Following the facts to where they lead

Via LGM, the approaching 200th birthday of Karl Marx is indeed a moment to digress upon the notion that Marx was right about a lot of things:

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

Also true that quite a number of people are afraid to even delve into Marx because ‘Marx,’ which is it’s own quiet little brand of pathetic. Add ‘closing books you’ve never opened’ to the long list of epithets at the heart of our ignorance. Plenty of ills have flowed out of his ideas, but the posture of critique about all of this madness is one we cannot afford to be afraid of.

Image: Marx welcoming pedestrians in his birthplace of Trier.

Please, NPR: Just. Play. Music.

Because you have no idea how to cover politics in this country:

NPR believes the opinions of Republicans matter more than what the rest of us think, or what the country overall thinks.

[clip]But again, the Mueller probe is being seen through an increasingly partisan lens by Americans. For the first time, a majority (55 percent) of Republicans say his investigation is unfair, with just 22 percent calling it fair — which is a 17 point swing since last month. Almost three-fourths of Democrats say Mueller’s investigation is being handled fairly, a five-point net uptick since last month, along with almost half of independents — though there’s a nine-point net drop.

But again, the Americans who think the probe is unfair are a minority — 30%.

[clip]Even with GOP frustrations, a majority of Republicans (56 percent) say Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation, while almost a quarter think he should be fired and 20 percent are undecided. Among all adults polled, 65 percent say Mueller should be retained, 15 percent want him terminated, and 20 percent aren’t sure.

The key statistic here is that “let Mueller finish” beats “dump Mueller” by 50 points — but to NPR the key question seems to be “What do Republicans think?” As it turns out, even they want Mueller to finish. So efforts by the White House and right-wing media to tarnish the investigation aren’t really working. Why isn’t that even part of NPR’s lede?

Every bit of their political coverage drips with this flavor of cluelessness, plus they reassure their liberal audience (Republicans don’t listen to public radio!) with the calming rationality of David Brooks and others when actual conservatives, not to mention Republican office holders, are foaming-at-the-mouth vicious when it comes to policies they favor. And then there’s the ever-present fund-driving, soliciting support from liberals in exchange for this level of being informed. It’s a lose-lose, including their very real fear of being de-funded by the government. But this is not helping. As pointed out by Steve, they are deliberately misreading the polls they site. For why?

Man Against the Earth


Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article on the great Rachel Carson is amazing, inspiring, and confirms the three intellectual giants of the twentieth century:

Shawn called her at home to tell her that he’d finishing reading and that the book was “a brilliant achievement.” He said, “You have made it literature, full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” Carson, who had been quite unsure she’d survive to finish writing the book, was sure, for the first time, that the book was going to do in the world what she’d wanted it to do. She hung up the phone, put Roger to bed, picked up her cat, and burst into tears, collapsing with relief.

“Silent Spring” appeared in The New Yorker, in three parts, in June, 1962, and as a book, published by Houghton Mifflin, in September. Everything is connected to everything else, she showed. “We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die,” Carson wrote:

We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.

Its force was felt immediately. Readers wrote to share their own stories. “I can go into the feed stores here and buy, without giving any reason, enough poison to do away with all the people in Oregon,” one gardener wrote. They began calling members of Congress. E. B. White wrote to Carson, declaring the pieces to be “the most valuable articles the magazine had ever published.” At a press conference at the White House on August 29th, a reporter asked President Kennedy whether his Administration intended to investigate the long-range side effects of DDT and other pesticides. “Yes,” he answered. “I know that they already are, I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.”

Which itself brings to mind (my recollection of) Abraham Lincoln’s words when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

But back to the 20th century giants, Jane Jacobs:

So perhaps now, on the 100th anniversary of her birth [2016], we should all be asking: what is it that Jane Jacobs made us want to see in the city?

Thinking about this question leads me to focus on the conditions that make a metropolis – the enormous diversity of workers, their living and work spaces, the multiple sub-economies involved. Many of these are now seen as irrelevant to the global city, or belonging to another era. But a close look, as encouraged by Jacobs, shows us this is wrong.

She would ask us to look at the consequences of these sub-economies for the city – for its people, its neighbourhoods, and the visual orders involved. She would ask us to consider all the other economies and spaces impacted by the massive gentrifications of the modern city – not least, the resultant displacements of modest households and profit-making, neighbourhood firms.

How do we see those aspects that are typically rendered invisible by modern narratives of development and urban competitiveness? In the early 1900s, the city was a lens for understanding larger processes – but half a century later, it had lost that role. It was Jane Jacobs who taught us again to view the city in a deeper, more complex way.

She helped us re-emphasise dimensions that were usually excluded – no, expelled – from general analyses of the urban economy. Indeed, I can imagine she would have affirmed without a quiver of doubt that, no matter how electronic and global the city might one day become, it still has to be “made” – and therein lies the importance of place.

And of course, Hannah Arendt

There is almost no politics in “Origins” beyond the decisions and processes that eventuated in total domination. It is a dark book, written in a dark time and reflecting on the darkest moment of modern European (and arguably world) history. But it is not without hope. In her preface, Arendt envisions a new form of transnational governance, insisting that “human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its powerful must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly established territorial entities.” And in her conclusion she insists that there is always the possibility of renewal: “But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom . . . This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In her subsequent work, Arendt reflected at length about the revival of a politics of human dignity, autonomy and active citizenship. While she was highly critical of the depoliticizing tendencies of modern liberal individualism, she was a strong believer in the rule of law and in the importance of constitutional and extraconstitutional restraints on political power. This is most clear in her 1972 “Crises of Republic,” collecting four essays written in the midst of the legitimacy crises associated with the Vietnam War, the rise of the New Left and Black Power movements, and the deceit and authoritarianism of the Nixon administration.

What other major figures might outflank them in impact and vital importance to the world as it was then, and as it is now? Russell? Derrida? Keynes? Orwell? It’s not even close. To be continued, hopefully.

Artificial Flowers

You can imagine, outside any pull of nostalgia, a time when the internet was just a novelty. Before companies began to dream about monetizing our personal data. Before political campaigns began to mine that data for habits and proclivities, before our vulnerability to having weaponized popularity used against us (if only for a few minutes)… you had, what? Techno-utopianism is perhaps the saddest kind: dry, unfulfilling, obviously not harmless. But the gamed-out essence of online anonymity maxed into inflated presence with no actual power behind it beyond its allure brags a special brand of nerdy cache. With computer technology we began trading in a kind of currency we had never considered before we were already doing so. That’s why it was new but felt so familiar.

It’s not old, or merely similar to other things, as some have suggested; being online was definitely new, again, if only for a few minutes. And it wasn’t just the DandD kids, it was everybody – work made use of it. And news! Watch videos, anytime! Buy stuff… uh oh. We just took to it so naturally, the sleight-of-our-own-hand felt redeemable. The ease itself took a natural form, comfit to the future that had yet to deliver flying cars or even dependable jetpacks.

I share books and records with certain friends, and I still think ‘virtual reality’ is a hilarious phrase. There are artificial flowers, have long been, and they still have no scent. All the stuff we used to be able to do with maybe the exception of spelling, we can still do. Yes, smart technology makes you dumb. If you get a little out of shape, you must exercise. If you get a little too far removed – from people, from politics, from real food, from ammunition that doesn’t come in a box – move back into town. Register to vote. Get a library card. Go to the bar.

Green is self-renewing, even our own cabbage-truck-just-fallen-ness. It’s still pouring, but postdiluvian world number TWO lay just steps outside of this ark. Now what’s that tapping? Oh, it’s just the Raven.

A trolley of Folly

Via the powder blue Satan, an instant classic in the emerging genre of parody far superior to the original:

I was reminded of this when—I can see certain readers rolling their eyes already—I read the news, last September, that numerous California cities, including Oakland and San Francisco, had filed lawsuits against Exxon, BP, and several other oil companies. The cities argue that rising sea levels, caused by global climate change, driven by fossil fuel consumption, will cause billions of dollars in property damage, and that “big oil” should foot the bill for costly infrastructure projects to shore up below-sea-level neighborhoods and oceanside communities.

If you believe the science is settled and the models are correct, of course it makes sense to take a page from the “Big Tobacco” lawsuit playbook. If it were the case that Exxon and the others were acting in ways that could ruin much of the California coastline, with full knowledge of the certain results of their conduct, it would indeed be just to ask them to foot the bill for protecting our cities and communities.

But I can’t help but think of those Navy prognosticators, who probably knew more about computers than just about anyone else in the United States government but didn’t know what Silicon Valley was up to right at that very moment.

The only real way to push back against the gratuitous provocations of the NYT editorial page or the dogsh*t political coverage at NPR is to send it up, up and away. Merely disagreeing only confirms their primary, fundamental fallacy: “Hey! If both sides are criticizing us, we must be right!” – a sweet spot only further plaqued with the appearance of even-handed contrarianism. This is more like transmitting articles through a ridicule device. One can only hope it embarrasses the other Stephens and his colleagues, if for nothing else the flimsiness of their shoddy talents.

Interrogating the Sabotage

Bon Dieu. Saltz catches us up on the techno-climactic imitation-felt confluence-peddling praxus-shuffling symbolically-metaphorical thrice-divorced yet still unimaginably and singly imponderable grammatically-scientific but geographically-sociological and revolution-intolerant latest art show:

The catalogue has words in it that I didn’t know. The show is about the “precariat” and “geontopower.” I looked them up. The first word is about a generation born during a period of the greatest accumulation of wealth in the history of the world but who nevertheless live in unstable economies. It’s worth pointing out that 99 percent of all artists have always lived like this. Needless to say most of the artists included here are relatively well-off —either schooled, degreed, living in more than one city (that’s a nice racket), recipients of important grants and residencies where they do “interventions with the local communities.” This is not to say, of course, that no beneficiary of art-world largesse should feel qualified to make work involving social critique. Quite the opposite. But I want to see them walking the walk, not just posing the pose.

To define the second word, “geontopower,” the catalogue offers a dodge: “a set of discourses.” You can’t win with these people! Words like “undercommons,” “hypercapitalism,” “networked mediascapes,” and “anarcho-syndicalists” are tossed off. There’s lots of usual art-speak about art that “interrogates,” leading us to conclude that in the last 15 years the art world has gone from being undertakers proclaiming mediums dead to becoming lawyers taking depositions. In an old neo-Marxist tip of the hat, the approved word for artists is now “cultural producer.” No artist can rise to these levels of activism. Especially not very very young ones. (And these are the same people who end up writing the histories, curating the shows, teaching the courses, editing out “impurities” from bibliographies, reviewing one another’s shows, hiring colleagues for jobs.) Meanwhile, a claque of critics lauds every show and demonizes all those who don’t. It’s airtight.

There is no joy in attending a gathering of people who [ostensibly] do what you think you do but all urgency is being discussed in a language you do not understand. It could be that the end-product of the eventual combination of art and business schools is to organize an end-of-the-world exhibition where nobody comes.

What does Eau de Nil mean?

Noted early twentieth century cultural signifier Eau de Nil wends it way from Flaubert in Egypt to Hitchcock to a fresh moment in the sun thanks to a cool president’s new portrait:

The term first entered our chromatic lexicon in the late nineteenth century, just as Egyptomania was hitting its peak. While in the British Isles talk of “the East” referred primarily to India, France had a particularly strong affinity for Egypt—due in part to Napoleon’s brief 1798 attempts at colonization and the influence of the savants. “If you were French,” Wall writes, “the east was Egypt, a place at the very limit of the European imagination … Egypt was the orient, a country of the mind, a grand theatre of sensuality, despotism, slavery, polygamy, cruelty, mystery and terror.” This Egypt of the mind had little reality outside the poetry of Keats and Shelley; the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Emile Bernard, and André Duterte (whose painting of the ruined temple at Thebes may have been the basis for “Oxymandias”); and the oddly popular theories of the occultist Helena Blavatsky and her follower, the “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. For the French, Egypt as a concept was far more exciting than Egypt as an actual place. (Though not to Flaubert; to him, Egypt was where he bedded nubile young women after watching them dance the popular striptease, “the bee.”)

Image: the great portrait by Kehinde Wiley

The eve and the morrow

The great Colm Tóibín assembles and unfurls several aspects of Conrad in a review of a new book about the writer, sharing earlier appraisals by V.S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe. How’s this for precision:

In his essay, Naipaul invokes Conrad as “a writer who is missing a society…. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.” And then he laments:

The great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked…. The novel as a form no longer carries conviction…. The novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretative function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes. And so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on.

And

Since Naipaul cannot detach himself as a writer from “the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made,” he finds “that Conrad—sixty years before, in a time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me.” In rereading The Secret Agent, he discovers characters and phrases that strike him as “real” in a way they had not before. He notes a phrase—the “exasperated vanity of ignorance”—about one of the terrorists in the book who “took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance.”

As Naipaul grows to appreciate that phrase he sees something essential in Conrad: nouns that seemed muted or throttled by their adjectives, as though the impulse were merely to make a fine-sounding phrase or add impressively to the mystery, can, in fact, if studied carefully or read in a certain light, stand apart, become precise. He observes that Conrad, despite all his concern with ineffability, often meant business. “Words which at one time we disregard,” Naipaul wrote, “at another moment glitter.” Even though his “reservations about Conrad as a novelist remain,” still he cannot dismiss him: “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century.”

Just go read it all. It’s Friday – what else are you doing? Plus you’ll be relieved of thinking about vulgarians for a while better for it.

Image: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Slowed! to the Highest Bidder

Hilarity ensues as the Trump ministration launches a trial balloon for building a nationwide 5G network:

it was an unpleasant surprise to many when a draft proposal urging heavy federal involvement in the next generation of fast mobile networks emerged from the White House of Donald Trump — who won the presidency after promising massive cuts to regulations.

”We’re not Venezuela,” Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said at a policy gathering in Washington. “Government taking it over, controlling it, is probably — clearly — not the way to go.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican chosen by Trump, was even more blunt: “I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network”

The proposal is rooted in concerns about China and cybersecurity, according to two administration officials familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss them. Unresolved questions include the extent of taxpayer funding, and whether a fifth generation, or 5G, network would be owned by the government, one of the officials said.

If the federal government directly participates in building a wireless network intended for commercial use, it would be a departure from the decades-long tradition of auctioning licenses to telecommunications companies to build their own networks. Phone service has been on a deregulatory path for decades, including legislation in 1996 that President Bill Clinton said “promotes competition as the key to opening new markets and new opportunities.”

Very observant of Representative Walden, but so many (and varied) plans are afoot and this is where they play the V card? So frightened are we of the massive, self-created Beowulf of ‘government-run _____’ that we are willing to abide any and all inferior services because THE MARKET! One might say it is cunning to introduce the security threat into this discussion until you remember who’s in charge and that you have every reason to be suspect even of unscheduled emptying of waste baskets. But the rending of garments about how great our competitive monopolies are at doing everything and the temerity to threaten them with a network built and own by Guhvuhmint is indeed tender and endearing.