Parks and more Hughes we can use

What do you do on a date? An former boss, years ago, used to confide in me about the travails of limited funding, as they related to her love life, with a nice quip: Romance without finance is a nuisance.

I don’t know if it was original, probably not, and we can all be quick to agree with the sentiment. But how true is it? It might be easy for me to say that such a statement represents a mere lack of imagination on her part, that the nuisance would only refer to that to which we had grown accustomed, not the least the very ordinariness of great amusements, which themselves soon breed an ever-expanding ennui. No, what it is that we must afford is the almost constant introduction of something new and exciting, which does, yes, become easier with increased funding.

But sourced in this way, romance also grows infinitely more elusive, farther out of reach, psychologically, feebly balanced as an experience only reached at great expense. An arbitrary chasm opens between us and happiness, crossed only with artifice, such that our contentment itself becomes a predicate of erstwhile consideration, of currency. Now, there is a relationship between love and currency, but this is very different from conventional romance.

So, amusements displace imagination, let’s say, and though we might think it’s not as simple as that, the increased complexity can become so pervasive that it is difficult to find examples of its lack. This, too, then becomes a rather romantic notion, the pursuit of which we place on some plane beyond finance per se, as we begin to admit some of the things money cannot buy. Not that these are free, mind us, but that their enjoyment occupies a space other than that which can be exchanged for everyday consideration. They become, in essence, off limits from common experience. By definition, any such proximity would then be the very opposite of a nuisance. [oh, and you have emphasize the second syllable to make the phrase operative in ______’s original]

And while that’s not positive ID on romance always, it should be considered of its general direction. So how would we go about re-introducing this sort of space? Should we re-introduce it? Such an effort would be akin to a re-introduction to doing nothing; is that even necessary? Is anything more necessary, in the case of an unbecoming unfamiliarity?. Is there a compelling reason to sit in a park or read a poem to a lover, or both? Does such a space committed to prolonged and deliberate un-economic activity seem an anathema, or a godsend? Of all that is lost to barriers of cost, are the open spaces a nuisance, or is their very lack of charge, or production if you need to think of it that way, the disguised price of entry we search for in a world of nominal fees?

These things add up. Question the lack of green space, formerly known as parks and as places where people did nothing – itself a pejorative of the ill-repute we have allowed to befall the reading of poems and the wooing of girls, as if these were of no import and could be done without. Well, here we are. If the lack of nuisance no amount can afford is the mere absence of place and the fullness of an empty afternoon, all that’s needed is to remember that it is not so very far away, even as it seems.

Langston Hughes, Fire-Caught:

The gold moth did not love him
So, gorgeous, she flew away.
But the gray moth circled the flame
       Until the break of day.
And then, with wings like a dead desire,
She fell, fire-caught, into the flame.

Super-Monster(s) of Eventness

Krugman does us all a favor today, by drawing out into the open the massive contradiction at the heart of the debate about doing anything about climate change. Primarily that the same people who say the free-market is so wonderfully dexterous that it is the best mechanism for handling any eventuality also claim that it – and we – would be driven to penury under any regime that would limit carbon emissions.

In honor of which favor I yield the floor to Jacques Derrida, from his essay Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink, part of the collection Without Alibi. An aporia is an expression of a kind of doubt or difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for an against it.

The machine, on the contrary, is destined to repetition. It is destined, that is, to reproduce impassively, imperceptibly, without organ or organicity, received commands. In a state of anesthesia, it would obey or command a calculable program without affection or auto-affection, like an indifferent automaton. Its functioning, if not its production, would not need anyone. Moreover, it is difficult to conceive of a purely machinelike apparatus without inorganic matter.

Notice I say inorganic. Inorganic, that is, nonliving, sometimes dead but always, in priciple, unfeeling and inanimate, without desire, without intention, without spontaneity. The automaticity of the inorganic machine is not the spontaneity attributed to organic life.

This, at least, is how the event and the machine are generally conceived. Among all the incompatible traits that we have just briefly recalled, so as to suggest how difficult it is to think them together as the same “thing,” we have had to underscore these two predicates, which are, most often, attributed without hesitation to matter or to the material body: the organic and the inorganic.

These two commonly used words carry an obvious reference, either positive or negative, to the possibility of an internal principle that is proper and totalizing, to a total form of, precisely, organization, whether or not it is a beautiful form, an aesthetic form, this time in the sense of the fine arts. This organicity is thought to be lacking from so-called inorganic matter. If one day, with one and the same concept, these two incompatible concepts, the event and the machine, were to be thought together, you can bet that not only (and I insist not only) will one have produced a new logic, an unheard -of conceptual form. In truth against the background and the at the horizon of our present possibilities, this new figure would resemble a monster. But can one resemble a monster? No, of course not, resemblance and monstrosity are mutually exclusive. We must therefore correct this formulation: the new figure of an event-machine would no longer even be a figure. It would not resemble, it would resemble nothing, not even what we call, in a still familiar way, a monster. But it would therefore be, by virtue of this very novelty, an event, the only and first possible event, because im-possible. That is why I ventured to say that this thinking could belong only to the future – and even that it makes the future possible. An event does not come about unless its irruption interrupts the course of the possible and, as the impossible itself, surpises any foreseeability. But such a super-monster of eventness would be, this, for the first time, also produced by the machine.

As a still preliminary exercise, somewhat like musicians who listen to their instruments and tune them before beginning to play, we could try another version of the same aporia. Such an aporia would not block or paralyze, but on the contrary would condition any event of thought that resembles somewhat the unrecognizable monster that has just passed in front of our eyes.

What would this aporia be? One may say of a machine that it is productive, active, efficient, or, as one says in French, performante. But a machine as such, however performante it may be, could never, according to the strict Austinian orthodoxy of speech acts, produce an event of performative type. Performativity will never be reduced to technical performance. Pure performativity implies the presence of a living being, and of a living being speaking one time only, in its own name, in the first person. And speaking in a manner that is at once spontaneous, intentional, free, and irreplaceable.  Peformativity, therefore, excludes in principle, in its own moment, and machinelike [machinale] technicity. It is even the name given to this intentional exclusion. This foreclosure of the machine answers to the intentionality of intention itself. It is intentionality. Intentionality forecloses the machine. If, the, some machinality (repetition, calculability, inorganic matter of the body) intervenes in a performative event, it is always an accidental, extrinsic and parasitical element, in truth a pathological, mutilating, or even mortal element. Here again, to think both the event and the performative event together remains a monstrosity to come, an impossible event. Therefore the only possible event. But it would be an event that, this time, would no longer happen without the machine. Rather it would happen by the machine. To give up neither the event nore the machine, to subordinate neither one to the other, never to reduce one to the other: this is perhaps a concern of thinking that has kept a certain number of “us” working for the last few decades.

But who, “us”? Who would be this “us” whom I dare to speak of so carelessly? Perhaps it designates at bottom, and first of all, those who find themselves in the improbable place or in the uninhabitable habitat of this monster.


There are at least a couple of things to which we might accede:

Through the twin slow-motion catastrophes of resource depletion and environmental degradation, human activity will be forced into a different scale than our post-industrial age trajectory has otherwise led us to infer.

General recognition of a need, if not regard, for a lessened carbon footprint is growing. We increasingly recognize the wisdom of native populations, for example, in being proper, long-term stewards of the earth, as opposed to our standard operating procedures. The extents to which we create fetish and fashion from some of native practices, as absurd as they may seem, often represent the initial entree some of these practices have into a society which made them obsolete. Micro-biotic is just a fancy name for eating locally, par ex.

The tragi-comedy kicks in as we try to imagine moving toward reconciling these realities, but on our terms. We want to ‘go green’ and live more sustainably, but we still want all of our stuff. The heavy contradiction here is re-enforced as some of our stuff begins to disappear as a simple consequence of the above conditions.

Not that any of it will magically be taken away. It’s painfully slow, just as absolutely everything was, from our perspective, up until about 100 years ago. The whole concept of slow is a modern artifact itself; even more, the modifier adding duress to it. But, we begin to let a few things go away here and there as we move back into the greater slip-stream of biotic activity on earth.

Sigmund Freud often remarked that great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance. In Freud’s three examples, Copernicus moved our home from center to periphery, Darwin then relegated us to “descent from an animal world”; and, finally (in one of the least modest statements of intellectual history), Freud himself discovered the unconscious and exploded the myth of a fully rational mind. In this wise and crucial sense, the Darwinian revolution remains woefully incomplete because, even though thinking humanity accepts the fact of evolution, most of us are still unwilling to abandon the comforting view that evolution means (or at least embodies a central principle of) progress defined to render the appearance of something like human consciousness either virtually inevitable or at least predictable. The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life’s enormously arborescent bush – a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.

The current availability of information is such that we seem to get what we can from a little news here and there and hope for the best. It’s quite a place to find ourselves – so surrounded by means and so trapped by their implications. We see these things happening in the world, but we continue on with much the same map that brought us here, altering our route slowly, because our terms dictate what we can and cannot live without, as such. Is optimism knowing just enough to keep the jury out indefinitely? Abstract issues like energy and pollution bear down on us in some ways, but with a little information, we can trust that someone somewhere is doing something about it – that, as this one runs out, technology might deliver us to the next free energy plateau that will permit our thriving to continue. The missing part of the picture, obscured perhaps by the massive amounts by which we make inferences about the smallest things, is the scale down. Living differently in ways that we require less will conjure all sorts of changes and many of them will be very positive.

I’m trying to fight the tendency to offer a summation on these points, but how does something end and continue on at the same time? In other words, this is our post-industrial age trajectory.

The Unified Theory, of Major Relativity

“Literature is the union of suffering with the instinct for form” – Thomas Mann

From the second chapter of Death in Venice, the descriptions of Gustav von Aschenbach and of course, other things.

For a major product of the intellect to make an immediate broad and deep impact it must rest upon a secret affinity; indeed, a congruence between the personal destiny of its author and the collective destiny of his generation. The people do not know why they bestow fame upon a given work of art. Though far from connoisseurs, they believe they have discovered a hundred virtues to justify such enthusiasm, yet the true basis for their acclaim is an imponderable, mere affinity. Once, in a less than conspicuous passage, Aschenbach stated outright that nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites”: despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles. But it was more than an observation; it was his experience, the very formula of his life and fame, the key to his work. Was it any wonder, therefore, that it likewise informed the moral makeup and external demeanor of his most representative protagonists?

A new type of hero that he favored and that recurred in a variety of forms had been analyzed quite early by a shrewd critic, who said it rested on “an intellectual, adolescent conception of manliness,” one that “stands by calmly, gritting its teeth in proud shame, while swords and spears piece its flesh.” It was all very beautiful, clever, and precise, though it erred on the side of passivity. Because composure in the face of destiny and equanimity in the face of torture are not mere matters of endurance; they are an active achievement, a positive triumph, and the Sebastian figure is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole then certainly of the art here in question. What one saw when one looked into the world narrated by Aschenbach was elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay from the eyes of the world until the eleventh hour; a sallow, sensually destitute ugliness capable of fanning its smoldering lust into pure flame, indeed of rising to full sovereignty in the realm of beauty; pallid impotence probing the incandescent depths of the mind for the strength to cast an entire supercilious people at the foot of the Cross, at their feet; an obliging manner in the empty, punctilious service of form; the life, false and dangerous, and the swiftly enervating desires of the born deceiver. Observing all this and much more of a like nature, one might well wonder whether the only possible heroism was a heroism of the weak. Yet what heroism was more at one with the times?

“…Nation of Lunatics”

In Henry Miller’s 1962 nonfiction opus, Stand Still Like A Hummingbird, only a few paragraphs into the introduction he begins describing some of the epithets that would need to be coined to describe his bad taste, in the event that readers found the book to be as despicable as many had found Tropic of Cancer twenty five years earlier:

The tenor of most of the them, though strongly critical of our way of life, is nevertheless strictly kosher. America is seen through the eys of an American, not a Hottentot. And Europe, which is often favorably contrasted with America, is a Europe which only an American might have eyes for.

So what, my dear compatriots? How will you label me now? Un-American? It won’t fit, I’m afraid. I’m even more American than you, only against the grain. Which, if you think a moment, serves to put me in the tradition. Nothing I have said against our way of life, our institutions, our failings, but what you will find even more forcibly expressed in Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson. Even before the turn of the century Whitman had addressed his fellow Americans thus: “You are in a fair way to create a whole nation of lunatics.”

It is true, of course, that today the whole world seems to have gone mad. But, like it or not, we are in the van, we are leading the procession. Always first and foremost, what!

The dominant theme throughout this book is the plight of the individual, which of course means the plight of society, since society is meaningless unless composed of individuals.

No things have not changed a whit since Tropic of Cancer days, unless for the worse. La vie en rose is definitely not for the artist. The artist – I employ the word only for the genuine ones – is still suspect, still regarded as a menace to society. Those who conform, who play the game, are petted and pampered. Nowhere else in the world, unless it be Soviet Russia, do these conformists receive such huge rewards, such wide recognition for their efforts.

So much for the dominant note. As for the subdominant, the thought is – don’t wait for things to change, the hour of man is now and, whether you are working at the bottom of the pile or the top, if you are a creative individual you will go on producing, come hell or high water. And this is the most you can hope to do. One has to go on believing in himself, whether recognized or not, whether heeded or not. The world may seem like hell on wheels – and we are doing our best, are we not, to make it so? – but there is always room, if only in one’s soul, to create of spot of Paradise, crazy though it may sound.

When you find you can go neither backward nor forward, when you discover that you are no longer able to stand, sit, or lie down, when your children have died of malnutrition and your aged parents have been sent to the poorhouse or the gas chamber, when you realize that you can neither write nor not write, when you are convinced that all the exits are blocked, either you take to believing in miracles or you stand still like a hummingbird. The miracle is that the honey is always right there, right under your nose, only you were to busy searching elsewhere to realize it. The worst is not death but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.

Love your neighbor, read your Miller.

Hughes You Can Use

Krugman is on his game today (who knew a banal term like securitization was Orwell-ifiable?); Obama has been on his game all week. But today I want to turn to another connection, by way of an ongoing conversation around my house and among near associates. Green also means inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears, and our general lack of critical acumen and ability is not unrelated to the tumultuous economic straits in which we presently tread, much less the ecological shoals upon which we are likely to founder.

The Australian art critic Robert Hughes has cut his widest swath using the cudgel of Time magazine, believe it or not. Books and films by and about him are easy to find and you should find and devour them, notably his collection of essays, Nothing if Not Critical. Below is a speech he gave in England in 2004, ostensibly about the Royal Academy, but by implication it is most certainly also a transposition of the ‘royal’ as in We.

Many years ago, when I was still cutting my first pearly fangs as an art critic, one thing used to be taken for granted by me and practically everyone I knew in what is so optimistically termed the “art world”.

That thing was that all Academies were bad, the enemies of progress – and though nobody knew how to define that slippery notion of progress in the arts, we were all in favour of it, that went without saying.

What, you didn’t like progress? You and Sir Alfred Munnings, fella. And the Royal Academy excited our particular scorn. It seemed to stand for everything that was most retrograde and irrelevant. No serious artist could gain anything from having the tarnished letters RA tacked on to their name, so redolent of boardroom portraits, cockle-gatherers at work or sunny views of Ascot.

Now, historically, this was an odd situation. For, as it was originally set up in 1768, the Royal Academy was only one of a number in Europe: unlike those in Paris, Madrid and elsewhere, it was probably the least official, a product of the English genius for structured informality.

Despite its name, it did not get subventions from the monarch. It enjoyed no government support and no guarantees of private patronage. It supported itself with annual shows, from whose sales it took a modest commission. These shows, which started in 1769, were for many years the chief artistic events in London.

Burlington House was not in any real sense the arm of a cultural establishment, as the French Academy was under the iron thumb of Le Brun. It attracted most of the most gifted and advanced artists then working in England. Nobody could say that a society that counted geniuses of the order of John Constable, JMW Turner or Henry Fuseli among its members was an enemy of inspired art. The counter-example always given is William Blake, who resented Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses and his own tastes in painting, which ran towards Rubens and Rembrandt as well as Michelangelo. This created the idea, which many people still hold, that Reynolds hated Blake and was determined to repress him for his visionary genius.

There is no truth in this. It is one of the pious legends of modernism, a fiction of holy martyrdom. Blake certainly disliked Reynolds, and wrote a number of fierce epigrams to show it. “When Sir Joshua Reynolds died/All Nature was degraded/The King dropt a tear into the Queen’s ear,/And all his pictures faded.” Blake was not the only genius to be intolerant and slightly paranoid. But in fact the Academy didn’t do so badly by Blake, and he continued to exhibit at it throughout most of his life. And there were a number of issues, such as the need for an art of high spiritual and historical seriousness, on which the two men certainly agreed, though they had different ideas on how to create it.

The myth of Reynolds’ opposition to Blake fitted in nicely with a much later idea of the Academy as enemy of the new: but this really took hold in the first half of the 20th century, during which the Academy elected a series of ever-more conservative presidents, a process that reached a climax of sorts in the late 1940s when Sir Alfred Munnings – a brilliant horse-painter in his better moments but a paranoid blimp of a man – set out to use his presidency as a stick with which to beat Picasso, Matisse and assorted other Frogs, Wops, Huns and other denizens of that despicable place, Abroad.

Since Munnings raucously hated everything that Hitler had just been trying to wipe out as Degenerate Jewish Art, his timing was distinctly off. The Royal Academy, it seemed, had shot itself in the foot so dramatically that it no longer had even the stump of a leg to stand on.

By the time I first came to live in England, and for years thereafter, the obsoleteness of the Royal Academy as a benign factor in the life of contemporary art was simply assumed as a fact. I never heard any of the artists I knew at the end of the 60s mention it, let alone talk about some desire to join it. Nevertheless, one went to its shows, which were sometimes complete eye-openers. I will never forget the impact that the great Bonnard exhibition of 1966 had on me, or more recently, the 1987 show of British art in the 20th century. The chance to see shows like that, I realised, was one reason why I had wanted to leave Australia in the first place.

Anyway, as the years wore on, it began to seem a bit absurd to bear the Academy ill-will for things that happened in Burlington House when you were less than 10-years-old, or even not yet born. The rhetoric of Modernism had tried very hard, desperately hard, to separate itself from the Academic. It was as though the Academy were a kind of Medusa’s head, whose gaze could turn talent to stone. The very term had been made into a dirty word, a word of abuse. But could that be the whole story? Looking back, I do not think so. As we know from Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, if we take the trouble to read them – which practically no one does – the Royal Academy once had very pronounced views on what constituted the great and the good in art. These views are now so out of currency that no one holds them. The idea that a revived Academy would or could clamp an iron fist of conformity on English painting and sculpture is simply absurd. It did not do that even in the 18th century. But there are quite clear and to me convincing reasons why we need such a revival today. And they have nothing to do with the elaboration of rules and conventions.

First of all, the idea of a democratised institution run by artists is an extremely valuable one. It was valuable in the 18th century and it is still today. And the good it can do for art cannot be replaced by either the commercial dealing system or by the national museums. I don’t want to disparage dealers, collectors or museum directors, by the way. But I don’t think there is any doubt that the present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological. As Picasso’s biographer John Richardson said to a reporter on that night of embarrassment at Sotheby’s, no painting is worth a hundred million dollars.

An institution like the Royal Academy, precisely because it is not commercial, can be a powerful counterweight to the degrading market hysteria we have seen too much of in recent years. I have never been against new art as such; some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between, and what else is news? I know, as most of us do in our hearts, that the term “avant-garde” has lost every last vestige of its meaning in a culture where anything and everything goes. Art does not evolve from lower states to higher. The scientific metaphors, like “research” and “experiment”, that were so popular half a century ago, do not apply to art. And when everything is included in the game, there is no game to be ahead of. A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velásquez can be as radical as the shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames. More radical, actually.

But I have always been suspicious of the effects of speculation in art, and after 30 years in New York I have seen a lot of the damage it can do: the sudden puffing of reputations, the throwing of eggs in the air to admire their short grace of flight, the tyranny of fashion. It is fair that collectors should have influence: some of them really deserve to have it, although these are often the ones who care least about the power trip of wielding it – one thinks of those great benefactors the Sainsburys, for instance. But it is ridiculous that some of them should have the amount of influence they do merely because the tax laws enable them to use museums as megaphones for their own sometimes-debatable taste. Now England is far ahead of the US in such matters. I don’t know of one major American museum that has an artist on its board of trustees, as the Tate, the National Gallery, and others here do. But you should go further. I believe it’s not just desirable but culturally necessary that England should have a great institution through which the opinions of artists about artistic value can be crystallised and seen, there on the wall, unpressured by market politics: and the best existing candidate for such an institution is a revitalised Royal Academy, which always was dedicated to contemporary art.

Part of the Academy’s mission was to teach. It still should be. In that regard, the Academy has to be exemplary: not a kindergarten, but a place that upholds the primacy of difficult and demanding skills that leak from a culture and are lost unless they are incessantly taught to those who want to have them. And those people are always in a minority. Necessarily. Exceptions have to be.

In the 45 years that I’ve been writing criticism there has been a tragic depreciation in the traditional skills of painting and drawing, the nuts and bolts of the profession. In part it has been caused by the assumption that it’s photography and its cognate media – film and TV – that tell the most truth about the visual.

It’s not true. The camera, if it’s lucky, may tell a different truth to drawing – but not a truer one. Drawing brings us into a different, a deeper and more fully experienced relation to the object. A good drawing says: “not so fast, buster”. We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game. This was not a problem when the Academy was founded, because in 1769 such media were embryonic or non-existent. A quarter of a millennium later, things are different. But drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies – the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about – is apparently immortal. And that, too, is why we need the Royal Academy: perhaps even more now than 50 or 100 years ago. May it live as long as history allows.

Mmm… Bread as Metaphor

In honor of our local bakery, Big City Bread, beginning as of yesterday to offer fresh baguettes every afternoon (as opposed to the morning and letting them sit or running out by the time people like Mrs. Green come by to get one right before dinner), a digression on the staff of life. Woven through with his own ecclesiastical rhythm, these are the words of the inestimable Bill Moyers. Delivered as the baccalaureate at Hamilton College in 2006, the following excerpts are from his essay, Pass the Bread, which is also the final essay in his excellent book, Moyers On Democracy.

So I have been thinking seriously about what I might say to you in this Baccalaureate service. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone from my generation should be saying anything to your generation except, “We’re sorry. We’re really sorry for the mess you’re inheriting. We are sorry for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for without getting a new social infrastructure in return. We’re sorry for the polarized country. The corporate scandals. The corrupt politics. Our imperiled democracy. We’re sorry for the sprawl and our addiction to oil and for all those toxins in the environment. Sorry about all this, class of 2006. Good luck cleaning it up.”

Of course that’s not the only scenario. You can Google your way to a lot of optimistic possibilities. For one, the digital revolution that will transform how we do business and live our lives, including active intelligent wireless devices that in just a short time could link every aspect of our physical world and even human brains, creating hundreds of thousands of small-scale business opportunities. There are medical breakthroughs that will conquer many ills and extend longevity. Economic changes will lift hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty in the next 25 years, dwarfing anything that’s come along in the previous 100 years. These are possible scenarios, too. But I’m a journalist, not a prophet. I can’t say which of these scenarios will prove true. You won’t be bored, that’s for sure. I just wish I were going to be around to see what you do with the peril and the promise.

Since I won’t be around, I want to take this opportunity to say a thing or two that have nothing to do with my professional work as a journalist. What I have to say today is very personal. Here it is:

If the world confuses you a little, it confuses me a lot. When I graduated fifty years ago I thought I had the answers. But life is where you get your answers questioned, and the odds are that you can look forward to being even more perplexed fifty years from now than you are at this very moment. If your parents level with you, truly speak their hearts, I suspect they would tell you life confuses them, too, and that it rarely turns out the way you thought it would.

I find I am alternatively afraid, cantankerous, bewildered, often hostile, sometimes gracious, and battered by a hundred new sensations every day. I can be filled with a pessimism as gloomy as the depth of the middle ages, yet deep within me I’m possessed of a hope that simply won’t quit. A friend on Wall Street said one day that he was optimistic about the market, and I asked him, “Then why do you look so worried?” He replied, “Because I’m not sure my optimism is justified.” Neither am I. So I vacillate between the determination to act, to change things, and the desire to retreat into the snuggeries of self, family and friends.

I wonder if any of us in this great, disputatious, over-analyzed, over-televised and under-tenderized country know what the deuce we’re talking about, myself included. All my illusions are up for grabs, and I find myself re-assessing many of the assumptions that served me comfortable much of my life.

The hardest struggle of all is to reconcile life’s polar realities. I love books, Beethoven, and chocolate brownies. Yet how do I justify my pleasure in these in a world where millions are illiterate, the music never plays, and children go hungry through the night? How do I live sanely in a world so unsafe for so many?

I don’t know what they taught you here at Hamilton about all this, but I trust you are not leaving here without thinking about how you will respond to the dissonance in our culture, the rivalry between beauty and bestiality in the world, and the conflicts in your own soul. All of us have to choose sides on this journey. But the question is not so much who we are going to fight against as it is which side of our own nature will we nurture: The side that can grow weary and even cynical and believe that everything is futile, or the side that for all the vulgarity, brutality, and cruelty, yearns to affirm, connect and signify. Albert Camus got it right: There is beauty in the world as well as humiliation, “And we have to strive, hard as it is, not to be unfaithful…in the presence of one or the other.

That’s really what brings me here this afternoon. I did put myself in your place, and asked what I’d want a stranger from another generation to tell me if I had to sit through his speech. Well, I’d want to hear the truth: The truth is, life’s a tough act, the world’s a hard place, and along the way you will meet a fair share of fools, knaves and clowns–even act the fool yourself from time to time when your guard is down or you’ve had too much wine. I’d like to be told that I will experience separation, loss and betrayal, that I’ll wonder at times where have all the flowers gone.

I would want to be told that while life includes a lot of luck, life is more than luck. It is sacrifice, study, and work; appointments kept, deadlines met, promises honored. I’d like to be told that it’s okay to love your country right or wrong, but it’s not right to be silent when your country is wrong. And I would like to be encouraged not to give up on the American experience. To remember that the same culture which produced the Ku Klux Klan, Tom DeLay and Abu Ghraib, also brought forth the Peace Corps, Martin Luther King and Hamilton College.

Let me tell you one of my favorite stories. I read it a long time ago and it’s stayed with me. There was a man named Shalom Aleicheim. He was one of the accursed of the Earth. Every misfortune imaginable befell him. He lost his wife, his children neglected him, his house burned down, his job disappeared–everything he touched turned to dust. Yet through all this Shalom kept returning good for evil everywhere he could until he died. When the angels heard he was arriving at Heaven’s gate, they hurried down to greet him. Even the Lord was there, so great was this man’s fame for goodness. It was the custom in Heaven that every newcomer was interrogated by the prosecuting angel, to assure that all trespasses on Earth had been atoned. But when Shalom reached those gates, the prosecuting angel arose, and for the first time in the memory of Heaven, said, “There are no charges.” Then the angel for the defense arose and rehearsed all the hardships this man had endured and recounted how in all the difficult circumstances of his life he had remained true to himself and returned good for evil.

When the angel was finished, the Lord said, “Not since Job himself have we heard of a life such as this one.” And then, turning to Shalom, he said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you.”

The old man raised his eyes and said, “Well, if I could start every day with a hot buttered roll…” And at that the Lord and all the angels wept, at the preciousness of what he was asking for, at the beauty of simple things : a buttered roll, a clean bed, a beautiful summer day, someone to love and be loved by. These supply joy and meaning on this earthly journey.

So I brought this with me. It’s an ordinary breakfast roll, perhaps one like Shalom asked for. I brought it because it drives home the last thing I want to say to you. Bread is the great re-enforcer of the reality principle. Bread is life. But if you’re like me you have a thousand and more times repeated the ordinary experience of eating bread without a thought for the process that brings it to your table. The reality is physical: I need this bread to live. But the reality is also social: I need others to provide the bread. I depend for bread on hundreds of people I don’t know and will never meet. If they fail me, I go hungry. If I offer them nothing of value in exchange for their loaf, I betray them. The people who grow the wheat, process and store the grain, and transport it from farm to city; who bake it, package it, and market it–these people and I are bound together in an intricate reciprocal bargain. We exchange value.

This reciprocity sustains us. If you doubt it, look around you. Hamilton College was raised here by people before your time, people you’ll never know, who were nonetheless thinking of you before you were born. You have received what they built and bequeathed, and in your time you will give something back. That’s the deal. On and on it goes, from generation to generation.

Civilization sustains and supports us. The core of its value is bread. But bread is its great metaphor. All my life I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ve never prayed, “Give me this day my daily bread.” It is always, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Bread and life are shared realities. They do not happen in isolation. Civilization is an unnatural act. We have to make it happen, you and I, together with all the other strangers. And because we and strangers have to agree on the difference between a horse thief and a horse trader, the distinction is ethical. Without it, a society becomes a war against all, and a market for the wolves becomes a slaughter for the lambs. My generation hasn’t done the best job at honoring this ethical bargain, and our failure explains the mess we’re handing over to you. You may be our last chance to get it right. So good luck, Godspeed, enjoy these last few hours together, and don’t forget to pass the bread.

Thanks, Amy.

Green Business

Green business is through the roof! What does that mean, asketh thee? (scoff) It means all kinds of things.

But mostly it means that we need to get on top of this thing before it gets away from us. That means healthcare trains between central cities; that means whole suburban enclaves recycled into biodiesel; it means tilting at chicken litter windmills and staring directly into the solar fireball until your eyes burn and night falls, and we have to feel around for Braille texts to get our daily ration of Turgenev. Yes, Turgenev.

This is from his short story Enough, a fragment from the note-book of a dead artist.

It was at the end of March before Annunciation, soon after I had seen
thee for the first time and–not yet dreaming of what thou wouldst be to
me–already, silently, secretly, I bore thee in my heart. I chanced to
cross one of the great rivers of Russia. The ice had not yet broken up,
but looked swollen and dark; it was the fourth day of thaw. The snow was
melting everywhere–steadily but slowly; there was the running of water
on all sides; a noiseless wind strayed in the soft air. Earth and sky
alike were steeped in one unvarying milky hue; there was not fog nor was
there light; not one object stood out clear in the general whiteness,
everything looked both close and indistinct. I left my cart far behind
and walked swiftly over the ice of the river, and except the muffled
thud of my own steps heard not a sound. I went on enfolded on all sides
by the first breath, the first thrill, of early spring… and gradually
gaining force with every step, with every movement forwards, a glad
tremour sprang up and grew, all uncomprehended within me… it drew me
on, it hastened me, and so strong was the flood of gladness within me,
that I stood still at last and with questioning eyes looked round me, as
I would seek some outer cause of my mood of rapture…. All was soft,
white, slumbering, but I lifted my eyes; high in the heavens floated a
flock of birds flying back to us…. ‘Spring! welcome spring!’ I shouted
aloud: ‘welcome, life and love and happiness!’ And at that instance,
with sweetly troubling shock, suddenly like a cactus flower thy image
blossomed aflame within me, blossomed and grew, bewilderingly fair and
radiant, and I knew that I love thee, thee only–that I am all filled
full of thee….
I think of thee… and many other memories, other pictures float before
me with thee everywhere, at every turn of my life I meet thee. Now an
old Russian garden rises up before me on the slope of a hillside,
lighted up by the last rays of the summer sun. Behind the silver poplars
peeps out the wooden roof of the manor-house with a thin curl of reddish
smoke above the white chimney, and in the fence a little gate stands
just ajar, as though some one had drawn it to with faltering hand; and I
stand and wait and gaze at that gate and the sand of the garden
path–wonder and rapture in my heart. All that I behold seems new and
different; over all a breath of some glad, brooding mystery, and already
I catch the swift rustle of steps, and I stand intent and alert as a
bird with wings folded ready to take flight anew, and my heart burns and
shudders in joyous dread before the approaching, the alighting

Then I see an ancient cathedral in a beautiful, far-off land. In rows
kneel the close packed people; a breath of prayerful chill, of something
grave and melancholy is wafted from the high, bare roof, from the huge,
branching columns. Thou standest at my side, mute, apart, as though
knowing me not. Each fold of thy dark cloak hangs motionless as carved

in stone. Motionless, too, lie the bright patches cast by the stained
windows at thy feet on the worn flags. And lo, violently thrilling the
incense-clouded air, thrilling us within, rolled out the mighty flood of
the organ’s notes… and I saw thee paler, rigid–thy glance caressed
me, glided higher and rose heavenwards–while to me it seemed none but
an immortal soul could look so, with such eyes…
Another picture comes back to me.

No old-world temple subdues us with its stern magnificence; the low
walls of a little snug room shut us off from the whole world. What am I
saying? We are alone, alone in the whole world; except us two there is
nothing living–outside these friendly walls darkness and death and
emptiness… It is not the wind that howls without, not the rain
streaming in floods; without, Chaos wails and moans, his sightless eyes
are weeping. But with us all is peaceful and light and warm and
welcoming; something droll, something of childish innocence, like a
butterfly–isn’t it so?–flutters about us. We nestle close to one
another, we lean our heads together and both read a favourite book. I
feel the delicate vein beating in thy soft forehead; I hear that thou
livest, thou hearest that I am living, thy smile is born on my face
before it is on thine, thou makest mute answer to my mute question, thy
thoughts, my thoughts are like the two wings of one bird, lost in the
infinite blue… the last barriers have fallen–and so soothed, so
deepened is our love, so utterly has all apartness vanished that we have
no need for word or look to pass between us…. Only to breathe, to
breathe together is all we want, to be together and scarcely to be
conscious that we are together….

The Consumed Vertigo of Catastrophe

French theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a sharp critic of contemporary society who twisted philosophy, social theory and cultural metaphysics into a chaotic ball of illuminating knots. The snippet below is from his 1970, The Consumer Society: Myths & Structures. This section is titled The Miraculous Status of Consumption.

The usage of signs is always ambivalent. Its function is always a conjuring – both a conjuring up and a conjuring away; causing something to emerge in order to capture it in signs (forces, reality, happiness, etc.) and evoking something in order to deny and repress it. We know that, in its myths, magical thought seeks to conjure away change and history. In a way, the generalized consumption of images, of facts, of information aims also to conjure away the real with signs of the real, to conjure away history with the signs of change, etc.

Reality we consume in either anticipatory or retrospective mode. At any rate, we do so at a distance, a distance which is that of the sign. For example, when Paris-Match showed us the secret forces assigned to protect the general [De Gaulle] training with machine guns in the basement of Prefecture, that image was not read as ‘information’ i.e. as referring to the political context and its elucidation. For every one of us, it bore within it the temptation of a superb assassination attempt, a prodigious violent event; the attempt will take place, it is going to take place; the image is the forerunner to it, and embodies the anticipated pleasure; all perversions have their acting out. What we see here is the same inverse effect as in the expectation of miraculous abundance within the cargo cult. Cargo or catastrophe – in both cases, we have an effect of consumed vertigo.

We may, admittedly, say that it is, then, our fantasies which come to be signified in the image and consumed in it. But this psychological aspect interests us less than what comes into the image to be both consumed in it and repressed: the real world, the event, history.

What characterizes consumer society is the universality of the news item [le fait divers] in mass communication. All political, history and cultural information is received in the same – at once anodyne and miraculous – form of the news item. It is entirely actualized – i.e. dramatized by the spectacular mode – and entirely deactualized – i.e. distanced by the communications medium and reduced to signs. The news item is thus not one category among others, but the cardinal category of our magical thinking, of our mythology.

That mythology is buttressed by the all the more voracious demand for reality, for ‘truth’, for ‘objectivity’. Everywhere we find cinema verite’, live reporting, the newsflash, the high-impact photo, the eye-witness report, etc. Everywhere what is sought is the ‘heart of the event’, the ‘heart of the battle’, the ‘live’, the ‘face to face’ – the dizzy sense of a total presence at the event, the Great Thrill of Lived Reality – i.e. the miracle once again, since the truth of the media report, televised and taped, is that I was not there. But it is the truer than true which counts or, in other words, the fact of being there without being there. Or, to put it another way, the fantasy.

What mass communications give us is not reality, but the dizzying whirl of reality [le vertige de la realite’]. Or again, without playing on words, a reality without the dizzying whirl, for the heart of Amazonia, the heart of reality, the heart of passion, the heart of war, this ‘Heart’ which is the locus of mass communications and which gives them their vertiginous sentimentality, is precisely the place where nothing happens. It is the allegorical sign of passion and of the event. And signs are sources of security.

So we live, sheltered by signs, in the denial of the real. A miraculous security: when we look at the images of the world, who can distinguish this brief irruption of reality from the profound pleasure of not being there? The image, the sign, the message – all these things we ‘consume’ – represent our tranquility consecrated by distance from the world, a distance more comforted by the allusion to the real (even where the allusion is violent) than compromised by it.

Sepia-toned future

For the six of you out there who don’t already read him, I link to today’s column from the shrill one – who now seems of the more sane among us. Go figure.

I would like to pick up on a few things he points out.

To be sure, the Obama administration is taking action to help the economy, but it’s trying to mitigate the slump, not end it. The stimulus bill, on the administration’s own estimates, will limit the rise in unemployment but fall far short of restoring full employment. The housing plan announced this week looks good in the sense that it will help many homeowners, but it won’t spur a new housing boom.

My first reaction to this is, we don’t need a new housing boom – that was one of the problems in the first place. But even this, as green as I always make it out to be, is itself a little too facile. What we don’t need is the same kind of crazy suburban housing boom, centered on and driven by the automobile in every way, and that is a non-trivial distinction if there ever was one. We do have to keep moving forward, a consequence of which is a growing population, one that needs housing. All the many things we talk about as far as energy efficiency, conservation, and lowered carbon footprint need to be incorporated in a kind of new housing boom. One that takes place nearer central cities, one that s accompanied by a boom in SUPERTRAINS and SUPERTRAIN TRACKS and SUPERTRAIN STATIONS, connecting this kind of housing boom to these smarter, much smarter goals for development being hatched on sites and across lecturns the nation over.

So… when Krugman also lays out some of the seeds of our recovery being planted…

Consider housing starts, which have fallen to their lowest level in 50 years. That’s bad news for the near term. It means that spending on construction will fall even more. But it also means that the supply of houses is lagging behind population growth, which will eventually prompt a housing revival.

Or consider the plunge in auto sales. Again, that’s bad news for the near term. But at current sales rates, as the finance blog Calculated Risk points out, it would take about 27 years to replace the existing stock of vehicles. Most cars will be junked long before that, either because they’ve worn out or because they’ve become obsolete, so we’re building up a pent-up demand for cars.

…These should only re-enforce the critical importance of putting these opportunities to work in the service of less waste, less energy, more walking, biking and mass transit. It could be a golden era – when our sepia-toned nostalgia for street car days of yore combine with the wizbang advantages of our high-tech faggery to give us copious amounts of actual time to piss away on stuff that matters. But it will require a major re-casting of all the tools we use to build houses and cars, including the nuts and bolts and screwguns and the materials they fasten but most importantly their designs and the regulations that guide them. Different requirements yield different outcomes, and that, my smiling-because-it’s-Friday friends, is what we’re after.