia (Canti XXIII, translation by A. S. Kline)

Coughing up phlegm may be among the least attractive things a human can do, and, one supposes, that it goes beyond the bacteria,  glycoproteins, immunoglobulins, lipids, and dirt contained in sputum. It’s not just the contagion being forced out of your body and into the air, but that fact it reminds of us that even our most intimate recesses, the inside of nasal passages, lungs, and throat is not entirely ours. If beauty is symmetry in aesthetics and the promise of something better in morality–however thin the line between morality and aesthetic actually are–ugliness is not quite the opposite of those things, more an indication of the lack of health or the promise of a future.

The air is cooler now in Cairo and the breeze cuts through my apartment shoddy insulation–the new apartment buildings are concrete, brick, and rebar covered in a stucco of concrete on the outside and plaster on the inside.  The windowsills are rarely flush, weather stripping generally making up a large portion of the differences, and few things are level, plumb, or square. My two siamese cats, Moshe and Frida, keep me company and when the desert dust is not too high in the air and the smoke from burning foliage to make way for new crops on the Nile is not too thick, I go to my balcony and watch the street beneath, listening to the rutting honks of car horns–Egyptians communicate constantly and once one is used to it, it is endearing–or read my books or grade student papers.

I have been writing some more poetry lately, but they are love poems with a introspective and somewhat idiosyncratic nature.  I don’t like lack, but I lack the ones I love, and that space creates a more reflection on the nature of love itself.  It is a stark contrast with the political ranting I am often doing or the persona of the expatriate scholar I often wear.  I have been avoiding the gym as my lungs have not be able to handle the cardio as this bronchitis lingers.

In some ways, how strange gyms are?  The way machinery and technology becomes an extension of our bodies, a means of expression, expanding our minds, and yet the dangers of that technology making natural exercise a choir.  The sidewalks in Egypt blend with the street, one rarely uses them because the trash left for collection, the unregulated and uneven pavement, and the clattered of Egyptians in them.  No, you walk in the streets, in the bustle of life, weaving in-between cars and street dogs, like a platelet forced by the body’s pressure in capillaries. That pressure forces one into the social world, but is a little too chaotic for regular exercise. So those of us who don’t work manual labor jobs and who can afford it–which in Cairo is a fairly exclusive club–pay to exercise on machines to compensate for the lack of exercise elsewhere. This becomes its own status seeking activity, but for me, it is a necessary discipline that my last two weeks of travel and illness have let me to forgo.

Like Nietzsche, aesthetics was Leopardi’s gift and his respite from a mind so analytical and marred by disease that he often makes the dark Kantianism of Arthur Schopenhauer seem somewhat optimistic.  Indeed, Schopenhauer had more hope for human will than Leopardi.  Yet like so many analytic-minded depressives, Leopardi had a gift for hard truths.  Insights that, in reality, probably helped his assessment of his own condition little.Schopenhauer appreciate Leopardi as he stated in The World as Will and Representation:

But no one has treated this subject so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi in our own day. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect.

Lately, I have had a similar jaundiced view and yet have become more gratitude for love and poetry myself. Leopardi, hunched over and ill, losing his love to death, lost faith in the later too.  I find myself reading Leopardi on the eve of Thanksgiving.  My partner back in the States with her family in a small town in the mountain West, I will visit her in the snows so foreign to my last four years in deserts.  The deserts abrade and, because of that, one realizes why people thought there was more god in the dust. The snows of Utah and Wyoming are barren in a different way–slowing the atoms and life down to the crunch of ice.

There is so much to grateful for despite all that changed. Leopardi wanted to die, and eventually got his wise, but his gift was probing the wounds of his mind intimately until the contorts of struggling under the weight of the clarity of depression.  I am not entirely depressed–once I was accused of romanticizing my brother’s depression the day he shot himself in the face, trying to see some good in what was tragedy.  I was accused of trying to make it special.  While he was healing a hospital in Georgia, I was in Mexico. Trying to come to terms with it.

I didn’t lose him, but I can see Leopardi’s grimness in both my brother’s action and my tugging at any straw to make it seemingly worth it. I am grateful that there are arms for me to come back, friends to love me when I go back, and that world is not crystalized in amber.  Beyond that: to assume that things can’t worse is a profound lack of imagination, but to assume they will only get worse misses that is always something to glint out of the counter of the eye, some piece of memory, some lost culture, some loved’s body, something.  I will see my partner for a week soon.  The desert wind is cooling. The beer in the fridge is cold. My best friends will see me over the summer, and I will have been on four continents. My cats will cuddle with me as write.

 

 

Dubai Reflections: Particles (Or Four Italians and One Iranian American)

-for Susan, Khristian, Darcy, and the world that almost was.

“Perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

On holidays I swear I hear an echo
You hold tight to it then you simply let go
Sure as you let those feelings show
They let you know that you are not alone

Speak now love to me of your return
It’s not how much you make but what you earn
Put your petals in a pile and watch them burn – Lampchop, “Kind Of”

A Prelude

images

Taking a break, briefly, from my “Strange Death of Liberal Wonktoplia” pieces, because I am becoming more and more irate at the state of politics in the US.  If the increased instance of racialist violence and legitimate fear over rights seemed completely to be just rhetoric, I would just laugh it off but it doesn’t seem to be.  Furthermore, the liberal histrionics  around this have done more than not helped.  It has included doubling down same kinds of rhetoric, limitations of speaking, and pipe dreams that led liberalism into the current crisis.  Talk of succeeding from the Union is bubbling up from the same Californians who called Brexit racist.

Such middle class demons:  To quote the recently late Leonard Cohen, “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and maim, you want it darker?”

We kill the flame.

In part, I want to write about that flame we are killing and how it is smoldering my own vision of life.

A Context 

I am nursing a lung infection caught on a job-related trip to Dubai.  The city in the shadow of Burj Khalifa and the Burj al El Arab is like a colony on the moon.  You meet Emirati men at passport control in the ultra-modern airport in clean, freshly pressed looking keffiyeh and taub.  They are polite, but curt, and shuffle you into Dubai.  The entire city seems to have a new car smell, and overly polished look of a mall.  Chain eateries from all over Europe and the States are around, and so is high in shopping. There are currency exchanges everywhere. However, you quickly notice that most of the shoppers are not Emiratis and most of the workers aren’t either.  English and Arabic are both spoken, but more the former, and most of the workers are each convenient store seem Indian or South Asian.  Businesses with a more white collar tendency tend to have European, North American, and other non-Emirati Arab faces around.

There is something at once beautiful and dystopia about Dubai.  The Sultanate and the Emirates of the Gulf definitely have a history, but you would hardly know it.  Yet, like Yew’s Singapore, the trains run on time and are incredibly clean. There is little obvious crime. And aside from the encroaching desert, mocked my foundations and water features that abound, and the Gulf, there is something completely inorganic about Dubai.  Both wonderful and terrible, and utterly commercial.

That is not to say I did not like Dubai. I did. I could see why young people want to work and live there, but it definitely feels to have a darker side than its marbled floors indicate and a more generous side than its oversized malls would make apparent. In some ways, Dubai is product of the globalization and the reaction against it, and as such is remarkable in how impressive yet unremarkable it is.   If I go back to the Emirates, I would like to go less commercial areas to get a taste of what the country’s face to itself is.

Part 1: Heat, the desert, and my fear of driving 

Carlo ROVELLI

“IF you keep your heart soft, you will will find an entire of life of poetry”– Susan Atefat- Peckham inscribed to me the year we met in a copy of That Kind of Sleep 

Susan Atefat-Peckham and her young son Cyrus died in a bus wreck around Ghor Safi, Jordan in 2004 while on a Fulbright, the year after I got married the first time, too young, and went to work for an insurance company.  In 2005, my checkbook, a few of my notes, and a copy of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew were found in a overstuffed arm-chair in her former office where I would talk to her about poetry.  I worked with her and her husband Joel my senior year, and both said goodbye to me before they left from the middle east the day after I was married.  Susan and Joel was there first professors that became personal friends.

Susan’s advice to me has been seldom followed, and in a Holiday Inn Express, while the team I was coaching was asleep, missing partner, my second wife, who is in the states visiting family and fighting cancer, I couldn’t stop crying.  I have been adjusting well, building up small habits, focusing on my job, but as I began to cough from a lung infection I caught from a sick student on the airplane. I missed her.  I missed a lot of other people too. I feel like a particle let loose on the world, out of its quantum orbit, and flying wildly into some nebulous space.

The hardness of my heart was something that always bothered Susan.  She thought I was essentially a kind person, hurt by situations, and I didn’t think that. Rage was my prime whisky, to quote another dead poet, Alan Dugan.  In retrospective, Susan was responding to someone only ten years younger than her. Indeed, it is shocking to realize, that I have outlived her two years writing this. I have flown over the desert she died in.  Perhaps why her crept into my mind in the darkness of my hotel room, and I picked up Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a brief and poetic, but somewhat superficial introduction to modern physics.

Yet I hit on this passage, from the Sixth Lesson:

“…The difference between past and future only exist when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that colder.

So, again, why, as time goes by, does heat pass from hot things to cold and not the other way round?

The reason was discovered by Boltzmann, and is surprising simple: it is sheer chance. 

Boltzmann’s idea is subtle, and brings into play the idea of probability.  Heat does not move form hot things to cold things due to an absolute law: it only does so with a large degree of probability. The reason for this is that it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of the hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa. Energy is conserved in the collisions, but tends to get distributed in more or less equal parts when there are many collisions.” (pages 51-52, translation by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)

This was strangely conforming in that moment, thinking about Susan’s advice for me keep my heart soft, my partner’s struggles, and where I am going.  It’s like when I feel small and think of the curvature of the space itself.

How did I end up in the Dubai?   Or in Cairo? Or Seoul? Or San Francisco?  Or New York?  I was small town Southern boy who came from a strange background whose origins were obscure even to him, whose anger at the drug problems that taken a girlfriend and several friends by 21 was mounting, and whose intelligence was compromised by that emotional brokenness.

I felt like a particle because I was one, but while am not soft-hearted, I left it soften enough.  Indeed, when I speak of politics, I manifest an anger that strike even close friends as borderline abusive. There was beauty and openness to the world that I didn’t have before.  Yet that beauty can be snatched away at any moment.

Resentment can’t linger because your heat spills out in each collision. Save the heat for the collisions where it is needed.  Then I read more of Rovelli’s poetical reflections and used the bits of knowledge of mathematics I had to refocus, I had students to coach for Quiz competition in the morning, and I had done a good job of hiding my worries from them.

Part 2: Hyperreal 

eco

I woke up that morning, when to the hotel buffet breakfast, and got my morning ful madames –fava beans with tomatoes, onions and spices–and a chopped salad. My students chatted in a mixture of Arabic and English–more English than anything else–and after running my students through some drills, I started reading Umberto Eco’s Tavels in Hyperreality.

In early 2000, my conservative Hegelian philosophy professor assigned me that book when I was a sophomore. It exploded my mind, and I found myself coming back to Eco in general, and this book, in particular when I am feeling estranged and alienated, I go back to Eco’s reflection on the superficially of America.

In many ways, Eco’s writing here reflect Baudrillards, but Eco seems less bombastic, more calm. In a sense, more true. So on the bus to the competition, I hit this passage:

“In other words, to see if through these cultural phenomena a new Middle Ages is to take shape, a time of secular mystics, more inclined to monastic withdrawal than to civic participation. We should see how much, as antidote or as antistrophe, the old techniques of reason may apply, the arts of the Trivium, logic, dialectic, rhetoric. As we suspect that anyone who goes on stubbornly practicing them will be accused of impiety.”- Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality ( William Weaver translation)

The secular mystics meets the secularized piety. Prayer rooms in giant malls, Islamic banking and halal industries, and teaming poverty in most of the “Islamic” world. Looking out at Dubai, one gets the feeling that we have seen the transition into the end of an antiquity. The world changing faster and this seems the product of hubris, and while I tend to discount the most apocalyptic. Eco was writing about America, but now even the Emirates resembles the kind of malls that US itself largely doesn’t have.

The relationship to the Rovelli is clear: The simplicity of the universe is daunting, and the reality of reality seems more slippery. In such time, we tend to value our commentary and chatter.

Indeed, in absence of meaningful community, one sees retreats into nebulous ideas of tribes.  Hyperreality is not just the authentic fake, but the fake authenticity in response to it. Constant discourses on whiteness or construction of identities, and the response to that is to insist on the material of reality of the community between people who do not know each other, and do not enact except on wires.

If an election between a celebrity wonk-political agent and a celebrity real estate mogul, both largely famous from legacies that they didn’t actually create, and watching different disadvantaged groups rush to either as if they represented “them” proves how little reality there is this.  Indeed, Trump and Farage claiming to represent a rebellion against elites while in a gold elector is about as rich as pretending that a career politician who cut her teeth supporting Nixon somehow cares and knows the plight of working black families is beyond laughable.

Yet the worse of it isn’t political.   On the internet, there are more space for counter-cultures than ever before, yet they seem to constantly collapse in relationship to the larger culture.  Jacobin lamenting the lack of socialism in comic hero movies instead of really looking at movies of deeper substance.  There is an opportunity cost here, and that opportunity cost is withering of the political imagination to reified categories like “whiteness”–again, if the almost all white middle class Huffington Post editorial board writes another editorial beginning “Dear White People,” my jaw might clinch enough to drip blood.

The entire spectrum of criticism of the mediocre by the mediocre.  Authenticity itself inauthentic.  Forced.

Looking around Dubai?  Who is a local? What is real Dubai culture?  Capitalist water features?  Sharia courts while trophy wives of business men sun themselves in bikinis between brick walls while women in niqab walk just beyond.

It is so unreal, it is more real than real. Eco was a prophet, and it seems almost too apt that he died this year.

Part 3:  Passions 

220px-Leopardi,_Giacomo_(1798-1837)_-_ritr._A_Ferrazzi,_Recanati,_casa_Leopardi.jpg

After shaving a beard down a bit, sending my team to bed, and making myself an evening cup of tea, I took at a book I purchased at giant mall underneath the Burj Khalifa. The largest English language bookstore I have seen in the middle east is in that mall, and has all the charm of a mall bookstore, but with books from the US, UK, and the Arab world, it was worth pursuing.

I have a book addiction and thus don’t allow myself in book stores that much. Indeed, this one was massive, although I have been to bigger used book stores in Utah and New York, but since two students asked me to purchase a book for them since they left their dirhams at hotel and had used their pocket money on dinner.  I agreed since I knew that could pay me back and who was I not to support at ninth grader request to read.

Going through the stacks, I found Giacomo Leopardi’s Conti, Zibaldone, and Passions. I have been pursuing both Conti and Zibaldone, but Passions was new to me.  More pithy aphorism and reflections collected at the end of Leopardi’s life, they were like a condensed form Zibaldone.

Reading an article on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, impressed with his attempt to funnel the oil and natural gas reserves into Emirati infrastructure and education, but bemused that most of the wealth still seemed primarily from resource extraction,  I came started reading Tim Parks’ introduction to Passions and came across this quote from Zibaldone,

The most unexpected thing for someone entering into the social life, and very often for someone who has grown old there, to find the world as it has been described to him, and as he already knows it and believes it to be in theory. Man is astonished to see that the general rule holds for him too. (quoted in Passions, Parks translation and introduction, page viii-ix)

Even a great man like Sheikh Zayed has trouble overcoming long term probabilistic trends. Like Rovelli’s description of particles, greatness is against all odds and often forced upon the normal individual, but the probability is still weighted towards the mediocre and forces outside of even a great person’s control.

Even when we are the exception that proves the rule, we still find the weight of probability upon us. Contingency after contingency and all teleology factors are developments from otherwise stochastic developments.

Leopardi feels haunting to me.  Born in the conservative papal states and pessimistic like a conservative, he still understood the Enlightenment and science more than most.  His writings seem like Montaigne having a conversation with Nietzsche. Even in some ways, a precursor to Stanislaw Lem as much any other, but the framework, the dizzying erudition, the classical mind.

It felt surreal to read in the shopping mall in desert on the coast with the Persian gulf. Yet Leopardi himself lived in a time of upheaval.  Perhaps he lived to see beginnings of the modern world and formation of Italy, and yet his writings already see the problems that would arise from it:

Just about the strongest inducement to suicide is self-loathing. Example: a friend of mine deliberately went to Rome intending to throw himself into the Tiber because someone somewhere had called him a nobody. My own first experience with self-hatred provoked me to expose myself to all kinds of danger—to kill myself, in fact. How amour propreworks: it prefers death to admitting one’s worthlessness. And so: the more egotistical you are, the more strongly and continually you will feel driven to kill yourself. Meaning: love of life equals love of one’s well-being, so if life no longer seems of value, etc. – Zibaldone

Conversely, yet confirming of this: one of my beloved friends lost her brother this year. 36. My age, two years older than Susan when she died, but far too young. She was depressed, and even engaged in lots of self-damaging, but suicide seemed too narcissistic for her.  Instead, she stabilized herself in the life of others.  Leopardi could see the development of modern narcissism.  Indeed, in countries with high suicide rates, it is social shame as much as depression that prompts it.

Rarely do you see suicide among the urban unemployed in Cairo or Lagos, or the poor women in a village in Oaxaca.

It is the absurd amount of self-regard our own modern alienation gives us that makes suicide an absurdly common way for modern people to die.

Leopardi was a ruthless particle, and realizing he was set loose, wrote about it unforgivingly.

Something about that brings a wry, tired smile to face. Indeed, Plato said the unexamined life was not worth living.  Leopardi answers:

Noia is plainly an evil: to suffer it is to suffer utter unhappiness. So what is noia? Not a specific sorrow or pain (noia, the idea and nature of it, excludes the presence of any particular sorrow or pain) but simply ordinary life fully felt, lived in, known; it’s everywhere, it saturates an individual. Life thus is an affliction; and not living, or being less alive (by living a shorter or less intense life) is a reprieve, or at least a lesser affliction—absolutely preferable, that is, to life.-Zibaldone

Part 4:  Fundamental Elements

“This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

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Reading so many Italians in the desert, but Primo Levi comes back into my mind. Of the most likely suicides I know, Levi’s is the most baffling in that it doesn’t fit Leopardi description of narcissism nor did it seem to come out of reprieve from physical pain.

My students won their match, I packed the trophy in my carry-on, and took it back to Cairo. I delivered it this morning, hacking out a lung, and coughing yellow phlegm into a napkin.  I was sent home.

The night before I had come home, and a taste of Levi’s life hit me.  Slightly delirious from exhausting and the bronchitis developing in my chest, I saw my two siamese cats welcome me home.  My friend’s son had fed them while was I gone, but they missed me as they always seem to when I travel and leave them to others care. My apartment is “our” apartment–mine and my partner–even though I moved out of the one we lived in together over the summer because it was too large for just me and saddened me with its emptiness. Yet in this second,  I thought Khristian would welcome me home.  I awaited for a second before realizing she was literally an ocean and two continents away.  For second, nothing in the house seemed like mine, seemed to belong to me, seemed to be anything other than random.

It is the awareness of that chance moves us, and that we don’t know where we are going. We are not without will or anchor, nor are we JUST particles in a void, moving from heat to cold in time.  Yet we are not NOT such particles either. We self-overcome but in doing so are still subject to forces beyond any of us.

Levi leaves me with a thought that got me through that night:

“If it is true that there is no greater sorrow than to remember a happy time in a state of misery, it is just as true that calling up a moment of anguish in a tranquil mood, seated quietly at one’s desk, is a source of profound satisfaction.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

A life of poetry isn’t the only life we lead, and it is hard and sometimes requires hard people–hard men and women–to go beyond the vague poetry of our dreams because life is so contingent. Yet that is the reason to soften your heart sometimes because even hard people eventually lose all their heat, all their energy, and no longer exist in time.

Cairo Reflections 2.5: Attempting Normalcy Through Music

I am exhausted lately, although my job is going well and my writing poetry has hit a stride again after working through a piece of prose as art instead of polemic. Listening to music from the late 1990s and early Aughts, oddly, has helped me revisit some particular nostalgia debris and work out the various detritus.  Bands like Les Savvy Fav, Archers of Loaf, Red Red Meat, Jawbow, Burning Airlines, Ghost and Vodka, Califone: instead of a diet of sludge metal and jazz, I have been listening to the hardcore, post-punk, and post-hardcore bands of my teens and twenties.  Angular riffs, partially obscure lyrics, strange time signatures, overly bright treble, or in other cases, lyrics of distortion and reverb over blue rhythms. It reminds me that my first semi-professional writing was very sloppy album reviews for various scenes, including some of the first “e-zines” of the 1990s.

I must admit listening to this on the Nile seems anachronistic in the extreme, but trying to chase down particular artistic phantoms and psychological ghosts while my partner is away and the people who love me are, for the most part, on different parts of other continents, this has been a welcome diversion.

Lately, I have been spending me time with colleagues ranging in age from twenty-five to forty, some married, but almost none with children.  I have been drinking Egypt’s overly sweet desert wine and its thin beer in haze of shisha smoke from the local cafes or from friends’ hookahs, but only on the weekend and realizing the dangers of this being a lifestyle keeps me from supplementing being around the more intimate in my life with.  Still, it has been relaxing.  Conversations and games of Phase 10 or poker, talk of other people’s trips to Italy or Doha, the normal soap-box rants of former teachers in America and Canada.

The trickling of some sense of normalcy into the my life is welcome, and returning to jangling music of my youth has led to some intense memories of the 1990s and aughts and poems come out of my actual youthful indiscretion instead my approaching middle age pretense to it in a course of transition and tragedy.

Yet the tricks have limits:  My partner is fighting with insurance, who seem to do anything to avoid paying for a cancer, and battling cancer at the same time.  My rage, something I had more of as a young man, has come back.  This jangle and growl seems more appropriate to the heart of the situation.  I do push-ups more and more to get off excess energy. I write more poems.  I listened to bands like Fucked Up, Helmet, and Orange 9mm.  The harder truths here are that I am not going to get hard enough for this not to affect me.  Music is a barrier, a way to but indulge and safely file away the emotions.

This is why you should save drafts: or Cairo Reflections Two, the Lost Tapes

I was writing Cairo Reflections Two: Jaywalking with Nietzsche.  This contained pages and pages of digressions on archery, Cairo traffic, Eid Al-Adha, why I stopped hunting in my early 20s,  Nietzsche, and the death of the God.  My computer crashed and I lost all but a fragment.  I will share the fragments I had written in notes for it, although the original writing was about 4000 words longer than this:

Listening to Stephen West’s podcast, Philosophize This!, while I was dodging a white 1980s-model  Fiat Taxi,  I saw a sheep face being eaten by a couple of street dogs.  The sheep face was left over the Halal slaughter for Eid-al-adha and women carefully avoided it by walking in the road.  Three women in black polyester naqab carrying some items on their heads, and I wanted a diet Pepsi, chief among my vices, so I avoided it and head to the one souq that was nearby and open despite the holiday.  The way Cairo causes you to change risk calculation and to live in concern with different things is fascinating.   Most foreigners are turned off by the remains of the ritual slaughter of lamb sacrifices for Eid.

My ajahn, a Theravada Buddhist teacher who immigrated from Sri Lanka to Georgia I used to talk to in my early 20s, said this was a good a thing.  That killing the animal did more damage than just eating it. That the intention of killing had karmic and psychological effects, but I don’t know if I buy that. I quit eating as much the first time I field dressed a deer–the third white tail I ever killed–and after I did it, I didn’t not want to bow hunt anymore. Indeed, Egyptians eat a lot less meat than Americans–mostly pigeons, chicken, and sometimes beef but not as often–and their diet is mostly rice, fava beans, eggplants, pasta, bread, chopped salad, lentils and cheese.

Regardless, it always struck me that both attitudes, one that was okay with watching a ram bleed out, and one that just mindlessly eat a burger but was disgusted at the “barbarism” of a sheep face left for dogs could be equally careless.  Furthermore, both could fall into a secular “other worldism” that was not so much revolutionary or transformative as escapist.   This brings me back to West’s podcast on Nietzsche.

West focuses on the full context of the Nietzsche’s quote:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

A serious reader will notice this is not just a statement of atheism. In fact, for the atheist, God isn’t dead, God never was. The transhistorical nature of that claim can’t be squared with Nietzsche’s point here. Secularization is the main metaphor and secularization is irreversible because the nature of the categories has changed.  God here is a social and psychological way of dealing with meaning, and as West puts it, that technology for reifying values seems to be more and more impossible beyond just the individual’s faith.

Even if one is a Christian or Muslim, one should take secularization seriously. Indeed, thinking in terms of the secular/religious instead of sacred/profane, indicates a shift in the social world view.  No matter if one believes in the ontological existence of God, the social being around that fact has changed, has been seemingly forever secularized as the spheres in which religious life is generally seen as most relevant seems to fade. So when Nietzsche declares “God is dead, and remains dead, and we have killed him.”  It is not nearly just atheism that is at stake. In is in no small insight that Nietzsche has found God dead in the market place when he speaks about this in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Indeed, in the posits of “other worlds” that deny our own world, Nietzsche seems to have no problem putting both the capitalist and the socialist as flies in the festering wound on the corpse of God in society.

Now, Nietzsche was both profoundly anti-Christian, but his insights in the secularization of even the highly religious-professing society should not be lost on anyone.  Indeed, this is why Pope John-Paul the Second considered him a necessary figure to deal with for any serious faith.

What does Nietzsche had to do with Eid?  Why, other than arbitrary listening of a podcast does this seem relevant to me? Is that Nietzsche himself collapsed trying to stop the beating of a horse?  Is that in risk taking, I better myself?

The answer is that even a highly religious society like Egypt has tensions around secularization deeper than just lingering remains of Ottoman jurisprudence or Nasr’s pan-arab attempt undo Islamist identity. It is that even in this world, we are still seeing this as a clash between one world system and another, and in Egypt the problem seems more obvious and more deeply felt. It causes questions to bubble up that I don’t have an answer for…

(That is all I have of the original reflect and I don’t feel like recreating the rest of it from memory).