A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

If I am not mis…

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here. 

Me, The Collector

I should not be writing this post. I should be writing something else. I should, I should and I should. There are a half dozen other things I should be doing but everyone needs some private time to relax, reconsider and collect themselves. The search for a summer internship can be placed on hold. Understanding the arbitrariness of our country’s highest court can wait. After all, the list of things I should do today is big enough to take care of itself. It does not need fretting. There’s a joke.

I like to think that literature does not provide us with completely new information, but that the best writing is a tool. Literature belongs in the same family as telescopes, or perhaps microscopes, and it provides us with a way to see something about ourselves that we could not see before. But we knew where to look. In short, literature is a game of optics.

With that point of departure, dear reader, I would like to share the story of Beersheba from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one. The image propagated by tradition is that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond gates, a jewel-city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of laborious study might produce when applied to materials of the maximum worth. True to this belief, Beersheba’s inhabitants honor everything that suggests for them the celestial city: they accumulate noble metals and rare stones, they renounce all ephemeral excesses, they develop forms of composite composure.

They also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them, and it is their constant care to erase from the visible Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower twin. In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them. Or even that its substance is dark and malleable and thick, like the pitch that pours down from the sewers, prolonging the route of the human bowels, from black hole to black hole, until it splatters against the lowest subterranean floor, and from the lazy, encircled buybbles below, layer upon layer, a fecal city rises, with twisted spires.

In Beersheba’s beliefs there is an element of truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency. The inferno that broods in the deepest subsoil of Beersheba is a city designed by the most authoritative architects, built with the most expensive materials on the market, with every device and mechanism and gear system functioning, decked with tassels and fringes and frills hanging from all the pipes and levers.

Intent on piling uo its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet a flutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

The words vibrate with an energy all their own, I admit that, but the notes reverberate within me. I chose to make a decision long before I read this passage that heaven is not where glistening spires (and evidently their close companions, tired metaphors, reside) and tightly wound displays of security shine. Nabokov was right, I think, in writing that the study of literature sits atop one crucial assumption and that assumption is simply a feeling that what we’re reading is something important. Special. I like to think that seed of meaning is a portion of ourselves that we recognize in the text, but everyone has their own thoughts. But that is why I write and why I read. I collect portions of myself.

I’m probably insane.

We, the Refugees

Hannah Arendt was not afraid of making a few jokes. I thank her for it. We, the Refugees has a peculiar but particular beat. Humorous in its own way. I hope you, dear reader, take a moment to read it. Or skim it. Here is an alternate link. She alights from one gem to another. “No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way.” Then, at another point, “One may be surprised that the apparent uselessness of all our odd disguises has not yet been able to discourage us.”

It is surprising to me that her essay does not have a more substantial audience. It’s never been more relevant. It seems exactly like the type of document a professor, perhaps exploring marginal viewpoints in history (migrant farmworkers, anyone?), would use in his or her lecture. Maybe her whiteness precludes her from serious consideration. Oh well. Here is Giorgio Agamben.

The reasons for this impotence lie not only in the selfishness and blindness of bureaucratic machines, but in the basic notions themselves that regulate the inscription of the native (that is, of life) in the legal order of the nation-state.

[…]

That there is no autonomous space within the political order of the nation-state for something like the pure man in himself is evident at least in the fact that, even in the best of cases, the status of the refugee is always considered a temporary condition that should lead either to naturalization or to repatriation. A permanent status of man in himself is inconceivable for the law of the nation-state.

Anyhow, happy reading.

Today I Noticed

Judicial activism, n: the result of a decision that contradicts one’s own beliefs.

I have heard that social sciences are not sciences, they’re humanities. If that’s the case then the sciences must be the inhumanities.

“Forward!” The current administration’s admonition that reflects their awareness that we do not like what they have done previously and we like less what they are doing right now.

Privileged, adj. A signpost used to indicate the end of calm, reasonable discussion. “You are privileged, thus!” Alternatively, “I am less privileged, so.”

Atheists, n. The most oppressed people on the internet. Go ahead. Ask them about it.

Literature, n. A manuscript where the editor doesn’t know three or more words.

Myriad, n. Used too often.

 

 

Accreditation and the Academy

There is no core curriculum for Harvard’s undergraduate program beyond Expository Writing. One can go through the whole experience without straying one iota from intellectual self-satisfaction. Students exit with wildly different preconceptions about themselves, and what they experienced. There is no ‘Harvard education’ beyond geographic coincidence. The original impetus for the creation of a university, the cultivation and trimming of student expectations, is all but gone. It brings up an interesting consideration. When a student walks into Harvard, what is happening: is a brand being purchased, or is an education being sought? It is my contention that most of the students who end up in Harvard are looking for the brand, and whether they actually acquire the education they need is an ancillary consideration. The process has become an elaborate accreditation process. Show up for four years, get your piece of paper from this elaborate structure, play the game.

It does bring up some considerations over whether there needs to be a financial response to this situation. The President hopes to incorporate over 150 billion in block aid to colleges. For those who don’t know, block aid is synonymous with “here’s a bunch of money, do with it as you will.” Yet in spite of a proliferation of degree holders, there is still a considerable room of doubt. Whether students today are better than those of earlier generations is far from clear. “Trained almost from the cradle to smash the SATs and any other examination that stands in their way, the privileged among them may take examinations better, but it is doubtful if their learning and intellectual understanding are any greater.” One can’t help, looking at recent graduates, whether we have finally reached Hegel’s wimpy end of history. No fights for anything but a cushy middle-manager spot.

“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”

If there is any doubt that we have become Eliot’s Hollow Men take, for instance, the proliferation of obscure and pointless business classes across the nation. ‘Strategic Marketing,’ ‘International Aims and Means,’ and a whole host of equally pointless classes that purportedly teach groups of near-alcoholics how to become CEOs. Ah, okay! All the classes are going to become CEOs? There’s not going to be one middle-manager of dubious import and intellectual weight? Thank you, Academy, for allowing us the ability to introduce three products into a foreign market with a competing product of higher price, higher quality. Certainly I am not going to end up working for Esurance.

As has been mentioned at length in other posts, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the humanities either.

What, if anything, can be done? Kevin Carey has a few strong ideas.

To summarize, Matthew Yglesias:

People learn things all kinds of ways. I learn a lot from reading blogs and magazines. Hopefully people learn from reading me. I look things up on Wikipedia. I read books. I listen to lectures on iTunes. But federal funding is tied to a particular kind of learning in a particular set of institutions—college courses in accredited colleges. And who decides what an accredited college is? Why trade groups composed of accredited colleges do!

If the Academy is unwilling, or unable, to provide a good enough reason for its ever rising tuition rates then what else should we expect? A five-year bender for middle-managers sounds fun… But one has to wonder if the debt is really worth it.

Theism: Today’s Gnostical Turpitude

On June 4, 1859 two armies met at the town of Magenta. One, representing the French monarch Louis-Napoleon’s desire to challenge Austrian control of Lombardy, was composed partially out of French Legionnaires. The other side, composed out of a multicultural array reflective of the Hapsburg’s crown jewel, Austria-Hungary, was chiefly Croatians. Fun fact, the Croatians were soldiers who preferred executing prisoners and the wounded. Some historians accredit them with singlehandedly inspiring the Geneva Convention of 1864 or, at the very least, providing a visceral example for the convention’s supporters to point to.

As the 2nd Corps of legionnaires and zouaves stood poised the town, their commanding officer arrived (Patrice MacMahon) and, “as he trotted past the Legion, uttered the statement that today adorns the wall of almost every Legion bar: “Voici la Legion! L’affaire est dans le sac!”

“The Legion is here. It’s in the bag.” If only that always was true! Not unlike our Patrice MacMahon, later Duke of Magenta, many otherwise astute individuals are ready to declare victory presumptuously and inaccurately. Considerate thinkers, and those less so, assume that there is a division between the secular and the religious before the discussion has even taken place. Just as importantly, this tension has already been answered in favor of ‘science’ without ever questioning why there needs to be a tension in the first place. ‘Science is here. It’s in the bag.’ If only!

To paraphrase, those silly theists and ‘religionists’ can chat up their deities as much as they want—preferably out of sight and in a personal space. Personal is, of course, a euphemism for hiding. Preferably in doors and inside their bedrooms, perhaps even under the sheets (the last, or newest, home of social deviancy). As long as everyone realizes that once ‘science’ arrives and religious thinking “is in the bag” there will be no problems. If anyone questions that then we should simply expect another McVeigh or 9/11. There will always be a few crazies, but once everyone is properly informed religion dissipates. I call this entrenchment of certain, ingrained theological assumptions ‘scientism.’ I am not alone in this assumption but while there have been several active academics bringing to light this false dichotomy quite a few prosaic and perfectly improbable assumptions take place within the public sphere daily.

Part of this normative thinking I lay at the feet of Immanuel Kant. Our world is so radically steeped in the thoughts of Kant it is hard to properly formulate a trajectory of belief that is not related to the ‘Kantian Revolution.’ There are things that I can experience (like oranges) and things I cannot (the law). One is absolute, or nearly so, while the other is open to ‘judgment.’ Look no farther than art: God becomes a part of Impressionism. Oranges never do.

Too often, those who rock these assumptions are—like in Vladimir Nabakov’s Invitation to a Beheading—sentenced to death for “gnostical turpitude.” A grievous crime made more so by its lack of definition. Those who try to mix the noumenological and the phenomenological are viewed as radicals—perhaps, even, dangerous ones. Even to those who do not grasp the finer philosophical and theological points there is a sense of impoliteness about trying to bridge the gap: those who did, then, are violates of an undefinable crime. In a sense, even the most ardent defenders of ‘rationality’ have become, as it were, transrational on the subject.

Take, for instance, Alvin Platinga, “One of the main lessons to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume is that there don’t seem to be good arguments for the existence of other minds or selves, or the past, or an external world and much else besides; nevertheless belief in other minds, the past and an external world is presumably not irrational or in any other way below epistemic par.” When a man or woman is assured of his immortal soul and the existence of the body—or, alternatively, the ‘self’ or the past or the fact that some physical objects cause others to do things—they have to only explain their belief in a God delivered immortal soul. That is the world we live in.

What interests me the most is that the noumenological is almost always a matter of unassailable subjectivity, tightly held. Ironically, its only absolute is that there is no absolutes. There seems to be a widespread consensus that reason is reasonable, the senses are sensible and casual relationships are identifiable. If you deny causal relations you’re viewed as a crackpot (unless you have a PhD in front of your name or your name starts with D and ends with Avid Hume). Same for the ‘sanctity’ of experiential data and rationality. Yet no matter how many PhD’s one has there is no way ‘I believe in a theistic entity’ sounds good. If the phrase, somehow, leaps out then one is guilty of gnostical turpitude. That is, holding a set of (admittedly) arbitrary assumptions that are (at the very least) as unassailable as our other philosophical assumptions.

America Doesn’t Have a Story

If there is one narrative that unites the Western World it is that we do not have a narrative. ‘Educated’ people increasingly did not have knowledge about their own culture. Allan Bloom, “It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously…” Today, what do we take seriously? Not the ‘liberal arts,’ certainly not ‘politics’ and not even the sciences. Perhaps we take ‘fairness’ seriously, but as any parent can tell you the Fairness Doctrine is not a whole lot better than the egocentric peaens of an eight-yearold.

If writers like Robert Jenson (“How the World Lost Its Story”) are right, what does that mean for the identity politics of the 21st Century? The purpose of portraying your own identity as a victim presupposes the idea that there is a great oppressor out there who is willing to deny you your voice. But what story is holding the commanding heights? If there is a ‘in’ group, that is self-validated by its narrative, what is that narrative? The answer, it seems, is increasingly incoherent. There is no more universal history and, relatedly, there is nothing to be a victim of. The enemy of the 21st Century, if there is one, is the splintering of our attention. Facebook-Tumblr-Email-Facebook-TV-FACEBOOK! Fighting it is not very exciting. More importantly, reversing the trend would take actual effort.

Effort, as many commentators have noticed, is the last thing we have (after a basic understanding of the English language, a conception of American history, or the ability to put on a condom/solve anything requiring geometry). Women have, as it were, ‘won.’ The 21st Century world is their’s for the taking. Is it no surprise, then, that this wave of feminism’s authors are more concerned with their orgasms and managing Target excursions than fighting the ‘patriarchy’ (a word that reaches fewer and fewer students studying to become middle-managers, which is to say the vast majority of the student body)?

Feminism is the first, but certainly not the last, victim of ‘the Man’ losing his story. How far is Gaydom behind? If I wasn’t poor I would throw down for the answer ‘not far.’

The true issue seems to be that the splintering of the American mind, which is so closely related to its closing, has undercut the production value (as it were) of these various movements. Without a nice, dominant culture that is relatively ambivalent about being the contrast to every right action then where does that leave the cadres of professional activists? Well, it leaves them to build a culture that is not bound up in the increasingly hollow perception of a dominant, normative one.

As we all well know, we are the most elequoent on the subjects of ourselves and what we don’t like. How eleqouent could anyone be on the subject of ‘not-ourself’ and something we like? I doubt the results will be noteworthy.

I Can’t Wait For Our Generation of Middle-Managers

Francis Fukuyama fretted that the end of ‘history’ as envisioned by German Idealism, and Hegel in particular, was essentially ‘wimpy.’ We would Homer Simpson on a grand scale: educated, we can all operate a nuclear powerplant, but so clearly incomplete we resemble a 2-D idiot (if essentially kind and lovable) rather than an actual human being.

I always thought that was a bridge too far, as it were. Arnhem, his conclusion, would have to be captured, proven, by other writers. Or not at all. Who would think that he would be proven right by, of all things, our lifetimes?

You know there is a problem with our culture when The Weekly Standard and Slate are walking in lock-step. The arbiters of our culture have, in the immortal words of Kristol, “lost” and those who are still around are left to salvage plausibility from such sentences as “the aspirational paradigm of the new worker: creative, unconventional, flexible, nomadic, creating value, and endlessly travelling. In a post-Fordist work paradigm defined by immaterial labor, artists are the perfect entrepreneurs and incarnate the new faux bohemianization of the workplace.” Ah, of course, I was worried that we were talking about a pre-Fordist work paradigm! Dodged a bullet there. Or was it a missile of feces wrapped around the Virgin Mary that’s supposed to represent the white, over-caffinated, single-child’s conception of inner-city youth’s oppression? So much to groupthink about in graduate seminars.

Every successive year of duly and dully taught graduates seem in equal parts apathetic and ignorant. We’re all a bunch of ‘Business’ majors who do not yet realize that it’s an euphemism for ‘faceless middle-manager.’ There will be a man at our grave who intones, boldly and emptily, ‘he was a company man’ (or woman?).

Of course, at least we have WordPress where we will be endlessly congratulated on our posts: no matter how trite, contrived, precious and precocious the content is.