Wednesday, September 27, 2017


Description of the World - Part 69


Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540-1660, ed. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (I don’t think I ever read this collection of scholarly articles. I may have bought the book for the pictures, which are indeed interesting. I think I know why the topic appealed to me. Back in the 90s I got to thinking about the sheer abundance of visual images in contemporary life, the epidemic of illustrations. Which raised the question of how many images were available to previous generations and what difference did the scarcity of pictures make?. Historicists of a certain denomination, adherents of the Whorf hypothesis, and many others who retain a faith in psychology believe that ancient peoples and distant tribes inhabit a different reality because they have a different mentality. I’m inclined to think they have (or had) a different mentality because they inhabited a different reality. Language, belief, culture aren’t lived in the privacy of private skulls The things of the world are their body. Which is why, gazing at the relics of the past in museums and books, I find myself quoting the Tin Man: “That’s you all over.” Were icons and images a burning issue in previous ages at least in part because there just weren’t very many of ‘em?)

The Okagami: A Japanese Historical Tale, trans. Joseph K. Yamagiwa (Two ancient duffers, one 150, the other 140, tell stories about court life in Medieval Japan. “I have seen a great many sights, but among them none was more fascinating than when Retired Emperor En’yu was viewing the Special Festival at Iwashimizu.” To tell the truth, the sight in question wasn’t all that spectacular, at least from the point of view of a coarse Westerner or contemporary Japanese kid who wants car chases. Japan suffered plenty of the cruel and showy events that characterize the history of other lands, but it also went through long stretches of solitude and political immobility. It, or at least its elite, lived inside a couple of soap bubbles that didn’t burst for a surprisingly long time. In several periods, it lived the End of History or so Fukuyama, the End-of-History guy, supposed. (He was actually channeling a footnote in Alexandre Koj√®ve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.) Once the historical dialectic reaches it’s end (for the time being), there’s nothing left but aestheticism and the meaningless pursuit of prestige, viewing the moon and improvising little poems. My guilty confession is that I don’t think that outcome would be especially disastrous.)

Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam ( I lived through the Vietnam War era, which is why I don’t understand it at all and why I have never managed to read this now crumbling paperback from 1973. For that matter, I’d rather go to the dentist than watch the Ken Burns documentary. Since I sat through several teach-ins during the War and have read a couple of histories of Vietnam, I know the facts pretty well. Lord knows the rightness or wrongness of the America involvement was chewed over endlessly at the time; and, contrary to an impression many people have, it wasn’t the case that students were uniformly anti-war. I was at a debate over the war at the Yale Whale that ended in a dead tie. For that matter, I had mixed emotions about the war at the time. I thought it was a mistake, not only morally but as a matter of national strategy; but I was also worried that the anti-war movement was going to result in lasting cynicism and division. I spent two hours on a ratty sofa in a grad dorm arguing with the Reverend William Sloane Coffin on that very point—he waved away my concerns. He was as idealistic as a boy scout and just didn’t understand how political anger was curdling into nihilism and Yuppy self absorption. Confusion about the war was all the deeper because it was quite impossible to separate the political from the personal when you were facing the draft, a fact that was underlined when Nixon ended the draft and the air almost immediately began to leak out of the anti-war movement. The hangover was painfully ambiguous as well.  The fall of Saigon wasn’t an edifying moment for anybody and not just because so many lives had been lost for nothing. It was hard not to feel that we didn’t act honorably as a nation when we washed our hands of any responsibility for the South Vietnamese. The law of overshoot in operation.

I have evolved my own party line on Vietnam, but it is obviously incomplete even assuming it’s right as far as it goes. The revisionists are correct to the extent that it is perfectly true that the victory of the North guaranteed forty years of economic stagnation and authoritarian rule, but wrong in not recognizing that people will fight to the end for the right to make their own mistakes coming out of imperial domination. The fundamental error of our policy was in the way we framed the situation. There were two great themes of international politics after World War II, the Cold War and the end of the colonial empires. American foreign policy was most successful when it supported decolonization, but much less successful when it cast everything as part of the struggle against the Reds. We should have co-opted Ho Chi Minh, not opposed him; but once Eisenhower didn’t insist that the South live up to its treaty obligations to hold and respect general elections, it was too late.

Robert L. Heilbroner, Business Civilization in Decline (Like many other lefties—Gabriel Kolko and E.P.Thompson—Heilbroner recanted some of his hostility to capitalism in the 80s and 90s. In 1976, though, he was still predicting the advent of some version of socialism because planning seemed to be the only answer to the disorders that plagued the capitalist economy. He wasn’t unequivocally happy at the prospect. Greater co-ordination and social solidarity challenged the individualistic values he very much cherished. Of course it turned out that the very problems he thought would hasten the advent of socialism—stagflation, resource shocks, environmental problems—ushered in thirty years of neoliberal domination in both government and economics departments. Forty years on, I wonder if Heilbroner might yet turn out to have been on to something. It’s not that classic socialism is poised for a global comeback, but the economic order of 2017 is dominated by the contemporary version of cartels and monopolies, organizations that are planned from the top. We don’t have Vladimir Lenin, but we do have Jeff Bezos. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple are each worth more than a great many countries, and none of them have internal markets. We are endlessly told about the structural inefficiency of command economies, but the dinosaurs that dominate the capitalism of our times are all command economies and are crushing the smaller outfits. The bitch about these outfit is not that they don’t work, which is why complaints about them have a conflicted undertone. To paraphrase Augustine, the line seems to be “Save me from Amazon, O Lord, but can we keep the free two-day shipping?”)

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Written in the 30s and reissued with a new introduction in the 60s, this venerable tome seems musty indeed, though what makes it seem so dated is not so much that the technology it describes belongs to the first decades of the 20th Century, but that it talks about man’s destiny is accents reminiscent of Raymond Massey in the Shape of Things to Come.)

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