Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Republican Vietnam, the Democratic Nixon I

In 1967, it was the last year on the pinnacle for an old order. The Ballade of the Green Berets was the number one song for the year, and the campus of Berkeley, as seen in the background of The Graduate, resembled a high school or a college of a decade earlier, with slightly more mop topish men's hair styles. The movie makes a good ending of that older era, where an arranged marriage, and a younger man with an older woman would still fly. People forget that the Great Depression and the War, meaning World War II, had put a generation of marriage on hold, and so the styles of the 1950's were intended, deliberately, to disguise a woman's age, as were rules of culture.

Then came Tet, and the flowering of the Baby Boom on college campuses, not just in America, but Europe as well. They did not want to be fuel for the fire of their parents' generation war. Their slightly older breathren, the silent generation, which they were not yet separated from by so wide a gap, or so deep a gouge, wanted to get on with their lives. Many people who we think of as "boomers" were, in fact, at the tail end of the generation before. It was they who supplied the West Point classes that bled in Vietnam.

It was a set of decisions made in the 1960's, when it seemed as if liberal technocracy could solve all problems, that would destroy the faith in that system, and split those of liberal feeling, from those of technocratic mind, creating a dysfunctionality in the leadership of the left. This is an important concept, and allow me to explain it in more detail.

For the democratic political spectrum, as opposed to the totalitarian one, the left and the right are, and always have been, divided by their sense of the nature of human material, and the human condition. The left sees individuals as largely products of their nature and their nurture, where as the right sees people as largely products of their genesis – race, culture, religion – and both inadaptable, and infinitely malleable in the hands of power. From this comes the most important distinction between the fundamental political ideal of the left, and of the right: the left believes that on should treat people well as the default, and the right believes that one should instill fear in people as the default. While few hold the absolute allegiance of many people, the fundamental indicator is whether someone would first kick, or pet, a dog that barks.

The old modern liberal order came of age when universality, of labor, of market, both contributed to the welfare of the State. Everyone had to participate in building the new capital, in purchasing the products, and in fighting the wars. Even elites could see that they were leaders of men, and saw themselves that way. While elites will always be of the right in that they got to be elites by screwing over other people out of just rewwards, the mentality became that the game was the game, and the reality came first. Fighting for a share of the spoils, came after winning the spoils.

This view was enforced by crisis: World War I, World War II, and the intervening economic turbulence. The mass state required, on one hand, a concern for the welfare of that mass: "The people." The mass state also required direction above the cut and thrust of daily life, this is because that cut and thrust was the only self-organizing force known to work. The people were players, and the elites made sure the game ran. Thus people focused on their immediate good, but were directed by law, and by custom, towards a higher series of ends. This worked as long as the public trusted the leadership to lead.

The years from the Tet Offensive through the failed rescue in Iran, broke that sense. In between there was inflation just as the first of the GI generation wanted to retire, social liberation, and a conflict in the streets that offended the sensibilities of a very Kantian generation: one where categories of race, creed, gender, and age, were important important indicators. It was an age when even people who though of themselves as liberal could tell ethnic jokes, jokes about women drivers, an use the "n" word in a disparaging way. The rebellion of youth was, to their eye, upsetting clear categorical imperatives which they thought of as traditional, but, in the way of many national traditions, were in fact created as way stations. The same had been true in the 19th century. The "traditions" of a lockstep to early marriage within a defined ethnic community were creations of a moment, in a nation where the average age of first marriage dropped by nearly 3 years in the space for men, and 2 for women, in the space of the previous half century. Half of that came in the previous 10 years. The young newlywed image of the 1950's, was a creation.

The marriage statistics show why there was such a sense of threat to this neo-traditionalism: the rate at which a conception outside of marriage resulted in a marriage was dropping form its peak in the early 1960's, a trend that has continued to this day. To give a picture of how much marriage oriented the present is, black teenagers married after a conception at a higher rate than white women in their 30's do today. Whites, as a whole, have an out of wedlock birth rate comparable to African-Americans in the 1930's.

This snapshot, among many, shows the social backdrop that neo-traditionalists were facing, they could feel the created garden of early marriage and social stability crumbling. It had not been a long time in existence, but it was their lifetime, they knew no other.

Iconic of the moment were the demonstrations and riots of the time, which were economically and socially driven by a long period of stasis in wage gaps, as well as the unequal treatment. It is worth remembering that the incident that touched off the Watts Riots, was a party for returning Vietnam Veterans. While these riots are, incorrectly often blamed for depressed property values in the inner city, the more important clue is the radical drop in African-American men engaged in full time work, and the redlining tactics that would continue until the 1990's of banks. White flight, was economic policy.

Into this vortex stepped Richard Millhouse Nixon as President. Nixon was, as most members of the GI generation were, trained in technocratic methods, particularly in the way that the Navy must be, and was far more willing to be liberal, even if not personally, often for conservative reasons. For example, he supported broad abortion rights, but because he disdained inter-racial babies. His own paranoid world envisioned good white girls getting pregnant by untethered black males , and hence the need for abortion. This isn't me talking, it's Nixon on his own tapes.

Nixon's liberal record is interesting when compared to our own. Nixon's universal health care plan was to the left of Obama's. Nixon created the EPA and expanded the power of the FDA. He was an economic Keynesian in a debased sense. But what Nixon did in the landslide of 1972, was create a political coalition. That political coalition would serve as the basis of the three landslide Republican victories of 1980, 1984, and 1988. The Republicans have not had one since, and are not likely to get one this year.

Nixon's hallmark is made by a foreign policy gesture: traveling to what was then called "Red China," or the regime in Beijing, which, not to put to fine a point on it, was the fact on the ground. This had not been a conservative goal, to put it mildly. The UK had extended full recognition in 1950. While full recognition would not occur until 1979 under Carter, it was the first step.

So what does this have to do with Bush and Obama? A great deal.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Screwtape proposes a toast

I was born into a nation whose national day was July 4th, and whose creed was dedicated to the principle that all men were created equal. I live in a nation whose national day is September 11th, and whose creed is that we will kill the ebil dewers. So long as they aren't bankers, search companies, iPhone makers, oil companies, real estate swindlers, or whatever other corporate exception we have carved out.

But this one nation, of Bush v Gore, Citizens United, enemy combatants, executive assassinations, and pervasive denial of evolution, climate, and basic human decency, is eroding. On this day, September 11th is a few fading bumper stickers. It is less present than Pearl Harbor was. It may be revived, as July 4th is actually a revival of a date that was not that important at the time – John Adams though that July 2nd would be the national day. However, that revival will mean something quite different. Because we didn't just sleep, we were stoned.

Different from the growing cult among the old of "St. Hitch" who is the patron saint of sell outs,  of every old man who betray everything they young man stood for. The spirit of fear that stalks those whose chattel rebels, and whose distant slaves, beyond the reach of conscience, come to the bed side with a blade.

But these are old men's totems. The young are not terrified of Islam, people with scarves run the registers where they buy beer, and

On September 11th, in this Septembrist nation, I give you July 4th, the once and future founding of America.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Food Fight Among the Body Boomer Gods - IV

The Collapse of Demographic Determinism

Touching on each of the three writers reveals more about the critic than the writers. This critic is fed up with the Body Boomers talking about themselves, particularly since this is the second to last Presidential election which will be about the Baby Boom, the next one will be as well.  He's also tired of an idea that can be called "demographic determinism." That is, ones fortunes are largely about clashes of people born at the right moment or right time.

However selling demographic determinism is at a fever pitch right now, precisely because the great synchronizing events of that created the Body Boom generation are breaking up. The reason for this quick literary survey is was motivated in no small part because the three writers show one of the first break up moments of the body boom: 1967-1972. This was the moment which divided the body boom into early and late: those who were not part of it, whose friends did not go to Vietnam, who were not on college campuses, who were not blindsided by the force of the late 1960's as a cultural moment – the time when sound went Stereo, and Television went Color, and Cinema went realist – parse differently from those who were there, or were rocked by it in their formative intellectual moment.

The three authors are part of the people cut off on the island of the Body Boom, they morally parse as Boomers, but they do not culturally parse as boomers, because by the time they had reached their formative intellectual moment, after Watergate, the ground had shifted underneath them, Pop and Post-Modernism were the establishment, and the era of limited possibility was dawning. America, and Europe, were treading to conservative ground.

However, as an Xer, they are all Body Boomers, in that their obsessions with the personal is political thesis, mark them as being people who are still grappling with the Post-Modern and Pop problems. The Post-Modern problem is the problem of abundance, and particularly abundance of information. In an era without canon, without a scarce source of knowledge, how is knowledge anchored? The answer, which marks the pop era, is the game itself. The game. The game. The game. That's Jacques. But it is also Milton, who posits that control of the money supply itself is enough to guide the economy.

The fight then becomes about the game itself, what is allowable, what is not, and what modes of combat are allowed. This is not an Xer obsession, in that for us, games are frames, and largely given, one can only shop for the game one likes the best. The "Democratic Spirit" of Wallace, is really the play in the sandbox of the body boom: the game, itself, is elementary school, where there are too few teachers, and too many children. X grows up differently, there are too many institutions, and too few people.

This island, which cries "can't we all just get along?" is part of the body boomer continent, and it has one most influential resident: President Barack Obama.
On the other side, however, there is another major dividing line: the boomers who got out before 2008, when they could sell their economic home, the one in the high earning area, for peak price, and move to bonds – and those that did not. This divide is particularly apparent when you look at net wealth cohorts: people above this divide have seen their net wealths, on median, climb. Those below it have, as a group, taken the second largest hit to net wealth in Post-War history.
The non-demographic divide of the baby boom is visible in every Presidential electoral map: the conservative part, the part that helped make "The Ballad of the Green Berets" the number one song of 1967, and the metropolitian technocratic part, which is not all that liberal economically, but is liberal socially.

The power of demographic determinism has, in fact, peaked, and it looks better precisely because almost all of it is in the rear view mirror, and because we are faced in politics with a three way divide. The silents want a depression to make their money more powerful: money having higher buying power is deflation, and the cult of deflationism is rampant among them. The body boomers, particularly those on the back half, need to tax the millenials to make it out. That is what the ACA, aka the health care act is: taxing the millenials to pay for the late body boomers to get to medicare. It isn't universal health care, unless passing a law requiring everyone to buy a house is universal home ownership. The third part is the millenial/X mass. The Republicans, being the party of the silents, need the Xers, if nothing else to run for office. Look at the Tea Party candidates, like Ryan. They are Xers.

This cluster makes up Generation #fail, a group of three generations in order that are focused on their fortunes, as generations, without the smallest scrap of forward thinking. If you look at it, the Xers should not be in favor of conservative policies: they are a small cohort, and after a short period of discomfort, will be able to ride the millennium generation all the way to the grave. The late Boomers shouldn't be engaging in crass generational warfare, precisely because very soon the American population pyramid will normalize, and as Millennials become family people, they will be seen as a plague of locusts. The silents, with a self-image as the abused and forgotten generation, should not be collapsing the economy precisely when they are about to be completely dependent on living on its surplus.

If you don't see the divide, let me lay a simple chart for you, of Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidates.

John Kerry: December 11, 1943
William Jefferson Clinton: August 19, 1946 
George W. Bush:  July 6, 1946 
Albert Gore: March 31, 1948
Mitt Romney: March 12, 1947
Dan Quayle: February 4, 1947

That's right, for 16 years America was under two Presidents that were born 44 days apart, and the Republicans are now running a man who is less than a year younger than the two of them.

Let's take the silents:

Jack Kemp: July 13, 1935
Dick Cheney: January 30, 1941
Joe Lieberman: February 24, 1942 

Two of these, are close to the gang of 6, Kerry being closer to the cluster around Dick, than around Bill.

Finally, ignoring GI Generation Dole, and Bush I:

John Edwards: June 10, 1953
Barack Obama:  August 4, 1961
Sarah Palin: February 11, 1964
Paul Ryan: January 29, 1970 

That's correct, the cohort born in the 1950's will not elect a US President in all likelihood, as electoral power has already shifted past them, they had only one person even nominated for either slot, the now disgraced John Edwards. Only one person from the 1930's was even nominated for either top spot. The early silents will be virtually shut out of the Presidential game. A 13 year period supplied 10 of 13 individuals nominated for the highest office since 1992, and two years saw 5 that governed for 16 years. But likely, they have one more chance, 2016 might see one last late boomer, or 1950's member. That's the pinnacle of demographic determinism.

The Three Body Boomer Presidents: Clinton, Bush II, Obama, have a long gap between them.  For all that we talk about Boomers, much of the generation will not have a member nominated for President or Vice-President, where as 6 of the late silents, early boomers will have been nominated. This is the past that shows the power of demographic determinism, but not in the way one might loosely first expect: instead of having a great wave of boomerocracy, we have some fairly particular blocks which are not generationally determined. Cheney, the most powerful Vice-President in American history, to the point where he was often referred to as "the Prime Minister," was closer to George W Bush in age, than his successor, and was not a boomer.

But this is illusory and starts to break down on examination, the reason there are these clusters is not accidental, nor a product of waves. Look at the cluster of Boomer candidates, mixed in with late silents. These are not large cohorts, and not the result of a wave of people coming to consciousness under peer leaders, these are the results of pivots in society, events such as World War II, which are not demographic determinism, producing people who are in a position to take the new economic or social territory. Hence some of the smallest cohorts: because by 1961 the boom is sliding down, and Palin is on the cusp of the bust, as well as the 1940's births, dominated a half-generation of Presidential nominees in America. Note how after this tight pivot, there is a wide scatter to either side. We have in two Presidential elections seen more demographic variety than was the focus of four before.

More over, by taking people into school at the same time, giving them a lock step education, rights and responsibilities at certain times, 16, 18, 21, 22, 25, 63, 65, we are inserting synchronizations to drive, drink, die in war, retire. It is not that the world is governed by a demographic clock, though this is not to discount demographics, but that we govern the world by it.

Now what does this have to do with three late boomer authors? 

The three picked each other: they are peers and competitors, clustered not because there is some magical moment in the late 1950's and early 1960's births, but who competed at the same times in their lives, were of the same age working the same general niches. They knew each other because they were born close in age, and thus create an artificial outline of a moment that wasn't. They made themselves part of the same moment, by talking about each other. In the same way, Clinton and Gore were peer competitors, as were Reagan and George W. Bush, as were Dole and George W. Bush. They weren't in place because of an inevitable demographic moment, they bound themselves together and cleared the space around them first.

To say, then, that Wallace, Franzen, and Ellis come from some special moment is like noticing that the team ahead at the end of regulation time in a game tends to be declared the winner. We set the clock, it did not set us. This will get more ragged over time. This essay, and myriad others, are synchronized by an event, the publication of a biography, and that by an event, a suicide. These are not demographic realities, but individual ones.

So what is left here? Having spent a good deal of time using a generational lens, the essay is now undercutting it. Wallace's upbringing, Franzen's upbringing, are, in the long term, details. The food fight driven by their need to make a living now. 50 years from now, these factors splay. Franzen and Ellis are both still writing, they may well be remembered for a book they have not even started yet. Wallace is done, but he finished himself.

Soon we will be stripped of the demographic synchronization that has ruled mindsets for 70 some years as the Second World War, and to a large extent, the first half of the 20th century struggle against totalitarianism, ended. Much of the present synchronization is by another artificial set of numbers: when we let people retire. The ACA is created by the existence of virtually universal care at a certain point, and chaotic anti-care below it. These aren't signals in the life cycle of a fly, but our own decisions to draw lines.

Wallace's personal problems will, in the end, throw a sidelight on his work, but we will read Infinite Jest against that background for its own virtuosity, based on the correspondences to that time. There will always people willing to sell their souls for their addictions, as in Less than Zero. While a particular moment may have moved the author to write it, empty consumption wasn't invented in California in the 1970's.

In the end, as tempting as demographic determinism is, because the Body Boomers are the most craven and tiresome generation since at least Louis XVI, the reality in policy is that these demographic moves are counter-productive. The Xer alliance with the silents will destroy them, because the Xers need a bubbly boom economy now in the last 20 years of their working life, because they have no savings. The Boomers have already fatally wounded themselves, by consciously bending their own children over the table and raping them of their youths. 

In the end, the full life cycle most work, and robbing one part of it to pay others, is a dead end. We won't see this, because the Silents and Boomers have been fighting a generational war for 60 years, and will never stop, because it is what they have become. Their dysfunctional relationship will continue to dominate politics, until the oil runs out, a number that is not set by graduation, matriculation, or celebration, but by the remorseless logic of a wider world whose generations are not linearly related to our own.

America is about to hit the wider world, and find out that our generational divides, like our racial ones, are parochial nonsense.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Current Opus List

Opus Work Title No. Year Rev. Key Dur
1 "The Ruins"

1993 1994
2 Overture to Eden

1993 1995
3 Toccata Prelude and Fugue

E 4
4 Dance of the Goblins


5 Funeral Music for Lear


6 Symphony in Ab Sketches from Dante I 1994 2002 Ab 28
7 Symphony in A
II 1994
A 45
8 Symphony in E In Pursuit of the Millennium III 1994
E 32
9 Cello Concerto in F# Erleuchtung
F# 20
10 Violin Fantasy Variations "Romantic"
D 23
11 Koncertstueck in G Rime of the Ancient Mariner I 1995
G 21
12 Overture to Medea

1995 2002 Eb 6
13 Sonata in C#
I 1995
C# 24
14 Quartet in A
I 1996
A 25
15 Sonata in F#
II 1996
F# 15
16 Quartet in Ab Roman Elegies II 1996 2012 Ab 24

Aurora for String Trio and Oboe

Ab 6
17 Pavanne for a Wedding Vigil

Eb 10
18 Cello Sonata in D Mephisto Variations I 1996 2012 D 22
19 Koncertst├╝ck in D# Hyperion II 1997
D# 27
20 Piano Concerto in F
III 1998
F 27
21 Violin Sonata in C
I 1998 2012 C 13
22 Symphony in C#
IV 1999 2002 C# 25
23 Quartet in F
III 1999 2012 F 25
24 Quartet in D Sehnsucht IV 1999
D 21
25 Cello Sonata in C
II 2000 2002 C 19
26 Cello Sonata in F# Sparrow of Beijing III 2000 2002 F# 18
27 Violin Sonata in A
II 2000 2012 A 12
28 Piano Trio in Bb Neo-Modern I 2002
Bb 25
29 Piano Trio in F
II 2002 2007 F 22
30 Symphony in B
V 2002
B 33
31 Symphony in F# Pastoral VI 2002
F# 40
32 Sonata in C Ares III 2002
C 16
33 Quartet in F#
V 2005 2012 F# 26
34 Quartet in Db Hua yang nian hua VI 2005 2006 Db 18
35 Quartet in Eb In the Year of Storms VII 2005
Eb 40
36 Quartet in B
VIII 2005 2012 B 34
37 Quartet in Bb Xaos IX 2005
Bb 34
38 Quartet in G The Neo-Classical X 2005
G 25
39 Quartet in C
XI 2007 2012 C 24
40 Piano Trio in C#
III 2007
C# 23
41 Piano Trio in F#
IV 2008
F# 33
42 Piano Trio in C The Archangel V 2009
C 45
43 Quartet in E
XII 2012
E 38
44 Piano Trio in B
VI 2012
B 33
45 Quartet in F minor
0 1992 2012 f 21

Food Fight Among the Body Boomer Gods - III

Bret Easton Ellis

Franzen's reaction to Oprah's attention shows the raw nerve underneath his yoeman's work of presenting the thoughts of a highbrow mind – which he is – to the middle. He wants to be acknowledge for what he is, in the same way that Tom Tomorrow presents the unvarnished bald faced truth about his time.

This applies exponentially to the last of the three, Bret Easton Ellis. Franzen is trying to heal the middle, and tells them their part in the decline of America. Ellis however, has the number of the elites, people like DFW, for example. He hates pretense, and his most famous work, American Psycho, is a dissection of the pretense of elites. If Franzen gently satirizes America, Ellis it its most brutal effective voice. Consider that Wolfe took a very long novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, to not talk about the sadism of American elites, musing on master's of the universe who think about "the hot little fires" that they dream burn among suburban mothers – note that this is DFW's obsession, seducing mothers – where as Ellis goes into such minds, and brings back documentary footage. Ellis wrote a raw Blair Witchcraft Project documentary of the attitudes that would, 20 years later, bring about the mortgage crisis. DFW wanted to be serious, Franzen to explain serious, Ellis is serious. As serious as a shotgun blast to the face of literature. Franzen reacts to Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion Footed Beast" by going to where DFW pretended to go: towards cold sincerity.

Franzen's anger comes from being recognized as the wrong thing, and Ellis' from watching some one get away with exactly the con he described. Wallace is, to Ellis, a con man: get sort of rich, then get really rich by peddling a fake get rich scheme, with the sort of richness as social proof. Ellis is as loud about his gifts with words as DFW, and this is where he loses: Wallace has better chops. But where as Wallace could write his whole life and not come to grips with even his own inner demons, Ellis nails, time and again, the complex inner demons of America. As with the famous Joy Division cover, which started out as a submission to the art director of the label, he points a camera straight at his own asshole. And it takes a special wit to, as the art director did, say "my that's a clean one." Ellis pretends to portray the messiness, but like all boomer productions, it is very clean.

For example, consider the incident in American Psycho where the main character kills another in mid warble about Iggy Pop, it is an incident that would not be out of place in Pulp Fiction: a forceful end to a narcisstic banality. Then, the author describes, in widescreen detail, the consumer detritus of the place. Note that Franzen, for all his presenting as being quotidian, does not do this, his present is vague. Ellis is specific to a fault, journalistic and cinematic at once about the answering machine, television, and stupid pet tricks on Letterman. This is the product of a writer with an eye. It is also spotlessly clean. Everything works, everything is new, nothing is dented. Like the hive of scum and villainy in Star Wars, the streets are remarkably well scrub. The body bleeds, but the blood evaporates. Grunge isn't there, this is still a big hair band doing down and dirty. Ratt. Poison. The Scorpions.

His output is front loaded, Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho are all cultural totems and cult classics, with time showing that they are losing the cult as an adjective. However, like all writers, say Dickens, who get to the point quickly, the rest of the career is a test of technique to expand it. The turning point novel then, is Glamorama. It is a satire, which flirts constantly with parody, and in it Ellis is showing the point in ways more graphically than is possible. It also calls into question whether his early works were, as well,  satires.

Where as my comparisons between Franzen and DFW were to show that the two authors are separate, Ellis and DFW are inexorably interlinked, in that Ellis accepts about himself what Wallace cannot – that he's an asshole, and glorifies this. This makes Wallace the novelist for people who would prefer not to think of themselves as assholes, and Ellis the guy at the party who says "but we all are anyway." As such Ellis has drifted out of the Boomerite obsession with justifying narcissism, and into the X acceptance of it with a shrug. However, like any good post-modern, his collision, lust for ennui, and consumerism overwhelm the inner life of the author. The cleanliness studied.

Ellis, by being the angriest, is also the most productive. He's written more novels than Franzen, and is no less careful about his diagnosis that the world has become a spy state, sold by media glamor. But this is also a boomerite media theory, not an Xer reality theory, of the problem. In this respect then Ellis is speaking forward to Xers in a way that Franzen, a hopless square, is not, and DFW, who exists for himself, does only in the sense that there is always a self-obsessed technical maven in any time and place. Ellis is angry because DFW is beloved, and he is despised, and he despises that he is despised for being honest about what DFW lied about. Franzen has been more gentle about the Saint Dave myth, but Ellis, raw edged and raw nerved, is never gentle about anything.

In fact, at that link is a short summation that proves the thesis that these are three boomer writers, and that DFW was, in fact, insincere about sincerity, this from Gerald Howard, former editor of both, and a self-confessed body boomer:

At the moment, the Wallace style is dominant and that is what drives Bret Ellis nuts. David’s 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College, “This is Water,” has assumed the stature of a manifesto and ultimate statement. But, soul-pocked baby boomer that I am, I don’t buy it as a guide for right behavior. It feels uncomfortably close to those  books of affirmations, no doubt inspiring but of questionable use when the hard stuff arrives. I truly believe that David was the finest writer of his generation, but his design for living seems to me na├»ve and likely to collapse at the first impact of life’s implacable difficulties. It badly needed an injection of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius.
Me, I find Bret Ellis’ scalding, cynical, brittle, savagely unillusioned worldview curiously refreshing. He is the Loki or Trickster of the literary world (or maybe the Lou Reed), poking sharp  sticks in our eyes and daring us to figure out if he could possibly mean that. Deal with it. In a culture that has the phrase “Good job!” on endless rotation, he dares to say, over and over, “You must be fucking kidding me.” He’s incorrigible, he’s not a nice boy, he doesn’t care if you become a better person, he is not in any way seeking your approval. Good for him. Some brave college should ask him to do a commencement address.

Food Fight Among the Body Boomer Gods - II

Jonathan Franzen 

If DFW had the chops as a writer and an introspectionist, his colleague and rival Jonathan Franzen exemplifies normality and the very banality that Wallace wanted to write about, but also disdained. Wallace parodies stupid, unpleasant people, because he's correctly afraid that he is one. Franzen disdains actual stupid people, witness his reaction to Oprah, because he too, is one. However, unlike DFW, he doesn't disdain this, he embodies it. This is also the root of why Franzen continues to churn out observant, high quality novels at an age that Wallace will be dead for over a decade.

Where as Wallace's audience consists of people who think they are geniuses, but know in a reptile way they can't let that on, Franzen is writing for people who want to stand above the middle American families they come from. We hear almost nothing of family in Wallace, he's too self-absorbed, we hear a great deal of it in Franzen. It's a stage of being a comedian, telling jokes about your family.  In his case, that includes, as it does for Wallace, his literary family of the Post-Modern authors, who are the middle wave of the Pop era, the providers of the specific justification for social epistemology – knowledge is what people say it is.

Where as Wallace has perhaps the best writing chops of his cohort, with a meticulous eye for compressing meaning, reception, and stance, into one phrase – what he thinks, what you are supposed to think about it, what he wants you to think of him – but is a terrible thinker, Franzen does not care for exposing in every moment his skill, but he has a firm grasp of the obvious as a thinker, that Wallace did not. Hence Franzen is alive, and Wallace is not.

Let's take the example from "Tense Present" – at the same time that Wallace labels the usage wars as political, he completely misdiagnosis them. Do you hear of them now? No? Why not? Wallace's theory that we all need to be passionately committed, which remember is the opposite of the word rigor, and have humility, which remember is the opposite of real humility, but is in fact sociopathic pretense – as "the Democratic Spirit" – he does not say, nor can he say, that really the entire debate was created as a way of laundering racism, an unpermitted form of passionate commitment, which is, never the less, entirely rigorous, even as it is unconnected to underlying biological reality. Octaroons anyone? For people who need the gory details, Gould's <i>The Mismeasure of Man</i> provides a good place to start. Racism is precisely careful, methodological, and rigorous, because it is trying to deny the obvious. If you want to kill someone for evil reasons, bury them in bullshit, as Racists do.

So according to DFW, the usage wars are a permanent state, but the goneness of them shows that they weren't, they were made, and then unmade, as part of a way of advancing the great American Conservative thesis: no money for black people. It is their fault because they don spick Inglish lahk good muricans do.

Franzen calls America "almost a rogue state" and marked his maturity with an essay entitled "Perchance to Dream," focusing on the meaning of the novel in a society that seems to have become post-literate. The very topics, politics, the social matrix that supports them, the relationship of literature to politics, are a very sharp contrast to DFW's treatment. Where as Wallace sees them through the lens of narcissism, and creates consumerist carictures in Infinite Jest – because he cannot conceive of people trapped in consumerism, Franzen paints very real people, in for example "Freedom," who are much less interesting than DFW's Goethe-esque grotesqueries such as the homunculous in Faust II, but are believable. DFW's carictures are a kind of literary dysphoria of his personality, the thing in the mental mirror.

Franzen, then, does not fall for the trap of pseudo-sophistication, but directly grabs, and did from his first published novel, the painful banality of the decline. His writing is pedestrian, but that is because that's his audience. A person incapable of better writing, could not maintain the iron grip on words that Franzen does:

"I'm not anything," Denise said. I'm just me."

She wanted above all to be a private person, an independent individual. She didn't want to belong to any group, let alone a group with bad haircuts and strange resentful clothing issues. She didn't want a label, she didn't want a lifestyle, and so she ended where she'd started: wanting to strangle Becky Hemerling.

She was lucky (from a guilt-management perspective) that her divorce was in the works before she and Becky had their last, unsatisfying fight. Emile had moved to Washington to run the kitchen at the Hotel Belinger for a tone of money. The Weekend of Tears, when he returned to Philly with a truck and they divided their worldly goods and packed up his share of them, was long past by the time Denise decided, in reaction to Becky, that she wasn't a lesbian after all.
The Corrections, page 380.

This is truly banal writing, but it isn't bad writing, in that while it is loaded with the clunky habits of its age, for example using parenthesis where commas would do, and it is  absent all of the literary fireworks that set almost every note of DFW. But that's the point.  Note that while the Pop-isms are there, they are in the mouth of the character, without the author distancing himself from them. Note how the compressed story of the divorce is woven in, in an intensely economical way, every bit as concise and far more seemless, as DFW's prose. Where Wallace wants to use every technical device for compression possible, and then spills over into the foot notes in big gaudy brush strokes, Franzen's brushstrokes are invisible, he needs no devices, and in fact deflates them by using them: the parenthesis are so leaden as to make any virtuosity seem the same kind of device, that is, a means of deflecting the attention on the absence at the center of the writer.

He's writing not because he cannot write any better, but because his intended audience cannot read any better. Though Franzen exists of himself, and not in reference to other writers, one more DFW comparison is in order here. DFW is talking to other people who are too smart for their own good, Franzen for people who are too stupid for their own good. DFW to people who will ruin the world they live in by trying to do stupid things in a smart way, like say, sleep around after the age of 40 and still feel good about their role as a husband, while Franzen is about people who live in a smart world of technology and capital, while being too stupid to even understand themselves. After all, anyone who says they don't want a label, is a paradigmatic example of a label. People who defy labeling spend their lives pretending to be ordinary.

Thus, DFW is who you read about a smart Post-Modern American crawling up his own ass and disappearing. Franzen is who you read to understand why Post-Modern America crawled up its own ass and disappeared. DFW explains Bill Clinton's repeal of Glass-Steagall. Franzen explains why ordinary people burned by it love him anyway. My friend Ian Welsh is in the same position as Franzen, very aware, painfully so, that he lives in a ghetto because he is preaching moral truths, that were largely known 2500 years ago to most advanced thinkers. Moral truths don't change. Wallace tries to come up with a new scam to cover immorality, Franzen has no need of the dazzling heights of misdirection, because he understands that smart people are merely stupid people with more words on their hands.

How do we know this about Franzen? Take a look at page 117 of The Corrections where he intertwines the fantasy wedding, with the decline of America, by means of the word paroxysmal,  while diagnosing the problem: everyone wants to think of their people as good people. This is intellectual sophistication of the problem that besets Americans of the pop era, which he glides by, a topic that years later DFW blunders away an entire essay about. Writing well is not thinking well, but to be able to think well, and then explain to people who think badly, is a mark of an excellent writer.

Franzen is indeed that, and something else that DFW was not.


Food Fight Among the Body Boomer Gods - I

The late body boomer writers are having a fight. They'd like to be called "Xers" simply because, as the back half of the body boom – because let's face it, they are closer to being bodies than babies at this point – does not share the defining synchronizing middle event of their generation – namely 1967-1972. As children in the house of the young adults, they have the moral habits of body boomers, because these are formed before the age of 7, and much of the intellectual direction, since this is the product of, roughly 6-12. But about there, their tour through the body boomer arc stops. They'd like to be Xers both to escape their generation, and take along enough of it to swamp the generation of the "baby bust." It's typical boomer tactics to cheat to get into an easier pool, and then dominate it not because of skill, but a few year's head start and more friends.

Consider three literary figures who are sometimes associated with generation X, but whose cuspy nature betrays that their real problems are those of being the youngest children of the previous generation, not the first of the next:

Jonathan Franzen (1959-)
David Foster Wallace (1962-)
Brett Easton Ellis (1964-)

Those aren't Generation X dates, and one can show, from the internal structure of their work and what people see in them as people, and as writers. I bring them up because of the food fight that has broken out with the publication of the first literary biography of DFW, which reveals details about himself as a person and a writer which are obvious from his work, but which had not been put on the table as bluntly before. But before examining the slinging of the hash, it is better first to look at the three writers as what they will be remembered for: being writers, and tangentially, for the actual products of it. Make no mistake, all but the most read of writers are more remembered for being writers than for what they wrote as a whole. Even Dickens, is more source material for Scrooge and a Tale of Two Cities, than for actually reading those two works, much less engaging them in context.

These are not X writers, but are the writers that X read, which body boomers read in trying to escape the maze of modernism with its reflexive irony and taking of stance, in search of "sincerity." However, the body boomers are not ironists, Schostakovich – and you should always spell his name this way because he put D-S-C-H as his signature motive in his music, to spell it in English as Shostakovich, is to lose meaning, and English orthography is imfamous for keeping the roots to preserve meaning, hence "school." 

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace engaged in massive acts of moral masturbation, the perpetual attempt to rationalize himself as "good," even though he knew that he failed to meet his own standards. The biography implies that one large part of this was that he focused, to a great extent, on one off sex. That is, he liked to take advantage of his station as a well known writer, and sleep with the groupies of his novels, and he was obsessed with having sex. This, one should note, is not a new obsession among creative men, and may well be the reason that florid brilliance in men evolved: as a short cutting of courtship and a means to social station.

And of these three, Wallace was the most floridly brilliant, and quotable, of the three. To pick one examples:
People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being "well adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
This is from the Kenyon College Address in 2005, and it is part of what Franzen would call the "Saint Dave" aura around him, he denies being the "wiser fish" but presents himself as just that: experienced, self-enlightened, even has he admits to being self-centered. While narcissism neither begins with, nor will it end with, the body boomers,  it is the trait that they, more than any other generation as a generation, have to struggle with, because consumerism, the ideology they were swaddled in from the beginning, is about attunement with one's inner utility and needs to a degree which less fortunate demographic cohorts do not every have the luxury of.

But to look at the quote itself, the immense nuance that hides the coldness of "which I suggest to you is not an accidental term" is the crucial bit of work. Suddenly "well adjusted" does not imply a spirit which has landed on its feet like a cat, with silence and grace, but a bicycle that has been turned to a tautness by another with a wrench. One adjusts an object. This objectification is softened by the diffidence of the academicism of "I suggest to you." A very delicate hand is on that mental pen.

This is because while DFW talks about the banal, and parodies its consumerism, he is a native speaker of academic, this is the subject of one of his essays, "Tense Present" from Harper's in 2001:

In ways that certain of us are uncomfortable about, SNOOTs' attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives' attitudes about contemporary culture: We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a cumudgeonly hellin-in-a-handbasket desparie at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly educated people.

Note the capital "W" after the colon.

But the paragraph that follows is as concisely stated form of the body boomer phenomenlogical quandry as any penned by anyone anywhere:

Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in U.S. English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a "Democratic Spirit." A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e. a passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect the convictions of others.
There are, in this one paragraph two incredible logical blunders, catastrophic to the logical unity of the piece, and why DFW isn't a linguist. But they are phenomenologically correct: they feel write to people who then overlook the fact they make no sense as usage, in an article where he is a self-declared "SNOOT" – capital letters essential, as C.S. Lewis taught us to say.

The first is the definition of rigor. On what planet is rigor "passionate conviction?" On Planet Body Boomer, where "Play in the Sandbox" is a moral commandment, since there are too many children, and too few sandboxes. Whatever sandbox the body boom is in, it is full, and no one else can get in. Rigor is the breaking of a process into steps which are so atomistically convincing that their connectedness is difficult to avoid, and once accepted, leads to a particular result. Note that doesn't mean they are in some abstract universal sense, nor that everyone will be convinced. But to attack rigor, one must attack its definitions and postulates: the very means by which it  symbolizes and manipulates the codification of its symbolization. As I just did with DFW. One can't argue against "rigor" as "passionate conviction," that is as immovable ideological faith.

That ideological faith is essential to get the second part: humility of others. That is demands a respect from others. Or, How to Be The Genius In the Room while still Playing Nice In The Sandbox. What is even more pointed here is that the word "humility" had been a crucial part in the elevation of George W. Bush, and again, the most important writer, at that time, of his cohort fails to grasp the irony of the word that would soon send us to Iraq, being one of his two words for the best "Democratic Spirit."  This is because "humility" means not having flying elbows in a place where the individuals are consecrated members of the club – to academics. But not to Christians, or rather Christianists, where it means to be God's instrument. GWB, not DFW, was the genius of nuance about the word "humility," because he was able to tell anti-war liberals to their face that he was going to illegally invade Iraq, and they couldn't heart it, despite being loaded with "SNOOTs."

It is a problem that DFW then proceeds to talk about in the essay: that as a young SNOOT, he couldn't get the dialect of his child peers. Just as he, and others, could not get the dialect of Bush. Despite, and because of, his belief in usage and English, he was a genius at making extremely nuanced distinctions, such as the capital "We." Because of his narcissism, and lack of rigor, he was precisely the person to talk to the last cohort of Baby boomers, and precisely wrong about the relationship of dialects as attractors in a language. Dialects exist because of the attractors of some central power, and in opposition to it. The Christianist Dialect allows empire, because it is the Christianists who provide the democratic, small "d," support for the machine, and the ideological basis for imposing what used to be called "Christendom" on others.

Thus, in an article supposedly about usage, he turns to the only topic that matters to his generation: how to both work with others, and work through the discomforts of ones position as seeing them as chattel to one's ends, as DFW more than once implied, thinking of many women as walking cunts to put his penis in, and as necessary objects of "sedulous respect."

In summary, his focus on himself, as the only topic of his writing in the end, is in relation to how to not impact – and here I rebel specifically against that class where the learn'd professor intoned "impact is a noun, not a verb." in his best Boston Irish accehnt – others in a way that will deem one not part of the club.

In the body boomer world, all truths are social facts. If many people believe it, it must be accepted, with a few bright lines which are necessary of universalization of the Market. If even Mad Men can get its most clueless character on a bus to nowhere to get this, it has to be obvious. One might think that this is sanity, as DFW writes in his essay, to avoid being beaten up. But he's the one who shot himself, according to a supposed friend "in a way calculated to cause maximum pain to those he loved."

Thus DFW's ur-topic comes out of his generation, that is the body boomer generation, and it is precisely this quality that makes him beloved to other late boomers, and extremely annoying to X-ers. We know he's a fake, because sincerity among Boomers is always about masking something worse, self-deprecation designed to thwart confession.

We grew up smoking the pot of the honor students, we knew from the beginning. In this setting of opposition of my cohort to his, let me not persuade you that X is a better cohort – no cohort whose first Vice Presidential candidate is Paul Ryan can have any justified pretensions to moral anything – or that this is my ur-topic – because if it were I'd be more "important," since as a territorial topic it has an audience. But generation war, ironically at the point that it is about to disintegrate, is the ur-topic of political economy in the populist mode. Who is going to get screwed to pay for a clear road to the grave for the silents and boomers? It is a question at once inescapable and totally meaningless.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bad Thinking about Consciousness

One of the reasons it is not worth writing right now is the amazing amount of circularity in discourse: assumptions, like easter eggs, are hidden and then magically found after some poor chain of thought backed up by factoids at various points. A factoid is something that looks like a fact, but actually isn't, because it does not state its framework explicitly. Today's example is from the field of so-called "science of consciousness." It is not that consciousness is beyond study, or that one cannot do science about it, but the problem with the study of consciousness is that it is more often theology, and apology, for assumptions about the world already made. The word for this is "values." A value is a postulate - a given - that a person or group of people assert as the price for their participation in a group, or more often, the price they want to extract from others to be group members and gain the advantages of being a group member.

The most obvious examples of values have a bad odor, to the point where counter-values grow up to combat them. Racism is one: the members of a group value a particular set of visible traits, and demand, explicitly or implicitly, the possession of those traits for membership in the group. While overt bigotry is out of fashion, one does not have to scratch the surface of the social arrangements of any of the developed countries to find racism, or racism coupled with religious membership, wedded into policy and society. This includes the United States, Europe, and Japan most explicitly, and as well India, and China. Closely related, as just implied, is membership in a particular community of faith. However faith and ethnic identification are not carried out by the same means, and hence one often trumps the other, even when there is an overtly racial component to a religious community.
However, there are other value sets, and these, since the older religious frameworks are not currently conducive to them, go seeking apologies in other places. Or, if you don't have a religion that shares your biases, make one.

Circularity in values assertion is simply done, but elaborate to maintain. First one must make implicit some feeling or response, and then elevate that response to an ethical principle by way of a moral one. Again, to take an egregious example, bias against homosexuality often refers to fertility as its basis, or the role of the mother in the family unit. However, underneath this not even very seemingly pseudo-scientific rationalization, is the response of the people making the argument towards male homosexuality. They are repelled by it, and therefore go in search of reasons which are seemingly, not even very seemingly or even seemly, separate from their response. Or in shorter: first a person feels a certain way out of experience or habit, then they try and ground that response in some teleological or external principle. That is, they could not feel other than how they do, because there is some purpose or reason for the response. People who are repelled by the idea of two men having sex then try and find a reason why all correctly wired people should feel as they do.

I've taken three conservative sets of values so far, but much of the corruption of discourse is done by those who seem, not even very much seem, to be on the left. In part because religion, at the present time, is mostly a reactionary force, and despite many hooks for progressive or liberal ideas in it, these are not the current attractor of religion. Religion, like the Republican Party, has become a home for people repelled by certain experiences, and who need Nature and Nature's God to agree with them. This is an obvious categorical error. Nature does not really care what we think, and if there is a God, he may well, but until it becomes manifest that he does indeed meddle in human politics directly, is as likely to be favoring hunter-gatherers in the forests of the Amazon, as anyone else.

The example I am going to point to is the creation of a pseudo-scientific rationale for excuses for an ideology grown out of the 1960's, which is however, part of a larger consumerist ideology of elite countries, and not particular to the left. We are rich, and we treat much of the rest of the world badly, so we have values which fetishize our virtues so that we can sleep well at night even though millions went to bed with out potable water, and will awake to find their 2 year old dead of some completely preventable condition, which we sell the medication for at more than the average monthly wages of the village. Or, it is a shame meant to make people in nice houses think they are nice, because they engage in some moral behavior which justifies their profiting from a genocidal economic system.

The piece is at Slate, that home of the pseudo-intellectual's pseudo-intelligentia: written by one Daniel Bor. Bor's problem is that he wants to support broad abortion rights, and vegetarianism. The second is from an excess of empathy, which, in fact, does not come from empathy at all, but from personal delicacy. The second is a necessity of the individualist society he is a part of. There are two parts to this second. In order to be able to reward and penalize individuals for "rational" decisions, one has to face the reality that reproduction is not individual maximizing rational. Evolution has stacked the deck against human beings being rational about it. Many people reading this, and the person writing it, were unplanned and against the rational interest of their parents. And yet, for the larger continuance of the species, the rational and forward projecting parts of the brain have to be dealt with. It is almost never a good, or good enough, time to have children. The same brain that makes us good at avoiding planting the wrong field, also tells us that children are a burden on sustenance. So for the good of the species, one of them has got to go.

The result is that women must have fertility control as a basic right then, both to provide the reward/penalty framework of the society, and to make it possible to have sex before marriage. As economics pushes marriage farther and farther back, the consequences of denying sex are a larger and larger group of angry, violent, frustrated, males. Large groups of frustrated males create instability: crime, war, unrest. So on one hand the society has to allow sexual relationships, on the other, push back marriage until people can pay the very high rents associated with having a home – because those who don't raise children that are sub-optimal in attainment and health.

This however, is not, as you can see plainly, a result of any science of consciousness, but a value of a particular set of social arrangements.

However, this cuts against empathy. To terminate a pregnancy, the fetus must be chattelized: an extension of the will of the parents. However, a society which is generally operational about people, will fall apart, because it will descend into the war of all against all. In order to function in a complex society, individuals must believe that they won't be left bleeding by the side of the road, and that other individuals will not nakedly harm them for some transient advantage. As our society has become suburbanized, this attachment – which is quite old in human affairs – is fetishized to the results of our own behavior only. As a screen writing manual says "always save the cat."

Now this level of empathy is part of our human heritage for many good reasons: long dependence of expensive to produce children militates against it. Cultures which have far higher early infant death are much more operational about children: infanticide, for example, is a common human practice. Humans have also been involved in the raising of animals and plants for roughly 12,000 years, the application of empathy to our domesticates is part of our success.

This creates a conflict: the fetus has to be chattelized in post-modernity, and yet we have to have a very high degree of inhibition against chattelizing everything. This is particularly acute for the individual who has made their personal empathy part of their identity. Vegetarianism, for example.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a vegetarian, but there is also nothing intrinsically moralizing about it. All vegetable diets have health benefits and ameliorate many personal discomforts. Some of the worst people in history have also been vegetarians, I'll let people look them up, however, one can see from many centuries back, that people often make a big deal about treating their non-human chattel well, and then treating actual humans poorly. The examples come from every major civilization, so it isn't particularly picking on Europe, India, or China, to cite, for example, high caste vegetarianism in India, chattel slavery based on Christianity in America, or pets just about any place.

The conflict Bor has is that he wants to chattelize a human fetus, but also elevate animals, no matter how remote. This leads to the first egregiously dishonest argument in his piece: namely to protect animals he needs to "dumb consciousness down," to the point where anything that can, however remotely, feel what he describes as "suffering" is "conscious." But a sleeping fetus, is not. By his argument is fine to kill a sleeping person, because they aren't conscious. A fetus is not in a vegetative state, this can be shown by research, fetuses respond, remember, and wire, particularly late on.

Thus a nematode is too conscious to kill, but a fetus isn't conscious enough to save. Only by having a fallacy of equivocation – to distinct and incommensurable definitions of consciousness, does this argument fly. This does not mean that the science opposes vegetarianism, or abortion rights, merely that where the line is drawn is hidden in assumptions. What particular ability defines "consciousness" allows one to draw the line where ever it is convenient to do so from "values" that were assumed in the first place: low bar for vegetarianism, high for abortion, in Bor's case. One can equally go the other way. If it is not ethical to kill a sleeping person, it is because of the "potential" for consciousness, but then, that leads back to the "life from conception" argument, because every zygote is, eventually, conscious. One could try a "before and after" line, but by that point it is clear that one is seeking rationalizations, not reasons.

The deeper circularity is the difference between demonstrations of consciousness, and definition of it. Proofs of consciousness often lie in ability to engage in certain kinds of information processing: for example, self-awareness. However, to then define consciousness as information processing itself is an error: one defined the test as something which can be observed, that is, as information processing. That does not mean one is testing for it. Since, as one can easily see, the "information processing" definition is really an argument by analogy 

Is there another definition? Certainly, there are several, the best come from defining consciousness as an attractor, not a spectrum, because really what we mean by consciousness is the remembered theatre of the mind. Sleep-walking people often pass for conscious, even though they cannot recall, and make processing mistakes. Babies do not generally form memories which can be entered. These all point to a mechanism, but they don't serve as what Bor really wants: a substitute theology of the soul, specifically a neo-Hindu one in his case.

The end of all of this is not that consciousness isn't a phenomena that needs to come from a supernatural source, but that it is not an ethical concept, it is a personal one, and as all definitions of soul, it is easy to draw the line anywhere one wishes. Consciouness, and its science, can tell us a great deal about human behavior, human experience, and social organization, but they do not offer an objective definition of "the good life" or "how we think about abortion."

The kind of dishonest and slovenly thinking that Bor uses – and it is a con job, which is highly immoral for him to engage in, one which is directly and deliberately designed to kill living people, and I don't mean abortions, but the disadvantaged of his own circumstancs – is endemic. This is because the developed world lives very well, and to no small extent from the results of others pain and suffering. Hiding from this, creating an aristocratic patina of gentility, is a process that would be familiar to a student of say, the French Ancien Regime.

The greater reality is that one does not have to argue over angels on the head of a pin, or nematode consciousness, to see that we inflict on others a great deal of pain, for our own good. This includes, one might note, women who have to have abortions because of their economic circumstances – to end a pregnancy that they more want than not, because the economic system will engage in physical violence should they, for example, lose a job and miss some rent payments.

The study of the mind has made great strides, but, sadly, as usual, people first use new knowledge, as a way of justifying the old mistakes.