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The Descent of Man

If God created man in His own Western (but not too Western) European image, why don't all men resemble Western Europeans? And if men are entitled to law and property, how can one justify enslaving men or colonizing their territory?

The enlightened eighteenth century killed both these birds and got a nice dinner out of 'em by casting the stone of degeneration.

That sounds a bit odd to American ears, since our local colonialist rhetoric restricted itself to filthy bloodthirsty savages (that is, the populations of Africa and the New World). But Sarah Jordan reminds me that Mother England also had to deal with the Middle East, India, and China, and an Oxbridgian could hardly claim that the English infantry was more civilized than those populations. Instead, he'd claim it was less depraved:

Alexander Dow, The History of Indostan, 1770:
"The frequent bathing inculcated by the Coran, has, by debilitating the body, a great effect on the mind. ... The prohibition of wine is also favourable to despotism. It prevents that free communication of sentiment which awakens mankind from a torpid indifference to their natural rights."
Robert Orme, History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, 1763:
"An abhorrence to the shedding of blood, derived from his religion, and seconded by the great temperance of a life which is passed by most of them in a very sparing use of animal food, and a total abstinence from intoxicating liquors; the influence of the most regular of climates, in which the great heat of the sun and the great fertility of the soil lessen most of the wants to which the human species is subject in austerer regions, and supply the rest without the exertion of much labour; these causes have all together contributed to tender the Indian the most enervated inhabitant of the globe."

The effete East is decadent, and "savages" are just decadents who got so lazy they stopped putting on clothes in the morning. God wants the English, as His original representatives, to restore both groups to their hard-working hard-drinking natural ways rather than let them continue to squander their god-given resources in their god-forsaken countries.

As Jordan points out, although admirably unified, this self-justification had a blatant flaw: What man had done, man could do. If the savage African and the effete Asian had started off as pure as Adam or George IV but then been corrupted by their climates, wouldn't the same corruption sooner or later strike colonists? A hard question to turn away, given the gruesome evidence supplied by the colonists' persons.

If ideology was determined by rational argument rather than economics, then the advent of evolutionary theory would have destroyed racism.

Instead, the ideology stayed firmly in place and the justification flipped around it. In the enlightened nineteenth century, the colonized and enslaved went from "degenerate" to "primitive," and the colonists were no longer throwbacks to the golden age but pinnacles of progress, bred to resist rot. The awkward question of environmental factors no longer heckles us, smug in our Darwinian birthright.

So have creationists carefully thought through the possible consequences of their textbook revisions?

+ + +

Presumably not. I mean, is Supreme Designer really a term of praise? Myself, when I survey the vast panoply of life, I'm awestruck by the shoddiness of the job.

I think our friends in the news media would agree that it's easier to flatter a hands-off tough-talking take-charge delegate-everything pass-the-buck-and-overprice-the-ammunition kind of CEO (so like our own dear Queen) than a clumsy would-be mastermind.

. . .

The Ultimate Battle Between Good and Nice

I throw around the word "evil" a lot. I come from a small midwestern town, so the concept feels comfortably familiar. Familial, even.

Evil is grudges and pariahs and book-banning and hellfire, lynching and sniping, righteous greed and willful ignorance. It's chopping and deforming and squeezing experience into a single-P.O.V. heroic narrative learned from soap opera or sports or lives of the poets. It's clinging to (or even manufacturing) the "kinds of circumstances" in which we need feel no qualms about cowardly cruelties ranging from deliberate public insult to mass murder. Oh, and whoever bred those little pug dogs that can't breathe comfortably or retract their tongues? It's that guy too.

In short, evil is the refusal to deal with particulars.

Alain Badiou says that evil isn't self-evident. Still, he seems pretty certain of himself: good is rigidity and evil is anything that might make you re-examine your premises, or even let other people sleep there overnight. Good is universal condemnation; evil is the notion of individual variation. Good is a focus on extreme circumstances that permit the indulgence of extreme measures.

Thus Lenin and Mao (and presumably Stalin and Kim Jong Il) are good. "The ethics of Truth always returns, in precise circumstances, to fighting for the True against the four fundamental forms of Evil: obscurantism, commercial academicism, the politics of profit and inequality, and sexual barbarism."

Not that I've met Badiou, or want to, but having met evil several times a day for most of my life, it'd be rude to pretend I don't recognize its face.

"The Good in artistic action is the invention of new forms that convey the [fixed] meaning of the world. The Good in science is the audacity of free thought, the joy of exact knowledge."
Me, I'd say the good in art is what gives pleasure and the good in science is what approximates reality. Insofar as we derive pleasure from proximity to reality, there's some ambiguity there, but I think my art and my science are easily distinguished from Badiou's.

As for my politics, if he's right that my choice is Bush or Lenin, neither of whom were democratically elected in the first place, I'll just stay here in the basement till they smoke me out.

Luckily, Badiou's oppositions tend toward the superficial. (Like, just who should declare war on whom to save the "projected ten million dead from AIDS in Africa"? War doesn't have a great record as an antiviral agent.) To "take the nearest example," Bush wasn't in the WTC when it went down, but some of his enemies were, and the hijackers were led by relatives of his business associates. Given that, is it really safe to say "Bush is evil, therefore Osama is good"? Are the evils of corporate rule really so blinding that dialectical materialism and monotheistic fundamentalism become indistinguishable?

"Commercial academicism" is more fundamental, right? Don't matter which party stands me up against the wall so's long it gets done. Well, fuck you, motherfucker.

Speaking of "sexual barbarism," and bearing in mind Badiou's argument that we shouldn't devalue the word "evil" by stretching it to cover totalitarianism and torture, I don't feel as guilty as I might about juxtaposing these excerpts:

"What does 'respect for the Other' mean when one is at war against an enemy, when one is brutally left by a woman for someone else...."
"Evil, then, ... is sexuality considered as merely a technique of pleasure."

I'm a bad guy - and as a rule I don't stand for dumb dames slapping my face. In just about a minute I'm going to shake your teeth out

Sadly, Bloomly, I can define good only as the opposite of evil. Good, like truth, is provisional and incomplete; evil, like deceit, is certain.

Is that liberal capitalism? So sue me. What do I look like, a philosopher over here?

But I do agree with the philosopher that calling everything "evil" all the time is a pretty annoying habit.

. . .
This Is Hard But This Is Easy
The Glorious Fourth

Apologies in advance. I sometimes geta meta about this time.

Although elaborated and confirmed by 1980s poststructuralism and 1990s cognitive science, my metaphysics struck around 1981 and stuck.

The difficulty has been deriving a practice. Or a praxis, for those of you who don't have to work for a living.

It might better be called an "ethics" or "aesthetics," but those words too easily slide into mere judging, even though making an ethical judgment is no more ethics than making an aesthetic judgment is art. Taste isn't a recipe, much less a cook or a cow. Life is not necessarily synonymous with habits of consumption.

Not that that's a bad slope to slip down. For nigh on a decade, I found grace as a middle-class consumer. The great American dream. And I do in fact believe in its greatness, or at least the possibility of its goodness. But down-down-downedy-down-down-*thump*! the bottom.

Then I struggled with print publication -- especially fiction, which I especially respected -- but I lack sufficient impulse. Too much ethic and aesthetic, not enough praxis.

So this is where I strive at present & for four years now & for the foreseeable future. And these are my Goals & Nongoals:

  1. Never supplant; always supplement.
  2. Explain; remain at odds. Don't argue.
  3. Ignore numbers. Respond to individuals.
  4. Trust the ephemeral, the trivial, the pompous, the pretentious, the clownish, the pedantic. Salvation behind and beneath the rock.
  5. Revise with abandon. Contradict myself. Apologize. Never delete. (My one deleted entry was one which became unexpectedly personal [as opposed to sincere] within an hour or two of its posting. Should it eventually become impersonal enough to regain sincerity, it'll be back.)
  6. Refuse compulsion. Refuse journalism.
  7. Truth to Turnips; Quack to Questions.
  8. When possible, cite and recite rather than write and rewrite.
  9. Erraticism equals discipline over the long haul.

. . .

Hanging with Scissors Errata

Golly! The congratulatory telegrams have been splashing in till we're pert near overcome by the sour reek of human kindness!

For example, here a well-wisher writes:

;klm'
Bless you, my child.

Another raves:

I thought Missouri was in the south?
America's heartland is ambiguously situated between America's breadbasket and America's dark underbelly. (That ain't anatomy, but ain't that America?) Our heritage may be slavery and hillbillies, and Ashcroft our gift to the future, but summer tornadoes and winter blizzards make plain to even the casual vistor why central Missouri's greatest growth industries were railroads and railroad stations.

Under the headline "time enough," michael griffin forwards show-biz news that stays news:

forever bingo
A film by Ron Howard, with James Cromwell as The Farmer.

The nameless kid with one Converse sneaker has come clean [in-joke] as Chris Sullivan:

That's me Mr. Calkins! I didn't mean to truncate! That little window, I got lost in.

Okay: I wonder if you might visit my INJUN (InterNet Journal Underway Now) {I have approval from Zig Jackson to use this term}

In fact, I had already visited it with pleasure several times the week before receiving this message. It's a small, small world. (As measured by poet blogrolls, anyway.)

Along those lines, lineman for the county nick popadiuk pledges:

thank you for making kit smarts jubalate agno available.....i will include an excerpt in my "Lunatick's Anthology" which of course will never be published because it would alter the foundation of western literature and culture forever......
And Karl Rackwitz remarks:
I've read your comments about the movie "Something Wild". They are as interesting as the whole site, but I want to note that I love Sidney Lumet's films and wouldn't call them snorefests. I know I shouldn't read too much into this remark of yours, which was probably meant to be only half-serious. But Lumet is, despite his failures, one of the great American directors of the last fifty years. (I've written a little biography, if you're interested.)
I was interested in Karl's essay, and Karl's essay in turn has made me interested in Running on Empty. Which just goes to show that anything is possible. You know what I mean?

I mean if only the whole world could be like two guys exchanging polite email in English about Sidney Lumet, then there would be no more war.

At least until they stopped.

. . .

Errata, cont.

But why should they stop?

. . .

The Ultimate Rematch Between Good and Nice

I don't miss writing fiction. I do miss the workshops. Close reading has its limitations as a critical method, but no receiving transmitter could argue against its utility and pleasure.

Essays rarely get that level of attention, so I'm delighted that my Badiou tantrum elicited such an intelligent and extensive critique from Ezra Kilty.

Two lumps, please:

  1. I briefly sought Badiou's Ethics, but, since I didn't find it at my fingertips and since I don't remember anything else I've read by him, what I wrote was a response to a single interview. Nothing wrong with that, but then I made reference to "Badiou" as if to a body of work. This insinuation of nonexistent expertise is a habit of pundits both academic and journalistic, and I'm ashamed of having reproduced it.
  2. That interpolated "[fixed]" twanged my conscience even while writing. I put it in, I took it out.... I finally decided that the totality of the interview implied clearly enough an art restricted to revealing (or even propagandizing) a known truth rather than discovering (or even inventing) a new one. But a single reader's disagreement is disproof enough.
Another mild criticism, I understand but respectfully disagree with: I feel perhaps even less equipped to define "reality" than most people, but when someone sets the goals of science as "free thought" and "exact knowledge," we're obviously not engaged in that kind of discussion. Stalinist researchers, born-again creationists, and New Age dreamweavers all burst with audacious exactitude. Call me Bacon, but I think reproducibility, falsifiability, and coherence are scientific goods, and I think it's fair English usage to call them all aspects of attentiveness to reality. "The Good of science" is method rather than goal.

Which brings me to my tantrum's motive.

"Evil would be to compromise on the question of the Good." That is, the good is known and must remain unsullied. "Evil is the interruption of a truth." The truth is fixed and not to tampered with. "Evil is the destruction of a subject." Good subjects know their place. In Ezra's formulation, we should "honor and pursue whatever original conceptions we find ourselves having."

Fight the good fight for the good cause. The man can't bust our music.

But not all causes are equally certain goods, nor are all hypotheses, nor are all original conceptions, nor even is all music. In ethics, politics, science, and art, it's often better to let our cause be judged and influenced by the complexities and compromises that our efforts encounter and produce. By the trivial. By the mean.

Ezra doesn't mention Badiou's "four fundamental Evils," so I assume he wasn't as appalled as I was. Deceptions, torture, mass murder: Badiou calls them legitimate means to the Good, as all means are -- except for "obscurantism, commercial academicism, the politics of profit and inequality, and sexual barbarism." It doesn't matter what other benefits might be gained from those means: they're off limits. Only the vilest of humanity would take a paying academic job or partake of sexual pleasure.

But with those exceptions, to use our native homily, the end justifies the means.

Now while that's true for some ends and some means, it doesn't seem to me a universal truth. There may be more than one means to an end (I might grow a tomato to feed myself, or I might bash your skull and stick you in the deep-freeze). There may be more than one end. Means may conflict. The ends may be provisional.

All sophomoric enough, which is why you only hear certain types of post-sophomore say things like "The end justifies the means."

By that bit of wisdom those types usually mean "An extreme end justifies extreme means," with "extreme" a strangled recognition of moral repugnance: a shame which we preemptively deny.

And those types often seem, to me anyway, addicted to extremity. Their means are dwelt on; their supposed ends are comparatively unexamined, distant, and unlikely -- almost an afterthought -- plug-and-play. The viciously callow anarchist matures into the viciously callow Republican.

Then there's the problem of dealing with those who might profess different goals, god forbid. (Presumably they exist; presumably they're why our goal has not yet been achieved.) If one thinks of them as targets of deceit, torture, or murder, they're simply opportunities. But if one treats them as problematic? Well, that's the problem icky old liberal democracy was meant to solve -- by dealing-with rather than by elimination, admittedly and, to many powerful trend-setters, unacceptably. "Grandeur" may be unfashionable in Badiou's circle, but it's the little black dress of John Ashcroft's and Osama bin Laden's.

More mundanely, we have the heterosexual who despises all women but his wife (if married) or all women (if divorced). The libertarian dreaming of tax-free fiery glory. The daddy's-girl feminist who insults and exploits female workers. The tenured Marxist who bullies subordinates. The poet who sacrifices all within arm's reach to the manufacture of elegaic moods.

I know these people all too well -- from the inside out. I judge Badiou's judgment in my light, as I suppose he'd have me do.

A life spent ruining other lives for the sake of a fantasy so persistently distant that its flaws can't be detected -- I admit it's a catchy narrative. I refuse to concede that it's a good life.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom

I am intrigued by this article because, like the woman cited in the first quote above, I often find myself torn between "a traditionally humanist right and an antihumanist left."

Surely, the solution is a postmodern humanist left? How?

Having not felt this conflict myself, I wonder at its prevalence in American graduate schools and bordellos. It may be that embodying "teacher" and "grader" roles in one person is bound to make hash of any investigation of authority. (One-man-bands of judge, prosecutor, jury, and executioner have a poor reputation for justice, despite their efficiency.)

When I learned that everyone is mortal, my breath caught and my heart skipped a beat, but I wasn't relieved of the need to breathe oxygen or circulate blood. I simply gained an awareness of death, which I could either ignore or bear in mind while operating heavy machinery.

Learning the extent to which conscious decision-making is a Pistol of preliminary bluster and unlikely retrospection didn't relieve me of the unpleasant duty to decide things. I only earned another bit of knowledge to work with or discard to the best of my ability.

Similarly, the knowledge that social values come from somewhere, can change, and often conflict might cushion the shock when we encounter differing values or unexpected results, or it might make us more likely to examine and readjust some of our values in the light of others (notably in the light of empiricism). Or it might just be something we drop.

But it certainly doesn't transform us from animals that make, hold, and live by social values into animals that don't. We aren't granted that luxury. (Nietzsche rarely wrote of himself as a new species; his "we"s and "our"s tend to be a bit humbler than that.)

And the knowledge certainly doesn't compel us to give up such constructed values as pleasure, or honesty, or understanding, or greatest good for greatest number, and to instead reshape our lives around such constructed values as short-term selfishness or xenophobic tribal allegiance -- any more than reading about digestive enzymes compels us to switch from delicious to repulsive food. A fella's still gotta eat.

. . .

Jack Spicer Is Dead, Alas

And when he was my teaching assistant, there was a course that I think was a model course that probably isn't taught anymore at Berkeley, a course called "Writing in Connection with Reading Important Books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." It's a very pretentious title. But the idea was that the student would read the book and would then write a paragraph showing the relationship between the book and what the student wrote, and what the student wrote could be poetry, fiction, essays, or a critique of the book, anything they wanted. Now, I had what I thought was a pretty substantial list, but when Jack came in he added all sorts of things. For instance, he added a whole section on science fiction, and that was very good because there is very good writing in that genre. And it was good for the students to read it, and it was good for them to try and do something parallel if they wanted to. But Jack was the perfect assistant to that class, and he extended the course, made more things possible. He was very sympathetic with students. The only student he didn't like was one who was writing stories that would go into the New Yorker. And it wasn't anybody who actually wrote stories later for the New Yorker, but that's what they were like. But anything else was OK with him.

Thomas Parkinson interviewed by Jack Foley, 1991
Talisman 10, Fall 1993

. . .

"Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face? Then it cried out of me: 'Bite! Bite its head off! Chomp!'"

"But certainly by that point (if not before), you'd be better off using an ordinary infinite loop with last at the end."
- Larry Wall, Tom Christiansen & Jon Orwant

. . .

We be lard

It's not the "bog" / "block" / "borg" echo that bugs the puritan in me. "Blog" is a whomping big bright-red-and-green codpiece that calls attention to my shame rather than hiding it.

That root shame being "weblog," the primal misnomer, which trespassed on the established and necessary term "web log" (where we find HTTP stats) and only applied to a small subset of exemplars. (Like, captains don't board ship to annotate other captains' logs, nor do their logs crossreference each other.)

What we write -- what's-new catalogers, fiskers, diarists, critics, and poets alike -- are web journals. Journals: as in magazine, as in zine, as in newspaper, as in pamphlets, as in ledger, as in notebook. On the web: as in short, with links, with the flexibility to support established readers (reverse chronological order) and random readers (findable, searchable) and chatty readers (comments, email, trackback).

I guess it's a little late to try to call in "ebjourn" (pronounced as in "adjourn to the bar") or "b'journ" (as in "B'gob, that's a right b'journ, bad cess to it"), or even "björn"?

The French have a word for it. Two or three words, even. First, there's "blogue," a pun so apropos it drives true etymologies right out my head. Second, there's "joueb." Joueb. Jew-ebb, for Bargerish appeal? Joob? Could work. There's also "webillard," which sounds great à la québecoise but kind of dorky in American English.

Smart mobs of small rodents loosely joined.... "Willard"?

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2003 Ray Davis.