Break Your Mother’s Back

The Wild Olive is a funky grocery store on 125th Street between Madison and 5th Ave. It’s pretty tiny, it specializes in organic meats and snacks (kale cookies, aack), and it smells like somebody’s smoking weed in the back room. I don’t know, maybe it’s the incense the guy next door burns on the sidewalk to alert you to the T-shirts he’s displaying on the cyclone fence, all of them featuring Che, Malcolm, or Michael Jackson.

Whatever the source, it smells better than any grocery store in the neighborhood—-better than the Whole Foods on 124th will when it opens—-and it’s a friendly place. The deli is always crowded because the sandwiches are massive, the cole slaw is wonderful, and the guys behind the counter are genuinely funny as they go about their business, making you think they must like what they do for a living.

Yesterday I walked over there to buy some wild shrimp to make ceviche, something I haven’t done in years: a different kind of dinner for my girlfriend, who hasn’t been here since I bought my Latin Percussion drum, another new departure. On my way there, I noticed a homeless guy resting on a stoop between Lenox and Marcus Garvey Park (Mount Morris Park to those of Jamaican descent, go figure).

He seemed real tired. If I didn’t know he was homeless—-I’ve seen him sleeping under the scaffolding that hovers over the S.A.D. Deli, you read that right, or on the handicapped ramp to the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 123rd and Lenox (originally a Dutch Reformed church, built in 1886, a limestone monument)-—I would’ve said he was depressed. He was bent over, sagging, banging listlessly on the Obama phone he held between his legs, holding it far enough away to read the digits or the messages, whatever he couldn’t see.

I wanted to stop and ask if I could help him with the phone, or the larger problem that clearly plagued him, but I didn’t because I felt I’d be intruding on a private moment. Maybe he was talking to his children, his wife, his brother. I passed on, crossed over the park, and started revising my shopping list, because you never know what The Wild Olive has in store.

It wasn’t crowded, I got the shrimp and tomatoes and cucumbers I needed in no time, also bought some ham and bacon without nitrates (Applegate), and visited the deli for comic relief. There I impulsively acquired a quart of cole slaw and some risotto, accompaniments for the spectacular ceviche I’d be preparing.

On the way back, I was thinking I’d get some miniature Coronas for my girlfriend—-she likes light beer heavily seasoned with lime-—at the S.A.D. deli, and I was just turning onto 123rd, headed west, when I saw the homeless guy heave himself off his rest stop, still drooping, pretty shaky. I didn’t mean to catch up to him, but he was moving slowly, of course he was, he’s homeless and he’s depressed about something other (more?) than being homeless.

Then I fall in behind him because I can see that he’s dancing, he’s adjusting his frail, shuffling gait to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk—-he’s mincing his steps, side to side, back and forth, longer stride, whatever it takes to make sure he lands inside a square, not on a boundary.

I follow him most of the block, and I do it step for step, because I know what he’s trying to prevent, some catastrophe that’s already happened, the disaster neither of us is able or willing to remember. Finally he gives up, exhausted, he steps into the street, bearing his three duffel bags and my bad faith.

Me, too, I can’t do it anymore. I duck into the S.A.D. deli to buy those Coronas.

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A Gun To My Head

During my three years wasted at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, I survived the football team, the fraternity I joined, and the gunfight in Madison.

I went there to play football, but I knew I wanted to be a writer, somehow, so I quit the team a week before the first game. Also, I was slightly distracted by the knowledge that my high school girlfriend was pregnant. That worked out—-not in the way you’re thinking—-and meanwhile I pledged a fraternity.

The fraternity was a locker room writ large, a good way to ease myself into the life of an ex-jock. Everybody got to be exactly the asshole he wanted to be in high school. Me, too. Mainly I wanted to read and sulk and drink some more, like real writers did. I never went to class, but I took the tests, and I filled dozens of notebooks with short stories, sketches, poems, overtures to novels—-hundreds of earnest, disposable pages I left in a dumpster on my way out of Wisconsin.

After three years my grade point average was 0.75, and I had 60 hours of credit. (I hadn’t been drafted because my lottery number was 296.) I was a combination of town drunk and court jester—-an amiable ironist—-except that I kept getting in fights with both townies and fraternity brothers. I put one of the brothers in the hospital by kicking him in the face after I floored him with a lucky right cross. (He had nearly run me over with his car earlier that night, in a panicked flight from a local bar.) Another one of the brothers stopped this assault by choking me like a cop does, until I was unconscious.

Finally the dean of students, a former Air Force pilot whose office bristled with plastic models of jet fighters—-of course he barked every sentence as if it were an order—-expelled me.

But not before the gunfight in Madison.

My last year at Carthage, I was the rush chairman of the fraternity, which means you recruit pledges in the fall semester, and then shepherd the little bastards through their ordeal—-their hazing and initiation-—in the spring. It was the last time I took any responsibility in an administrative position until, thirty years later, I became vice-chair of graduate education in the department of History at Rutgers University.

One of the outworn traditions my fraternity nurtured was the walk-out, a weekend excursion when the pledges “kidnap” a brother and head out of town, to be followed, maybe, by active members in a pantomime of a medieval carnival, when the peasants turned the world upside down. The kidnapped brother was John Phillips, who would be my best man the first time I got married-—to that high school girlfriend—-and who, after a career at Johnson Wax which placed him in London for three years as the director of Human Resources, would end his life in an advanced state of dementia, bagging groceries in Racine, Wisconsin.

I went along for the ride as the rush chairman, but, unlike a chaperone at a bachelor party, I was a participant-observer, an anthropologist avant la lettre. There is nothing to focus the mind so well as a ritualized binge.

I was in the lead car with Phillips and three pledges (there were four cars and seventeen guys altogether). We pulled into a parking deck in downtown Madison, our destination, and just as we swung into a space, a car full of drunken townies cut us off. A promising start!

We pile out of the car and start mixing it up with these shitheads, but it’s an even match, more like a scrum than a brawl, and nothing like what you’ve seen on screen. In these situations, you tend to square off, back off, and let the really angry guys draw blood. And so it devolved that night. Nobody was much interested in getting bloody, one way or the other.

But then one of them opens the trunk, straps on a holster, pulls out a gun, a real revolver, an old-time six-shooter, and fires a shot in the air.

“Now what, motherfuckers?” he says as the concrete replies with thunderous approval.

We quickly agree that the parking space is theirs. By this time our flotilla of cars has filled out, but not even seventeen drunken frat boys—-we had a cooler of beer in each car for the trip from Kenosha—-are stupid enough to charge a man with a loaded gun. So we find another parking deck and choose a bar. An hour later we’re laughing about this uncanny event.

A couple of the pledges are from Madison, and they recommend we head for a roadhouse east of town. “They got music, dancing, women, or we could start a fight,” one of them explains.

So we head out on a four-lane highway, Phillips is driving and I’m riding shotgun. We’re still laughing when the shitheads whiz past us. The guy with the gun is waving it out the passenger window as if he’s a cowboy shooting up a cattle town in a bad Western. For some reason, Phillips accelerates and pulls up alongside the other car—-he doesn’t yell anything, he just looks over at the guy with the gun, then slows down.

Their driver slows down, too, so we’re neck and neck, and the guy with the gun raises it, points it at us, and smiles. This time Phillips flips him the bird and speeds off. Now it’s a car chase right out of “Bullitt” or “The French Connection,” but we’re by far the faster vehicle and there’s no other traffic.

“Why the fuck did you do that, John, are you fucking crazy?” I scream this over the impossible sound of the engine, a 1965 Chevy Malibu, a four-barrel V8 with 220 horsepower.

He doesn’t respond, he’s concentrating too hard on driving. One of the pledges in the back seat yells “Your turn is coming up on the right, you’ll see the sign, it’s like a dirt road!” Phillips cuts the lights.

I look back, no headlights coming over the hill, so as Phillips makes the turn, I’m hoping we’ve lost the shitheads. We careen into the parking lot and scramble out of the car, but here they come, spitting dirt and gravel as they spin past the tall grass that surrounds the place.

I say “Run!” and the pledges take off. Phillips and I watch as the guy with the gun gets out of the car and walks toward us, no smile now. We back toward the exterior wall of the bar, our hands instinctively raised, I look over at John and think, “Don’t do anything stupid,” and I realize I’m addressing myself.

The guy says, “I got a gun, don’t you get that? What, you gonna outsmart me, college boys? Gonna outrun the bullet? You think this is a movie?”

Now he’s close. I notice that nobody except him has left the car, and it’s still running. I also notice that he’s pointing the revolver at my forehead, and that the distance between the barrel and my face is approximately 18 inches. That puts him roughly five feet away from me. These are the mundane calculations you make when there’s a gun to your head.

And I notice that Phillips, four feet to my left, is inching away from me. The guy moves the barrel of the gun to John’s forehead and says, “Stand still motherfucker, I swear I’ll fucking kill you.”

I take a baby step to my right and the barrel swings back, the guy says, “I’m a kill you too,” and now I’m wondering if he really means it. I think, “Am I going to die here in Madison, Wisconsin, on a field trip with my fraternity brothers? What’s the matter with me? Why am I here?” These are the questions you ask yourself when there’s a gun to your head.

Phillips moves again, and I slump a little as the barrel moves back toward him because now I know we’re both dead, but then John grabs the guy’s wrist and points the gun up, just like in the movies, and, just like at the movies, I watch the scene unfold as if I’m not in it, as if slow motion is real time, then finally I reach out and grab the guy’s other wrist, step backward, start pulling him to his left, swinging him in a close arc, hammer-throw style, just one circuit until his face hits the driver’s side door of the car he came in.

He falls backward, more or less unconscious, into my arms, so I heave him onto the hood of the car face down. I turn around, I’m about to faint, and there’s Phillips twirling the six-shooter like he’s a gunfighter. Nobody in the car has moved.

“What the fuck, John, what the fuck was that? You almost got me killed, man, Jesus fucking Christ, what, are you crazy? This is not the wild fucking West, this is fucking Wisconsin, you understand me?”

“You can have the holster,” Phillips says, “I’m taking the gun.”

The guy on the hood of the car stirs, he turns over, he moans, he says, “Can I have my gun, man, it’s like an heirloom, you know, it’s been in my family a long time, it’s kind of important to me, you know what I mean?”

I laugh hysterically, I’m still about to faint. I look over at Phillips, and then back at the heir apparent, and I decide to beat the shit out of the guy without the gun. I start, but I stop because John says, “Enough, leave him alone, we got the gun.”

I left Wisconsin for good two months later. I didn’t see Phillips again until I got married, but we corresponded meanwhile—-I still have his letters from Camp Lejeune, where he completed basic infantry training for the Marine Corps, calling it “a teenagers’ race war” organized by the officers in their midst.

After the wedding, though, I never saw him again. I tracked his wife down 30 years later, when I heard from an old fraternity brother that John was dead, of dementia. I asked her how it was toward the end.

She said, “It was pretty bad. He didn’t know me. The kids, either. Everybody was a stranger. Even the brothers who visited, David, Tommy. . . . Nothing.”

I asked about the gun. She said, “Yeah, he kept it all these years. Must’ve told that story a million times . . . Always said he was glad it was you there alongside him, because you were the crazy one.”

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The Rat Man’s Crisis of Faith

The super for the building right across the street from mine is Greg the Rat Man, a dedicated killer but also a diligent student of the rodents from Norway who share our streets and subways. He hunts them, I guess you’d say, so he’s become an expert on their habits. He told me one morning that hundreds of deadly bacteria live on the tongue of every rat.

“Imagine that motherfucker bite you,” he said.

Last time I saw him in action it was midnight on 124th between Lenox and 7th Ave, when he rolled up the wrong way (westbound) in his grey Impala as if to arrest me, popped the trunk, and started baiting his traps with Kosher hotdogs.

“I’m a kill these motherfuckers, every last one of ‘em,” he announced. In the outer dark, on the other side of the street where the rehab center sits and the junkies gather every morning, I could see a dozen rats scampering, and I wondered if this hero could conquer that horde.

I said, “I dunno, Greg, there’s a lot of these motherfuckers.” I gestured toward the real thing moving at the edge of the industrial light. “These aren’t windmills.”

He said, “I got determination. I got faith.” He held up one of the traps. “I got equipment.”

Since that midnight, Greg has had a crisis of faith. Always the skeptic, and ever the athlete—-he now rides bikes in competitive events-—he’s been watching a lot of TV and ridiculing the religion he was raised in, asking everybody within range why science fiction isn’t a better answer to his ontological questions than God.

Everybody on the block says he’s different, and they always preface their remarks with something like, “He used to be wild, now he’s just crazy.”

This morning I moved my car to his side of the street and watched as he swept the sidewalk of his building. Mike the doorman of my building came over, and we passed the time, waiting for the moment when parking tickets can’t be issued.

“I watch that ‘Cosmos’ shit,” Greg says, “Man, that shit is heavy, I bought the DVD, that’s what my kids gonna watch, fuck this Sunday mornin’ bullshit, shit I was raised on, they gonna see the truth.”

I’m desperate to light a cigarette, but instead I stupidly say, “Yeah, the truth, and that’s gonna change, too, isn’t it, as the physicists change their minds about how we got here, why not send ‘em to church?”

Greg looks angry, he says “You believe in evolution?”

“Yeah, I believe in evolution, whatever the fuck that’s worth these days,” I say, “What, you think we’re descended from Martians, interstellar visitors and shit?”

“I teach my kids humanity, not this race and that race,” he says, I can tell he’s even more angry because he jabs his finger at me. “We all one kind of people,” he says.

“Fine with me,” I say, and hope the conversation is over, I don’t need to piss anybody else off.

“You believe in religion?,” he says, and now I can see that his crisis of faith will never be private, he might as well be a politician. It’s Charles Darwin versus Pat Robertson.

Mike the doorman backs away, into the street, between the cars, he can see that Greg wants a fight, but me, I’m not worried, I can see that the man wants an intellectual skirmish of the kind that I grew up on.

“You believe in dreams?” I say, “You believe in art?”

Greg says, “What kind of art?”

“Any kind,” I say, “The worst, the best, you think it’s necessary, it’s what we do because we’re human?”

“And those dreams,” I continue, if that is the right word, because by this time I’m pretty agitated, almost apoplectic, “what about them, are they real, do we have them or don’t we?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Greg says, “OK, art and dreams—-“

“Well religion and art and dreams live by the same logic, you wanna do without one, then do without the others, stop pretending science explains every goddamn thing, it’s a reaction formation for Chrissakes, it has no better purchase on reality than art or religion because it creates fucking reality for fuck’s sake.”

Like I said, I was pretty agitated.

Greg says, “You know, that makes sense.”

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State of Siege

Three events converged this week to convince me that “crisis” and “siege” are the words we need to describe our current condition, and by “our” I mean us, this country, this culture, this nation. I read and watched as Baltimore burned, I learned that one of my students would miss the last week of class because he was sent there as a member of the New Jersey National Guard, and I taught Gramsci to my undergraduate course on social theory.

I started to think that our situation has reached the point of repetition compulsion. And I started to rethink the hyperbole of, say, Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist, who have depicted slavery as a labor system governed by sheer force, mere violence, without ideological pretension to consent, and who, accordingly, have challenged Eugene Genovese’s interpretation of the antebellum South.

You might dismiss this last reference as an historiographical curio, something only academics would dispute. But by conflating capitalism and slavery, such historians compel us to rethink the hierarchies of the contemporary workplace, and the larger society—-they make us ask, are we too slaves?

Meanwhile I started to reconsider the arguments of Michelle Alexander, David Oshinsky, and others who have claimed, also with hyperbolic flourish, that the continuities between slavery and Jim Crow and the mass carceral state of our own time are more measurable and important than the discontinuities.

Teaching Gramsci, explaining hegemony, was the key. A ruling class can’t rule by force alone, he taught, and an insurgent class—-or, as I would prefer, a cross-class social movement—-acquires power only by obtaining the ideological compliance, the consent, of its constituencies, actual and potential, thereby attaining cultural authority. (Karl Mannheim and Louis Althusser made complementary arguments in the ornate styles of their respective traditions, and the latter, like Antonio Negri, suffered through some anxiety of influence in doing so.)

Force, power, authority: guns, politics, ideology.

A class-riven society devolves into crisis insofar as the cultural authority of its rulers becomes not a question—-that’s always the case—-but a problem, which happens when the exercise of the rulers’ power appears illegitimate because it’s invisible, not subject to inspection, or arbitrary, not subject to any lawful account.

The “crisis of authority” arrives, however, when the rulers themselves choose how to deal with the accusation of illegitimacy from the common folk, the people out of doors-—those who actually want to consent to the exercise of power because in principle the rule of law protects everybody, but who will neither submit to invisible power nor accede to the arbitrary application of force.

Resort to force or remake the terms of authority? Guns or ideology? That is the choice every modern ruling class has faced, sooner or later.

The failures are familiar. The English aristocracy, the French nobility, the Southern slaveholders, the Mexican hacendados, the Russian landlords, the Chinese oligarchs . . . These defiant social strata chose naked force and lost, but not before unleashing, or rather inflicting, civil war on their own people, their own states.

Is that our situation?

I used to think that the great crisis of authority that dominates the late-20th century was resolved peacefully, by the victory of the Left in the so-called culture wars. Now I’m not so sure. In these recent and multiple acts of police violence I begin to see not random, spastic moments, not deviation from a civilized norm, but something systematically murderous, in keeping with the violence delivered in our name to so many countries that the accounting would become tedious rather than terrifying. Imperium in imperio and all that.

Well, duh, you might say. Where have you been?

I’ve been thinking with Gramsci, hoping that the “war of position” we—-us leftists—-have been winning all these years is the future of revolution. But now I realize that the counter-revolution, the resort to guns on the part of a beleaguered ruling class, call it the universal lock-down, well, goddamn, it fucking worked, starting in the 1970s.

The only remake of the terms of authority attempted by our rulers, then as now, was a reassertion of previous truth, in this case, the divine right of kings, er, of markets. But it, too, worked, and still works. And yet, and yet, it couldn’t have worked without the class war on poor people unleashed by Richard Nixon. This was, and remains, an armed struggle, as everything William Bratton, the police commissioner of New York under extreme liberal Bill de Blasio, confirms.

So Gramsci was wrong. You can rule by force. Just don’t disguise it. Make it real. Make us slaves.


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Yo, Hamlet

Peter Sarsgaard was pitch perfect as Hamlet last night, at the Classical Stage Company on 13th Street near 3rd Ave. He went up a couple of times in the second half (roughly, Acts IV-V), but even these falterings seemed in keeping with the character, the prince who can say “the readiness is all” because in the end that’s all he is, layer after layer of preparation for what he refuses to do.

Ay, there’s the rub, who is this man Hamlet? Ask the question a different way: why is everyone in the play befuddled by his utterance, thus enabled in their interpretations of his behavior? Why are we, after all these centuries?

There are two ways to answer, I think. You can say that because he’s merely the register of competing narratives of what happened at Elsinore, he never becomes a completed character, someone whose words and deeds become predictable by, say, Act II (Ophelia matches up with Hamlet in this respect, but nobody else). That is why he seems the mirror of whoever looks at him after the fact, after the 17th century.

Or you can say that Hamlet comes from the future, where one’s life choices will not be determined or limited by one’s birth, title, family, or estate, but will instead be dimensions of individuality—-of intelligence, education, and deliberation. He simply refuses to play by the rules of his still medieval time, which required him, as heir to a dynastic succession, to avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle and banishing his mother. That is why he seems so anomalous to his peers, and so close to our notions of personal judgment and comportment that we appoint him the first modern man.

These are actually the same answer, aren’t they? The resolute moderns in Shakespeare-—Romeo, Juliet, Cordelia, Edmund, maybe Caliban, and notice the “diversity,” as we would now say, of these characters—-are mysteries to the rest of the cast, who also see them, correctly, as violations of received tradition because they simply won’t abide by anything inherited from the past.

Nobody understands what Hamlet is talking about, for example, not even his best friend Horatio, although Claudius has enough of an inkling to send him off, and the gravedigger gives as good as he gets. He might as well be from another world, this man of too many words, a visitor from a different moral universe.

Sarsgaard’s Hamlet was pitch perfect, to my ears and eyes, because he never addressed himself during the soliloquies (I would guess that the director, Austin Pendleton, enabled this choice), which the more ponderous renditions of the play have him do on the assumption that this expansive interiority is what makes us modern. He never turned inward—-he never turned away from the constituency that Shakespeare, like every other writer, hoped to create among those who came after his moment in time, which is to say among us.

Sarsgaard’s Hamlet was slippery, slouching, sometimes silly, in a parody of the gravedigger’s physical antics, and yet it was sharp and angry as well, as the circumstances demanded. He kept looking and walking away from the mystified people he addressed on stage, and his posture, his affective bearing was always at an angle to the dignified, lugubrious stances and sounds of his interlocutors, especially Claudius and Polonius, but Horatio as well (here again, Ophelia’s freedom of motion or use of space matches up with Hamlet’s).

Sarsgaard delivered the lines colloquially, fast and funny, never with iambic gravity except when he performed for the players themselves. And the scandal of Gertrude’s remarriage always freighted them—-this Hamlet was always on the verge of hysteria about the spectacle of his own mother’s sexuality, or rather the division he had to witness, in her, between maternal and female desire.

He kept appealing to us, the audience, for some understanding of his position, his plight, his place in a time out of joint, because he knew it couldn’t come from where he was, only from a world elsewhere, the world we inhabit.


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Memo to Hugh McGuire from Walter J. Ong

How many times have you berated yourself for spending too much of the morning, or most of a whole goddamn day, on Facebook, Twitter, iPhone, email? Hugh McGuire is peddling a cure for what ails you: abstention in the name of reading books, the mental and moral space where you get your mind back.

It’s snake oil, of course, the equivalent of the laxatives, emollients, stimulants, and painkillers sold from painted wagons in the Old West.

The peddler this time is no more stupid and venal—-he’s no less smart and funny—-than the men who sold these dubious wares. What sets him apart is his relentless sincerity. It makes him hilarious, a kind of Andy Kaufman for the age of Lewis Lapham, Leon Wieseltier, and Thomas Frank, our pontificators par excellence.

Hugh just hates the “meaningless wash of digital information” because it reduces his attention span, makes him multi-task. As a result, he says, he read only four books last year. And that’s a genuine tragedy because books are really, really important to him. “Certain books became, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world. Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.”

For me anyway, this sounds silly, like a parody of post-structuralism written by the dreadnought of feminists, Martha (The Marathon) Nussbaum. It’s non-academic jargon. Ideas, purposes, world views, the words themselves, of course these are what hold every one of us together as sentient, social beings who can deliver on our promises, but books can’t contain them all, and never have.

Ask Walter J. Ong, who showed us that the human sensorium was fundamentally changed by the advent of the codex book—-and not necessarily for the better.

But Hugh McGuire also has daughters, and they are almost as important as the books in holding him together. One of them, the four-year old, scolded him for looking at his phone while talking to her, the other, a mere two years old, surely would have, had she known he was texting (Twitter) during her ballet performance.

C’mon, man are you angling to be the fish in the barrel? The fundamental problem with jeremiads against the distractions of digital technology like McGuire’s (or Jonathan Franzen’s) is that their complaints unconsciously reproduce the diction and the content of earlier anxieties about the results of information made unpredictable first by alphabets and writing as such, then by printing, later by movies and television, now by cybernation.

Listen to Hugh talk about his love of books, and ask if his complaint about digital detritus is this: I have too much freedom online, I’d much prefer a sado-masochistic encounter with a singular author.

“Books recreate someone else’s thoughts inside our own minds, and maybe it is this one-to one mapping of someone else’s words, on their own, without external stimuli [sic], that gives books their power. Books force us to let someone else’s thoughts inhabit our minds completely. Books are not just transferrers of knowledge and emotion [sic], but a kind of tool that flattens one’s self into another.”

Please note that Hugh is here expressing admiration for books, not criticism of them. He clearly wants to be punished by these physical artifacts and their creators. He wants to deny himself the promiscuous pleasures he associates with the polymorphous perversity of digital information. He wants to get clean and sober.

“[I]t started to occur to me that ‘learning how to read books again’ might also be a way to start weaning my mind from this dopamine-soaked digital detritus, this meaningless wash of digital information, which would have a double benefit: I would be reading books again, and I would get my mind back.”

Ah, Hugh, I hope you do get your mind back, having sworn off a lot of digital detritus. But, just curious, what are you going to do with it?

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I Agree, Crispin Sartwell Is A Bonehead

Crispin Sartwell called himself the “bone-head realist” in graduate school because he resisted, nay, rejected, what he called the postmodern notions of Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty. His chosen nickname was correct. He never understood what he was up against.

From William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others, Fish and Rorty learned how to claim NOT that there was no reality beyond our linguistic grasp, but to insist that there was no human knowledge prior to its representation in symbols, verbal and visual.

You can’t reduce pragmatist or post-structuralist thinking to the denial of “external reality” (and, corresponding to that charge, the denial of “agency”). That’s the bonehead move of so-called materialists and Marxists like Alan Sokal in the 1990s, and, if Sartwell is right, it’s the urge of our own time as well, in the new forms of what he calls “externalism” in the philosophy of mind and the “new materialism” exemplified, he wrongly believes, by Bruno Latour and Lee Smolin. (I would add the inane anti-intellectualism of “affect theory” to this laundry list of reaction formations.)

The reality beyond our representational grasp is of course a vast and unmapped terrain. And it’s not only external to us, out there in the “real world.” Within every one of us, the techtonic plates of unconscious, archaic knowledge still shift and collide. That is why Freud’s rendition of psychoanalysis, which claimed that the pleasure of fantasy is real, formative, and causative, will remain indispensable to any project of liberation, no matter how many clinically equipped professors appear to debunk his findings.

I know what you’re thinking. The law of gravity! Science! C’mon, man, if you jump off a seven-story building, you’re dead, right? Now that’s a material reality everybody can agree on, and if you don’t, well, you’re just talking nonsense. Or you’re not talking at all because you’re dead.

OK, except that the external reality of the material world as you experience it is actually constituted by the verbal and visual representations of modern science, a cultural artifact. Otherwise, how would you know anything about it? Why wouldn’t you jump off that seven-story building? Ah, right, if you were a caveman, you wouldn’t have jumped off a cliff, either . . . But why not? Because you died as a result–no, in that case you’d have nothing left to know–or because knowledge gained from your comrades warned you off that experience?

How would you know anything about the world, external or internal, absent the representations you make of it in retrospect? Sure, you experience or feel the world in all its sensory contours as a polymorphously perverse infant and child. But knowledge is different-—it’s actionable because it orients you in and to a world, external or internal, that you can change.

That, in fact, is the central principle of modern science. The only certainty in knowledge is obtained by going into the laboratory, where you miniaturize the real world of objects in motion, where you prove your hypothesis by manipulating reality.

Sartwell thinks that the return of the “external reality” repressed by postmodernism is perfectly staged by the phenomenon of global warming. It’s a laughable proposition. I’ll explain why with a story from my American history survey course of last semester.

I was arguing that there’s no difference between interpretations of the past and the past as such because the facts change as your values and purposes in the present do. A kid in the front row of the auditorium—-about 120 students in all-—begged to differ, saying that scientific practice presupposed an external reality very much like the past, which remained the same no matter what new theory or interpretation came along. There’s no values or purposes in science, he said, just observations and facts.

I responded more or less as follows.

OK, let’s take global warming, climate change, call it whatever you want, as our scientific artifact. Why is there a debate on the facts themselves, why do scientists disagree on the most rudimentary data?

Isn’t it because they have different values and purposes? Yes, nine of ten concerned scientists—-those who study the relevant data-—agree that the climate is changing for the worse. Isn’t that agreement on the facts a function of a prior consensus, viz., that the purpose of science in this domain of inquiry is to preserve the integrity of the natural environment, and with it the survival of the human species? Isn’t the opposition a function of a prior consensus on the facts, viz., that the preservation of the natural environment will exact a cost by imposing new patterns of (slower) economic growth?

And so, isn’t it obvious that the facts themselves are incommensurable products of different paradigms, different values, purposes, and thus models? Isn’t it obvious that science as such is just as “value laden” as any other form of knowledge?

“No cognition without purpose” is how Charles Peirce put it. Or again: “Matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.” These are brilliant ways of stating, if not proving, my claim against the bonehead realist.

Still, I prefer the more elegant variation on the theme offered by William James: “Day follows day, and its contents are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. The truth is what we say about them.”

But if you like, we can go all the way down this road. When Marx wrote Thesis 11 on Feuerbach, he wasn’t getting all postmodern on us avant la lettre. He was plainly enunciating the central principle of modern science: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is, to change it.”


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