Roiling the Newness

Recent NYRB piece on the poets Ida Vitale and Tomasz Różycki—of Uruguay and Poland, respectively, is deserving of elevation and you, dear reader, deserving of its riches:

“Poetry,” Ida Vitale remarks in the essay included in her new collection, “like death, perhaps, is surrounded by explanations.” Now living again in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she was born in 1923, Vitale can take poetry’s prestige for granted. Over the past century or more Latin America has commanded a world stage: the writings of César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Pablo Neruda, among others, hardly require explanation or defense. Her own cohort, the Generation of 1945 (the “Generación Crítica”), was instrumental in keeping Montevideo abreast of cosmopolitan developments in literature, theater, and critical theory. Vitale has received numerous prizes in Uruguay, Mexico, Spain, and France, as well as the rank of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France in 2021. Yet her first selection of poems in English translation (over seventy years’ worth of work, presented in reverse chronological order) contains just one brief manifesto, “Poems in Search of the Initiated,” registering a delicate protest against the diminished readership for poetry:

The challenges awaiting a less confident reader may include unusual verbal constructions, not worn out by use, and a richer vocabulary. These are not impossible to face. The pleasure of enthusiastic decipherment releases a mysterious energy that moves not only the pages of poetry, but also the world’s great prose.

Mystery, Vitale notes, is “that which is reserved for the mystai, the initiated,” and “on the other hand…leads us to the idea of ministry.” But in a democratic age—or, more accurately, an age when democracy is teetering toward authoritarianism—“the initiated” evokes the specter of an elite despised on all sides: “rarefied poetry for the few, almost for specialists.”

Speak, dear authors. Everyone needs to be intrepid about everything, and that definitely includes reading and writing, but also looking at sculpture and paintings, watching dance performance. Hearing poetry.

If we are what we pretend to be, as Uncle Kurt, it’s past time to get serious about that.

Image: Author photo with Mrs. G in the old part of an old city.

Business-speak brouhaha

Oh, for the love of language. As Duncan reminds, the aughts were an incredibly fraught time for cloaking war and destruction in democracy as a way of de-stabilizing and neutralizing domestic opposition – both political and in the media (still a smoking ruin but… bygones). But about the same time – curiously, right around the time of the establishment of this very fine blog – the business community encountered the nascent green movement and saw… well, you know what they saw. Let’s see how the language is holding up:

For the first time in at least a decade, US drillers last year spent more on share buybacks and dividends than on capital projects, according to Bloomberg calculations. The $128 billion in combined payouts across 26 companies also is the most since at least 2012, and they happened in a year when US President Joe Biden unsuccessfully appealed to the industry to lift production and relieve surging fuel prices. For Big Oil, rejecting the direct requests of the US government may never have been more profitable.

At the heart of the divergence is growing concern among investors that demand for fossil fuels will peak as soon as 2030, obviating the need for mutlibillion-dollar megaprojects that take decades to yield full returns. In other words, oil refineries and natural-gas fired power plants — along with the wells that feed them — risk becoming so-called stranded assets if and when they are displaced by electric cars and battery farms.

In other words, companies will pay dividends and buyback stock to keep the share price high for as long as they can, even in the face of all the signs that are telling them to shift, while they shift and not supporting the shift, thereby slowing the shift, when the shift needs to happen much faster. Squeeze all the profits out of short-term projects, eschew longer term investments in fossil fuels, which are obviously foolish because of what we are doing/not doing. If and when, indeed:

US oil production is expected to grow just 5% this year to 12.5 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration. Next year, the expansion is expected to slow to just 1.3%, the agency says. While the US is adding more supply than most of the rest of the world, it’s a marked contrast to the heady days of shale in the previous decade when the US was adding more than 1 million barrels of daily output each year, competing with OPEC and influencing global prices.

Tell us again – Billions in Handouts as doubts grow – actual subtitle of article (thanks editors!): Shareholders envisioning the imminent peak of petroleum demand want executives to focus on short-term returns rather than long-term projects that risk becoming stranded assets.

In the immortal words of William Burroughs, “And because he was himself a priest, there was no need to call one.”

Never having to say you’re sorry

bull's eye view photo

For Wall Street, that’s what it means apparently. Torn over whether a Biden win brings joy or misery. Really.

Those with the rosier outlook point to Biden’s mostly pro-business inner circle, his significant campaign contributions from the financial industry and his longtime support of credit card companies located in his home state of Delaware. Plus, a Biden victory would likely be driven by U.S. voters seeking change because they believe the country is a mess. Wall Street thinks it has a strong argument to make that reining in lenders would be a fatal mistake when unemployment is sky-high and the economy remains ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

The enthusiasm, however, is tempered by fears over how much sway Biden will give progressives and their firebrand leaders, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. That’s especially true when it comes to picking appointees to run the powerful agencies that police banks and securities firms, jobs that the activists are mobilizing to fill with industry critics. At a minimum, progressives want to ensure that the days are long over when Democrats appointed officials like Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who is a key Biden adviser.

The stakes for Wall Street couldn’t be higher. Centrist regulators would be less likely to overturn rule rollbacks approved under Trump that have saved financial firms tens of billions of dollars. Progressive agency heads, on the other hand, could pursue what the C-suite calls the “shame and investigation agenda.” Policies like taxes on trading, curbs on executive pay and even breaking up behemoth banks would be back on the table.

To wonder whether ‘Wall Street’ has some understanding of our current morass, much less the words ‘joy’ or ‘ misery,’ is to weep. Of course they do. Always check the business press if you’re wondering at all about the soul of a consumer society. Mantra for post-2016 world: it’s always worse than you think.

Image: Replica golden calf. Subtlety is NOT their strong point.

The Futility Throughway

Whoever would have thunk it, that pointless exhaustion can provide a passage through the morass? I get it; too hopeful, too quickly. First comes the re-appraisal of words we thought we knew well – better, normal, fair, bad, new – not only considering them, but not thinking of them in the same way again. Ever.

Yes, difficult. No need to be welcomed to difficult, as we’re well-acquainted already, not neighbors but our actual address. Is there any other way? Everyone assumed to wish there was. Any way to avoid a similar worse. But no/yes. There: the passage.

The light of recognizing an unfamiliar sound. Contradiction, check. Loosen from accepted precepts, in process. Allow unsupportable sentiments to ferment. To stop at mere nihilism would be a luxury. Not hurrying or getting past anything for its own sake, but tarrying there, at catastrophe, long enough to step across it. Onto into. Again: better? It hardly matters, whatever that once meant. If it is to be a modifying qualifier in any sense, being completely cast from former shores by necessity comes first. You can’t stay because you’re afraid to be out on the open sea for too long – gulp. Already sick from so much salt water swallowed not by mistake or accidentally.

Albeit in the guise of the shittiest form of optimism imaginable, it’s not even that. Good or bad re-lost, abandoned, and this time on purpose. Brought to the brink, yes. But here we are, and now we stay. How long? How long does it take? Sounds like a choice, one that kills many as it makes a few stronger. Every completely joyous venture now summoned as punishment, exercise, conditioning maneuvers under live fire. Do you feel free? This is actually what it’s like. How about now?

Simply by the energy expended to resist the impulses to quit, to give up, give in, only this time, we’ve already done those. Are doing them. Find ourselves within an extended succumb. Not capitulating though. So, what, a new good? Fighting to call it something, anything, but not too quickly. Allow the energy to circulate and pressurize, and not ask imprudent reassurance. Steer right into the berg. Do fierce winds keep a wrecked ship upright? It’s now that we’re ready to fight. If we had been a minute earlier, we would have engaged the battle already. Fighting or about to makes logic extreme, but you insisted on free and it turns out to be both. Every meaning doubled, loose at both ends. Potent dreams, finally dangerous.

 

 

Afford to do, afford not to do

What is the concept of afford, and does it work both ways? The question is not whether it can work two ways, but for the concept to be meaningful at all, it has to be fully operational with regard to meaning.

We’re not just deciding what to spend money on — wait, yes we are! In so doing, any action must be considered in the context of its opportunity cost, and with further unpacking of the consequences of not spending money on certain things, the consequences this decision assures.

For instance, Mr. Sarda said, it’s relatively straightforward for businesses to calculate the potential costs from an increase in taxes designed to curb emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Indeed, this is one of the most common climate-related risks that companies now disclose. But it’s trickier to take scientific reports about rising temperatures and weather extremes and say what those broad trends might mean for specific companies in specific locations.

Previous studies, based on computer climate modeling, have estimated that the risks of global warming, if left unmanaged, could cost the world’s financial sector between $1.7 trillion to $24.2 trillion in net present value terms. A recent analysis published in the journal Nature Climate Change warned that companies are reporting on these risks only “sporadically and inconsistently” and often take a narrow view of the dangers that may lie ahead.

The financial context of whether or not to do something – can we pay for doing the thing – extends in validity only as far as this framing is reversed: can we afford not to do something.

That is, the so-called cost of addressing climate change – or homelessness – large problems who’s answers supposedly involved gross amounts of expenditure that could be determined to be too large must also be considered in their reverse outlines. What is the cost of doing nothing? Is this affordable? Here the concept actually has meaning and may provide a constructive way forward.

But if we decide not to spend money on ameliorating climate change expressly because the measures are deemed prohibitively expensive, and yet the broad effects of climate change prove to be even more expensive than the proposed steps, then the affordability argument is invalid, if not disingenuous. While it may be the case that some consequences are unknowable in advance, that truth equally invalidates the affordability argument in advance. If it can’t be known whether a step would be worth it, it likewise cannot be known whether ignoring a step might be a price too high.

TL;Dr – Decisions made to ignore the effects of climate change must be taken for a reason other than the affordability argument.

Reading 2018

I’d love to tell you want it all meant, but instead I’ll just share a partial [but unranked] list of the books I read this year.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Primeros Pobladores; Hispanic Americans of the Ute Frontier, by Frances Leon Quintana

God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island, Georgia by Cornelia Walker Bailey and Christena Beldsoe

Les Passions Intellectuelles by Elisabeth Badinter

Do well and be well in 2019.

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.

No Insurance Office

On a day when the Obama Administration decided to turn people who want to breath clean air into “enviros,” whatever that means, it was difficult to find something appropriate and fitting of the moment. Then, bingo.

Honore de Balzac, Bureaucracy, Chapter 5: The Machine in Motion

At this moment the division of Monsieur de la Billardiere was in a state of unusual excitement, resulting very naturally from the event which was about to happen; for heads of divisions do not die every day, and there is no insurance office where the chances of life and death are calculated with more sagacity than in a government bureau. Self-interest stifles all compassion, as it does in children, but the government service adds hypocrisy to boot.

The clerks of the bureau Baudoyer arrived at eight o’clock in the morning, whereas those of the bureau Rabourdin seldom appeared till nine,–a circumstance which did not prevent the work in the latter office from being more rapidly dispatched than that of the former. Dutocq had important reasons for coming early on this particular morning. The previous evening he had furtively entered the study where Sebastien was at work, and had seen him copying some papers for Rabourdin; he concealed himself until he saw Sebastien leave the premises without taking any papers away with him. Certain, therefore, of finding the rather voluminous memorandum which he had seen, together with its copy, in some corner of the study, he searched through the boxes one after another until he finally came upon the fatal list. He carried it in hot haste to an autograph-printing house, where he obtained two pressed copies of the memorandum, showing, of course, Rabourdin’s own writing. Anxious not to arouse suspicion, he had gone very early to the office and replaced both the memorandum and Sebastien’s copy in the box from which he had taken them. Sebastien, who was kept up till after midnight at Madame Rabourdin’s party, was, in spite of his desire to get to the office early, preceded by the spirit of hatred. Hatred lived in the rue Saint-Louis-Saint-Honore, whereas love and devotion lived far-off in the rue du Roi-Dore in the Marais. This slight delay was destined to affect Rabourdin’s whole career.

Sebastien opened his box eagerly, found the memorandum and his own unfinished copy all in order, and locked them at once into the desk as Rabourdin had directed. The mornings are dark in these offices towards the end of December, sometimes indeed the lamps are lit till after ten o’clock; consequently Sebastien did not happen to notice the pressure of the copying-machine upon the paper. But when, about half-past nine o’clock, Rabourdin looked at his memorandum he saw at once the effects of the copying process, and all the more readily because he was then considering whether these autographic presses could not be made to do the work of copying clerks.

“Did any one get to the office before you?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied Sebastien,–“Monsieur Dutocq.”

“Ah! well, he was punctual. Send Antoine to me.”

Too noble to distress Sebastien uselessly by blaming him for a misfortune now beyond remedy, Rabourdin said no more. Antoine came. Rabourdin asked if any clerk had remained at the office after four o’clock the previous evening. The man replied that Monsieur Dutocq had worked there later than Monsieur de la Roche, who was usually the last to leave. Rabourdin dismissed him with a nod, and resumed the thread of his reflections.

“Twice I have prevented his dismissal,” he said to himself, “and this is my reward.”