23 August 2017

The eclipse, Hegel, and the American Road

I logged 2400 miles of American roads, 14 hours of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, 3 full Brewers game broadcasts (all the enemy radio feed on XM), and 1 total eclipse as seen from Glendo State Park in Wyoming.

I woke up on Sunday morning and decided to forgo my Midwestern eclipse experience plans because the weather looked uncertain for optimal viewing.  En route to Deadwood, SD, I listened through the Preface (very familiar!), the Introduction and the early parts of A. Consciousness. 

My copy of Phenomenology was safely at home on my bookshelf, sitting right next to Susan Buck-Morss' excellent Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (which I have read in its entirety!).  I bought a used copy (originally Elizabeth Trejack's it seems) at a book shop in Minnesota.  It was highlighted and underlined in a few very specific sections (it opens automatically to Lordship and Bondage), and otherwise appears largely untouched.

I first learned of the existence of a fellow called Hegel and his friend "Geist" on my first day of classes at the University of Chicago.  I read the greatest hits from Hegel's masterwork, and nodded knowingly when his influence on later theorists was discussed.  On arrival to UW-M, I heard less about Hegel (though there was quite a lot more mention of Foucault, who I only heard come up once at UChicago, and that was in a joke from a Zadie Smith reading about introducing someone at an academic party as "... she likes Michel Foucault and costume jewelry"), but dutifully put Phenomenology and Buck-Morss' book on my prelim reading list.

Naturally, like most good reading lists, I did not read most of most of the books on the list, but excel at the academic art of talking about books you have not read.  I have also not read that book, though I've held it in my hands, and skimmed through bits, and I know people who have read it.

During my long drives of the last several days, I've read through the first 513 paragraphs of Hegel's work, starting and stopping and occasionally paying more and less attention as one is wont to do when reading or listening or existing at all, I suppose.  I think this might be the best way to read Phenomenology, not as one's only or deep reading of the text, but as a way to have read through it all.  As I drove, I would make notes of paragraphs I wanted to return to (don't worry, the highways of South Dakota and Wyoming are sparsely populated, even when there's an eclipse on!).  When I was first reading Shakespeare (or first reading it in college, I can't remember which), someone (either Jerry Davis or Mary Hull Mohr) gave me the advice to "just keep going" when you're reading it and not sure you're absorbing.  It's reading as muscle memory, and the deep read of certain sections can come later (or earlier!). 

Hearing "of Lordship and Bondage" after reading through the entirety of Consciousness changes the focus of the passage.  It makes the easy reading of Hegel as writing the heroic history of Haiti less easy and fancy free.  I've come to trust Buck-Morss, and don't think her reading is at all off the mark.  That said, I think it is important to remain aware of our academic practice of the use of texts to suggest meaning and significance.

*.  *.  *

I first learned of the Great American Eclipse earlier this year, and almost in the same moment committed in my mind that I would be there to see it.  I took a few days vacation, but made few other plans, except to choose Beatrice, Nebraska as my viewing sight.  Tim & Jen & the kids live in Omaha, and actually lived in Beatrice shortly after they got married.  When the day got close, weather across the Midwest started looking dicey, and I headed west.

A total eclipse is an awe-inspiring sight, truly an opportunity to see the most awesome, magnificent vision available on earth.  An eclipse is also a random conflation of events - a new moon that aligns with the earth and sun; a sun for a planet that is about 400 times larger than the planet's moon, which is about 400 times closer than that same sun (so they take up about the same amount of sky space).  Also, we also happen to be in the small window of time, cosmically speaking, that allows this confluence.

I've been struggling to describe what I saw, or what the experience was like, or why it was worth the trip.  Finding significance in the random confluence of hunks of rock hurtling through the galaxy is what we do as humans.  Making meaning from bringing texts, histories, moments - that's what humanists do.  We live in a strange confluence of psychology, philosophy, astronomy, physics, history, sociology, geology, chronology and on and ology.

My thoughts of late have been turning back toward the super-modern, and the importance of the small.  I'm still working at making meaning from the experience of the eclipse, and from reading Hegel on the way to and from seeing the eclipse, and the observations and thoughts I had about Americans and Trump and Mt. Rushmore and history on the way to and from seeing the eclipse.  I expect that I will continue to try to build this meaning for quite some time.

What I learned or have built or have decided for now is that my phenomenology of totality has provide me some perspective on our present American experiment.  We are a strange and strained people, but I still think this is all just crazy enough to work. 

04 August 2017

mind the gaps...

I. Preamble -

This isn't a review - rather an overall critical analysis of ueber-narrative.  I've recently been on a mission to watch the Star Wars oeuvre in chronological order (dedicated readers {I presume they will be there in future, as they aren't currently turning out in significant numbers} will note that I'm also currently on the same project in the Star Trek universe).

I know Disney and J.J. Abrams own my viewership soul, but I frakking love filling in the gaps of mythologies.  I am eager to see the story of the new episodes - VII & VIII - but watching Episode III followed by Rogue One and then A New Hope is fascinating and fulfilling.  The fun fairy tale that I knew as a kid (still has whiny little Luke) has become a robust narrative. 

I'm equally (or perhaps more) excited for the start of the new Star Trek: Discovery series starting this fall, which will bridge the end of Enterprise to the days of ST: TOS (by way of the lost ship at the center of the plot of Star Trek Beyond).

Walter Benjamin has a concept called Jetztzeit (now-time), which he also calls messianic-time. The simplist framing of this concept for me is using the latter term, and imagining the potentiality of all times (of each moment) to contain salvation (or revolution, or clarity).  This concept is fundamental in Benjamin's oeuvre, and is related I think to the concept of hyper-modernity (or supermodernity), which is the idea of the whole being explained or understood or accounted for in every part. This is also a common theme for Benjamin, and in many ways his Arcades Project is the prototypical work of supermodernity.

I have my own (as yet unnamed) theory of reality and being and narrative. The line of thinking goes something like this: the act of literary creation is, in fact, an instance of literal creation. By imagining a thing (or perhaps by writing it down or filming it or publishing it,,, I'm not too clear on all of the specifics), that thing is created in reality. It is evoked. The actuality of the thing is explained scientifically (I use this word loosely) by multiple worlds / realities theory - the idea that every choice or possible outcome exists in parallel realities.

II. Messianic Time / Messianic Space -

The Arcades Project is Benjamin's masterwork.  It is a collection of quotes and fragments focused on a series of subjects relating to the Paris Arcades, which Benjamin works through.  Benjamin is sitting in the mid-20th Century looking back at the 19th Century for meaning.  The work is a strong candidate for bibliomancy; a lot of obscure passages that can be interpreted for a lot of situations. 



IV. Narratives of scale -

Star Trek is the future narrative of a world much like ours.  Star Wars claims to be in the distant past, far away.  In time, both of these narratives might be found to be in the same universe (that's right, I'm loosely proposing that Wesley Crusher is the next last Jedi).

This weekend, The Dark Tower is being released in cinemas across the country - another new chapter in a long-established narrative.  The tag line on early images teasing the new movie was "The Last Time Around...". 

The narrative of the film (mild-spoiler alert warning) is in some ways an odd reformulation of Stephen King's first novel of the series - The Gunslinger -, but it's a bit hard to recognize as such.  In the novel, Jake Chambers is torn from his native New York (although we don't see this at this point in the series) and pulled into Mid-World.

This new iteration

VI. All of us are 'one of the most important figures' in our own universes, our own narratives


Much like Benjamin's "Capitalism as Religion", I intend this entry to be something robust and interesting... but I want to post (it's been a while!), so there may be a while before the overall outline gets filled in.

26 April 2017

Open Letter to Brian Reed

Hello Brian,

I have just listened through to the last episode of S-Town, and am just now passing by Flint, Michigan to my right on Southwest Flight 336 (I promise I’m responsibly on airplane mode!).

I would first like to say, thank you for this podcast and all of your work that has gone into it.  You might just as well have called it Walden III (note: I am a former English major with an M.A. in Humanities and am in the death throes of a PhD program in Modern Studies, but fully admit that I’ve not read Walden II and Thoreau’s original is more years away from me than I care to admit, and though I think I recall it well, I likely am remembering it mythologically).  Nonetheless, the project, whether it’s really yours or John B. Macklemore’s, is a revelation for the humanist project – and I appreciate the time, and work, and life, and effort that went into it.

I started Chapter VII shortly after boarding this flight and I have to say that I was, for a moment, welling up all umbrage and outrage when I thought your final episode was going to posit and explore the idea that John (he is John to me too, now) killed himself because of a brain chemistry madness brought on by 35 year’s worth of poisoning himself.  By the end of the episode I was joyfully weeping – afraid that my flight attendants would think I was soused, because I ordered a second scotch and soda! – at the genius of John’s words describing a well-lived life, and at the heartbreak of the vast amount of ‘lost genius’ we have in this world (and perhaps, in particular, in this America), and, most of all, at the amount of life John was estimating we all spent at living (less the sleep, and the “jobs” {different from work, in capitalism}, and the administration {Kafka-esque waiting in late capitalism}).

Thank you for a well-made product – a fine podcast.  And thank you for your ability and your curiosity.  The time this took to put together and the distance between ‘episodes’ (not yours, but those that make up this whole story: the first email; the questionable call and follow-up trip; then the follow-up and follow-up…), coupled with the themes and ideas at play here, are epic.  You have created a modern epic.  Thank you.

I don’t write fan letters – or express appreciation of works to those I do not know – because I’m thoughtless and unkind and have an inflated sense of my own brain and generally think that I could have done – could have created a thing into being had I had the space and time and initiative.  (This is of course an arrogant and foolhardy notion, but it’s a part of the reason, I think, that I don’t express appreciation toward most works I enjoy).  This podcast – the editing and vision and content – is a masterwork of intellectual and empathic genius.  I am in your debt for making it.

Regards,

Joel

Joel Seeger
Milwaukee, WI

16 April 2017

Playing it cool

I read back to back short stories about murder after finishing the playlist style novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. (It occurs to me that this is my second "dark double feature" on my Last Fives in recent weeks). The stories both approach the crime quite matter of factly, but the perpatrators in each story could not be more different in their respective approaches. I suppose it comes down to their relationship to the crime itself in some ways.

In "Lamb to the Slaughter", the 6-months-pregnant wife has just been told - something - by her husband. At best or worst she is told by her husband that he wants a divorce or that there is someone else for whom he is leaving her.  It's hard to say which of those is best or worse, "I'm leaving you because there's someone else" versus "I'm leaving you because you".

"Tell-Tale Heart" on the other hand features a murder which is incited by the gaze or perhaps just the eye of an old man and its effect on a madman. The murderer even refuses to kill the man he has decided to end for an entire week because the old man doesn't open his offending eye until the 8th night. 

If I had to summarize the theme of this particular double feature it would be to say that the stories are about guilt.  Poe's narrator clearly suffers the guilt of his crime, whereas the husband in Dahl's story could be said to 'suffer the guilt of his own crime', at the hands of his soon-to-be abandoned wife.   

*  *  *          

...(picking up the thread, some time later)

Twain's 'most likely to be assigned to a 5th Grade Reading class' of a short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is well worth the sitting, if you've not read it before.  It's a story about a foolish showman getting his comeuppance.  And the Fikry chapter that shares the Twain story's title is much the same.  Although not so public, the clown of this chapter also gets outed.

The whole novel works to rhyme the themes of each

13 November 2016

Trumpt

I'd say the unthinkable has happened - except as D-Force reminded me, I had actually thought a Trump win had been likely since the summer.  I wanted to take a few days to let the election results sink in and be able to reflect with some distance.

Now that we find ourselves here, I think it's useful to look forward, rather than back (you know, like back to when I and many others were rationally trying to explain why Bernie had a much better chance of beating Donald Trump in a general election because it was such an overwhelmingly Change Election...).  Looking forward, I see the three most likely paths that a Trump presidency holds in store for us, and I rank these in the order that I think them likeliest to less likely (note not least likely - I won't even present that here...):
1.
Trump assumes power in January, and by the time we get to Inauguration Day, we find that he has oddly stopped talking about "The Wall" and "Muslim Bans" and he is instead focused on "Border Security" and "Safe Zones for Refugees" (safely located in their own countries or regions, naturally).  Trump works closely with the Republicans to gut our national safety net and build a non-progressive tax system that waits for financial relief to "trickle down" to unprotected workers who have lost the right to unionize or earn a fair, living wage.  In other words, he behaves as any normal Republican would have in office - he's Mitt Romney, only richer and more orange.
The Result: The Establishment (K-Street, Republican & Democratic Parties, most Major Media outlets, Wall Street, Middle Management, Delaware and Connecticut) thinks they've won, and scary 2016 is behind us; Righteous Anger Comedy (John Oliver, Samantha Bee, The Daily Show, etc.) have a field day - it's like the heady days of mocking the George W Bush years on steroids on PCP; Flyover Country Working Class Rage (this has been mis-diagnosed pre- and post-election as "the last stand of the old white guy" or racism, misogyny, xenophobia - all of that was certainly a part of the Trump Coalition, but there are two major groups who overwhelmingly elected Trump: Working Class Labor and White Middle Management. 
This is not a natural partnership and can't stand.  If Trump proceeds on the most likely course (#1), as I see it, The Tea Party and Working Class Crossover vote (progressives bemoaning the outcome of the election as depressed voter turnout and voter suppression - both valid, but not the whole story - have to get comfortable with the fact that the Democratic Party also lost voters this cycle) will remain furious.  Trump's more extreme policies (both the racist and xenophobic ones and the more tenable radical positions on trade and mass military interventionism) would be tempered and mostly forgotten in this scenario.  In 2020, the Outrage for Radical Change electorate will still be out there.  It's key to remember this voting bloc is neither inherently conservative or liberal - if they calcify around a specific candidate, it need not be a Republican or Democrat (or left or right Third Party). 

2.
The other likely (tho slightly less so, methinks) outcome of Trump's assumption of power in January is that he actually tries to do what he has said he would do.  The uncertain part here would be the order of things.  If Trump starts, as he seems to have hinted, with a Public Works program (Massive Infrastructure Investment), he would likely get cooperation from the Democrats.  That would be wise, as I'm not sure whether Democrats would go along with any proposed measures of Trump's after he starts down any racist or xenophobic policy paths.  Mass protests would follow.  It's difficult to say how long these first several evenings of protests will progress.  They are important, and need to be a part of the conversation, but if Trump actually starts enacting is catastrophic policies, the Foolhardy Wall, the Unconstitutional Muslim Ban, Alarmist Foreign Policy (possibly including either Russia-loving or going to proxy war with Russia in Syria), Protectionist Economics, and Extreme Blue Collar Job Creation (this is accomplished either through the Massive Infrastructure Investment mentioned above or via Soviet-Style Factory Takeover by the State {or better by local Municipalities}). 
The Result: What's strange is that the complete package of Trump's proposals are all over the map.  The question is whether we can parse the policy from the president.  Can the protests turn toward specific policies (Don't take away our Obama-Care! Enact Progressive Tax Reform!), and not just be against the figurehead.  I've already heard anecdotal stories of people helping strangers out against bigoted, misogynistic, xenophobic attacks on an individual basis.  The question is whether protest can be used surgically to disagree with the deplorable policies, while welcoming the Public Works and creating trade policies that don't solely support the Financial Class.

3.
Less likely (though not least likely - I won't even present my unlikely scenarios - some of which are quite hopeful and absurdly optimistic), but still a distinct possibility (maybe for example as likely as a Donald Trump presidency!) is that Something Happens.  Of course unforeseen things will occur in the course of the next four years.  Most of the way that I select a presidential candidate is based on how I think they will deal with the unforeseen.  That said, what I mean with #3 is that instead of Trump getting into a room with professional advisors, he acts out.  If North Korea launches an attack or China stretches further into the South China Sea - perhaps the Russia/Syria/Iran/ISIS hotbed becomes hotter - a question of a very sudden militaristic response that isn't thought out and can't be taken back. 

The Result: Goddess knows, but if anything outrageous were to occur, it may well spark mass protest, from people across the political spectrum.  If we have a person with control of the most powerful military in the history of the world who decides to wield it, and in particular who wields it toward un-humanistic outcomes, it will be scary - and a frightening opportunity to unify a seemingly un-unifiable populace.

14 October 2016

Setting the Stage

... remember when we thought Donald Trump was unqualified and unelectable for the Presidency because he wanted to deport 11 million people and have a religious test as part of entry into the United States?

Oh that we could go back to that simpler time...

Linda Tirado wrote an article about Trump's speech yesterday, and it rightly identifies some of the fascist elements of Trump's campaign, and in particular the appeals to the sovereign-citizen set.  What Tirado only implicitly points to, is the fact that it doesn't actually matter all that much that Donald Trump will now most likely lose this election in November. 

Way back when, in the Summer and Fall of 2015, I was opining to anyone who would listen that Bernie was going to surprise everyone and come out of the Democratic primaries as the nominee and the Trump phenomenon would fade and we'd have a nice boring candidate like Jeb or Kasich on the Republican side.  At first glance, it seems I was wrong twice - but I think the actual case is that I was right, just in the wrong way. 

I've long thought that America was ripe for a fascist uprising.  And that said fascist movement could be either a leftist or rightist one (or both/neither, as this one seems to be).  It has always been the great danger of the right and left media as cottage industries, that intelligent, critical, political thought would be a casualty of our time.  Fascism, in whatever form, was always going to be a possible result.

The Right may well have started this media war with the explosion of talk radio in the 1980s, but it has been a boon to Democrats, because it's sated their base, while fundamentally undermining all that they hold dear.  It feels/felt so good to sit watching Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert, and knowing that we were laughing with them from the right side of history or learn from John Oliver what some of the most egregious and offensive offenses are of our time - but all the watching and the reading can stagnate a drive to action. 

My favorite podcaster, Dan Carlin, dropped a new episode of his politics and current events show, Common Sense, yesterday.  And he reiterated an idea that he said months and months ago, before we knew how the primaries were going to turn out, which was, essentially: "you think 2016 is interesting/terrifying... just wait for 2020."

American Fascism isn't going away any time soon.  Because the wealth inequality (which is so much more important an issue than income inequality) isn't going away.  Nor is a culture of ressentiment, nor the anger and the know-nothing-ness, nor any of a cadre of issues that culminate in present-day America being a great place to fulminate fascism.

We're going to be very good at this, and that's not a little bit scary.  Hillary Clinton, it now seems, will win in November - and hopefully by a surprising margin and with a new Senate majority (and dream of dreams a newly-democratic House as well!).  If all that happens, we may even have some progress - baby steps, but progress - toward starting to fix some of the edge problems (adding a public option to a massive insurance-company-backed health care program, finding a way to make Medicare and Social Security not go broke in the immediate future, starting to think about actually taking a few steps toward beginning to slow our contribution to global warning, etc.).

However, the ready-to-be fascist angry folks out there will still be out there.  And they're not all right-wing nuts (some of them are left wing nuts like me!).  The Anger Election of 2016 will not have gotten what it really wanted (an outsider who doesn't care about how we've done things up until now) - it will still want to be fed.

So, America, let's talk... before it's too late.

09 October 2016

F(r)ight Night!


I'm clearly not the first person to have this thought, but as I sit and watch the early minutes of bad that is the Bears Colts game (I always think of a Bears Colts game as a Super Bowl rematch!) at beautiful Lucas Oil Stadium, I am awaiting a day of competitive, combat sport competition - first this epoch battle to see which defense is absurd and which is merely amateurish. 

www.thundertreats.com

This will be followed by the second presidential debate, featuring Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, which, worst case scenario, may well end in an actual brawl (not quite joking).  I think best case, it will be wildly offensive, spite-filled, and misogynistic. 

I don't usually do timely here, but the reason these two items conjoin in my mind, is because I often think about what these massive stadiums will look like after our civilization is faded. 

This presidential cycle has looked a lot like the beginning of the end - either a continuation of tap-the-brakes policies, occasionally modestly holding off ecological and economic catastrophe; or a fool and compulsive liar who will do goddess knows what if he is elected. 

I've seen this all before - but mainly on TV or in game play.  See you at the stadium (or maybe the thunderdome?)