In the details

January 31, 2004 at 11:49 pm | In yulelogStories | 8 Comments

Theodor Adorno is notorious for using deliberately difficult syntax, for building sentences that resemble roadblocks instead of road maps. I don’t always like this strategy, but I like the goal, if it’s to estrange the perceiving subject from well-worn paths, from comfort, from swallowing “truths” without having to chew over a single morsel. And while it’s true that German can be the kind of chunky language you could choke on anyway, translations haven’t always done him justice, either. Max Horkheimer, his senior collaborator at the Frankfurt School, far less of a snob and esthete than Adorno and much more forthcoming in his willingness to communicate ideas, probably helped to make their joint book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, an accessible read. It’s a page-turner in the original (really!), but the English translation is terrible, successfully making its subject boring while whacking nearly all the surprisingly manageable and stimulating complexity right out of it.

It’s too bad that Adorno’s method can make people feel stupid, then perhaps resentful, and possibly even angry once they’ve knocked themselves out trying to understand what he was talking about, only to discover that he doesn’t really offer a universal answer key to some cosmic test. I feel stupid a lot of the time, too, and I don’t even need to read Adorno to feel that way as the feeling is increasingly ubiquitous. The real world makes me feel stupid, real history makes me feel stupid. I don’t understand atrocity or evil or real misogyny or misanthropy: I have no big things to say about these big things. But if I don’t have some tools for bearing the weight of the world, I’ll either ignore the world (and probably inflate myself), or I’ll mistake the world for me and believe that we’re identical and in beautiful harmony, or I’ll fall through the cracks of a world splitting apart and lose myself in insanity. And strange as it may seem, Adorno’s difficult language made me slow down my stupidity just a little bit and turned my myopic sight to things I would otherwise surely have missed. Details, for example: Adorno paid attention to details, to how the world is contained in them, which was something I didn’t notice at first. It’s quite hard to notice details. It’s the one really good thing I got out of studying art history: attention to detail.

In 1950, the city of Darmstadt hosted a symposium on “The Image of Man in Our Time” (Das Menschenbild in unserer Zeit), which featured the art historians Franz Roh and Hans Sedlmayr. Roh defended modern art; he argued that regardless of how ugly or unpleasant the average B

Some beginnings

January 28, 2004 at 9:29 pm | In yulelogStories | 7 Comments

Yes, I used to be an art historian, an academic with a possibly not unpromising career, until by the end of the 1990s other life stuff made its claim with the force of a wooden stake through the heart. Since nothing in life is ever simple, that sensation was furthermore exquisite, both painful and pleasurable. What will follow in the coming days or weeks is my personal paint-by-numbers reconstruction of one aspect of my former life, namely ideas I used to care about, as blogged verbatim from my book. I did give fair warning a few days ago that I might start doing this, start by blogging some Adorno bits, and here’s my start: a 1944 Adorno quote. This is easy, just a quote, no exegesis, so don’t worry. But first, some background to explain where I got it: In 1989 I was researching my dissertation in Germany. I had a Social Science Research Council fellowship with the Berlin Program, and for once my timing was excellent: I was there when The Wall came down in November. …Except I nearly missed it, as I was travelling around to research in various regional archives, after which I got massively sick and spent most of January 1990 in a state of semi-delirium, reading. Hey-ho. But what a Fall ’89 it had been. There was a glut of interesting work showing up at several Berlin venues: the Berlinische Galerie and the Hamburger Bahnhof had excellent exhibitions dealing with Nazism and the post-WWII period. The Hamburger Bahnhof installation “So viel Anfang war nie” (a H�lderlin quote), studded with post-war art and documents, film showings, and readings, came with an exhibition catalog by Herman Glaser, Lutz von Pufendorf, and Michael Sch�neich. It’s almost impossible to find information about this tremendous resource or its contents online, however. Too bad, there was so much good research coming to light that year. The exhibition featured, immediately at the entrance, a quote by Adorno on a huge wall board. Its source was unattributed, but it was dated 1944. Since I never came across it in Adorno’s published writings, and since it had the kind of immediacy one might expect in a letter, I assume it’s from his personal papers. This is my translation:

The idea that after this war life would be able to continue “normally” or that culture could even be “reconstructed” — as if the reconstruction of culture itself was not already its negation — is idiotic. Millions of Jews have been murdered, and this is supposed to be but an intermezzo and not catastrophe itself. What is this culture actually still waiting for? And even if countless people find reprieve, could one imagine that what has occurred in Europe will not have consequences, that the quantity of victims won’t turn over into a new quality — barbarism — of society itself? As long as things continue blow by blow, the catastrophe is perpetuated. One only has to think of vengeance for the murdered. If as many of the other side are killed, then the horror is institutionalized and the precapitalist schema of the blood feud, which since time immemorial has reigned only in isolated mountain regions, will be reintroduced in more expanded form, with entire nations in the role of subjectless subject. If, nowever, the dead are not avenged and mercy reigns, then unpunished fascism will have its victory after all, and after it has shown how easy it is, it will continue elsewhere. The logic of history is as destructive as the people it produces: wherever its center of gravity falls, it reproduces the equivalent of past disaster. Death is normal.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Coming soon, I will blog other Adorno bits, along with my responses and interpretations, all from that same far-away book. If this makes your eyes glaze over, too bad. I’m doing it by way of responding to a bits-and-pieces email exchange about Adorno with Chris Locke, whose blogly excoriations of narcissism I never miss. My merely slightly sadistic bloggish terrorism (think very limp guns, but at the same time I won’t hold your hand, you know, so if you do strike something hard, tough luck), upcoming in bits and pieces (stay tuned or not), is also motivated by my general annoyance over Heidegger’s share of air time. I will tell you, if you can stand to stick around, what I think Adorno thought was wrong with the Ontology Overlord. It really used to matter to me, since I thought it had something to do with how a particular society (post-WWII Germany) was reconstructed. In other words, philosophical ideas had real contexts and consequences for me, which, I’ll admit, really turned me on. It’s different now, but consider this, by way of many mirrors, a portrait then.

Hallucinating in a peignoir, bright lights

January 27, 2004 at 10:22 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

I usually leave my occasionally oddball family out of the blog, but this is too good to resist. Have I mentioned before that two of my six older sisters live in Tokyo? Mesdames Ikuta and Nakazawa, sister number one and sister number six, respectively. The latter designs jewelry using rare and funky pearls, and the former is devoted to Japan’s Benevolent Cat Society (the link here is to an old article). But she is not just a blend-into-Japan matron in her 7th decade, a grandmother and a mother, a cat lover who goes on night-time stray-cat-catching raids and runs tag sales to raise money for her beloved felines: no, she’s currently on stage in an avant-garde theatre production called “Marcel hallucine” by Belgian-born Marc Hollogne. It seems they played initially in Tokyo (in December), and they’ve now been touring in other Japanese cities (Fukuoka, Sendai, Osaka, Nagoya). Read about the play here, in this Japan Times article by Masami Ito: Is it a film? Is it a play? No, it’s cinetheatre; Live action and the movies meet in the dreamlike world of ‘Marciel Hallucine’. Sounds like a wonderful play, and I wish I could go see it. But I’ve never been to Japan. For one thing, I’m allergic to cats….

Weather report for alligators

January 26, 2004 at 8:48 pm | In yulelogStories | 4 Comments

I recommended Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education to a friend a while ago. Excerpts are available online, but I decided to get the book from the library for a quick refresher (with one upshot being that my 9-year old daughter and 12-year old son began devouring it … hmmm…). Llewellyn’s appendices include an annotated bibliography, where I found a book that I hope will be the only “self-help” (vs. “how to”) book you’ll ever see me recommend: Wishcraft by Barbara Sher. Originally published in 1979, it’s available in its entirety on Sher’s website, Wishcraft Online as well as in a new Dec. 2003 edition. The title intrigued me — I still own my dog-eared, heavily underlined copy of Louise Huebner’s 1969 Power Through Witchcraft, which I bought in 1971 (alas, the paperback reprint, not the original by Nash Publishers, which sells on Amazon for around $90!). That was a fun and inspiring hands-on sort of book, and Wishcraft is strangely similar. Sher has ditched the spells and instead substituted flow charts, but the underlying message is the same: you need a plan, you need a plan, you need a plan, and how you feel about yourself isn’t as important as having a plan. My favourite chapter is “Hard Times,” celebrating “The Power of Negative Thinking”:

Complaining — bitching, moaning, kvetching, griping, and carrying on — is a terrific and constructive thing to do. You’ve just got to learn how to do it right.
(…) You were brought up to believe that complaining is not nice and you should never do it. Of course, you do it anyway, but you don’t like yourself when you do. Every one of us would like to be able to say, “I’m not a complainer.” We’re supposed to be able to pull in our belts, put off our pleasures, bear our disappointments, and face our fears without a squeak of pain or protest.
Hemingway called that kind of behavior “grace under pressure.” I happen to consider it mildly psychotic. (p.94)
[ Sher’s suggested cure? Hard Times, or: bitching, moaning, complaining: ]
Hard Times is nothing but a good old-fashioned gripe session raised to the dignity and status of a ritual. Other cultures have made an art form of complaining. Look at the Flamenco gypsy’s howl. Listen to the blues! The universal peasant poem is a string of curses directed at heaven…and what do you think the Bible means by “lamentation,” anyway? A fancy word for bitching and moaning, in my book. But we can learn to recognize and honor the need to complain — and then to be as openly, vividly, and
creatively obnoxious as we can. It takes a little practice, because we’ve all been conditioned to be sweet and polite even when we’re feeling like an alligator with a hangover. (p.96) (…)
(…) Depression is an energy crisis, and
negativity is energy — pure, ornery, high-octane energy. It’s just been so repressed and tabooed that we’ve forgotten something every 2-year-old knows: how good it is for us to throw a tantrum. We’re all such good little children — and inside every one of us is an obnoxious, exuberant little brat, just squirming to be let out. I’ve got one. So do you. That brat is your baby, and you’d better love her, because you ignore her at your peril.
Somewhere along the line our culture has sold us the absurd idea that we’ve got to have a positive attitude to succeed. We’re afraid to be negative because we think it means we won’t
do anything. And yet the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. A quick look at your own experience will show you how powerless positive thinking really is. Oh, it feels good — while it lasts. The first morning you get out of bed saying, “I know I can do it, I know I can do it,” it makes a whole new day for you. You walk around whistling to yourself, thinking, “God, I could run the world with this idea!” The second morning you know you’re lying. You not only can’t do it, you can’t even get out of bed. (pp.97-8)

What I especially like about Sher’s counsel is that she discounts the inflated and supposed importance of self-esteem to individual happiness or success. Success, she writes, “does not depend on how you feel”:

This is terribly important to realize, because deeply ingrained in our culture and our past experience is the mistaken notion that you can only do well when you’re feeling good. You’ve had highs — those periods in your life when you just couldn’t roll the dice wrong. You felt unafraid, self-confident, articulate, creative, and you knew you could do anything — for a day, a week, or even a month. Right? Well, that was just about the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Because then, as sure as night follows day, a low rolled in and wiped out your sense of progress, leaving you feeling like you were right back at zero. And ever since, you’ve been sitting around waiting for that high to come back so you could do it again. (p.104)

Sher closes the chapter on Hard Times thus: “Is your self-esteem non-existent today? Don’t worry about it. It’s irrelevant.” Make a plan instead — then she explains how in flow-chart detail.
Standing in line to pick up a college application, a young man asks the old man behind him what he’s doing there. The old man answers that he’s applying for college, and tells the young man that he’s 74. The young man is confounded by this, and says to the old man, “But you’ll be 78 by the time you graduate!” “Son,” said the old man, “I’ll be seventy-eight anyway.” (p.184). Get a plan, figure it out. That’s an anecdote Sher tells regarding the importance of plans (and deadlines once you have a plan). I have to admit I’m still at the reading-about stage here. No plan in sight yet, beyond “figure out how to finesse this homeschooling thing and carve out some time for my self, for my work — whatever that is.” Homeschooling has been incredibly time-consuming, lately more so than in previous months, and as a result my blogging has gone flat, too. But there’s more: I’m getting sucked into thinking too often about meta-blogging issues, a sure sign that I’m past the “Power of Negative Thinking” stuff that powered many of my postings before, and there’s not enough there to take its place. I don’t have a plan because I don’t have a goal, which kind of means that the Negative Thinking was pure excess in this, the economy of my psychic life, vs. fuel for a purpose. (And yes, I know that “excess” is potentially revolutionary in a Bataillean theory of economics, but eventually even revolution needs, sadly, very very sadly, a plan. And the fact is that I still don’t have a fucking plan, although I believe that blogging saved my miserable soul insofar as it made me write, which I had given up on entirely.) It’s come to this, pathetically true, that I need to work through a book like Sher’s if I even want to figure out — or rather: remember — what I want to or can do. I have this idea for blogging bits of my book (Reconstructing the Subject) that relate to theoretical things of general interest to me if no one else. It’s about quantity and quality, the subject-object relation, the addendum, vertigo, the rhetorical moment, the mimetic moment…. All the things I used to love. Stay tuned, or not. But the shape of things is uncertain at this point.


January 25, 2004 at 5:16 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments

Stu Savory blogs today about Robbie Burns, except I can understand nary a word of it as he’s written it in real and phonetic Scots. Naturally, my demented sense of humour makes me think of Edmund Blackadder (the Third), discussing the Welsh and Wales with his dogsbody, Baldrick. Scotland isn’t Wales, I know, but after trying on the dialect, I think these lines (remembered verbatim) fit:

Never ask for directions in Wales, Baldrick, you’ll be washing the spit out of your hair for a fortnight!

It’s full of tough sinewy men terrorising the countryside with their close-harmony singing. You need half a pint of phlegm in your throat to pronounce the place names.

We’re part of the crowd. Alas.

January 22, 2004 at 10:50 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

Margaret Atwood has a few words to say about some recent Iranian literature written by women. (The reference to this new magazine, The Walrus, also via The Dominion: thanks!)

Setting the initial scene with a pointer to three books — by Bernard Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Amin Maalouf — on the history of the Arab/ Muslim world, Atwood notes that “All political leaders bent on suppressing their own people need a Great Satan, or an axis of evil, or something of the sort, so that resistance to the leader can be portrayed as not only futile but heretical.” She quotes from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 1982 book, Shah of Shahs on the benefits accruing to despots when people are reduced to a crowd — or as they used to say at the height of the cold war, a mass: “A person, an individual being,…is riches without end, he is a world in which we can always discover something new. A crowd, on the other hand, reduces the individuality of the person; a man in a crowd limits himself to a few forms of elementary behaviour.” Atwood adds that the despot’s desire to eliminate individual voices goes some way toward explaining his/her hatred of literature (and, dare I say it, free-wheeling blogs?), for despots “love the crowd and hate the individual, and literature is, above all, singular.”

(Why am I thinking of Stavros the Wonderchicken at this point…? Perhaps because, even though the Cold War is over, the logic of reducing individuals to a crowd or a mass is still virulently alive — even [sic!] in the blogosphere, even [sic’um!] in corporatism and advertising? Thanks, Stavros, for telling homogeneity to go to hell.)

Atwood then reviews three recent books by female Iranian writers: Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood); Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books); and Farnoosh Moshiri (The Bathhouse). The three books have common themes, not surprisingly focussed on the mullahs’s prevailing anxiety over all things sexual:

[Nafisi], too, resisted the veil and the suppression of women it symbolized to her—under the Shah, for instance, the legal age for marriage was eighteen, but under the mullahs it went down to eight-and-a-half lunar years. (She tells of an interesting ruling by the Ayatollah Khomeini concerning chickens you’ve had sex with, a practice permitted so men would not vent their urges in illegal ways, on women. Are you allowed to eat such chickens? No, said the Ayatollah: Neither you nor your next-door neighbour may eat the chicken, but the family two doors down is allowed to do so. One envisages a lively local street traffic in chickens. This incident is emblematic of the weirdness of matters sexual in Iran at this time, a weirdness encountered in all three of these books.)


Both Persepolis and Reading Lolita mention the obsession of the mullahs with sex, and both refer to one of the more hideous practices of the revolutionary guards: If a woman to be executed was a virgin, she was “married” in a bogus ceremony, then raped by one of the guards, because virgins go to heaven and the guards wanted to prevent that. In Farnoosh Moshiri’s novel The Bathhouse, this motif moves from the sidelines to centre stage, for the bathhouse of the title is a holding pen for female political prisoners. The narrator of this spare and courageous novel ends up in the bathhouse as many did—through being related to someone who was politically involved—and is subjected to a number of grisly experiences, narrowly avoiding execution at the Wall of the Almighty.

Her escape, like her arrest, is a fluke: The revolutionary guards aren’t what you’d call methodical. There’s a large component of sadism and opportunism among them, not to mention superstition and borderline lunacy: It’s a firm belief among the bathhouse officials that if you can see the Great Leader’s face in the full moon, you’ve been blessed and are therefore saved. Many of the tormentors are women, including ex-prisoners who claim to have been “converted” and are terrified that they will be tortured again if they don’t participate.

Those familiar with Holocaust literature will find themselves right at home, for as with crowds, so with tortures: The range of expression is limited. As Sartre pointed out in his introduction to The Question, which examines French behaviour in Algiers, the lesson most frequently learned by those who have been brutalized is how to do the same to others. [More…]

The other theme running through Atwood’s discussion is the mutability of any social and political status quo, which for me brings it to a discussion of the West, too: how easy it is to lose freedoms, how rapidly religion can be instrumentalised into a tool of political oppression, and how deeply all things sexual figure in men’s affairs.

Most men are clearly very proud of that fact: unless they’re repressed, their sexual power gives them vitality and energy, and this energy has moved mountains in a positive sense. (And women are not essentially different: we feel our sexuality just as strongly.) But don’t pretend to be so secure in the saddle, messieurs: there’s vulnerability in real sex, and there’s always the possibility of irrational fear for your virility. There’s age, too, if you’re lucky. Think of the chicken. Think of your neighbour two doors down. Think how much better it would be if we owned our sex ourselves, and didn’t let feathers and religious leaders and retrograde politicians and irrational fears and endless desires to quantify (“too much!” “too little!” “has he got more?” “is this enough?”) get in the way.

And think about how cool it would be if women everywhere were treated as individuals instead of as an anonymous mass that needs crowd control. That would be quality. The other stuff is quantity, and we’ve got that in spades with our mass media culture surround sound totality.

Resume the position, as you were…

Fat man not walking

January 22, 2004 at 10:28 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Fat man not walking

I recently started reading The Dominion Daily Weblog, and read the following statistics via The Globe and Mail:

…Amish men walk an average of 18,425 steps daily, and women an average of 14,196 steps.

One man logged an incredible 51,000 steps in a single day while plowing fields behind a team of horses.

In studies done in mainstream Canadian and U.S. society, adults tend to log about 2,000 to 3,000 steps.

Choice means you’re not sorry

January 22, 2004 at 5:14 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on Choice means you’re not sorry

Checking in just now with AlterNet, I learned from Jennifer Baumgardner’s article that today is I’m Not Sorry Day. And I’m glad to say that I’m not sorry, either.

Comments broken?

January 21, 2004 at 8:42 am | In yulelogStories | 11 Comments

Comments aren’t showing up here, at least I can’t see them. Funky link?

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