26 April 2013

This is not the social contract I signed.

From Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought (1926):
A distant ancestor of ours, some Aurignacian Shelley, living in the warm spell between two ice ages, may have been content to lie on the hillside, and allow the songs of the birds and the loveliness of the clouds to mingle with his wonder as to the nature of the universe in a delightful uninterrupted stream of rising and falling reverie, enjoyed and forgotten as it passed.  But the modern thinker has generally accepted, willingly or unwillingly, the task of making permanent his thought for the use of others, as the only justification of his position in a society few of whose members have time or opportunity for anything but a life of manual labour.
So, publish or back to the coal mines?

15 April 2013

Haunting prediction from the 1950s

David Lilienthal ran the Tennessee Valley Authority for President Roosevelt, and the Atomic Energy Commission for President Truman.  This is from his book T.V.A. - Democracy on the March (1953).

Democracy cannot thrive long in an atmosphere of scorn or fear.  One of two things ultimately happens: either distrustful citizens, their fears often capitalized upon by selfish men, refuse to yield to the national government the powers which it should have in the common interest; or an arrogant central government imposes its will by force.  In either case the substance of democracy has perished.

12 February 2013

Again as Farce

Does anyone actually read the book? 
History repeats itself – once as tragedy, and again as farce.
You’ve heard that before.  Or read it somewhere.  Or may have even used it yourself, God help you.  As a tag to events in contemporary culture or politics, it is one of the most overused.  And as is often the case, being overused means being underunderstood.
Here’s the actual quote, at the start of Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Hegel says somewhere that that great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: "Once as tragedy, and again as farce."
I’m using the 1897 translation by Daniel De Leon, available from Gutenberg.

The idea that history has some underlying form of recurrence is old, and linked to cyclic cosmological theories, the assumption of a human nature with an underlying constancy, the presumption of theories of government that rely on broad controlling features of action and reaction, or the wheel of fortune.  G. W. Trompf provides a good review.
But Marx’s remark is neither mystical nor sarcastic, as he immediately makes clear: 
Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living. At the very time when men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves, in bringing about what never was before, at such very epochs of revolutionary crisis do they anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language.
At times of revolution, when humans face the god of fortune, they discover unconsciously the shame of their uncertainty, and cover themselves with the costumes of their ancestors.  Having set out on the unpathed ocean of possibilities, they must have a map – any map – and so they adapt their course to the portolans of past adventures.

For Marx, then, the farce lies not in the fact that the affairs of the descendants seem so small in comparison to those of their forebears.  Rather, it is their aping of past structures, as if the ends of the old battles were still their own, as if the virtues of the old warriors were still their own.  It is the uncomfortable sensation of carrying identification too far, as if the child wearing daddy’s hat or mommy’s dress insisted on going to the office and conducting business.

The farce is also in the awkwardness of a clumsy translation and in its necessity, for Marx sees these recurrences as necessary translations from the past to the present:
Thus did Luther masquerade as the Apostle Paul; thus did the revolution of 1789-1814 drape itself alternately as Roman Republic and as Roman Empire; nor did the revolution of 1818 know what better to do than to parody at one time the year 1789, at another the revolutionary traditions of 1793-95 Thus does the beginner, who has acquired a new language, keep on translating it back into his own mother tongue; only then has he grasped the spirit of the new language and is able freely to express himself therewith when he moves in it without recollections of the old, and has forgotten in its use his own hereditary tongue.
This is all on the first page.  Does anyone read it?

Marx does not bring this structure out in order to deflate the significance of the newer copies: 
[T]he reviving of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; it served the purpose of exaggerating to the imagination the given task, not to recoil before its practical solution; it served the purpose of rekindling the revolutionary spirit, not to trot out its ghost.
But he insists that we maintain the double vision of capable original and struggling copy.  He fills the book with examples of these historical echoes, found over intervals both short and long: 
The new Constitution was in substance only a republicanized edition of the constitutional charter of 1830.
What else was the 29th of January, 1849, than the "coup d'etat" of December 2, 1851, only executed by the royalists with Napoleon's aid against the republican National Assembly? These gentlemen did not notice, or did not want to notice, that Napoleon utilized the 29th of January, 1849, to cause a part of the troops to file before him in front of the Tuileries, and that he seized with avidity this very first open exercise of the military against the parliamentary power in order to hint at Caligula.

Once we open ourselves to the need for this double vision, I think we have to approach all renewals, all renaissances with care.  When historical events move out into time, they return to us like Einstein’s astronaut.  What we have retained from direct transmission is clearly different, not as young, not as fresh.  
Public intellectuals will, of course, align their hortatory speeches with the goals and virtues of the glorious past.  They are historically conditioned; what do they say that is a new interpretation to guide the future, and what is merely recycling the bullet points of previous struggles?  Worse, what is new is often adapted, not to future improvement, but to concealing the persistence of abuse.  With dispiriting frequency, revolutionary figures wear their histories like sheep’s clothing.  We do not use history as a source; we commit misprision on it.

Curiously, the etymology of ‘farce’ resonates with this misuse.  It appears in the 16th century as the term for a comic interlude in a mystery play, from the Old French farcir, meaning to stuff or to cram.  The verb derives from the Latin farcire, ‘to fill completely, to stuff’, and thus farcimen, ‘sausage’.  Apparently, doing politics in the framework of past battles is not only as hard to watch as making sausage, but according to Marx, is precisely making sausage.  Of course, the original tragedy was a goat dance too.

But what do we expect when we try to use history to our advantage?  Some look to history for exemplars of moral and political virtues, and some look for case studies to help analyze present hard cases.  I think that Marx is saying that this is very dangerous; because we invariably construct the present with the framework of the past, we will assuredly ignore what is truly new in the present situation, and vitiate our labors.  We must use the double vision to escape this trap.

And despite his claim that he comes to praise these revivications, Marx mostly buries them in their foolishnesses.  He spends much of the early part of his book on the ineptness of the various factions during the period leading to Napoleon III and the Second Empire.  Painfully, much of his fun is at the expense of people we have seen before as heroes and martyrs in Hugo’s LesMiserables.  Again, echoes as farce.  But the farce is not always unfortunate.  The mere fact that we cannot repeat the past precisely guarantees that we will evolve.  This is not only a Darwinian concept well established in nature, but a cultural one as well, explored by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading.

There is probably as much to be gained by a creative misreading of history as by a creative misreading of literature.  But to do it right, you need to understand it to begin with.  When we ‘learn from history’, we take on the full framework of our misunderstanding, so we need to make that as thick as possible.  If you must have the tragedy/farce combo, you really should read the book.  If you snip off the first few lines and make the simplest possible misinterpretation, those who repeat you quickly come to a cul de sac.  Once as quote, then again (and forever) as cliché.

What sustains us against the eternal Great Recurrence?  It is not enough to know that we need the double vision; we know that we do not do good just because we know what is good.  But we do have a perpetual safeguard in the resistance to the past that Freud outlined for us.

We do not like our parents.  We rebel against their strictures.  We do not want to be like our parents.  When we recognize ourselves living out roles established by our parents, we rebel more vigorously.  The double vision turns up in the Freudian therapeutic approach.  Does it help?  Perhaps, but we still slip into those roles again and again.  Our only advantage is that our recurrences are self-aware.

You will have noticed that I have stuffed this post with allusions of various sorts.  From Marx we get the suspicion that each repetition – of a figure, a trope, even an argument structured for a particular historical situation – has something of the farce in it.  This means that the farcical element may be the most universal component of history.

Because it translates past to future, the whole idea of figuring in Christian theology must be intrinsically farcical.   Figuring had always made me uncomfortable, because it meant using the prior person for the ends of the future one, or at least for the ends of the believers.  That strikes me as a violation of a form of the Categorical Imperative; even historical figures should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means.  But Marx suggests that every translation through history traduces the original; it is all betrayal.  Very troubling.

It is supposed that Mark Twain said “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”  There is, alas, no source for it in his writings.  He did say “It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man's character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” (Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events (1940), ed. Bernard DeVoto; with thanks to Wikiquote.)  What I say is that, if history rhymes, it does so with the grandly dissimilar lines of a poem by Ogden Nash.


[All my posts are drafts.  Helpful comments are most welcome.]

08 February 2013

Returned to life

It's always best to look at the material both before and after the quote you remember.
The figures of a horse and rider came slowly through the eddying mist, and came to the side of the mail, where the passenger stood. The rider stooped, and, casting up his eyes at the guard, handed the passenger a small folded paper. The rider's horse was blown, and both horse and rider were covered with mud, from the hoofs of the horse to the hat of the man.

"Guard!" said the passenger, in a tone of quiet business confidence.

The watchful guard, with his right hand at the stock of his raised blunderbuss, his left at the barrel, and his eye on the horseman, answered curtly, "Sir."

"There is nothing to apprehend. I belong to Tellson's Bank. You must know Tellson's Bank in London. I am going to Paris on business. A crown to drink. I may read this?"

"If so be as you're quick, sir."

He opened it in the light of the coach-lamp on that side, and read--first to himself and then aloud: "'Wait at Dover for Mam'selle.' It's not long, you see, guard. Jerry, say that my answer was, RECALLED TO LIFE."

Jerry started in his saddle. "That's a Blazing strange answer, too," said he, at his hoarsest.

"Take that message back, and they will know that I received this, as well as if I wrote. Make the best of your way. Good night."

With those words the passenger opened the coach-door and got in; not at all assisted by his fellow-passengers, who had expeditiously secreted their watches and purses in their boots, and were now making a general pretence of being asleep. With no more definite purpose than to escape the hazard of originating any other kind of action.

The coach lumbered on again, with heavier wreaths of mist closing round it as it began the descent. The guard soon replaced his blunderbuss in his arm-chest, and, having looked to the rest of its contents, and having looked to the supplementary pistols that he wore in his belt, looked to a smaller chest beneath his seat, in which there were a few smith's tools, a couple of torches, and a tinder-box. For he was furnished with that completeness that if the coach-lamps had been blown and stormed out, which did occasionally happen, he had only to shut himself up inside, keep the flint and steel sparks well off the straw, and get a light with tolerable safety and ease (if he were lucky) in five minutes.

"Tom!" softly over the coach roof.

"Hallo, Joe."

"Did you hear the message?"

"I did, Joe."

"What did you make of it, Tom?"

"Nothing at all, Joe."

"That's a coincidence, too," the guard mused, "for I made the same of it myself."
With thanks to Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, and Gutenberg.

05 March 2012


Jennifer Homans has a powerful piece in the March 22, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books. She is the widow of the historian and public intellectual (although he himself disliked being called that) Tony Judt. In the article, she describes how he completed his last book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, while combating the increasing ravages of ALS. Of the many significant comments she makes, one in particular stood out:
Justice, inequality, good-faith politics: these had always been the touchstones of Tony’s thought, but now other ideas were crowding in, ideas that needed to be made sense of privately and emotionally, but also — because this is how Tony was and how he thought — collectively and intellectually. Humiliation, shame, fear, anger: these were not just feelings. They were political ideas.

Humiliation was the most important. Tony felt it acutely and it was a theme in his correspondence with others afflicted by ALS. Many of these people were younger than Tony and destitute or medically uninsured, with narrow if not ruined life possibilities. They needed help — practical social and medical services. Humiliation was a terrible feeling, but, as he felt strongly, it was also — and should be treated as — an ugly social fact. “Night,” his essay describing his “imprisonment without parole,” was partly for these new friends, and so, in another key, was the end of Thinking the Twentieth Century, where Tony mounted as fierce — and felt — a case as ever he had for our need to “think socially”: to make human rather than monetary gain the goal of social policy. This was not the politics of disability or special interest; it was about collective responsibility and the duty of us all to each other.
Reinforcing this is Judt's comment in his essay 'Night':
Helplessness is humiliating even in a passing crisis — imagine or recall some occasion when you have fallen down or otherwise required physical assistance from strangers. Imagine the mind’s response to the knowledge that the peculiarly humiliating helplessness of ALS is a life sentence (we speak blithely of death sentences in this connection, but actually the latter would be a relief).
I claim that the strongest element of contemporary political discourse is the expression of helplessness, the inability of most people to have any useful impact on the direction of politics, and their deep awareness of that helplessness. Following Judt, humiliation is a violation of human dignity. Ergo, helplessness leads to the violation of human dignity. Ergo, it is a responsibility of social policy reduce helplessness. This is a direction for public policy, a determination of how society can achieve real human gain. For myself, I think that education is a part of the solution, and that's the tack I'm taking.

24 February 2012

How it Used to Be

Saul of Tarsus said that it is better to marry than to burn. Perhaps that is the approach of the modern anti-sex movements. In his collection of stories and essays, In the American Grain (1925), William Carlos Williams tells of what this leads to:
It’s inevitable that men shall go down the scale until they strike what they want – or can get. There was the young medical fellow, a New Englander, in the State Asylum at Worcester, a periodic maniac; his history fascinated me. He is a clever physician, and a man of excellent antecedents. Shortly after college (and a medical education takes so long that a man is in his late twenties before he can afford to marry) he married a woman far below his class, – he had to to get her. Shortly realizing his fatal error, he promptly, being a sensitive man, went insane, – and was as promptly divorced and committed to the asylum by his wife, proving the soundness of his mind – fundamentally. He has married three times since and has always gone mad: a little like Strindberg. But the reasoning here is truly American. Trained a Puritan, he was bursting for lack of sexual satisfaction. Unwilling to commit the sin of fornication and being unable to get a wife of his own class, due to poverty, or what not – he married someone below his scale of aesthetic or emotional relief. Thus the greater was sacrificed to the lesser. Now he was overcome with anguish. His life was ruined. He bitterly assailed himself for his folly and lost all control. In the hospital, he worked well in the laboratory – but he was truly insane. There is no class to absorb this stress.
(From the essay 'Jacataqua')

26 January 2012

Rational Incompetence

At last, a theoretical explanation for why federal agency heads are so often idiots. In the January 2012 issue of Journal of Theoretical Politics, Jinhee Jo and Lawrence S. Rothenberg provide a fairly simple model that seems to provide some insight.

Of course, the journal is not available if you don't have access to SAGE, but here is the basic idea:
Our analysis provides a rationale and conditions for what we label rational incompetence. Specifically, we present a model in which a President nominates and the Senate approves or rejects an appointee. Besides choosing where in an ideological space a nomination will lie, the President also can determine whether an appointee is competent or not, with lack of competence translating into greater variance over outcomes than is faced with competence. Interestingly, while the political actors are not inherently risk seeking, there is a set of conditions which generate empirical predictions for what Goemans and Fey (2009) label institutionally-induced risk taking, by which it is in both the President’s and the relevant filibuster pivot’s best interests to propose and approve an incompetent administrator in equilibrium. This provides a rationale for incompetence beyond pure loyalty or patronage, and seems roughly in accord with notable contemporary cases of incompetent administration.
And here is their conclusion:
It is intuitive to assume that elected decision makers always want agencies, and therefore those whom they appoint to guide them, to be competent. However, when one considers a separation of powers system, such as that found in the United States, intuition does not necessarily survive more careful analysis.

Rather, we have shown that conditions do exist in which both the chief executive and the Senate will prefer to take a gamble and appoint an incumbent about whom there is less certainty about which policy outcomes they will produce. This risk-taking behavior is induced by the strategic situation in which presidents and legislators find themselves rather than an inherent tendency to be risk-seeking. It is not shocking then that, when something goes terribly wrong at an agency, and a very bad, politically costly, outcome is realized, there is often a seemingly unqualified appointment to place blame on.
If you can get to it, there are some interesting case studies in the article.