Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Wasn't Always A Joyless Kantian

When I get in that mood, whole bursts of recrudescence. From some time ago.

I once read a description of a night out where the narrator claimed that he understood why house music was called house music, saying that it was because you could fucking live in it. You know what he means when we get in there, sit for a bit longer, summoning up the courage to venture onto the still only a third full dance-floor, and then go for it. You’ve got to work at it to begin with, locate the beat, internalise it, then find your external expression of it, picking it out with quick fluid movements, letting your feet, legs and waist carry the bass-line and your hands, arms and shoulders providing points to hang the percussion on. It’s generally best to find it while you’re still sitting (as if you could avoid it), nodding your head, tapping a foot or your fingers on your seat, picking out the main beat, because that’s what’ll drag you onto the dance-floor: that innocent little movement will be so perfect, you’ll just have to make another, and then there’ll be this gradual crescendo pulling you off your seat and onto the floor.

You might not quite get it at first, be too aware that your movements aren’t absolutely synchronised with the frills and riffs of the beat that should be driving what you’re doing, look around, notice the emptiness of the dance-floor, just a bit too self-conscious for the abandon really needed. It’s the beginning of the night though, the DJ on now, in the end, is the shit they put on first to warm up for the real kings of manipulation who’ll come later: we know it and he does too. There’s another six hours of this to come and if you haven’t got it now, you fucking will have it later, seeing it like it’s a courtship, and it’s only a matter of time before you get your hooks into each other. So you wait a bit, watch the dance-floor slowly fill up from the front while you’re sitting at the side, trying to have conversations which are inevitably completely misunderstood and inaudible, always half your mind assessing the state of the music, the dance-floor and how much you’re feeling the need of both of them. There’ll probably be a few abortive attempts to get your freak on, where you just get up and pretty quickly know that you’ve mistaken the appreciation of the beat and perhaps boredom that you were feeling for the ability to completely immerse yourself you’re waiting for. Eventually you’ll find it though. You’ll get up, the beat having done its miraculous work, and within a minute or so, you’ll know it’s right, feel its imperative running right through you. That’s when the pills’ll start to do their wonderful work.

I’ve got to that point now and I’m fucking loving it. It always takes me longer to come up than anyone else, watching for them giving into the music in a gradual escalation of frenzy and absorption or for their conversation to become more involved, more concerned, more alive, movements more jittery, not really envying them, stoical about it, knowing that it wouldn’t be fair to be otherwise, aware that you’ll be feeling it soon too. But when it hits you. When it fucking hits you. You’ll just be dancing, having discovered that eminently satisfactory medium where you know that maybe you’re not quite as submerged in it as you might be, but you’re happy with the place that you’re at, feeling it enough, and then it starts. First it’s in your fingers and feet, unadulterated joy lapping gently but unavoidably away at the edges of your consciousness, and this smug grin gradually breaks out across you face, because you know, you’re anticipating it rising up through you, and then it does. It pushes its way up through the veins and muscles and bones in your arms and legs, like you can actually track the movement of pure pleasure through your body, moving inexorably towards your brain and your heart, this second skin of wonder creeping up over you from your extremities, seeping in through your pores as it comes. The smile just gets wider and wider, and you’re driving it on, giving it more and more encouragement to completely take you over, punching the adrenaline through your body with ever-more abandoned, ever-more frenetic movements, and the fucking thing doesn’t even need it, it’s just going to do what it does regardless. And then it fucking hits you. Then it fucking hits you. This huge sledgehammer of unalloyed happiness exploding through every nerve in your body, like light pouring out of every inch of your skin, all perfectly in time with the fulfilment of all the promises the music has been making. A ton of bricks of amazed, astounded, wondrous love crashing into your whole fucking body.

I suppose it’s then that you really know why they call it house music. It’s not just that you could live in it if you felt like it, you are living in it, and it’s just the best place there could possibly be to live, a structure perfectly aligned and attuned to your needs, complementing every little jerk to the music with another thrust of joy coursing through you, encouraging you to encourage the drug, which then just makes you feel the music more. A perfect symbiotic relationship, the virtuous circle of all virtuous circles and you can almost see, feel, reach out and touch the shapes that you’ve been trying to describe with your dancing, the interior of the house you’re now inhabiting. You want everyone to share in this epiphany, everyone to know just how absolutely perfect and wonderful this endless, surging happiness is, to pass on this freedom from the petty little concerns and drudgery of the world.

Kant once said that the aim of all human existence ought to be the creation of a Kingdom of Ends, where all people were valued as ends in themselves, and that we could get to this perfect place by use of reason, claiming that desires were dangerous and inhibiting. Fuck you Kant, fuck you. This is the Kingdom of Ends, right here on the dance-floor, created by lots of people deciding to abandon all semblance of rationality to mind-altering drugs and music in a frenzy of passion and desire, and finding that when they did that, all the hard-heartedness and penny-pinching rational self-interest was washed through them and away, replaced by this boundless gladness at your own and every other fucker’s happiness.

Obviously, having written about something doesn't imply you've done it.

Not All Kantians Are Necessarily Joyless

Sometimes I feel I should just put something up for the sake of putting something up, and this is what you get. Just in case anyone wonders, I still think Obama's been reading Political Liberalism - it's all over that speech - and if anyone really wants me to show that, I think I can.

Bentham’s Mistake

A perfect spectacle, laid bare,
That is how I was haunted.
Even Kantians can enjoy jokes:
A little deceit will not lead us astray.
We might choose to contain it,
Take our pleasures where we may,
Hold back and so fall into it,
Playful, flirting with our selves:
All hands under black silk,
A laughing distance.
This does not have to be

Suicide. Please play along.

The Purpled Dusk

There is a gentle burning
In my long dark bones,
A quiet smile under my ribs.
You are gone,
And here is your replacement.
Peat and oak are singing,
Singing their long sad song
Of evenings murmured in the purpled dusk.
I think I might have forgotten
Who it is you are anyway.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

For Ashley

Christ, that's an amazing speech. Text here (video via).

White Dudes With Dreads

You have to wonder whether the sort of people who listen to Rage Against The Machine aren't also the sort of people who take Loose Change seriously: holier-than-thou leftist conspiracy nuts, wanting to cut through the complexities of the compromises and cock-ups politics involves and get to some pure struggle of good against evil. That might even be a bit unfair to conspiracy nuts: there's nothing about being a conspiracy nut that requires you to be as unremittingly bloodthirsty as Rage Against The Machine are. All that said, they rocked, and when you're fourteen and a political idiot, the idea that it is an absolute moral imperative that you smash it all up and start again is pretty appealing anyway. So, for nostalgia's sake, Rage Against The Machine live tracks here.

He Never Asked Me If I Bowled Spin

More from War in Val D'Orcia. Even before the overthrow of Mussolini and Italy's subsequent occupation by the Germans, prisoners of war had been trickling through the writer's estate, and being given food, shelter and instructions as to getting back to the Allied lines in the South, but in the chaos that begins in the winter of '43, that soon becomes a flood. There are thousands of partisans hiding in the hills around, and both the Fascists and the Germans suspect more and more, rightly, that they are being supported by the population at large. What is striking about that support is the seemingly automatic sacrifice it involves, all apparently done on the basis of simple human need, which Denis Mack Smith rightly highlights in his introduction. Here, for example, is an entry from February '44, beginning with the return of three prisoners of war who had left the month before to try to get through to the Allies in the South:

A peasant from a remote farm on Monte Amiata, Fonte Lippi, came to see, bringing with him a letter from three of our p.o.w.s, who (after having lived for four months hidden in this man's farm) set off in January to try to rejoin their own troops. There were four of them, but when they got near to Cassino one of them was captured, and the other three have now returned, worn-out and ragged, to the same farm. Their note says: 'We realize that this man has robbed himself and his family to keep us', and begs me to help him in any way I can. The peasant's story is remarkable. He took in these four Englishmen at the beginning of October, when they were obliged to leave [the manor house], and fed and housed them - disregarding the danger as well as the expense - for over three months. Then the Fascist militia ... came to search his house and threatened to shoot him for harbouring enemy aliens. They came in the middle of the night and turned the hosue upside down, but della brava gente (some good folk) had given the warning two hours before, and the prisoners had escaped into the woods in time - returning again to the farm the next day. 'We couldn't just turn them out', said their host. 'They had become a part of the family - and when at last they left, my old woman and the children cried.' But meanwhile they had eaten up all the family's flour - everyone was going short - and at last, in January, they had set off - only to return again a fortnight ago... Finally, in despair, the peasant has come to us...
Surely this is a very creditable story... [H]ere is a man (and there are hundreds of others like him) who has run the risk of being shot, who has shared his family's food to the last crumb, and who has lodged, clothed and protected four stran gers for over three months - and who now proposes continuing to do so, while being perfectly aware of the risks he is running.
In The English Patient - in the film at least: it's longer since I read the novel - after his much-liked sergeant has been killed whilst celebrating VE Day by a German bobby-trap, Kip, a Sikh, says to his lover Hana, as evidence of the man's basic decency, that he never asked whether Kip bowled spin. Fittingly, it seems to have been exactly that acceptance of others merely because they were also human that provided shelter, food, and clothing for many of Kip and his sergeant's real-life counterparts in the Tuscan countryside where I think The English Patient was set.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Saturday, March 15, 2008

And What Exactly Was The Question?

I'm not actually particularly interested in the fine details of or indeed the accuracy of the allegations which caused Samantha Power's resignation from Barack Obama's presidential campaign: that really would be a case of playing Kant at the court of King Arthur, I think, as Power maybe has found out. Nonetheless, when one is playing Kant, and one finds oneself, however reluctantly, placed in a world with disturbing similarities with bloodsoaked late-medieval reimaginings and relegitimations of norms of chivalry, with all the heirarchy and manicheanism that implies, the question of what exactly the f*ck you are supposed to do does arise. This weekend I was in Boston, having been invited by a friend to participate in a conference of advocates for a guaranteed basic income he was involved in organizing. Participants ranged from major figures in contemporary political philosophy and serious political players in Brazil (and elsewhere, it would appear: there should be a video on his website of him trying to make the cash for a basic income in Iraq to various Iraqi notables) to lowly graduate students like myself and various other lesser and equally marginal lifeforms. Not just Kant at the court of King Arthur, but King Arthur in Konigsberg, and both on the streets of Genoa, as well as various locations in between, some even designed to be congenial to at least most of the relevant parties.

One of the things that collecting this rather disparate group of people in one place to discuss what is basically a policy instrument did, for me at least, was illustrate the difference fixing context, of being sure exactly what question it is you think you're answering, makes. The combination of activists, respectably institutionalised political actors, and academics with more and less of a foot in either of those camps sometimes produced entirely predictable pieces of mutual confusion: not really even dialogues but rather just acts of witnessing, because the distance between the potential interlocutors was just too far for much productive conversation to take place. Which isn't at all to say that it wasn't productive, even for someone like me who is not particularly deeply attached to the cause of a citizens basic income: just that sometimes I felt that it wasn't really productive because of conversations, in the sense of dialogues, which took place amongst the three groups, but more because simply seeing that other contexts, other concerns, existed, even in the (much less) limited (than one would have thought) space around this one policy instrument. Sometimes, amongst other things, one needs to be reminded that not everyone is a political philosopher.

Sometimes, though, not fixing the context has costs. It's all very well understanding that there are a whole set of concerns swirling around the issue of unconditionally guaranteeing a basic income when one is having a meeting amongst people broadly sympathetic to doing so, even if they're not all sympathetic for the same sorts of reasons, but when confronting the public, who are not so sympathetic, letting it all hang out like that is dangerous. That, after all, is at least part of what cost Power her job: it wasn't just what she said, but that it was not what the Obama campaign in general were saying. Whilst others in the Obama campaign might well agree with the thought that Clinton is a monster - and of course part of the dishonesty of the whole thing is that everyone knows that others in the Obama campaign might well agree with the thought that Clinton is a monster, and yet no-one says it - they have tailored what they are saying to a particular context, that of American public political debate, and this has to discipline them in certain kinds of ways. Because public political debate is and ought to be about building coalitions around defined means to defined policy goals, you cannot stray too far from what the rest of the people you're trying to do that with are saying, or indeed smear your opponents in certain kinds of ways. Given the way Obama has campaigned as aiming at a new, more unifying, kind of politics, Power's effective dismissal of someone from the same party as inhuman couldn't be allowed to stand.

Undoubtedly, navigating through the various compromises that someone in Power's position has to is difficult, but it's always going to be necessary to get political power, because political power requires uniting disparate groups of people around particular policy instruments. If that didn't have to be done, then there'd be no politics, since there'd be no need to find agreement in the first place: politics exists because we don't automatically agree, and it is basically concerned with more and less coercive ways to get round that fact. In light of that, practically, the presentation of a united front - at least an agreement to disagree; a limit on the outright contradictions between the aims of the various parties to the relevant coalition - is a necessity in politics. In that sense, then, I think the people who are really deeply committed to a basic income who were at the conference are in trouble: the fact that they can't agree on why they want a basic income, what it is supposed to achieve, or even begin to create a mechanism for finding such an agreement, means that they're not going to be politically effective, since they've failed to meet even minimal criteria for political success. Neither did it seem to me that this problem existed only because of the disparate groups of people at the conference: on the plane over, the Brazilian senator told the conference he was talking to the person sitting next to him about basic income, and at the end of the flight, she said to him, 'you're the man who says, basic income is the answer, and then asks, what was the question'. That is a problem, it seems to me.

Vignettes: Outside The Trains Don't Run On Time

Although to do so is almost certainly to slip into a kind of Orientalism of Italy, I rather liked, even if in retrospect I am somewhat discomforted by having done so, both of these incidental pieces of what I take to be reportage on Italian national character. They provide what seems to me, despite superficial differences, appropriate companion pieces, two sides of the same coin. First, from an Anglo-American who married into the Italian nobility's account of the latter period of the Second World War in the Tuscan countryside, a prayer apparently given by Sardinians whilst being bombed by the Allies:

Ave Maria, gratia plena
Fa' che non suoni la sirena,
Fa' che non vengano gli aeroplani,
Fa' che si dorma fino a domani.
Se qualche bomba cade giu
Madre pietosa, pensaci tu.
Gesu, Giuseppe, Maria,
Fate che gli inglesi perdano la via.
Dolce cuore del mio Gesu
Fa' che gli inglesi non vengano piu.

In translation (ineptly, obviously):

Mary, full of grace,
Make it that the siren does not sound
Make it that the aeroplanes do not come
Make it that our sleep finishes tomorrow.
If some bomb falls down
Pitying mother, think of us.
Jesus, Joseph, Mary,
Make it that the English lose the way.
Sweet heart of my Jesus
Make it that the English do not come again.

The writer says of it that "[a] less bitter war prayer can hardly be imagined", and it indeed is not angry. That lack of anger, though, is part and parcel of its total fatalism: there's no defiance, or hope that anything other than the direct intervention of heaven might prevent the bombs or the threats they bring. It's not even as if Mary is being called upon to assist the Italian airforce, or make the weather change so as to prevent the planes from taking off. Unmediated supernatural help is all that can save those making the prayer. Thankfully, I've never been bombed, but this almost innocent incapacity in response to having been bombed seems, whilst charming in a certain way, disturbingly hopeless. Although I know I shouldn't, I find it difficult to avoid thinking of this as somehow typically Italian: it's not only a stereotype, whose generalizations I well know cannot be applied particularly, but a particularly offensive one, given the way that it strips those to whom it is applied of their agency, turns them into the passive subjects of violence. Nonetheless, no doubt spurred on by various episodes of British national myth-making, I cannot totally shift the sense that Italians are particularly vulnerable to this sort of fatalism, which makes me think it might have some basis.

Second, from Tim Parks' piece in last weekend's Guardian on Bertolucci's The Conformist. I haven't seen the film, although reading Parks' piece makes me want to, but apparently, at one point, one character is urged by another to complete the assassination he has been tasked with by being told that:

Chi non fotte e fottuto

Parks objects to the way the subtitles translate this, as 'You must fight, or be beaten', and indeed that's not right at all: as he says, it totally misses the way that it combines the sexual and the threat of physical violence. Despite the fact that his Italian must be better than mine, I'm not entirely happy with Parks' translation either though: he has it as 'If you don't fuck, you'll get fucked over', but I think I prefer the more literal (I think) and elegantly aphoristic 'Those who don't fuck are fucked'. The sense in which this is a hopefully interesting counterpoint to the Sardinian prayer is in its disavowal of responsibility: just as no worldly power can prevent those who give up the prayer from being bombed, the only alternative to participating in the brutal exercise of power is to be its victim and be humiliated, lose one's masculinity. Surely no-one could be blamed for, however reluctantly, stepping into that cycle of violence. Both are pieces of resignation.

All that said though, I was quite incidentally listening to Billy Bragg's rather elegiac The Home Front. Having first described a world in which men

reflec[t] upon the violent times that we are living in
While chatting with the wife beater next door

it ends, and ends the album it's on, with the lines:

Our place in history is as
clock-watchers, old-timers, window-shoppers.

I suppose we just do our resignation differently here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

On Being Fat

I heard from a friend today that Marco Materazzi had actually explained what he said to Zidane which prompted the infamous headbutt (video here). Basically, Materazzi claims that what happened was that Zidane sarcastically said that there was no need to try and get his shirt now, he could have it after the game, and Materazzi replied that he'd much rather have Zidane's sister. This put me in mind of the greatest reply to a piece of sledging ever. On being asked by the Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath, who terrorised much better batsman during a Test career that lasted fifteen years and included the most Test wickets ever by a fast bowler, why exactly he was quite so rotund, Eddo Brandes, Zimbabwean bowler and part-time chicken farmer, replied that every time he f*cked McGrath's wife, she gave him a biscuit. History does not record exactly what happened to Brandes after that: one suspects his stay at the wicket did not last much longer. Viv Richards' 'you know what it looks like: now go and find it' on having deposited someone with the temerity to question whether he knew what a cricket ball looked like, let alone whether he could put a bat on it, out of the ground pales in comparison.