Sunday, May 26, 2013

Blast From the Past

I'm going through my notes and emails, excavating the past in order to perform my maternal function and create a ghastly but beautiful "memory board" for my graduating eighth grader--the kind of practice that relies on the existence of a imaginary "non working" and "stay at home" mom with oodles of time and a thwarted desire to express herself competitively through maintaining and displaying mementos (pictures, symbols) of her child's divine childhood experience.  I'm late with this production, of course, but I have also had the pleasure of finding, sandwiched in between my notes about my children, my own politicking.  First, here's a description of life with me, straight from the horses mouth:

"Saturday night the girls helped me begin and assemble some experimental yeast cinnamon buns. They mixed the sugar/nut/cinnamon mixture and alexandra cut the toasted nuts. They were so sweet, and so diligent, and they both got up on chairs to do the washign up (just like laura and mary!). In the morning I got up early to put the buns in the oven, and then we all had a quiet breakfast together. I, of course, began vibrating from the boredom, just sitting there in the sunny kitchen with nothing to run my eyeballs over.  Alexandra looked up from her bun, smeared with sticky joy, and asked solicitiously "Do you need your paper mommy? I could get it!" 
Later, the same day, I was flipping through the newly redesigned [Local City] magazine and complaining about its awfulness. Alexandra, from the kitchen table, in a voice of cynical weariness "Well, if they want to sell YOU anything, they'd better put in more politics!"
Here's an angry letter to the editor I wrote at about the same time, to the NYT after reading David Brooks:
Let me get this straight, Mr. Brooks. Populist rhetoric from Democrats like John Edwards is angry, and bad. The people turn away from it and "Edwards' political career is probably over" because of these "old fashioned" "angry cries."  Class warfare is so yesterday!  On the other side of the aisle, however, Huckabee wins because he "tapped into realities other Republicans have been slow to recognize." The reality on the ground? Why: "we have a crisis of authority in this country" and "the people have lost faith in their leaders' ability to respond to problems" a reality which Huckabee deals with by (apparently quite reasonably and pleasingly)  addresses by "criticiz[ing] Wall Street and K Street: and implicitly attacking the managerial upper class represented by Romney! /  /What's "angry" in a Democrat is mere "realism" in the Republican candidate. What's impermissible class warfare in those wild eyed Democrats is magically smart thinking when practiced by a Republican.   Thanks for clarifying for your readers something they couldn't work out for themselves--its /always ok as long as you are a Republican!  /Next week no doubt you'll explain to us why war is peace, and poverty is wealth. Oh, wait, that is already the GOP platform!


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Relevance is what you bring to the situation.

Long couple of threads at LGM on geek gatekeeping (and here)--I was procrastinating there instead of working on a piece of bricolage and pastiche in the form of a visual scrapbook of my daughter's life at school for her graduation.  At any rate I thought parts of this comment were on point for the Proust/Genji project.

aimai says:
I read that long interaction with anon and I actually thought her points were really pretty good–if you didn’t mean yourself to come across that way you really need to re-examine how you are expressing yourself. In the absence of traditional forms of power and repression–money, ownership, copywrite, patriarchy, labor relationships no heritage is going to be transmitted free of some kind of change–like a game of telephone. If you don’t have a really strict oral tradition which includes beating people for making mistakes or changing the oral text novelty is just going to creep in. People are going to interpret things differently, talk about them differently, introject their own experiences differently. That’s just the way its going to be. You can mourn that and see that as a loss of purity or a loss of tradition, or you can celebrate it, but you simply can’t stop it.
I’m engaged in a totally pointless and self centered blogging project in which I blog a bit every day about Proust, or the Tale of Genji, and/or in a subsidiary fashion whatever I’m reading about. Today I was reading Walter Benjamin on Proust, and Hanna Arendt on Walter Benjamin–that’s all about tradition, cutting bits out of tradition, rearranging quotes and ideas into pastiche, reflecting on our experience through a kind of bricolage of things we’ve read, seen, cared about, held, talked about–In Benjamin’s essay on being a book collector and in his essay on Proust he specifically talks about the ways in which we try to stop time by holding onto the experiences we associate with a thing–like a book–and how we value the search for the book more than even reading the book. How finding it in an out of the way shop, in a new city, is more meaningful than merely ordering a specially bound copy. You might argue–and he does–that Proust tried to do the same thing with particular memories.
But when we read Proust, or a comic, or a comic that we read as a child or a teen–we are not the same person as that person back then, or as Proust. We bring something new to our own experience. So each new geek, coming to geekery (if its a thing) with their own experiences and their own memories, is going to enrich each new interaction. They can’t replicate your (Brad’s) experience anymore than when they eat ice cream they remember cold icecream sitting at Brad’s Aunt Betsy’s table while reading his first Green Arrow. But maybe their telling of their experience can enrich this timeline’s Brad and change his feeling about Green arrow retrospectively?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Look Ma! Both Sides Do It

The NYT reviews the current research on paranoid conspiracy theories in the US and discovers they start in the Amygdala, have something something something to do with democracy although the author doesn't know what, and that both sides do it.
Alex Jones, a syndicated radio host, can build fame as a conspiracy peddler; politicians can hint at conspiracies for votes and leverage; but if conspiracy theories are a tool the average person uses to reclaim his sense of agency and access to democracy, it’s an ineffective tool. It can even have dangerous health implications. For example, research has shown that African-Americans who believe AIDS is a weapon loosed on them by the government (remembering the abuses of the Tuskegee experiment) are less likely to practice protected sex. And if you believe that governments or corporations are hiding evidence that vaccines harm children, you’re less likely to have your children vaccinated. The result: pockets of measles and whooping-cough infections and a few deaths in places with low child-vaccination rates.
Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem.
The author completely fails to explain why one man's "conspiracy theory" is simply another man's history--the Tuskegee experiment is an actual historical fact.  Low access to health care and health insurance, to good sex ed and to money are also facts.  Despair is a social reality for many people and some populations.  The interesting question and why this ought to rise to the level of political reporting is why individuals and groups who are by no means powerless start to feel powerless and react by lashing out at others and determining that they themselves are the focus of the bad actions that their own group perpetrated on others.  I'd put the "IRS" scandal down right there, in the sweet spot, as well as nearly every trumped up conspiracy theory that Obama has been attacked with. Almost all of them are simply inversions and projections of real things that happened under Reagan, Bush I, or Bush II or some other President aimed at some group who were not white, middle class, and powerful.  Why the white middle class, in the form of the John Birchers and the new GOP, leaped so far so fast on the paranoid bandwagon still needs to be investigated.  Another way of putting it is that powerlessness and ignorance, cynicism and rejection of community are subjective states.  People aren't powerless, they just think they are when some of their privilege has been taken away.

Monday, May 20, 2013

About the Oklahoma Tornado

Elie posted this up on Baloon Juice and I wanted to pick it up to read it again later:

Poem by Tennessee Williams:
Your Blinded Hand.
Suppose that
everything that greens and grows
should blacken in one moment, flower and branch.
I think that I would find your blinded hand.
Suppose that your cry and mine were lost among numberless cries
in a city of fire when the earth is afire,
I must still believe that somehow I would find your blinded hand.
Through flames everywhere
consuming earth and air
I must believe that somehow, if only one moment were offered,
I would
find your hand.
I know as, of course, you know
the immeasurable wilderness that would exist
in the moment of fire.
But I would hear your cry and you’d hear mine and each of us
would find
the other’s hand.
We know
that it might not be so.
But for this quiet moment, if only for this
and against all reason,
let us believe, and believe in our hearts,
that somehow it would be so.
I’d hear your cry, you mine—
And each of us would find a blinded hand.


Arendt's introduction is worth lingering over, or picking its pockets and moving on, or both.  She likens Benjamin to a "Pearl Diver" and leads off part of the essay with this epigraph

Full fathom five thy father lies,
of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange (The Tempest I,2)

Which makes me see that I, at least, critically misremember it because I remember it as being "Nothing of him doth fade" which means something substantially different.  Doth that as it may the comparison is to one who dives down and from the bottom of the sea retrieves treasures which are formed from, but not identical to, the original bearer: the fathers, Judaism, tradition.  Perhaps we collect them because they are "rich and strange" or because they remind us of the past and serve as a mnemonic, perhaps as a souvenir of a lost sentimental relationship, perhaps as a way of "throwing illumination on the future" but we aren't collecting them for their mere monetary value- we don't collect the "pearls that were his eyes" because they are pearls, but because they "were his eyes." That's my own preliminary interpretation and I think you have to hit "were" and "his" and perhaps "eyes" all separately and equally as possible emphases.  We treasure them because they are of the past, because they are rich and wonderful, and because they were a way of seeing even though they are now occluded and blind.

Arendt continues on to say:

"Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically it becomes tradition.  Walter Benjamin knew that the break with tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past.  In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissilbility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of "peace of mind,"  the mindless peace of complacency.  "Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions" (Schriften I, 571)...the discoverers and lovers of this destructive power [the power to 'tear out of context, to destroy'] originally were inspired by an entirely different intention, the intention to preserve; and only because they did not let themselves be fooled by the professional "preservers" all around them did they finally discover that the destructive power of quotations was "the only one which still contains the hope that something from this period will survive--for no other reason than that it was torn out of it."' In this form of "thought fragments," quotations have the double task of interrupting the flow of the representation with "transcendent force" (Schriften I, 142-43) and at the same time of concentrating within themselves that which is presented.  AS to their weight in Benjamin's writings, quotations are comparable only to the very dissimilar Biblical citations which so often replace the immanent consistency of argumentation in medieval treatises."

I can't really speak to that except to juxtapose it to this contemporaneous American practice which, I presume, had its counterpart in Europe but which at the time of Arendt's writing of this introduction was not known or understood in a literary sense--and perhaps we owe its current status in the academy as a field of study precisely to people like Benjamin or people who read Benjamin even though its pretty clear that Benjamin himself would have scorned it.

From page 49 of Writing with Scissors:

"The scrapbooks's ability to transform trash to riches and power, or at least to authority, to make clippings valuable through recontexualizing and repurposing, slid along two axes.  The first was the shift in audience--transporting the clippings either to other people, for whom the clippings would be a rich novelty, or to a future self, who would need the gleaned information and items and could put them to uses unavailable to the earlier self holding the pastepot.  Creating value through a shift in audience implied that the scrapbook maker's selection from the newspaper at the time of pasting were worth preserving and passing along.  Through the coercion of choosing and rearranging items--and obliterating the pasted side of the clipping--the scrapbook maker enforced his or her will on the reader.  The second was moving materials from the flickering ephemerality of an old newspaper into the permanence of a book: giving it the earmarks of value.
As they scissored in and scissored out, amassing and excluding, scrapbook makers imposed their will on what they read.  They created a version of the newspaper that preserves only what they considered worth preserving, and organized that material within their own structure of arrangements and juxtaposition."  
So central was the idea of the scrapbook to 19th century social life and the family that "the scrapbook" and the inheritance of the scrapbook were (apparently) familiar literary motifs.  WWS offers several examples including the fictional story of an adoptive daughter who, cut out of her inheritance by evil relations receives "only" her adopted father's carefully constructed scrapbook of financial information and stories from the newspaper. Embedded in the pages of the scrapbook is his actual will, which makes her his heir.  The father's will

 "in the sense of intention or hope, survives in his scrapbook as his desire that his daughter read his favored reading matter.  He materially rewards her for doing so.  His legacy circumvents the structures of biological kinship both through law and through the intellectual and spiritual connection that impels his adopted daughter to try on her father's reading interests by reading his scrapbook.  The will of other scrapbook makers likewise survives in their scrapbook's selections and arrangements of stories, articles, poems, and pictures."

Elsewhere, in a Louisa May Alcott story("Little Pyramus and Thisbe"), an impoverished street boy charitably makes scrapbooks out of the trash and detritus of the street where he is living and by presenting his art work to a new Immigrant family of artists becomes accepted into their household and trained up as an artist. From street graffiti like bricolage to the middle class? Apparently.

Arendt argues that Benjamin's use of quotations was novel, original, unique, and clearly for the upper class it appeared to be but WWS would argue that both men and women, demotically and rather passionately, had been clipping and quoting and challenging received authority and considering tradition and exploring their relationships with their biological and literary fathers (a very Benjamin/Kafka/Proust issue, from what I can see of Illuminations) for quite some time long before Benjamin or Arendt were born.

Moving Backwards and Forwards Along My Own Timeline

I pause in reading a few other things--or at least in writing about them--to pick up "Illuminations."  This is Hanna Arendt's edited edition of some of Walter Benjamin's writings.  You can't escape Benjamin, or at least allusions to him, and I know I've read some of these essays before or heard about them but this time, of course, its different--this time its different because I'm different.  I'm not better educated in his period or his interests, of course, but I'm a different person than I was thirty years ago when I was in school and someone else, someone older, was making sense of things for me by creating a curriculum that I was following.  This is bittersweet, for me, because I find as I revisit Benjamin and these particular concerns I have at my elbow a hidden interlocutor, my best friend from College, who was always more brilliant and more insightful than I by one, two, three observations.  However far I looked into a text, however wide ranging my interests, she was always ahead of me. I learned as much, or more, from her as from our professors.  But that means that when our friendship ended the part of my past: our discussions, our arguments, the books and the incidents we shared, were also halved.  As I read through Benjamin this time I can almost hear her voice but its becoming fainter.  I can almost remember where we were sitting when we discussed this passage--but not quite.  I wonder whether my new insights are at all insightful, I wonder where she is and what she is reading.   So I suppose, in its own way, this is why I'm drawn to Proust, because he is the great hymner and limner of the lost and the way it surges up, in our own lives, like a ship lost on a long ago ocean voyage that rises again to the surface during a storm.  We can see our old stateroom. We can faintly hear the sound of the crew. But it submerges again and we see nothing but the waves and we have only what we took with us when we leapt overboard.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Little Note (Proust 29-30)

In the penultimate scene before the famous Maternal Kiss the Narrator goes to hell and back trying to hang on to an experience (his mother's bedtime kiss) which is denied him one evening when M. Swann is visiting at dinnertime.  This scene combines so many Proustian issues that you find yourself wanting to run sticky note footnotes all down the side or making a hyperlink out of every word.

One evening in Combray the routine of the Narrator's existence is disturbed by the arrival of the Swann, whose importance and simultaneous unimportance to the family the Narrator has already described.  The Narrator is focused on getting his night time kiss from his mother, in fact he  is so afraid of the real thing slipping away from him, of his apprehension (in the old fashioned sense of the term) not being enough to handle the evanescence of the experience, that he describes spending an entire family dinner, as a child, strategizing to get the most out of the one kiss he was permitted to give his mother in public. Art and the sacred, the workmanlike task of getting ready for the sitter and the determination of the artist to sacralize a single moment in time are all intermingled:

And so I promised myself that in the dining room, as they began to eat and drink and as I felt the hour approach, I would put beforehand into this kiss, which was bound to be so brief and furtive, everything that my own efforts could muster, would carefully choose in advance the exact spot on her cheek where I would imprint it, and would so prepare my thoughts as to be able, thanks to these mental preliminaries, to consecrate the whole of the minute Mamma would grant me to the sensation of her cheek against my lips, as a painter who can have his subject for short sittings only prepares his palette, and from what he remembers and from rough notes does in advance everything which he possibly can do in the sitter's absence.”

To his horror the Narrator is sent up to bed without the longed for kiss and “set [s] forth without viaticum.” (29) The entire setting of this horror—the very scent of the staircase—become intertwined with the Narrator's sense of grievance and loss. This “made it perhaps even crueller to my sensibility because, when it assumed this olfactory guise, my intellect was powerless to resist it.” (30) The intellect, the will, is over come (as usual) by the sensual triggers associated with an emotional state. The experience becomes so tangled between sight, sound, smell, physical pain (“a toothache”), drama (“ as of a little girl whom we attempt, time after time, to pull out of the water,”) or even literature (“or a line of Moliere which we repeat incessantly to ourselves”) that the Narrator doesn't know whether he would prefer to be completely unconscious or fully conscious in order to allow his “intelligence [to] disentangle the ideas” and go from the imaginary, dream state to the reality of the actual toothache pain.

The Narrator describes the entire process of going to bed as digging his “own grave” and wrapping himself “in the shroud” of his nightshirt. He then “bur[ies]” himself in the iron bed. After this description of horror who can blame him for devising a “desperate stratagem” for he is a “condemned prisoner” and isn't he entitled to beg for mercy? Now he jumps from the prison metaphor to one that straddles his reality and what he perceives to be the experience of the servant, Francoise. The Narrator “had a suspicion that, in her eyes, to carry a message to [his] mother when there was a guest would appear as flatly inconceivable as for the door-keeper of a theater to hand a letter to an actor upon the stage.” Francoise is not only a door keeper and functionary, she is also an atavistic throwback to the Old Testament, a hierophant, or a disciple of a cruel mystery:

On the subject of things which might or might not be done she possessed a code at once imperious, abundant, subtle, and uncompromising on points themselves imperceptible or irrelevant, which gave it a resemblance to those ancient laws which combine such cruel ordinances as the massacre of infants at the breast with prohibitions of exaggerated refinement against “seething the kid in his mother's milk” or “eating of the sinew which is upon the hollow of the thigh.” (30-31)

Francoise's code comes from somewhere unclear to the Narrator and his family—she's nothing but a little village peasant woman, after all, but the Narrator attributes her strict moral code, her conviction that there are things that are “done” and “not done” to something “latent” in her, something in her “past existence in the ancient history of France, noble and little understood, as in those manufacturing towns where old mansions still testify to their former courtly days, and chemical workers toil among delicately sculptured scenes from Le Miracle de Theophile or Les quatre fils Aymon.” *1

In order to bring his mother to his side, and successfully use Francoise as his messenger—a prefiguring of the many times the adult Narrator and his friends will have to resort to intermediaries to trick a love object into an assignation?--the Narrator insists to Francoise that it is not he who has requested to see his mother but the mother who has requested that the Narrator send her a little note to be delivered during dinner. Of course Francoise, who is often compared to a lower order or something primitive, “disbelieves” him for “like those primitive men whose senses were so much keener than our own, she could immediately detect, from signs imperceptible to the rest of us, the truth or falsehood of anything that we might wish to conceal from her.” But despite her animal nature and her preternatural senses when Francoise attempts to determine, just from looking at the sealed envelope, “to which article of her code she ought to refer the matter” she is stumped. In other words, when confronted with a written document whose meaning is hidden from her, she must fall back on obedience and carries the letter away. The educated child triumphs, momentarily, over the adult whose authority is merely circumstantial and dependent on her vague and atavistic code.

The Little Note

The Narrator's note goes down to his mother and now he imaginatively follows it. Although the “little note” is bound to make him a laughingstock in the eyes of Swann (who is at the dinner and already occupies an important place in the Narrator's imagination, standing in for society, for wit, for something bigger and more interesting than the rather stodgy and unpleasant father and grandfather) the Narrator's anxiety subsides. The little note “would at least admit me, invisible and enraptured, into the same room as herself, would whisper about me into her ear.” The dining room, the stage, the salon, the dance, society itself are all places where, in the future, the Narrator will find himself exiled from his love object and this is true for Swann as well, the Narrator's doppleganger. The lover can only imagine, from outside, the pleasures the lover is enjoying and in a typically Proustian clause that winds from place to place the Narrator throws in this bitter animadversion that his mother, in that “forbidden and unfriendly dining-room,” is enjoying “ pleasures that were baleful an of a mortal sadness” because “Mamma was tasting of them while I was far away.” These pleasures are described mysteriously as a dessert composed of opposites “the ice itself—with burned nuts in it” but this contradictory and rather chilly sounding dessert (ice cream?) is at once transformed, by the note being put into his mother's hand into an open door and a different experience entirely not “ice” and “burnt nuts” but “a ripe fruit which bursts through its skin,” because the knowledge that the note would be read “was going to pour out into my intoxicated heart the sweetness of Mamma's attention while she was reading what I had written.” The dining room here merely prefigures the places where a man, Swann, the Narrator, will later be denied entrance, or not invited. But the note itself bursts those boundaries, however temporarily, because while he imagines his mother is potentially about to read the note, or reading it “I was no longer separated from her; the barriers were down; an exquisite thread united us.”

We must end this section by agreeing with Francoise “Its hard lines on parents having a child like that.”

How often does Proust, in the form of the Narrator, refer to some notion of atavism, of the influence of geography, food, literature and architecture on the almost animal and unconscious mentality of people? Given his half Jewish status and the permanent “unfrenchness” of the Jewish immigrants to the French imaginary –so powerfully demonstrated in the Dreyfus affaire--you have to wonder whether Proust isn't describing a state of French Nature which he must (in his heart) believe can never be accorded to Jews, even if nominally they like others are part of the post Revolutionary French Ideal.

Friday, May 17, 2013

I'm interested in seeing the new Gatsby

I'm interested in seeing the new Gatsby because we had the good fortune to see Gatz a year or so ago.  Here's a description from the Times review:

“Gatz,” the work of singular imagination and intelligence that opened Wednesday night at the Public Theater, chronicles one reader’s gradual but unconditional seduction by a single, ravishing novel. That novel happens to be perhaps the finest written by an American, “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 tale of pursuing the unattainable in the Jazz Age. And it is presented in its word-for-word entirety over the course of nearly seven hours by Elevator Repair Service,....But while this show, directed by John Collins, does full justice to the inherent and often startling drama in “The Great Gatsby,” what’s most purely dramatic about it isn’t in Fitzgerald’s plot. It’s in that elusive chemistry that takes place between a reader and a gorgeous set of sentences that demand you follow them wherever they choose to go. Think of it as a morning-fresh variation on an ancient theatrical formula: Boy meets book. Boy gets book. Boy becomes lost in book.
The romantic lead, portrayed by the astonishing Scott Shepherd, is in this case an ennui-laden, underworked fellow who, in the play’s opening scene, materializes in a shabby office that might as well have “dead end” on its door.
Waiting for a sluggish computer to start, this correspondingly sleepy-looking man finds a battered paperback lodged in an oversize Rolodex. Idly he opens the book and in a flat voice reads aloud, “In my younger and more vulnerable years ...”

Gatz is everything the review promises--which argues that a literal reading and enactment of the book is the way to go. And it certainly is one way to go. But after you've read the book, after you've seen Gatz, after you've absorbed the language and made it a part of yourself you can afford to trifle with it around the edges--like casting an all male "Taming of the Shrew" or doing the Mahabharata but setting it in Norway.  Perhaps Hollywood can't live up to the challenge and will reduce Gatsby to the lowest common denominator of pseudo glitz, and will assume that the audience is as wedded to convention as the people who want Don Draper to "get the girl" and "be the hero." But maybe we will find this version of Gatsby to be pretty good on its own merits, like listening to a different arrangement of a familiar tune.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Genji continues to Doze

Genji continues to doze while all his friends come in and tell a series of stories, like a little Chaucerian style set of pilgrim's tales, about their mistresses and their romatic lives.  They have debated the merits of the known and the unknown in romantic interests and arrived at a statement that they think they can all agree on: that chosing a wife is a more difficult and important task than even the Emperor choosing a minister since one can only have one wife while the Emperor can have many ministers.  I used to have this discussion with my Brahmans and Limbus while working in Nepal--nominally men are the more important sex, and the man's family the most important in a given marriage--but I used to ask people whether it were more important if the men in the family were more noted for honesty and good behavior or the women and people always, always, always answered "more important that the woman be honest and well behaved."  Why? Because the woman was the interface between the household and the world--it is she who prepares tea and a seat for guests, who makes the household function, and who produces the children. One man in a household may be a rotter, or a liar, and the family name will not be brought into disrepute but if the new daughter-in-law doesn't know how to behave guests will be disgusted, the household will be shunned, and the legitimacy of the children of the patriline can be called into question so future marriages will be debarred.

This is, more or less, the conclusion the gentlemen come to: the position of wife is so pivotal and important that it can't be risked on just anyone.  But meanwhile there are many lesser relationships which might rise to wife, or fall below constancy, how to choose?

Writing With Scissors

Just got this in the mail and I have to recommend it.

"Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance," by Helen Gruber Garvey.

A few years ago my mother bought one of these classic scrapbooks at a flea market.  We were very surprised by it--some woman had taken an old, hardback, railway timetable from the late 1800's and used it as the backing to glue in poems, short stories, obituaries and other ephemera from her local newspaper during a slightly later time period. The timetable was out of date but she repurposed the pages and the binding for her scrapbook.  Well, it turns out that far from being a unique act this was a quintessentially acculturated act that everyone, from Presidents to farm housewives, was doing at the same time.

This book is irresistible--it is written in such an entertaining and vivid style that you can actually read it aloud--I was reading it this morning to my children as they got ready to go to school.  Basically Garvey argues that scrapbooking in this fashion (the pinterest and evernote of its day) was an attempt to master and manipulate both the flood of ephemera produced by the newspapers and magazines of the period and also a way to "speak back" to authoritative writers and journalists by clipping, circulating, commenting on, and critiquing their published works in this home-made form.  She describes people as creating libraries and files for their "future selves" as when women who envisioned themselves moving west and becoming farm wives began clipping "useful" home remedies and recipes for when they moved far from civilization.  She also explores the way both sides in the Civil War used clippings of war and political news as a way of fixing and reflecting on information that was coming too fast, and that was too immediate, for reflection.  To read about a war as it was happening and potentially affecting lands and people that you actually know being a very different process from reading about wars that are physically or historically removed from your experience.  Although I haven't read this section yet what Garvey says in the introduction makes me think about the way information circulates on the left and right side of the bloggosphere and the way the links that one reads every day, like the radio shows or cable TV shows one attends to, shape the set of "facts" with which both sides spar.

I picked up the book because I, too, struggle with a flood of information and a desire to clip, fix, and analyze it.  In fact its obvious that this blog is, in its own way, an Internet scrapbook in Garvey's sense--a compilation and juxtaposition of whatever I'm reading.  Of course its only a partial representation of my actual self because unlike Face Book, Pinterest, or modern American Scrapbooking formats it is pseudonymous and avoids too much family history or family activity (something that takes up the actual bulk of my life), its not a food blog as such though I spend an inordinate amount of time cooking and am also working on a cookbook for my children of our favorite foods, and although I have my own artistic pursuits in the form of small quilts or bricolage like art books created (how very female) within the context of family relationships and moments such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Because One Big Book Is Never Enough.

I decided to try my hand at plowing through The Tale Of Genji, which I have never read, figuring it would go well with Remembrance of Things Past.  Since I've never read it, and am reading the Waley edition without a trot, my comments will be more like the comments on Mad Men at various blogging sites--since Mr. Aimai and I are watching Mad Men now we have the pleasure of going back and reading those long expositions with a certain amount of hindsight.  Its fascinating to see how much people had to guess, during the first two seasons, about the direction of the show: who is the real hero? Is Don Draper a misunderstood hero? Is he searching for his one true love? Which of these women will be the love interest? One of the biggest questions is answered in the first three episodes and it is, as it turns out, is Don Jewish? Is that his big secret?

In a sense I have to come at The Tale of Genji in the same way--without knowing "how it ends" or even "what the point is." Its often compared to RoTP because they share at least size, if nothing else, but the goals of the author and the method of the work are, of course, totally different.  I should add that I am reading the Waley translation because that felt like the most fun, but that means that I am (probably) reading the one most crafted with an eye to making the unfamiliar familiar in a novelistic sense.  I ought not to try to read Genji the same way I do Proust (RoTP) but I will because Waley's translation and my own search for meaning impel me to do so.  We'll see how well that goes!

 If the major theme of RoTP is memory, loss, meaning, and time the main theme of Genji is (perhaps--maybe instead Genji will turn out to be Jewish) order, hierarchy, aesthetics and the search for a passionate and unique connection with another (woman) that in a world devoted to convention will startle and amuse.  Genji himself is the son of an Emperor and a woman of social position and family that were not high enough to protect her from harm.  She was the favorite of the (presumably) most high but her protector was not powerful enough to actually protect her and she goes into a decline and dies, sadly, at home with her old mother.  Genji is brought back to court and raised, discreetly, so as not to upset the politically delicate position of the real Heir whose mother, from an important family, has the power to ruin him.  In the Illiad almost all action springs from this kind of disjuncture between the ruler and the ruled--where the ruler (Agamemnon) is not as great a warrior as his subordinates (Achilles) great harm befalls society.  Where the ruler (Agamemnon) is not as wise as his subordinates (Odysseus)  everything goes to hell.

But the book doesn't turn on politics as such--not on warfare nor on administration and law.  Instead it takes place (apparently, so far) in a world where such things are settled and regularized--a court in which competition, like that in the Court of Louis the XIV, has been focused on the purely ceremonial--who gets to sit or stand where, what clothing and jewelry is like.  Is it a court in which this ceremonial has been raised in order to disarm the nobility? I can't tell. Certainly the Emperor in Genji's world is not the master that Louis the XIV was.  He did not have the strength or cunning to protect his own favorite. Nor does he set the competition in motion--the competition appears to be free floating and almost natural, among the courtiers.

Genji's story starts promptly with a scene between Genji and his best friend: To no Chujo, "with whom above all other companions of his playtime he found himself familiar and at ease." (18)  These two "shared both studies and play and were inseparable companions on every sort of occasion, so that soon all formalities were dispensed between them and the inmost secrets of their hearts freely exchanged." (19)  One rainy night the two begin discussing women they have known and look through Genji's desk drawer for love letters from Genji's various women.  What To no Chujo wants to see is not merely the "variety" or the names of the women (which he must guess at) but something which must be rare at court "passionate letters written in moments of resentment, letters hinting consent, letters written at dusk..."--in other words letters that reflect not specific women who might thus serve as a kind of status marker for Genji but letters reflecting Genji's ability to break through the boredom and convention of the Court and generate from these women something, anything, out of the ordinary or especially painful or beautiful. In fact I suspect that things which are "out of the ordinary" without fully troubling standards, which seem authentic and artless without really being so, and which are painful but not messy, angry but not crude, passionate without being chaotic are probably the highest marker for these men.

The two men fall into a discussion of the types of women in the world and their probable ability to satisfy a man's educated tastes.  To no Chujo says "I have at last discovered that there exists no woman of whom one can say "Here is perfection.  This is indeed she." What is perfection? It is a combination of culture, erudition, artlessness, and beauty that is hard to find.

 "There are many who have the superficial art of writing a good running hand, or if occasion requires of making a quick repartee.  But there are few who will stand the ordeal of any further test.  Usually their minds are entirely occupied by admiration for their own accomplishments, and their abuse of all rivals creates a most unpleasant impression.  Some again are adored by over-fond parents.  These have been, since childhood, guarded behind lattice windows and no knowledge of them is allowed to reach the outer-world, save that of their excellence in some accomplishment or art; and this may indeed sometimes arouse our interest. "

So the interested man is an epicure who must have his interest aroused by the illusion, or belief, that the object of his attention is unique, witty, educated, literary--but such women are often guarded and so their true qualities are hard to ascertain.  He is thus bound to be disappointed because though such girls are "pretty and graceful" they are really probably rather commonplace.
"Such a girl by closely copying some model and applying herself with great industry will often succeed in really mastering one of the minor and ephemeral arts.  Her friends are careful to say nothing of her defects and to exaggerate her accomplishments, and while we cannot altogether trust their praise we cannot believe that their judgment is entirely astray.  But when we take steps to test their statements we are inevitably disappointed." (19-20)
So attraction occurs first by repute--one hears of a woman who is beautiful and accomplished.  Second one is attracted to a woman because she appears to satisfy these conventions by having mastered "one of the minor and ephemeral arts."  But our hopes are inevitably dashed because when "tested" the woman falls short of the ideal.  To be truly "first class" a woman must have everything--reputation, beauty, charm, talent and never fail this test, whatever it is? Apparently so.  The two men fall into a  discussion of ranks and histories.  What is rank, for a woman? Is it something she can achieve, rising into the "first rank" of desirable women? Is it something she can lose? Are there certain kinds of women who are condemned to stay forever where they started?  A woman can't be understood apart from her social setting:

"I divide women into three classes.  Those of high rank and birth are made such a fuss of and their weak points are so completely concealed that we are certain to be told that they are paragons.  About those of the middle class everyone is allowed to express his own opinion, and we shall have much conflicting evidence to sift.  As for the lower classes, they do not concern us."  (20) 
Genji disagrees, but only in this way:
"It will not always be so easy to know into which of the three classes a woman ought to be put.  For sometimes people of high rank sink to the most abject positions; while others of common birth rise to be high officers, wear self-important faces, redecorate the inside of their houses and think themselves as good as anyone.  How are we to deal with such cases?" 

The two men are joined by two other men of the world--Hidari no Uma no Kami and To Shikibu no Jo who consider Genji's point--which is that society itself is in constant flux so one can't even figure out what standards the parents and society are using in vouching for particular women.

"However high a lady may rise if she does not come of an adequate stock, the world will think very differently of her from what it would of one born to such honors; but if through adverse fortune a lady of highest rank finds herself in a friendless misery, the noble breeding of her mind is soon forgotten and she becomes an object of contempt.  I think then that taking all things into account we must put such ladies too into the "middle class."  But when we come to classify the daughters of Zuryo [*Provincial officials such as Murasaki's own father] who are sent to labor in the affairs of distant provinces--they have such ups and downs that we may reasonably put them too into the middle class." 

Hidari no Uma no Kami asserts that there is a category of women, born into "complete security from want or deprivation of any kind...often [growing up] amid surroundings of the utmost luxury and splendor.  Many of them grow up into women whom it would be folly to despise; some have been admitted at Court, where they have enjoyed a quite unexpected success...."  These women are actually, in real world terms, only from families of the "second and third class" (politically speaking)--not important politically but for reasons that HnUnK considers perhaps embarrassing they have the means to sustain lives free from want and filled with material beauty.  Genji teases him by saying "Their success  has generally been due to their having a lot of money."  HnUnK goes on to admit that even, or especially, in this class of protected girls--of high rank or high wealth--one can be surprised by how little of value, wit, charm, and erudition they display.  "When we meet them we find ourselves exclaiming in despair "How can they have contrived to grow up like this?"

In the end HnUnK begins fantasizing that "the perfect woman" might exist, but that she would not be found in the ordinary places that a gentleman might expect:

"Suppose that behind some gateway, overgrown with vine-weed, in a place where no one knows there is a house at all, where should be locked away some creature of unimagined beauty--with what excitement should we discover her!  The complete surprise of it, the upsetting of all our wise theories and classifications, would be likely, I think, to lay a strange and sudden enchantment upon us."

In other words it is part of the beauty of the woman, and the excitement of the connoisseur that the woman come from an unexpected place, unheralded by reputation--the very fact that she fails to track the rules, that she "upsets" all our "theories and classifications" is part of her charm.

HnUnK starts embroidering this dream woman

"I imagine her father rather large and gruff; her brother a surly, ill looking fellow.  Locked away in an utterly blank and uninteresting bedroom, she will be subject to odd flights of fancy, so that in her hands the arts that others learn as trivial accomplishments will seem strangely full of meaning and importance; or perhaps in some particular art she will thrill us by her delightful and unexpected mastery."
Here, Genji "begins to doze" from boredom but I perk up--this description is almost hysterically like reading a Japanese account of the Bronte Sisters and leads us to imagine that the HnUnK's ideal woman is like a composite of one of the classic English Authors like Jane Austen or the Brontes and perhaps one of their own heroines like Cathy or Jane Eyre or even Elizabeth Bennett: from a middle or forgotten and fallen upper class? Isolated from society? Filled with unique fantasies and talents? Unspoiled by imitation of more classic upper class ways? Guarded (or unguarded) by gruff and surly males who do not value her erudition and style? I realize that there is a reason, far up top, where, as I was reading the original list of great accomplishments a woman should have I was reminded of this priceless scene in Pride and Prejudice. It begins, of course, with a person of high social standing (Bingley's sister) puffing off the accomplishments of Darcy's sister:

"How I long to see her again! I never met with anybody who delighted me so much. Such a countenance, such manners, and so extremely accomplished for her age! Her performance on the piano-forte is exquisite.''
 Bingley, like Genji, makes fun of this obvious example of female and family solidarity--praising Darcy's sister is, of course, Bingley's own sister's backhanded way of trying to please Darcy and create distance between herself and Elizabeth.
"It is amazing to me,'' said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.''"All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?''"Yes all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.''

 Darcy agrees, unknowingly, with the Japanese courtiers in Genji:
"Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,'' said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse, or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.''
Elizabeth offers a critique of the right of all men--Genji and his friends included--to consider themselves the arbiters of what is appropriate or inappropriate, valued and admired, in an entire category of people "accomplished women."
"Then,'' observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished women.''
Darcy and his "faithful assistant" the sychophantic Miss Bingley don't understand that their very right to judge is being itself judged and found absurd:
"Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it.''"Oh! certainly,'' cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.''"All this she must possess,'' added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.''
Elizabeth delivers the coup de grace:
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.''

It remains to be seen whether, in the Tale of Genji, there is any person, even the Narrator, who can stand outside the action and outside societal convention and take the protagonists to task for their arrogance and their judgmentalism or even if such things are considered by the author to be flaws.  They may not be--this is a very intrusive, judgmental reading I've chosen.  Its really that I can't help myself.

The other text that came to mind as I started Genji is equally far fetched andin appropriate, coming as it does from a completely different place and time: I couldn't help but remember the beginning of The Three Musketeers when D'Artagnan sets out for Paris and for fortune. His father offers him some absurdly inappropriate advice and basically tells him to respect the order of society, to assume that most people are who they say they are and need to be treated according to their station, but also that the only way for D'Artagnan himself to achieve anything is to fight whatever battles are offered to him and thus rise in the world.  Of course D'Artagnan goes off and discovers that very few things are as they seem in this world: his best friends will be a Nobleman in disguise, a fat fraud and braggart who is dressed by his middle class mistresses, an impure priest-in-training and there is a war going on between the Cardinal and the King.  Genji begins in quite another fashion: with the young men describing a society in which the central conflict is going to be finding the perfect woman in a society in which standards are more or less clear and the parameters of romance more or less set. Unlike D'Artagnan they will not be confused by the way society doesn't track their expectations--or will they? I will have to wait and see.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Truly the Internet Is Wonderful.

Please, just go read Depression Part Two at Hyperbole and a Half.  Especially if you loved J.A.

Gun Violence: Safe, Legal, and Rare?

I wrote this little piece in a somewhat backwards fashion and got what I deserved, which is a discussion elsewhere--at LGM, which devolved into a discussion of Safe, Legal, and Rare rather than the competing world views of Pro-choice and Pro-Gun.  This morning TPM reports that another 5 year old has been shot in the head.  Down in the thread of comments below the post the commenters get into a tussel with a self described Texan and Aggie in which he accuses the "libtards" of wanting to end all private ownership of guns entirely. He specifically makes the argument I pointed to: that regulations and even what you might call "common sense" behavior like gun locks, gun safes, choosing not to own guns in a household with children are all a slippery slope to the end of "private ownership" and the Second Amendment.  He and other commenters make the argument that the deaths of the numerous children are ephiphenomenal, not caused by "assault weapons" and therefore not regulated by the feds (can't be stopped by normal regulation) and also that they might be a false flag--that is, that they somehow didn't happen.  One "liberal" commenter makes the rather common argument that given the deaths of children in gun owning families eventually there will be fewer gun owning families, a natural evolutionary progression and he and the other conservative posters react angrily that it is the liberals who will cease to exist because they are (presumably) all excercising their rights to abortion and therefore have no children at all.  Unfortunately I can't link directly to the comments because Disqus is acting up for me but if you check the link you will see these comments in all their glory.  They pretty much reflect the argument I make below which is that consciously and unconsciously the two sides mimic each other and have learned from each other in a thoroughly unpleasant and useless way.

Original Post: It has occurred to me during the last few months of active public debate on our gun laws that the pro-gun lobby makes essentially the same argument as the pro-choice side of the abortion debate: there is an irreducible number of "used as intended" deaths that result from the existence of guns or the existence of abortions and society simply has to accept that because: freedom.  On the gun side the Second Amendment and a religiously fetishized approach to the idea of the gun toting individualist with rights over and above the government and society/neighbors. On my side, lets say, the pro-choice side the idea of the autonomous right of the individual to determine her own fertility and family and the uses to which her body is put.  This essay at Kos doesn't make the comparison but as you look at the list of reasons they give for why, from a right wing perspective, the "problem" of gun violence is no problem at all you can't help but be struck by the similarities.

I'm not arguing that "both sides do it" or that the pro-choice side is kooky and amoral like the pro-gun side. Actually, I think just the reverse. I think that the pro-gun movement reflects much of the ideological blindness that the anti abortion side does.  Neither the pro-gun side nor the anti abortion groups take seriously the notion of limiting harm from an obviously harmful practice. They are much more concerned with maintaining a right to control the debate, and a right to prevent erosion of an ideological stance which, ultimately, is about a lot of other things besides the ostensible goal (gun ownership/end of abortion per se).

 This is why, on the pro-choice side, we have fought a losing battle from the moment we allowed the phrasing to be:  "safe, legal, and rare." That phrase accepts the notion that there is something wrong about abortion, something that needs to be controlled and limited.  We did it because we took the right wing opposition to abortion as an opposition to actual abortions  and we thought we could get some agreement on creating conditions where the necessity for abortion was limited, not the access to abortion.  But since what the right wing was really opposed to was safe sex, family planning, and female autonomy they just used the leverage of "safe, legal, and rare" to chip away at everything simultaneously.  Now we are on the verge of losing the actual ability for women to control their fertility even though, technically, we haven't lost Roe v. Wade yet.

What's the analogy on the pro gun side? Well, its a bit complicated. We make a huge mistake accepting the pro-gun side's assurances that they are at all interested in limiting gun violence and negligent deaths. They aren't. This is the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Second Amendment absolutists have the capacity to be horrified by tragedies and unnecessary deaths on a personal level, but they rigidly separate the reality from the principle and they are quite capable of permitting the deaths of thousands to protect the right to bear arms.  This is why obvious precautions to prevent random gun violence, to prevent negligent homicide, to prevent children from shooting children, to prevent criminal possession of guns, to prevent crazy people from getting guns are all stymied-- not because it wouldn't work and it wouldn't save lives but because it would chip away at the generic individual's freedom to assert the right to own guns.  And because the idea of the individual's right to own guns is attached to other cultural goods that the right sees as threatened including Republicanism, whiteness, masculinity, dominance, wealth.

 In other words, if we were to take seriously the notion that gun people want to prevent actual deaths, we'd be wrong. They see actual deaths, even tragic and accidental ones, as the natural price you pay for the right to bear arms and the right for them to occupy those positions (Republicanism, whiteness, masculinity, dominance, wealth). The deaths, even of children, is nothing but a sad but rightful societal cost, like the deaths of soldiers.  And they see even attempts to limit unnecessary deaths as part of a slippery slope to preventing gun ownership.

 I'd argue that they take this hard line because they know, having observed it in action over the last thirty years--that this is exactly the tack their side took with respect to abortion rights.   They know their side went for the easy lay up--the imaginary "late term abortions" and that their side has ceaselessly trumpeted the "deaths" off millions of "innocents" and used photos and "victims testimony"(hell, survivors of the "holocaust" of abortion are actually brought on stage to testify to their mother's botched abortions)  to shape public opinion. I suppose that's a roundabout way of saying that with the right its always projection--the very thing they accused the President of doing (using emotion, using the victims, pictures of the dead, using the children) are all things that their own propagandists pioneered quite successfully in mobilizing their voters against abortion rights.

In other words I think the far right gun fetishists have been quick off the mark in countermobilizing against gun safety laws and even the limited gun regulations advanced because they know and understand the script surrounding a hard right (gun ownership, right to privacy/female autonomy) which is under attack legally and socially.  In fact, they wrote the script.

Here's the Kos piece:

  • Even though many more more people are getting shot in recent years, thanks to advances in trauma care the victims are significantly less likely to die from a gunshot wound than they were 20 years ago. This means our policy of allowing high-capacity magazines is more important than ever, since you may have to pump more bullets into your modern super-criminal if you want to make sure the doctors can't revive them later.
  • While fewer households own a gun than 20 years ago, the people who do own gunsown a lot more guns. The obvious conclusion from this is not that less universal access to firearms reduces gun violence, but that crackpots hoarding guns are such an intimidating presence that they keep their entire neighborhoods safe via home-defense osmosis.
  • Violent crime in general has declined a whopping 75 percent in the last 20 years. Gun-related homicides, however, have declined at only about half that rate: 39 percent. While you might expect the massively reduced rate of violent crime to have produced an equal decline in gun deaths and wonder why it did not, SHUT UP. Also, let's say video games.
The good news, however, is that we've finally found a level of gang violence, suicides, accidental shootings, accidental shootings of children, school shootings of children, theater shootings, politically motivated shootings, drunken fatal whoopsies, and other mishaps that we can live with. Well, over a thousand Americans every month can't live with it, ha ha, but nobody's perfect, right? Now let's all go out and buy some ammo before the government gets it all, because liberty is a twitchy little bastard and who knows what it's going to make us shoot at next.

All Work And No Play

Must. Post. This.

I am in rebellion against our little artisinal bakery which has decided to go all French in the sense that whatever you ask for they just say "No."  But they do make wonderful breads, including a spectacular Walnut bread every Monday.  But today I cut the cord and made my first ever Walnut Bread using Jim Lahey's method.  We love the Sullivan Street Bakery and I had bought the cookbook as a souvenir a year or so ago but never got around to actually trying his method.

Basically you take
400 grams of Bread Flour
1 Cup of chopped walnuts
8 grams of table salt (I thought it could have been saltier)
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1.5 cups of cool (55-65 degree) water
and some wheat bran for dusting

Mix everything but the wheat bran and let it sit out, covered in a bowl, for 12-14 hours, take it out and stretch it slightly into a ball and let it rise for two hours more, dust it with wheat bran and plop it into a superheated dutch oven (heated to 475 while empty in your oven).  Bake covered in the dutch oven for 30 minutes, uncover and bake for another 15.

I urge you to get the book but its just that easy. I let it cool for an hour, made waterzooi soup with a poached egg, and we had an entirely home made meal--ok, I didn't make my own goat cheese but I did marinate it in garlic--on the table by 7:00 pm.

Well, I suppose when you look back on it I did have to start it the day before. But compared to making Challah or yeast sticky buns? It simply couldn't be easier.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Victor: Your Answer is Here Because I'm too Long Winded For My Own Browser

Oh, bloody hell, lost my own very long response.

Basically what I want to say is that its clearly not as simple as all that--and maybe it shouldn't or can't be. There are all kinds of places where we as a society privilige the privacy and separation of the home sphere and we permit to parents and siblings a lisence that we don't to anyone else,and we take into consideration needs that they have (for support, for companionship) that are not taken into account with respect to other situations.  Although its true that the law comes down pretty hard on certain kinds of crimes and removes parents from the household and jails them for committing those crimes it is not the case that children are removed from the custody of the parents because the parents have committed a crime.  And the state should be leery of removing children from parents because the need of the child to maintain a stable family relationship with a parent supersedes what we might consider even the right of the child to a more perfect parent.

In the case of negligent homicide and accidental death its also clear that people who identify with the negligent parent tend to see the incident as "accidental" and people who do not identify with the negligent parent, or the idea of negligence and error as human conditions, see the incident as falling under a kind of strict liability in which intentions don't matter.  In addition, people (on all sides) resort to a kind of ethnotheory that mashes together theodicy, chance, guilt, probability, and identity to produce a kind of bastardized combination of a "just world" theory of the event.  If you identify with the gun owner racially, ethnically, politically you find a way to see the incident as "just an accident which could happen to anyone. Couldn't have been prevented. They have suffered enough."  If you don't identify with the gun owner racially, ethnically, politically, regionally or at all then you prefer to see the accident as something that is their fault--almost deliberate and criminal. They should have known not to do those things because they should have known not to be the kind of person who would end up in this situation.  That's why I say its a variant on the "Just world" theory--both sides prefer to see the world as just and things like tragic deaths not being wholly destructive to "good people."  When you identify with the parent you seek to see them treated as victims because if it were happening to you you would want to be treated as a victim, not a murderer, because you are a good person and bad things like punishment shouldn't be meted out to good people.  If you don't identify with the negligent parent you want them to be treated as a criminal because its obvious that bad people are wholly responsible for the bad things (like the death of a child) which happen to them.  There are no accidents when it comes to the lives of bad people--in a sense the death of the child and the punishment that comes after is wholly expected and wholly justified.

Southern Beale posted a link to a long article about what happens to parents who accidentally kill their babies by leaving them in the backseat of the car on a hot day.  This happens horribly more often than one would like to imagine, and it happens to good parents who get distracted and forget the child is there, or think they've dropped the child off.  Sometimes these people are charged as if they committed intentional murder. Sometimes they are released because the police decide that they have been "punished enough."  As a parent who had to drive two children lots of places when they were infants and toddlers I have always known that it was merely a matter of luck that I never made that crashing mistake.  In fact for years after my children left car seats entirely I still take a panicked look back into the car as I leave it, just to check.  But I'd say that the attitudes of the commenters and police officers in the article Southern Beale linked to split along pretty much the lines I laid out above: if the person is adjudged a "good person" then the accident was an accident and out of their control. If the person is judged a "bad person" then they could have avoided the accident (in some way) and the death is more or less wholly attributed to their actions and their (perhaps even unconscious) intentions.


I have the same problem with the right wing, generally speaking, as Professor Krugman but sometimes I want to phrase it a little differently.  Krugman, in responding to an attack by some guy I don't care to know says "Not Everything is Political."

What do these questions have in common? They’re factual questions, with factual answers — and they have absolutely no necessary relationship to the “proper scale and scope of government”. You could, in principle, believe that we need a drastically downsized government, and at the same time believe that cutting government spending right now will increase unemployment. You could believe that discretionary policy of any kind is a mistake, and at the same time admit that the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet isn’t at all inflationary under current circumstances.

I don't agree with that--I think everything is political. The problem arises primarily when the political is facilitated by the delusional. In other words: want what you wantt but at least own your own shit.  If you are proposing, as the GOP branch of the NRA is, that there can be no restrictions on gun ownership or gun carrying at least admit that it has real world consequences which include the deaths of innocents.  The 3000 or so children who were killed in "accidental" shootings since the Newtown massacre were, every one of them, killed by lax gun owners who exist because of overly permissive gun regulations.  That's just the fact. The hard Second Amendment position is that those deaths don't matter--but you can't argue that they don't happen.  But of course that is exactly what the pro-gun position seems to force its holders to do. Read any comment thread under the innumerable local stories of children who shoot children and you will find variations on "it didn't happen, it was an accident, these people are not representative gun owners, its cruel to discuss this too much, this is a rare occurence."  This is factually incorrect. Whether you want unrestricted gun ownership or not does not affect the facts of the case: more guns means more accidental gun deaths.

 Ditto for the austerity position: if you want to argue that slashing budgets releases the animal spirits of investors and that therefore people won't be unemployed for long because of all the "jerbs" created then go ahead: but have the decency to admit that your little experiment can be falsified by, well, the facts.  The same for tax cuts create increased tax revenue. Own. It. Mean it. If you can do it, you can say it. And if you can't admit to the actual consequences of your own policies then have the decency to STFU and bow out of civil society.

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

Could anything be more bizarre than the now nearly hourly updates on where Tamerlan Tsarnaev will be buried?  I listen to a college radio station for the music and have to suffer through the students' garbled accounts of what they think a person purveying "news" would say--they are almost always unable to stumble through their own terse press accounts and if they go beyond the headlines ("Markets were up, today, in up trading" ) they usually get whatever they are reporting on backwards or broken. I can't say that I leave listening to WERS stupider than before--that is an honor reserved to NPR and shows like Marketplace which actively deform the news. But WERS reports on "stuff other people are reporting on" so it does serve as a window into "stuff people are hearing because its stuff other people are reporting on."

Let me be the first to say that I do not care to know what happens to the corpse of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I don't care not because the guy was more heinous than other mass murderers--I felt the same indifference to the fate of the corpse of Mother Teresa. Its simply not my business and I think we'd all be better off as a people if we rose, as one, and said as much. Its.Not.Our.Business.  If land could be contaminated by the touch of murderers then the ground where Dick Cheney walks would be radioactive already and birds would fall dead from the sky as they flew over his golf outings.  I resent having Tsarnaev's body's fate thrust on me  as if all of us subscribe to the same ritualistic magical thinking as some lowest common denominator tea party trogledyte.  Its a corpse. Not a zombie. Dispose of it and lets move on. Or at least can we stop reporting on it as though he's Franco and we can't believe he's still dead?

Girls With Guitars

I spend way too much time on the bloggosphere but one of the reasons is that occasionally you come across something like this discussion and this comment by JL.

As I’ve mentioned here a few times before, I went to MIT. The reason I keep saying “like so many girls in similar situations” is because there are a lot of women at MIT with similar backstories. The other thing about being at MIT, at least in my subculture, was that a lot of the overtly negative treatment regarding my interests or appearance – not all of it, but a lot, including pretty much all from femme women, of whom there are also many at MIT – went away. For the first time I was making friends with women with traditionally feminine interests, and I noticed that a lot of them, in this environment, were facing negative treatment of their own. I also noticed that the life science majors – dominated by women – were treated by too many students as easy and frivolous, with jokes about people getting As by sleeping with TAs. I felt a lot of pressure, both internal and external, to pick a male-dominated major (I didn’t, though ironically I went into one for graduate studies). I met femme queer women who felt insecure or excluded in that community. I started engaging a lot more with wider geek culture, which can be pretty sexist. I learned what internalized sexism meant. I realized that a lot of those men who complimented women for doing masculine-coded things were sexist asshats who didn’t respect women in general, and I got tired of hearing “But I don’t mean you!” if I complained about people’s comments about women.
I remember the shock that I felt when I found out that a guy who had never been anything but respectful to me was sexually harassing several very femme women in my wider social group. My conversations with him had all been about locksmithing, and he had treated me, with my black tactical pants and my men’s t-shirts and my unisex-geek-ponytail, like a colleague, while treating them like meat.
I don’t think feminine women have it harder than masculine women or vice versa…I think we experience sexism differently, at least sometimes. Like I said, people acted like I was a freak and threw random homophobic slurs (years before I realized that I was bi and started identifying as such) at me, because I was breaking norms, and in the minds of some, that deserves punishment. Feminine women often seem to get treated in a way that reflects contempt toward femininity – a contempt that, as I’ve said, I spent years getting over. They aren’t breaking that norm, but their norm is considered frivolous, second-class, and sexually available.

This went straight to my heart as a woman and a parent because I have a beautiful daughter who is good at everything from classically feminine pursuits like sewing and clothes designing, dance and hospitality to Math, Physics, Biology, and Philosophy.  And yet she is refusing to even apply to MIT. Not because she can't do the work but because she fears, and I think rightly, being relegated to some kind of "also ran" status because she also loves History and English.   Those courses being seen as "guts" or "too easy" at the moment because they are seen as feminine even though when the schools were all male they were seen as quite masculine.