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Paul la Farge has a review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the newest issue of The Believer.  Criticized as too encyclopedic and too sadistic (the protagonist is an SS officer that killed his mother and stepfather, anally rapes his sister and enjoys his job overseeing the Lublin concentration camp) la Farge, agreeing with those sentiments, wants to find out why it is such a compelling read.

La Farge seems particularly captivated by the encyclopedic nature of the book.  Max Aue, the protagonist, is painted by la Farge more as a scanner and less person, taking in everything and remembering everything with inhumane clarity in a strategic realism– a “refusal to sort important from unimportant”. (4)

There is then a meander through Eichmann’s trials and Arendt’s reporting of the trial culminating in her Banality of Evil.  To avoid the banality of citing the banality (la Farge’s joke, not mine) he paraphrases it (well done, in my opinion) as “the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away…?” (6)  Why is this banality, this overemphasis of information over knowledge so compelling?  La Farge does not venture a guess except to cite the constitutive lack, that people are intrinsically incomplete.  This is also the reason la Farge claims The Kindly Ones is so compelling: “it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.” (8)

I do not believe la Farge is honest when he says this method is persuasive to the lazy, young or sad.  La Farge was compelled by The Kindly Ones and I doubt he would group himself into those pejorative labels.  Instead, it is quite likely that la Farge believes all people are compelled by the constitutive lack and consequently all people find the totalitarian story compelling.  This is where la Farge’s argument breaks down: psychoanalysis can reduce people’s urges to a primal cause but all people then interpret the solution to that same cause differently.

Some may be drawn to the totalitarian state and yet others may be drawn to classic auto shows while some are drawn to Furry Conventions or picking navel lint.  In a strict reduction we may appear alike but we all manifest differently.  The constituent lack does not explain why The Kindly Ones is compelling.  La Farge knows this problem exists for his argument which is why he sets out the purpose of the essay with a qualification that denies the very exigency for the purpose: “The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers[emphasis mine].  The question I want to ask is, why?”  Why does the question need to be asked if this book, like all books, is about preference?

What la Farge’s essay completely overlooks in the success of The Kindly Ones is style.  I am surprised to see this error in a post-Seinfeld world.  Jerry and George launched a sitcom about nothing.  They realized that content is irrelevant as long as the writing is good.  People want to be entertained and what they find entertaining is nearly irrelevant.  ER also provided this lesson.  Critics and producers told Michael Crichton the show was to jargon filled.  Too technical.  Crichton correctly took the chance that people were engaged not by the accuracy of a technology but by compelling characters and stories.   No content can sell and too much content can sell.  It’s all about storytelling.  La Farge spends no time talking about style.  He does, however, cite (4) a passage towards the end of the book to demonstrate his scanner theory, but the passage really demonstrates less realism and more style.  Good writing sells even if, nay especially if, we hate the protagonist.

La Farge’s essay is useful for other questions though.  His description and paraphrasing of Arendt’s banality of evil is one of the better concisions I have ever encountered.  La Farge also provides a persuasive account, not at all unlike Erich Fromm’s, of why people are drawn to submission.  There is also a nice walk through ancient Greek literature particularly the Orestes (otherwise known as The Kindly Ones.)  The best part of la Farge’s essay though is a theory about information and knowledge drawn out of Arendt’s theorizations.  Eichmann had information about the camps he oversaw but he did not know the camps.  This break is helpful when analyzing our own world for resistance to change.

For example, Easterly has recently decided to take on the critics who call poverty a human rights violation.  He claims a human rights violation is best reserved for when a victim and a perpetrator can be (easily?) identified.  Easterly then says that while he knows how bad poverty is that these calls are counterproductive.  I will admit that history is on Easterly’s side but that is only because the game is rigged.  The transcript of success can only measure immediate causes and their effects.  The larger calls which shape policies are ignored and the ‘true’ human rights violations are treated as deus ex machina.  Easterly’s criticism fails because of the information/knowledge distinction la Farge raises.  Easterly has information about the ravages of poverty but he does not know poverty.  If he knew poverty he would be more adamant about solving it if for no other reason than he would not sit in his current position en-privileged by the very poverty he wants to fight.

In conclusion I offer William Blake’s words in “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

Easterly, William.  (2009).  Aid Watch, http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/2009/06/paul_farmer_and_the_human_righ.html.

la Farge, Paul.  (2009).  A scanner darkly.  The Believer, 66, 3-8.

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Saint Wolfgang and the Devil by Michael Pacher).
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The season is finally over.  I have been home 3 days over the past 3 weeks.  I thought I had finished the travels early but then Matt asked if I would be willing to help him househunt for a new place in upstate New York.  Much to The Swede’s disaproval I went along: helping a friend, road tripping to upstate NY, camping in the Adirondacks and the possibility of catching some opening day baseball in as-yet-unvisited ballparks all made for a perfect storm of disappointment for The Swede.

In any case I am now home, and I have been trying to catch up on my shows.  Last night I watched an episode of Reaper which begged a valuable question: why does the Devil care about accumulating souls?  This statement of purpose came during a debate with the Devil about whether his goal was soul accumulation or spreading havoc and misery.  The answer was soul accumulation, which strikes me as utterly capitalist, wealth for wealth’s sake.  Most of us accumulate wealth to enhance our quality of life, but for the super rich this is not the case.  It should come as no shock that on the show the Devil always looks daper and speaks like a true blue capitalist.   It’s such a good show.

I have done some basic research for why the Devil is concerned with soul accumulation and I have only found two answers.  First, there is the claim that the Devil is insane.  I am never comfortable with this description.  Someone’s rationality is another’s comedy sketch but to say it is irrational is lazy in its lack of rigor and its far sweeping non-falsifiable power of explanation.  The second excuse is that God cares for the souls and so the Devil is just trying to fuck with God.  I am also not satisfied with this explanation.  Why would someone dedicate eternity to fuck with an unbeatable foe?  Why would God an omniscient and omnipotent being even desire?  Instead there is something else, something that imbues significance to the ‘fucking’.

If theological texts are going to paint us in the forms of God and the Devil then some of the same methods of inquiry should also translate, especially to the Devil who, while more powerful than humans, was also created by an Other and is limited in relation to that very Other.  The Devil is trying to regain God’s graces and love and has chosen soul-accumulation as the method to do so.  If the Devil accumulates enough souls, so he believes, then he will demonstrate to God his power and value and then God will need to reaccept the Devil into the fold.  Like the boy that accumulates baseballs hoping to earn the love of his father who happens to be a huge baseball fan.

That’s the theory as of now.  Why do I spend time thinking about this stuff when I do not even believe?  I am not sure, but how can believers not spend time thinking of this stuff.  It’s all the same dubious nature of desire at play in all of us, even the Devil.  My concern though is, assuming this is all true, what happens when the Devil finally learns about the futility of this mechanism, what then?  Will psychoanalysis then bear out the ‘final solution’?  The Devil in his anger then really begins to care most about sowing misery and havoc in a self-immolation reminiscient of eschatological premonitions?

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I have just started reading the new Roberto Bolano book, 2666, the very one that is making all kinds of waves for its immanent changing of literature.  I will make some comments here as I work through it.  It is a massive tome so it may take me some time, but I guess that is then why god invented the ‘next item’ button at the bottom of the RSS viewer.

In his introduction of Liz Norton, Bolano says that she does not have the drive present in the other three characters.  My ears always perk up when I cross this word because of its complex and ubiquitous presence in psychoanalytic literature.  Drive, according to Zizek, “persists in a certain demand, it is a ‘mechanical’ insistence that cannot be caught up in the dialectical trickery: I demand something and I persist in it to the end.” (1998.  Looking awry.  21)

I will probably butcher the theory here, but the demand is, in short, the opposite of desire.  We are driven to something not because we are told to want it and not because we are told to not want it.  The drive harkens back to the fundamental lacuna.  It is this reference that makes Zizek and Bolano arrive at the same conclusion: drive is in opposition to “the word life [hence ‘death drive’], and, on rare occasions, happiness.” (Bolano, 2004, 8)  The obvious difference though is that Zizek believes true happiness is best found by following the drive and enjoying the symptom, whereas Bolano has set up the binary in the other direction.

Needless to say he has already struck upon some ground that is both deep and also treacherously close to the jagged rocks lurking below the waters.

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I have always been a proponent of MTV. People mock it, like pop music, but I think there is value to watching it, or at least keeping abreast of it. Not only because I think it is important to be culturally relevant but also because there are important concepts to be gleaned. It may take more work than listening to NPR does, but there is value in there.

I remember a few seasons of The Real World ago there was a marathon with commentary by Coral, a fixture among the franchise. She was commenting on an episode where one of the cast members cheated on a significant other that was back home. Corals’ comment was “and here comes the reveal.” I thought this was particularly insightful since the only thing that was happening was a conversation between the cast member and the significant other, but the name of the other was mentioned. Here is how it usually happens:

Significant other: “What did you do last night?”
Cast member: “Oh, not much. Just hung out with Thomas/Tammy. It was a pretty boring night.”

I thought it was insightful because not only did Coral demonstrate the name dropping was a hint, but that it was an intentional hint – what I guess the kids these days call fishing for a reaction. Zizek (2008) makes the same observation in his latest tome: “the question to be raised is: what more is there hiding in this statement that made the speaker enunciate it?” (49) Zizek and Coral have the same lesson for us: if it was no big deal then why was the name of an-other mentioned? The Real World teaches us that the motivation is to get a reaction. The cast member wants to feel important and the best measure is if you can make another person feel badly by behaving badly.

Zizek’s illustration in In Defense of Lost Causes is eerily similar to the above, a husband and wife in an unspoken open relationship except the husband one day mentions the affair. The wife now responds hysterically because the affair(s) are now spoken therefore something has changed in the relationship.

Ther Iraq Study Group presents an interesting problem for American foreign policy. Clearly there are questions about if Bush will follow the recommendations and how so. There is also an interesting question about qualifications, some saying the ISG proves the current Republicans are immature and incompetent, whereas the old guard still possess erudite qualities.

But there is another question that needs to be pressed to this scenario, and it is one easily confused with the first question I highlighted. What will Bush do? But I am not concerned (not here, at least) about the political calculations involved. I am instead more concerned with Bush’s resistance to the ISG and how it will effect the political decisions sure to follow.

There is an Oedipal connection to be explored as Bush measures the recommendations from key members of his father’s foreign policy apparatus (most notably James Baker.) William Conolly (2002. The Augustinian imperative. NY: Rowan & Littelfield Publishers, Inc. pp. 52-3.) provides in the passage below and exploration of the difficulty of actually doing what one knows she ought to do. This passage contains some block quotations itself from Augustine, so the formatting may seem off. I am also going to bold portions of the passage to further bring out what I think are the most important parts. None of the bolding is Conolly’s.

As Augustine confesses the sins of his past and the problem of evil he is moved to ponder the character of human will. The confession here parallels the confession of memory. Augustine finds that he has done things he did not will and has willed things he did not do. This leads him to suspect that the source of evil and human suffering resides deeply within the will itself, in the very structure of human will and desire. [Begin Conolly’s block quotation of Augustine]

Why should it be? Mind commands body, and it obeys forthwith. Mind gives orders to itself, and it is resisted. Mind gives orders for the hand to move, and so easy is it that command can scarcely be distinguished from execution. Yet mind is mind, while hand is body. Mind commands mind to will: there is no difference here, but it does not do so. Whence comes this monstrous state? Why should it be?

[End Conolly’s block quotation] Augustine is not worried about the mind/body problem that has perplexed Western thought at least since a mechanistic conception of nature became popular in the 17th century. This is not a Cartesian question about how the mind interacts with the body. For that relation is pretty reliable: “Mind gives orders for the hand to move, and…command can scarcely be distinguished from execution.” Augustine is concerned about a mind/mind problem, about a perplexity or dissonance interior to the will itself. You will not to invite your attractive friend for a late drink, but the words crawl out of your mouth anyway. Augustine wills to be continent, but he is incontinent. His friend, Alypius, wills to forgo the violent blood of the circus, but under the prodding of friends he sinks into it again. The question is not whether those acts are okay despite the values of those who resist them, but why one does the thing one wills not to do once one has willed not to do it.

The answer, for Augustine, is not that the body overwhelms the will or that the will is in combat with dark forces that sometimes overmatch it. The first answer would take him too close to Platonic paganism and the second too close to the heresy of Manicheanism. The source of the conflict must therefore be a division within the will itself. [Begin Conolly’s block quotation of Augustine]

It does not will it in its entirety: for this reason it does not give this command in its entirety. For it commands a thing only in so far as it wills it, and in so far as what it commands is not done, to that extent it does not will it…But the complete will does not give the command and therefore what it commands is not in being.

I hope this passage helps us understand a reason why things go wrong. It is especially helpful for why things may go wrong in the worst possible places for them to go wrong: Iraq. Maybe the abuses US soldiers are accused of are not a failing of leadership or even training. Instead they may be the inevitable outcome of placing people in situations predicated on violence and death. Maybe the insurgents are merely acting out this mind/mind problem and there is nothing the US can do to ease the problem.

I find it unlikely that Iraq is a hodgepodge of forces that can be identified and dealt with. There are things at work we may never understand and while some may call that life, given the circumstances in Iraq we instead call it death. This is a sobering possibility and one that right now is too abstract to provide an ethic for dealing with Iraq, but with time and work maybe Augustinian insights can provide some help and relief. Everyone sees the status quo and asks the same question: why should it be?

What, then, does the self-beating in Fight Club stand for? IN a first approach, it is clear that its fundamental stake is to reach out and reestablish the connection with the real Other, that is, to suspend the fundamental abstraction and coldness of the capitalist subjectivity best exemplified by the figure of the lone monadic individual who, alone in front of the PC screen, communicates with the entire world. In contrast to the humanitarian compassion that enables us to retain our distance toward the other, the very violence of the fight signals the abolition of this distance. Although this strategy is risky and ambiguous (it can easily regress into proto-fascist macho logic of violent make bonding), this risk has to be assumed – there is no other direct way out of the closure of the capitalist subjectivity. The first lesson of Fight Club is thus that one cannot pass directly from capitalist to revolutionary subjectivity: the abstraction, the foreclosure of the others, the blindness for the others’ suffering and pain, has first to be broken in a risk-taking gesture of directly reaching toward the suffering other – a gesture that, since it shatters the very kernel of our identity, cannot but appear as extremely violent. However, there is another dimension at work in the self-beating: the subject’s scatological (excremental) identification, which equals adopting the position of the proletarian who has nothing to lose. The pure subject emerges only through this experience of radical self-degradation, when I let/provoke the other to beat the crap out of me, emptying me of all substantial content, of all symbolic support that could confer on me a minimum of dignity. Consequently, when jack beats himself in front of his boss, his message to the boss is: “I know you want to beat me; but, you see, your desire to beat me is also my desire, so, if you were to beat me, you would be fulfilling the role of the servant of my perverse masochist desire. But you are too much of a coward to act out your desire, so I will do it for you – here you have it, what you really wanted. Why are you so embarrassed? Are you not ready to accept it?” Crucial here is the gap between fantasy and reality. The boss, of course, would have never actually beaten up Jack: he was merely fantasizing about doing it, and the painful effect of Jack’s self-beating hinges on the very fact that he stages the content of the secret fantasy his boss would never be able to actualize. (Slavoj Zizek. 2003. The ambiguity of the masochist social link. In Rothenberg, Foster & Zizek, eds. Sic 4: Perversions and the social relation. 112-25. 116-7.)

This passage sums up to me why psychoanalysis is such a fun literature to pursue. It possesses a creative and penetrating gaze into events, with a startling ability to explain what is going on. However, it is a reductionist science (read: too creative) and denies the possibility of many differing interpretations (assuming the main principle of psychoanalysis that intent is not important.)

My reading of the scene Zizek discusses is different and probably more in line with the simpleton’s reading: Jack wants to extort money from his boss and fakes a beating to force his boss to give in to the demand, because the boss’s description of how Jack was beaten up by himself would not be credible to anyone except for Zizek.

Zizek’s reading of the scene, however, attributes the same fantasy to both Jack and the boss – to beat Jack up. This is the psychoanalytic tradition: reducing human desire to a basic immutable truth. While desires fluctuate across situations, there is not an allowance in this dyad for differing desire. There is not account in either the movie nor in Zizek’s re-presentation of the movie of the boss wanting to beat Jack up. This is an asserted desire on Zizek’s part and it is understandable why, if the boss does not share jack’s desire then Zizek’s argument falls apart. The boss is no longer a coward. The boss is no longer demonstrating the gap between fantasy and reality.

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