Friday, September 18, 2015

The Motivation of the Device or Jokes I’m not Mean Enough to Tell

Freud thought of wit as an excuse for the expression of sexual or aggressive thoughts and that’s surely often true. For me, however, the reverse also takes place. I come up with a clever cutting remark, but there’s nobody around to launch it against, at least anybody I want to wound that much.  The French talk about l'esprit de l'escalie, a perfect comeback that you come up with too late; but you can also think up the comeback before the insult and suffer the fate of a born counterpuncher matched with a Quaker. I’ve kept some lines in reserve for decades, but the occasion never arrives or I’m not angry enough to attack or both. It’s frustrating.

I’m cleaning out my files, so I’m leaving these bits out like discarded furniture. If you have the requisite malicious intent and the time is right, feel free to use any or all of the following.  

She used to have an hourglass figure, but you could see that time was running out.

If that’s his trophy wife, he must have come in third.

If you think that drinking 8 glasses of water a day will make you healthier, you’re just diluting yourself.

My parents fought constantly. It was a mixed marriage. Different genders.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pleasure’s Poisoned Baits

Nature, we can agree, is an enormous bait and switch operation: the angler fish his lure, the rose her flower, not to mention all the blandishments evolved to lighten fools the way to busty Beth. These gaudy shows and cheap thrills were never meant to profit the fish, the bee, or the bachelor. From the point of view of nature, human purposes are just a means to an end, though, speaking properly, nature doesn’t actually have any goals of her own—to call a basin of attraction a goal is the merest facon de parler. The sexual aspects of the system are explained more fully in one of the earliest known TED lectures.

Here’s the amusing application: when the traditional Catholics insisted that reproduction was the only licit motive for intercourse and strictly forbade any sexual activity that did not have at least the potentiality to produce a child, they were acting as agents for nature. Spinoza’s expression, Deus sive nature, sounds rather atheistic to us as it did to many people in the 17th Century; but medieval thinkers often used nature as a synonym for God. It wasn’t unorthodox, and it wasn’t just theory. Practicing Catholics of the old school had enormous families, which certainly met the approval of a God dedicated to goosing inclusive fitness, at least if he (she?) were betting on r selection. Of course the Catholics also insisted on a celibate priesthood; but beyond how many nephews the average Pope had and the fact, famously noted by Rabelais, that even the shadow of the monastery chapel can knock up your daughter, the net effect of the system was maximum fecundity. The faith duplicates or mimics nature in another way as well. It seeks to control the behavior of the individuals by the promise of eventual gratification. The believer is supposed to look beyond the temporary if inevitably disappointing rewards of the flesh—the one sticky night of pleasure Baudelaire wrote about—to an eternal reward, which is another way of saying one that never actually occurs. The prospect of the permanent orgasm of beatitude in a vague elsewhere substitutes for even the fleeting gratifications of earthly life. In this respect, the religious version of the swindle is an improvement on the various contrivances natural selection came up with. It’s cheaper.

A Catholic will certainly object that there’s more to it than that, and they will be quite correct. I’m simply teasing out one strand in a tangled mass of ideas, practices, and feelings. The mystics always claimed to experience eternity in the here and now, and the moralists always valued virginity above marriage. There’s a permanent tension in the tradition between the urge to slut shame Mother Nature and the insistence that creation, whatever its imperfections in the fallen era, is nevertheless good. Gnostic and Manichean hatred of the flesh is heretical, and the stake awaited the votaries of any sect that drew the obvious conclusion that reproduction should be prevented. They were pulling down Cathar castles in Languedoc long before they were bombing abortion clinics in Oklahoma. And the Catholics I know still tell me that their church really is dedicated to making people feel guilty.

The history of Christian asceticism witnesses a related ambiguity. What is supposed to be a renunciation of pleasure and an acceptance of suffering in religious devotion constantly threatens to become just a different and, indeed, superior kind of pleasure.  Not for nothing are whips found both in Jesuit seminaries and the specialty room at high price brothels. There is a genealogical continuity between manuals of spiritual mortification and the oeuvre of the Divine Marquis. The masochist, as Giles Deleuze pointed out in Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, exploits conventional morality’s permanent vulnerability to subversion. If sexual pleasure merits punishment, one can pay for one’s pleasure in advance by sexualizing punishment. I’ve suffered already. Now you owe me. 

For the record, I think the masochists are on to something, not that you need to go in for complicated rituals in order to enjoy yourself; but that living a fully human life requires a certain form of jiu jitsu, obliges us to use nature and its religious proxies against itself.  I think of the ego—myself—as a kind of parasite that exploits the raw material of the natural drives to create motives for itself and the other parasites it choses to love. That sounds odd, but it’s really just a fourth version of the categorical imperative. It understands the kingdom of ends referred to in the third version of the imperative to be a sphere of anti-nature or rather, since nature isn’t really a God whatever Spinoza suggested, an eddy in the thermodynamic system of the world, a temporary and local reversal of flow in the entropic rush. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature and not possible to thwart the 2nd Law but you can insist “Not here. Not now.” Let us let oblivion take care of itself. It’s good at that.

I wouldn’t have put things in this fashion when I was young, but even when I was a child I wondered at the point of it all if we’re all just destined to pumping out offspring and raising the GNP. Are we all, to borrow a bit from an old Mad Magazine article, vending machine vending vending machines or is there some time when we take a profit? Levi-Strauss ended his memoir Tristes Tropiques with a similar thought with a reference to the futility of mankind’s hive like labors. The anthropologist has been damned as a European Buddhist for such asides, but I figure that a meaningful exchange of glances with a cat is as good as we’re going to get.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Merry Old

I know very little about UK politics over and beyond what I've learned watching Question Time, but it seems to me that what's going on with Corbyn is a predicable consequence of what is going on in the U.S. and around the world. Across the democracies of the West, generic conservatism has triumphed to the extent that even putatively left parties, Labor in Britain, the Socialists in France and elsewhere have positioned themselves as conservatives with a human face. Bill Clinton ran that way as well. Most recently this consensus has ensured the triumph of austerity across Europe, a triumph that continues even though austerity has been a flop in economic terms. What's happening seems to be a gradual replacement of democratic governance with a system in which an entrenched political class passes on power from one generation to the next by cooption. There are elections, of course, but the system is jiggered to assure that only safe candidates are allowed to run—Hong Kong rules aren't just for the Chinese. Which also accounts for the extremely low turn outs in elections. Since none of the options give a damn about what the majority of the population cares about, the majority of the population doesn't give a damn either. It's a Utopian arrangement if you've already got yours, even if there's a certain amount of rump bumping in any game of musical chairs. The problem is, there's such a thing as victory disease. If you create a politics that leaves no room for the non connected, you guarantee that the non connected are not going to be particularly polite about reasserting themselves. Right thinking people loudly bewail Chavez, but they never seem to get it that the Venezuelan oil plutocracy made him inevitable. i don't know if Corbyn in power would be anything like Chavez, but the Camerons and Blairs created him. 

These thoughts were inspired by reading R.R. Palmer's old classic, the Age of Democratic Revolution, which covers Western history from 1760 to 1800. Palmer points out that the French Revolution wasn't begun by furious peasants or Enlightenment lefties but by aristocrats complaining that their taxes were too high. Sound like anybody you know?

There’s Always Room at the Top

My sense of geometry urges
That everything rising diverges.
Explains the plasticity
Intellectual history observes.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Cthulhu is living quietly in Encino

A friend of mine once hyperbolized Thomas Kuhn by expressing a wish that grammar would one day undergo a paradigm shift. He didn’t mean that he looked forward to a new version of amo, amas, amat or to English or French or Swahili going from one set of grammatical categories to another—that happens on the time. He dreamed of entirely new tenses, persons, moods, and parts of speech that would transform our thinking thought, indeed what we could think. Ergo, the quest for the fourth person singular.

Well, I’m a little skeptical about that. For all I know some language in Papua New Guinea already has a fourth person singular and, anyhow, the absence of a way of making a distinction in a given language doesn’t keep us from making the distinction. The linguists talk about grammaticalization. For example, in some languages the gender of the speaker is indicated by an ending on the main verb or by some other obligatory marker, but that doesn’t mean you have any trouble referring to whether a boy or a girl is doing the talking in languages like English that don’t have such a feature. Similarly, the problem with achieving the desired weirdness isn’t that English doesn’t have a way to grammaticalize it. 

I’m not saying that treating grammar as a kind of metaphysics can’t be useful as a way of generating certain insights in a fashion not completely dissimilar from the way that a Zen master uses his staff on an acolytes noggin. For example, it occurred to me the other day than when we speak, there’s a certain amount of you involved because unanimity is always a never quite completed negotiation. And I guess that shouldn’t be surprising since when I speak, there’s a certain amount of us in it—it’s not just in the history of Tragedy that the actor emerged from the chorus. Heidegger was right that even the most authentic individual is a modified anonymous collective being—das Man—and never ceases to be such a being, no matter how neurotic she gets about it. So there isn’t a fourth person singular, but there is a first and halfth person plural as well as a first person singular plus. Mathematicians have been talking about fractional dimensions for quite a while now. Maybe the grammarians can learn to live with fractional persons. And maybe we can use such strained terminology to think about the unspeakable oddness that constitutes the human condition, much as we manage to use the bizarre formalisms of quantum mechanics to think about the unspeakable oddness of the physics that governs absolutely everything.