Thursday, January 07, 2016

Description of the World - Part 38

Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (One of of my motives in undertaking this survey is to find out how many of my books I’ve actually read. Finding books that I bought and then ignored doesn’t surprise or dismay me. I expected to find many, more than I have found so far. What worries me a bit, however, are books that I’m pretty sure I did read that I can’t recall a thing about, especially when I have reason to believe that their contents have been absorbed into my thinking and the topics they covered are matters I care about. Strayer’s book is in this category. I know I read it because some of the pages have been recently cut, and I certainly have spent a long time thinking about the origins of the modern state. What makes it worse is that this edition only came out in 2005 so I read it within the last decade. I have often joked that a bad memory is helpful insofar as it makes it possible to commit plagiarism with a good conscience. I can only hope what I stole from this book was worthwhile.

W.H. Prescott, Conquest of Peru (I don’t know when I acquired this yellowing, crumbling volume. The edition is undated, a cheap reprint put out by the Book League of America, a junior competitor of the Book of the Month. I do know it cost me a quarter so I probably acquired it when I was 13 or 14 from the old Jewish guy at the used furniture store on Western. I’ve read other accounts of Pizarro’s rampage since so it is rather hard to tell how much of my impression of that thug derives from Prescott. My only lasting impression of this author is a strong dislike for his style. Prescott says that he finished writing the book “with feelings not unlike those of the traveler who, having long journeyed among the dreary forests and dangerous defiles of the mountains, at length emerges on some pleasant landscape smiling in tranquility and peace.” If I actually made my way to the end of the book back in 1959, I probably felt much the same.)

Bandine Kriegel, The State and the Rule of Law (Both the left and the right despise the state. Our rightists want to drown it in a bathtub. The Soviets elevated the party above the state so that when Gorbachev decided to rule as President rather than Party Secretary, it was a clear sign that the end was near. Law is also unpopular with every kind of radical. Donald Trump sounds like he’s channeling Carl Schmitt, albeit a Carl Schmitt with three sheets in the wind,*as he proposes that the strong leader we need and he would be won’t be bothered with legal niceties. Soviet commissars had the same outlook: they were anti-bureaucrats who did what the situation demanded, rules and regulations be damned. They might shoot you in the name of the Revolution, but they wouldn’t bore you to death with paperwork. The regime’s official sense of humor—there was such a thing—relentlessly lampooned raisin-shitting officials and their triplicate forms. Well, the law is in fact an ass; and if Nietzsche overstated things when he claimed that the state is the coldest of cold monsters, it can be cold enough. The current situation in Syria and other places in the Middle East suggests that there is another side to the story, however. Kriegel’s little book, which is not so much a work of history as a heavily footnoted political pamphlet, is a plea for a re-evaluation of the concept of the state that takes off from an argument that Western European monarchy was not a form of despotism but the proximate origin of the concept of legally constituted sovereignty, whether monarchical, oligarchical, or democratic. It’s not a paean dedicated to dead kings and lawyers in fur-lined gowns any more than E.P. Thompson’s famous and much reviled defense of the rule of law in the last pages of Whigs and Hunters, means that the law can’t be an instrument of exploitation and oppression. Kriegel is well aware of what kings were actually like, and Thompson spent much of his career detailing how the enclosure laws served class interests. I’m also a (qualified) supporter of the state and legality. I don’t think Kriegel was very effective in making the (our) case, unfortunately. I’ve seen very few references to the book, even though you’d think that Kriegel, who worked with Foucault towards the end of his career, would have made more of an impression if only because of her connections. On the other hand, the reappraisal of liberalism in Foucault’s late works has also not garnered a great deal of attention either.   

*In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Carl Schmitt’s philosophy of how the leader is superior to the law reprises an old bit from Herodotus. The Persian king asked the elders if there was a law that said he could marry his sister. They told him there wasn’t such a law, but there was a law that said that the king could do what he wants.)

20th Century Culture: A Biographical Companion, edited by Alan Bullock and R.B. Woodlings (I don’t consult reference books like this much any more because the Internet more conveniently fulfills their usual purpose, i.e., figuring out how to spell something. If you had an infinite amount of time on your hands, it might be interesting to see who the editors left out when they finished the book in 1983—what’s left out of books is often as telling as what’s in ‘em. Of course as the humanities catch up with the sciences we may eventually have really distant reading—no readers—and the experiment I propose may be carried out in the bowels of a server farm in Baffin Island. I remember a science fiction novel about a computer scientist who hated nuns. He programmed a computer to write doctoral dissertations and masters theses on any topic that had nun proposed for her advanced degree, thus pre-empting her: Thomas Aquinas and the Question of Why Japanese Men are Obsessed about Young Women with Chubby Calves, etc. Borges thought that it sufficed to come up with the name for imaginary books and he proposed dozens of ‘em. According to him, it would be rather humorless to actually write such books or maybe just too much bother—I don’t think he liked to write very much.  Contra Borges, I think I’d enjoy reading Ars honeste petandi in societate, by Hardouin de Graetz or Luigi Albedo’s Unauthorized Leaks: Enuresis in the Late Works of Henry James. Anyhow, even if these projects have no commercial prospects, it’s only a matter of time before not only writing books but enjoying them is automated, thus making possible the electronic delectation of the subtle insights provided by a compilation of what’s missing in 20th Century Culture. For a work in that spirit see my forthcoming poem in 26 cantos, The Road Really Not Taken, which features the lines “Whose woods these aren’t/I haven’t larn’t.” Either that or keep reading this blog.)

No comments: