Saturday, April 28, 2012

More Elias Canetti Excerpts - from Notes From Hampstead

Second meetings always ruin first impressions; should there be only first
meetings? (4)

He studies and studies and can forget nothing: a dunce of dunces. (5)

His mistrust of success has become so great that he wants only to want it, not to have it. (7)

For me power is still evil absolute. (9)

It all depends on this: with whom we confuse ourselves. (13)

My cowardliness starts when I turn my eyes away. That is why I read till my eyes are sore, listen till my ears ring. (14)

A sucker for cemeteries -- anywhere else he's afraid. (16)

What I find most repulsive about people are their plans. (16)

There is something sickening about all advocacy: only pure admiration is real. (17)

He loves her; he can't be as careful with anybody else. (21)

Why are you always explaining everything? about life on the surface?

He collects his writers like butterflies, and under his care they turn into one great caterpillar.

The man who is so good he forgot his name.

Stories of people who do everything to stop being themselves. They transform themselves into their enemies. (22)

The conceptual holds so little interest for me that ... I have never read either Aristotle or Hegel. It is not just that I don't care for them, I distrust them. I cannot accept that the world was conceivable for them before it was really known.

I want to get out of the skin of my work, that I have carried my thoughts within me for too long and now they have become my bones. (28)

You need an army of termites that will undermine all your ties and habits from within. (32)

A man who is known by all, but knows no one.... People collect around him, but run off like water.  

Animals approach him as if they were humans; it appears they get to know him. (42)

Each individual perception is precious so long as it remains autonomous. But it dissolves into nothingness when absorbed into the gut of a system. (45)

Don't tell me who you are. I want to worship you. (46)

For months he didn't talk even to himself.  Now words shoot out of him like knives. (50)

Learn to listen to people without lecturing them, especially those who have nothing to teach me. (51)

Whoever touches power will, unawares, be contaminated by it. He cannot forget it unless he can forget himself. (52)

The hand that forms a single letter is mightier than the hand that kills... (56)

His sentences rub against and so erase each other. This drives him to despair.  So he makes of every sentence its own cage. (59)

Your original sin: you opened your mouth. As long as you listen, you are innocent.

I am sick of longing for places I already have an image of. I am sick of being astonished by words because they are inscrutably splendid. I want to seek something that I, and only I, will find....  I went home and found a fez. Whose had it been?  I put it on and went for a walk. Now everyone knew me. Soon I was a celebrity....  (60)

The true stories that we tell are false; with false stories at least there is the chance that they might come true. (66)

All our lives we circle around the same ideas, as if they were so many suns. So why should we not at least hope for comets?

The progress of friends who include us in their progress: nothing makes us feel lonelier and more alien. (RM: this is Canetti’s new ad slogan for Facebook: "Include friends in your progress")

Friday, April 20, 2012

Oakland Talk: Reading Like a Loser

Given 6 April at Andrew Kenower's house.

To start with a conclusion, I’d like to adopt what Mallarme said circa 1895: “it all comes down to Aesthetics and political economics.” Economics is the piece of this that is often left out by leading thinkers on the left like Badiou, Zizek and Ranciere.

One of the quickest ways of summarizing what’s wrong today is that: rather than being merely part of the world, markets are taken to be the circuit thru which everything in the world needs to be seen. That’s maybe a (reductive) thumbnail definition of neo-liberalism. While the truth is NOT as they say “on the market,” the market has become accepted as a (false) force or law of nature – like gravity.

Historically the left has attempted to address problems like this pedagogically. There is a long heroic tradition (not just in our literature) of developing the correct position so that it can be taught or proselytized to others. Sort of the fallacy of: The truth will out… Political histories of the left and art histories, theories of the avant-garde etc all heroically put forth their radical news in order to correct the past.

As Tim Morton suggests, the history of critical theory in the modernist era could be summarized as “anything you can do, I can do meta…” (Yes, I can)

Of course identifying a problem versus figuring out how to get a hold on it (in order to effect change) are two different things. When I say “get a hold on,” I mean with traction – Capitalism for example, seems to be able to absorb negative definitions without much trouble.

However, it is very difficult to envision a useful politics without a dose of the negative. The problem I don’t have time to discuss tonight is whether one can translate aesthetics into politics without being compromised – that is, by having to travel thru the circuits of capital.

It’s worth noting here that the notion of “economy” is generally left out of these arguments. It interests me that economy is etymological cousin of ecology – which is literally the logic of the house or home. Coherence – if that is what we’re after, ala Whitehead – is not necessarily logical, but rather it is eco-logical. Something coheres in relation to its environment.

There was something in my little bio that suggests that the goal of the Autonomous University (“AU”) project is to induce collective thought and action. I can’t say it’s wildly successful, but it is worth saying that the purpose is not necessarily to empower participants (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but rather to empower situations – which can lead to collective thought and action.

One of the books that AU in Seattle recently read was The Beach Beneath the Street by MacKenzie Wark, which is great for a number of things including its focus on the less famous members of the Situationists.

In response to an inquiry about the health of AU, I found myself remembering something cynical that Wark says about “discourse clubs,” that is, my hope is that AU can be more than merely a discourse club.

And thus the critical force of historical thought was separated into various specializations and absorbed back into business as usual within the spectacle… The margins outside the spectacular world that once harbored a glimmer of negation have been all but foreclosed. What remains is professionalized anesthesia, mourning communities, discourse clubs, legacy fetishists. Some ages betray a deep respect for their critical thinkers. To Socrates, they offered hemlock; to Jesus, the cross. These days its Zoloft, a [journalistic] column – or tenure.

So, Wark does indeed want to find a way to keep us young Hegelians fed and clothed on mere glimmers of the negative. The shimmering shimmering waters on...

Clearly Situationist ideas and tactics continue to inspire many. So it’s maybe dangerous to say how ambivalent I am about them.

[Before proceeding, I need to say that I owe a great debt here to Steve Shaviro and Isabelle Stengers– I’m largely following in their footsteps here.]

As Shaviro says, contra Debord we have:

…moved from being a “society of the spectacle” to being a society of participatory and interactive media…. We are no longer passive, voyeuristic spectators; instead, we actively both give ourselves over to surveillance, and eagerly surveil …both others and ourselves). We fragment, multiply, and network both ourselves and whatever we encounter. This no longer falls under the dipolar schema of subject and object; but rather has the form of a network in which everyone and everything is a node [in that network].

While he doesn’t explicitly criticize tactics (which I think are the Situationists’ strongpoint) on political strategy, Shaviro writes much more critically: “The Situationist strategy of radical negation and absolute refusal is a self-congratulatory self-deception, or at best a show of empty bravado.”

The irony is that the Situationists’ “virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture became one of the most commercially successful …‘brands’ of the late twentieth century.”

I want to briefly bring in the (seemingly) very anti-Situationist Andy Warhol for contrast, since Warhol completely embraces the spectacle, completely complicit but at the same time revealing the art world for what it is.

The strategies are not reconcilable: violent negation that sells itself out, versus the (apparent) complicity that peels back the ugly skin from within. But Shaviro suggests that in the post-modern era, it's not a choice between complicity vs revealing the ugly world. It is beside the point.

… if you care at all for pleasure, [and here Shaviro is talking about Warhol’s film about Juanita Castro, Fidel’s anti-communist sister:] if the old corrupt Yankee-controlled Havana of nightclubs, casinos, and whorehouses holds any allure for you whatsoever, then such purism and puritanism clearly won't do. You'll have to work around and within the spectacle, just as [Warhol] did.

The argument that I'm intrigued with (outside of Shaviro’s immediate discussion of Warhol) is that of “reading like a loser” – which specifically comes from an essay by Malcolm Bull: “Where is the anti-Nietzsche?” This syncs with Isabelle Stengers’ insistence (in Capitalist Sorcery especially) that we must resist all mobilization, all denunciation, and the temptation to turn a theory into a conquest. Force/weakness comes before truth/justice. Don't look into the distance. The metaphor she uses is that: The job is to sound the depths – as if on a boat calling out the dangers that lurk below the surface.

The challenge is to think: with the milieu, which implies becoming through the middle (without grounding definitions or an ideal horizon—in other words, unmapped) and with the surroundings. No theory gives you the power to disentangle something from its particular surroundings.

Ultimately there is a big problem with the heroic, “reading for victory” tendencies that we get schooled in. Nietzsche is the prime example of this – since he does it so well. Perhaps this is really what the problem is with the Situationists, i.e., they were young heros, playing for victory, with their own jaded notions of purity.

One way to think of this purity is as a unity or totalization of theory & practice. (This is where I can segue out of here and into my reading.)

I take Henri Lefebvre’s discussion of Dialectical vs. Romantic Irony in his Introduction to Modernity as an implicit critique of the Situationists, with whom he was quite intimate.

In contrast to the Hegelian dialectic, the Socratic dialectic is not one of contradiction or negativity, i.e., it contests in an understated way, it confronts and enacts a drama of not knowing. This aligns very well with Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, where he argues for a non-hierarchical pedagogy, that is, where teachers (merely) contest and question, and confirm that students are translating their experience.

Dialectical irony (following Lefebvre’s preference for the Socratic) would release us from the goal of unifying theory and practice. A couple quotations:

First Lefebvre: Dialectical irony, he argues: “is an essential aspect of the modern world.... [It] would gladly reactivate the initial project of Marxist thought. [Which is:] How can the world… be changed so that objects become objects of enjoyment, aesthetic realities,… transformed by art (rather than [becoming] objects of power, or technological realities."

And here’s John Roberts (not the chief justice) writing on Lefebvre:
Ironization, therefore… is that which happens to revolutionary praxis once it is released from the dogmatism of the unity of theory and practice. Praxis and theory are not so much externally… related and mutually supportive, as internally divided and disjunctive. Hence, the ironist gains access to truth when he or she is objectively at their weakest: when theory fails to cohere with practice – that is, when theory exposes practice and practice exposes theory. (Philosophizing the Everyday: Revolutionary Praxis and the Fate of Cultural Theory by John Roberts)

In sum, Socratic irony attacks or challenges the world while the Romantic ironist attacks him or herself. The Romantic irony is in some ways the unavoidable (and inexhaustible) gap between appearance and reality, between the “author” and the narrator implicit in the author’s text.


I spent considerable time under the influence of the objectivist poets, and I think one of the impulses behind Wax World – probably the title poem more than the book – was to explore the notion of sincerity and objectification, in other words to enact in some minor way the drama of not knowing, & at the same time keeping watch so that the toast doesn’t get too burnt. In other words, I was suspicious about this desire for sincerity.

A little quotation from the preface of the Value Unmapped (a chapbook which comprised about 1/3rd of Wax World):

It is an unfortunate iron that walks stiffly over us, pressing our clothes. I miss the comforts of a baggy garment that covers everything while revealing very little… The truth of appearances is that there are only appearances.

This last seems like it could be paraphrasing Warhol, who says something wonderfully swishy somewhere -- about the only real problem being how to suppress skin blemishes…

[And now some heroic examples from Wax World:]

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Agony of Flies - An Erasure

In honor of baseball season (hat tip Heiner Goebbels), a first salvo of excerpts from E. Canetti's notebooks. My intuition yesterday to look back at the notebooks was repaid by the discovery of what might be called C's "facetious poetics" (is that spelled incorrect or should it be a registered trademark?) which seem in line with his anti-Nietzschean batting stance.

He will never be a thinker: he doesn't repeat himself enough. (13)

The future is always wrong: we exert too much influence over it. (15)

He wishes for moments that burn as long as a match.

He is as smart as a newspaper: he knows everything and what he knows changes from day to day. (17)

He looks for happy adjectives, licks them clean, and pastes them together.

It is easy to be reasonable when you don't love anyone, including yourself. (19)

Witches became harmless the moment they no longer were subject to persecution. (23)

God must have misspoken when he created Man. (27)

What would eyes be without caution - without lids?

The time he gives away is too precious to be sold.

Philosophers should not be judged by whether they haPpen to be right just now.

He mostly keeps himself busy breaking other people of his own bad habits. (29)

Thinking becomes clearer as soon as one has learned the shapes of animals.

The separate arts should live in the most chaste cohabitation.

An artist who, on the most important day of his life and in the midst of people singing his praises, forgets his name. (33)

He is so smart he only sees what's happening behind his back. (37)

A pack of philosophers spells death for the poet.

The trick is to read just little enough. (43)

The people you know for too long strangle the characters you would like to invent.

Immortality, too, has its usurers. (51)

He is impressed by anything he is allowed to improve.

A poet is someone who invents characters in whom no one believes yet no one can forget. (55)

She is incapable of giving up anything: if you offer her your hand, you'll never get it back.

History knows everything better because it knows nothing at all. (57)

The future likes itself too much - but to no avail. (59)

He hanged himself on the categories of his favorite philosopher.

He does what he doesn't want for so long that he finally wants it: self-destruction. (61)

Forget about the real enemies, they're so boring: invent some of your own instead. (63)

A religion that forbids prayers.

Ants on strike. (69)

He is desperately seeking people about whom he knows nothing. (71)

Pain makes the poet, pain fully felt, in no way evaded, pain perceived, grasped, and sustained. (79)

...Nietzsche's attacks are like a gust of poisonous air, but one which cannot harm me: I inhale it with pride and exhale it with disdain, and I pity him for the immortality that awaits him. (79-81)