Muñoz Molina on the novel

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The novel subjects itself to its own limits and at the same time opens itself up to an exploration of depths that are within and without (the writer) and that only (the writer) was meant to discover. You’re writing even when you don’t write. Narrative imagination does not feed on what is invented; It feeds on the past. Every minor or trivial event that one experiences or discovers in the course of an investigation can be valuable or even decisive for the novel, occupying a minimal but precise place within it, like an uneven cobblestone …

… The novel has developed on its own with the unlimited richness of reality and the blank spaces I haven’t been tempted to fill, spaces in the shadows that cannot be illuminated …

…The novel is what I write and also the room where I work. The novel is the fine-point pen that ran out of ink one day when I wrote for five or six hours without stopping and filled an entire notebook. The novel is made with everything I know and everything I don’t know, and with the sensation of groping my way through this story but never finding a precise narrative outline.

— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow. Translated by Camilo A. Ramirez. Published by Editorial Planeta, S.A., 2014. Translation copyright 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

one in the chamber

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Neither mood nor biology shifts according to a calendar. This body runs on its own time. The mind operates in several time zones at once. Electricity powers the heart. I eat almost nothing, fueled by liquids and books and nerves. Love, too.

I try to read the dictionary every day—at least a page. I wish I had the dedication of Malcolm X, who copied the dictionary repeatedly by hand to teach himself to read. He was in jail at the time, a petty criminal whose initial way to the light was religion. He learned that Allah’s message was a necessary truth that had somehow eluded him, had been stolen from his youth. This knowledge became an impetus to act, requiring more study. He became a teacher. His internal truth continued to evolve, much like the reader and the writer of these words.

*

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. — Emerson

*

There’s a case, there’s a man and a case, and that man and his case penetrate time and space. Reader beware, keen reader beware, what you’re reading is rare and took care to prepare.

Notes from Streeck

“Capitalism has always been an improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions.”[1]

“The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configuration make for an ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis.”[2]

“In fact, the history of modern capitalism can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways…The fact that capitalism has until now managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; […] we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its security may fail to show up.”[3]

“Why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? When Communism imploded in 1989, this was widely viewed as capitalism’s final triumph.”[4]

“My answer is that having no opposition may be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.”[5]

“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint…We are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself.”[6]

On oligarchic redistribution and the outcome of the economic crisis of 2008: “The possibility as provided by a global capital market of rescuing yourself and your family by exiting together with your possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich to move into endgame mode—cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind but scorched earth.”[7]

“German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere, and at all times; not only was it NOT distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based NOT on a desire to get rich on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling, and to a rational organization of life…Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an “industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where the revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption.”[8]

“The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.”[9]

“The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption, and international anarchy. What is to be expected, based on capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay, intensifying frictions, fragility and uncertainty, and a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’ quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.”[10]

§

[1] Streeck, Wolfgang: How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System. Verso Books, London, 2016: 1.

[2] 2

[3] 4

[4] 59

[5] 60

[6] 65

[7] 69

[8] 70

[9] 71

[10] 72

Notes from Jan-Werner Müller

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From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.

*

Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.[1]

Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.[2]

A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.[3]

Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.[4]

Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.[5]

While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.[6]

It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.[7]

Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.[8]


[1] 20

[2] 19-20

[3] 21

[4] 31-32

[5] 35

[6] 42

[7] 91

[8] 103

from Critchley

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Notes from Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance:

“The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism. Philosophical activity, by which I mean the free movement of thought and critical reflection, is defined by militant resistance to nihilism. That is, philosophy is defined by the thinking through of the fact that the basis of meaning has become meaningless. Our values are meaningless and require a Nietzschean ‘trans-valuation.’”[1]

“The human being has a reflective attitude towards its experiences and towards itself. This is why human beings are eccentric, because they live beyond limits set for them by nature by taking up a distance from their immediate experience. In living outside itself in its reflective activity, the human being achieves a break with nature.”[2]

“Ours is a universe where human relations have been reduced to naked self-interest, to unfeeling hard cash, and where all social life is guided by one imperative: conscience-less free trade; a life of open, unashamed, direct, and brutal exploitation.”[3]

“Some wrote in the 1970s that capitalism was over. On the contrary, capitalism under the guise of globalization is spreading its tentacles to every corner of the earth. If someone found a way of overcoming capitalism, then some corporation would doubtless buy the copyright and distribution rights.”[4]

“Politics is not rare or seldom, and to adopt such a position is defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, but they also invite militancy and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and imagination, an invitation for our ethical commitment and political resistance.”[5]

“No revolution will be generated out of systemic or structural laws. We are on our own and what we do is what we must do for ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunning. No ontology or eschatological philosophy is going to do it for us.”[6]

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, London, 2012.

[1] 2

[2] 86

[3] 96

[4] 98

[5] 131

[6] 132

Conversation with Voltaire c.2016

Voltaire

T: You ask what is tolerance? Tolerance is an objective.

V: It is the natural attribute of humanity. We are all formed of weakness and error: let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly.[1]

T: Easy for you to say. Things are tense here. You’re dead. I have a daughter now. The world is more confusing each month. I pace indoors, my mind a temple of intensity. Sleep is a luxury I cannot afford. I’d rather study and write—do my part to help solve our problems. Thus I look to sages like you for guidance.

V: It is said the present gives birth to the future. Events are linked to each other by an invisible fate.[2]

T: If this is a renaissance, it’s a morbid portent. It is as if the world is sick. America itself is ill with pervasive discontent.

V: There is no other remedy for this epidemic illness than the spirit of free thought, which, spreading little by little, finally softens men’s customs, and prevents the renewal of the disease.[3]

T: I agree, and in light of current events, in which communities of peace officers roam American neighborhoods like armies, in which whites can’t even agree that or are afraid to exalt that BLACK LIVES MATTER, another remedy beyond free thought is respect for our fellow men and women and the infinite potential inside them, for as you once wrote, “We should say to every individual: Remember thy dignity as a man!”[4] For I wake each morning and read the newspaper and often I cannot sit. I am physically pained at what I read.

V: This feeling of pain is indispensible to stimulate us to self-preservation. If we never experienced pain, we should be every moment injuring ourselves without perceiving it.[5]

T: Fanaticism has kidnapped the minds of men and women. Since we invented religion we have murdered in the name of it, and we continue to do so. Such fanaticism has spread into the political realm. Anger and fear dominate. People are afraid that if they don’t assert their convictions, they will be victimized. Moderation has evaporated in the overabundant breath of rhetoric. The people’s politics are exclusive rather than inclusive, derisive rather than unifying. History has shown us that such moments are regrettable.

V: Show these fanatics a little geometry, and they learn it quite easily. But strangely enough their minds are not thereby rectified. They perceive the truths of geometry, but it does not teach them to weigh probabilities. Their minds have set hard. They will reason in a topsy-turvy way all their lives and I am sorry for it.[6]

T: I’m not sorry for them. They get what they deserve. In America they only have two choices, candidates who appear at first glance to be siblings: A woman who, according to federal investigators, has been “extremely careless with information” at her privileged disposal, and a man who has been openly and dangerously intolerant of people that do not look or think like him. They pander and feed the public narcotic doses of false promise. These are perhaps the most tepid of charges against them.

V: So tell me, you who have travelled, who have read and observed, in which state, under what kind of government would you have liked to be born?[7]

T: I wave no flag and never will. I would have liked to be born WITH a government rather than UNDER one. The older I become, the more oppressive the weight of that government, the more necessary to shrug it from atop me.

V: Laws have proceeded in almost every state, from the interest of the legislator, from the urgency of the moment, from ignorance, from superstition, and have been made at random, irregularly, just as cities have been built.[8] In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one part of the citizens to give to the other.[9]

T: I’m afraid the stakes are much higher than money. Western culture’s priorities are grossly misaligned. Emphasis is erroneously placed on sports and entertainment and the people are utterly disengaged until a horror seizes their attention.

V: But where are they to be found who will dare speak out?[10]

T: They’re everywhere, unfortunately. What they have to say is often more harmful than helpful. I dare speak, but who will listen? For “it is far better to be silent than to increase the quantity of bad books.”[11]

V: It is impossible for society to subsist unless each member pays something toward the expenses of it, and everyone ought to pay.[12]

T: Yes, but “try to arouse activity in an indolent mass, to inspire a taste for music and poetry in one who lacks taste and an ear, and you will no more succeed than if you undertook to give sight to the blind.”[13] In people’s certainties of their beliefs, they stop searching and their ideas stagnate, become a cesspool. They are certain of their beliefs and that is enough; little else matters.

V: If you’d asked the entire world before Copernicus if the sun rose and set that day, everyone would have answered: We are absolutely certain of it. They were certain, and they were mistaken.[14]

T: All the more important that “[we] boldly and honestly say: How little it is that I truly know!”[15] Rather than shout their beliefs over another’s, why do they not close their mouths and listen? Why do they accuse rather than acknowledge?

V: This is the character of truth: it is of all time, for all men, it only has to show itself to be recognized, and one cannot argue against it: A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.[16]

T: So “who shall decide between these fanatics? The reasonable, impartial man who is learned in a knowledge not of words, the man free from prejudice and the lover of truth and justice—in short, a man who is not a foolish animal, and who does not think he is the angel.”[17] As I said, I look to you, but you were no angel. Harsh words against Muslims and Jews populate your texts.

V: It takes 20 years for a man to rise from the vegetative state in which he is in his mother’s womb to the state when the maturity of reason begins to appear. It has required 30 centuries to learn about his structure. It would need an eternity to learn something about his soul.[18] In the land of where the monster reigns, almost everyone is blind.[19]

T: I wonder what I do not see. Monsters abound in plain sight. Each week strikes a new terror worst than the last.

V: If there were only two men on Earth, how would they live together? They would assist each other, annoy each other, court each other, speak ill of each other, fight each other, be reconciled to each other, and neither be able to live with nor without each other.[20]

T: Some fighting is understandable, but why so freely kill each other? Across the world innocents are murdered as a means to an end, to espouse a statement or idea. Why not verbalize those statements and ideas? Why the fear of black men on behalf of the American police? And why the murderous retaliation upon the police when such actions force us retreating backward?

V: It is forbidden to kill.[21] To murder our brethren, can there be anything more horrible throughout nature?[22] We are told that human nature is perverse, that man is born a child of the devil, and wicked. Nothing could be more foolish. You are all born good. Witness how dreadful it is to corrupt the purity of your being. All mankind should be dealt with as all men individually.[23]

T: Still, there is too much. At times I am beaten down with it.

V: There is infinitely less wickedness on Earth than we are told or believe there is. There is still too much, no doubt. A melancholy mind which has suffered injustice sees the Earth covered with damned people.[24]

T: I don’t see them as damned. But “more than half the habitable world is still peopled with humans who live in a horrible state approaching pure nature, existing and clothing themselves with difficulty, scarcely enjoying the gift of speech, scarcely perceiving that they are unfortunate, and living and dying almost without knowing it.”[25] I’d like to help them find their voices. I’d like to level the playing field.

V: As men have received the gift of perfecting all that nature has granted them, they have perfected love.[26]

T: They have not perfected love. They have not perfected anything. Perfection does not exist. Perhaps it is all we can do to continue down this path of inquiry and reflection. Rest not, my dead friend. Your ideas are wide awake and eager for an audience. The fire burns inside me so it must burn elsewhere.

July 2016

 

Works

Besterman, Theodore, editor. Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, Penguin Books, 1972.

DuMont, E.R, editor. Philosophical Dictionary, from The Complete Works of Voltaire in 43 Volumes, St. Hubert Guild, 1901.

Redman, Ben Ray, editor. The Portable Voltaire, Viking Penguin, 1949.

 

[1] Redman, 212.

[2] Besterman, 109.

[3] Besterman, 203.

[4] Redman, 228.

[5] DuMont, vol. IX, page 265.

[6] Besterman, 189.

[7] Besterman, 192.

[8] Redman, 224.

[9] Redman, 225.

[10] Redman, 224.

[11] Redman, 223.

[12] DuMont, vol. X, page 174.

[13] Besterman, 76.

[14] Besterman, 106.

[15] Redman, 225.

[16] Redman, 198.

[17] Redman, 198.

[18] Redman, 160.

[19] Redman, 162.

[20] DuMont, vol. XIII, page 104.

[21] DuMont, vol. XIII page 106.

[22] DuMont, vol. XIV page 198.

[23] DuMont, vol. XIV page 215.

[24] Dumont, vol. XIV page 219.

[25] Redman, 225.

[26] Besterman, 30.

virtual voyeurism

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“Bite the serpent’s head off!- so it cried out of me; my horror, my hatred, my loathing, my pity, all my good and bad with one voice out of me.” – Nietzsche, Zarathustra

*

Today’s video games are hyperrealist and meticulously designed cinematic experiences. The first-person shooter (FPS) is the second-most popular video game genre[1] among gamers, and FPS games possess some of the most profound examples of hyperrealism. The violence in these games is astounding. One of the gentlest people I know freely heaps bullets onto her virtual enemies as often as her personal schedule allows. A woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly in non-virtual reality eagerly awaits loading her latest game to dissolve her enemies with an impossible array of virtual gunfire. It’s fun, this recklessness. It’s also morbid. I eagerly seize the control, wondering why I enjoy playing these games or watching others play them. What instinctive horror does this virtual violence satisfy?

[1] https://www.statista.com/chart/3599/americas-favorite-video-game-genres/