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“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, January 26, 2015

the victory in greece

Daniel at Crooked Timber has penned the ultimate City kissoff to the victory of Syriza in Greece. In the course of patronizing the poor thieving Greeks, he also strikes back at the idea that the EU policymakers are stupid - like, they don't know that Greece can never pay back its debt. They know!

Stupidity is always armed with good reasons. The stupidity that plunged the U.S. into Iraq was full of people who said, at the time, the WMD and then later said, nobody believed there was WMD, obviously we were going in for x, y or z reason. Similarly, letting Lehman default was defended at the time as a wonderful warning to the banking system, and afterwards as who knew the international financial system was a ponzi scheme? One of the great stupidities of the EU is the idea that more is better – hence, the acceptance of players who are little more than medium size cities in the real scheme of things, like Latvia. This produces the ultimately stupid organization: too big to fail and too big to manage. We leave the realms of stupid groupthink, here, and enter the realm of truly badly constructed institutional structures. If it were simply a matter of Greece, I’d say that the EU had an overwhelming hand. But it isn’t simply a matter of Greece. If the EU lowers the boom, I don’t think this will say, to the voters in Italy and Spain and Portugal, oh oh, better do as the boss says. I think it will say, we are fucked either way, so why not fuck them back? The Anglo prejudice that all people everywhere will muddle through and settle on the lower rung lifestyle so that the EU project of banks first can keep marching gloriously onward seems to me a misjudgment on every level – here, as always, politics is not separable from economics. Thomas Friedman’s “golden straightjacket” theory, which seems to be what Daniel is endorsing, will, I think not work, and not just cause I don’t want it to work. It won’t work because it doesn’t involve the gradual diminishment of the lifestyle of the vast majority – as in the US – but the sudden and catastrophic diminishment, with no outlet except, as in Latvia, mass migration.

Friday, January 23, 2015

amnesia versus memory as geopolitics

Amnesia versus Memory - chose your marks!

In 2003, just as the US was occupying Iraq, the leftist-with-a-conscience Paul Berman published a small “intellectual history” of Islamic radicalism that traced it all back to the Nazis. Even for Paul Berman, this was hack work of an extraordinary cheapness.  I admit, I love nothing better than  the slagging the ever deserving Paul Berman. I did a little cutwork on him in 2007 that I must quote:

“Berman has accrued a lot of media capital over the years by being a conscience. A conscience is such a great thing to cast yourself as. Especially when you can be the conscience not of the powerful, not of the CEOs, not of the plutocracy, but the conscience of dissent - indeed, he's an old Dissenter dinosaur. Being the conscience of dissent means that you get to whack away at, say, the crimes of the Sandanistas as the Reagan administration arms narco thugs in Honduras. It means that you look out at the old and established mafia of CIA ties and Islamic fundamentalism that drove the cold war in the Middle East and you see - liberal softness for Islamic fundamentalism. A conscience means that you reprove unnamed liberals for beamingly looking on as Moslem fundies surgically remove clits, stone women, and generally tread on our freedom to mock, re the famous cartoons of Mohammed - in the age of Guantanamo, Falluja, and Grozney. The age, to put not too fine a point upon it, of Western countries killing lots and lots of Moslems. And Moslems killing not very many westerners. Liberals, as "Conscience" Berman notes with shock, have even dared to criticize heroic women, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, while making poo-pooing sounds at the Bush administration for banning Tariq Ramadan from coming to the U.S. It is amazing what these non-freedom loving liberals will do – up to and including criticizing the U.S. from banning speech by Tariq Ramadan! Freedom of speech means denying freedom of speech for people who secretly don’t believe in freedom of speech. Don’t we all know this? We all know this at TNR. However, those not in that charmed circle of bile and bad faith can only look at these people with amazement.”

I mention him because Berman’s book, Terror and Liberalism and my little pony … oops,  I’m sorry, the my little pony wasn’t part of the title, I don’t know where I get these things. Anyway, this became an ur-text in Project Amnesia – that post 9/11 project in forgetting just what we’ve been up to in the Middle East for the past sixty years. It helped the hawk liberals to embrace the intellectual shambles of Bushism. Unfortunately, so successfully has amnesia been disseminated in the US and Europe that the claims voiced by radical right Islamic leaders are now cited by the “left” as voices of the Muslim community, which insults two things – Muslim and community.
In 2007, Robert Dreyfuss wrote a book that wasn’t an intellectual history – it actually had, like, empirical stuff in it. It was called the Devil’s game, and it romped through Middle Eastern history looking for what the Cold war had wrought.
To give you an example of how project Amnesia has twisted things: at present, we are assured, only namby pamby liberals support Hamas in its endless terroristic project to be terroristic. The sworn enemy of Israel, Israel has always fought it tooth and nail.
Except of course when Israel was aiding it. Cast your mind back to 1968. In those days, a radical secularizing force called Fatah, supported by Egypt’s nationalist, Nasser, was trying to lead the Palestinian refugee community. Israel, the U.S., and the Saudis didn’t like Fatah at all. They saw a weak spot, however: Fatah’s secularism. Perhaps they could play the Islam card.
Dreyfuss quotes the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, who claims that Israel started Hamas. This seems to me to be an exaggeration. There is no exaggeration, however, in the fact that after the 1967 war, when Israel occupied Gaza and the Sinai, they let out of jail the enemies of Nasser, notably the Moslem brotherhood leadership, that they found there. Why? It was a double play – divide the Palestinian community and confound Nasser. As Dreyfuss points out, the Moslem brotherhood in Jordan was firmly on the side of the king and the largest landholders. They were firmly against Nasser’s “communism” and any attempt to upset the traditional economic order.
The Brotherhood was not at all popular in Gaza or on the West Bank precisely because they opposed Nasser’s nationalism. Enter one Ahmed Yassin, who went on to found Hamas officially. He was liberated by the Israelis after the war, and encouraged by Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. What’s not to like? Radical Islam, back then, was Traditional, Freedom loving Islam. This was before the US discovered that it was all about feminism and democracy and Radical Islam was all about nastiness.  Under Israeli occupation, as Dreyfuss points out, the number of mosques in the Gaza rose from 1967 to 1987 from 200 to 600.
This, of course, is history that has now been erased. But the contradictions can’t be erased, they crop up constantly. Thus, the eggsucking obsequy’s in the US press about King Abdullah, the 1000 lashes King – or excuse me, the man of peace, the modernizer. In the US, amnesia is easy. In the Middle East, it has powerful allies too – Hamas doesn’t want to revisit its past, that is for sure. But there are a great many  people in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan who are stubborn as elephants, and continue to remember things even when official policy is that they never happened. In Iraq, after our great and glorious George had Chalabi flown there, to play the role of Charles de Gaulle, he flopped. Polls showed that people actually remembered what Chalabi did in Jordan – that he pulled  off a massive fraud, stealing millions of dollars. For some reason, their eyes didn’t get all glowy at the advent of the liberator.
Amnesia versus memory – this is the real geo-political struggle in the post-Cold War era.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Religion: the purloined letter of modernity

Thus, if man does not use the organs which  his Creator has given him in this abode, when his soul leaves the body it cannot find [any of those organs] again and therefore it remains perplexed, like someone who has neither eyes, ears, heart nor tongue; one can imagine how anguished and torturous his condition would be. But if man sees with his eyes that which he is commanded to see, hears with his ears that which he is commanded to hear, walks on that path which the Prophet has commanded him to walk, speaks with the tongue that which he is commanded to speak, and knows with his heart that which he is commanded to known, then when his soul leaves his body [it retains the faculties of] eyes, ears, heart and tongue, so that in the abode of delights he will possess them in their entirety.” Nasir Khusraw, Knowledge and Liberation.
“Paradise is still locked up and the Cherub is behind us; we must make a trip around the world, and see whether perhaps it isn’t still open somewhere in the back.” – Kleist, On the Marionette Theater
When the French missionaries came to North America, they faced a critical problem with the Indian peoples they attempted to convert, which was that these groups had a perfectly clear idea of the afterlife, and it was nothing like heaven or hell. It was like life – it was not, as Marx would have it (speaking on the assumption that religion is monotheism) a counter-society, or society reversed and thus restored. Thus when the French priests would tell the Hurons about heaven, they would get responses like: “for my part, I have no desire to go to heaven; I have no acquaintances there, and the French who are there would not care to give me anything to eat.” In fact, there is an account that neatly captures the Huron this-worldliness in Carole Blackburn’s Harvest of Souls:  the soul of a recently deceased woman came back to a Huron encampment to warn that those who went to heaven were being tortured there by the French.
These stories, which were carried back to Europe in the accounts of the Missionaries, fed into the early enlightenment idea that the Hurons were right. It is a question which is never asked, but should be: did American Indian ideas influence European thought? Lahontan, a French explorer, published a famous book, Supplement aux Voyages ou Dialogues avec le sauvage Adario, in which he represents himself talking with Adario, a Huron, about the cosmic vision of the Christians – which Adario finds either barbaric or comic. We know that this book influenced Rousseau and Diderot.
Marx was the intellectual heir of these accounts, but when he wrote the Kritik he had only an intuition of where this intellectual theme would lead him. And we are still being led there. One of the responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was the production of cartoons showing an after life Charlie Hebdo crew. It is a comic instance, because even if we believe in the after life, we don’t imagine it. It has been closed down in the imagination as a serious topic. Perhaps this is why a political act, revenging the “dishonor” shown to Muhammed (and, I would contend, treating him as a God – a blasphemy against which Muhammed directed a lot of his energy), is still not imagined as a religious act. We refuse to engage in the politics of the afterlife. We are going to “respect” religions, but them in a black box.
Myself, I think this is an entirely impossible thing to do. Anything social becomes political – this is the primary law of modernity. It isn’t even something I like or approve of – politics, to my mind, is a buncha shit. But my mind wasn’t consulted when we were constructing the global system, so tant pis for me.
In fact, so unimaginable is religious belief to the “progressive” that it can’t be encountered at all – it must have to do with racism. It must have to do with this world. In this sense, the progressive idea of “respect” for religions is founded on an utter disrespect for them, the disrespect that comes when you simply refuse to argue a topic because you find it beneath you.

It is in this atmosphere of disrespect that, for instance, “christian” leaders can come on news shows and expect not a single question about their christianity. Rather, they are accepted (maddeningly) as prima facie  Christians, even as any reader of the gospels would have to be appalled at every word issuing from their mouth. The same is true with imams, or “spokesmen” for the Muslim community.   

Monday, January 19, 2015

how they celebrate MLK day at the New York Times: "lets get David Duke to write an op ed..."

Wow, the New York Times has a jump the shark moment: they invite Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, founded by her father explicitly on the fascist model, to write about Islam today - on Martin Luther King day. Hmm, I'm surprised they didn't invite David Duke to write about MLK, just to make things nice and cozy. Of course, there is no explanation that the FN actually liked to beat up CharlieHebdo journalists in the nineties and sued the journal repeatedly - but what the hell, ignorance is such bliss! I'm expecting an op ed piece on how the Holocaust didn't happen from her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, for Rosh Hashanan. Here is a link to the history of the FN's relationship to Charlie Hebdo that the NYT, in its infinite ignorance, never bothered to share.
"Remembering Charlie Hebdo in the 90s
MARK LEE HUNTER 8 January 2015
"Charlie Hebdo was about more than its fiercely satirical cartoons. It changed the French media and legal landscape forever and was instrumental in the struggle to protect hard-hitting investigative reporting.
As I write, the news coverage of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices has been remarkably good, detailing the weekly’s provocations of Islam over the years. Less has been said about Charlie’s running battle with the French extreme right, and its role in widening the space for investigative reporting in France.
I met the staff in the mid-1990s, shortly after the Front National party, a heterogeneous mix that included neo-fascists (and a few real fascists), won municipal elections in four French cities. I was making the rounds of reporters who covered the party, to draw up a list of precautions. The Front’s members regularly beat up journalists at the time, and Charlie’s former editor, Philippe Val, was among those they attacked. Val was calling for the government to ban the party.
The day we met, Val told me that he and his staff had been threatened with attack if they attended a book fair in a Front city, Toulon. To my amazement, he asked me what they should do. He was scared for his people and rightfully so. We found an idea that might lower the risk. Val publicly demanded protection from the Mayor of Toulon. It was the Mayor’s duty to provide it. Instead he said, 'We don’t protect garbage. We collect it.' The state stepped in, and Charlie Hebdo went to Toulon."
Of course, it is the leader of this party that we should turn to in the light of the massacre of the editorial board.
Actually, I can't really mock this sick decision. It is too sick. It is too stupid. It is an unconscious signal about how the elite really feel about the world. It is a reminder that the NYT was an active collaborator in the lies that took the US into Iraq. "

Sunday, January 18, 2015

the instituted day dream

Because Marx’s opium metaphor has been seen as implying either that religion is simply an hallucination or a supplement to heal the pain of daily life, his more extended idea of the function of religion, and indeed its genesis, has been cast in the shadow. There are those who have picked up in Marx a certain complicating tendency that changes this story – notably, Ernst Bloch. Bloch, in The Principle of Hope, emphasized the fact that ordinary thinking is often not the kind of closeted reflection we find in philosophy: it is, instead, day dreaming. One could say that, religion, for Marx, in as much as it stems from a vulgar, popular impulse, is day dreaming writ large. It deals, as ordinary calculative thought does not, with the real media in which human life takes its shape and movement:
“Man, that is to say, the world of persons, state, society. This state, this society produces religion, an inverted book of world consciousness, because it is an inverted world. Region is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritualized point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its holiday expansion, its general grounds of comfort and justification. It is the fantasmatic realization of the human essense, because the human essence possesses no true reality.”
These terms give us a much larger field to work with in relation to religion. If religion is the inverted world, the secret critique of the real world, it is also frozen forever in that position. This is the meaning of the fact that the fantasmagoric realization of the human essence is the realization of the human essence because the human essence possesses no true reality.
In order, however, to accomplish the work of disenchantment that Marx – all too hastily – thinks is the necessary accompaniment to abolishing a set of circumstances that make illusion necessary – that make happiness dependent on illusion – one has to turn to history, and in particular, that part of human history which describes the transition from the pre-modern to the modern. It is this theme in the critique that bears reflection, because what Marx says here both about the modern and the pre-modern has not lost its relevance because we have twisted the knobs and produced the post-modern.   


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Marx and paradise

In  volume 41 of the old Marx Engels Werke, which gathers together Marx’s scraps and trivia (the stuff he carved on his school desk, the limerick he made about a fellow gymnasium student, the boxtops he sent off for a secret decoder ring, etc.)  there is a passage in a gloss on Schelling which concerns the existence of God. This is one of the rare times Marx explicitly talks about old Noboddaddy.  He does so in the most bored manner possible, showing briefly why no proof for the existence of God has ever or will ever work, with all the passion of a page out of Atheism for Dummies.
So: God is not very important in Marx’s critique of religion. Nor, surprisingly, is the church, or priestcraft. If it as if this, too, which had an urgency in the French revolution, is all settled now. Or at least it isn’t primary.
What is primary is paradise.
Marx is fascinated by the anthropological fact that societies have dreamed up an image of utopia which is the exact negative of society as it is lived. I think it is interesting to contrast Marx, here,  with Nietzsche, who tread on the same territory forty some years later. Nietzsche as far as I know never read Marx, but he shares a vocabulary with the Critique. He also shares an interest in eschatology – but he emphasizes the exactly opposite anthropological fact, which is the popular dream of hell. For Nietzsche, hell reveals the true secret of slave morality, its cosmic resentment. For Marx, paradise reveals the secret of what the vast majority of society, the laboring obscure, thought of the society they supported with their labor: that it would be good only if it was utterly changed.
It is this aspect of Marx’s critique that is obscured by the opium wisecrack, which casts too great a shadow over this essay, which begins on the anthropological note:
For Germany, the critique of religion is essentially over, and the critic of religion is the presupposition of all critique.
After is heavenly oratio pro aris et focis is contradicted, the profane existence of the error is compromised. Man, who, seeking the Overman in the fantasmal reality of heaven has found only the reflection (widerschein) of himself, will no longer be inclined to to find only the semblence (Schein) of himself, the Un-person, where he is seeking, and must be seeking, his real circumstances.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

rhetoric and revolution

I have a tremendous future thesis about Marx’s style curled up in my mind, sleeping and issuing yelps like an old  hunting dog dreaming of its glory days. One day, I will eventually write it down in a severely truncated form, where it will flow over three pages max. I’m not a long distance runner, scholarship-wise.
Here are the previews of this exciting and never to be completed future project: Marx’s style, as I would like to prove, is where we see the actual form of dialectical materialism in practice. Or, to put it another way, Marx discovered at an early point in his career that reversal is a tremendous power. Turning things inside out and upside down, wrenching the lines of ownership inscribed in the genetive and the lines of power inscribed in the accusative and dative,  one could truly say that in Marx’s work, rhetoric precedes revolution. He sinks into the regimes of ownership and of power that are his target – as he puts it somewhere in the Grundrisse – allows him to come out of those regimes through a pass that fundamentally alters our view of them.
Perhaps – and this is the kind of semi-psychoanalytical speculation that hovers near fiction, but what the fuck – perhaps Marx’s feeling for reversal is his replay of a crucial moment in his childhood: the moment when he was baptised. Or rather, the moment when his father converted his household from Judaism to Christianity. Apparently his mother resisted this decision for a while, but finally agreed to it. To reverse that baptism did not mean, for Marx, becoming Jewish again. Instead, he became something other than the Jew and the Christian, or at least that was the project.  It is here, trying to reverse an essential surrender, that Marx stumbles upon the principle of negativity. The way forward and the way backwards are contained in one self-identical way, according to common sense, which seeks, thus, to squelch the power of inversion. This is not the case with Marx.  He embraces negativity fiercely in  order not to become the dupe of either positivism or a naïve belief in progress – while still trying to found a “universal history.”
To Anglo-American thinkers, steeped in the culture of common sense, Marx’s reversals can simply seem crabby or crooked, a matter of rhetorical excess that is vaguely alluded to by the term “prophetic” . The first task for these thinkers is to straighten Marx out, get a clear position of the case so we can properly “go forward”.
Perhaps I am making too much of the effect of conversion – although I can’t resist pointing out that there is a line of great German polemicists – Heine, Marx, and Karl Kraus – who all used thundering reversals as their grand trope, and who all were converted Jews. Converted to fit with a society that was always hostile to Jews. Make of this what you will.